IT’S GETTING PERSONAL – Some Guidance for Managers

The last few weeks have been hard on everyone, and we’re still working through what a pandemic means for each of us and our families. Our thoughts and prayers go out to anyone who is dealing with COVID-19 in their homes and with their loved ones.

It has disrupted our work and our families, and we still don’t know what lies ahead. And neither do any of the managers trying to support and guide people through this uncertainty.

The role of the manager has lost its boundaries in the last few weeks.

Because once employees watch CNN, Fox News, local networks and all online news feeds for an update, they’re getting on calls with their managers and bringing their concerns and questions to those calls. Some concerns are about the work at hand, but most are about what’s ahead and how this will impact me.

It’s a role that a lot of managers just aren’t ready for. It’s ballooned beyond what I owe you today to what happens to me tomorrow. Emotions are on edge, protocols are forgotten, and managers are dealing with more neediness than they’ve seen before.

And, some managers are overwhelmed. This is so much more than managing work process and individual contributions.  It’s getting personal to people’s lives and what they’re dealing with in their virtual setting from simple things like home schooling and groceries to complex things like worrying about elderly parents and wondering how to keep your family and friends safe.  It’s humanity.  It’s up close and personal, and it’s overwhelming to someone who didn’t really sign up to take on counseling.

It’s a tough role; it’s a tough time. And as one colleague said, “This is when we’ll figure out who the strong people leaders really are.”

Whether you’re a young manager trying to navigate the blurred lines or an overwhelmed one looking for a few best practices, here are our thoughts on connection that could help out.

JUST LISTEN.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the questions coming your way, don’t worry about providing  answers.  There aren’t concrete answers available right now.  Just listen. A starting point for anyone feeling overwhelmed or scared is to feel that someone is listening to those concerns.

Listen and acknowledge the worries.  Keep in mind that some employees live alone, and it won’t take many days of work from home to feel alone and lonely. Be a simple point of connection.  Listen and acknowledge the feelings that you hear.

REMEMBER ME.

Even though you’re juggling multiple things and jumping from call to call, your team doesn’t see it. They don’t have visibility to the line outside your office or your calendar invites which keep moving around.  They lose perspective on the tugs of your time, and you may lose a little perspective on their inputs as they ask for connection.

If you manage a large team, you may find it helpful to take notes and keep track of what I told you about my family or my roommates.  It will mean everything to me if you remember me when we talk again. And when people are under stress, they don’t remember as well as they normally do.

BE OPEN OR BE STILL.

You have a choice in what you share about your life and your family. In the last two weeks, some managers have felt invigorated to share their personal lives and home hurdles, and others feel like their entire team just moved into their living room.  Some managers are very open about their personal lives; others are more cautious.  And both reactions are OK.  You can define your boundaries and how front and center you want your whole life to be to others.

You owe employees a listening moment, not always your life story. You should always be present with your team, but it’s more about the team than the deep dive into you.

HEAR THE WEIGHT; DON’T WEAR IT.

You can’t solve this for everyone.  It’s going to be a long and hard process.  And you don’t have to.  You can hear me without taking on my challenges. Be very careful about that.  There is an art to learning how to help someone else feel better without making yourself feel worse. Focus on making someone feel heard, not solving their problem.  Notice we keep coming back to…. Just Listen.

KEEP WALKING.

I have four siblings and lots of nieces and nephews.  And when my father died, we had a house full of people working through the grief and the logistics. It was sad, it was close, and it was a little suffocating. And over the course of those days, we walked miles and miles…never all together and never fully alone.  We just seemed to pair up and take walks.  It was about getting space, breathing deeper, and resetting ourselves. It was the simple-ness of doing something. Take the space you need, especially when you’re in a newly defined workspace.  Take the time you need to breathe and clear your head.

YOU BEFORE ME.

It seems counterintuitive to tell a manager to put themselves first.  But the reality is no one is their best under pressure.  Nerves get frayed, and emotions run high.  You don’t want to be back on your heels, but the circumstances are not normal. Your team needs you to bring your best game.  Find a way to start each day with you.  Whatever it takes for you to focus your mind, open your heart and just take this one day at a time.

We’re here when you need us.

Sally Williamson - Speech Writing

Don’t Blame PowerPoint!

Next to a laptop, PowerPoint (PPT) could be considered one of the top three tools used in business. More than 30 million presentations are built in the software every day tying up 15 million people hours at a cost of $252 million…..every single day! And yet, few of us are Masters of it. In fact, we have a love/hate relationship with the software which has led to the term, “death by PPT.”

AT SW&A, we hear a lot of the angst around preparing presentations blamed on the software.

From the listeners:

  • “There were too many details and too much information.”
  • “I got lost in the details and didn’t understand what the listener was asking me to do.”
  • “It’s a horrible eye chart.”

From the communicators:

  • “We go through more than 15 iterations of decks before we have a final presentation.”
  • “I got so many edits to my slides that I’ve lost the point I was trying to make.”
  • “I’m not artistic or creative; I hate building slides.”

And our response is always: Don’t blame PPT.

It’s the process…or lack of a process…that frustrates you. Not the software.

Here’s a little self-diagnosis.

Assume that you’re asked to deliver a presentation two weeks from today.  Whether you start planning it today or wait until next week to develop it, how many of you will start the process by opening up a PPT document on your laptop?

If this sounds like you, stay with me. Then, you begin outlining points by putting a text box on each slide or if you’ve covered the topic previously, you’ll open up another PPT and begin to migrate slides to your new deck. Either way, you’re building the foundation of your content, one slide at a time.

It’s a very linear approach to structure, and it’s the wrong approach.

Because now you have a collection of details instead of a storyline, and you will present the deck slide by slide versus concept linked to concept.

Is this your approach?  Most people say yes.

When PPT is used as the planning tool, it becomes cumbersome to work with and takes on a very different role. PPT’S role is to help you illustrate details or connect two points, not to thread all the points together.  That’s the role of an outline or storyline structure as we refer to it. The usage numbers above may explain this.  Because organizing content has become such a constant in our day, we may be telling ourselves that we can skip a step and organize our thoughts at the same time as we illustrate them. And, that’s a misuse of PPT.

The storyline structure is the first step, always. Whether you use our model or you have your own tool, as the communicator, you should always start with an end to end view of what you’re asking the listener to do. It’s rarely the details that fail in presentations; it’s always the connection between them.

A storyline view helps a communicator understand the bigger ideas and repeatable points that will lead the listener to an outcome or takeaway.  This changes how you build out a PPT.

When PPT becomes the second step, it works beautifully for the communicator and the listener. A broader storyline helps the listener see beyond what you’re illustrating and understand why you’re illustrating it. The communicator’s focus gets simpler and key concepts get repeated as the communicator focuses on pulling ideas forward rather than making every point.

PPT is also a horrible communicator and a really good illustrator.

Let’s diagnose that one.

Assume that the presentation you’re building is for another leader to deliver or it has such high visibility that several people want to give input before you deliver it. So, you work on the PPT for a few days and then you forward it for feedback.

Does this sound like you?  Then, what you may not realize is that even though you shared it for feedback, you were pretty locked into those slides. And your editors now begin to interpret what the slides mean.  They can see the illustration; they just don’t know the storyline. So, they create their own mental storyline to support your details. Then, they edit to their own thinking.

This leads to adding content on your slides, reordering your slides and even adding new slides to support their thinking. You get the edits back and don’t feel grateful for the input.  You’re frustrated. Because they’ve changed the meaning of your slides and thrown off the flow of your storyline. At least the storyline you have in your head.  Because it was never shared as a structure for the conversation.

Have you had this experience? Most people say yes.

 

The storyline drives communication; PPT creates illustration. If an editor can read a storyline to see the end to end plan for communication, they are much less likely to edit slides.  Instead, they’ll identify areas of the storyline that aren’t easy to understand or where they want you to add detail.

In fact, when a team is involved in preparing a presentation, we urge communicators to get buy-in to the storyline first before PPT is even introduced. This helps a group align to the full direction of communication and the big ideas before the supporting PPT takes shape. And it keeps a team moving through the organization process together. Then when you move to PPT, the second step, the feedback is limited to the look and feel of illustrations.

As a communicator, you want listeners spending less time on how to follow your thoughts and more time on understanding how the big ideas connect and lead to outcomes.

And if we’re pleased with the transformation we see when individuals add our first step  into content planning, we’re ecstatic when we see teams adopt it. Because if an individual can improve a single meeting, the full team can change their influence in an organization.

We know because we’ve made it happen.

We’ve taken many teams beyond the storyline structure to a team template that gives the communicators a template to follow and the listeners a consistent expectation. So, listeners spend less time trying to follow the structure and more time hearing the ideas.

When teams adopt a standard structure, it quickly takes hold in an organization. They become known for their ability to deliver clear ideas and recommendations which often raises their visibility in a company.

If you’re getting bogged down in details and edits, don’t blame PPT. Put the first step back into your process. And if you’d like some help learning to do that, join us for an upcoming storylines workshop. Even better, bring your team together and strengthen the group’s impact across your organization.

Call us when you need us.

Sally Williamson & Associates

Are you Training Your Leaders to be Performers?

I hope not, but I suspect many companies are unintentionally training leaders to be performers as communication workshops taught by actors and acting companies continue to pop up in corporate curriculums. I’ve only experienced one of these workshops first-hand, but I hear a lot about these classes from clients who are confused by the tools and uncertain of the takeaways.

And, I realize that these programs are driving a whole new set of habits in communicators. I believe it’s the wrong set of habits.  So, I offer the following perspective as a way to consider what you’re trying to develop and how to think through the impact of any training program on someone’s ultimate objectives as a communicator.

It may seem that I’m just trying to undercut a competitor because if someone says they teach communication skills, then we’re in the same space. And, you could easily say it’s just a different approach on a similar topic. But, that’s about the experience itself, and that’s not what I’m challenging. Many day-long workshops are focused only on the day’s experience. Is it fun? Was it different? And if that’s your goal and measurement, then my concern about habits is not a worry. You may have found a fun and energizing workshop that meets the needs of the day.

My challenge is about helping someone develop the skills of a compelling and authentic communicator.

That isn’t a one-day experience. It’s a longer journey where a workshop may be used as a starting point to lay the groundwork for strengthening and changing habits. And if you’re approaching some of the performance-based programs with the intention of helping someone on the journey to effective communication, I hope you will hear caution in the actual outcomes and observations below.

I’ll start with Ted Talks, one of the fastest growing communication formats. The format of a Ted Talk has done a lot to change the look of corporate keynotes. And, that’s a great thing!  If you haven’t been behind the scenes of a Ted Talk, the format represents a conversational approach. Podiums are gone, note cards are out and presenters appear to be more conversational.  Many companies ask us to help their leaders present in a “Ted Talk” format without realizing what that implies.

Ask someone who has given a Ted Talk, and most will tell you that they love the visibility and they hated the process.  They were coached to memorize the content. The pressure is on to get it exact, to do it right … it is everything but conversational and authentic for most business communicators.

Most leaders walk away with the wrong message from this format. It is so time-consuming, that they never want to do another one. And many seem less confident about their ability to lead a storyline than they did when they took it on.

Memorized words fight listener engagement in every communicator. It’s the wrong technique, and it has consequences for anyone who really wants or needs to engage a room full of people.  It leads to content blocks and worries about words and phrases. It keeps someone in their head trying to follow a thread or word association. And while your leaders may invest the time to memorize a Ted Talk, they will never invest that kind of time to prepare for a town hall or customer conference. Instead, they need to learn how to bridge ideas and follow the flow of a storyline. It’s a much easier way to organize content and bring the listeners into the experience.

If you’re trying to create visibility for a specific leader on a specific topic, the Ted Talk experience may be the best forum to launch your leader.  But if you’re trying to change the communication culture within your organization, you’d be better to coach your leadership team to leverage storytelling to become more involved and connected with a group.

Storytelling has also become front and center in companies. And, it’s the approach that leads to engagement. It’s also coachable. I think storytelling goes back to President Reagan who put people in the balcony during the State of the Union address so that stories would resonate with viewers as they connected a person to an experience. And corporate settings provide a great way to leverage stories as customers and employees can be visible and are able to bring their experiences to life in a similar way.

It’s the connection factor, and the emotion that communicators should draw from an audience that leads to the concern with actors teaching communication classes.

If you’ve ever taken an acting class or been in a play, you’re memorizing lines and trying to be in character. Your role is to act like someone else. And if you remember the performance itself, you were very tuned in to timing, cues and everything happening on the stage as the performance took place.  You had very little awareness of the audience and probably never noticed who was in row eight. I remember this from my own experiences in theater, and I loved every minute of it. But it was never about the audience; it was always about the performance.

Public Speaking should be exactly the opposite. It’s all about the audience and little about a performance. A great communicator reacts to the audience and tries to draw them into the content. The start of a communicator’s journey is to gain awareness of the voice and body and how to use them consistently so that their focus can shift off of themselves and onto the audience. If you coach someone to view a business setting as a performance, you’ll find that the audience watches them and rarely interacts with them. In fact, the communicator is unintentionally setting that up to happen.  They’re focused on getting things right and seldom get out of their heads or connect beyond their lines.

I’ve worked with hundreds of people who have experimented with acting as a path to become a good communicator, and it just doesn’t work. And I think most actors themselves would agree. The goals and settings are just different.

So, why are these programs used in companies? Well, an acting class or improv exercise can be a good way to set up the basics of communication… standing in the front of the room or opening up the body. And as long as that’s the only intent, it can be helpful. The challenge is that the people who like acting exercises or improv exercises weren’t the ones who had trouble getting up in front of groups in the first place. The more literal learners who may be introverts or hesitant communicators need someone to put them at ease and link communication to conversation versus pulling them out of their element with exercises that don’t translate to a business setting.

Leaders aren’t performers; they’re communicators.

And while a performance can be entertaining, provocative and so well done that we jump to our feet with applause, we recognize it was never about us. We were merely spectators as a story unfolded. As employees and customers, we want something different from leaders. We want communication to be about us. It can be entertaining, provocative and well done. But when we leave, we want to leave with a clear understanding of what the leader is doing to impact us. It’s a different setting and a different goal.

So, if you’re looking for a day’s experience and a fun way to loosen up a team, a workshop led by actors can be an energizing exercise. But if you’re trying to develop communication skills, think twice before you set your future communicators on a journey to become a performer.

In fact, we’d like to help you set the right journey for your team that leads to a compelling outcome.

We’re here when you need us.

 

Sally Williamson - Training Leaders

Creating High-Performing Teams

As leaders step into new roles and realign strategies, they almost always adjust their teams. It makes sense. Leaders need people that they can trust, and they want people that they have experience with. In short order, they bring trusted colleagues into their group. It gives them peace of mind and an established working pattern, but it doesn’t immediately yield a high-performing team.

In fact, it can create competing priorities on a leadership team. As strategies get realigned, it shifts focus, responsibility and some initiatives. And unintentionally, peers can get on opposite sides of an issue from one another. The real risk of conflict is competition among the leaders’ employees who can feel as if they’re working on opposing teams. This creates friction within a culture and angst among employees. In order for employees to align behind strategies, the leadership team has to appear to be aligned with each other. And that doesn’t happen without effort.

To drive fast results, leaders create great 1:1 relationships with members of their team but they don’t always take the time or have the time to help the new colleagues build relationships with each other. In fact, the 1:1 approach can eliminate any need for peers to collaborate with each other.  When this happens, leaders have strong relationships but lack the bench strength that they’d like to have, the team trust that they need to have or the support system that the team needs.

Over time, it may sort itself out among the peers or by the leader.  But time is the one thing that organizations don’t seem to have these days. And, that’s why we’re often asked to help a leader accelerate the process.

Essentially, you’re trying to establish openness and candid feedback in order to work toward trust.

A high-performing team has three core qualities.

  • They value diverse thinking.

    They’ve learned to see their peers beyond functional responsibility.  Instead, they value the way peers think and they learn to seek out the added perspective in their own decision making.
  • They share ownership.

    A true team mentality comes from working together and solving together. They understand that they will have to compromise or improvise on most initiatives. They respect that multiple perspectives are usually better than a single one. And once their voice is heard, they align to the decision of the team.  
  • They trust each other.

    Trust is an earned relationship and a goal the team reaches over time. By accelerating openness of thought and feedback, trust becomes a more intentional goal rather than evolving over time with trials and missteps along the way.

So how do you get a peer group there quickly? By focusing on the first two qualities in a way that lays the foundation for trust to develop. 

We follow a three-step process with teams to improve how they interact with each other and to strengthen their impact across a company.

First, we get to openness by putting each leader’s brand and peer impressions on the table for discussion. With our help, each individual understands how they’re perceived within a group today and what the group expects from them. We help each individual understand their strengths/challenges, and the areas where they will need to improve to win trust with their peers. We talk through the aspiration of a high-performing team and what each member needs to feel a part of it. This work is done without the leader and begins the process of empowering a team.

Second, we work to help each individual introduce new skills into the team. This may take shape in a workshop or across projects with a partner.  To value diverse thinking, the group has to begin to experience it. The openness of feedback and willingness to grow together sets the right environment for peers to speak up and get outside of their function area more often.

And finally, the leader has to adjust to a team mentality versus the 1:1 relationship that they may have started. While 1:1 expedites activity and gives the leader quick insights, it can also blindside buy-in across a group.  Leaders need help learning to defer decisions to group settings and shut down some of the side conversations that lead to misalignment. When a team senses that a leader has trust in them, they begin to respect the perspectives and ideas of one another. This drives more honesty in the room and ultimately works toward building trust for decision making within the team.

A high-performing team leads to a high-performing organization.

But with today’s pace of change across leaders and teams, most groups need a little help. If you’re leading a new team, a great starting point is peer feedback and honest impressions. And if the timing is right, we’d be happy to talk through how we might develop a plan for your team.

Call us when you need us!

Sally Williamson - High-Performing Team
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