Tag Archives: coaching
Image

Beware ‘The Bewitched Fallacy’: Developing A Strong Professional Persona Does Not Mean Becoming Someone Else

29 May

Ever heard of the TV show, Bewitched? If you’re 35 or younger and are not an avid fan of old-school television shows from decades past, chances are good that you have no clue what I’m talking about. Bewitched was a popular sitcom in the 1960s and 70s that had as its main character a witch named Samantha who had the power to transform herself and other people (most particularly her husband, a mortal) into someone else with just a wrinkle of her nose. When a situation wasn’t going well for Samantha or her husband, Darrin, she swooped in (no broomstick needed), wrinkled her nose a bit and, poof, everything, including her husband’s entire identity was transformed. Out with the old, in with the new.

To tell you more about the show would dilute its relevance here, so I’ll cut to the chase: While you do need to cultivate (and continually hone) a strong Professional Identity or Brand to maximize your career success and satisfaction, to achieve this goal does not require you to let go of who you are, to toss your core self and values to the wayside and assume the identity of someone else. Leave that type of complete transformation to the fictitious witch on Bewitched.

The Internet is chockfull of great advice on how to become the consummate professional: 

Learn to read non-verbal cues.

Be an active, fully engaged listener.

Learn how to ‘brag’ in a way that garners respect, not looks of disdain.

Speak with confidence.

Learn to handle conflict with grace and empathy, not anger.

Be authentic in your relationships.

Maintain clear personal/professional boundaries at work.

Much of the advice from leadership development experts (myself included) that you find in articles on The Huffington Post, The Muse, Forbes and many other high-quality online publications is important, and I hope you find it useful.

At the same time, given the morass of advice that’s out there, I also hope you are not getting the impression that cultivating a strong professional persona, one that sets you on a course to career success in a challenging economic climate, means bidding farewell to your former self, the identity that makes you, YOU. Please don’t fall victim to the ‘The Bewitched Fallacy’, namely, the notion that your charge is to erase everything, start from a blank slate and cultivate a whole new person with a set of skills, personality traits, behaviors, qualities, etc. that mirror a ready-made, generally accepted template for the ideal professional.

On the contrary, the advice is meant to help you become your best you. The goal is for you to refine and integrate any advice you receive in a way that is right for you, that positions you to be true to your core values, to capitalize on your best unique traits, qualities and inherent skills, and to improve upon those qualities that don’t serve you well. You need to do this in your own way, according to your own timeline and with the type and level of support and guidance that specifically works for you. Strong communication, listening, interpersonal, stress management, conflict negotiation and many other skills are essential, but it is how you cultivate, combine, put into practice and continually hone these and other skills, behaviors, attitudes and relationships in a professional context that constitute your unique professional brand and distinguishes you from others.

Here are some suggestions to help you become your BEST YOU throughout your career:

  1. Gain clarity about and stay true to your core professional values. Your professional values are what gives you a sense of meaning and drives your professional decisions, behaviors, perspectives and relationships. Your values reflect what is most important to you and fuel your desire to achieve your goals. They enable you to work in service of how you want to be perceived and experienced by others. They help you develop and maintain an accurate sense of yourself. Staying true to your values will enable you to take the skills and knowledge you gain, the experiences you have, the guidance you receive, and the qualities of other people who you admire most, and shape and make them an intrinsic part of you.
  1. Learn to relish and proudly let others know that you will always be a ‘work in progress’ (just like they will always be, regardless of their seniority and accomplishments). Developing and capitalizing on your Professional Persona has no end-point and that’s a good thing. We are so fortunate to be a species that has a never-ending capacity to grow and adapt and become an even greater version of ourselves. It is up to you to recognize how lucky you are in this regard and take advantage of it.
  1. Don’t aspire to become [insert the name of the business leader you admire most]. While it is certainly helpful to gain insights and learn about the experiences, qualities, skills, leadership style and other facets of the business leaders you so admire, be careful that you don’t lose your sense of self and set your sights on becoming their clone. They are not the embodiment of success that you and all others should aspire to become. They are simply neat people who have developed a strong professional brand that serves them well in their career. Your charge is to take the best of what you learn from speaking with, observing and reading about others and figure out how to adapt and apply it in a way that suits and furthers your unique values, qualities, skills, etc.
  1. Welcome support and guidance from others from a position of strength, not weakness. So many of us are taught from a young age that we need to figure it all out on our own. We have this entirely misguided sense that if we need support and/or guidance from others, it must mean that we have failed, that we are inadequate, that we must turn our entire sense of self-worth and professional development over to someone else. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To be your best professional self, you need support, and you also need advice that you can tailor to fit your unique identity.
  1. Don’t be your own worst enemy. Feeling stuck, overwhelmed, confused, discouraged, insecure, and the like is all part and parcel of professional (and personal) growth. Don’t compound these already negative, uncomfortable feelings by getting angry with yourself for having them. Do your best to be extra patient and kind to yourself when you’re struggling and don’t hesitate to reach out to others for support as well.

What other advice would you add to this list?

I wish you all of the best.

Advertisements

Caution: Don’t Let Anxiety Drive Your Next Presentation

7 Feb

Many of us have had this experience. We get so nervous about a presentation – a pitch to a major investor prospect; a keynote address at the foremost international conference of your industry; your first board meeting as the company’s new CEO; and so on – that we decide this particular presentation is the performance that defines whether we are great or not, the performance that will make or break our career. We don’t sleep because of it. We get blocked when trying to compose it and help from others feels useless.

Our nerves takeover, and then the worst happens: We get so hyper-focused on addressing our nervousness that we go on autopilot during our presentation. We let our adrenalin lead the way. We become fixated on just getting through the presentation.

Why is giving your talk in autopilot mode such a problem? Because several of the strategies that are essential for a stellar presentation will likely be missed. If your (private) goal is simply to get through the presentation, you will lose your capacity to:

  • READ YOUR AUDIENCE IN ADVANCE. It is essential to make every effort possible to interact with your audience members before you give your presentation. This may sound silly and obvious, but it is neither.

Especially when the audience is substantial, but even when it is just a small group, presenters often reserve informal conversation for after their talk. Even those who do interact with audience members beforehand often limit it to the people they know. If you don’t speak with your participants right before your presentation, you won’t know their mood, expectations, concerns, distractions, etc., on that particular day. Getting a read of your audience just moments before you go on stage gives you the opportunity to ensure that your presentation style is in keeping with the ‘pulse’ of your audience. Reading your audience members, in this context, refers to both verbal and non-verbal cues, e.g., the look in their eyes, their tone and posture when speaking with you, their negative or positive attitude when speaking, etc.

Informal conversations with individual audience members immediately prior to your presentation can also substantially reduce the adrenalin running through your body and help prevent you from going into autopilot mode during your presentation. Even a small amount of familiar, relatively light-hearted interaction has the power to distract you and lower your anxiety before all eyes turn to you.

  • BE FLEXIBLE. Flexibility is essential, yet nervous energy can make us inflexible and diminish our capacity for spontaneous creativity during our presentation. 

You need to be flexible and open-minded to be able to read the tenor of your audience. Flexibility positions you to adapt your presentation style prior to going on stage and/or at any point during the presentation. Be flexible in your responses to questions and comments. Give the impression of flexibility and comfort through your body language, tone and inflection in your voice, eye contact, etc. Your audience will pick up and may respond negatively to both verbal and non-verbal cues, in some cases without even realizing it.

  • LISTEN, NOT JUST WITH YOUR EARS, BUT ALSO WITH YOUR EYES, BODY LANGUAGE AND FACIAL EXPRESSION.

In the same way that our nerves can impede our ability to craft and prepare for our presentation, they can also limit our capacity to pause, take a deep breath and listen authentically to the questions people pose once we have finished our song-and-dance. More than anything else, people need to feel heard and that you deem their question important. They may be as nervous asking their question as you were before or during your presentation.

Use eye contact, an open posture and a warm (never speculative or judging) facial expression to give affirmation (even when you think their question is completely off the wall). Repeating their question is an especially good strategy to make them feel heard. It also gives you the opportunity to sharpen and crystallize their question in a way that makes them feel especially smart and also ensures the rest of the audience understands it.

  • NOT KNOWING THE ANSWER IS FINE. GIVING AN OFF-POINT OR SHALLOW RESPONSE SIMPLY BECAUSE YOU WANT YOUR AUDIENCE TO THINK YOU KNOW THE ANSWER IS NOT.

Given your role as the resident expert on your presentation topic, it’s natural for you to feel you need to have an immediate and incredibly provocative answer to every question posed. I’m here to tell you that this is not the case. In fact, just the opposite is true. A lofty or even slightly off-point answer can leave a lasting negative impression and diminish your credibility.

By the same token, you can earn more credibility and gain greater appreciation (and increase your likability quotient) if you pause for a moment to consider their question, affirm it was a good one and then tell them (and the rest of the audience) that it deserves more thought and you would like to get back to them at a later point. You can use such lines as, “That’s an interesting question. Thank you for making all of us think about it. I don’t want to give you a shoot-from-the-hip answer. Let me think about it and get back to you.” You can commit to speaking with them right after the presentation or get their email to respond in writing, which obviously buys you more time.

  • SILENCE WHEN YOU INVITE THE AUDIENCE TO ASK QUESTIONS IS NOT A SIGN OF FAILURE. 

You may have an especially shy audience. You may have captivated your audience so fully with your presentation that they didn’t dare get distracted with generating their own questions. Who knows why they are not deluging you with questions. It doesn’t matter.

Simply have some questions at the ready to throw out to your audience. Posing questions to them will transfer some of the power back to your audience and encourage them to use their voice. It will also help keep your anxiety down because you will be in control, at least to start, of the scope of the questions asked.

***

Below are some strategies to help control your anxiety on the day of your presentation. These may sound obvious or like ‘fluff’ to some of you, but I promise you they are neither.

  • While it is certainly fine to review your notes on the day of, you also need to set a cutoff point to your prepping efforts that is well in advance of stage time. Your mind needs a break so it can regenerate and give you fresh energy for your presentation. Go for a walk; do something you excel in (professionally or personally); call someone who makes you laugh; or whatever works for you.
  • About 30-60mins before (or preferably even closer to the time of) your presentation, force yourself to sit down for 15mins, close your eyes (or, for those of you who think that’s too hokey, focus your eyes on something in the room), and draw on the mental ‘toolbox’ of effective distractions that you have established for yourself when you’re at the height of anxiety. Effective distractions vary for each of us, depending on our personality, anxiety level and the types of thoughts about people, places or things that bring us joy or at least some positive energy. Distractions may include: the award you won last year that made you feel so proud; the new business deal you just closed; how much all of the kids on your daughter’s soccer team love having you as their coach; the vacation you have coming up with your loved one; the hilarious thing your dog did yesterday; etc.
  • Definitely don’t engage in anything professional or personal on the day of that heightens your anxiety. I know that some of you are thinking that this suggestion is shortsighted on my part and unachievable on yours. But, even if you’re the CEO and your schedule is overloaded with critical decisions, meetings and tasks, you still owe it to yourself and to your company to lighten your work schedule and/or limit it to only meetings and tasks that makes us feel especially competent, confident and accomplished on the day of a big presentation.

Have any more suggestions to offer? I hope this post has been affirming and also helpful to you. Most of all, I hope it helps you realize that it is not only okay but actually human to feel anxious, and that your anxiety doesn’t need to dictate the fate of your presentation, or anything else in your life for that matter.

 

What’s Your ‘E-Style’? Effective Email Communication Skills are Essential to Your Success

7 Feb

I have seen it happen so many times. I have been the recipient, and I must shamefully confess that I have also caused it a few times as well. It goes something like this:

An employee sends an email to a coworker that is meant to relay benign, purely factual information about an important project they are working on together, a project that is about to be presented to the client and can make or break their advancement within the company.

Because the email begins with little or no context for the message, and/or because the sender uses a particular word incorrectly or structured a sentence so poorly that it altered the meaning or the tone of the sentence, the message is not well-received.

Tension between the two employees mounts as a result, tension that could have been avoided if the sender had what I refer to as effective ‘e-soft skills’, namely the set of skills needed for effective and appropriate email communication in the workplace. Because those skills were lacking, just one email caused a misunderstanding and negative feelings that could impact the quality of their joint presentation and ultimately threaten the project and their opportunity for advancement.

An ‘e-soft’ skill as simple as knowing to include a few sentences at the start of the email that sets the tone and provides context for the purpose of the email might have prevented the recipient’s upset. An otherwise well-composed, thoughtfully worded and straightforward email might have allowed the reader to recognize that it was entirely unintentional and overlook the fact that just one sentence with poor structure gave a paternalistic tone to what should have been a neutral statement.

Without question, technology-based communication, particularly email, has fundamentally improved the way individuals, nonprofit organizations, companies, governments, etc., interact, and we are all the better for it. This post is anything but an argument against the use of technology-based communication in the workplace (or for personal use). We should continue to use and in turn benefit from email and the many other forms of technology that increase our company’s ability to compete and increase marketshare. To do this, however, you need to ensure that your employees have soft skills specific to email communication, not just in-person and phone communication.

There is a strong evidence base showing the direct correlation between employees’ soft skills, often referred to as emotional intelligence, and the performance of individual employees and teams, organizational culture, and the overall success of a company. To date, our understanding of the soft skills necessary for optimal communication and interactions and, likewise, the types of soft skills coaching available for employees has largely centered around in-person and phone communication. Skills include tone, explicit and implicit attitudes, body language, word choice, eye contact, active listening, reading behavioral cues, and other skills.

While these skills, and the coaching offered by my consulting practice as well as others in the field will continue to be needed, our increasing use of technology as an essential form of correspondence calls for all of us, at all levels of the organization, to ensure we are also equipped with a somewhat different set of soft skills, namely e-soft skills that are specifically tailored to technology.

For technology-based communication, soft skills that employees need still include many of those we understand to be essential for effective in-person interaction, such use of tone, word choice, etc. But, the definition, teaching and application of these soft skills take on a whole new light when it comes to communicating through email and other forms of technology. It is not just the greater use of the written word, but also the specific writing styles needed for email and other forms of technology-based written correspondence to be most effective in a professional context.

Essential e-soft skills for the workplace also include logical flow, sentence structure, the ability to communicate information in a brief, cogent manner using bullet-points, among many other skills. These and other e-soft skills enable employees to communicate most effectively with one another and with customers, clients, competitors and other external parties, through technology.

With technology-based communication has come a greater emphasis on brevity, and the use of bullet-points or what I refer to as ‘articulate sound-bites’. The highest quality professional emails are mainly composed of short key points in list format and contain only a handful of brief paragraphs of text. Writing in a bullet-format is now generally accepted professional etiquette for emails. Twitter and other soundbite-only, fast-paced forms of communication also require a high level of comfort and proficiency as relates to vocabulary, tone, word-choice, logical ordering, etc.

Including e-soft skills as a criterion in your hiring (and firing) decisions, and providing ongoing professional coaching in this area for your new hires and prized employees is essential for your company to compete and thrive.