Leaders need to care about and practice the quality, specificity, and power of their language. Not enough of them do.
Communication is particularly crucial to entrepreneurs. A founder’s individual vision and presence is vital to his or her organization’s sense of itself and its direction. There are several ways a leader can immediately improve his or her language and communication.
Understand that leadership language is different
Leadership language serves a specific purpose that is different from the language used in a non-leadership role. Your communication is responsible for providing meaning about the present and the future, explaining complex tradeoffs, demonstrating resolve in the face of adversity, articulating matters others do not see, calling on the organization to uphold commitments and standards, and infusing purpose and inspiration. This does not happen with bland, casual, or vague language.
Before your next leadership event, think carefully about the words you choose. Be specific, concrete, and evocative. Rehearse out loud with people you trust: How did it sound to them? Leadership language, by its very nature, must be heightened and bold. You must be comfortable with these requirements.
Know what you want
Too many leaders don’t know what to say because they don’t know what they want. Before speaking (formally or informally) ask yourself, “What’s going on here, and what do I want?”
If the answer is grounded in the organization’s shared purpose and not your personal desires, you have a better opportunity to speak to these broader needs and goals. If you don’t know what you want (or worse, want to pursue self-centered goals), you should remain silent until you are prepared to articulate the wider view of the organization.
Use “but” very carefully
“But” is a contradictory conjunction, and should not be used after a positive phrase if your intention is to be positive. Often, “but” signals that whatever came before is not wholly valid. The common statement, “I liked your project, but…,” questions the sincerity of what was “liked” and emphasizes what the speaker wants to change.
When a leader says, “Thanks for the feedback, but I think…” it often comes across as, “I don’t appreciate what you said, and we will do it my way.” Better to say, “I’ve considered your feedback and still believe in my decision.” Similarly, a leader will address a team, “This group did great work last quarter, but now we have to focus.” Better to say, “Your great work last quarter is just the momentum we need, because this quarter will be a bigger challenge.” Instead of “but,” use “and,” “however,” “yet,” “except,” or “that said.”
Go easy with the superlatives
When too much is described as “amazing,” “awesome,” “unbelievable,” “epic,” or “incredible,” very little actually is.
Overused superlatives wash out true meaning. When a leader routinely declares commonplace events to be extraordinary, he or she contributes to a pattern of making everything sound the same. Instead of making rote declarations, explain the action and reaction in simple language.
Rather than call the sales presentation “amazing” (did it fill you with wonder?), talk about it being clear, compelling, well-researched, full of the right data, and so forth. And resist praising the team with a generic “awesome” (did they inspire awe?) Try, “Very good work.”
Stop the “uptalk”
At some point (especially in the United States), the rising vocal inflection at the end of a statement–what linguists call “uptalk”–morphed from an object of satire seen in Valley girls and surfer dudes to acceptable and everyday speech. A staggering number of adults are now afflicted with this jarring sing-song pattern of ending statements with the rising inflection of a question. Just as troubling, many people seem unaware of or unconcerned about this bad habit. A leader is always aware of and concerned about language and speech.
The practice of uptalk conveys a lack of conviction, discipline, and mindfulness. The most useful advice about this condition: Stop!
Don’t pull back
It can be easy to equivocate when speaking about an important or difficult topic. It is understandable (and not useful) to shy away from making the clearest, strongest point because full verbal commitment requires full personal courage.
Leaders sometimes “pull back” by qualifying their speech: “It’s sort of up to this team,” or “This is kind of a tough situation.” Resist the temptation of this lazy language. Using clear language will increase your courage by more fully connecting you to what you need and want to say.
Call an object by its proper name, and a situation as it is. Deliberately use concrete and accurate language, and clarity will follow. Practice your speaking, alone and with others. Seize the moments, because it is up to you to use the best possible leadership language. Speak up and speak well.
Everything is changing so fast, except for the Holy Grail of training: Training that sticks!
What are the best practices for creating and delivering training that results in lasting skill and knowledge uptake and permanent behavior change?
- Align learning goals 100 percent to meet clearly defined skill and knowledge gaps tied directly to concrete business outcomes that matter. How? Make needs assessment an ongoing dialogue with leaders at all levels.
- Make sure the content resonates. Zero in on the pain caused by the skill or knowledge gaps and make a persuasive case for how filling those gaps will ease the pain. The stickiest messages dovetail with what people already know. That’s why they laugh! Remind them of their pain, first. Then offer them some relief from that pain.
- Deliver the content so it is hard to forget. Aim at multiple memory centers. The stickiest part of the brain is emotional memory. Make them feel it viscerally—“ha ha!” “oh, no!” “aha!”
- Focus on actionable solutions. Offer a clear plan, concrete tools, and step-by-step techniques.
- Promote ongoing knowledge and skill development. Give learners takeaway information for continuing study and skills for continuing practice.
- Follow up. Schedule regular reminders, refreshers, discussion, and feedback.
- Ensure their real world of work supports actualizing the learning. Help learners’ leaders/managers and coworkers understand and buy into the tools, techniques, and action plans—before, during, and after the training.
- Be true to yourself; let your inner compass guide you.
- Fail fast and fail forward.
- Move on and move off – in other words, make a decision and, if it doesn’t pan out, learn from it and don’t keep playing it back.
- Surround yourself with people smarter than you.
- Bring people along with you – make them feel part of change.
- Invest in the “how” you work as much as the “what.”
- Don’t let no stop you.
- Don’t let risk of change overshadow its opportunity.
- Push through your fear.
- Model the “we” not the “me” to teach others how to collaborate.
- Build on your strengths, but don’t lose sight of your blind spots.
- Be generous with your knowledge, thought process and counsel; pay it forward.
- Be equally comfortable unlearning what you know as with learning new things.
- Think of feedback is a gift – but mind the source.
- Remember that it’s really ok to draw outside the lines.
Pursue what you love
Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.
Do the hardest work first
We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else. That’s when most of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.
Practice intensely, without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day.
Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses
The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously, however, can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning
Take regular renewal breaks
Relaxing after intense effort not only provides an opportunity to rejuvenate, but also to metabolize and embed learning. It’s also during rest that the right hemisphere becomes more dominant, which can lead to creative breakthroughs.
Will and discipline are wildly overrated. As the researcher Roy Baumeister has found, none of us have very much of it. The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to ritualize them — build specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.
It takes several hours of daily practice to achieve excellence, so prioritize
Looking at today’s market conditions and corporate state of affairs, this scary term is becoming common by the day. It is certainly not happy situation and its gravity cannot be ignored. Also, one cannot say that he will never have to face this situation or that he is ‘safe’. Here are a few tips to deal with this scary encounter
- Be Prepared: As lay-offs are becoming common and companies trying to reduce cost by reducing headcounts, one must assess his position and measure his stand. As the saying goes ‘bad news early is good news’. It may not come to you (and it should not to anyone), however, being prepared will always keep you in a better position. The impact of the news will be less. Precaution is better than cure.
- Keep a back-up: Now that one has prepared oneself for the bad news, it will be a good idea to keep a back up to keep himself busy. This could be short term and long term plans. It could be looking for another job, speaking to people and so on. You can start this, while you have your job so that you can weigh different options. If you do it post your separation from the job, there will be many other things troubling you and may compel you to take hasty decisions. ‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail’ – Benjamin Franklin
- Be positive: Be optimistic and take this as an opportunity. May be you must have thought of starting your own venture but always feared to do away with the job. This could be the time. It won’t be easy initially however; it could be the first step towards where you wanted to see yourself. ‘It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed’ – Theodore Roosevelt
- Take a small break: Take a few days off and be back refreshed. This will help you sink in your experiences and you will be able to start with a blank slate. You can go for a vacation, meet your relatives and friends, pursue a long pending hobby, and do some philanthropic work and so on. Anything that rejuvenates you and brings you back revitalized.
- This is not the end of the world: There are good times and there are bad times and the only common thing between them is they both pass by. No one knows what the future has in store for us. God willing, things will fall in place and even exceed your expectations. Hence, do not take a step that you may have to regret later. Things may or may not get on track immediately. Give time for things to change.
I would conclude by saying ‘do not try to control things which you have no control over, take charge of yourself and keep progressing. If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much – Jim Rohn
The only principles that make a difference are the ones you know by heart, swear by, and live by. Everything else is just blather.
For a long time, I’ve been fascinated from afar by Agile programming practices, which have proven themselves on all these levels. I’ve wondered why they haven’t been adapted for use by all types of teams, because they hold the potential to make teams far more flexible, innovative and productive.
So here’s my shot at adapting those practices into four simple principles that all business teams can use. My hope is that they can help teams both execute and innovate in an excellent manner. I’d also like to acknowledge that Toria Thompson helped me develop some of these ideas.
This is a work in progress – I welcome your comments and will be happy to embrace any suggestions you have that further strengthen this approach:
Value the value: Too many teams operate without clear metrics, and thus they end up making fuzzy decisions. This is a slippery slope to disappointing results. Instead, teams should assign a tangible value to every deliverable, and – this is the important part – teams should track and validate these projections as work goes on. In this manner, team members can’t game the system, inflating values to give their pet projects priority treatment.
The philosophy underlying this principle is simple: businesses exist to make money, and if a project doesn’t support that goal in a tangible way, the team shouldn’t be doing it.
- State the value of each project.
- Create metrics that quantify the stated value.
- Validate the value actually delivered, and reward team members for it.
Be open and honest: Keep all team communications, facts and status reports in the open and highly visible.
Look at the way your team currently operates. Is the purpose of every action crystal clear? Do you know why Lisa has been locked in her office for three days, or why John is conducting 32 interviews this week?
Clear and open communications have immense benefits. It should be obvious to everyone who is doing what, and why. When team members get stuck, they get help faster. When they succeed, others follow faster.
- Avoid private communications.
- Conduct disciplined weekly progress report sessions.
- Hold daily “stand-up” sessions (you stand to keep them short).
- Use images, mockups, etc. to make things clearer.
- Make it easy to understand the purpose of every work product.
Shorten workplans: Break deliverables into smaller pieces that can be finished in shorter time periods.
The longer a team works before delivering a tangible result, the more likely the deliverable is to fall short of expectations. A far better approach is to break large projects down into smaller pieces, and to regularly complete deliverables.
By shortening workplans, teams also make it easier for team members to explore new strategies and take risks. This is because the cost of taking a risk and failing is minimized; you lose a week instead of six months. This tactic also maximizes flexibility, because at the end of each project the team can decide what to do next.
- Shorten the length of time between deliverables.
- Try to make every deliverable useable and functioning, rather than just a description of something that still needs to be done.
- Whenever possible, make processes and deliverables reusable and adaptable for other purposes
Create interdependence: No one wins unless everyone wins. Period.
This is the best way to get a team to function like, well, a team. It also fosters insights, flexibility, and resilience.
- Create shared metrics.
- Partner team members from different disciplines.
- Have members with similar skills swap tasks often, even in the middle of working on a deliverable.
- Share responsibilities, ideas, concerns and alternatives.
If these principles make sense to you, you might want to give them a try. But I’d like to suggest you do so only on one condition: that all team members voluntarily want to adopt these principles.
Many educators on LinkedIn have asked me about teaching social and emotional intelligence skills to teens. As more learning takes place in group and team settings, many teachers have observed that unless we help them tackle personal and social challenges, many will never fully engage and will not fulfill their potential.
The good news is that the team approach to teaching emotional intelligence skills has shown great promise. If you can get teens to work together toward a common goal, then you have very easily grasped a way to help them see the value of emotional intelligence, and to help each other along. For one, team efforts demand high collaboration, an EI ability, which in turn requires effective communication, another EI ability. You can use the teams as a spontaneous platform to tackle the person-to-person issues that come up, and which will inevitably be about social and emotional skills.
Think about ways to use the groups to show the value of self-awareness (e.g., knowing your strengths and limits tells you what you can contribute best to the group, and when you need to rely on others who have different strengths); self-management (e.g., each member has to be disciplined to keep their commitments to the team); empathy (you’ve got to tune in to how what you do and say impacts others); and interpersonal skills (it’s all about communication, negotiation, collaboration, and persuasion).
A few months ago, in the span of one week, I found myself speaking about what makes for effective leadership at three different leadership development programs at three different companies. Brevity is always important at such events, so I found myself whittling down my talking points down to what I considered the most essential elements. Here is where I landed in 100 words (more or less):
- Earned by one’s actions each and every day, not bestowed by virtue of having the word “manager” in your title
- Being in the service of others, not being served by them
- Humility and integrity, not hubris and self-interest
- Listening more and talking less
- Knowing what questions to ask rather than knowing all the answers
- Connecting ideas, people and resources, not controlling them
- Creating opportunities and removing roadblocks
- Consistency even in chaos and transparency in times of turmoil
- A journey not a destination: it is a process, not an outcome
The internet can save us so much time, but it is also a source of tempting time wasters. From the latest adorable cat or baby video to the latest sports scores, there are a plethora of options to pull you away from work. Even the tools we use at work can be misused to eat away at our time.