planning

The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

Your Search for calm

planningIt happened for the second time. I arrived to speak at the conference workshop and realized that I left the mail-back cards and envelopes at home…again. (Yes, I have a packing checklist; yes, I used the checklist; yes, I still overlooked it.) That feeling of panic hits. The mail-back cards are an added feature for attendees. They write their key points on the card, seal it in an envelope, self-address it and I mail it to them 30-days later as a reminder. In this case, the cards were part of the agreement with the client; hence, panic.

In my study of neuroscience, I’ve come to understand that an alarmed brain can derail, well, almost anything. When we get alarmed, even at a low level, it impairs the thoughtful part of the brain just when you need it most. I learned (the hard way) the importance of a) staying calm and b) finding a work-around, believing that there’s bound to be a way to solve the problem.

Stay calm. My mind raced, “Oh no! I’ll have to drive two hours back home to get the mail-back cards. I need that time to prepare, but the cards are part of the contracted program. I NEED those cards! What will I do?” Have you ever had your mind run away with you shouting, “Oh no! What will I do?” It’s natural. The brain perceives a threat (in this case I perceived impending failure) and it sends off alarms. Your skill is to recognize the feeling of alarm for what it is: your brain feeling threatened. The brain is super-sensitive to threats so it isn’t the best at discerning real from fake threats. You must slow down enough to intervene, take some deep breaths, and not give in to the “Oh no!”

Work-arounds. My friend is a retired association executive director who ran, over the course of a 30-year career, hundreds of conferences and trade shows. There’s always a glitch – always. He taught me that there is also always a work-around. He’s right (and I put that in writing). You just have to keep your head in the game (see Stay Calm) and be a bit creative. Staying calm is essential but not enough. You must believe that there’s another way and look for it…really look for it. In the mail-back card example, after I calmed down and realized that the cards really weren’t here, the search for a work-around began. There was bound to be a business office with a printer and paper cutter, perhaps even a duplicator as well for bulk prints. Most places have machines like these anyway in this day and age, it’s almost a necessity. And sure enough, there was, and the young man staffing it was very helpful. New cards were printed (but without the photo on the back) but still no envelopes. The young man suggested the CVS – right-o! They had envelopes but not the correct size. This is where done is better than perfect. I got the envelopes, explained the story to the participants and instructed them to exercise mental flexibility, and fit the card into the envelope any way they could! And they did. There are many different ways now that people can get the print outs that they want and need for business resources, for instance, people can view websites like printivity.com and check out their offers on cards, booklets, catalogs, etc.

As it turned out, there was a glitch at the session and there was no projector or screen for my presentation, and it’s a highly visual program. Ok…stay calm; find the work-around. Two flip charts, colored markers and creative sketching later, we did the program without any AV. And, the attendees learned both the content and the power of work-arounds.

The next time something doesn’t go right, remember: Stay calm. Find the work-around. It’s there; it just takes a calm head to find it.



Stay calmIt’s going to be a tough meeting. The topic is controversial and you feel strongly about the outcome.  Plus, there’s a person in the meeting who routinely unnerves you. It’s the kind of situation that could easily cause you to over-react and not behave at your best.  If you let the situation get the best of you, you are unlikely to achieve the outcome that you wish. What steps can you take to resource yourself to remain calm and in control of your emotions?

Recognize the Situation in Advance.  To manage yourself in situations that are challenging, it helps to know in advance when you will be in that situation.  It’s not that hard to do as triggering events are repeatable.  Think about it. Who regularly gets on your nerves at work? What situations annoy you every time? Maybe it’s when people show up unprepared despite your efforts to provide materials in advance. Or those people who just don’t care and you do. The more you can identify the types of situations and the people that knock you off center the more likely you can prepare in advance.

Make a Plan. Before the meeting, take a break to clear your thinking and make a plan.

Understand your Communication Style. What is your natural communication style: direct, engaging, hands-off? Consider the people in the meeting. How do they typically communicate and will they react constructively to your style? How will you adapt your approach to enable them to be at their best?

Prime Yourself. Priming is a technique where you feed your brain positive information so that it is in that mindset. Because of the mind/body connection, priming the brain results in subtle but powerful shifts in behavior. For example, before the big meeting you choose the story to tell your brain. “I dread this meeting. Brian is always so difficult in meetings and I’m concerned that the meeting won’t go the way I want.”  Or, “This will be a good meeting. I’m capable of managing my reactions and I’ll exhibit calm strength if others over-react. And, we’ll accomplish our objectives.” Priming with the second option is much more likely to yield the outcome you wish.

Use If/Then Planning. Consider examples of how the meeting could unfold and the actions you’ll take to manage any problems.  Examples could be: If Brian starts interrupting everyone and dominating the meeting, then I will calmly ask that he allow others to offer their ideas. If Brian takes the meeting off-track, then I will restate the objective and re-focus the discussion. If the discussion begins to go in a direction with which I don’t agree, then I will make an effort to be open to new ideas and objectively consider the best option.

Work the plan. You’ve primed yourself with positive information and you have a plan. Now, pay attention to yourself and others to stick with your plan. Notice your level of agitation. Is Brian getting to you? If so, notice your tension and consciously think about slowing your breathing; relax your jaw. These simple techniques help to rebalance the nervous system.  Also, attend to the level of agitation in others. Intervene if you notice someone getting anxious. Listen to and validate their comment and redirect the discussion so that the agitated person has a chance to settle their nervous system. Summarize the discussion frequently to make progress.

With a little preparation, you can transform a damaging situation into a productive one and you remain calm instead of becoming testy. Testy helps no one; calm helps everyone.



Whew! What a year it’s been. There’s nothing like a world-wide pandemic to put a spotlight on good (and bad) leadership. Here’s my list of 2020 leadership lessons and observations. How do yours stack up?

2020 leadership lessons

  • Be ready to pivot. Each day I’m impressed by the creativity we’ve seen from workplaces, restaurants, hospitals, schools, and families. We found workarounds in ways that were unimaginable a few months ago. Conferences have gone on, birthdays have been celebrated, work has been accomplished and businesses have adapted. We CAN dig deep for creativity. Let’s remember that.
  • Prove yourself wrong. Before COVID, I maintained that my speaking and training programs HAD to be in person. They were too interactive to be done virtually. I proved myself wrong. What belief did you hold before this that you proved yourself wrong? We can do a lot more than we think we can when we must.
  • Use the data. Science and data matter. They provide a foundation for decision-making. If you know my work on intuition, you may find statement surprising. However, we’ve seen the devastation when we don’t consider the science. Listening to the gut is also important but gut feel requires examination. Science, data, and gut feel are all inputs to a decision. None should be trusted blindly but all should be considered.
  • Words matter. In my work we talk about the importance of “tone at the top.” An individual can overlook that a single voice can sway an organization or jurisdiction, but, indeed, it does and always has. The words of those in authority positions validate us, educate us, inspire us, and move us to action. The words and tone coming from the top matter.
  • Communicate over and over. During periods of uncertainty, over-communicating is key. The brain’s threat response has a hair trigger and, in the absence of information, quickly weaves a negative story. We’ve seen leaders who communicate frequently and calmly. When there’s nothing new to say, they say, “There’s nothing new to say.” The lesson for leaders: Communicate over and over. When you think you’re done, start over.
  • Human connection matters. As an introvert, I confess that I’ve enjoyed working from home without the hassle of business travel. However, for me, human connection has always been within reach. For many employees, the remoteness over these months feels isolating. The top leaders I work with make a concerted effort to connect with their staff. Even with Zoom, Teams, Slack, people need to feel.
  • Appreciate the full ecosystem. Over and over, I’ve been amazed at the spider web of linkages that we share. Never had I considered the impact of a remote workforce on, well, everyone. The shoe repair person in the basement of the now-empty office building, the small take-out lunch counters, the food trucks, the security people, the toilet paper that’s no longer needed in offices but in homes. It goes on and on. No matter the area, our ecosystems are woven so tightly that small ripples impact many. “Supply chain” doesn’t do it justice. It’s more like a “supply web.” Let’s appreciate the effect of our interconnectedness.

2020 will be a year for the history books. Let’s learn from this year and keep the leadership lessons that will serve us for years to come.

What 2020 lessons in leadership did you learn this year?

Remember back in early March, when every single decision and idea we had was met with fear and doubt, because none of us knew for certain what to expect, or how bad things were going to get? Now, after several months of settling in to so many “new normals,” perhaps it’s time to reflect on what we learned and give consideration to what strategies worked best for us in the face of adversity.

I’m fortunate enough to have spent a lot of time on the water.  While COVID-19 may have been my first time ever in a pandemic, it was not the first time I’ve been tossed around by a violent storm and lived to tell about it – I mean this figuratively and literally. The good news is, bad storms can give us perspective. They help us to see what really matters and they force us to make better decisions. Here are four important things I learned…

It was supposed to be an easy cruise. That’s what they told me.  The  47’ Morris sailboat, sailed the Newport to Bermuda race and finished second in her class. We were part of the crew sailing her back to Newport.  And, it was my first sailing trip. To say that the trip didn’t go as planned is an understatement if there ever was one. We made it back safe and sound because of the quality of the boat and the experience of the crew – except for me. When we left I still didn’t know a jib from a halyard or port from starboard.

The trip, expected to be a little more than three days, took five due to adverse weather. The only thing calm was the crew. The seas were rough almost from the start and became even rougher when we crossed the Gulf Stream. The evening we hit the Gulf Stream, we encountered three 50-knot squalls in quick succession with 10’ to 12’ seas. Due to the rough weather, the boat had a series of issues. The auto pilot stopped working on day one, the engine stopped on day two, during the storm the reef line on the mainsail broke, the halyard on the jib broke, the furler jammed, the tack of the spinnaker let go and, later, the spinnaker artfully wrapped itself around the forestay. During the worst of the storm, lines fell into the water and promptly wound themselves around the propeller shaft. I’m told that none of this is unusual but to have them all happen on one voyage was remarkable. By the time we arrived in Newport, everything I brought to wear was wet. The quick-dry fabric never dried.  Collectively, we smelled like a 50’ wet tennis shoe. Are we having fun yet?

As I lay in the narrow bunk, heeled 30 degrees, I listening to the storm tear at the boat and sails. And, I listened to the crew tackle each adversity calmly, collaboratively, decisively and transparently. Do you do the same when adversity hits your organization?

Calm. It was one problem after another in quick succession in rough weather. It would have been unnerving except for the calm of the captain. With each calamity, he talked to the crew – no raised voice, panic, or exasperation. The intensity of the situation stood in clear contrast to his calm demeanor.  As an insightful leader, how do you manage stress and outwardly demonstrate calm?

Collaborate. When a problem was solved, something else broke. Each time, the captain collaborated with the crew. What happened? What are the pros/cons of each option? This was no dictatorship. Neither was it a democracy. It was informed leadership. How do you collaborate under stress to capture and objectively weigh all options? Our captain based his decisions on crew input. Do you truly listen to others?

Decisive. The conversations between the captain and crew were quick, succinct and decisive. The captain listened, made a decision, and that was that. Other ideas were dropped, and action was taken. Are your decisions crisp, clear and strong? Once you decide, don’t waiver. There’s time later to evaluate and adjust. For now, give staff clear directions to follow.

Transparent. We were in a tough spot. Some of us were not experienced sailors and the situation was a wee bit unnerving (to say the least). It would have been easy for the captain to sugar-coat our predicament under the pretense of not alarming us.  Instead, he was honest and transparent. In a matter-of-fact manner, he shared the realities of each situation and decision. The transparency was reassuring and created trust. Are you being transparent with your staff about difficult situations? Yes, some topics can’t be discussed openly, and it is not constructive to publicly debate every option.  However, once a decision is made, it is helpful to share the decision, the rationale behind the decision and the implications. People understand that not everything goes as expected, but people don’t like to be in the dark. That creates suspicion and erodes trust. Transparency does the opposite.

I confess that I’m not ready for another cruise like this one, but I’m grateful for the crew and for the lessons: be calm, collaborate, be decisive and transparent.

Have you been able to weather the storms that hit you both professionally and personally, this year? What about your finances or your relationships? The good news is, bad storms can give us perspective. They help us to see what really matters and they force us to make better decisions.

Next time you’re dealing with the raging winds and powerful waves of the storms surrounding your business or your personal life, keep these four anchors in mind!

Use This Checklist to Evaluate Your Program! (agency)

Trust is the currency of public agencies. You need trust to work effectively with elected leaders, to successfully argue for your agency’s funding, and to build relationships with citizens who pass judgment on your performance. While it is essential to have technically proficient staff and technically sound recommendations, it is equally or even more important to have staff who listen with empathy, speak succinctly and clearly, and make the boss/citizen/politician feel that they “get” them. These are the skills that staff use to create trust. These are the skills that need your professional development investment now.

The current environment foreshadows a future for public agencies with tighter revenue, constrained travel, and stressed staff. When belt-tightening the budget, professional development is often the first line item cut. That’s a really bad idea. Here are ways to effectively make the case to keep those funds in your budget.

  1. Stressed staff don’t create satisfied customers. When uncertainty abounds and resources are constrained, staff can feel stressed while trying to provide essential services to citizens. Stressed staff will not be exceptional public servants. Now more than ever your staff needs to know that you care about them and believe in their professional development.
  2. Listening is calming. Uncertainty activates the threat response in the brain. That’s why you see over-reactive bosses, citizens and elected officials. Listening and empathy sooth the brain’s threat reaction. Powerful interpersonal skills like listening and empathy can be a game-changer when dealing with an agitated community leader. That community leader wants to feel heard and know that staff can put themselves in their shoes.
  3. Technical data needs clear, concise communicators. During this unprecedented time, you want your leaders making decisions using available data. To do that, you need staff who can articulate technically-sound recommendations without sounding condescending or spouting mind-numbing data laced with jargon.
  4. Read between the lines and adapt. There is always a message under the spoken message. To be effective, staff need to see beyond the data and adapt to the unspoken messages. The most technically-sound argument can go down in flames if the staff person doesn’t pick up on subtle clues and adjust immediately.

These points can help you make the case for your professional development funding provided that it grows self-aware, high-functioning communicators. 

If you already have a professional development program, use this checklist to assess how it’s working for you.

✓ Is your professional development program designed specifically to meet your goals with engaging and interactive material?

✓ Does it use science-based content to transform touch-feely interpersonal issues into practical, logical technique?

✓ Does it convert number-crunching engineers into high-functioning communicators who write and speak like pros?

✓ Is the program designed to use neuroscientific learning principles like engagement, experiential learning and reminders to enhance retention?

✓ Is the program designed and conducted by a professional who led an engineering organization rather than someone who just talks about the theory?

✓ Is the training leader technically proficient AND a certified speaking professional™ (CSP) with the skills to maintain participants’ interest through real-life examples rather than a series of lectures with word-filled slides?

✓ Do you see tangible results that lead to practical, real-world applications?

 


 

If you are not getting the results you expect, now’s the time to make changes. There’s too much at stake. A sub-optimal professional development program leads to sub-optimal results. Is that what your citizens expect?

If you don’t currently have a professional development program, look for one with the attributes above because this is what your staff and clients deserve and what today’s environment requires.

Above all, keep the funding in the budget! Invest more now and you’ll be the agency who comes out of this on top.

At Shelley Row Associates we meet all the requirements above and more. Shelley is a professional engineer, former USDOT executive and a Certified Speaking Professional. Here’s what clients have to say about the impact of her custom-designed programs for public agency staff.

“Excellent presenter. Got me to think about a different way to approach how we present materials to the decision makers.”
Jon Fitzkee, Lebanon County Planning Department

“Excellent! Perhaps the best and most valuable presentation I’ve heard in four years of elected office.”
Mary Ann Gill, Woodford County Fiscal Court

 

Talk to Shelley now about your custom professional development program.

Other Resources:

Top Management Skills for Technical Managers: A Ten-Part Webinar Series

The Over-Thinkers’ Guide to Working from Home Effectively

photo credit: rawpixel

The world has shifted and here we are – at home – working. Having worked out of my home office for years now, I can say with assurance that there is a difference between working at home for a couple of days a week and working at home for an extended period. Extended periods at home offer two challenges: productivity and connection with colleagues. Particularly for technical professionals like me, working from home is a chance to dive into those project details that require uninterrupted time. But don’t underestimate the need for connection (and people who feel connected are more likely to be productive). For those who are consistently working from a computer, they may feel the strain, not just on their work but with their physical health too such as bad eyesight from staring at their screens. To help combat these issues using resources like https://felixgray.com/blog/non-prescription-glasses/ can be a huge support in mitigating these problems and getting workers to do their best. While our current situation is driven by the response to COVID-19, we are likely to see long-term shifts in our work patterns. Start now to develop the habits you will need to work productively from home and keep connections alive and well.

Here are four areas to master to remain productive and connected when working from home.

Manage Distractions at Home

Drop-in a load of laundry, pick up the Amazon package, make a grocery list, put the laundry in the dryer, order an item from Amazon, pay a bill online, do a quick check on social media (okay…so that wasn’t so quick), plan dinner, and, in your spare time, entertain your kids. Before you know it, the day is chopped into bits and productivity disintegrates. Instead, bundle the day into productivity pockets that give you focused spurts for designated tasks. It takes will power but you will be rewarded with that good feeling of a day well spent. Use these bundling tactics to your own productivity pockets.

  • Get comfortable. Your whole day is going to be disrupted if your back is aching and your legs have gone numb. An ergonomic desk and an adjustable chair are vital if you don’t want to be constantly fidgeting trying to find the best position. Head to Homeluf or a similar site to find a chair that will suit you – a good day at work starts with a comfy chair to sit in.
  • Identify the key tasks that need to be accomplished today. What is the task and what is the outcome for each? Approximately how much time will each take?
  • Align the tasks with your energy. If a task requires significant focus, slot it into your high energy period. For choppy tasks, like emails or phone calls or checking in on staff (see below), slot these into lower-energy parts of the day.
  • Create a peaceful space to work in. Being surrounded by clutter is only going to stress you out, meaning your productivity is going to take a big hit. Use some simple ideas to decorate your home office in a way that promotes calm – a pot plant here, a wall light there and a bookcase in the corner might be just what you need to feel at ease when you have 10 emails to respond to and 5 phone calls to answer.
  • Balance work tasks with home tasks. Inevitably there are a few tasks around the house that I want to weave into the day. Identify them, too. Slot them into the space between your productivity pockets. For me, that momentary break is a reward for achieving the task goal. Yes, unloading the dishwasher is a reward. Not because I love unloading the dishwasher but because it’s a brief brain break that allows my mind to rest. Use these personal chores strategically in the day. Otherwise, you break concentration, lose your train of thought and spend more time getting back into the groove. If you find that you’re doing more chores than work during the day, try to find a space that has fewer distractions, even if that means removing everything from one room and just placing a single desk in there. If you have no room indoors, you can head to a site like https://www.modern-shed.com/ to have an outdoor office built in your garden. This will help to remove you from the house entirely, whilst still allowing you to abide by Covid regulations.

Set yourself up for success by clarifying expectations for response times.

  • Clarify the expected response times with your boss. We tend to believe that responses are needed faster than they really are. Discuss this with your boss to negotiate reasonable response times that balance promptness with productivity.
  • Clarify your expectations on response times with your team or staff. They probably think you expect an immediate response when that may not be necessary. You should think through the same balance between promptness and productivity. Every time you ask them to break away to email, Zoom or call you, they are distracted from other work. What’s most important?
  • Be transparent about your productivity pockets. Tell your boss and staff that you expect to be focused on THE big project from 10 am until noon. You will be off your phone and off email. You’ll check messages at the end of the window. If need be, coordinate with another person to cover for you during that time so that you alternate productivity pockets.

Once you define your productivity pockets, protect that time from the time vampires that suck away the day moment by moment.

  • Turn off the sound on your computer and phone. Turn off the sound. (Caveat: you may have a family situation like a sick child or elderly parent with whom you need to always be available.)
  • Turn off popups. Every time that tiny envelop popups up that indicates a new email in your inbox, your brain is momentarily distracted. It breaks your focus and time drains away as you regain your focus. Simply turn off the popups.
  • Move the phone outside of view. I confess. To truly focus during my productivity pocket, I do best if I move the phone physically out of the room. It’s simply too easy to pick up the phone to check the time, the weather, text messages, Messenger and more. My level of productivity soars when the phone is out of sight.
  • Execute the plan. Sure, something unexpected may happen (actually, something unexpected will happen). When it does, deal with it and get back on your plan and protect your productivity pockets.

Stay connected to employees

It’s tempting to take a deep dive into focused project work; however, as a manager, your staff need your attention now more than ever. Even if you supervise highly technical people who enjoy working alone, they are human and they need a connection. If you have high social people on your staff, they definitely need connection. How will you help them feel connected when everyone is sequestered in their homes away from the watercooler chitchat?

Touch base just because. Call your staff or team members. If need be, put these calls on your to-do list. Plan them into your day as a productivity pocket. I know…this doesn’t feel productive to those of us who go-go-go. But, bodies of research show that you increase productivity when people feel engaged and cared for. When you place these calls, you are actively contributing to productivity. Call (not email) to inquire about them (not the project). Ask the impact this pandemic situation is having their life with kids, older parents, and canceled vacation plans. Show interest in their personal well-being. That matters to an isolated person with limited contact.

Offer your support. Whether on a phone call, FaceTime or on a virtual meeting platform, ask how you can help them be more productive. What would make the experience better for them? What do they struggle with? What is it like for them to work from home? How can you help? Ask how you can help them stay connected to you, staff and the organization. Don’t forget to thank them for adapting to this strange environment.

Weekly summaries of meetings. Consider sharing a brief weekly summary of the status of work across units. It shouldn’t be long. Bulleted points are enough. The goal is to keep everyone in sync with the big picture and each other. You can also request that a short summary of status be sent to you weekly. This keeps you up to date on the work of your dispersed office and conveys your interest in their work.

Connect visually. Use video conferencing services for visual connection. Adding the visual component immediately makes discussions feel more alive and real. Leverage the visual element by providing a virtual “tour” of your home office or the view from your window. Have you noticed that it helps you feel connected when you have a visual image of someone in their home or office? Give your staff a visual context of you at work in your home office. Plan to connect visually on a regular basis to fight the sense of isolation.

Conduct effective virtual meetings

You’ve probably had more virtual meetings in the last couple of weeks than in the last month. Virtual meeting platforms (I use Zoom) are remarkably good at simulating an in-person meeting environment. But, they are not the same. To get the most from your virtual meetings you need a different approach. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to hone your virtual meeting skills and train your team in the protocols that make a virtual meeting most productive.

Follow good meeting protocol. Virtual meetings like a “real” meeting benefit from the same principles. Have an agenda with defined times. Identify the specific goal for the meeting (“By the end of this meeting we will….”). Review action items, the responsible party, and due dates. As in an in-person meeting, you want to be aware of the communication preferences for each of your team members and adapt your style accordingly.

Engage everyone. Virtual meetings, more so than an in-person meeting, benefit from pre-defined roles. Set expectations for their engagement upfront (Keisha will discuss the project x update and Jose Luis will discuss program y). Giving everyone a role also ensures their attention throughout the meeting.

Test technology. Don’t waste the start of the meeting with technology that doesn’t work correctly. Test the link, the webcam, the sound quality, and the connection well in advance. If needed, have participants download the software before the meeting. Make sure that you, as the host, know how to mute/unmute, raise electronic hands, manage a chat function, use the whiteboard, record if needed and share your screen. It’s not hard. Learn these skills in advance, not in front of busy staff.

Set virtual meeting guidelines. You need clear, explicit guidelines to get the most from your virtual meeting. The guidelines may vary based on the size of the meeting. Small meetings of 4 to 6 people have more flexibility. As the number grows, you need more structured interaction. Use this checklist to develop your own guidelines.

  • Everyone uses their camera. This increases the feeling of connection and it discourages multitasking during the meeting since everyone can see each other.
  • Mute everyone on entry into the meeting and keep them muted except when speaking. This is particularly important with large virtual meetings. But even small virtual meetings are disrupted when the dog barks, doors slam, or the lawnmower starts up.
  • Raise your hand (visually or on the platform) when someone wants to speak. This allows you to moderate the discussion and ensure that everyone has a chance to speak. Unlike a real meeting, this method ensures that people don’t interrupt or talk over each other. It also means that the meeting may take longer.
  • Mute cell phones and no multi-tasking. Be clear that phones are not to be used during the meeting. Attention is expected to be on the discussion in the virtual meeting. Participants are not to walk out of the room during the meeting.
  • Introduce everyone. Request that everyone login under their own name so that it appears on the screen. If there’s no video and people are on the phone, request that they state their name before talking.
  • Have a good connection. Ask that everyone be in the best location they can for Wi-Fi or cellular reception or hardwire into Wi-Fi.

Write clear emails

Clear communication is a challenge, particularly when working virtually. Email is heavily used (too heavily?) communication medium on a “regular” day in the office. With staff isolated in their homes, email becomes an even more important communication tool. And, email is routinely handled badly. Now’s the time to enhance email writing skills. And, let’s face it, we need this skill no matter our work location.

Clear language. We zip off a quick email without much thought. We type a response in the last minutes of the day or while rushing to the car. We dash off instructions without rereading them. And, then, we are perplexed by miscommunication. An important email is not fast. It is crafted and careful.

  • Reread the email for clarity. Will someone less familiar with the situation understand the nuances? Since the reader can’t read your mind, how could the email be interpreted differently? Make adjustments to ensure clarity.
  • Remove ambiguous words. Words like “it,” “that,” “this,” “those,” and “them” leave room for ambiguity. Search for those words and replace them with the noun to which it/that/this/those/them refers.
  • Assess acronyms. Will all readers understand the acronyms?

Structured for easy reading. Have you ever received a long email with big, rambling paragraphs? You feel exhausted before you even start reading. Instead of rambling, structure the body of the email so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed. Plus, the structure allows you to cater to the communication styles of different people. Some want the summary; others need background. Provide both for important emails.

  • Prioritize the messages in the email. Start with the most important and work your way to the least important.
  • Put the action first. What action do you want from the reader? When do you want their action? Make the action the first part of the email.
  • Use bold, italics and highlight to focus the readers’ attention. Visually identify the key points or sections in the email using bold, italics and highlighting. These visual tools allow the reader to quickly skim the email and find the most important bits of information. I know…you don’t want them to “skim” the email. But, they will. Make sure they pick up the points you intend by making those points obvious to their eye.
  • Provide a bulleted summary of key information. Bulleted points are also useful to visually identify key points and provide white space in the email. White space gives the brain a break and allows it to more easily process information. The summary allows the person short on time to glean the information she requires immediately.
  • Provide details below. Following the summary points, add detail for those who crave detail. Detail may be the background of the issue at hand. Detail may be research that supports the points. Detail may be factors that contribute to the decision. Providing details serve those who crave research and data and it documents the rationale behind your thinking.

Tone. Unless you are writing to someone you know well – very well – strike a professional tone. No sarcasm, no dry humor, no witty comeback as this writing style is heavily dependent on the readers’ interpretation. Plus, email is an official document. Always consider that someone else may read it. Be professional.

  • Reread the email for tone.
  • No emojis in a professional email (FYI. There is no consensus on the plural. It can be either emoji or emojis. I checked.)

Details. Details matter with email. Have you ever hit Reply All when you meant to hit Reply? I’ve seen terrible situations result from a Reply/Reply All mistakes. Take a few moments to reread and recheck everything before hitting Send. Email is not a fast-medium. To use it well requires thought.

  • Reread the email for the details.
  • Check the people and conversation on the entire email thread before you forwarded it.
  • Imagine that the email was forwarded to someone else without your knowledge. Would it be received in a professional way?
  • Review all the names in the To and CC lines before hitting Reply All or Forward Are your comments and the comments throughout the chain appropriate for everyone on the email?
  • Think about the relevance of your message to everyone on the email. Do they all need to see your response? They do if your comment adds substantive information to the conversation if you want others to see your participation if you want to register your agreement or disagreement with the group, They don’t if there is no added value such as cc’ing everyone only to say “Thank you.”

We are in unusual times and everyone is adapting to the temporary situation. Even after the COVID-19 threat recedes, I believe we will see an uptick in virtual work and the use of virtual meeting platforms. Be the manager who is on top of this shift and create the skills for you and your team to be both productive and connected.


Shelley Row, P.E. explains why NOW is probably the best time for technical managers to work on improving their leadership skills (and earn PDH credits!).
Registration & more info -> https://ilinstitute.teachable.com/

 

Teresa wanted to see the big picture strategy before discussing specifics. Tom wanted general ideas with time to think before deciding. Paul wanted to give orders that were followed to the “T”.

To be successful, each of these bosses blog 100919required a unique approach. The approach that worked for one wouldn’t stand a chance with another. You can save time and frustration by giving serious consideration to the approach, topics and personal agendas of your boss. Here are five areas to study about your boss so that you can be more effective in your job. Let’s face it, a happy boss makes for happier days at work!

Communication style. Save yourself time and headaches by studying your boss’s communication style in advance and adapting your approach.

Their communication styles couldn’t have been more different. Teresa expected me to lay out the big picture, have a clear strategy and logical recommendations for next steps. I learned to be thoughtful, prepared and develop my recommended action plan. And it worked…with her. When I changed jobs, I used this same approach with Tom. It was a miserable failure. After a few flops, I learned the hard way, that he was a tactician who looked no farther than the next move and he needed time to think about each step. He needed to come up with the answer – not me. I learned to present general ideas, brainstorm briefly and walk out the door. In a day or two, he’d come back with his own thoughts about the situation and we’d move forward.

What’s your boss’s communication style:

StrategicTactical
Big picture thinkerWants all the details
Visual learnerAuditory learner
Wants the storyWants the data
Gets down to businessChats first
Quick decision-makerNeeds to ponder
Goal-focusedRelationship-focused

Power position. Your boss’s power position will be a motivator in his behavior and decision-making.

Mariana was a hard-charging Gen Xer intent on making a name for herself. She took uncommon risks on projects that, if successful, would garner attention within the organization and industry. John saw a succession of managers get fired from the position he now held. Not wishing to follow their lead, he was super-duper conservative in his decision-making. He kept a low profile, backed no risky projects, and shied away from controversy. He opted to stay in the middle of the road and to not rock the boat (to mix land and sea metaphors).

What’s your boss’s power position?

RetiringAspiring
On the way upOn the way out
Well-connected internallyIsolated internally
Risk tolerantRisk averse
Promoting him/herselfPromoting the organization
Political aspirationsNo political aspirations
Well-connected externallyIsolated externally

Personal interests. Every boss has personal interests or pet projects. These are areas that hold special passion and where they want to make an impact. It’s helpful to know their area of interest and why it’s an area of interest. Their “why” can range from an intellectual interest to a personal passion based on a traumatic event in their life (such as the death of a friend due to drunk driving).

Patti cared about motorcycles in transportation policy and safety. Jose cared about cyclists. In both cases, we always had a project of some sort that included motorcycles and/or cyclists. Felicia wanted to leave a legacy of safety advancements.

What are your boss’s personal interest areas and why?

Intellectual interestPersonal interest
Mild interestAvid interest
Focused on leaving a legacy in this areaNice to make an impact if feasible
Interest area is central to your missionInterest area is tangential to the mission
Easy to accommodate their interestIt’s a stretch to accommodate their interest

Personalities and background. Your boss’s background can provide clues to working effectively with her.

Mike was a southerner who came from a military background. Consequently, he was the epitome of a southern gentleman who valued respect, protocol and manners. Always soft-spoken and polite, he expected a calm, courteous exchange with gracious acceptance of his final decision. Yvonne was young and proud of her accomplishments. She was successful because she was well-connected. She knew everyone who mattered. In briefings, she wanted to know who would “win” and who would “lose” because of her decision. She needed to understand the political connections within and outside the organization.

What do you know about your boss’s personal history and career background? What experiences will have colored her perspective and how?

Rural upbringingUrban upbringing
Raised in the United StatesRaised outside the United States
Large familyOnly child
Prestigious educational backgroundOther educational background
Work experience in the private sectorWork experience in the public sector
Work experience in associationsWork experience in academia
Extensive leadership experienceLimited leadership experience

Their Headaches and frustrations. What keeps your boss up at night? What are her daily headaches? What phone call does he dread and who is it from?

Bill was the executive director of a professional association. Effective and efficient, his day went downhill when his Board Chair called to discuss “an issue.” To support him, we had to consider the Board’s reception to each topic in advance so that Bill didn’t get “the call.”

Joanne just wanted to stay under the radar – nothing controversial, nothing high profile – just let her do her work quietly without fanfare. She dreaded a call from anyone “up the chain.” She cringed when she was asked a tough question in a senior staff meeting. The trick to working with Joanne was to ensure that all potentially sticky issues were resolved before she engaged. We went forward only with projects where the wrinkles had been ironed out in advance.

John wanted it his way and he didn’t like anyone who got in his way. He didn’t want someone telling him that he couldn’t move forward as planned. He didn’t want to hear about roadblocks or setbacks. Our job was to demolish the roadblocks and find ways to achieve his goals no matter what.

How dialed in are you to your boss’s worries and concerns?

Issues with problematic staffIssues with a tough boss
Problems with internal stakeholdersProblems with external stakeholders
Financial concernsProcess concerns
Lacks trust from othersFeels like an outsider
Struggling to change the cultureStruggling to fit into the culture
Customer complaintsStaff complaints
Dropping salesStaff attrition
Technology disruptionManaging change

Assess your boss using these five areas. See if you can walk away with a deeper understanding of what makes her tick. Now, use that information to adapt your briefing style, the way you approach them for decisions, and the type of interaction you have with them. The more you can work from their perspective, the more effective you are likely to be and with the least amount of stress and frustration. Try it and let me know how it goes!



It was supposed to be an easy cruise. That’s what they told me.  The  47’ Morris sailboat, sailed the Newport to Bermuda race and finished second in her class. We were part of the crew sailing her back to Newport.  And, it was my first sailing trip. To say that the trip didn’t go as planned is an understatement if there ever was one. We made it back safe and sound because of the quality of the boat and the experience of the crew – except for me. When we left I still didn’t know a jib from a halyard or port from starboard.

The trip, expected to be a little more than three days, took five due to adverse weather. The only thing calm was the crew. The seas were rough almost from the start and became even rougher when we crossed the Gulf Stream. The evening we hit the Gulf Stream, we encountered three 50-knot squalls in quick succession with 10’ to 12’ seas. Due to the rough weather, the boat had a series of issues. The auto pilot stopped working on day one, the engine stopped on day two, during the storm the reef line on the mainsail broke, the halyard on the jib broke, the furler jammed, the tack of the spinnaker let go and, later, the spinnaker artfully wrapped itself around the forestay. During the worst of the storm, lines fell into the water and promptly wound themselves around the propeller shaft. I’m told that none of this is unusual but to have them all happen on one voyage was remarkable. By the time we arrived in Newport, everything I brought to wear was wet. The quick-dry fabric never dried.  Collectively, we smelled like a 50’ wet tennis shoe. Are we having fun yet?

As I lay in the narrow bunk, heeled 30 degrees, I listening to the storm tear at the boat and sails. And, I listened to the crew tackle each adversity calmly, collaboratively, decisively and transparently. Do you do the same when adversity hits your organization?GettyImages-87990433-590a5aae5f9b58647047e624

Calm. It was one problem after another in quick succession in rough weather. It would have been unnerving except for the calm of the captain. With each calamity, he talked to the crew – no raised voice, panic, or exasperation. The intensity of the situation stood in clear contrast to his calm demeanor.  As an insightful leader, how do you manage stress and outwardly demonstrate calm?

Collaborate. When a problem was solved, something else broke. Each time, the captain collaborated with the crew. What happened? What are the pros/cons of each option? This was no dictatorship. Neither was it a democracy. It was informed leadership. How do you collaborate under stress to capture and objectively weigh all options? Our captain based his decisions on crew input. Do you truly listen to others?

Decisive. The conversations between the captain and crew were quick, succinct and decisive. The captain listened, made a decision, and that was that. Other ideas were dropped, and action was taken. Are your decisions crisp, clear and strong? Once you decide, don’t waiver. There’s time later to evaluate and adjust. For now, give staff clear directions to follow.

Transparent. We were in a tough spot. Some of us were not experienced sailors and the situation was a wee bit unnerving (to say the least). It would have been easy for the captain to sugar-coat our predicament under the pretense of not alarming us.  Instead, he was honest and transparent. In a matter-of-fact manner, he shared the realities of each situation and decision. The transparency was reassuring and created trust. Are you being transparent with your staff about difficult situations? Yes, some topics can’t be discussed openly, and it is not constructive to publicly debate every option.  However, once a decision is made, it is helpful to share the decision, the rationale behind the decision and the implications. People understand that not everything goes as expected, but people don’t like to be in the dark. That creates suspicion and erodes trust. Transparency does the opposite.

I confess that I’m not ready for another cruise like this one, but I’m grateful for the crew and for the lessons: be calm, collaborate, be decisive and transparent.

Have you been hit by a storm? In life, in business, in a relationship?  What about in your finances, or in your relationships? Next time you’re dealing with the raging winds and powerful waves of the storms surrounding your business or your personal life, keep these four anchors in mind!



Is your life hectic? It seems that everyone I talk with laments their frenzied life. Have you ever considered that your customer or client is also frenzied? You can add to their frenzy with uncertainty or create an oasis of calm certainty through proactive communication. Proactive communication is a simple technique that will set you apart because of the calming response of the customer’s brain to certainty. You want your customers to keep an open line of communication with you and feel like they can be heard. That is why a VoIP phone service system can be highly beneficial to businesses as well. You can get more info about this over at Fusionconnect.com.

Before we examine further, understand that uncertainty activates a threat response in the brain. Certainty activates a reward response in the brain. If your customer is stressed, that reward response will feel like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise hectic day. They will remember that good feeling. Wouldn’t it be nice for you to be the source of that feeling for your client? That’s why you want to master proactive communication.

Proactive communication is simply providing useful information to your client in advance of their needing it. Command over communication is crucial if you want to be a good line manager. It drives your clients and gives them sense of certainty, be it about a meeting, a delivery, a job, a deliverable or whatever it is that you provide to them. Take Krissia, for example.

My life is particularly hectic and stressful right now. I plan to sell the house my late husband and I shared for 17 years (he bought this house in 1981). Preparing the house to be on the market has been both stressful and emotional. It feels like a sea of uncertainty and I don’t need more. That’s why I’m hoping to get this house sold quickly. My friend suggested that I should really contact an estate agent to show people around this house. Apparently, estate agents are able to access energy data for the property that they can share with those interested. This will help them to decide whether they can afford these bills or not. My friend told me to go online and learn more about that feature. She thinks that sort of data could really help me to sell the house. Perhaps I’ll have to hire a real estate agent to sell my property for me, that could reduce some stress.

To prep the house for the market, I’m having it deep cleaned. The first person I contacted agreed to the cleaning date and scheduled a time to stop by to assess the house. She didn’t show or call. Talk about uncertainty. That’s when Krissia was recommended. After looking at the house, we scheduled the cleaning day. Before I had a chance to worry if she still planned to show up, I received a text from her confirming the date, the arrival time of her crew and the duration of the work. She was ON IT. Yes, it’s simply good customer service but, it feels like more than that. I never felt a flicker of uncertainty. My brain never went into threat response. Her simple and short text was proactive communication that gave me certainty. The same happened with Oscar whose crew cleaned the yard and with Chuck whose company washed the windows. Each proactively communicated with me so I never worried.

It seems so simple and yet…it’s not. I see companies all the time who add to the client’s stress by creating uncertainty.

How well do you and your organization provide proactive communication?

  • Do you confirm meetings in advance (with the location, agenda and objective)?
  • Do you confirm your arrival time for a lunch meeting?
  • Do you confirm the delivery date for the report you’re writing?
  • Do you provide progress reports? (Once upon a time, I worked for a demanding boss who constantly phoned and emailed for project information. We began providing him a short email every Friday with the status of all the projects of interest to him. We gave him certainty. The calls and emails stopped.)
  • Do you confirm order delivery for products or services you provide?
  • Do you confirm late delivery of the order, report, or service? Proactive communication is even more essential when it’s bad news. The customer may not like the news, but your proactive communication demonstrates that you are on top of the situation, that you are monitoring status and that you are interested enough to let them know. All of that is certainty.

Whether Krissia, Oscar or Chuck, none of them knew my world was spinning wildly out of control. In the midst of my whirlwind, their simple proactive communication provided certainty. Certainty activated my reward circuit and provided calm. And I will buy calm from them again. That’s what proactive communication does.

What does proactive communication look like in your organization and how well are you providing it? It could be the very thing to your client needs to feel certain that they like working with you.



It was supposed to be an easy cruise. That’s what they told me.  The  47’ Morris sailboat, sailed the Newport to Bermuda race and finished second in her class. We were part of the crew sailing her back to Newport.  And, it was my first sailing trip. To say that the trip didn’t go as planned is an understatement if there ever was one. We made it back safe and sound because of the quality of the boat and the experience of the crew – except for me. When we left I still didn’t know a jib from a halyard or port from starboard.

The trip, expected to be a little more than three days, took five due to adverse weather. The only thing calm was the crew. The seas were rough almost from the start and became even rougher when we crossed the Gulf Stream. The evening we hit the Gulf Stream, we encountered three 50-knot squalls in quick succession with 10’ to 12’ seas. Due to the rough weather, the boat had a series of issues. The auto pilot stopped working on day one, the engine stopped on day two, during the storm the reef line on the mainsail broke, the halyard on the jib broke, the furler jammed, the tack of the spinnaker let go and, later, the spinnaker artfully wrapped itself around the forestay. During the worst of the storm, lines fell into the water and promptly wound themselves around the propeller shaft. I’m told that none of this is unusual but to have them all happen on one voyage was remarkable. By the time we arrived in Newport, everything I brought to wear was wet. The quick-dry fabric never dried.  Collectively, we smelled like a 50’ wet tennis shoe. Are we having fun yet?

As I lay in the narrow bunk, heeled 30 degrees, I listening to the storm tear at the boat and sails. And, I listened to the crew tackle each adversity calmly, collaboratively, decisively and transparently. Do you do the same when adversity hits your organization?

Calm. It was one problem after another in quick succession in rough weather. It would have been unnerving except for the calm of the captain. With each calamity, he talked to the crew – no raised voice, panic, of exasperation. The intensity of the situation stood in clear contrast to his calm demeanor.  As an insightful leader, how do you manage stress and outwardly demonstrate calm?

Collaborate. When a problem was solved, something else broke. Each time, the captain collaborated with the crew. What happened? What are the pros/cons of each option? This was no dictatorship. Neither was it a democracy. It was informed leadership. How do you collaborate under stress to capture and objectively weigh all options? Our captain based his decisions on crew input. Do you truly listen to others?

Decisive. The conversations between the captain and crew were quick, succinct and decisive. The captain listened, made a decision, and that was that. Other ideas were dropped, and action was taken. Are your decisions crisp, clear and strong? Once you decide, don’t waiver. There’s time later to evaluate and adjust. For now, give staff clear directions to follow.

Transparent. We were in a tough spot. Some of us were not experienced sailors and the situation was a wee bit unnerving (to say the least). It would have been easy for the captain to sugar-coat our predicament under the pretense of not alarming us.  Instead, he was honest and transparent. In a matter-of-fact manner, he shared the realities of each situation and decision. The transparency was reassuring and created trust. Are you being transparent with your staff about difficult situations? Yes, some topics can’t be discussed openly, and it is not constructive to publicly debate every option.  However, once a decision is made, it is helpful to share the decision, the rationale behind the decision and the implications. People understand that not everything goes as expected, but people don’t like to be in the dark. That creates suspicion and erodes trust. Transparency does the opposite.

I confess that I’m not ready for another cruise like this one, but I’m grateful for the crew and for the lessons: be calm, collaborate, be decisive and transparent.

Share an experience that you’ve had that taught you a lesson.