Posts in career
Big successful companies don't have it all figured out

It’s easy to assume the companies we know and hear about everyday are grounded in solid workflows, optimized processes and robust decision trees. They’re well-known and successful for many reasons—one of them being they’ve refined how they internally operate.

When you speak to people who work at these companies, it’s apparent the Google’s and the Amazon’s of this world struggle with fundamental operational issues just like everyone else. As great as they are, they don’t have it all figured out.

No company is perfect, but often the best companies struggle with the same internal issues as everyone else. They might lack a proper decision-making framework, their procurement system is broken, or they can’t decide how best to handle career and promotion decisions.

This is humbling to know. Big and successful doesn’t mean perfect internal processes. Keep this in mind next time you’re struggling to reconcile a difficult internal issue in your role—it’s likely even the most successful companies haven’t figured it out either.

Be a brain, then a human

When establishing relationships with new people at the office, a mentor of mine had this advice for me recently...

First prove you’re a brain, then show you’re a human.

In other words—first add value, then show you’re relatable.

My mentor knows me well. Well enough to know this advice would flip the script and force me to approach a common scenario in a different way.

My default is to want to do the opposite—I instinctively want to meet someone first, show my human side and then get to the I-can-add-value-here-too part.

The add value first advice is well suited to establishing working relationship with executives or anyone who is much more senior than you. You’re forced to think carefully about what value you can add and act on it, so you have an easy way to quickly get in front of them.

And when you do get in front of them, your task is twofold—package up your good work in a way that strips out unnecessary detail and respects the other person’s time and, most importantly, show you’re a relatable and likeable human.

What taking class with professional ballerinas taught me

When you take ballet classes in New York City, sooner rather than later you’ll find yourself recognizing a famous dancer alongside you at the barre.

If you can get over the intimidation factor, there’s much to learn from being around the very best at your craft.

When class ends most students warm down for a bit, gather up their things and go home. But—and here’s the thing I’ve noticed—the best students in the class continue to practice long after class is over.

The hardest and most intensive part of any ballet class is right at the end. You’ve spent the last 90+ minutes building up the flexibility and movement in your body. You’re working in the center and without the barre. It’s when you do the most complicated choreography.

Right when you’re at your best, it’s time to go home. You’re exhausted. The best dancers push through the fatigue—they know they’re primed to dance at this point and they continue practicing long after class has ended.

After class is also the best time to get the teacher’s attention. Most teachers will hang around after class to answer questions and speak to their students. If you’re working on building or refining a move, it’s an ideal opportunity to get one-on-one instruction from your teacher.

The question then is—what’s your version of the 20 minutes after ballet class? You need to ask yourself—when do most people quit? What can you do so you don’t quit and go home too? What will give you more dedicated and structured practice, and hopefully, with personalized feedback from someone who has mastered your craft long before you?

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It’s World Ballet Day tomorrow!

The best professional companies from around the world will be streaming live from inside their studios, giving you a look inside company ballet classes and behind-the-scenes rehearsals.

How to give better feedback
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Years ago I worked in large hospitals treating stroke and cancer patients.

One of my major tasks was to educate and train the next cohort of clinicians coming up through the ranks. Student clinicians would come to the hospital and get exposed to working with actual patients.

I loved it. I benefited from the guidance of supportive clinical educators when I was a student, and I aspired to be the same.

I enjoyed giving back to the professional community and sharing my knowledge and skills. I never forgot what it was like when I fronted up to work at a hospital for the first time—daunted, scared and curious. I wanted my students to have the best possible experience and enjoy clinical work as much as I did.

One of my major tasks as a clinical educator was to provide feedback to students on their performance. It wasn't easy to find the right balance between positive and negative feedback.

I had to be mindful of their inexperience while offering up constructive suggestions they could work with without crushing their confidence or spirit. Brilliant students would be nervous and fumble when assessing a patient for the first time. Translating book knowledge into clinical expertise takes time.

The lessons I learned giving student clinicians feedback all those years ago still rings true today. I've refined my approach over the years down to these important points.

1. Keep it short. Be specific

I've been on the receiving end of feedback that's gone on and on. The message will be lost if you keep on talking. Don’t ramble on. Stop talking and give the person a chance to digest the feedback and offer comments or clarifying questions.

Be specific. Give clear examples. Tie your feedback to actual behavior. Don't get personal. Leave emotion and judgment out of it. Never blame performance on personality. Don't use giving feedback as an excuse to rant, take out your own frustrations or assign blame.

2. Do it quickly

Feedback is most effective when it's timely. On a busy hospital ward it was easy to delay giving students feedback until the end of the day. I avoided this in favor of giving feedback as soon as possible, no matter how busy I thought I was. 

Don't save up all your feedback. Especially if it's negative, don't deliver it all at once during a daily or weekly check-in.

3. Don't do the 'sandwich' thing

Sandwiching negative feedback in between two pieces of positive feedback might make you feel better about delivering negative feedback, but it is almost never helpful for the recipient. Don't do it.

Be direct. Give lots of positive feedback. I aimed for a ratio of 80:20—giving much more positive than negative. Even the brightest and most capable need to hear positive feedback on a regular basis.

4. Give clear solutions

This one is huge for me. I've had bosses over the years who have given me feedback only to leave me hanging trying to figure out how to correct it.

Negative feedback especially has to come with solutions and a roadmap for improvement. It's not enough to criticize without helping the recipient figure out what to do next. Equally it's important to be open to having your own assumptions about a person challenged as part of the feeback process.

Always approach feedback with the assumption that the person you're working with is capable, smart and wants to improve. Encourage their participation by asking things like, "How do you want to improve?" Or "what might success look like for you in this area?" 

5. Applaud those who actively seek feedback

People who go out of their way to seek feedback from the non-obvious and smaller moments are the true gems of the corporate world. They're among the easiest to give feedback to because they approach you and accept your insights with openness and humility.

In my experience these persons are the most engaged, motivated and emotionally intelligent. They seek feedback from a variety of sources and situations. They're never happy with the status quo, they maintain a growth mindset and they actively build and tap into their challenge network.

How to get better at impromptu speaking

My definition of professional torture goes something like this...

I'm in a meeting surrounded by people I don't know who are more powerful and important than me.

I'm thrilled to have earned my seat at this VIP table. It's my opportunity to shine. I feel the pressure. I want to make a stellar impression.

All of a sudden my boss throws it over to me to talk about a topic I'm unfamiliar with. I've had no warning or time to prepare.

I can feel the spotlight on me. Next I feel face start to burn bright red. Unprepared and nervous, I fumble through a response. My voice cracks a little while I'm talking. I can feel people's eyes burning into me. 

When I finally finish talking I get slightly confused looks back in return. I'm not really sure what I just said, but I can tell already my words didn't have the desired impact. My boss rescues me from certain professional death by saying, "I think what Sarah is trying to say is..." 

Being asked to speak off-the-cuff is an essential tool every ambitious business professional needs to develop and master. It comes naturally to some people but most of us need to work on it. 

After suffering through variations of this scenario over the years, I finally decided enough was enough. I had to tackle this with measurable goals and with productive strategies. I made it a goal to never let this scenario happen again.

Here's how I tacked and improved my ability to speak to white space.

1. See it as an opportunity

I shifted my thinking about impromptu speaking from one of terror and dread to thinking about it as a genuine opportunity.

I thought of it as just another skill I needed to learn and master. I told myself I can learn to do it better. That small shift in mindset made a tremendous difference to my approach and confidence.

2. Pause. Don't talk right away

When the time comes to talk, don't. Pause before you say anything.

Taking an extra couple of seconds gives you valuable time to gather your thoughts and to think up a quick structure for your response.

Most people in this scenario just start talking. When you pause, you appear more considered, polished and in control of the situation. Even if you don't feel it.

3. Add structure

Don't say the first thing that pops into your head.

Use whatever time you have to pull your thoughts together into a basic structure. Depending on the situation, that might be a few seconds or a few minutes.

A good basic structure looks like this: Position, Reason, Example, Position or PREP.

State your position, give a reason for your position, give an example and conclude by restating your position again. If you have more time, repeat the same again with a different example.

4. Say less

With a basic structure in place, you still need to keep it short. Saying more almost never adds value.

I like this quote from Franklin F. Roosevelt in this scenario—"Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated."

Most people tend to ramble on when faced with white space. Don't fall into this trap. You're unlikely to add value by turning it into an unstructured monologue. If you stick to a structure, like the one outlined above, you should be able to contain your response and be brief. 

5. Practice! A lot!

Practice and getting regular feedback is the best way to improve your impromptu speaking skills.

Every time I'm in this scenario at the office, I look for someone in my challenge network to provide with feedback on my performance.

Rather than waiting for opportunities to come up in the work setting, I created regular practice opportunities for myself by joining a local Toastmasters.

Most people think Toastmasters is for practicing giving speeches, and it is. It's also an opportunity to practice impromptu speaking in a safe and supported environment.

Every meeting has a section called Table Topics. Members are asked to stand up in front of the group and answer a question off-the-cuff and with no time to prepare an answer.

The nature of questions don't matter, and neither do your answers. A question I had recently was, "If you could be a fruit, which one would you be and why?"

I'm never going to answer that question in a work scenario (okay, maybe in an obscure job interview). But I'm getting valuable opportunities to practice and refine my impromptu speaking skills when I talk about myself as having come from a warm climate with the thick skin and soft center of a banana.

Should you focus on your strengths or improve your weaknesses?

I had the opportunity to ask a senior executive at a Women In Tech event recently whether one should focus on bolstering their strengths or improving their weaknesses. She told me you should always focus on improving your strengths.

I recently learned more about my strengths through a formal assessment called the Clifton Strengths assessment.

The Clifton Strengths assessment asks you to rate yourself on a simple scale across 177 different items. At the end you get a top 5 list of your strengths.

According to the Clifton Strengths assessment my strengths are—I like to solve problems (restorative), I like to ponder the future (futuristic), I like people (relator), I like to learn new things (learner) and I'm inquisitive about everything (input).

That's great! Now I know my strengths, should I focus on improving them like the executive I spoke to advised? Or should I look for obvious gaps and focus on those?

I've been pondering this for a couple of weeks. After doing some reading, this is where I landed.

Knowing your strengths is useful but it doesn't tell you if you're actually good at any of them. It also doesn't tell you how good your strengths are in relation to other people. 

A persistent focus on strengths can blind you to the hard truths about yourself. Really smart and capable people can have glaring weak spots and counterproductive work habits. There may be aspects of your performance you could improve, but you risk never finding those weaker areas if you continually focus on what you're good at.

That's why it's important to get honest and constructive feedback. It can be difficult to get and is dependent on the work culture you're in, how open you are to coaching and how effective your boss is at providing it. Coaching can help improve weak areas as an avenue for professional growth and it has research evidence to support its effectiveness.

Instead of focusing on your strengths, a better way is to develop your self-awareness. Work hard, know yourself and know what you want to achieve. Let your goals dictate where you put your energy and focus, regardless of whether they're a strength or a weakness. Setting incremental goals and adapting to feedback is a growth mindset and a better path to achieving higher success.

 

Read more:

Why you need a challenge network

Adam Grant recently started a new weekly podcast called WorkLife. I highly recommend adding it to your list of must-listen podcasts each week. 

The first episode is about criticism in the workplace. More specifically it's about why you should like it and why you should want more of it. 

Grant interviews Ray Dalio the CEO of Bridgewater Associates—widely known as the most successful hedge fund in the world. Bridgewater is known for its unique workplace culture of radical transparency. Employees at Bridgewater give each other immediate, candid feedback, all the time. Opinions are out in the open.

Bridgewater's culture of always-on radical transparency is extreme. The point Grant makes is there's value in getting regular, constructive feedback on your performance. Grant champions the idea of developing your own mini-version of Bridgewater's radical transparency via a challenge network—a group of individuals you trust to give you regular and constructive feedback.

To develop your challenge network you have to do two things, a) be open to receiving negative feedback and b) be prepared to actively ask for it. A robust challenge network turns every meeting, every presentation, and every communication into an avenue for development and growth.

Keep in mind also, most people don't actively ask for feedback. If they do, it's usually only from their immediate leader. Once you start asking for constructive feedback from your peers or others you work alongside, it's an easy way to stand out and to showcase your willingness to improve and grow. Do it right and you'll learn a lot about yourself along the way, too.