Always Make Your Position Clear

Has it ever happened to you that you were approached by your subordinates (or even your boss) and after a discussion ended you were left wondering what the point was? One of the skills a senior leader should build is an ability to express his thoughts in a straightforward, easy to understand manner with clearly stated facts and points of view.

Imagine you come to the office and one of your employees comes to you and says “Jim just told me that CompanyX released a new product.” So? Is it great or bad release? Do we need to react? Why is he telling it to you? Or imagine that you sit on a meeting and someone brings up a topic to discuss “We have a big issue. Jim got a great offer from another company and resigned.” So? Why is it an issue? What should we do about it? Is it just that Jim is so indispensable? Or is it about us not being competitive on the job market anymore?

If an individual contributor comes with information like this it is fine as they are most likely not the ones to resolve it but if a leader and/or a manager makes this sort of statements then you have a problem. A manager who just provides the information without his opinion on what that means is essentially leaving all the work for you. He is just a proxy, a messenger. He did his part “informing” and if there is a problem later on he can always say “I told you so.”

What you should expect from leaders is not just gathering information and relating them to you but also forming opinions and coming up with solutions. The more senior they get the more important it is for them to learn this basic formula for communicating with other senior managers.

Context + Data + Opinion + Proposal = Actionable Information

Context – sometimes it may be necessary to provide a bit of context or “the big picture” to ensure that the actual data/information you want to provide makes sense. However, be very brief and very careful not to over-deliver. As I mentioned in What’s Your Point? you may get lost in providing too much context. Essentially you are providing “why” should we care about the rest.

Data – the actual information you wanted to deliver. Once again be as specific and succinct as possible

Opinion – what is your take on the news? Is it good or bad? What does it mean for the organization? Here you explain what is your position or at least how you understand the data you are providing.

Proposal – what do you propose we do with the information? Do we need to change something in our products? Do we need to change our compensation structure? Or do we just need to have a bigger discussion on the correct approach? Here you should give a proposal on the next steps.

If you follow all these steps you will come up with information that is actionable, information that allows the other participants of the discussion to know what you are saying, why you are saying it, and how you propose to approach it.

Let us go back to the examples from the beginning.

“Jim just told me that CompanyX released a new product,” could be transformed into something like this “CompanyX, the major player in our space [context] just released a new product with significant improvements of functionality [data]. A quick review showed me that it is significantly more powerful than our solution and may negatively impact our sales [opinion]. I suggest a quick survey of our customer base to understand what features are important for them and incorporate them in the next version of our product [proposal].”

Or

“We have a big issue. Jim got a great offer from another company and resigned,” can be communicated this way “To follow up on the compensation discussion from last week. We have already fifth person to resign this month [context]. I just learned that Jim got a significantly higher offer from another company [data]. Based on the trend I believe we need to speed up the compensation adjustments as we don’t seem to be competitive [opinion]. At the same time I plan to do a quick employee survey to make sure we are not missing some other reasons for the retention issues. [proposal]”

Remember, even though both words start with “m” manager shouldn’t be just a messenger. If you want to manage and lead others you need to be able to formulate your own opinion and provide a direction on how to deal with the information provided.

Twitter type summary: “A manager is not a messenger. Always provide Context, Data, Opinion and Proposal to deliver Actionable Information.”

What is your trick on communicating information with your senior management? What do you expect from your team when they communicate with you?

Grow Up! And Live Your Own Life

Heroes. Most of us have in our live some heroes or people we look up to. Most of us get inspired by our idols. We try to do a lot of things to be like that person. But why do we do that? Why not to be ourselves and aspire to be the best “us” we can? Over the years in various management roles I have often adopted behavior of more experienced managers because I admired the way they dealt with certain situation only to discover that their approach simply didn’t work for me. Over the years I have seen people who focused so much on competing with others that they forgot to focus on themselves.

Focus on yourself, not others

Your boss has decided to quit. There is you and several of your peers who used to report to this person and it is obvious that one of you gets promoted to that job. So what would you do? Sadly, many people would focus more on others than on themselves. They would start seeing that Richard is friend with the former boss so he is probably closest to the promotion, they would see that Maria just got this new responsibility a month ago and without a good reason Peter is being often approach by senior managers when they need help. If you follow this train of thought you find yourself blaming others for your own shortcomings an feeling that life is unfair since others are getting all the breaks. Is this healthy? How exactly will thoughts like these help you to get to the next level? That is how five years old kid would behave and let’s face it, who would promote that kid to a leadership role?

The best thing you can do is to forget about the others and rather focus on what you can do and how you can improve. You should still strive to do your job to the best of your abilities and volunteer to take on some of the responsibilities of your boss. The trick here is where to focus. Do you rather focus on things that are highly visible to the management or on things that are more important for the daily survival of the organization? This decision really depends on company culture, on the way how the organization is set up, and on your priorities and goals in this life.

Focus on what you can influence

We all have so many things to do, so where do we spend our energy? There are two quotes that always guided my professional life and that I tried to impart on my team. “Pick your battles carefully,” and “focus on things you can influence.”

Yes, there are many things in this world and your job that would deserve your attention and that you could improve. There are many things that you can fight for. But is it worth it? If you decide to push for an idea or project that doesn’t have a wide support within the organization always consider whether it is worth the effort, what are the chances of success and what you will be giving up when you put your attention there.

If you are someone who is always complaining, always unhappy and always trying to fight everything, chances are you will stop being taken seriously. Don’t complain, if there is something that needs to be fixed, just jump in and fix it. And if it is something that is not under your control and there is no way you can fix it then just learn to live with it and focus your attention on things you can fix. If your standard mode of operation is being very cooperative, positive, and able to compromise then when there is something that really matters to you others will see your passion and your resolve and will get out of your way or even better will help you to achieve it.

Combine the best of both worlds

It is good to have in your life someone who guides you and acts as an inspirational idol. Just make sure you don’t mimic this person too much. Remember who you are and if you want to adopt something from his or her behavior make sure it is aligned with your own personality so you will still be you. Some of the key leadership traits are authenticity and consistency. If others believe that you are trying to be someone you are not, they will not follow. So when you decide to integrate a new skill or new way how to deal with situations you need to do it in a way that is natural to your own personality. For example, I may consider people like Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Marc Benioff (Salesforce) great leaders and admire their public performance and ability to rally forces to get things done. However, if I would decide to mimic their heavily extroverted behavior I would fail as my team would most likely say “What’s wrong with Tomas, this is not him. What is he trying to pull here?” So instead of trying to be like these two guys I will try hard to be myself and over the time, step by step, incorporate some of the traits I admire on them. That way I will give myself enough time to develop the new skill and be still myself.

Twitter type summary: “Stop trying to be someone else. Be who you are, pick your fights, focus on what you can influence and you will have a fulfilling life.”

What about you? Do you have someone in your life you admire and learn from?

Surprising Thoughts On What Makes Us Unhappy

I’m a big believer in open and honest exchange of information. I’m a big believer in total transparency and I always encourage others to experience as many new and unique things as possible to broaden their horizons and become better leaders and better human beings. I do this because I believe that only by following these principles you can lead by example and only these principles give you the credibility in the eyes of others. However, they will not make you happy. In fact, once you get on the path of constant learning and exploration you are getting into a vicious cycle of unfulfilled dreams and you need to work hard to bring a piece of happiness back to your life… unless you find solace in the journey itself.

Experiencing more

Experiencing new things and broadening our horizons is making us more educated, more perceptive to other cultures and way of lives but also more aware of what we have and what we are missing. Imagine you live your whole live in a small village in the middle of your country. You never get out and know nothing about the outside world. Your village is your world. You have your family, you have your farm and you have a happy life. Then one day a visitor comes and brings you pictures of ocean and beautiful islands. He just killed your happiness. Suddenly you feel that you want to go there, you are not satisfied with your life anymore and you feel like missing on something. And this happens to us every single day in one form or another. The more global the society, the more we watch TV, the more we travel, the more we see what are all the things that we are missing in our lives, and chances are we feel more miserable. And what happens when you get to the island one day?

I still remember the very first time I saw ocean. Being from center of Europe it was a very powerful and exciting experience. I was sitting for several hours on the shore just looking at the water. Unfortunately, then I walked along the shore to school every single day for half a year and now ocean is just an ocean and I will never experience that sort of happiness I felt when seeing it for the first time. I just pushed the bar of what makes me happy a bit higher so next time I needed to add sunset and beer to get the same level of happiness. As Daniel Gilbert said in his book Stumbling on Happiness: “Once we have an experience, we are thereafter unable to see the world as we did before.”

Having more information

I’m big into sharing information, but is having more information actually helps us to be more happy? Not really. In fact, it is not helpful at all. Let’s look at this situation. You are thinking about getting a new car. You start researching different models and collect a huge amount of information. And now you are sitting in your living room and trying to compare all the data and imagine how it would feel to drive that car in the future. Your brain picks a favorite (let’s say mustang convertible) and starts imagining how incredible it will be to drive that car. Then the day comes, you buy the car and drive it for a week. Suddenly all the small things are starting to pop up. It was raining the whole week so you couldn’t enjoy the no-roof experience, it feels quite bulky, the clutch feels weird. In the information overload your brain simply didn’t think about these daily aspects. It is still a fine car, but it doesn’t feel that great as you imagined based on the information you gathered.

Luckily, as I mentioned in this article your brain has an auto response system that will shield your feelings from anything negative so you will still feel ok. Numerous studies has shown that if you don’t supply your brain with enough information to imagine and instead provide it with experiences by people who are experiencing your future right now, it gets much better prediction on how you will actually feel. In our case, if instead of trying to imagine how great it would be driving your mustang convertible in the countryside you just went and asked someone who owns the car how does it feel today he would probably point out that it is raining often and once you try the free ride for once or twice it gets boring.

Deciding more

We all want to control our lives. It is one of the basic human desires to control our own destiny. The moment someone else starts controlling it we feel helpless and unhappy. That is the reason why we struggle so much for control, why we value freedom, why we want to decide everything even if the outcome will be worse than if we let someone else decide instead of us. The fact that we can decide just feels really good. Unfortunately, the price we pay is often pretty big. We all want to be in control because we believe that we can do better job of guiding our lives in the right direction than the next person would. Curiously enough, it is very rarely the case. Our mind is imagining future that is very different from the actual future.

Did it ever happen to you that you really wanted the next promotion or a new car or a purse and you imagined how great it will be and how different your life becomes? And then you got promoted, got the car or the purse and nothing really changed? What I experienced in professional environment is people saying things like “Yes, I’m busy this month, but once I finish the current project things will be different and I will have more time.” You are in control, you are doing what you are doing on purpose with a vision of better future. Well, guess what, that future will never come. In a month’s time the current task will be finished but other tasks will pop up and things will not feel the way we believe today that they will feel. Maybe if you listened to your boss or a spouse who is urging you to slow down today the final outcome could be much better and you would be happier… even though someone would make the decision for you.

So even if all those things are working in our disadvantage and are making it more difficult to be happy should we just sit in our homes, never go out, never learn and never try to decide anything? No! Just trick your brain into finding happiness in the process of learning and seeing more and not in the final results. The rest will follow automatically. As I wrote in “Human brain, the biggest liar of all times” our brain has one incredible power. A power to cook up the facts of our past memories to make us happy, power to deploy number of psychological tricks to lessen any negative experience we might have so if we let our mind delude us we can still live pretty happy lives.

Twitter type summary: “Constant learning and exploration gets you into a vicious cycle of unfulfilled dreams… unless you find solace in the journey itself.”

What makes you happy? And I mean truly happy? It is not that easy to come up with really reliable answer as your brain will be telling you all sorts of things.

Disclosure: The thoughts in this article are influenced by the ideas presented by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness.

Positive Approach To Life

Stress. It is all around us. We live in a world that is getting faster and faster. We are being constantly asked to step up, make decisions, get better, get more connected, and we are under constant stress imposed on us either by the society or by ourselves. How to cope with such environment? How to stay on top of things and enjoy what we are doing even when things don’t go as planned? How to keep our sanity, energy and passion when faced with obstacles, losses and setbacks? How to maintain positive approach to life?

Learn to laugh

Don’t be afraid to laugh. Too often people feel that in a professional setting they need to be dead serious to be taken seriously by others. If the leader stays serious all the time, chances are that also the team will be afraid to laugh. But what sort of environment do you build where people are discouraged from laughing? A good heartfelt laugh is a great way to remove tension, to dissolve stressful situations, to give some life and enthusiasm to the otherwise serious business. A good laugh is spreading like a virus and helps to build environment where people can have fun even when asked to focus hard on performing their tasks.

See only the best in others

We all have to interact with each other all the time. Most of the jobs in today’s economy rely on communicating and collaborating with others. If you want to keep your sanity you need to have a healthy approach to how you see the people around you. If you are paranoid and you feel like everyone is at your throat and trying to do you harm your will be in constant stress. If you give negative meaning to every single action of your teammates and bosses it will show on the way you interact with them and most likely they will also start wondering what’s wrong with you.

You reap what you saw. If you keep the mentality that others work to the best of their abilities, and that they always try to do what they consider is the best for everyone it will help you to build a more positive approach to communicating with them. And as a side effect it will improve your mental health as you will be able to stop watching your back wherever you move. Just check out this piece about the basic principles of good coaching and you can learn more about the state of mind important for coaching that applies also here.

Enjoy the small wins

Things may not always go as planned. You may work on a long-term project or tasks that won’t see the light of the day for months or years. How you stay motivated and on track? By breaking it down to smaller pieces and celebrating small wins. Every single day there is something that went well and that can give you the energy to continue in your endeavor. Did you just helped to old woman cross a street during your trip to work? Did you just have a great conversation with a customer? Did you get a pat on the back from your boss? Did you receive kudos email from your team member? Did you just code a great algorithm? All these are small wins, small successes that are happening all the time and we tend to overlook them and focus on the bigger things that go wrong.

All it takes is to shift your mindset and focus on the small things that you can impact every single day. You won’t be able to salvage a huge disastrous project in one day, but you can do bunch of small things that will count as wins and keep you positive even when it is raining all around you.

Every cloud has a silver lining

I love sayings and idioms. Every cloud has a silver lining is my favorite. It embodies the basic of my life philosophy. There are always things that are out of your control, but it is only up to you how you will be impacted by them. Or more precisely how you will interpret the impact and feel about it. There are very few situations in life (usually connected with death) that are difficult to flip into positive. In majority of situations that you face every day there is a more positive way how to look at them. Did you just miss a train? Great, more time to read. Did you just crash your car? Great, no one got hurt and you have a reason to buy a new one. Did you just totally mess up a presentation to your boss? Great, he provided you an invaluable feedback and it will help you to grow and be better next time.

Twitter type summary: “To deal with stress, make sure you laugh often, trust others, enjoy small wins and find positives in every situation.”

What is your recipe to stay positive and motivate? How do you get through times when things don’t go as planned?