September 12, 2015

Empathy in the Workplace - What Does it Look Like?

Over the years there's been a lot written about the need for leaders to have a high EQ  or emotional intelligence quotient. Harvard Business Review’s, “What Makes a Leader” outlines the 5 components of EQ at work as self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, social skills and empathy.

EQ becomes more critical as your responsibilities expand beyond an individual contributor. Your work becomes the activities and tasks that motivate and influence the people who directly report to you and the wide map of stakeholders across and above you in the organization. Your work becomes far more about people and relationships than the black and white execution of any one work output.

In my experience, out of all of the EQ components, empathy tends to be the most misunderstood and, therefore, underutilized component. That is too bad, because empathy is the most easily coached and it’s easier to model empathetic behavior compared with developing the other components.

What does empathy look like in the workplace?
Empathy is defined as accurately perceiving and understanding another person’s emotional state and responding accordingly. Sometimes, people view empathy as primarily relating to understanding when people feel sad (closer to sympathy). When, in fact, empathy involves the whole range of emotions. And remember, people do have the whole range of feelings at work. Understanding that someone may be feeling angry, vulnerable, proud, protective, nervous, happy etc can be invaluable to you as you consider how to best communicate with them.

Just taking a moment to consider, “if I were so-and-so, how might this make me feel? Has this happened to me? How did I feel? why? Has this happened to someone I know, love or respect? how did they feel?” helps to build empathy and can create a better outcome.

In my article on demonstrating empathy when leading through an organizational change, I shared the many different feelings teams may feel when they hear the news about a change,

...people would likely feel surprised and potentially confused. They may feel nervous about being asked to transition away from the work they know into new activities with new bosses. They may feel angry about an organizational change happening “to” them outside of their control. They may feel disappointed about having to transition projects they enjoyed and pick up ones they don’t feel as enthusiastic about. They may feel all of these things at once or none of them at all…

Any reasonably self aware leader can recall being a similar situation themselves earlier in their career (maybe even that day!). By taking a quick inventory of the potential emotional states the other person/people may be in, s/he is better prepared going into the conversation and more likely to come out with a better long term result.

Taking a moment to consider how another person may be feeling - demonstrating empathy -  is beneficial even when the situation isn’t as obviously fraught like an organizational change. In status meetings where there are inter-dependent teams there will be times conflict will erupt seemingly out of nowhere. If the leader has considered how the different parties may be feeling he can actively bring that to the discussion and model what empathy looks like for group. For instance, 

Sally, you’re obviously frustrated that the commit is delayed and this is the first you’re hearing about it. Richard, would you please fill Sally in around why that was in the best interest of the project overall as she may not be aware yet of what changed in Design just yesterday.” 

A comment from the leader like this validates how Sally is feeling and reminds her to consider Richard's situation. It also coaches Richard to proactively think about how his stakeholders may react to updates and think through how to best communicate them.

Empathy is coachable
In any communication it’s not about what you want to say, it’s about what the other person needs to hear. Having empathy for the other person helps you to best communicate, motivate and influence. Empathy involves just a moment of prep actively considering the other person’s situation and how they may feel. This is a behavior that can be taught and practiced as a means to improve a promising leader’s EQ.

July 12, 2015

Becoming strategic

When I talk with young professionals early in their careers, I regularly hear a frustration along the lines of “I don’t want to just execute anymore, I want to be strategic”. 
When I mentor, I meet more than a few talented, intelligent people who are passed over for promotion because they aren’t (yet) perceived as “being strategic”.
We all want a seat at the table. It feels good to be asked to help set the course for our teams and companies to be successful. To get there, it’s necessary to build your strategy setting and communication skills in order to earn that seat. Here are a few things to think about if you want to become or be perceived as strategic:
Banish the idea that any role is “just” execution or “just” strategy
Rarely does a strategy come down from “on high” like Moses with the Ten Commandments (or McKinsey consultants with binders) to be summarily handed off for execution.  The best ideas without execution are worthless, and a strategy’s success lies in the quality of every person's day-to-day execution and decision making over a long period of time.
This quality requires a level of understanding and buy-in that doesn’t come from a one-time presentation or strategy document hand off. The best leaders know this and is why they work continuously to ensure that everyone understands how their efforts and insights supports the organization's larger strategic goals. It is infused into every one of their 1:1's, every performance review with a team member, every new idea brainstorm with a cross-functional team and likely, even worked into every casual hallway conversation.
Today, you can “be strategic” in the role you have
A key way you can be strategic in the role you have is to actively help to translate your organization's “big” strategic ideas into the day to day activities of you and your colleagues. Even when you are not the team lead, your interactions and conversations can authentically reflect this understanding and it will help keep people appropriately aligned -- and your boss will definitely appreciate that.
As HBR suggests in “Strengthen Your Strategic Thinking Muscles”, thinking strategically is about creating connections between ideas, plans and people that others fail to see. This points to you beginning today to proactively build relationships with all of your different stakeholders - both internally among the different departments you work with and externally among customers and vendors. 

If you learn what is important to your stakeholders and you understand what is important to your team and organization, you are setting yourself up to be in the right place to identify and create those important connections and deliver valuable strategic insights.

Have (and share) a point of view beyond your span of control
Being viewed as strategic means you will need to demonstrate a broader understanding of the organization beyond “just” your role. It's not enough to know your own job backwards and forwards, you need a mindset that is both long term and systematic. Long term meaning you think about the implications of decisions beyond the current quarter or fiscal year, and systematic meaning you think about the implications of decisions on your extended stakeholder network.

Thinking strategically isn't enough. You need to have the confidence to find and take advantage of appropriate opportunities to demonstrate your understanding and insights. It can be as simple as speaking up in a staff meeting to build on a colleague’s point or making an important introduction to help a colleague’s project.

Don’t forget your soft skills
Soft skills like executive presence can make or break a career. Learning to effectively manage stress is important for the rising executive because it demonstrates your ability to deal with change and your calm demeanor instills confidence in those around you. 
Mindfulness is also a necessary skill for today's strategic thinker because learning to be fully present helps improve your cognitive and communication skills. Whether you exercise, do yoga, cook or meditate -- prioritize the time for these activities so you are strong and resilient and fully able to handle the inevitable stress that comes your way.

April 21, 2015

Why I Choose to Mentor

For longer than I care to admit sometimes (20+ years), I have been working full time. I was lucky and I was given the opportunity to manage teams early on in my career. And this early start to management allowed me to gain needed experience and build a proficiency that comes from 10,000 hours of practice.

And, for me, one of the most rewarding parts of management is mentoring and coaching. I enjoy the process of helping people to clarify their goals, understand their strengths, take on new challenges and successfully build needed skills and capabilities. It is really gratifying to help someone grow and see them meet (and crush!) their career goals.

Harvard Business Review recently that Millennials value mentoring highly. These young professionals are ambitious and crave the feedback that will help them succeed. Especially useful and valuable is “micro feedback” - where a mentor’s input and feedback is provided regularly and not just at official performance review times. This kind of real-time input can be the most effective because of increased relevancy and specificity of the feedback.

HBR also suggests Millennials value micro-mentoring versus a broader, more encompassing 1:1 mentoring engagement. Much like micro and real-time feedback, micro-mentoring provides the protege needed help around a particular challenge over a given timeframe with the best mentor for that situation. This approach also allows young professionals to craft a kind-of career ‘board of directors’ with different skills, expertise and networks which are open to helping them at different times across a long career.

In addition to mentoring the people I am fortunate to work closely with, I also choose to mentor with Everwise. Everwise engages with companies with rising leaders (proteges) and connects them with mentors who work outside the protege’s company.

And while I’m not knocking internal mentorship programs, it’s been my experience that there is something special that can happen when a protege feels she can talk freely and openly about her professional goals and struggles with a mentor who has no ties with her organization. She knows I am 100% in her corner and that my advice and feedback is not at all biased by any internal politics or other agendas.

It is also helpful for them to see that the challenges they are personally facing are, in fact, very common ones faced by many women in most organizations, and that it’s not something unique to them. This insight and understanding can open them up to finding new ways to break out of old patterns and to trying new approaches that can be more successful.

As a protege, if you need another reason to look outside your own organization for a mentor, Gallup research shows us that just 1 in 10 people have the innate talent to be a “good” manager where a good one takes the time to get to know their team’s strengths and actively works on their development. This situation puts too many up and coming “good ones” at risk of being neglected, under-developed or even burnt out by “limited” managers.

Finally, if you’re one of the “good” ones, or just think you have some key experience and may have something to offer, you should consider seeking out mentoring opportunities beyond just your immediate team. Be open to it and connect with someone and work together to help them succeed. I expect it will be a positive experience for both of you.

March 14, 2015

Wellness, Mindfulness and Your Professional Success

Wellness and mindfulness are terms that have moved out of the realm of "woo woo" into the very real world of business. And, well, from my point of view it's about time.

The demands on today's professional to be "always on" and available, to stay on top of whatever is the newest and latest while successfully leading and motivating a diverse and cross-functional team of other professionals is a recipe for stress and burnout. Add a significant other, aging parents and a child or two to this mix and it's no wonder stress is the #1 lifestyle issue impacting the workplace today.

It's not a luxury; our own self-care is a necessity to your being effective and productive at work. Over the past few months I've written a few posts related to wellness at work on LinkedIn, Business2Community and the Grokker blog that I wanted to summarize here.

3 reasons why today's leaders need mindfulness meditation
Meditation changes your brain for the better, allowing you to develop and hone the skills that make you a more effective leader.

Why every leader should make a mindfulness resolution (hint: it's for your team)
What you may not realize is that your stress is contagious - and your team is catching it! They want you to proactively address and manage your stress so you don't add to theirs.

Give your team what they want: wellness
That on-site fitness center is a good start, but doesn't meet the needs of most of your employees. They want to be able to work out when and where it is convenient for them -- and that means you also need an at home workout option.

Stress is the #1 problem in the workplace
While 86% of employers offer EAPs (employee assistance programs) as a solution for stressed employees, just 5% of employees utilize this benefit. Why? Because employees don't want referrals to counselors for their stress, they want help managing it through exercise, yoga and meditation.

Should employers require regular exercise?
The physical and mental benefits of regular exercise are abundantly clear and it has a direct impact on the engagement and productivity of the individuals. You owe it to yourself and your career to exercise regularly, and leaders owe it to their teams to offer access to the exercise options that can fit into their busy lifestyles.