Tag Archives: communication

Leadership Lessons from Story Time

Kindergarten

From the title of Robert Fulghum’s best-selling book of life stories is as applicable today as when he published it in 1988.  And, you can learn a lot about leadership by participating in a number of summer activities that you might feel are “just for kids” like Story Time at the local library.

It has been a number of years since I last attended Story Time.  And, now that summer is here and I have the opportunity, I have begun to take my grandson to Story Time.  The format hasn’t really changed all that much – there is a gathering, a brief outline of what is going to happen, a song, a story, a song, another story, and an activity.  (Sounds pretty much like that standing weekly meeting, except that they aren’t as much fun, because we don’t get play along with the song, and the activities, well…..)

So, let’s look at the leadership opportunities that are present:

The Gathering – While it is one thing to “wrangle” 20 to 25 kids under the age of six plus their tag along adult into a seated position and ready to listen, it is another to bring together a team of professionals, right?  Not so much.  In fact, I sometimes think it is easier to deal with the children.  They want to be there.  They are expecting certain things.  They are anticipating positive outcomes.  The adults, well…..

So, what is the lesson?  When pulling together a meeting, a training session, a presentation, etc., we have to include the hook, some predictability, and a desired outcome.  Sure, you won’t always be able to have grab everyone and some of these are “have to be there, because” type meetings.  But, you don’t have to allow them to be painful, boring, or last longer than they need to.  Posting of agendas is necessary. A stated purpose is necessary.

And, you have to allow for the gathering to occur.  You can’t rush it.  And, it this may be the most important part of the event.  These interactions are what make your teams cohesive.  The real work of an organization is usually done in the hallways, the break room, and in those few minutes at the beginning and end of meetings.  This is where the innovation occurs.  It is where work gets streamlined.

The Outline – OK, even if the agenda was posted. At Story Time, even though it follows the same pattern every week, the outline for the next hour is repeated.  Why?  Because, there may be a new child, a new parent, or someone who is not yet familiar with the routine.  In the business world, the attendees may not have read their email, you might have a guest, you might have an observer, or they just need the outline to get them focused on the task at hand.  Humans like patterns.  We need patterns.  The repeating of the outline helps us grasp that focus that we need to be productive.

The Song, the Story, the Song and the Story – The purpose of the first song at story time (and it usually the same one from week to week) is the initial grabber.  It gets the participants involved.  These are the standing agenda items: the safety moment, review of last week’s sales, etc.  All the attendees know what is about to happen, but they are watch for anything new or how the new individuals are going to react.  And, it allows you to slide into the flow of the event.  Then there is the story.  It is new information, we are actively listening.  We are applying the information.  All are key things for adults as well as for the children.

This is followed but round two.  But, this time the song is different.  We have to be more engaged.  We are applying something new.  But, it is bringing us all together and bring the focus back to the group.  This is where the buy-in occurs at the business meeting.  It is followed by another story.  For the business meeting, this is where the connections with the organization’s mission occur.  The why.

The Activity – During Story Time, this is where the children get to participate and really do.  The activity is usually related to the stories that were presented.  So, connections are made.  New things are tried.  And, learning is masked as something fun.  For professionals, the activity usually means discussions of the work, the goals, the plans, etc.  There are the normal workflows that must occur.  And, how the information presented will be applied.  The only difference – we don’t get to see it as fun or play.  (Sometimes, you need a bit of play to keep the creative juices flowing.)

Thus, Story Time is a learning experience.  There are lessons to be learned.  There are observations to be made.  You might want to take a bit of time to be “outside of the concrete, steel, glass box” and take a trip to Story Time, it may be more beneficial than that leadership symposium.

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Taking Stock of Words

Power of Words

Actions speak louder than words. This is a common idiom used in the development of leadership skills.  Another idiom that is used is “walk the walk.”  As developing leaders (we are all developing leaders whether or not we are a 25 plus year CEO or a new entrepreneur), we have been taught, told, and mentored into believing that it is our actions that are going to help dictate the culture of our organizations.

Yet, it is not only our actions that influence our organizations, our words do as well.  Our own personal language, the body of words and how we use them, conveys much about our personal values, our leadership style, and ourselves.  Thus, as leaders we must assess and evaluate the quality of our own language.  This means that we need to not only look at our vocabulary, the library of words that we use and understand, but in also in how we use that stock of words to express ourselves.

Our language builds culture.  And, it is the culture that sets the unwritten rules of society, and our organizations.  You want to build a culture of inclusiveness?  Think about the words that are used in conversation in meetings:

  • We were discussing in the hall …..
  • Listening, to the hallway conversations……
  • Did you talk with …….

Versus

  • We need to do it this way ……
  • The administration says …..
  • Don’t bring them into this discussion …..

While each of these openings may be appropriate at a particular time, if we are starting a meeting this way the first set frees up an open discussion, while the second set closes the discussion.  Phrasing becomes just as important as what the words mean.

The structure of a sentence, the specific words used, and the setting of the transmission of the words to another individual becomes highly important to the development of the culture and the atmosphere of the organization.  A quick public thank you in a meeting, may have much more value to the organization than a lengthy in office more formal thank you.  A handwritten congratulations on an achievement to a line employee may be as valuable as a bonus at the end of the year.  Even a handshake in the elevator introducing yourself to someone, may be a very valuable exchange conveying the importance of everyone in the organization.

Today as leaders, we hear about the importance of the motivational speech or sending out mass emails about the status of the company or organization to both employees and stakeholders.  We are told by our public relations people that we need to communicate and we assess every word in a press release and in the speech.  But, do we really take time to listen to ourselves.  Are we using precise speech?  Are our words communicating exactly what we are trying to convey?

We need to look at how we speak, write and the methods of communication.  As each of these elements convey meaning and color how our words are consumed by the audience.

Gaining Wisdom through Reflection

Confucius

Wisdom.  It is one of the many words that are used to describe leadership.  Yet, it is typically not something that we as leaders have innately.  Wisdom is something that coalesces from a variety of other aspects of a leader’s education.  Wisdom is derived from book knowledge, observation, experience, and reflection.  Wisdom is as not simple as the abridged definition “the quality or state of being knowledgeable with just judgement.”

As leaders, the easy part of gaining wisdom comes from the many hours of learning our technical craft.  We spend hours gaining the technical skills of our chosen professions: going to class, taking training courses, reading the current literature, etc.  We also have honed our skills of observation: watching other leaders, learning individuals, understanding group dynamics, etc.  But, have we become wise?

This is an interesting question.  Stop and take a moment to visualize a wise person.  What images come immediately to mind?  For some, it is a yogi or a guru sitting atop a mountain.  For some, it is an owl.  For others, it may be a specific person, but that person is generally older, and quiet.  We have a vision of what it takes to be wise or full of wisdom.  Yet, there is no manual or recipe or real guidance document. Sure, you can Google the question “how to become wise,” (and you will get 23,800,000 hits) but these are suggestions and starting points.  There is not a single recipe or set of steps that you can follow that will have you waking up tomorrow as a wise person.  Sure, you may be a bit wiser than you were today but it is never a completed project.  (It is probably a topic that can have some intellectuals researching for years.)

This doesn’t mean that we can’t become wise nor develop wisdom.  All it means is that wisdom comes from our willingness and openness to new experiences, new ideas, and listening to different points of view.  Wisdom is derived from our personal situations, our challenges, and the environment or circumstances that have occurred over time.  Even then, a leader may not become wise as there is still something missing.  The missing item is reflection.

One cannot learn from our experiences and environments without taking the time to reflect and ask questions about them.  How do we begin to listen to another point of view?  We ask questions.  We investigate.  We may still disagree, but we are actively learning how someone else approaches the same situation.  We learn to be active listeners.  Yet, do we listen to ourselves. Do we note our own conflicts? Do we ask ourselves questions?

We have to make time for the reflection.  And, we have to have some way of reflecting.  So, how can you as a leader begin to develop this habit of reflection?  Well, there is a technique that is widely used and for some of us it is something that is a bit of struggle – journaling.  Yes, remember that creative journal that your English composition teacher tried to get you to start?  It may be one method of helping you develop wisdom in your life.  Sure, you have heard of creative writers journaling, but the CEO of a Fortune 500 company?  You probably have even read excerpts from some journals from famous individuals in history like George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson.  But what about J.P. Morgan?  Sure you know that they kept “diaries” of appointments or notes – but did they journal?  We may or may not know.

Why start a journal?  The typical reasons for journaling include:

  • Journals help you articulate thoughts and ideas
  • Journals help you clear the mental clutter
  • Journals help you track your own personal growth
  • Journals promote creativity

You can do a quick search and find a host of other reasons.  But from a straight forward and simplistic perspective – journals allow you the time for reflection.  It is this reflection time that is the important aspect of developing wisdom.

How do you start and what should you write?  The first step is to pick a medium – computer, paper and pen, etc.  Personally, I am fond of the paper and pen method as for me, it is more personal. It is engaging. And, I am interacting with my thoughts.  (Now, I do use a smart pen which does allow me to store my journals electronically.)  But, I have used a number of different media over the years – including some of the new apps.  I have also found that I am much happier keeping everything in the same place, i.e. my daily appointments, to-do lists, and journal all in the same book.  It simplifies things for me and if I have an idea I don’t have to figure out which book to put it in.

What to write?  This is the personal part of the journal and may be highly dependent on the time of day when you chose to journal.  There are times that I journal in the morning as I am preparing for the day and my reflections may be about my goals for that day.  Or, if in the evening, they may be about something that I learned, noticed or was troubled by during the day.  I may reflect on a reading throughout the day, which is why I like my journal all in one.  I journal about new words, a line in a book, something I heard on the radio or something that I could have handled better.  It really doesn’t matter what you write, it is about taking the time to sit quietly and reflect.

Confucius said that the noblest way to learn wisdom is by reflection.  Margaret Wheatley reminds us that without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and fail to achieve anything useful.  The journal is a means of providing that bit of reflection that is needed to help us develop into the leaders we need to be.

Critical Soft Skills

IMG_1081_editedAs leaders, we are always talking about the soft skills.  Saying things like – “the technical skills are your ticket to the event, but it is the soft skills that will determine whether or not you will get the job or the promotion.”  We espouse the term like everyone knows what these soft skills are.  Sure, we know that is usually means things like team work, problem solving, and communication.  But, think about those terms.  What are we saying?  We are saying something like the elements of salt water are the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, or the South China Sea.  These terms are so broad that there are volumes written on them.

So how do we as leaders counsel others including ourselves about the elements of these board topics so that we are highlighting the critical elements of these “soft skills”.  And, as the critical elements change; how do we get that across to our teams and mentees?  This is a crucial question because it is being able to recognize these changes and being able to articulate them that allows us as leaders to stay relevant.  It is what is going to make the difference between being current or stagnant.

Let’s take for example the topic of several news reports over the past weekend about a critical skill that the Millennials seem to be missing.  It seemed that no matter what news story you watched, they all discussed an aspect of communication.  It is not that the Millennials did not communicate, it was how they were communicating or not communicating.  There seemed to be a lack of direct person-to-person communication via telephone or face-to-face.  Sure, the Millennials would text, use Instagram, or some other social media tool, but these did not involve a direct person-to-person interaction with the non-verbal clues.  Employers are indicating; it is how these individuals are handling or not handling these direct interactions that were costing these individuals, either in terms of not landing jobs or in poor ratings on the job.

Telling a student or mentee or young professional that they need to improve their communication skills may or may not get the point across.  These individuals think that they are communicating and don’t understand what is missing.  We as leaders have to start really articulating what is missing in the soft skill.  In the example, what is missing is that these individuals haven’t had to learn or deal with nuisance or really understand how their bearing conveys just as much of a message as the words they use.

Add to this that some of these “soft skill” areas begin to tread into dangerous territory, the world of perceived discrimination.  For those of us that lived in a bit of a different time, where your superior came in and discussed your physical appearance without consequence; we now have to carefully handle these situations in such a manner as to not trip over a regulation or create a perceived negative environment.  This makes it a challenge in how we guide or mentor individuals to ensure that get the appropriate guidance.  Which is why, we as leaders have to spend the time to think about how to address some of these soft skill issues as well as create safe places and situations where these skills can be learned and practiced.

As soft skills are culturally disseminated, the first thing that we as leaders have to do is become models of the desired behavior.  We must demonstrate the professionalism we desire.  We need to be open to criticism ourselves. We need to encourage dialog.  And, we need to learn how really verbalize areas where the culture is changing and communicate how some actions are perceived by others.  We have to develop a new critical soft skill – dealing with sensitive issues in a sensitive manner.

Leadership Lessons from the Headlines

The past couple of weeks, there have been some significant leadership lessons that have emerged from the headlines.

Meme - Note to Self

Assume that every email written will become public.

Just imagine – as you drive into the office, your emails are being read during the top of the hour news.  I am sure there are a few executives that wished they had never pushed the send on that email.  (There of course are a couple of corollaries to this one – Assume the Mic is hot and that everything you say is being recorded and will end up on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter!)  – Yes, every email you have ever written is likely to come back to haunt in some form or fashion.  And contrary to with the IRS has claimed – someone is sure to find them somewhere when you least expect it.

You need to be aware of not only what is communicated, but how and context.  What may seem like an innocent comment may become a fire-able offense in the future.

Every interaction has the potential to have unimaginable repercussions. 

The “Butterfly Effect”, you never know how a brief encounter may change the world.  Thus, why not strive for positive and kind interactions?  Small acts of kindness may make the biggest differences.  Unfortunately,  we only tend to hear about how these little acts have changed lives during this time of year.  As leaders we need to strive to make these part of everyday life.

It is OK to admit that you are wrong.  

– The key is to make the change to make amends and improve. –

As leaders, it is our job to model behaviors that will improve the overall situation.  Leaders need to model the culture that we want, whether that be at home, school, the workplace or society.  As leaders, we need to take responsibility.   But, we also need to strive to improve.

Leaders should not incite negative behaviors.  Leaders should highlight positive actions.  Our actions are lenses to our values.  You do not correct a wrong by committing more wrongs – under the guise of “demonstrations” or “public discourse.”  It is important to address the wrongs – but focus on the root causes.  Maybe – just maybe – if we all follow the second bullet point, the means of making amends and improvement will happen naturally.

To “Power Point” or Not to “Power Point” – That is a fundamental question

Communication happens in a variety of settings.  For leaders, the venues in which we communicate are varied.  They may be one-on-one interactions, a classroom or learning situations, meetings, lectures, and presentations  to general audiences.  For those large venues, there is a key question – do I use “Power Point” or slides – or not?

Anymore there is an expectation that “Power Point” will be a key element of the presentation.  In our multimedia society – we have come to expect our speakers to present in a multimedia fashion – but is it truly necessary? And what happens if there is a technical glitch?  (We have all seen what happens if you happen to be in the political spotlight – you are likely to become late night comedy fodder.)

So – do you use Power Point or not?  The answer of course is not as simple as yes or no.  It depends.  It depends on – the audience, the type of information to be conveyed, and the ultimate point you want to make.  Of course you are going to use slides to convey technical information like graphs, and diagrams – particularly if you are speaking to investors.  But, what about the Garden Club or the Community Action Group or to the Boy Scout Troop – your choice may be very different.

I have the opportunity to speak about science to a variety of audiences – some I use a set of slides with maps, photos, and diagrams and others I leave the slides at home and bring simple props – ping pong balls, balloons, glasses of water, silverware, etc.  It depends on the points I am trying to make and my audience.  Which type of talk do you think people remember most?  It is the one where I use my simple props.

By over using multimedia presentation materials – we as communicators have become very lazy.  It is easy to throw a Power Point presentation together.  When we do this we tend to leave out those intangible things – excitement, inspiration, creativity, and engagement.  Our audiences are not as engaged.  We fail to make a personal connection.  We don’t actively involve them in the vision we are trying to convey.

Here is an experiment for you.  It has been said that writing for radio takes a very special talent and that many screen writers were unable to write for the radio dramas and comedies of the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s.  Get a hold of an old radio drama or listen to one on satellite radio.  Think about how you interact with that particular program and compare it to how you interact with a television or video program of the same genre.  Which one held your attention more?  Which one stimulated you more?

Think about this experiment the next time you have to give that presentation.  How can you engage your audience?  What tools can you use to make it more memorable?  You may find that you are going to leave the “Power Point” behind – or just use it to point out the emergency exits.