23rd Nov 2011

Five Ways to Become a Better Active Listener

An old aphorism is “Listen, else your tongue will make you deaf.”

That describes perfectly the need for active listening, which the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) defines as “a person’s willingness and ability to hear and understand someone else.”

Hearing is only half of that equation: understanding is the other half (and the more important when it comes to open communication). Think about how you’ve felt when someone is intently listening to what you have to say. Active listeners are engaging and convincing, because they show empathy for and interest in people.

These five techniques will help you to be an active listener.

  1. Reflect upon feedback. Michael Hoppe in Active Listening: Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead advises an honest self assessment. Has anyone ever asked you “Are you listening to me?” Or told you, ”You’ve already made up your mind,” or “You don’t let me get a word in edgewise”? These tell you where your listening habits need work.
  2. Surrender the need to agree (or win). Agreement is usually unnecessary. A CEO need not agree with a consultant: he or she can use a conversation to recognize a poor fit. Also, it is rare that either party “wins” when a conversation becomes a debate. (Would you switch political parties based on a five-minute conversation?) Instead, trade ideas, so that you and the speaker walk away with something to ponder.
  3. Question, do not judge. Statements like “I disagree completely,” or “That won’t work because…” tell speakers they’ve hit a wall. Instead, use questions that explore the topic. Hoppe describes three types: open ended questions, such as: “If that’s the case, what happens if …”; clarifying questions, such as: “I didn’t understand the connection, please tell me…”; and probing questions, such as: “What’s an example of when that happened?”
  4. Listen, then think. If you formulate a response while a speaker is talking, you cannot listen because your brain is otherwise occupied. You will have your chance to respond, but focus on gathering information and understanding it before you frame your response.
  5. Turn off your “people filter.” Many of us unconsciously evaluate others by their worth or interest to ourselves. Perhaps a listener engages only with those who want to talk about a given topic; who are superior in position; or are physically attractive. This filtering will limit what you can learn. Seek out individuals you don’t normally engage.

Like any skill, active listening feels forced and mechanical at first (like a golf swing or playing piano), but becomes natural with practice. In time, you will find that others seek you out in conversation. As self-help guru Dr. Phil once noted, “Charisma isn’t about saying ‘Here I am!’ It’s about saying ‘Here you are.’”

Copyright © 2011 MindEdge

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08th May 2009

Becoming a manager

By D. Quinn Mills

Making a transition into management is a major challenge and some people don’t succeed at it. New managers need to be very careful about identifying, and employing, the keys to success.

Management is about tasks, including what and how things are done. Managers need to know the objectives of their department or team and how to achieve the objectives. This aspect of management is objective and impersonal.

But management is also about people. Managers direct and supervise other people. Managers integrate and match people and tasks in order to get work accomplished.

The role of a manager is to accomplish things through other people. For the most part, managers are not people who actually do the work, but rather managers supervise, direct and motivate those who perform work.

This isn’t to say that managers don’t work—they do managerial tasks, but not the tasks related directly to production of the products and services provided to customers or clients. Those who do the direct work are called individual contributors. It is the role of a manager to direct individual contributors; this is a fundamental distinction that needs to be kept always in mind.

The managerial point of view

In fact, when a person gets her or his first managerial job, a most important key to success is that the new manager understands and adopts a managerial point of view. This point of view reflects the distinction we made just above— that a manager gets things done through other people, rather than doing them himself or herself.

Some new managers fail to understand or adopt the managerial point of view, and so they fail as managers. They were probably excellent individual contributors, and possibly that’s why they were chosen to be made managers. But because they were good at the work they were doing, they want to continue doing it.

As managers, however, they have a broader responsibility, so now they try to do the work of several people, or to continue to do their own individual contributor’s work, and also manager others. In other words, they don’t let go of their previous work—they just try to add on more work— that of a manager. They often break down under the load, or don’t have time to do anything well. Either way, they fail to become effective managers.

It is this failure to let go of a person’s role as an individual contributor and grab hold of a manager’s responsibility for directing others that is the key cause of failure for new managers.

Management is about other people. A manager works within a web of human relationships— those of the people he or she supervises and of the manager’s peers and superiors. If you’re a person who likes to be on her own, management probably isn’t for you. Key managerial skills are good people skills. The vision, dedication, and integrity of a manager determine success or failure.

It’s a manager’s role to see that work gets organized, that individuals take responsibility for particular tasks, that tasks are coordinated so that they add up to accomplishing an overall project, and that the work is done on schedule and to the necessary standards of quality. The objective of managers is always to create top performing organizations.

A manager focuses on the group of people that she or he directs, and on each individual among them. The group accomplishes the work; the individual is developed and makes his or her own contribution. The manager’s job is to do both well.

D. Quinn Mills, the Alfred J. Weatherhead Jr. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (emeritus), consults with major corporations in the U.S. and globally. He has written extensively on leadership, strategy, and management issues.

Copyright © 2009 D. Quinn Mills

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02nd Apr 2009

Use Sales Skills to Give Effective Presentations

by Karen McHenry

Even if your job title isn’t “Sales Executive”, there’s an element of sales involved in everyday business interactions. Sales techniques can be particularly useful when preparing and giving presentations. Key to effective presentations is body language, understanding the audience, and giving the right communication signals.

Words + Body Language = Successfully Communicated Message

Presentations appeal to both our sense of hearing and our sense of sight. The words that a speaker uses are important. However, effective sales people and presenters recognize that the spoken word combines with body language to create an overall message. Body language can’t be underestimated as an important component of presentations.

When making a presentation, you should avoid body language that conveys discomfort or unfriendliness. Examples include: keeping your hands in your pockets, clasping your hands behind your back (i.e., military “at ease” stance), and folding your arms in front of you. It is essential to maintain an open and friendly expression on your face, and to maintain eye contact with the audience.

By combining a well crafted presentation with neutral body language, you greatly increase the likelihood of communicating your message successfully.

Know and Involve the Audience

Before you prepare even a single word of a presentation, you should know who your audience is. This will allow you to tailor your message to the specific group you will be talking to. Sales people know that they may have only one chance to meet with a prospect – knowing as much as possible about the audience beforehand increases the chance of success.

In the event that you are asked to give an on-the-spot presentation, it can be useful to ask the audience a few short questions at the beginning. This will allow you quickly modify your message and also perhaps anticipate potential questions.

Audiences have an incredibly short attention span – on the order of 13 seconds. People in sales have learned to repeatedly engage the audience over the course of a meeting. This same principle applies to presentations. There are a number of different techniques that you can use to involve your audience:

  • Try using a prop to get the audience’s attention and interest.
  • Ask “check-in” questions during the course of presentation. For example, you might ask, “How important is that to you?” or “What do you think of that idea?”
  • Tell interesting stories. While people may be conditioned to resist a sales pitch or a dull presentation, few can resist the pull of a good story.
  • Walk around the presentation space. This movement increases interaction with the audience. In addition, it requires the presenter to maintain better eye contact with the group.

Joe Tragert, Director of Market Development at an information services firm, makes numerous presentations. He is constantly “selling” new product ideas to various internal groups, customers, and prospects in a variety of venues. These range from a few people in an office, to a few hundred people at an industry conference. “The basis for a successful presentation is knowing what the audience is interested in and sharing your vision or detailed view with them in a way to which they can relate,” Tragert said. “Encouraging audience input as much as is practical is a great way to get new input for your ideas, and also to get your ideas across to that audience. When people are engaged in the information exchange, they tend to retain more of the information you provide.”

Simplify Communication Signals

When crafting the content of your presentation, focus on keeping it simple and easy to understand. It is a good practice to avoid jargon, legalese, and acronyms. When sentences are simple and short, they are easier to remember. Sales people often treat talking points as sound bites that will be easy to write down and remember. The same principle applies to non-sales presentations. Organize your thoughts, be succinct, and don’t be afraid to repeat key ideas more than once.

Also bear in mind that you may be communicating more than your message. Be aware of anything which could be a distraction from your presentation – this might be noisy jewelry, coins that rattle in a pocket, or clothing that is distracting. Simplifying your message also applies to your appearance.

The measure of a good salesperson is how many deals he or she closes. The measure of a good presenter is the enthusiasm of the applause. By applying sales techniques, such as body language, involving the audience, and simplifying the message, you are sure to deliver more engaging and dynamic presentations.

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.

Copyright © 2008 Karen McHenry

All rights reserved

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20th Mar 2009

Rethinking and revising

By Jefferson Flanders

Writers differ in the way they move from outlining, whether formal or informal in nature, to composing. In creating their initial draft, some writers find they are most comfortable writing sequentially: they prefer composing, and polishing, their opening paragraph before moving on the second paragraph, their second before their third, and so on, until they reach their concluding paragraph. This step-by-step writing approach consequently matches the sequence of their outline.

In contrast to this ordered approach, some writers gravitate to block-writing—composing stand-alone paragraphs or blocks of prose and then connecting them together. I am a block writer, a reflection, in part, of lessons learned working for a wire service and for newspapers. Block-writing is common in journalism—often made necessary by deadline coverage of breaking news. Writing unconnected segments can build most of a news story in advance of filing, with the opening paragraphs saved for last (“topping” the story, in wire service parlance).

One benefit of block-writing is that it can help those who from suffer writer’s block. Writers who struggle to fashion the “perfect lead” and find themselves creatively blocked can be liberated by skipping ahead to compose other parts of their essay, report or article. Many times writing these blocks will help to surface ideas for that troublesome opening.

While the process of composition may differ from writer to writer, those who seek greater clarity in their prose know that the initial draft represents only the first of probably several drafts before completion. And the first step in this iterative process is rethinking and revising what you have written.

The great American writer Mark Twain, who advocated a clear and direct prose style, noted: “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.” Revision involves looking at the piece of writing in its entirety. It asks the writer to rethink sequence and shape. It is what Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story, calls “contemplating the structure.” Franklin advocates rereading your draft “as though you had never seen it before, as a reader would read it.”

There is a difference between rethinking/revising and rewriting. Rewriting follows the rethinking/revising stage and is narrower in scope. Rewriting focuses on words and phrases, sentence length and construction, and using language precisely. It’s when writer works on his or her style. Clear writers look to rewriting as an opportunity to prune and tighten their prose, communicating as much as possible in the fewest words necessary.

This distinction between revision and rewriting is somewhat artificial, of course, because in practice they often overlap. As you rethink you may decide to reorder and rearrange, which can mean rewriting initial (or topic) sentences in paragraphs, or changing transitions, to make the writing flow sequentially.

The scope and direction of the rethinking/revision process will reflect the writer. If you “write long,” then rethinking your writing will mean identifying what is vital to your argument and/or story and eliminating the extraneous. If you “write short” (my tendency), then revision will involve fleshing out your argument, and identifying where a more comprehensive approach is called for. In either case, the writer needs to keep an eye on word count—recognizing and respecting the reader’s finite attention span.

The rethinking/revision process has often exposed flaws in my initial draft: a too-glib thesis, an argument without enough supporting evidence, an inviting opening sentence that doesn’t really fit the rest of the piece. Revision requires a certain toughness on the part of the writer, a willingness to go back for more research, or to sacrifice that well-crafted, but off-point, paragraph or tangential argument. In extreme cases it may mean starting over completely.

There’s no set way to rethink and revise. Some writers start by comparing their draft with their outline. Franklin advises: “If there are parts of the structure that seem wrong, and the problem isn’t immediately apparent, consult your outline.” Another technique involves listing all of your topic sentences and consider whether they offer a logical, and sequenced, argument.

I print a hard copy of my working draft so I can see the structure of my paragraphs and sentences on paper. I begin by reading the essay or report out loud and looking for the unanswered questions a reader might ask. Where are the holes? What is missing? Then I turn to the shape and structure of the writing. Does it flow logically? Is the sequence natural (does it move from the general to the specific, for example)? I may find that paragraphs need to be reordered, or combined, for a more logical presentation of my argument.

Taking the time to rethink your writing will make the final polishing of your piece in the rewriting phase all that much easier. You can concentrate on wordsmithing, confident that your essay or story’s logic and flow will hold up to scrutiny. A successful rethinking and revision process can mean a faster rewrite—the writer’s equivalent of “measure twice, cut once.”

Jefferson Flanders is an author, educator and independent journalist. He blogs on issues of the day at Neither Red nor Blue.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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07th Feb 2009

Delegating: when there aren’t enough hours in the day

By Karen McHenry

Do any of these statements sound familiar to you?

  • I bring work home on most nights and weekends.
  • I always seem to have more work to do than my subordinates.
  • I don’t have time to do much planning.
  • I wish I had more time for family, recreation, and vacations.

If even one of these statements resonated with you, then it may be time for you to considering delegating tasks to others in your organization.

What is delegation anyway? Delegation is more than just assigning work to another person. It means making staff members accountable for results. It also means giving a subordinate the latitude to make decisions about how to go about reaching those results. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes two different types of delegation:

  • “Gopher Delegation” is telling employees what to do, how to do it, when it needs to be done, and then micromanaging to make sure that they are doing what you asked.
  • “Stewardship Delegation” focuses on results, rather than on methods. It allows the other person to choose how to accomplish the assignment and holds that person accountable for achieving the results.

Stewardship delegation is, of course, the preferred form of delegation. It requires trust and often brings out the best in people. However, it also takes time and patience. As Joe Raia, Senior Associate at Leers Weinzapfel Associates Architects, notes, “A firm’s success is dependent upon the ability of senior level executives and managers to delegate work to employees in a manner that not only challenges the employee, but puts them in the best position to excel. Ultimately, an executive or manager is measured by the accomplishments and recognition garnered by those who have been delegated work.”

Delegating successfully

If you think you may be ready to give delegation a try, there are ways to determine what tasks you can delegate and tips for making delegation a success.

A good first step in determining what tasks to delegate is to identify everything that you are responsible for both at work and home. Of those responsibilities, determine what you are most passionate about and what you are best at doing. For all the things that remain, identify what you can say no to and what you can delegate. It is important to keep in mind that even the tasks that you enjoy doing and are good at doing may be activities that you can delegate to others.

Once you have decided what tasks you are going to delegate, it makes sense to explore what it takes to be a successful delegator.

Prepare in advance. With delegation, the more you prepare, the better your results will be. You should take time to think through the task that needs to be done and what you want the outcome to be. It can be helpful to ask yourself the following questions: What needs to be done in a particular way? Where would a person have some creative freedom? What specific outcomes am I looking for?

Next you must decide who on the team might be a promising candidate to take on the work. You might select a person because they are the best qualified and can deliver the best results. Or you might, instead, pick a subordinate who will most benefit from the learning experience associated with the task. Ask yourself how likely it is that the person you have selected will succeed at the project.

Raia observes, “There are two types of workers, Self-Motivated and Motivated by Others. When delegating a task, it is the Self-Motivated worker that succeeds because they take ownership of the task. The challenges that a specific task represents in terms of the work effort and schedule becomes personal to the Self-Motivated worker, as it represents a means to measure their own level of success. For the person delegating work, this requires less oversight and limits the potential for micro-managing.”

Provide enough information through a dialogue. Schedule a meeting with your team member and discuss the task to be. Provide the “big picture” so the employee can see how the work fits into the group’s overall objectives. Ask the person to repeat back what they believe the project entails. This will ensure that you are in agreement about the task and the desired outcomes.

Merle Adelman, President of Adelman Associates, a marketing consulting practice, comments, “The key to delegation is to be clear with direction and to follow up on a regular basis, without micromanaging. Describe your needs and deliverables as clearly as possible, and use examples when they are available. Ensure that your people feel that they have two-way communication and that they feel comfortable clarifying anything that they may have questions on.”

Delegate the entire job and give authority. When you delegate a task, be sure that others know that you’ve given responsibility to that individual. It is also important to articulate what level of authority the team member is being given. “Recommend” authority means that you are asking the person for a recommendation on a course of action, but you make the final decision. “Inform and initiate” authority means that the employee will inform you before they take action. “Act” authority means that you are giving the team member full authority to act on their own.

Establish check-in dates. At the kickoff of the project, schedule a series of checkpoint meetings. It makes sense at the start of the work to meet frequently, then taper off as the person gains proficiency with the tasks.

Set deadlines. It is a bad idea to leave projects open-ended, without a clear deadline. With that said, it is also important to ensure that deadlines are realistic and achievable, especially when delegating a stretch goal to an employee. Consider where the project fits with the person’s other existing job responsibilities, and what priority this task has relative to the other tasks already on their plate. One key to successful delegation is to delegate according to the flexibility of your deadline.

Provide support, when needed. As employees progress with a task that you have delegated, offer positive and corrective feedback. Don’t focus on what is wrong, but instead point out ways that the work could be done better. It can be helpful to point out roadblocks that may be encountered as part of completing the project. Also, if something is not going well, provide support from behind the scenes. For example, you might discreetly contact someone who is not cooperating with the employee.

When delegation is done successfully, it can be a win-win situation for managers and employees. Employees develop professionally, as they take initiative with opportunities and are willing to be held accountable. Managers, on the other hand, extend their ability to accomplish more things more quickly, while maintaining work-life balance.

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology, and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.

Copyright © 2009 Karen McHenry

All rights reserved

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30th Jan 2009

Dealing with a layoff

By Karen McHenry

In this economic downturn, the reality of layoffs has become a common occurrence. Although the first thing to come to mind may be the financial challenges created by a layoff, people often don’t recognize the emotional turmoil that downsizing can cause. The key to surviving a layoff is your reaction to the situation. If you have recently lost your job, there are a number of productive ways that you can deal with this life change and work towards finding a new job.

Expect A Variety of Emotions to Emerge. It is common for people who have been laid off to experience a wide range of emotions. You may feel happy and upbeat one day, and discouraged the next. Robert Lester, an experienced program manager and distance learning manager at a software company, recently went through a company downsizing. He observed, “After I was laid off, I felt 99% disappointment, but also 1% relief. After the initial shock, there was a flurry of activity where I was networking, analyzing opportunities, and updating my resume. Then things slow down a bit and you feel impatient and kind of in limbo.”

There is a grieving process that accompanies the loss of a job and many people experience denial, anger, sadness, bargaining, and eventually acceptance of their situation. Remember that you are more than your job and take some time to remind yourself of your accomplishments. Joan Van Vranken, a seasoned trainer at a Boston-area software company, was shocked by a layoff, but sees some benefit in it too. “I won’t lie,” she commented. “It was a blow. But in some ways, it was time for me to make a change and this forced my hand. I’m taking this as an opportunity to explore new things. To be honest, I wake up with more energy now than I’ve had in the past couple of years.”

Avoid Isolation. After experiencing a job loss, you may feel like retreating from the world. However, job search experts advise that you should resist this isolation. Recovery seldom begins when one is alone. Consider attending meetings of different organizations as a way of networking. Getting involved with social and civic groups, as well as professional and trade associations, are all good ways to combat isolation and also to network. You may also want to find a career counselor or join a support group. Staying socially active will help boost your energy levels and improve your attitude.

Create Structure in Your Day. The vast majority of people rely on structure in their lives. Even though you are not going to an office each morning, try creating structure in your day. Incorporate activities that will improve your physical and mental health, such as exercising, eating sensibly, getting sufficient sleep, and reflecting on your situation. Before the layoff, Robert Lester had worked as a remote employee, so he was familiar with organizing his day while working at his home office. He explained, “It’s helpful to get some exercise during a lunch break and also to work from a local coffee shop. My new job is looking for a new opportunity. It’s not realistic to think that I can do that eight hours a day, but I am familiar with working in a home office environment and recognize the importance of making contact with people during the day.”

Some people find it useful to start a journal where they can express the ups and downs of their day-to-day experiences. Other activities you may want to consider include: listening to music that you enjoy, writing a letter that expresses all your feelings and then shredding it, watching a funny movie, calling a friend, or volunteering for an organization in your community.

Focus on Self-Improvement. As you search for a new job, it can also be helpful to invest in knowledge that will help you in the workplace. For example, you might consider attending conference training sessions, pursuing certifications, or enrolling in courses that will give you an edge.

Van Vranken is exploring a new career in teaching and is considering getting a Masters degree in education. “I feel like I am busy all day, doing investigative work focused on university programs. I was certified to teach in New York, but I’m now figuring out what I need to do to get back into education. Once I got over shock of the layoff, I was determined to bring a positive attitude to the situation.” Lester is also considering a career change. He has a Bachelors degree in Graphic Design and is looking into Masters programs focusing on Art Education.

Plan the Job Search. Although you may be tempted to start looking for a new job right away after a layoff, think about taking a couple of weeks to work through your feelings. Grief can sabotage interviews, if you don’t take time to work through your emotions. When you feel ready, reach out to your network and bring your resume up-to-date.

Your resume should market your skills and potential, and it should describe how you made a difference in an organization with concrete results. Redefine your past job performance in a way that is results-oriented and that demonstrates assets to potential employers. As you embark on your job search, be sure to compartmentalize your efforts so they don’t dominate your entire day. Set aside four or five hours each day for researching, applying for, and interviewing for jobs. Use the remaining time for activities that enhance your physical and mental health.

A layoff can certainly be an unexpected blow. Accept the emotions as they come, take care of yourself, and when you feel ready, start the job search. Before you know it, you will be back in the workplace, stronger than ever.

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.

Copyright © 2009 Karen McHenry

All rights reserved

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21st Jul 2008

Managing virtual teams

By Karen McHenry

In today’s global business environment, companies need to move quickly and operate in the most cost-effective ways possible. As a result, virtual teams have become commonplace for large and small organizations alike. Virtual teams are groups working across time, geography, and organizational boundaries by employing the Web and other communications technology. In large companies, workgroups are often comprised of employees in distant countries. Small companies, operating on lean budgets, may decide to outsource different functions overseas for economic reasons.

When organizations elect to create virtual teams, they focus on the potential advantages, such as the diversity of the team, or the potential for “round the clock” productivity with employees working in multiple time zones. However, companies must also be aware of the challenges that accompany virtual teams. For these groups to be successful, managers cannot use the old rules of leadership. New ways of working require different skills.

Creating a Social Context

The social aspect of work is a key contributor to well-functioning groups, whether they are co-located or virtual. Hallway conversations that traditional teams take for granted, however, are significantly more difficult for virtual teams. While technology is a great enabler for exchanging information and facilitating work, it doesn’t necessarily cultivate personal connections.

Cultural and language differences can also make it challenging for virtual teams to develop a social context. Managers must make a concerted effort to understand the cultural norms of the team and to manage across those.

Olga Voronina, a senior interaction designer and usability specialist at a technical computing software company, recounted a recent experience working with a virtual team.”I was working with a virtual team which included engineers from France, Germany, and the United States, with the management team located in the U.S. We felt that we needed to use a single language for work-related communications, both spoken and written. English was chosen because most team members were fluent in it. The biggest challenge in the beginning was the differing levels of proficiency in English that the team members exhibited. It quickly became apparent that making your best effort in trying to speak English was not enough. The company resolved the issue by offering free local English classes to team members, several times a week after work. In about three months, team communications improved dramatically.”

This example shows how it pays to check a virtual team’s proficiency in a chosen language and then to invest in formal training for those team members who need help. This approach not only breaks language barriers, but it also helps the team to become productive sooner.

Developing Process

With virtual teams, process is crucial. Developing processes around project and task management, problem-solving, decision-making, and conflict management can be useful. When co-located teams work together, managers may not realize how many small questions and uncertainties are resolved through impromptu discussions. In contrast, if uncertainties arise with a virtual workgroup, the team members may simply move forward based on their own assumptions rather than seeking clarification. If clear processes are in place, then assumptions are less likely to be made.

Greg Lueck, a senior software engineer at Intel, works closely with a team in Israel. He noted that, “In general, software development teams use a lot of processes such as code check-in procedures and code reviews. We have tailored our processes to work more effectively with our global team. For example, if developers need a code review right away, they will request it from a colleague in their own time zone.”

Although process is important, managers should bear in mind that it may take longer to establish process and procedures with a virtual team.

Managing Virtual Teams

Without a doubt, managers will need to develop and apply new skills in order to cultivate a virtual team. For example:

  • Clearly articulating team goals and individual roles. While this may seem like Management 101, many managers underestimate the importance of goals and roles for virtual teams. Setting clear objectives helps a workgroup to maintain team identity and connection to other members. Clearly defining roles helps individuals to understand what work they need to accomplish within the overall goals and processes of the project.
  • Coaching remote employees. Effective managers coach and mentor their staff. With virtual teams, however, this can be more difficult. Managers must make a concerted effort to reach out to remote employees and identify ways to promote individual development.
  • Creating the technological infrastructure needed to facilitate communication. Virtual team leaders must be proficient with the different technologies which support communication between group members. Senior management needs to understand how important it is to have an infrastructure where communication can occur anytime and anyplace.

Selecting Enabling Technologies

There are a variety of technologies which can enable the work of virtual teams. Useful tools include: audio or videoconferencing, email, instant messaging, and collaboration software where project information can be shared.

Video has proven to be an excellent tool for Olga Voronina. She said, “To establish a more personal connection, we often include video in our virtual meetings. It is amazing how much difference it makes when you can see faces and reactions of your colleagues across the ocean. Seeing each other on a regular basis is an important element of improving the quality of team communications, even if the video is not super clear or if there is some delay in receiving the video transmission.”

Greg Lueck commented, “We’ve found Wikis to be a good way to distribute knowledge between our teams in the U.S. and Israel. Of course, we also use things like email and LiveMeeting heavily. There is a lot of benefit to having teams distributed around the world. You can hand off a project at the end of the day, with the expectation that work will continue overnight and the project will be farther along when you come into the office in the morning.”

Without a doubt, the advent of virtual teams has helped to make the world a little bit smaller. These workgroups hold a great deal of potential for companies in terms of productivity and cost savings. At the same time, virtual teams have also created opportunities for managers to learn new skills and grow as leaders. Organizations that acknowledge the unique characteristics and needs of virtual teams are much more likely to reap their benefits.

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.

Copyright © 2008 Karen McHenry

All rights reserved

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18th Jul 2008

Rewriting for greater clarity

By Jefferson Flanders

When you have finished the initial draft of your essay or paper or report, reviewed your writing for logic and made any necessary structural adjustments, then it’s time for rewrite for clarity.

While the focus in this rewriting is on the microcosm of writing (word choice, word meaning, phrase choice, sentence construction, sentence length), the clear writer remains alert to the macrocosm, as well, stepping back and making revisions in the structure of the work when called for.

Rewriting for clarity focuses on choosing the most precise words and phrases, those that most clearly communicate meaning. What might confuse or mislead the reader? What terms or concepts need better explanations? Any writer striving for clarity would be well served to adopt the approach taken by the Wall Street Journal in providing clear-language definitions of complex business and financial terminology. The Journal editors look to make the newspaper’s articles comprehensible to even casual readers who may not follow business and economic news with any frequency.

Rewriting also involves eliminating or altering any ambiguity or vagueness in your writing at the phrase or sentence level. Clear writers tighten their prose throughout the rewriting process so they can communicate as much as possible in the fewest words needed. The goal is simple, direct prose that is clear to the reader. These four general principles can act as a guide:

  • Rewrite to emphasize your main ideas. Make sure key sentences start with the main, independent clause, since that will include the most important information. Lawyers are often guilty of beginning a sentence with a string of dependent clauses and postponing the independent clause until later—not surprising, legal documents can be very difficult to decipher. Whatever material is irrelevant or tangential should be cut. Don’t let it distract from your central message. Be as concise as possible without losing meaning. Your readers will appreciate the economy.
  • Favor the specific over the general, the direct over the complex, the concrete over the abstract. Even the most complicated ideas can be explained in relatively simple terms: look no further than science writers like John McPhee or Gina Kolata for proof that complexity can be distilled and explained. If you are going to make general pronouncements, be sure to back them up with evidence or examples.
  • Eliminate vague and ambiguous words and phrases. Start with jargon and inflated vocabulary, because these take up space without benefiting the reader. In business writing, recognize that the jargon of the board room and management consultant may be comforting in their familiarity, but they often obscure meaning. Yes, you may have to use some of the jargon of your industry, but keep it to a minimum.

    The same holds true for political writing, where as George Orwell famously noted in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” euphemisms and what he called “ready-made phrases,” are often employed to obscure, and blur, what is really happening. The best way to avoid this is to rely on simple and direct language, rather than on slogans or catch-phrases (“Leadership for the future! Moving our country forward!”).

  • Put yourself in the reader’s chair for a final read-through of your writing. What might be confusing? What isn’t defined or explained? Which sentences are too long (20 words is a good average sentence length)? I find reading out loud to be helpful in this final step—hearing the words helps me catch the padded phrase or vague adjective. I’m always on the lookout for Latinates (longer words drawn from Latin that often end in -zation, or -tion, or –ize) and try to substitute the Anglo-Saxon alternative instead (“use” for “utilization”; “built” rather than “constructed”; “said” rather than “communicated”).

Rewriting for greater clarity has value only when it helps the reader. Tight, direct prose is easier to understand and follow. The reader shouldn’t have to read an article, story, report, or essay more than once to comprehend it. Writers often tinker with their prose for other reasons—to add color or storytelling detail, to insure a cohesive style—but readers benefit the most when their goal is clarity.

Jefferson Flanders is an author, educator and independent journalist. He blogs on issues of the day at Neither Red nor Blue.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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14th Jul 2008

Individual contributors and leadership

By Karen McHenry

More and more companies have adopted a “flat” organizational structure as a way to reduce costs and become more nimble. With management positions few and far between, numerous professionals are electing to make careers through individual contributor roles. Is it possible to be both an individual contributor and a leader? The answer is a resounding “Yes.” Let’s explore three keys to building credibility as an individual contributor: expertise, values, and vision.

Become an Expert

Many individual contributors act as coordinators, working through others. The challenge for professionals like product managers or marketing managers is that they have no direct authority over the people they need to influence. One way to successfully persuade others is through expertise.

Developing expertise can take many forms. For example, individual contributors may become product experts. This requires experiencing the product through the eyes of the customer, acting as a customer advocate, and translating customer insights into actionable business requirements. When a team member conveys product expertise, his or her requests carry more weight with others.

Eric Salerno, Product Marketing Manager at Liquid Machines, noted: “People from all parts of an organization are interested in influencing product development, but without input from a customer or evidence such as hard data to justify their ideas, it can be difficult to be heard. Talking with customers helps, but I have found that communicating with potential customers about their needs and translating that information into feature specifications is a much more likely way to impact an organization’s product direction.”

Another form of expertise is market knowledge. Having in-depth knowledge of competitors, as well as partners, can be very valuable to an organization. Employees with market expertise are the “go-to” people when product decisions must be made that will affect the company’s competitiveness.

Individual contributors may also be process experts who know how to navigate the organization. For example, a product manager who is an engineering expert understands how the development team makes its decisions. By staying on top of projects and understanding how much detail teams need for an idea to gain traction, the process expert can successfully shepherd projects through the various organizational channels.

As Ilene Tatroe, Senior Product Manager at Kronos, commented: “We rarely run across a single way to implement a feature, but the options can run from relatively low-cost to high-cost, as well as minimal design to ritzy. The development team looks to me, as a product manager, to ask the right questions, not just of our customers, but of internal stakeholders – such as sales, support, and service – so that I can determine the right balance of cost and functionality.” A combination of product expertise, as well as internal organizational knowledge, gives individual contributors authority within the team and leadership within the company.

Demonstrate Values

The values that individual contributors exhibit are another good way to develop credibility. Common traits associated with leaders include:

  • Commitment to the success of the project. Not surprisingly, people are more likely to be considered leaders when they show commitment to their work. This can be demonstrated through a strong work ethic. It may also be evident in the ability to make tough decisions. No one likes hard choices, but the willingness to take a position and stand behind a decision is definitely valued.
  • Being a “team player.” As an individual contributor, working to advance the team’s goal (instead of individual goals) is critically important. Developing trust with people from various functional areas is a necessity. Personal relationships are a key component of persuading others to a particular point of view.
  • Showing enthusiasm. A positive attitude can be infectious. Those people who demonstrate enthusiasm for their projects are perceived as fun to work with. This trait, along with expertise, forms a powerful combination for individual contributors seeking an informal leadership role.

Articulate a Vision

One clear way that individual contributors can differentiate themselves is by taking their project and articulating a vision for it. This means creating a picture of the ideal project outcomes that others support. However, a vision alone is not enough. True leaders back up their vision with a realistic roadmap for accomplishing that vision.

Whether your personal goals are to move into a management position or to remain an individual contributor, there are steps you can take today to increase your credibility and become a more valuable employee. Expertise, values and vision are a few tools to use on your journey. Along the way, you are sure to gain credibility with peers, become a better leader, and help your organization reach its objectives.

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.

Copyright © 2008 Karen McHenry

All rights reserved

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04th Jun 2008

Building your personal brand

By Karen McHenry

As consumers, we are all very familiar with the concept of brands. We may like to buy a certain type of soda, wear a particular clothing label, or drive a specific make of car. Yet, how many of us have thought about ourselves as a brand? And furthermore, how many of us have considered how our “personal brand” affects our career, whether we are content in our current job or whether we are searching for a new opportunity?

What is a personal brand, anyway?

Turning to Marketing 101, the American Marketing Association defines a brand as the name, term, design, symbol or other feature that identifies a seller’s goods as distinct from those of other sellers. The personal brand, in contrast, can be viewed as the way that our personal work is perceived as being different from those of our colleagues.

Philip Kotler in the classic text, Marketing Management, suggests that a brand can convey meaning on as many as six different levels, including attributes, benefits, values, culture, personality, and user. This concept also applies to a personal brand. When a manager thinks of an employee, he or she immediately considers the quality of the employee’s work (attributes), how well the employee’s work reflects the company’s mission (values), and how the employee gets work done (values and personality).

How Can a Personal Brand Support Your Career?

Even if we acknowledge that the concept of branding can be applied to individuals through a personal brand, you might ask yourself, “So what? Why should I care?” Crafting a strong personal brand can offer benefits, such as:

  • It can make you a stronger competitor for interesting projects. When managers perceive that an employee generates high quality work which contributes to the company’s objectives, that individual is more likely to be first on the list for upcoming, high visibility projects.
  • It can give you an edge in a job search situation. When a consumer buys a product, the brand carries information—if you buy this product, you are assured of receiving the brand’s quality. A personal brand can serve the same purpose. It can help to differentiate you from other candidates for a job.
  • It can help you transition from one career field to another. Rich Weissman, Director of Endicott College’s Center for Leadership & Online Programs, was able to transition from manufacturing to his current position due in part to personal branding activities. He commented, “I made a long-term transition from manufacturing to education, with stints in Internet businesses, consulting and teaching along the way. I discovered early on that I liked teaching and was fortunate to begin to take on some seminar and workshop assignments with an industry association where I was active. I increased my confidence, scope, and experience. By building on those activities, I was able to leverage that experience into a teaching assignment at a Boston-area university and go from there.”

How Do You Develop a Personal Brand?

The key to developing a personal brand is threefold: Identifying how your work is different from others; Communicating your brand clearly; Further developing your brand over time.

In establishing your brand, the first step is to identify the ways that your work is different and unique from others. Positioning is how a company differentiates itself to its target customers. In personal branding, you must do the same thing. Questions to ask yourself as you determine how your work is unique and different include:

  • What qualities and characteristics differentiate you from your colleagues?
  • What have you done recently that stood out?
  • What would your colleagues and/or your manager say is your greatest strength?
  • What do you do that adds true value to your employer’s organization?
  • What have you accomplished that you feel proud of and can take credit for?

Now that you have created an inventory of the qualities, characteristics, and projects that make you unique, you have all the raw materials that you will need to create a plan for communicating your personal brand. A good first step is creating a personal positioning statement—this is succinct statement (usually ten words or less) which summarizes what you can offer to an employer. Next, you may want to think about how you can raise your visibility within your organization and even within your community. For example, you might volunteer to take on an additional project at work. Or you could consider doing some freelance or pro bono work within the community.

Once you have started the process of crafting a personal brand, you will want to further develop that brand over time. There are many different ways that you can reinforce how you are different and the areas where you have expertise. Teaching is a great way to connect with people and to communicate your knowledge. Possible venues include a community college, your town’s adult education program, or a course at your workplace.

Presenting at an industry association conference is another good way to develop your personal brand. If you aren’t a fan of public speaking, try writing. Contributing to a local newspaper or to a professional newsletter can be an effective way to enhance and communicate your personal brand. Through a variety of activities, Rich Weissman has built a personal brand that spans both industry and academic fields. He noted, “I have managed to maintain a linkage with my industry background and current academic responsibilities. I primarily teach operations management at the graduate and undergraduate level and write for some industry publications. I am also active in the community, serving on some boards of local industry and social service organizations. This has allowed me to strengthen my relationships with industry, academia and the community.”

No matter where you are in your career, cultivating a personal brand makes sense. If you are content at your current company, a strong personal brand can help you advance within the organization and work on more interesting projects. For those who are looking to change jobs, a personal brand can help differentiate you from your competition. Even if you want to change your field entirely, incorporating different types of activities into your personal brand can help you make that transition.

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.

Copyright © 2008 Karen McHenry

All rights reserved

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