Showing all pages regarding communication.
So Obama is back after what seems like a never-ending US election. He faces some tough challenges but, with the first term behind him, I think he stands a better chance of success. When Barack Obama was elected as President in 2008 he, more than other political leaders, carried with him the unrealistically high expectations of those who put him in power. The euphoria around his entry to the White House fuelled the suggestion that here was the new Messiah, capable of performing impossible tasks, eradicating corruption, conflict and inequality in the world. Not long into his term of office he was being criticised for not delivering on his promises, but most of these were promises he never made. The expectations of him were unrealistic and there was very little he could do to manage those expectations.
That is not the case for most of us. Managing expectations is essential if you want to earn respect, keep your customers and maintain support from the people around you. Yet so many of us fail in this respect. It is all too tempting to over promise and under deliver. We get carried away by our own enthusiasm for exciting ideas, we want to galvanise support, we want to be optimistic rather than negative about what can be achieved. With our customers we don’t want to say ‘no’ or give disappointing news. But enthusiasm without substance leads to raised expectations and, if we don’t deliver, the result is loss of confidence in you, scepticism, and disaffected colleagues. Customers will leave you if you don’t follow through and do what you say.
Managing expectations doesn’t mean that you can’t be enthusiastic or set out your aspirations or ideas for the future. It simply requires an honest approach when communicating these ideas. Describe the goal and be enthusiastic about it but be realistic about what can be achieved by when, perhaps setting out the obstacles to be overcome before the dream can be realised. Aspirational talk has to be tempered with practical guidance. People will be more ready to accept your ideas if you are realistic about their implementation. Recently I gave some feedback to a client of mine which came from one of his colleagues. The colleague said “he has a positive ‘can do’ attitude and always delivers.” I know that my client has a positive attitude to his work but he won’t say he ‘can do’ something when he knows he can’t. That’s managing expectations.
And the same goes for your customers. How many times have you, as a customer, been promised a call back in 5 minutes or a delivery within 2 days and been disappointed when the call or delivery doesn’t come? Rather than feeling delighted our customers feel angry and let down when we fail to deliver. How much better to be honest with them about what can you can do by when. It might not be exactly what they want to hear but they will appreciate your honesty and you won’t disappoint them.
There was little Barack Obama could do in his first term to manage expectations. We however, have many opportunities to ensure that we are honest and realistic in our communications and that we only promise when we know we can deliver.
In a recent interview Mary Berry, food author and queen of cakes, recounted the first time she was asked to write a cookery column for a newspaper. She was terrified and had no idea how to go about explaining a new recipe to readers. However, she picked up on the advice of her boss who said “just write as if you were showing me how to cook” - and that is exactly what she did. It is this style of writing – giving clear and practical advice to budding cooks – that helped to establish Mary Berry as a popular and accessible food author. There is little doubt that, for Mary, the advice of her boss was life changing.
Most of us can remember a time in our careers when we have learnt valuable lessons from others, usually, but not always, from a manager or more experienced colleague. Little pearls of wisdom or remarkable acts we have witnessed tend to stay with us and help us to improve. I had a difficult and demanding boss when I was a young manager who, despite his faults, demonstrated to me the importance of regular communication with customers. ”It almost doesn’t matter what you say Jeanette” he said “so long as you say something to your customers, and often.” I was about 28 and hadn’t, until then, appreciated the benefits of good communication and the value of keeping all your stakeholders in the picture. I have never forgotten and continue to apply that advice.
Of course, learning from others and benefiting from good role models depends on having the good fortune to work with people who are willing and able to pass on their wisdom and knowledge. But it also depends on our own ability to observe and listen to what’s going on around us. When I am coaching I often ask clients to identify someone they have worked with who they admire and respect and then work out what these people do that makes them effective. Most of us work in environments which are a rich source of learning, but we will only learn if we are open to new ways of working and inquisitive about the nature of success in business.
Mary Berry could have remained a competent but unknown journalist if she hadn’t listened to and applied the advice of her boss. So be observant at work, listen carefully to others, be willing to consider new ideas or different ways of thinking about business problems. You never know, you might just learn something that changes your life.
One of the most valuable attributes a leader or anyone in a management role can have is self awareness. With a deep and accurate understanding of yourself; your strengths, weaknesses, habits and preferences, you have the basis for becoming a great leader. Not only can you make the most of your strengths and address your failings, but you can also build a team around you that fills the gaps in your own skill set. For instance, I am aware of my tendency to get excited about new projects and my desire to get going as soon as the idea finds general support. I tend to overlook the detail at this stage and can overlook potential risks. As a Chief Executive I made sure that my top team included someone I trusted to always consider the detail and to keep my enthusiasm in check if necessary.
But self knowledge can be difficult to acquire – we are often blind to our own personality traits and don’t see what others see in us only too clearly. That’s why it is important to get feedback from people you work with in a carefully managed and anonymous way. I use 360 degree feedback quite regularly with senior managers and teams and I have seen how the results can change behaviour and improve performance. The feedback gives you better self knowledge and shows you how you are perceived by others. Such rich information not only forms a great basis for self development but also provides a tool for measuring improvement (by repeating the same feedback exercise in, say, 6-12 months time).
360 degree feedback involves the identification of a group of people who you work with whose opinions you value and trust. Normally the number of people chosen will be between 6-12. The selected group should include a good cross section of work contacts (for instance a mix of peers, managers, juniors, external clients, board members etc). Ideally you should avoid choosing only the people you like or who you know like you, but you should be confident that the feedback you receive will be constructive and helpful.
The feedback questionnaire can be designed to give general feedback on a number of management issues. Alternatively it can be specific, focused on giving some in depth feedback on an issue where the aim is to build new skills (e.g. effective communication). An independent expert should develop the questionnaire ensuring the questions are valid, clear and fair. All questionnaires are completed anonymously and returned for analysis by the independent expert who then presents the results to the people concerned in a professional and constructive way. Of course, the results might be surprising or even upsetting and so this stage must be handled sensitively. However, it is often the case that people recognise the need for improvement when presented with the evidence. They are also pleasantly surprised at positive feedback which they hadn’t expected.
There are a range of costly and sophisticated business tools used to help improve self knowledge and our understanding of the people we work with. I prefer 360 degree feedback above all of these. It’s simple, relevant and cost effective. Most importantly, it works.
Two male public figures have recently got themselves into trouble for their comments on sensitive issues. First George Galloway, not known for his tact, waded into the Assange affair by introducing the bizarre notion of “sexual etiquette” in the context of rape. At the same time, in the US, Missouri congressman Todd Aiken suggests that there is a special case to be made for ‘legitimate rape’. Both parties (Galloway and Aiken) clearly regret their choice of words and have since been engaged in damage limitation exercises. But the damage is done. In fact the damage gets worse for George Galloway who has just sparked another storm by using a derogatory term for disabled people on Twitter.
I have no intention of getting into the rape debate – that’s not the purpose of this piece. But I think these recent episodes demonstrate the importance of taking some time to think before you speak. Politicians are often caught out when faced with difficult questions without notice. But we are all at risk of humiliation and embarrassment (or worse) now that Twitter, Facebook and social media in general encourages spontaneous communication.
I worked with two senior managers recently who were aiming to improve their ability to present themselves with confidence. They wanted to be able to communicate clearly and fluently, so that they could influence others and gain credibility with peers and clients. Both were enthusiastic, intelligent people with a lot to say. When we first met I asked them to deliver a presentation to me. Both presentations were full of information and moved along at a fast pace. The managers spoke very quickly , sometimes deviating from the topic, sometimes stumbling over words and ultimately failing to get their message across.
When we reviewed their presentations they both admitted to being nervous. “The more nervous I get, the more quickly I speak” said one. “Then as I start to panic, I use all the wrong words and lose my thread entirely – I completely lose my confidence.”
I asked them both to rethink their presentation, paring it down to the most essential points and the key message they want to deliver. Then I asked them to deliver the first five minutes of the presentation to me at a snail’s pace. They had to speak as clearly and as slowly as possible, pausing properly for each comma and full stop. The result was remarkable. Both found that the slower pace gave them time to articulate clearly and to think while they spoke, so that they could anticipate the next sentence and the words they wanted to use. By giving themselves extra time they lost their nerves – and gained control.
Both managers have been practising the ‘slow’ technique regularly and use it when preparing for presentations. Obviously in real situations they speak at a normal pace (which is always going to be a bit faster than it feels) but neither of them rush or gabble as they used to. Neither do they end up getting the words wrong or losing the thread – they now have time to think before they speak.
My first piece of advice to Galloway and Aiken would be to stay away from the topic of rape in the future. But whatever the subject they might also benefit from slowing down a little rather than rushing to an answer. In fact perhaps we could all try a little less spontaneity and a little more reflection before opening our mouths.
With the departure of Bob Diamond as Barclays’ Chief Executive, there is much speculation about the bank’s future strategy and discussion about the strategic options available to Barclays following this week’s dramatic events. This got me thinking about the role of strategic planning in organisations and what makes for a good strategy.
I am continually surprised at the number of organisations I talk to who don’t have a clear strategic plan which informs everything they do. Some will claim to have a plan but, when I question further, it isn’t really being implemented, not everyone knows about it and it doesn’t get reviewed on a regular basis. A well executed strategic plan helps an organisation to know what they are trying to achieve and how they will get there. More than that, it helps everyone in your business to be focused, motivated and efficient.
As a non-Executive Director for a number of charities I am often concerned about the lengthy progress reports received by the Board. These reports provide an update on progress against a long and varied list of activities to develop new ideas or explore opportunities. These charities are not well resourced; staff are stressed and work very hard. The problem is that, in some cases, there is no clear understanding of the overall goal for the organisation, nor is there a well communicated, carefully monitored plan to achieve the goal. No one is really sure about the priorities or the actions that are critical to the organisation’s success.
The liberating part of a good strategic plan is that it helps you to define not only what your organisation must or will do, but also what it will not do. Each potential opportunity or initiative must be evaluated to determine how it will contribute to the overall goal. If it doesn’t clearly contribute to achieving the goal it doesn’t get done. The result is a more effective, motivated organisation that has clarity about what it is trying to do.
I am sure Bob Diamond had a strategic plan for Barclays, whether it was a good plan is another matter. Strategic planning is essential to good business. MBAs are told this and Chief Executives know it. Most of us understand how to formulate a strategy. What doesn’t get talked about so much is the execution of the strategy. How many excellent strategic plans must there be out there which, once written, sit on a shelf gathering dust while life goes on as before? Although the task of developing a good plan is not always easy, the really hard part is engaging staff in its implementation and constantly reinforcing the plan by good communication throughout the organisation. A plan that isn’t understood, supported, rigorously monitored and reviewed simply won’t get done – what a waste of effort!
Recent news coverage about phone hacking by journalists raises more questions about the moral responsibility of leaders. In fact this news item, coming after a succession of scandals involving financial institutions and corrupt MPs, will ensure that the debate around business ethics and corporate responsibility will continue for some time.
I am intrigued by Rebekah Brooks’ statement that she had “no knowledge” of the phone hacking taking place at the News of the World when she was in charge of the paper. It might be argued that leaders of large complex organisations can’t be expected to know everything. Max Clifford, probably the UK’s best known publicist, came to the defence of Ms Brooks saying she may not have known every detail about day to day goings on in the company. To some extent this is true. We all know of disastrous bosses who attempt to micro manage, not trusting managers to get on with the job and attempting to control everything. Such an approach to leadership just doesn’t work. As a boss you can’t know and do it all – without effective delegation and trust the business simply won’t move forward. Furthermore, staff working for a control freak will quickly lose any commitment or motivation to do a good job.
So where do you draw the line? How can leaders make it their business to know what’s going on in their organisation while at the same time allowing others the right amount of discretion and autonomy? Well, there are many ways of keeping your ear to the ground so that you don’t lose touch with the day to day: regular meetings and chats with staff (formal and informal); asking questions now and again, especially when something doesn’t ‘feel right’; being quite clear with others about what you do and don’t need to know; effective communication processes; and so on.
But a more fundamental solution lies in the articulation and communication of values and then firmly embedding these in the organisation. Responsible management involves a commitment to transparency and honesty. Leaders should be clear about their own values, their expectations of others and preferred ways of working. I have worked with businesses where staff are actively involved in the identification and communication of values – it’s not always possible but it’s the best way of getting ‘buy in’ and real commitment. Once established, these values become central to everything the business does, from the way customers are treated to the recruitment and promotion of staff. Clear values help to inform decision-making. Where risky or controversial decisions are concerned, reference to values can often help identify the ‘right’ solution.
I don’t know whether Rebekah Brooks or News Corporation have ever given a thought to their values or moral code. Somehow I doubt it. If they had, they wouldn’t be in such a mess now. More importantly many people, including Milly Dowler’s family, might have been saved so much unnecessary distress.
Recently I completed a project for a highly respected financial company, renowned for its innovative approaches to staff development, engagement and communication. The company had made a significant investment in a new project which involved some risk and uncertainty but was nevertheless considered essential for the company’s survival in a competitive market. When I became involved the project was faltering. Unease was growing about the likelihood of achieving success or, at least, of making any return on the investment to date. On the surface there were a number of explanations for the anxieties. Staff changes in key areas had led to some lack of continuity, feedback from some of the first trials had not been entirely positive, and there was a realisation that more investment would be required to achieve the original vision. With no prospect of income from the project in the short term, there was a fear that the company had bitten off more than it could chew.
My task was to get the project back on track with a plan for the short and long term and recommendations for addressing the financial concerns. This is the sort of challenge I love! It involves elements of change management, strategic review, market analysis and financial planning and all of those issues came into play here. However, looking back on my experience as a consultant for this company, I am convinced that the most important success factor in this project was in fact communication. As I began to understand the context and to unearth some of the underlying issues affecting the project’s progress, it became clear to me that the expertise, the ideas, the information required to get things moving were right there in the company. But communication had broken down, information was not being shared, grievances were being allowed to fester and confidence was fading. I am not blaming the company for this – even the best organisations find that, in some situations, established practices for ensuring good communication just don’t work. In these circumstances it sometimes helps to bring in an ‘outsider’ to find out what’s going on, get people round the table and encourage them to start talking again. In this project I didn’t need to provide all the answers, the people I spoke to had a good idea of what had to be done. All I did was to listen to views and ideas, co-ordinate the required actions and provide a structure and a plan for the way forward. The result was a more energised, optimistic team with a clear understanding of what was going to happen over the next 2-3 years. The vision was once again achievable.
Good communication is undeniably important in business. It sounds so elementary, I wonder why so many organisation still fail to get it right. If my experience with a company that knows how to do things well is anything to go by, I fear for the others.
I have been thinking a lot about networking recently. Having just established my business, moved house, joined the local choir; it seems to be something that I am involved in almost every day. I am convinced that networking is an important part of doing business. It is one of the best forms of marketing, finding new business and developing useful contacts. Furthermore if, like me, you do a lot of work on your own and are a bit of an extrovert, then getting out to meet others at least twice a week is a must if you want to preserve your sanity. I have recently joined my local branch of the London Chamber of Commerce. The person who suggested this to me (also a self employed consultant) said ‘I don’t think I have ever got any business through the Chamber but the support network they offer has been invaluable’. And we all need support at some time in our lives.
But let’s not get these networks confused with true friendship – there is a world of difference between the two and one cannot replace the other. Online networking and social media, while offering so many benefits, can also encourage people to isolate themselves and hide behind the convenient impersonality of email, ‘Facebook’ etc. I am amazed at those who profess to have over 500 connections or ‘friends’ online (do they really know this many people?). Of these friends, how many can really be called on for support? How many will pop round for a drink and a chat when you fancy some company or need cheering up? Without these ‘true’ friends there is only loneliness. It is interesting that, despite the increasing range of opportunities available for connecting with others, the instances in society of depression (where loneliness is often the root cause) appear to be growing.
In my view the reason for our obsession with casual networks and the apparent over-reliance on virtual networking is because enduring friendships take time to build and face to face communication is difficult. Talking openly and putting effort into more intimate relationships can make us feel exposed and vulnerable – most would rather avoid these feelings. However, we need, at some point and in certain contexts, to be able to communicate at a human level and to talk about what is important to us. Even at work there is a place for and value in friendships that go deeper than other business relationships. Networking can be enjoyable and has its advantages. But true friendships are built with different skills and bring entirely different rewards.
Resistance to change is a human response caused, in the main, by fear. To many, change represents uncertainty, insecurity and the unwelcome prospect of new situations which are likely to require extra effort and adjustment. We fear the unknown and are reluctant to step outside of our comfort zones.
This is particularly true where change is initiated by someone else – we are even less likely to welcome change that we don’t support and that is not within our control. This human reaction to change is typically overlooked in business when the main preoccupation tends to be with operations, processes and systems. While many managers acknowledge the need to keep people involved and informed during periods of transition, most would also agree that, when the pressure is on, people issues tend to get overlooked – there are too many other things happening. As a consequence, staff end up feeling more anxious, uncertain and neglected. Resentment and hostility builds which translates into increased incidents of workplace stress, absence from work and internal conflict. All of this is not only damaging and costly for the business, but also decreases the chances of achieving the changes envisaged.
A well planned, effectively managed communication and engagement strategy is fundamental to any change programme. Such a strategy will not only help to avoid the internal problems of conflict, absenteeism and stress but can also have a positive effect on the business.
Through the process it is likely that “champions” for change will emerge who can provide a positive input and encourage others to get behind the project. New ideas which contribute to the success of change are more likely to emerge when staff are engaged and motivated to support the process. It is not unusual for hidden talents and abilities to materialise during well managed change programmes, making it a fantastic opportunity to get the very best results from your existing team.
Jeanette has over 20 years experience in management and was Chief Executive of AMBA for 7 years. She has worked in both the commercial and public sectors. Having completed her MBA (with distinction) at the Cass Business School, Jeanette was asked to join the school's academic team as a Visiting Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour... [read more]
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