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Alicia Blain

Communication


If my boss tells me, ‘not now’ one more time, I’m going to scream”.  That was Katie, one of the many Gen Yers in my professional circle.  She was frustrated once again by her boss and his inflexibility in trying something new. “He keeps making excuses about our team’s workload, our time constraints, the budget to shut down any ideas we bring to him”. 

I explained to Katie that “not now” was the leadership code word for “that makes me uncomfortable”.   After observing Millennials for so long, I realize that they come to the workplace with a different microchip imbedded in their DNA.  When that microchip gets activated by such things as: presenting a new idea, recommending a new but untried process, collaborating with people outside your team, the seasoned leader or manager gets another sampling of the unfamiliar and they don’t like the feeling. 

The savvy and astute leaders use that sampling either as a way to test the tried and true or to experiment with something new.  They see the opportunity to do things differently that the Gen Yers are bringing to the workplace and they go with it.  Most leaders just say “Not now. We’re too busy, too understaffed, too [fill in the excuse du jour].”  “Not now” lets them hold on to the past. It lets them ensure continuity of the way they’ve always done things, it provides a safe haven from the unfamiliar. 

To a sharp and eager Gen Yer looking for motivation and a way to stand out, “not now” is like taking a dip in freezing cold ocean water in January.  It takes your breath away but not in a good way.  For 20-somethings like Katie, getting told “not now” repeatedly is a let-down and a HUGE motivation killer.  Why should she continue to bring up ideas when all she’ll get is a lame reason designed to uphold the tried and true.  What ultimately happens with that inflexibility in leadership style is that talented people like Katie either leave or stop caring. They stop trying to bring their unique and much needed perspective into the workplace.  Either way, the organization loses out on capitalizing on her talent. It also loses out on getting comfortable with change.  Can any organization today afford that?  Yet, time and time again you can see many bosses across countless organizations emulating Katie’s boss’ behavior. 

My question is:  how long can we allow “not now” to continue? How long until it hurts the team and the organization?  Holding on to what has worked in the past is a recipe for failure if it’s not constantly being tested or reassessed for its value going forward.  Gen Yers have some great ideas to share in the workplace that test the tried and true.  That should be embraced by leaders of forward looking organizations. Some of the ideas may not work but I can guarantee that everyone will learn and be better off by trying them out. 

By leading the Millennials, I learned that “not now” couldn’t hold a candle to “let’s give it a try”. I just had to get comfortable saying it. I realized that “Not now” fed my fear of the unknown while “let’s give it a try” gave me possibilities.  It was also music to the ears of the Millennials in my team.  It gave them hope that things could change and that their input could make a positive difference at work.

So what about you?  Do you catch yourself saying “not now” a lot at work?  Replace it one time with “Ok. Let’s give it a try” and you’ll see that the world does not fall apart.  Maybe you’ll see your Gen Yers light up with hope instead of mope with disappointment.

Like most Baby Boomers, I am used to getting information with enough detail and relevance that I can use it as needed. Notice I said as needed and not necessarily immediately. In other words, I like my information to be relatively meaty. One of the biggest lessons I learned in my lab when I was a corporate executive was that 20-somethings or Millennials don’t like information delivered the same way I like it. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They like it bite-sized, punchy and when needed and not a minute before. Instead of a meal, they want a snack.

That changed the way I communicated with this group in my team. It was also one of the determining factors in transforming the way I led. Since I learned and honed my management techniques and style under the 20th Century model, I was committed to communicating in the same way to all my team members. After all, I didn’t want to be accused of being inconsistent or treating people differently. How many times were we told that “one size fits all” was best when it came to employees? That way there was no confusion or misunderstandings.

Well, in the 21st Century model, when it comes to our newest job entrants and customers, one size fits all simply doesn’t work & is totally ineffective. When it comes to communicating, it’s absolutely necessary to chunk down your message. It’s called “information snacking”. Love the term!

I’m including a video where Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications is talking to Erin Lieberman Moran of the Great Place To Work Institute. By the way, the Great Place to Work Institute is the company that selects the top 100 companies to work for every year and Fortune Magazine reports on the results in their magazine. According to their website, Ragan Communications is the “leading publisher of corporate communications, public relations, and leadership development newsletters”. So both Erin and Mark know a thing or two about communicating in today’s world. Check out what they have to say about information snacking.

Right below that video, I included a video I did a couple of months ago from my Gen Yer on Fire series. The goal of the series is to highlight “the other side of Gen Y.” In other words, the good side of Gen Y that many of us as leaders often overlook. The series shows how Gen Yers are opting out of corporate careers and applying their creativity and hard work in areas they are passionate about.

So here’s Erin and Mark chatting about information snacking :

Here’s my Gen Yer on Fire video with a different but similar slant on information snacking. Oh, yeah, and one more thing: I’m not an actress and you’ll clearly see I don’t play one on the video. I’m just doing what Millennials say to do: live out loud and share my message!

So what about you? What can you do today to provide your 20-somethings with an information snack rather than a meal? I know you can do it !!!

I always like to read about unique perspectives that people can apply to leadership in the 21st Century.  I was reading the February 4th edition of strategy+business & came across this article titled “Reaffirming Corporate Commitment“  which is a research study conducted by Hal Ersner-Hershfield (Northwestern University), Adam D. Galinsky (Northwestern University), Laura J. Kray (University of California at Berkeley), and Brayden G. King (Northwestern University). In the strategy+business excerpt of the research study, it talks about the effectiveness of conducting “what-if” scenarios of a company’s early days to boost employee morale.  They used FedEx as an example to illustrate what they meant. 

They showed how in the 1970′s, Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx , literally gambled on the future of his company. Not  having enough money to pay for airline fuel, Smith flew to Vegas for a weekend, went to a blackjack table & gambled the company’s last $5,000. He was able to turn the $5,000 into $24,000 & was able to keep the company afloat.  In their research the authors correlate that gamble & conviction by the founder to keep the company afloat to the fact that  FedEx consistently ranks on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

The authors call this counterfactual thinking which looks at what might have been if past events had turned out differently for a company .  Being the movie buff that I am, I couldn’t help but correlate the concept of counterfactual thinking with that of  the great classic Frank Capra movie “It’s a Wonderful Life“.  Remember the story: Jimmy Stewart was bitter & frustrated with his existing life & all the  sacrifices & challenges that life had thrust upon him. In a moment of desperation, he angrily wishes he had not been born.  The rest of the movie shows Jimmy witnessing the dire consequences of that wish &  how so many people had benefited from his being in the world .  In the end, Jimmy is ecstatic to be alive & comes to appreciate his life, warts & all. 

A powerful, uplifting story & one that makes us as viewers appreciate what we have & how we’ve touched people.  To me, counterfactual thinking can be the corporate version of  “It’s a Wonderful Life” .   What would have happened if Fred Smith had not gone to Vegas to save the company? FedEx would probably have folded & would not be on the 100 Top Best Companies to Work  list today.  That’s a powerful message to share with employees.  Do you think after listening to that near miss, the employees would appreciate working for FedEx even if it had a wart here & there?  You bet.  Just like Jimmy Stewart did.  Counterfactual thinking challenges employees to think about what would happen if their company had not been founded or had folded early on.  Very much like the reaction “It’s a Wonderful Life” gets from viewers everytime they see the movie, employees get a boost of appreciation for the company & their commitment & morale increase. 

It makes perfect sense but how many times do companies share their version of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” story with employees?  How many times is counterfactual thinking utilized by companies to increase employee morale?  According to the authors when this unique perspective is applied,  the palpable postive effect on employees is still evident two weeks later. The authors suggest that in today’s uncertain economic times, organizations can use the past to foster employee commitment to the current & future state of the company.

This made me wonder how many companies today were effective in keeping their corporate history alive?  How many of them do so consistently and as part of their corporate communication strategy? How well versed is the leadership in knowing the company’s past? Can you, as a leader,  provide your team with stories of critical turning points in your organization that changed its direction for the better?  What about a visionary leader who showed tremendous conviction despite incredible odds & saved the company from ruin & extinction?

Everyone is touched by stories & what better way to touch employees than by sharing the rich corporate history that most organizations have locked up in their extensive archives.  Get out those dusty archives & communicate key events in your organizations history that made a difference & contributed to its staying power. The authors of this research say it best when they say that “ By having employees focus on how things might have turned out differently and where they would be without their company, firm leaders can help foster a more positive view of the workplace and higher morale”.  

Employees today are desperate to hear good news & feel positive about their companies.  Maybe experimenting with a counterintuitive strategy or message can do the trick.  It certainly couldn’t hurt…

I came across this article in CIO Magazine written by Sarah Jacobbson Purewal titled “The World’s Worst PowerPoint Presentations” and it made me think of all the boring corporate presentations I’ve had to sit through over the years.  I don’t think I can even name a handful of good PowerPoint presentations.  In fact, none come to mind. 

Look through the SlideShare presentation and see if you recognize any of the formats they show.  I remember a few.  If you’re in technology like I was you should see many that are familiar to you.  Then we wonder why we can’t get buy-in for our ideas and our projects.  The slides are so convoluted and full of either too many graphs or bullets that we’re lucky not to confuse ourselves not to mention our audience. 

Years ago I heard this great phrase that says that the confused mind says NO.   That’s why I think so many people shutdown and don’t pay attention in corporate meetings.  They’re confused with all the busyness in the slides.

Let’s do ourselves a favor and follow the KISS formula when we’re presenting.  Less is better.  By now I’m sure we’ve all heard about Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 PowerPoint rule. In case you haven’t, he has a great suggestion about making presentations.  You should only have 10 slides, present your stuff in 20 minutes & use 30 pt font.  I’ve used, it works & it forces you to be succinct & to the point.  Try it and see if you cure Death by Powerpoint in your next presentation.

Happy Friday, everyone!

I’m not a big TV fan but every Sunday, I turn it on to watch Undercover Boss on CBS.  I like watching how executives who are so removed from the trenches get “aha” moments by experiencing corporate life through interaction with their employees.  By now, you know I’m a huge fan of Success Magazine and in the November issue, they showcased White Castle in Emma Johnson’s article titled “Chain Reaction: White Castle’s Davide Rife is intent on having happy employees…“.  ( Check back if the November edition is not yet online when you read this.)

If you watch Undercover Boss you know that David Rife appeared on a recent episode of the show.  What typically happens is that the boss that goes undercover will go back to Headquarters and make improvements or changes to the operations or corporate policies as a result of his in-the-trenches experience.  In David Rife’s case,  his 10 day stint visiting various White House facilities reminded him how removed he had become from the day-to-day.  In the article, he admitted that “some of those challenges our people face were not as fresh or as high a priority”  as they probably had been in the past.  Wow?  What a breakthrough!  As a result of his undercover experience, David went back and made some changes. 

One of the things I liked best that he did was to initiate a “Leaders of Tomorrow” program.  It’s a mentorship that identifies young employees & shows them how their first job at White Castle can translate into a career if they so desire.  As the title of the article says White Castle is committed to having happy employees because they know that it will in turn make for happy customers. I liked that they focused on a starting a mentoring program with their Gen Yers to help them plot a career path & explain the “whys” of how things got done. That is so important for Gen Yers to see & understand.

The Leaders of Tomorrow program would have never been created if David Rife didn’t challenge his leadership comfort zone & put himself in the trenches.  In my C.A.R.E. System of Leadership Program one of the key ingredients that I teach under the “C” for Connect segment is to initiate a Shadowing program.  This is where the team leader - whether it’s a manager, a VP or C-Suite executive – follows a process where he or she takes time out of their schedule to do what David Rife did:  work among the staff.  Although my Shadow program is done overtly and in plain sight, the results are often the same as in Undercover Boss.

Either undercover or in plain sight, the truth is there’s nothing that shows you more about the inner dynamics of your team than working along side them for a period of time.  That period of time doesn’t have to be extensive.  It can be just an hour a week.  What happens most of the time is that you wind up increasing the time you shadow because of what it uncovers.  It’s an eye opening  experience and often leads to change.  Positive and productive change.  If you did it correctly, it will also  increase your leadership “mojo” for lack of a better word.  By spending time with your team, especially the Millennials, you give them valuable access to you.  They observe you in their turf not yours.  They get priceless time with you, to ask you questions, to share their ideas, to show you how they work on a daily basis.

When you take the time to shadow, you will discover what David Rife did which is that you had lost touch with what it’s like to work in the front lines.  A lot has changed since many of us were in the front lines and in today’s hectic workplace you can’t ever assume you have a pulse on what is going on in your team without experiencing the challenges they face everyday.

Shadowing allows you to put in action what the Success Magazine article recommends which is: Focus on the front line, stay open to improvement and foster employee growth.  If we do that as leaders, we are on our way to making a dent in the corporate malaise that has enveloped many organization today.

So how about it?  Are you going to take a page from Undercover Boss and spend time in the trenches?  It may be the single most rewarding and enlightening decision you make this year.  It certainly can’t hurt…

I came across an interesting article in the September edition of AARP Bulletin. The article was written by Cynthia Ramnarace and it was called “Smartphone NationIt had some great statistics on smartphone usage that surprised me.  The biggest surprise was that 50% of all Baby Boomers sleep with their cellphones within arm’s reach.  I wouldn’t have guessed it was that high.  I would have thought that we were so attached to it during the day that the last thing we want is to put it next to our nightstands at night.  I guess only half of us agree with me. 

Another interesting statistic from the Pew Research Center is how the IPhone has increased usage by turning the cellphones into what the reporter calls  “entertainment centers”.  I had never thought of cell phones or really smartphones in that light but I think it’s so true.  According to Pew in 2007, the year the IPhone made its debut, only 11% of people used a phone to access the Internet. By May of this year, that percentage  has gone up to 38%.  What percentage do you think it will be next May?

But the article really warns about our addiction to smartphones.  Ramnarace quotes Patricia Wallace, author of The Pychology of the Internet” who describes smartphones as a “pocket-size game of chance”.  The author compares it to a slot machine where you never know whether you will be rewarded or not when you pull the lever.  What a great description.  Everytime I hear my IPhone alert me of a call, a text, a voicemail or email, I have to fight the urge to pick up the phone and look at the message.  Most of the time, I’m disappointed because it wasn’t anything urgent and it made me get distracted from what I was doing.

I often hear many Baby Boomers criticize Millennials for their need to be constantly connected but truthfully, what about us?  Aren’t we doing the same thing with our smartphones?   Recently, I’ve forced myself to observe fellow Baby Boomers in  networking  events to see if they were overindulging their smartphones.  Over 70% of them took out their smartphones either while listening to a speaker, while engaging in conversation with a group of people or while standing off on their own.  That’s a lot of indulgence.  We talk about technology getting in the way of the Millennials’ ability to be in the moment but frankly, what about us?  We can apologize all we want for having to “take” this call, or respond ”quickly” to this email, or “answer” this text but we are engaging in the same multi-tasking activities that drive us crazy when we see it in the Millennials.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize Millennials?  Maybe the quick pace of today’s workplace affects all of us but we just don’t see it as well in ourselves as we do in others? Maybe we should try to stop overindulging the smartphone and overindulge in connecting and interacting with others.  That’s always more rewarding.

The article has a quick quiz at the end to spot if you are hooked on your smartphone.  Take it and see if you need an intervention.  Chances are you will…

You probably don’t think you do and certainly don’t purposely do it but chances are it may be happening.  The truth is that today, with 4 generations working side by side in most organizations, communicating is not as easy as it used to be.  Here’s an example.  I was at a client site yesterday and when I arrived, my client was in a tizzy and clearly flustered.  Apparently, they were testing their crisis management procedures and one of their key alert messages was left on people’s voicemails both at work and on their cell phones. 

The reason he was in a tizzy was that a large portion of their employees had indicated they had not gotten the alert and the managment group couldn’t understand why.    How could so many people miss the alert?  Were they purposely ignoring this step? Were they not giving a lot of importance to crisis management? My client explained that the process is clearly documented and that everyone is trained on how the system works. To make matters worse, word had gotten to the management team that some employees were complaining that they felt left out of the process.  They felt shut out.  Management was perplexed to say the least. 

Clearly, it was the wrong day for me to pay a visit to discuss the project they had hired me for.  But it turned out to be the perfect day to give my client an easy but overlooked lesson in generational communication.   I have seen it happen many times and the problem is so subtle and so imbedded in generational communication preferences that it easily gets missed.  In fact, instead of dealing with a much simpler problem,  it gets blown up into a much bigger issue.

After asking a few key questions, I realized the problem was that the organization was relying on its employees to buy into 2 basic premises that they clearly were not.  The first is that the organization assumed that just because people know and are trained on a procedure that they will actually follow it when they need to.  Time and time again, I have seen employees act in the exact opposite manner as the “procedures” require them to act.  Important things are often documented and not regularly tested to ensure the correct behavior is drilled into everyone’s thought process.  If you want it to sink in,  you have to put it in practice often. 

Most organizations don’t have the time or inclination do that. Even though crisis management is a key risk mitigator for all businesses today, organizations rarely test their crisis management procedures more than once or twice a year.  Will that frequency ensure you get the behavior you’re looking for in a crisis?  Probably not.  Employees are creatures of habit and extremely busy with their day to day work.  To get their attention and cooperation on key initiatives, you need to get them to practice, practice, practice. Otherwise, they will act as they choose, not as you need them to. 

The second premise was that the organization once again assumed that all employees accessed the same communication channel which in this case is the telephone/ voicemail system.  Big mistake.  Even though everyone has an extension at work and they can access voicemail remotely, how many people today do that?  Years ago, the percentages would have been high but today with the proliferation of texting, instant messaging,  emails and so on,  not everyone automatically checks their voicemails – at work or on their cell phones.  There are too many other ways for people to reach them when they need to.

I think most Veterans and Baby Boomers today still do a lot of their communication by phone or cell phone and have the habit of checking voicemails frequently.  Maybe some Generation Xers do too, even though I think they are more comfortable with emails.  Generation Y?  No clue that voicemail exists.  They don’t use it, don’t listen to it, don’t want it.  I can’t tell you how many times I left voicemail messages for my Gen Y staff only to find out days later, after I was frustrated and upset, that they never checked their voicemails. It simply didn’t occur to them to do it.  So you see what can happen when you use one form of communication to reach a diverse population.  The results are hit or miss.

In today’s hectic and technology rich world, savvy companies know that they must embrace multiple communication channels to ensure they are not shutting out segments of their employee base.  Veterans and Baby Boomers will get a voicemail alert, but for Generation Xers an email or better yet, a voicemail imbedded in their email will work, and for Millennials a text would do the trick.

Understanding how each generation communicates and what makes them tick is not a nice to have anymore.  To ensure that you are not unintentionally shutting out or neglecting your employees, you need to recognize their preferences and communicate your message in a variety of formats they will all embrace.

So how about you?  Still relying on traditional communication channels that no longer reflects the generational makeup of your team or organization? Maybe it’s time for a communication makeover?  Get your team to chime in on their preferences and you’re sure to never shut them out again.