Tag Archives: culture

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.

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What your boss will never tell you….

So, you are early in your career and you are trying to meet all of the expectations of your employer, trying to develop that “balance between work and life”, and are trying to figure out what next.  This is a big juggling act.  You finally feel confident enough in your current position to make contributions and are starting to gain that much needed credibility.  Yet, you have that nagging question – am I doing the right things?

How you answer that question depends on a number of different criteria:

  1. Your personal definition of success
  2. Your vision of your future
  3. The organization’s culture
  4. The organization’s values

If you are like most young professionals, you may not have a clear picture of your definition of success or a vision of your future.  But, by now you may have a clear picture of the jobs or positions you don’t want.  For example:  you may be in product development but you hate to do the marketing studies – may be your skill set is analyzing the data from the marketing studies and putting together a strategy to meet the needs identified.  Or, you may be in the finance department and find that you thoroughly enjoy the budgeting process complete with sales projections and supply sensitivities, but absolutely don’t like trying to figure out cost centers and internal book keeping.

Generally, when people think about their careers and where they want to go – it is easier for them to say what they don’t want to do.  Maybe CEO is not where you want to be with all of the issues surrounding liability, time at work, meetings, stock holder presentations, etc.  Or, maybe you know that you want to have a more conventional day position that allows you time off for the other things that you enjoy.  By knowing what you don’t like, you begin to form a picture of what you do want.    So, the first two criteria are really in your own court and you need to take some time to analyze these aspects.

The other two criteria are dependent upon your work environment – how does your employer measure success and what does your employer look for in its employees?  As human beings, we are designed to pick up on cultural clues.  Think about it – why did they used to call IBM Big Blue?  Or, have you ever looked at the professional “uniform”?  Take a look around your place of work and you can probably tell what department a person works in just by the clothes that they are wearing.  It is part of the culture.

Culture is also communicated through the review process.  Here you are supposed to have a discussion with your superior about how your performance has been during the past review period and what improvements you might be able to make in the future.  This is key to the skills that you are going to have to develop as your employer has value for these.  But, these are not the only skills that you have to have.  You know this because even if you meet all the expectations put down during the review process – there is something that is rewarded and valued that is the difference between you and your peers.  These are the things that your Boss never tells you or your Boss may even discourage you from doing.  Here are some key items:

Networking – both inside and outside your company.  Some individuals think that this is a waste of your time or an example of inefficiency.  Yet, networking provides you with the contacts that help you get things done.  Networking supports innovation, helps to promote communication, and may ultimately be your parachute if something goes wrong such as a buy out, or lay off.  Your network is important to building your skills and reputation.  Use your professional societies and community organizations to build your professional network.  Ironically, what is initially seen as a waste of time may become a rewarded asset.

Participating in professional or community organizations.  Some organizations this is highly encouraged, but in others you may get the question – “Why are you spending time on that, how is it going to benefit the organization?”  Here are the benefits even if the organization has nothing to do with your company’s business.  One – you can learn a number of different leadership skills in a safe environment.  If the project doesn’t quite work out within the community organization, say that fund raiser only raised half of what you expected, what are the consequences?  You get out and try something different.  Two – you get to interact with people, thus learning a number of different communication styles.  Individuals in companies tend to start having “like me syndrome”, they talk the same, they think the same, and they approach problems in the same manner.  You need to have a bit of spice, a different view point, a different way of thinking, and different perspectives to reach good solutions. And finally, working with in your professional or community organizations you improve your network and credibility.

Helping and mentoring others.  Everyone has something that they can do well.  You might be a whiz at creating spreadsheets or presentations.  You may know the short cuts on the phone system.  Or, you may have just the right reference at your finger tips to save a colleague hours and hours of searching.  Sharing these skills are essential to building team.  By sharing where you can, you are developing intangible skills that are also resulting in tangible results for the organization.  You help to promote efficiency and you are building credibility along the way.  Again your Boss may view it as inefficiency in the short run or a slight delay in getting your work accomplished.  But, down the road you will find that you have built a solid foundation for your future projects without being aware of it at the time.

These three activities aren’t measured.  They aren’t documented on a review or goal sheet.  But, without them you will not achieve your vision of where you want to be nor will you have a safety net in the event that something bad occurs.

Story and the Art of Story Telling

If you read various leadership articles, you are likely to have found a number of items related to the “Art of Story Telling.” From a leadership perspective, the idea behind this is that people are more in tuned to messages conveyed via a story. If you want to provide a lesson or a concept – you can put it in a story, people will pay attention, and are more likely to retain the information and get what you are trying to convey.

But there is more to “Story.”  Story throughout all of history has been used to convey – historical events, to entertain, to perpetuate culture, to convey cultural morality, and to pass on family. In general – a culture is defined by its stories. If you think about the stories that are traditionally studied in school – Aesop’s Fables, Greek Myths, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. You can see how story has been used.

There are religious stories – the Old Testament Bible stories – Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale, and the Garden of Eden – as well as the New Testament Parables. In Native American culture – there are the Mother Earth stories. And, you can even follow certain themes throughout all cultures – there are common flood stories, and there is always a creation story.

Some stories have been preserved – the Bible, the Qur’an, and many epic poems (Beowulf, Gilgamesh, King Arthur, and others). But, many stories and possibly the most important ones are not usually written. These are the stories that hold families and/or clans together. The tales of how we as individuals are molded and taught. These stories are unique to the personal histories of each family.

For the last several years, my husband and I have noticed that our Society has lost the art of story telling – beyond the “Big Screen” and the television. Children don’t hear Mother Goose, Aesop’s Fables, or the traditional Bible stories unless a special effort is made to convey these through a lesson plan at school or Sunday School. We have seen that when the stories of the overall culture – the cultural fabric or quilt have disappeared – the quicker the disappearance of the family stories particularly the ones told from generation to generation. And, these are even more likely not to have been recorded.

I suppose that this is a result of losing the extended family. In most cases, we don’t live down the street from Grandma anymore. Great Aunt Mary is in Arizona for the winter. Even brothers and sisters are removed by several states. Closely knit communities have seen the “kids” move to the cities because of they don’t want to farm or the mill has closed to get a job. We have lost the time around the kitchen table or the campfire where the stories flow. How did you get that scar on your knee? Why did we live in that particular house? How did Grandpa come to live in that town? Are being lost faster than your current cell phone goes out of date.

We are losing this trait so fast – that there are articles about it for leaders. There are courses in journal-ling. Our Society has to make an effort to revive something that has been a part of being human since language was invented. This is evidenced by the fact that Museums like the Smithsonian have programs where people come to put down their oral histories or a particular story about a topic or an event. We see organizations like the American Chemical Society collect particular personal stories about why they chose to be come chemists. These are efforts being made because we are losing a part of us. We are losing what brings us together and we can very possibly be losing ourselves. Our personal story is what makes us who we are, but it is the grounding, the enrichment of the stories of how our great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and families that really tell us so much more about why we are the way we are.

(Also published on SophicPursuits)