Are you a Filibuster(er)?

I wrote the following piece a while ago and didn’t post it for fear of seeming catty.  But in the 7 months since I moved and have been hardcore networking, the number of alpha talkers I’ve encountered boggles.  my.  mind.  I’m not blaming geography – truth be told I didn’t do a lot of networking in NYC and may have had the same experiences there if I had.

Time and again, I’m trapped.  A prisoner in a jail of my own politeness, I nod and make appropriate sounds.  I try to indicate through body language – feet pointing elsewhere, leaning back – that I want out.  But the type of people who swing from self-aggrandizing story to story like monkeys through the jungle are not attentive to my subtle, non-verbal cries for help.

So.  Rather than selecting from one of the anecdotes I could share about grandstanding strangers, I provide you with this social illustration from a ways back in a faraway place.

We were at a dinner party on a Saturday night.  There were 6 of us.  We were invited by a couple we knew well; they had also invited another couple they wanted to introduce us to.  We met for the first time that evening and have not seen them again.  Here’s why.

Over cocktails and a three course dinner, my husband and I and our friends probably took 20% of the airtime.  That means each of us spoke 5% of a 5 hour evening.  Assuming .5 hours of silence for serving/clearing/moving between rooms/potty breaks, that means each of us spoke 13.5 minutes over the duration of the entire evening.

The third couple took up the other 80% of the audible space.  The wife probably dominated 75% of that, which means she spoke a total of 202 minutes, or, 3.3 hours.  That actually sounds pretty conservative.  One story, which could be summed up in the 5 words “my kid woke up today” lasted about 15 minutes.  I wanted to kill myself, then her, in that order.

If we’re going to hold up the truth mirror for a second, most of us can probably acknowledge we’ve been the chatterbox in a situation with the right mix of strangers, cocktails and insecurity.  But while I learned her preferred method of preparing cauliflower (mashed), about her dress for a holiday party they hosted (black strapless, we didn’t go) and her upcoming trip to the Bahamas (harbor bay, for her 40th), she did not learn more than 13.5 minutes worth of headlines about any of the rest of us.  At least half of whom are downright fascinating.

I doubt this woman or any of the good folks that have word-vomited on me have any  malicious intent.  Perhaps they even think they do me a favor by filling the air waves and taking pressure off me to hold my own.  But I’d posit a better approach to meeting new people, whether personally or professionally; contribute to the discussion and be ready with your highlight reel of anecdotes if the conversation runs dry.  But, more importantly, have your list of probing and follow up questions so you can actually learn something about those you interact with.  Many of the new contacts I’ve had the “best” feedback from are people I simply showed an interest in and then listened to.  Its become clear to me through these interactions that the best impression I can leave is often that I really want to know someone.

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Are you a Filibuster(er)?

3 hot tips on how not to annoy a recruiter….

I’m recruiting for 2 of my clients right now.  Recruiting isn’t something that I do very often; as a rule I’ll help with a strategic or difficult to fill role if I’m doing other work for a client and they’ve had challenges in the past.  Often this will go hand in hand with my teaching interview skills training and becoming, generally, the bouncer at the door that insures (or tries to) an issue-free pipeline.

Right now, I find myself talking to candidates every day.  Sometimes I virtually fall in love in the course of the conversation.  I became so invested in a candidate I placed a couple of weeks ago that I felt sure I would be more disappointed than she if my client selected someone else.  Someone I spoke to this week was so personable, so charming, that I welled up when I sent him a (personalized) “no fit” email.

While those magical, sparkly, matchmaking conversations are why I do this work on occasion, they are not the norm.  And so for your benefit, job seekers of America, I present three foibles from this week.  And, my suggestions for not irritating a hiring manager or headhunter and, hopefully, landing a sweet gig.

1.  The Salary Range.

Many pros will disagree with me, but really.  Would you walk into the Whole Foods and say,”I’d like to pay somewhere between $1-$3 for this apple”? No you would not.

If you want $80,000 a year, don’t say $70,000 – $90,000.  I’m not going to offer you $90 when you’ve told me you’ll take $70.  Just say “I am looking for a minimum base salary of $80,ooo” and then stop speaking.  Trust me, if I want you and my client can afford you, you’re getting $80,000.  If I want you and can’t afford you, I’ll lowball you.  Don’t tell me what your lowball number unless that’s the offer you want.

2. Premature eThankyouation.

There is something that feels disingenuous about receiving a thank you email twenty minutes after the interview has concluded.  In my 20s, after a date in NYC, it was sweet to have a text pop up when I emerged from the subway.  Its less endearing to get an email sent from the elevator as a candidate leaves the building.

Speedy thank you’s often don’t contain commentary specific to the conversation we have just had and feel, instead, like formulaic politeness (do you keep a draft saved?).  If you’re going to write the thank you email, best to wait until the end of the business day and write something that demonstrates insight and reflection.

3.  Answer the question.  And by “the,” I mean “my.”

Interviewees often have stock answers, anecdotes and examples that they want me to hear. Practiced responses are acceptable if they answer the question posed, but they rarely do. When I ask someone to tell me about a time they have had a difficult team member and how they dealt with it and they respond with a story about the biggest deal they have closed, I begin writing a grocery list in my head.  It has fixed priced apples on it.

Go forth, don’t be annoying, get hired.

3 hot tips on how not to annoy a recruiter….

Less talented than your competition? You can still win…

For 10 years I worked for huge organizations.  I was part of matrixed teams partnered with global clients, navigating complex political and cultural systems on a daily basis.  And yet, AND YET, I managed to return emails to colleagues, vendors, and my network and, for the most part, they did the same.

Since becoming an independent consultant the lack of responsiveness in the business world has been astonishing.  I’m not referring to folks I’m trying to pitch, as rejection is expected in some of those interactions.  This is a more general trend.  Without the informal monitoring of a large organization, people don’t respond when they should.  Even in an 80,000 person iBank, one might worry about garnering a reputation for being “inaccessible;” free agents have no such stick.  Which begs the question, do we need big brother just to force us to show up?

A couple of illustrative examples since I started working on my own nearly a year ago…
A former colleague forwarded an email from a headhunter seeking a specific skillset for a contract position and looking for referrals.  I searched my LinkedIn, called a viable contact to discuss her interest, and provided her information back to the headhunter.  And in return? Nada!  Not a one word “thanks.”  This moron doesn’t know whether I might be looking for contract roles for myself ($ for him, if he places me), looking for contractors for my clients ($ for him, if he places there), or looking for sub-contractors to share my client portfolio (more $ for him).  His lack of acknowledgement tells me he isn’t someone I’d help out again. 

During conversation with a CEO last summer, who does a version of the consulting I do, he expressed an interest in me working as a sub-contractor on his team.  I provided a resume, he asked me to set aside some dates for an upcoming engagement and said that a couple of his colleagues would speak with me.  Then, silence.  I followed up a couple of weeks later, he said he was disappointed no one had contacted me and would chase to get meetings set up. I followed up again after a few more weeks and he didn’t respond at all.  For someone who literally wrote a book on teambuilding and networking practice, this = major fail.

I was trying to source fractional financial support for one of my clients.  I found a firm locally that had an interesting model and read their website.  There was only one contact email address, which was “info@,” no phone number.  I sent a detailed note outlining the requirements my client had and asking if we could set up a call to discuss working together.  Never heard back.  I’m sure I could have tracked an individual through LinkedIn that was employed there, but why would I do that? If that firm isn’t “on it” enough to manage a potential client – even to say they’re not accepting new business – I’m not referring a client there.

The result of these interactions isn’t just that I’m frustrated with individuals.  Its that I don’t respect them.  To me, someone who loses control over his communications, must apologize when he sees me for something he should have sent, is generally overwhelmed and frazzled, isn’t someone that I am likely to think much of professionally.  If you don’t have the discipline to control your email (not hard!), why would I assume you can stay on top of something complex like a client relationship or a project? The argument could be made that these people are merely focused on more important tasks and are effectively prioritizing; I counter that what they are doing can not be deemed effective if its doing them reputational damage.

In contrast, a coach/speaker/expert who is hugely respected in our field always returns emails within 24 hours.  This person and I are acquaintances – he is not my mentor and we’ve only worked together on one occasion.  And yet he is generous with his time and gracious in our interactions.  I think more of him based on these interactions than because of his success, or the bestsellers he’s published.  And you know who recommends his material to every CEO she works with? She’s got two thumbs and is typing this blog post right now.

I like interacting with people I admire.  Those I have something to learn from, think are smart and talented.  But, increasingly, I’m giving more weight to courtesy and the organizational wherewithal to actually respond.  I’ll make the argument here: you can be somewhat less than in all categories than a competitor and win by showing up.   If your cheeks are flushed right now, go to your laptop, devise a system for managing the deluge, and stick to it.

I have to go.  I have emails to return.

Less talented than your competition? You can still win…

On performance management….

I was recently asked to submit an article on the do’s and don’ts of performance management.  It doesn’t appear that article is going to be published, so I thought I’d put it up here for your reading pleasure.

Performance evaluation and its trappings can be a nasty little beast.  You have your top performers, who can hardly wait for the opportunity to get into a room with you to recount their accomplishments and hear your praise.  You have your under performers, who debate how to spin their shortcomings into a palatable yarn and dread the conversation.  Then you have the middle, many of whom will merely comply with the exercise and may find it stressful or useless.  This is also the group where self perception and manager evaluation are the most likely to be misaligned, producing further angst on both sides….

Some executive teams and HR thought leaders believe evaluations are going the way of the fax machine, but I believe they’re still relevant and useful if done properly.

Too often, the performance review process becomes a box-checking exercise for managers and employees alike.  A form is filled in, ratings are assigned, a conversation may or may not take place.  This is a missed opportunity for managers to create a narrative for each of their employees and to communicate an honest and holistic picture of how someone has performed and what the implications of that will be.

An annual evaluation process with a semi-annual “check in” works well. This means that an in-depth written evaluation happens annually, but every six months there is a conversation that sets expectations for what that evaluation will cover.  It ensures that bad news isn’t collected for 12 months before being shared.

My preferred process is to have employees fill in a self evaluation that includes examples and evidence to back up their assessment and provide this to their manager.  The manager then writes her evaluation, including feedback from other managers who interface directly with the employee.  The manager provides the whole document back to the employee a day or two before their review conversation is scheduled so the employee has a chance to process the information before the discussion.

The review discussion should be a dialogue that covers: past performance, areas for improvement, professional development goals for the employee, and upward feedback for the manager.  They should be in person where possible, but phone, Skype or video conference sometimes has to suffice.

Here’s a list of Do’s and Dont’s I put together a training I recently delivered.

Do:
Have a two way conversation, don’t lecture the employee
Be specific in your feedback, refer to prior conversations or issues
Focus on examples rather than conclusions
Prepare for the conversation – have an overarching theme that you want to get across
Consider your audience before the meeting and spend time thinking about your tone and messaging.  Is the employee sensitive? defensive? ambitious? angry?
Talk about behaviors, not just skills
Use the opportunity to tie together examples into a narrative
Inspire people to continue great performance, or to improve

Don’t:
Use adjectives like “be more proactive” “be less negative”.  Use real examples and specific ways you want the employee to act on the feedback.
Talk about money, vacation, or tangential issues.  Save that for a separate conversation – this is the employees’ time to talk about themselves, not about larger company issues.
Give critical feedback on things they can’t control, for example “new to role” “don’t know product” “client was slow or uncooperative” etc. This takes accountability away from the employee by blaming an external factor.  It also robs them of the ability to act on the feedback.
Bring new expectations into the conversation.  There should be no surprises in a performance review.
Allow comparisons – the bar is not set the same for everyone.
Give fifty pieces of feedback.  Prepare for the meeting and choose the key points that you want them to hear
Get into an argument.  If you and an employee disagree, listen to his side.  If you don’t believe that his perspective is correct, tell him why, and move on.

Its almost July, which means that now is the perfect time for a semi-annual check in conversation.  Go to it!

On performance management….

Can you hear me now?

Or should I say, are you listening now?

Have y’all noticed how much has been written lately about listening?

As our worlds become increasingly complex and we are more distracted by devices and information than we’ve been in history, is it a surprise that we find it difficult to focus on one to one dialogue? I’ve caught even the most zen among my peeps going elsewhere while I’m talking, surreptitiously checking their iDevice, or cold-spacing while we’re on the phone.

Most people would like to be considered good listeners.  And most people, in my experience, are not.  I’d estimate that in 85% of my interactions I find myself editing stories or rushing to finish for fear of being cut off or boring my audience.  I’d say, on average (husband excluded), I speak for 30% of the conversation and the other party for 70%.  Still, I feel pressure to self edit and minimize my air time.

I’ll acknowledge the possibility that its the content of my stories creating the issue.  But, regardless of how boring a story or poor its telling, we should learn to shut our chat holes and give people time to properly express their thoughts.  This is harder to do than to write about, but I can’t show you my mad listening skills, so…..

A few tips to grease the ear drums:

  • Pay attention to your subconscious body language.  If you notice you’re covering your mouth with your hand, physically restraining yourself from interrupting, you aren’t actively listening.  Stop it.
  • If you hear something you want to respond to, make a mental (or physical) note to come back to it.  When the other person has finished.  Seriously, when they’re all the way done.
  • Allow a couple of beats of silence for someone’s words to sink in before you respond.  You might find your comments are more insightful/relevant/funny if you’ve actually processed the information before spewing something back.
  • When you do interrupt and realize you have, apologize and ask the speaker to continue.  Nothing feels worse than being interrupted or talked over by someone who hasn’t even noticed you were speaking.
  • Make active listening gestures and sounds.  You can trick your body into listening by acting like you are.
  • If you notice your mind wandering, pull it back to the present.  If it doesn’t want to stay there, silently repeat the words and phrases you’re hearing.  Or, re-frame what you’ve heard and repeat it back to the speaker.  If your time out from the discussion has caused a lapse in your understanding, you have a chance to right the situation.
  • Admit when you’ve lost it.  I listen hard to people every day and sometimes I flake.  When I do, I stop the speaker, apologize, and prompt him to repeat himself from where I checked out.  Its likely that your conversation partner knew you weren’t paying attention.  He’ll feel better that you cared enough to ask than just stayed on brain vaykay until he was finished.

As you coach your ears to excellent listenership, think about what the rest of you is doing.  At a party or networking event are your eyes darting around the room? Are you reaching for your blackberry compulsively like a cowboy with his pistol? If so, it might be time for some open ears, eye contact, and a holster.

Can you hear me now?

In Defense of Landlines…

I will readily admit that I have generally clung to the tail end of the technological curve in life.  I was the last of my friends to have a cell phone and will admit here to having had only four different phones in the thirteen years since I first adapted.  As you can imagine, this drives my cellular service provider batty, and ensures that I never pay for hardware.

Ironically, throughout my career, most of my clients have been in the Tech space or highly tech oriented.  And while I’ve generally stayed current in my understanding and knowledge of what was cutting edge, I never felt the need to be there myself.  At home, my husband heads our IT department and ensures we’re well equipped with the latest gadgets, ignoring my resistance to replacing functioning and, in my mind, more than adequate equipment.

At a basic level, I’m not a believer that new is necessarily better.  This supposition is best illustrated by the replacement of home and office phones with cell phones.  Like all of you, I love my smart phone.  Its an appendage more than a telecommunication device, and I rely on it as my administrative assistant, personal trainer, and social filter.  Until this past weekend, it was also my office phone number and the line I used for dialing into conference calls and coaching CEOs.

But over the last nine months, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with communicating via mobile device.  Between poor sound quality, dropped calls, and a micro-second delay on the line, conversations don’t flow the way they should.  I believe many of us have adapted to these expected pitfalls and have learned to speak one at a time.  Its like passing a “talking stick” rather than engaging in real banter or dialogue.  This “everyone takes turns” approach to phone conversations substantially degrades the quality of the interaction.  Its more akin to reading emails or texts back and forth than to an in-person dialogue, which, to me, is what phone conversations aim to replace.

So, over the weekend, I tested and then purchased a calling plan on Skype.  Its a baby step back toward the 90s, but I’m not quite ready to install a wall mounted rotary telephone in my house just yet.  Today I attended my first two conference calls using this number rather than my mobile and it made a marked difference.

I don’t anticipate this blog to have “call to action” tone.  But in this instance, I posit that considering a good old fashioned landline (or Skype number) to avoid your conversations having an oversees-tin-can-two-second-delay quality is worth looking into.  Try it out and see whether you, too, find an elevated and interactive discourse results.

In Defense of Landlines…

Everything 101

When I was in high school I had a boyfriend who was adorable and funny and later became a quasi-famous actor.  One morning, he came to my house unannounced.  I was in the midst of getting ready to go rollerblading (shush, it was the 90s).  He tried to convince me to bag it and head to the beach, and I tried to convince him to join me and try rollerblading for the first time.  He declined, and when I pushed for a reason he simply said “I don’t feel like learning something new today.”  I laughed at the time and relented.  But all these years later, I think of that quote often.

Because I spend a fair amount of time meditating on my internal thought processes, I have pinpointed the emotional arc that I experience when embarking on learning something new.  Whether its teaching myself to use the sewing machine I received for Christmas, play Hive, or navigate WordPress, the story is the same.

First I procrastinate until the amount of effort I’ve wasted avoiding the task is greater than the effort of doing the task.  Then I dip a toe in; skimming an instruction manual, doing a bit of online research, or posing a question to friends with expertise.  This leads to feeling overwhelmed at which point I divert my attention to something I know how to do (checking email, snacking).  Eventually, I tackle the unknown for real and push through, exhausting myself and sucking all the fun out in the process.  Then, I recover, and eventually repeat a reasonable version of the effort until I’ve gained some mastery.

The fact that I’ve finally dissected this arc enough to understand my reticence at acquiring new skills has, in itself, been somewhat helpful.  Recognizing in myself how, when, and why I derail in the face of new challenges has helped me devise a few ways to overcome my bad habits.

1.  Git ready for learnin’

Once I’ve decided to try something new, I set aside time the day before to prepare.  This might mean digging out my sheet music, setting up my music stand and tuning my cello but not actually playing.  Or, it could be unwrapping and registering my Rosetta Stone DVDs, calling customer service when they don’t work, and testing the mic on my laptop but not actually completing a lesson.  The nasty bits of administrivia that lead to the lesson can be derailleurs in and of themselves.  Taking care of those as a separate exercise means they won’t muddy the fun of the activity itself.

2.  Early bird special

Tony Schwartz says in this article that the time to tackle your most difficult challenge is the first 90 minutes of your day.  Although not a morning person, I find I’m most creative and intellectually flexible before I’ve started to engage with the world.  I liken it to how humans are taller when we wake up in the morning than at the end of the day when gravity has compressed us toward the ground.

Whether you’re going to create a new system for organizing your email or try a spin class, do it first thing.  You’ll have less time to talk yourself out of it and more mental agility to absorb the experience.

3.  Buy vs. build

Are you really going to teach yourself Ruby on Rails or might you need to attend a course? Is your fluency in Russian on track or would a conversation partner help it along? Have you been doing your daily pull-ups or would a personal trainer kick you into gear?

In my professional life, I help clients think about what to outsource vs. do themselves everyday.  My consulting practice is based on the idea that it can pay to outsource aspects of a business.  But how often do we make the same calculations with regard to personal growth? Estimate the investment you’re willing to make in learning a desired skill.  Then consider that doing it for free (e.g. on your own) may result in not doing it at all.  Calculate.

4.  Fro-yo

When I complete a milestone that I want to achieve, I reward myself with a run, an Amazon order, a TV show, or frozen yogurt – all things I enjoy and serve as deserved time away from the rigors of self-education.  Note to teacher (that’s you): completing half the module does not entitle you to half a “30 Rock.”

Those are my hot tips for today.  Now I’m going to speak some Spanish and reward myself with a yoga class.  Class dismissed.

Everything 101