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.