leadership dot #2947: getting to know you

When we’re face to face with colleagues, we act as if we’re building connections – a quick hello or “how are you?”/”fine” – but those interactions really aren’t creating the meaningful relationships that we desire. Such exchanges of niceties are merely rote actions without real engagement. The remote environment has highlighted that we don’t always have the connections that we thought we did – and now we’re on screen in full view of having to create them. It’s part of why video meetings are so exhausting.

While it may be tempting to jump right into tasks when starting a Zoom call, it is more important than ever to build connections first. Author and thought leader Shenandoah Chefalo recommends that you flip the usual ratio of meetings to make it 2/3 relationship building and 1/3 task functions. “Connection, connection, connection,” she says. “Build the relationship first, then task.”

It may seem strange to dedicate time toward getting to “know” someone with whom you have previously worked with in person, but chances are there is still much about them that is new to you. What are their current challenges working from home or in the midst of social change? What’s the best part of life today?  What have they learned lately?

Or you could reprise a highlight from grade school and take advantage of the opportunity to do “show and tell.” In my classes, I met my students’ children, guinea pig, cat, and dogs as well as saw bookshelves and new décor – none of which would have been possible in person.

Zoom is exhausting! But perhaps not for the reasons you initially thought. Take the time to build more meaningful connections that will last far beyond the virus and help you be more effective with your tasks now.

leadership dot #2946: gatekeeper

As part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, I heard journalist Maria Ressa reflect on how the information infrastructure has changed. She noted that journalists are no longer the gatekeepers rather, the technology (social media) companies are, but they are not moderating the posted content.

As a result, it has become a vicious circle on both sides of the aisle; lies are targeted to you, thereby people begin to doubt themselves and their own beliefs, and it creates a fake bandwagon approach so others believe it as well. “Exponential attacks on social media have to stop or we will lose democracy,” she warned.

Her talk was still resonating in my mind when I read the following statistic: “The average person will spend a total of approximately 6 years and 8 months on social media over their lifetime!*” If it’s anywhere close to true, it is an astonishing figure and accounts for why the country has become so polarized. If for literally years, you hear one point of view, targeted to you, you are likely to accept it as the only truth even if there is another perspective.

Now more than ever, you own the responsibility to analyze and curate the news that you absorb, and to be intentional about seeking out multiple points of view. Follow thought leaders on social media from different demographics than your own. Seek out reputable sources beyond the easy-access pervasive apps. Question what you hear and consider what is missing from the coverage. If journalists have been replaced by propaganda machines, it’s up to you to be the gatekeeper.

*Source: Snack Fact from Robinhood Snacks, July 6, 2020

leadership dot #2944: formula

As part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, two speakers made comments that stuck with me – and as I later pondered how to incorporate them into my life, I realized that they were in direct opposition with each other!

One idea came from opera director Yuval Sharon who spoke about the concept of “doubling” that he used in the development of his recent production. He literally doubled his core artistic team, hiring two directors, two writers and two composers for his opera Sweet Land, intentionally done to create a dialogue between different points of view.

In contrast to working in pairs, historian and author Erik Larson spoke of how he does not use research assistants for his work. Even though scouring the archives can be extensive and tedious, he is not convinced that someone else would have his instincts and look for the same things so he does all of his research himself.

It was fascinating to me that on this national platform, one person applied the strategy of doubling in the artistic field where individuals are often heralded as the stars for their work, and another advocated the process of working solo in research which is often a team effort.

Maybe the real lesson is that those who shine in their field are the ones who utilize methods outside of the norm; who break the boundaries of what “should” happen and find ways to find new insights – either by including others or excluding them in certain phases. Don’t approach your projects by rote; rather intentionally consider whether your work could benefit from doubling or independence. There is no one formula for innovation.

leadership dot #2939: intentional

In my Managerial Communication class, we’ve had four guest speakers: the university president, a public relations professional, the police chief and a manager of internal communications. While they all had varied styles and nuanced messages, they shared these themes:

  • Connect your messaging to your mission. All of them talked about the importance of linking your communications (internal and external) to the purpose of your organization and the goals you are trying to achieve – meaning you have to know what they are and have them in mind before you start sharing.
  • Focus and repeat. Once is never enough. You need to share your message multiple times for it to be heard and understood.
  • Relationships are key. Organizations don’t succeed autonomously. Work to develop partnerships and individual connections with others.
  • It’s all What you say, what you wear, your remote meeting background, the medium you use, your word choice, how the office lobby looks – it all sends a message so be intentional about what you are trying to say.

The lessons above are all intertwined and can be applied to organizational messaging as well as personal branding. Think about how they apply in your situation and use them to be more intentional in communicating what is important to you.

leadership dot #2932: relationships

In yesterday’s dot, I shared how Nancy Pelosi is able to achieve results. One of the ways she is able to do so is because she masterfully and intentionally seeks to cultivate knowledge about people. (I’ll bet she uses the preferred name I wrote about in dot 2930!)

In Pelosi, Molly Ball writes:

“Not only did she know every one of her members by name – a difficult enough feat in a 435-member body that turns over every two years – but she knew their history, their district, their ideology, their spouse and kids and parents. If she found out your wife was having surgery or you were going through a divorce, she’d call repeatedly to check in. Orchids from her favorite DC florist would appear, for thanks or congratulations or sympathy, before you thought you’d even told anyone what was happening. The most powerful woman in America somehow had time to show up for a child’s school play or a parent’s memorial service. If your mother died, you got a handwritten condolence note along with a poem written long ago by Pelosi’s own mother.” 

 It’s one thing to cultivate relationships on the surface, but another to put in the extra effort to make them personal. Pelosi’s methods reminded me of the film Erin Brockovich in which the title character knows all about her hundreds of plaintiffs and those connections built the trust that was required to persist in the lawsuit against PG&E, and of Sheldon Yellen, CEO of BELFOR Holdings who handwrites 9,200 cards to employees each year as a way to express his gratitude.

Time is such a precious commodity that often we revert to easier ways of fostering and maintaining relationships: a birthday greeting via Facebook, pre-signed holiday cards, or staffing out correspondence rather than adding personal notes. But the energy invested in really knowing people – and personally showing that you care – goes a long way in building a culture of collaboration and connection that paves the way to work together.

Quote from: Pelosi by Molly Ball, 2020, p. 156


leadership dot #2930: rose

Organizations collect so much data about us but they too often fail to add a field that would make a difference: that of preferred name. I’m officially an “Elizabeth” – and no offense to others with that name who like it, but I most definitely do not.

So, when I receive mail or an email to “Elizabeth” I know that it’s someone who doesn’t know me and they lose points for pretending to do so. How hard would it be to ask “preferred name” as one of the zillion questions on forms you need to fill out and then to actually use it?

I received an email yesterday that not only used Elizabeth but wished me a Happy Birthday (on the wrong day!) What they meant as a nice public relations/customer service gesture backfired twice. They would have been ahead not to send it at all.

Marketers know that the sound of your own name is a key component of messaging. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but if you’re a Rose and someone refers to you by your official name of Rosa, it’s just not the same.

p.s. Trivia: my lower case “beth” came from crossing off the Eliza part of the name and little b beth is what remained. Elizabeth

leadership dot #2929: mental triangle

If you’re going to be a candidate or need to sell an idea, here’s a technique that I’ve found to be immensely helpful.

Have a mental triangle of three key points (with several examples) that you want the decision-maker to remember about you when you leave. What makes you different from the other candidates? Without using the specific words of your triangle, rotate between those three points as often as possible by telling a corresponding story/example to drive them home. Very often, you have latitude in answering a question. A wise communications leader once told me that in media interviews, you don’t have to answer the question that is asked; you can redirect with an answer to a different question. The same advice applies to interviews or sales pitches.

Using a mental triangle accomplishes three things:

  • It helps you clarify your strengths and prepares you to highlight them with the use of examples
  • It provides consistency in your messaging when you interview with multiple groups/people
  • It buys you that extra precious few seconds after you are asked a question because your mind has already narrowed down the information you’re going to use as your answer

As an example, if I was applying for a teaching job, my three points would be — I am:  Current, Engaging, Relevant. For my first answer, I could share how I modify my syllabus each term to take current events into account with my lessons and assignments (Current). For the second answer, I’d talk about the different ways I Incorporate group activities and exercises in each class (Engaging), and when I rotated my third answer,” I’d share how I utilize case format instead of a textbook to make the material more applicable to students’ work lives (Relevant).

And then I would keep rotating with each question, using different examples for Current, Engaging and Relevant — never really using those “triangle words” outright, but communicating them nonetheless through examples.

The same premise applies for weaknesses – EVERY strength has a downside if you use it too much. What’s the downside of your strengths? You can share that and still maintain the rotation between your three key points. Take your triangle and flip it with examples of where you’ve been challenged – but learned from it. If you share the downside of your strengths as weaknesses/where you need to grow/lessons learned, it still conveys your strength.

You can see an illustration here of how this would play out.

Interviews or sales pitches are stressful situations but if you do your homework and prepare your three key points with examples, you’ll have that mental edge that allows you to shine. What’s your unique combination of three?

leadership dot #2928: posting

If there is an industry that has benefitted from the pandemic, it is the one that makes signs. Have you noticed how much more signage is out there lately? From signs saying “we’re closed” to “we’re open,” to social distancing markers or new hours, everyone seemingly has added new information to their business. There is so much of it that instead of standing out, it has blended into the background and is either invisible or noise.

Attention is a precious commodity. If you’re going to expect some of it, be intentional about when you make that request. Post what is essential and take down the rest. We all know we’re in this together without another sign to share that sentiment.


leadership dot #2927: off kilter

The jewelry icon Tiffany & Co. hired Gene Moore as its Artistic Director and window designer, seeing the storefront as the first opportunity to “spread the Tiffany magic.” Moore became known for his use of incongruous objects to showcase the incredible jewels, juxtaposing diamonds and emeralds among keys, bricks, broken glass and metals.

Always in his displays, Moore would include some imperfection: a key placed upside down, a knife turned backward in the place setting or something else out of kilter. He would receive phone calls about the “mistake” which he used as an informal poll about the window’s effectiveness. “It was the only way I could check to see if people were watching,” he said in the documentary Crazy About Tiffany’s.

Moore was creative not only in his display work but in his measurements. It may not have been scientific but the intentional misplacement of items worked to provide him with some feedback to indicate the intensity by which his windows were being viewed. Take a lesson from Moore and think outside the (iconic blue!) box to gauge the response to your efforts.

Crazy About Tiffany’s, 2016, on Hulu

leadership dot #2919: toward

When the University President* spoke to my class, I asked him if he had any leadership advice for my students. His reply: “walk toward the heat.”

He recounted times in the early days of his presidency when the press about both him personally and the institution was less than favorable and how he was tempted to stay home and avoid addressing it. Instead, he headed to the popular activities in town, the crowded restaurants and the busy spots on campus to face the issues head-on. Now, 25 years later, he still attributes that practice as a fundamental lesson for students and continues to engage in it himself.

Think about this mantra the next time someone or something turns up the heat in your world. It may be tempting to ignore the ruckus or to hide behind a shield such as social media or email but a quarter-decade of wisdom says that is the wrong action to take. Instead, have that tough conversation with your partner or employee; continue to attend public events instead of hiding out in your office; put the tough topics on your agenda instead of letting them fester.

You have no hope of dousing a fire if you allow it to burn unattended. The mere act of walking toward the heat will go a long way in extinguishing some of the flames of fury.

*President Jeff Bullock, University of Dubuque