Future Talk

I once read that 80% of all meeting conversations in the work place are about what has already happened, even though the past cannot be changed.  What a waste!  And the alternative is very accessible.

“Future talk” is not a science fiction phenomenon.  It simply means deliberately keeping a conversation focused on the time horizon that starts now and goes forward, and not on anything that has already happened.  This is an extremely powerful tool for having productive conversations, especially when the participants hold positions of authority – such as one’s boss.  Future talk also keeps difficult conversations with clients, colleagues and staff in a safer, constructive zone and tone, when you want to tell someone something they may not want to hear in order to influence future actions.

The central goal of future talk is to keep any conversation blame-free and exploratory, and moving people toward common ground and toward attitudes and behaviors that support desired outcomes. All you have to do is phrase your statements, requests, offers and questions in the future tense, and censor out most of the statements that cannot be rephrased in future form.

Here is a recent client success story that highlights the value of pre-planning future talk for sensitive conversations:

An associate at a rapidly growing social media company knew that his salary was dramatically below those of comparable colleagues and, now, also below new hires.  He already felt under-appreciated and under-supported on other (non-financial) fronts.  A substantial raise would help him cope with the other job stresses and stay motivated.  In planning and rehearsing his raise request conversation, he chose language that emphasized making the future more equitable and positioning him to be successful and satisfied going forward.  Although he appropriately presented the data about who was recieving what salaries (“past talk,” to make his case), he consciously did not dwell on how he had been feeling about the inequity, how long it had been bothered him, who was responsible, etc.  In one conversation, my client quickly obtained a 20 percent raise effective almost immediately, and left the meeting without any relationship strain.

Future talk can advance any kind of agenda – not just the individualized type in my example.  It can help teams start functioning better (without bothering to place blame for past dysfunction — just skip that step!).  It can clarify roles, goals, obstacles and missteps with minimal friction.  It can help you get a read on a difficult boss’ intentions.  And it can help colleagues grow into greater responsibilities and broadened perspectives.

Consider whether you have an upcoming meeting where you can contribute some much needed future talk and help people wean themselves off past talk.  I’d love to hear how it goes!

How Much is Enough?

How Much is Enough?  This is a trick question.  Everyone’s right answer is different, and it can change continually for each aspect of your life.

Look at the many ways we struggle with this question in our minds:

  • How many late night hours of preparation for that presentation is enough?
  • How much job-related reading and professional development should I do?
  • How much in-person networking and social networking must I do to maintain and build my reputation and client pipeline?
  • How much exercise and other rejuvenating activities are enough to sustain a healthy, balanced lifestyle?
  • How detailed should my business plans and work products be?
  • How many clients is enough?…. How much revenue is enough?

As we each try to answer these questions – whenever they pop up – it is important to remember that most of the time we personally control the definition of Enough.  And we owe it to ourselves to understand the costs that accompany Too Much.  In fact, we each are the instrument of calibration – defining what is too little, what is enough, and what is excessive for our own value systems, energy reserves, and situations.  If we pay attention and don’t look exclusively outside ourselves for the answer (e.g., how much do my competitors blog, how late do my colleagues work), our instincts, and even our physical bodies, will tell us what is enough.

[Note: Sometimes we don’t control the definition of Enough – a manager or client does, with demands and deadlines.  Yet even in those situations, we can look for resourceful ways, at the margin, to adjust how we deliver Enough– how much detail, how much delegating and seeking help, how we make trade-offs, and how we keep emotional distance from demands that are especially difficult.]

Just as Perfect is the enemy of Good, a healthy understanding of Enough has other enemies to watch out for.  And those enemies can undermine your good judgment and sense of balance.

Enemy #1:  Unrealistic expectations.

When we raise the bar unrealistically high, a goal can seem so daunting that we keep it on the back burner indefinitely.  (e.g., I can’t stay on top of business development consistently, so why bother with a monthly plan; I don’t have time now to go to the gym 4x/week… So I’ll start exercising next month.)

Enemy #2:  Unconstructive comparisons.

When we use the wrong information to set our definition of enough, things don’t feel right.  For example, when we see someone truly excel at something we value (e.g., career progression), we often do not acknowledge the necessary trade offs that the individual made, and we inadvertently dismiss the fact that those trade-offs do not fit with our own values.

Enemy #3:  Rigidity.

All or nothing thinking can lead us to believe that anything short of our seemingly ideal Enough is equally disappointing –- whether we miss our goal my an inch or a mile.  Enough-ness is better approached as aspirational, something we strive for but do not attain to the same degree every week.  In fact, differentiating between just missing a personal target and missing by a mile makes for smart self-awareness and self-management.

Enemy #4:  What else? What is your self-limiting tendency?

What do you notice when you look at the silent definitions of Enough that you carry around – Do they weigh you down?  Is it time to recalibrate for any aspects of your professional and personal life?  I would be curious to hear your answer.

Take a Pass on New Year’s Resolutions

Most of us do not need another New Years resolution.  We have enough unfinished business and unfulfilled commitments to ourselves.   Instead, choose an existing resolution that remains stuck, despite your good intentions.  I propose you dust off that resolution for the new year and take it on with a fresh perspective.  Unravel the hidden assumptions that (perhaps at a subconscious level) block your progress.  Rather than let a change-resistant assumption have you in its tight grip, hold that assumption in your grip, examine it, and decide how much and when it actually holds credence.

Specifically, try on the 4-step framework that leadership and adult learning experts Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have refined over 20 years.  This article is adapted from the highly regarded books of these two Harvard-based co-authors – How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work (2001) and Immunity to Change  (2009).  In its simplest form, their insightful model for overcoming what they call “immunity to change” boils down to these steps:

Step 1:  Define your visible, stated commitment  (that remains unfulfilled)

Step 2: Identify what specifically you are doing and/or not doing (the visible behaviors) that prevent your commitment from being fully realized

Step 3: Uncover and articulate the hidden “Competing Commitment” that fuels that undesired behavior

Step 4:  Lastly, shine light on the Big (anxiety-inducing) Assumption that lies behind your Competing Commitment, that gives it strength and keeps you from seeing and creating choices for yourself.  Reframe that Big Assumption from a universal, all-or-nothing, scary, restrictive truth to something that is just a personal assumption that may be true, to varying degrees in different situations.

When you can dissect your big frightening assumption and the competing commitment that you sustain to protect yourself, then you will understand how and why you get in your own way, and how to begin to get out of your way.  Here is an example:

One of my executive clients (let’s call her Anne) had declared several times that she wanted to slow down and be a more patient listener and a more collaborative problem-solver [that was her stated commitment].  Yet Anne’s hard-charging style, which involved quickly jumping to her own solutions [the behavior that preserved the status quo] was keeping her from her goal.  In our conversations, she ultimately acknowledged that she was also committed to sustaining her reputation as the brilliant hero with the best ideas [her competing commitment].   Peeling the onion further revealed why the urge to sustain that second commitment was so strong:  Anne feared that if she hung back, with a more collaborative style and supported the ideas of others, then people might start thinking she was an intellectual light-weight, without much to contribute.  By naming this fear-based big assumption, and putting it into perspective, she now sees that her concern is exaggerated; her intelligence and contribution are already well-established among colleagues.  Anne is now resisting the draw of her competing commitment (to be the brilliant hero) and practicing, with increasing success, being true to her goal of being more reasonably paced and collaborative.

Another client applied this competing commitment framework for a very different problem.  He always struggled with giving direct constructive performance feedback to his team and opted for a nicer, indirect approach.  His competing commitment was to always be well-liked.  He assumed that  it was his professional responsibility as a manager to keep his staff in good moods all of the time; otherwise he would lose staff loyalty and would be criticized by HR.  Once he realized that this assumption was unrealistic, he was able to practice being more direct.  In his words, “As long as I generally looks out for the overall well-being (not minute by minute happiness) of my staff, I am being a good, supportive manager.”

So, in honor of the new year, choose an existing resolution and unravel how and why your hidden belief system sustains the status quo and keeps your goal out of reach.  If you cannot identify your competing commitment on your own, give me a call, and I can help you think out loud to pinpoint it.

Lean into Fear and Discomfort, to Move Past Them

A colleague recently described to me a specific self-defense concept from the martial arts form Akido.  Here’s the scenario:  an unexpected attacker grabs you from behind by wrapping his arms around your chest to restrain you.  For most of us, our instinct is to pull forward, to get as far away from the attacker as possible, as soon as possible.  But pulling forward only tightens the attacker’s hold, like a knot tightening when you pull a rope.  Instead, the better (akido-principled) reaction is to lean back into the attacker.  This can create some space for you, and will catch the attacker off guard, creating an opportunity for you to break free.  The lesson here is that the most effective course of action may be counter-intuitive.

If you’re not ready to sign up for self-defense classes, here’s how you might apply this lesson in your day job.  Identify something that feels  ”scary” – or uncomfortable- for you, and consider how to lean into that discomfort.  You may find that doing so will create some unexpected space, some new opportunities. Here are three examples:

I struggle to find time to step back and think strategically about my division, but I’m afraid to stop trying- I’m supposed to be a strategic thinker, right?

If day to day operations pull you into reactive mode whenever you attempt to do some strategic thinking, then stop trying to wear both hats at the same time.  Instead of being pulled in both directions continuously, give yourself permission to completely let go of the long-term priorities, guilt-free.  Be more deliberate and focused about how you handle the operational demands. Work through the most important and immediate tactical action items.  Only after you have a sense of accomplishment – after you have cleared the decks a bit – come back to the long-term thinking, and carve out some quality time.

I don’t have enough clients; I’m scared I won’t make my revenue goals.

Instead of marketing and selling more aggressively, have you tried giving away some of your value?  I’ve personally found that the best way to demonstrate my potential value to a prospective client is to give them a true sample.  Whether it’s an exploratory coaching session or even some simple tools and problem-solving help, nothing helps them understand – and begin to connect with – my value more effectively.  So try giving away what you are supposed to sell.

I’m afraid I’m not always getting the respect and authority I deserve and need as a manager.

One of my clients struggled with this challenge.  She feared that when she’d assert her authority or be direct with her staff, she might trigger push back that she could not manage.  She was often hesitant to delegate work.   However, after we worked on building up her confidence to delegate a new assignment, she reported back to me that the employee was absolutely fine with the new responsibility.  My client discovered that she could not wait for others to demonstrate their respect; instead, she needed to rely on her own self-respect, assert herself, and risk employee push-back, in order to gain their respect and be a leader.

I hope you can extrapolate from these examples.  If you feel trapped by something that seems scary, pulling away from it may only make things worse.  Try leaning into that discomfort.  I’d love to hear what you notice.

On Purpose: Is Yours Clear?

The importance of PURPOSE seems to be showing up all around me lately.  I see a theme, and trust you may find it as useful as I do.

Many professional venues and colleagues have been reminding me of the importance of purposefulness, in one form or another:

In a recent coaching training workshop, the central focus was on “setting the agenda” – of a single coaching session, of a coaching engagement, and even of a client’s career progression.  The session highlighted something that may sound obvious, but often gets demoted below seemingly more urgent priorities:  When the agenda of a coaching conversation – or any business meeting – is not established up front, it is extremely difficult to ascertain if the discussion is valuable, if it is even complete.  Many false starts, divergent topics, and even major misunderstandings emerge unless all parties are clear on the presented issue and the desired outcomes.

Management literature gets at purposefulness from many angles. “Strategy+Business” a journal published by Booz just had an article on the essential CEO skill called “purposeful story-telling.”  In the article, Hollywood entrepreneur and executive Peter Guber emphasized the art of story, with a clear focus on story with a purpose.  When one wants to lead, influence and attract others, communications must have crystal clear purpose.  Otherwise, they may be informative, but they are merely transactional and do not engage others and build relationship or trust.  Similarly, I recently heard David Rock, who writes about the neuroscience of leadership promote the value of “speaking with intent” – if we are not succinct and clear about our intentions, we cannot expect others to be drawn toward us and eager to collaborate.

[Guber’s new book is Tell to Win:  Connect, Persuade and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story.  David Rock’s best-selling books include Quiet Leadership and Your Brain at Work.]

Switching venues entirely…  My yoga teacher also emphasizes purposefulness.  She begins each class by asking us to silently choose an “intention” for the practice.  Rather than simply travel through the poses; do it with purpose and focus.   If you know any yogi’s, they will attest to the value of such mindfulness.

Purposefulness plays out on both an interpersonal and intrapersonal level. The example of coaching conversations is of course interpersonal, where a clear agenda moves things along productively. At the intrapersonal level, purposefulness is about focus and self-management. In both domains, when purpose is clear, other things fall into place more easily — or fall away as unimportant. Some examples of the gains attained when purpose is clarified include:

  • When a team is involved in a group effort to edit or refine a work product. By reaching agreement about the purpose of the output (and addressing disagreement head on), the group produces a higher quality product in less time, with less frustration.
  • When a trainer or facilitator spells out the learning objectives of a session up front, participants can absorb more with less distraction and apply the learning with less confusion.
  • Role clarity is an example of clear purpose. When we understand how our job fits in relative to others’ and relative to goals that are much larger than any one person, we are more engaged in our work. We approach our efforts with a powerful intentionality and confidence (just like the yoga practitioner).

Where can you be more deliberate in your work and life about clarifying purpose up front? Start with a single task or meeting. See what improves for you as a result – it may be prioritization and scheduling, relationships and meetings, or even the quality of the solutions and opportunities you generate.

Form Before Substance Sometimes Makes Sense

When managing resources and making business decisions, substance of course always matters – what are the facts, what are the considerations and desired outcomes? But more often than we realize, people experience setbacks and disappointments that have nothing to do with substance. Before we even understand the facts, we misunderstand and underestimate each other, because we bring different thought processes, assumptions, priorities and communication styles to the table. For example, someone may be presenting a recommendation or solution to you, but if they walk through things in a way that is not aligned with your thinking and your emerging questions, they may lose your interest quite quickly.

One of my clients – let’s call her Emily — recently experienced this disconnect (and resulting criticism) when presenting a strategic plan to her boss. Their relationship has an interesting challenge: The more senior person likes to think at a more detailed level and build up to bigger decisions and plans, while the more junior person (my client) is more of a big picture thinker and instinctively begins with broad themes and visions and works down to specifics. In short, the manager is eager to get answers about to “how and when,” and my client prefers to start with “what and why.”

In a three-way conversation with Emily and her manager, I saw the frustration in both of them. Emily desperately wanted to find a way to have more effective, persuasive, comfortable conversations with her manager, and her manager wanted Emily to present information in what he viewed as the right way (his right way) for decision-making. A light bulb went off for me: Emily did not have to try to change her hard-wired way of thinking. She simply had to re-sequence her powerpoint slides and talking points. I suggested they try this approach going forward, and the boss’ eyes lit up. This was a breakthrough for them that has shown meaningful results and continues to be tested and refined.

This breakthrough could happen only because the manager took the time to, and knew how to, articulate his preference for bottom-up analysis, and when prompted by me, admitted to sometimes tuning out presentations that did not answer his burning questions early on. We don’t always get the luxury of insight into a stakeholder’s thought process spelled out for us. But a little due diligence can go a long way!

When you have to bring important information to an important stakeholder – to educate, persuade, influence, etc. – ask around, and consider your own past interactions with the person. Most importantly ask them directly, well in advance, of what big questions or concerns are weighing on them. The way you present and persuade others need not mirror our own analytical sequence or thought process.

I have seen this sort of communication disconnect play out in numerous situations lately:

– someone going through a series of job interviews, unsure of where to focus when describing their expertise and experience to an interviewer and sometimes missing the mark of what is most interesting to the interviewer, because they did not ask

– an executive gauging how much and how frequently to include their division head in day to day information flow, to keep him informed, and learning that he erred on the side of too little sharing, eroding his own influence, in his effort to not waste the top executive’s time

– a manager trying to “sell” some ideas to his colleagues but encountering resistance until he learned to invite more input and use language that shared ownership of the solutions

So, of course the substance matters. Yet even small improvements in personal connections and mutual understanding can yield enormous benefits. As the expression “Ready, Aim, Fire” suggests – after you are ready with your content, take the time to aim it at your particular stakeholders, that means tailor the delivery for them, and then fire!

First Blog

Welcome to my first blog entry!

I plan to share with you observations, insights and questions that can improve your professional life in any of a number of ways — enriching your work and making it more meaningful, focusing your efforts to lead you to desired results more effectively, lightening the weight of your work and making it more manageable, expanding your views to bring out their best in yourself and others, and balancing the inevitable trade-offs we all must make, so that you feel confident about and comfortable with your choices. …  We may cover other terrain as well, with your valuable input.

In my 20+ years of management consulting and my five years of executive coaching, I continually see that managers and executives (in fact, all professionals, myself included) spend far too much time in a heads-down, get-it-done-now mode of operation that relies on habitual assumptions and ways of doing things, whether the habits are good, bad, or over-used ones. My blog is intended to remind all of us to look up, look outward, and look inward a bit more often –  and learn from what we notice and incorporate that learning into our lives.

I’ll share something useful only when I’m inspired, when I have an “a-ha” that seems broadly applicable.  Short and sweet.  I am, however, hoping for a conversation that extends beyond my own ideas.  As with my favorite professional listserv, I hope that readers (you!) share your reactions, so that the learning moments multiply and that any practical advice I offer is complemented by the wisdom of others.

First Thing’s First: Give Yourself a Break!

A recent dialogue with fellow coaches highlighted this somewhat obvious fact: Far too many managers and executives (the vast majority of my clients) have jobs that are simply too large to be done by one person. This seems to have become a “given” in most organizations, despite the ripple of negative effects that are perpetuated. Paradoxically, everyone seems to work at making this unsustainable arrangement sustainable — usually because they do not feel they have a choice. This is an enormous issue, but I’ll comment now on just one aspect of it, down at the personal level. (Other angles will be covered in future postings.)

The executives I know who are able to stay the most grounded — most productive and least burnt out — in their “too big” jobs are those who very consistently, very completely accept that they will never get everything done, and more importantly, they keep the downside of that fact in perspective. As one client explained it to me, “After experiencing a life threatening illness in one of my children for several weeks, I will never again view the pressures of my job and the importance of it the same way.” Falling short on (some) deadlines and plans and disappointing (some) people and doing “B” work (sometimes, on less important things) instead of “A+” work is part of any “too big” job. These compromises are not life-threatening and, with the right judgment calls and communications, do not even threaten the organization or one’s reputation or job. They threaten your confidence and job satisfaction, to the extent that you let them.  But life goes on.

So, pick one of your own unrealistic responsibilities.  Pick one right now!  See if you can visualize the negative consequences of something that you know you cannot get done (at least, not on time) and now reframe those consequences with a bit more emotional distance and with a lens that does not enlarge them out of proportion.  Can you think about the disappointment without being disappointed in yourself? Let me know.