As I’ve been writing about the past couple of weeks, the allostatic load of the extraordinarily stressful period we’re living, working and leading through demands that we be more mindful about the routines that can help us be both effective and healthy. I’ve already written about physical and mental routines. This week, I want to talk about relational routines; the ones that address our basic need for love and belonging and that also help keep us alive.

From a purely utilitarian standpoint, it’s fairly obvious that if you want to get positive results over the long-run, you need to invest in positive relationships. They’re essential to getting things done. From a humanistic standpoint, positive relationships make life more fun, strengthen your immune system (kind of important during a global pandemic), and increase your life expectancy by reducing the likelihood of heart disease, cancer, strokes and Alzheimer’s. As this article that summarizes the ground breaking research of UCLA professor Steve Cole states, “our bodies see loneliness as a mortal threat.” From an evolutionary standpoint, we’re wired to intuit loneliness and isolation as a threat to our survival because it’s easier for a group to fend off a saber tooth tiger than it is for an individual. The sense of isolation that working from home can bring prompts us to seek out connection with others. That’s why you’ve been doing all of those virtual happy hours and meet-ups. That’s a good thing because it’s helping you get out of the chronic state of fight or flight that both reduces your performance and your health and well-being.

As many of us will continue to work from home and maintain physical distance for the foreseeable future, here are a few things to consider incorporating into your virtual relationships as well the ones you have with the people you live with.

Include Transformational Listening In Your Mix – As I wrote about in my book, Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, there are three basic kinds of listening – transient, transactional and transformational. As the accompanying chart makes clear, all of us engage in transient listening where we’re so distracted with our own agenda and thoughts that we don’t actually listen. Transactional listening is focused on solving a problem or identifying a next step and is much higher value-added. We’re all seeing and doing a lot of that on work-related Zooms but if we stop at transactional listening, we miss out on the opportunities for deeper relationships. That’s where transformational listening comes in – listening with no other purpose than to connect and learn more about the other person or people. Open-ended questions that spark warm memories, a sense of fun, reflections on gratitude or hope for the future are a great way to set up transformational conversations. This blog post I wrote a few years ago has a list of those kinds of questions. Why not ask one or two of those in your next team Zoom meeting or casual conversation with a friend or family member?

Three Styles of Listening, The Eblin Group

Make the Time and Take the Time – Do your best to pay attention to how you’re allocating your conversational time. What percentage of it is focused on more transactional conversations? If more than 80 percent are focused on human “do-ings”, make and take some regular time to focus on the human beings through transformational conversations.

Variety is the Spice of Life – Routines and patterns are useful in life because they help us get things done without having to start from scratch every time we do them. The weekly staff meeting, the rotation of shirts you’re wearing on Zoom and the walk you go on after lunch are all examples of routines that are helpful until they’re not. They’re not when they get you into a rut of not noticing when you’re repeating yourself without looking for opportunities for deeper connection with colleagues, friends and family. Variety is the spice of life. Spark new connections by changing up your meetings and routines and inviting others into a different mix that brings fresh energy by shaking things up. A little creativity in a pandemic never hurt anyone!

Strong, healthy relationships are vital to both productivity and health and well-being. What have you been doing to deepen yours during the pandemic?

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We all know by now that
leaders must communicate in a crisis. It’s approaching the point of cliché
because it’s true. The benchmarks for effective communications from top leaders
are honesty, transparency, frequency, facts and empathy. Judging by the acclaim
and appreciation he’s been receiving the past couple of weeks, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has been providing a
great example of how an effective leader checks all of those communications
boxes.

In times of crisis, it’s
almost a societal default to look to the people in charge to transmit what they
know when they know it while painting a picture of how we’ll get through this
together. Its why Napoleon Bonaparte observed 200-plus years ago that leaders
have a two-part job: the first is to define reality; the second is to offer
hope.

So, yes, top-down
communications that originates from both the head and the heart is vitally important
to successful crisis management. There has been so much emphasis on top-down
communications over the past month or so, though, that it can be easy to
overlook other aspects of crisis communications that are at least as
important.  The best crisis leaders
understand that they need to be not just top-down transmitters of information
but also facilitators of side-to-side communications and receivers of bottom-up
communications. They run a 360-degree communications approach that incorporates
these three elements: top-down, side-to-side and bottom-up.

We’ve already touched on
what great top-down communications looks like; here are some ideas on how to
bring side-to-side and bottom-up communications into your 360-degree crisis
communications plan:

Side-to-side: When crisis leaders
focus on facilitating in addition to transmitting and receiving, they help their
teammates create connections that solve short-term problems while building
long-term cohesion. Facilitation can look like something as urgent as bringing
the right people together to develop a unified plan to allocate, distribute and
share scarce resources during the crisis. Or, facilitation can look like the
not urgent but highly important task of making it easy for colleagues working
remotely in different locations and circumstances to share their stories and
needs in ways that build empathy, connection and collaboration.

Bottom-up: Recognizing that it can be all too easy to get cut off from what’s really happening on the ground, the best crisis leaders take time away from transmitting and facilitating to make sure they’re also receiving bottom-up information and perspective from the folks on the front-lines who are dealing with the day-to-day impact of the crisis. It’s a well-observed phenomenon in history that top leaders are all too often sheltered from what’s really going on by staffers who, for whatever reason, are afraid to share the whole truth. So, the best leaders cultivate relationships with people closer to the action who will tell them what’s going on. Often, the very best leaders will visit the battlefield, as Lincoln literally did on numerous occasions, to listen and see for themselves. What leaders learn from those bottom-up communications channels enables them to make better-informed decisions during a crisis.

Top-down, side-to-side and bottoms-up. When practiced together, they form a 360-degree approach to crisis communications. Which one could use a bit more of your time and attention right now?

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In case you haven’t noticed, it’s presidential primary
season. There are any number of reasons to pay attention to primaries, one of
which is you can learn a lot about leadership communications strategies and
tactics by watching how the candidates do what they do. The most successful
ones tend to go both broad and deep with their communications. They send
messages to very large groups of people while at the same time try to establish
personal connections with individuals.

Sometimes it’s a coffee klatch for a small group and other
times it’s a rally for thousands. Sometimes it’s standing for hours taking
selfies with a line of supporters and other times it’s giving a big speech to
mark out their positions and platform. Sometimes it’s a text message or phone
call and sometimes it’s a 30 second television ad on what seems like every
commercial break.

Successful candidates are masters of both retail
communications (the coffee klatches and selfies) and wholesale communications
(the rallies and ad campaigns). Retail and wholesale communications have
applications far beyond politics. The distinction definitely has importance for
leaders of any kind of movement or large organization.

Here’s a rundown of the similarities and differences between
retail and wholesale communications and some ideas to consider as you work out
your leadership communications game plan.

Many Channels, One Strategy:  Choosing a retail or a wholesale
communications channel depends on the need, the reach and the moment.  Either way, the channels and the approaches
within them need to be tied to an overarching strategy. A simple framework for
building a communications strategy can rest on three questions that you keep
coming back to:

What? – What are you trying to
accomplish?So What? – Why does it matter and why
should people care? (And, by the way, what do they already care about?)Now What? – What do you want people to do
next? What do you want them to know or think? How do you want them to feel?

Narrowcasting or Broadcasting? Narrowcasting is
another way to think about retail communications. It allows you a lot of
opportunity to tailor your “So what?” to individuals or small groups of people
with common interests. It gives you the chance to be more nuanced in your
messaging. Broadcasting is a wholesale communications approach. It’s delivered
through online and offline channels that can reach a lot of people at once.
It’s best used for establishing themes and value propositions that can fit on
the proverbial bumper sticker. Highly effective communications campaigns use a
combination of narrowcasting with key influencers and broadcasting to the
larger group.

Simplicity vs. Complexity – Building off the
narrowcasting and broadcasting distinction is the need to hit the sweet spot on
the spectrum of simplicity vs. complexity in your messaging. As a general rule,
simple messaging (again, think bumper stickers) is the way to go when you need
to wholesale your communications. You can definitely be more nuanced and
complex in your retail communications but be careful not to make the messaging
too complex. The human brain can only process a limited amount of ideas at any
one time. Make your points for sure, but keep them short and memorable. Simple
and familiar analogies help a lot on that last point.

Adjust Your Energy Dial – As a general rule, the
bigger the room, the bigger your energy needs to be. This point was driven home
to me years ago by a client. My natural energy setting is friendly but low key.
I’m not usually going to be the loudest voice in the room. When I was getting
started in my career as a speaker 15 years ago, I had a client organization
where I spoke to 40 or 50 high potential leaders three or four times a year.
Sometimes those sessions went great and other times they were kind of flat and
I never really understood why it went one way or the other. After watching me
in action a few times over the course of a year, my client contact gave me some
incredibly valuable feedback. She said, “I notice that when the group has a lot
of energy, you have a lot of energy. And, when the group starts out kind of
flat, you’re flat. I need you to lead the energy of the room, not be led by the
energy of the room.” That’s something I worked on for several years and I’ve since
learned to adjust my energy to lead the people in the room toward a particular
outcome. That lesson has a lot of application to effectively using both retail
and wholesale communications. The more intimate channels of retail
communication usually call for a level of energy projection that is appropriate
to the room. You want to hit the sweet spot and not overdo it. In the wholesale
communication scenario of much bigger rooms where you can’t make eye contact
with everybody there, you almost always need to dial up your energy. The goal in
big rooms is not an inauthentic version of you; it’s a bigger version of you.

CTA’s Beat FYI’s – One thing we know for sure about
communications in 2020 is that people aren’t going to stay with you very long
if you don’t keep them engaged. CTA’s (calls to action) almost always beat
FYI’s (you know what that means). Whether you’re using a retail or wholesale
communications channel, your messaging needs to be delivered in a way that
encourages interaction and/or action between you and the audience, within the
audience, from the primary audience to other audiences and especially within
the minds of individual audience members. No matter what communications channel
you’re using, always be thinking about the Now What? What do you want the
audience to know, think, do, feel or believe? What’s your CTA both during and
after the communications event?

So, that’s a recap of some my experiences and observations
on the ways successful leaders use both retail and wholesale communications.
What have I missed? What do you agree or disagree with? What’s one takeaway
that you intend to act on?

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The
best leaders I work with as an executive coach encourage open and honest dialogue.

They’ve
learned and understand why it’s so important for the people on their team and
in their organizations to be completely comfortable with speaking up. First,
you really want people contributing their best ideas on a regular basis because
that’s how you win. Second, if your people aren’t contributing, speaking up and
sharing the truth as they see it, you’re going to be flying blind as a leader.
When you fly blind, you eventually crash. 

Of
course, it’s not enough to just encourage open and honest dialogue; you
actually have to do things that demonstrate that you’re practicing what you
preach.

How do
the best leaders do it? Here are three best practice action steps they follow
that you can use to create an environment in which everyone is comfortable
engaging in open and honest dialogue.

First, ask
open-ended questions that surface what people are really thinking. Some
examples are:

What do you think about this? What’s working for you? What’s getting in the way? What are our options? What do you think you should do
next?

The
best open-ended questions start with the word “what” because they open up
possibilities and put people at ease. They also help you learn a lot more than
you would with yes or no questions and questions that put people on the
defensive.

Second,
check your body language. When you’re the designated leader, people are
always trying to read you for clues about what you really think and how you
really feel. Smile when it’s appropriate to do so. Lighten up, open up and let
people feel a human connection with you. Don’t walk around stone faced or with
a neutral facial expression. A lot of people will read that as anger or
disappointment. Relax, smile and open up your body language. 

Third, ask
your team and colleagues for feedback. It doesn’t need to be complicated.
Start by asking:

How am I doing? What can I do better? What should I keep doing?

When
you get feedback, don’t debate it. Say thank you, soak it in, think about it,
and, most importantly, act on it. 

For more ideas on how to create an environment of open and honest dialogue, check out chapter four of The Next Level – Pick up custom-fit communications; Let go of one-size-fits-all communications.

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Beat the Churn with Context

One of the stories I tell in The Next Level is about the CEO of a very well-known company who, in speaking to a meeting of the top 200 executives there, spontaneously riffed out loud about how “We could use more employees with the skill set and approach that Competitor X has.” Over the next six months, the CEO’s company had hired scores of employees from Competitor X and, as they did, unintentionally changed the culture of their own company. The CEO started to notice what was going on and asked why the company was suddenly hiring so many people from Competitor X. The answer was, “You told us to at the top executive conference.” The CEO’s response was that he was just thinking out loud that they could use people like that and he didn’t mean that anyone should go out and poach them away.

Chalk one up for needless churn. Based on a random comment rooted in a fragment of a thought people sprang into action, spun things up and changed the culture of a major company in the process.

Another way to spark churn in your organization (which both I and a number of my executive coaching clients have been guilty of) is to send your team members an email with a report or article attached with a cryptic cover note like, “Please take a look at this.” I was reminded of this one lately in a senior leadership team meeting where some of the executives were talking about how they had been acting on an article their CEO sent with a “Read this” message. The boss was surprised when they told him that and said that he had only sent it because he had found it interesting. In the meantime, hours were burned and churned by people guessing and then acting on what they thought he wanted.

So, if you’re the designated leader how do you avoid sending your people into a cycle of churn?

It’s pretty simple really. Slow yourself down and take a few more moments to provide some context about what you’re saying or sending and why you’re saying or sending it. For instance, the Competitor X example that I started this post with could have been avoided if the CEO had first said, “I’m just thinking out loud here and putting this on the table as food for thought, not action.” Or, in the case of sending an article around, expand on “Take a look at this,” with a sentence or two more about why it resonates with you and how you think it could be useful to others.

You may think that advice is beyond basic and that it should be obvious that you don’t expect people to take action on the things you say and the stuff you share unless you explicitly ask for action. Yeah, it may be obvious to you, but it’s likely not obvious to them. Experience shows again and again that even senior executives are so motivated to please their boss that they will often spring into action at the slightest prompt. As a result, there’s a lot of needless churn in a lot of organizations.

Beat the churn. Provide some context.

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As I’ve written here before, effective leadership communications involves two distinct activities – transmitting and receiving. You can think of it like a two-way radio or a smartphone. They only work when they both transmit and receive. For your leadership communications to be inspirational and influential, you need to do both as well.

Too many people in leadership roles overemphasize the transmission and underemphasize the reception. These folks equate leadership with giving inspirational speeches or pep talks. Before you can have the inspiration, you’ve got to have the conversation. To inspire and influence others to action, you have to know and address what they care about.

To do that, you need to be super-intentional about putting yourself in reception mode. An easy and proven way to do that is to conduct a Listening Tour. I talk at some length about how to stage an effective Listening Tour in chapter 8 of The Next Level but, for now, here are some tips for getting started.

Identify Representative Stakeholders: The groups of people you’re trying to inspire or influence are made up of real human beings with hopes, fears, wants and needs. They’re all people who have a stake in the movement you’re trying to lead or the outcome you’re trying to create. Go have conversations with a representative sample of them. Note that I said “have conversations” instead of “talk with.” The distinction turns on transmitting vs. receiving. “Talking with” is usually transmission-oriented; “having a conversation” is usually reception-oriented. You want more of the latter and less of the former.

Start with Open-Ended Questions: Once you’ve figured out who you’re going to listen to on your tour, develop a list of open-ended questions that will help you learn more about them. Some of my road-tested favorites include:

What will make this a great year for you?
What difference would that make for you?
What’s helping you accomplish your goals?
What’s getting in the way?
What’s going on that has you excited?
What’s going on that has you concerned?
What kind of help do you need to be successful?
What can I do to help?

Compare and Contrast: Take notes during or immediately after each of your Listening Tour conversations and then compare and contrast. What similarities do you see across the conversations? What differences do you see? How do the dots connect into a bigger picture that could give you guidance on how you should lead and communicate?

Spending some quality time in receiving mode will make you much more effective in transmitting mode. Get the balance right and you’ll be a more inspiring and influential leader.

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Surely you’ve noticed that most conference calls, video conferences, e-mail threads and virtually any other form of virtual communications pretty much stink. Why is that and what can we do about it?

Dr. Nick Morgan has the answers. In this recorded interview with Nick, I asked him to share some of the fascinating research he gathered and conducted for his new book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World. He did and, even better, he shared his best tips for how we can all be better virtual communicators. (Here’s a cryptic hint. We need to overcome our sensory deprivation.)

In 2018, everyone engages in virtual communication all day long. Want to make it less painful and a lot more effective? Listen to my interview with Dr. Nick Morgan. Better yet, buy and read his book!

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Think about the last time you made a big purchase like a car, a major appliance or a mattress. With the possible exception of the car, there’s a pretty good chance you bought the product online after reading a lot of customer reviews. Why was that the case? Of course, one reason is that Amazon and other online retailers make it really easy to buy things online. Another likely reason is that you would do anything to avoid an aggressive sales pitch at the dealership or the store.

There are very few of us who like to be sold to. It feels insincere and competitive because our interests rarely align with that of the sales person. A win for you is great value for your money. Unless the incentives are thoughtfully considered, a win for the salesperson is to maximize the money you spend. Making a major purchase in this kind of scenario is usually a stress-inducing experience.

Even though most of us don’t like to be sold to, many of us regularly engage in selling our ideas or initiatives at work. And how effective is that? All too often, the answer is, “Not very.” I was recently reminded of a better way to make progress on your most important priorities – don’t sell, enroll.

That idea comes from Donagh Herlihy who, when I interviewed him for the first edition of The Next Level back in 2005, was the CIO for Avon. These days, Donagh is the chief technology officer for the restaurant company, Bloomin’ Brands. I’ve been reading through my interviews with him and other executives for the third edition of The Next Level that’s coming out this Fall. He offers a lot of wisdom on the difference between selling and enrolling in this quote from the book:

“One thing I constantly coach people on is enrolling others.  Your job as an executive is not to sell ideas; it’s to enroll people in ideas.  People get kind of resistant to being sold a strategy.  The way to go is to bring them in early, enroll them, get them engaged and then there is no need for salesmanship.”

Here are five simple steps you can take to act on Herlihy’s advice about why you should quit selling and start enrolling:

Involve Others Early – True enrollment requires trust. You build trust by bringing people in early. I used to have a boss who insisted that my peers and I not spring ideas on her that had been “grown in a dark closet like mushrooms.” What she was looking for was the opportunity to influence the big initiatives before they became fully baked. If she wasn’t involved or at least aware early on, she didn’t buy what we were selling. Involvement is the first step to enrollment.

Receive More Than You Transmit – As a communicator, you can either be a transmitter or a receiver. If all you want to do is sell your ideas, go ahead and transmit away. If you want to enroll people in your ideas, put more emphasis on receiving. Ask open ended questions that give your colleagues space to think out loud and share what is most important to them. Show that you’re processing what they’re sharing. Incorporate their needs and ideas into yours. That’s another behavior that builds the trust that enrollment requires.

Look for Mutual Interests – Life and business don’t have to be win/lose propositions. Look for the win/win opportunities that come from identifying mutual interests. Ask yourself, “What’s in it for them?” and then verify or improve upon your idea through collaborative conversations.

Share What You Know – Don’t play your cards close to your vest. Share what you know and put it out there. You’ll either influence your colleagues’ thinking or you’ll learn what their concerns are (or both).

Create a Shared Vision – Co-create a shared vision of the future that connects with people’s sense of purpose. Work with your colleagues to sketch out a picture of what the future looks like when you implement your improved-upon idea.

You may have noticed that these steps lead to more of a collaborative approach to leadership than a heroic approach. It requires more patience but yields more sustainable and meaningful results.

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