Q & A: What To Do When You Don’t Know The Answer

man on video callWhen meeting with a potential client, it is inevitable that questions will come up. But what happens if you don’t know the answer? Or what happens when you’re in a job interview and the interviewer asks a question that you’re not sure how to answer? Don’t let one question be the difference between that new job or next sale. Don’t panic – here are our tips to handle tough questions.

Listen closely

Really focus on the customer or interviewer and the question. Don’t mentally prepare your answer or speculate where the conversation is headed.

Give yourself time to think

The average speaking rate is approximately 135 words per minute, but the average thinking rate is much faster than that. While you are formulating your answer, gain some thinking time.  Say something like, “great question” or restate the question as the beginning of your answer, “I’m glad you asked about our differentiators. Let me share a few…”

Maintain your composure

As you listen, sit up straight and use listening cues such as eye contact and nodding. As you answer, use open body language to show that you’re engaged and confident (even if you’re not).

If you’re not sure, give a brief answer and follow-up

It’s ok if you don’t know the answer to every question you are asked.  Be honest – offer what you do know and promise to get back to the questioner with more information at a later time.  Then, you actually have to follow up later with the promised answer.

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Meeting Skills, Presentation Skills, Public Speaking, Questions

6 Steps For A Successful Apology

women working remotely on video callWe all make mistakes, and at some point in our careers, we’ll have to apologize to someone. Working remotely makes it more difficult and more important to quickly deliver an apology. Time and distance can damage relationships, while the well-executed apology can establish and enhance your credibility and help you build trust.

Here are the 6 steps to use for a successful apology:

Say it soon

Usually, apologies are best said right after realizing you need to utter one. Don’t let too much time go by, or you’ll diminish the impact of the apology.  An immediate “I’m sorry” for a missed or late appointment, for example, is good manners. For especially egregious errors, the apology may require some extra time and care to construct. That’s fine; just don’t wait more than a few days.

Say it live

Unless it’s impossible, speak your apology live – whether in-person or on a video call. The person receiving the apology needs to see your humility, or even hear it on the phone. Less effective is an email apology, better to send a well-crafted handwritten note.

Name the deed

Own up to what you did and take responsibility with your apology. Something like “I’m sorry that I talked behind your back” has an authenticity that “I’m sorry I made you feel bad” may lack.

Omit the “but”

If you say, “I’m sorry I yelled at you during the staff meeting, but you missed the deadline by a week,” you’re excusing or justifying your actions. That’s not apologizing. So leave out “but” and its first cousin, “however.”

Note the pain

Acknowledge that you said or did something that hurt the person: “I realize that my gossiping hurt you and made you feel isolated from our group.” This adds a necessary integrity to your apology.

Fix it

Ask what would correct your wrong. The person may say that the apology is sufficient. Possibly, they might ask you to speak to their boss or do something else. Hear them out and do what they ask, assuming it’s a reasonable request.

Apologizing is never easy. Do it earnestly, though, and people will respect and forgive you. And when someone apologizes to you, accept it graciously. It’s all in a day’s work.

To read more on this topic, take a look at my colleague’s newsletter: Oops. The mistake that still haunts me 15 years later.

Posted in Communication Skills, Leadership Skills, Life Skills, Meeting Skills

Executive Presence At Every Age

When Facilitator Komal Pandya-Singh was in college, she encountered a young girl crossing a busy street in Astoria, Queens. This young girl embodied a strong executive presence at an early age. Hear her story below.

Posted in Coaching, Executive Presence, Life Skills, Uncategorized

Your Virtual Executive Presence

Executive Presence sets you apart in business, both in person and online. We demonstrate presence through subtle cues – the combination of how you present yourself  and communicate. When working in a virtual world, it’s even harder to demonstrate presence, be memorable, and connect. We don’t always see all the non-verbal cues, it can take longer to process information, and it’s more difficult to build lasting connections. So how do we overcome these issues?

One easy thing you can do to demonstrate presence online is take your time when presenting information. You’ll connect better if you pause between phrases and give people time to engage. And, start every meeting with a smile!

Posted in Communication Skills, Exec-Comm Team, Executive Presence, Leadership Skills, Life Skills

Chat, Email, Phone, Or Meet? What’s The Best Option?

video call with colleaguesNow that we’re all working from home, have you noticed an increase in the use of IM, email, internal chat forums, and project management platforms to collaborate? Some of these tools have become our go-to in business, while meetings seem to be taking a backseat. However, writing is not always the most efficient or effective way to communicate. And, it carries compliance and reputational risks.

If collaboration is the goal, a well-run meeting or a phone call are your best options.

In a meeting, more questions can be asked, and more thoughtful, complete, and candid answers can be shared. Face-to-face meetings, whether virtual or in person, can also allow non-verbal cues and tone of voice to enhance and deepen communication.

Unfortunately, meetings have a bad reputation. According to Inc. and Fuze, executives consider more than 67% of meetings a failure.

However, when a meeting is planned with a purposeful, others-focused agenda, attendees become engaged, and it is often the best choice.

If you follow a process to address opportunities or problem-solve and you use strong listening skills to engage attendees, your in-person and virtual meetings will be seen as a success.

Before you hit send on your next email, consider the purpose of your communication. Reflect on your goal and your content. Are you discussing potentially sensitive topics? Are you short-changing the discussion or missing out on an opportunity to brainstorm? Is everyone in the loop truly contributing? Is it better to stop the IM’ing or emails and schedule a meeting or phone call?

As always, we’re here to help.

Posted in Communication Skills, E-Mails, Leadership Skills, Meeting Skills, Working Remotely

Building Positive Habits For Full-Time Remote Work

“Where did this bowl of ice cream come from?” And other questions that arise when we work from home.

Last week, I was on a video call with a client in the UK. I was in my office in New York. She was at her desk in her home office in a London suburb. I mentioned I would be working from home sporadically starting this week and was worried about, among other things, my habit of raiding the fridge too often (read: constantly). She laughed and said she looked up from her emails the other day and there was a bowl of ice cream next to her laptop. She said, “I thought, ‘where did this come from?’ I didn’t even know I had ice cream in the house!”

Humans are social animals. Most of us expect, need and thrive on connections and interactions. Being told that “social distancing” is the best way to decrease and ultimately defeat COVID-19 comes across as a threat. We’ll each learn more about ourselves and our connections as we adapt to more widespread remote work environments. As large teams transition to full-time work from home, here are answers to some questions you might find yourself asking:

Working remotely, using laptop
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1. How do I manage my eating and other personal habits?

Constant access to food (TV, pets, kids, etc.) isn’t helpful when you need to concentrate on work. We adopt new habits when we are in new situations. Here are physical and metaphysical ways to deal with this challenge.

The metaphysical – Ask yourself, “what are my habits on a typical workday?” If those habits work for you, remind yourself of them and stick to them. Wake up as if you still have to commute: do your morning routine, shower, and get dressed (even if it’s day pajamas). Don’t just roll out of bed and turn on your laptop. Make sure that when you’re ready to start working, you sit in a supportive chair at a dedicated workspace. If your normal behavior at work is to not snack, keep telling yourself, “I’m at work. The same rules apply even though I am sitting in my kitchen.”

Woman working at home, balancing work and kids
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The physical – Don’t sit in your kitchen. The physical proximity to food will encourage you to eat. You’re not really hungry; you’re confused. You’re not used to having food so close all day. Sit out of sight of the food and you won’t be as tempted by it. If your kitchen is the only place to sit, put the food out of sight. I just moved a full cookie jar from within arm’s length to the other side of the room. I’m eating fewer cookies and burning some calories walking across the room to get them. The same applies to your other distractions. Put the TV remote out of reach so you’re not tempted to check the new news or turn on your favorite show. Better yet, put it out of sight- maybe across the room in the cookie jar.

2. How do I stay connected to my colleagues?

You’ll need to over-communicate, especially if working from home is new to you, your colleagues or your company. Video-chat options are better than the phone, and the phone is better than email. We’re all adjusting and doing so rapidly. It’s ok to occasionally “stop by” someone’s home desk by checking in just to catch up.

If you manage a team and you’re all new to working remotely, make the effort to check in with each member of your team even if you don’t have anything specific to ask. Remember your habits from the office. If your inclination would be to stop by and check in on someone, don’t let the fact that you’re now working remotely change that behavior. Your team needs to know you are comfortable with this new way of communicating.

We’ve all connected to people via technology. We’re used to it. What many of us aren’t used to is having this be the predominant way we communicate with each other. We don’t know how long this situation will last. Put habits in place as soon as possible to shorten the learning curve, get everyone comfortable with connecting remotely and maintain relationships.

One of the big adjustments we need to make when we all work remotely is that our work habits – dictated and influenced by our organization’s culture and protocols – are suddenly relevant when we are sitting in our living room, den, or home office (but not our kitchen – see above). For instance, if you know the VP of Finance doesn’t like people popping by his office unannounced, he won’t like an unscheduled video call either. If the SVP of Sales is comfortable brainstorming aloud when you stop by her office, she’ll likely be open to the same when you log in for your weekly remote meeting. As more of us work remotely, we will undoubtedly add new dimensions to our firm’s culture, which will eventually be codified through firm protocols. Until those directions are in place, we’ll each have to be more conscious of how we live our firms’ cultures in a remote environment.

While I have been writing this, one of my colleagues called via Microsoft Teams to, I assumed, have a video conversation. However, he had accidentally hit the wrong button and invited our entire leadership team to the call. Although the very brief get-together was unanticipated and technically an interruption, it was the remote equivalent of everyone inadvertently showing up in the break room for a cup of coffee at the same time. It provided a breath, a break, a brief bonding – all necessary to keep colleagues together and on the same path.

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3. Why is this such a big deal?

Undoubtedly, many of you have worked remotely for years and are wondering what the big deal is about this mass migration to remote work. You made the mental transition a long time ago, and your habits are now ingrained in your work ethos and your reflexes. Be patient with the rest of us. You may have been the outlier. Now you’re the calm sage, the gracious guide helping the rest of us navigate a new work world.

If we call you too often or without scheduling a meeting first and it bugs you, listen patiently to our prattle and then suggest ways that will work for all of us. If we angle the camera on our laptops so you’re looking up our nostrils, gently suggest we look at the little image in the corner to make sure we see how others are seeing us and suggest we prop up the laptop differently. If you’re suddenly hearing from people a lot more or a lot less than normal, go with it for a while.

As with any change, we’ll all settle into new patterns fairly quickly. We’re all figuring out this brave new world together. We’re all on a learning curve. Personally, I have to learn if I have ice cream. I’m now all out of cookies.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

Posted in Communication Skills, Uncategorized, Working Remotely

Motivating Your Team From The Inside Out: Leveraging Internal Motivating Factors

Engagement meter
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What motivates each of us to do better? I confess, I play Words with Friends compulsively. I swear I’m motivated by the intellectual challenge and the opportunity to occasionally best some of my really smart friends at the Scrabble-type game. Psychologists would probably tell you otherwise. They would say that I am influenced, albeit subconsciously, by the constant badges and awards I earn when I play a high-scoring word. We’re all motivated by elements obvious and elements subtle. What drives you at work? Moreover, if you lead a team, how do you keep them motivated?

Motivation at work comes from two sources – external factors and internal factors. Managers need to acknowledge the importance of both, but how do you keep employees engaged when you have little to no control over one of those factors?

External factors include things like salary, health benefits and physical working environment. Most line managers have little-to-no ability to impact these elements. We can all learn from those leaders who have to find creative ways to motivate their teams.

Internal factors are where Marc Berger lives. Berger is the New York regional director for the SEC. He notes, “In the public sector, the pay is different and the promotional opportunities are limited.”

David Peavler, Marc’s counterpart for the SEC’s Fort Worth Region, highlights, “It’s even tougher in the smaller offices. You just don’t have the opportunity to reward people with as many advanced positions.”

 “We both work with incredibly talented and dedicated professionals,” Berger notes. “We need to be creative in the way we reward people for their dedication and contribution.”

Both Berger and Peavler mindfully tap into these internal factors, including: impact, recognition and challenging and interesting work, to create growth opportunities for their employees.

Impact

Whether it’s balancing the P&L, closing the deal with a new client or, in my case, finding a five-letter word that ends in “Q” on a triple letter score space, we’re all achievement junkies to some extent.

Berger notes, “Government work is very fulfilling because you feel like you’re solving a problem and addressing an important need. The work we do is a motivating factor in and of itself.”

Peavler adds, “The nature of the work fuels the people involved. They feel like they’re fighting the good fight.”

Whether you’re in the public or private sector, the message is the same: developing people and putting them in situations where they can make a difference is a key to keeping them motivated. If someone’s not performing well, no motivation program is going to change their overall level of happiness. Once people have an impact on clients, customers or the organization, you can further motivate them by making sure their success is recognized.

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Recognition

Most people respond well to being recognized for their achievements. In 2019, the Mary Kay Cosmetic Company celebrated the 50th year of awarding its top salespeople pink Cadillacs. At professional services firms, the corner office isn’t just prime real estate because of the broader views – it’s the outward sign of substantial achievement. Regardless of the setting, recognizing the achievements of others is a crucial part of motivating your team. Many people don’t need huge accolades, and recognition doesn’t always have to cost a lot.

Even within the dictates of the federal government’s compensation protocol, Berger found a way to reward high performers.

“I needed to reward hard work and contribution, but there were limited promotional paths forward for some people as they advanced in my office,” Berger noted. “So I created a new opportunity, the ‘counsel to the regional director’ role.” Professionals on his team are selected to rotate through the role for four months at a time, receiving slightly higher compensation for those months. “Arguably a more important reward than the extra money is the opportunity to learn how the agency functions on a broader basis, which gives them added insight into decision-making when they return to their regular roles.

“As a leader, you have to make these opportunities happen because they don’t always occur naturally,” Peavler said. “We find opportunities to recognize high performers in a meaningful way, such as by having them lead important internal initiatives or speak on the agency’s behalf at industry or public events. And sometimes it’s as simple as giving someone an extra day off or more flexibility in their schedule, things that don’t necessarily cost the organization a great deal but mean a lot to the employee.”

Every few Words with Friends games, I download a bucket of rewards that earn me points I can use as currency to buy advantages in the game and badges that give me an encouraging cyberspace pat on the back. And at my firm, the last agenda item at every staff meeting is “Applause, Applause,” where people have the chance to publicly acknowledge someone who has gone above and beyond for them or the group in the last month. The recognition is always appreciated by the recipient, creates a supportive work culture and ends the meeting on a high note.

Challenging & Interesting Work

Having a career means more than holding a job. In a career, we’re looking for advancement and an opportunity for growth. We want to keep getting better at what we’re doing. In between promotions there may be long stretches when we’re doing the same job repeatedly. How do you keep someone who’s in that phase motivated to bring their best self to the task every day? One way is to provide options for growth through challenging and interesting work. Adding a new component to someone’s role keeps the job from becoming stale.

At the SEC, Berger found a variety of ways to accomplish this. “I try to identify cutting edge investigative work or a novel examination approach and then have that team present the matter to their colleagues at staff-wide meetings. This allows them to share their expertise and techniques with others, while they develop their presentation and communication skills in front of large audiences,” Berger noted.

Peavler added, “While I usually can’t offer the same perks available to the private sector, I can honor someone’s accomplishments by assigning them challenging or high-profile cases or examinations, encouraging them to become experts on important industry subjects and giving them opportunities to mentor others and be mentored by senior staff.

He added, “All of these elements gave me some options for recognizing the team’s hard work and dedication and gave them a growth opportunity. The exposure to new opportunities and experiences gave them a differentiator for their resumes.”

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Summary

Companies, especially large, publicly traded companies, are supposed to be driven by maximizing share value. Yet many seem equally driven to make the list of “Best Places to Work” and the like. Organizations large and small increasingly leverage team motivation and individual engagement to drive performance. To keep your team motivated to perform at their best for you and the organization, consider the individuals’ internal motivating factors.

  1. Find ways to make them successful
  2. Celebrate those successes
  3. Look for low-cost ways to keep their job challenging and engaging

Finally, if you know any six letter words that include an “X” and a “Z” let me know. I’m 40 points behind and really need a win.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

Posted in Coaching, Innovation, Leadership Skills, Uncategorized

Enhance Your Online Brand

Now that we can’t meet in person, your online presence is your first impression. Maybe you’re looking for a new job, aiming to expand your current role, or working to stay relevant in a changing world. Either way, you need a strong virtual presence to get there.

Today, your online brand is equally as important as your in-person presence. Staying top-of-mind and growing your network are essential business tools. So how can you make sure that your online presence represents you and the value that you add? Here are 3 easy tips from Karen Rodriguez, Exec-Comm’s Marketing Partner, on managing your online brand.

Please share some more tips on how you ensure that your online presence properly represents your skills.

Visit our YouTube channel, execcommtrainer, for more tips!

Posted in Media Skills, Online Brand, Tips Videos, Uncategorized

Channeling Astronaut Mark Watney: Effective Leadership In The Age Of ‘What Else Could Possibly Go Wrong?’

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Sol 45

I have been alone in my home office for over a month, not seeing anyone. I’ve had to learn all sorts of new technology to stay alive, workwise. I have literally planted 60 heads of lettuce in the backyard, so according to the movie The Martian, technically I’ve colonized my small patch of Pleasantville, New York. I haven’t had a haircut in almost two months. The only difference between astronaut Mark Watney and me, is that he lost weight and I’ve gained it.

It’s been seven weeks since I closed my firm’s physical office. If you’re in management, like me, during this time you’ve felt isolated, challenged, overwhelmed, supported, determined, often stressed, sometimes abandoned and sometimes on a bit of an adventure trying to figure all this out. And that’s just on a good morning.

In the last few weeks, you’ve probably had to furlough employees so they can make ends meet by taking advantage of benefits programs. You may have had to take the very difficult step of laying off some cherished co-workers. You’ve worked with other colleagues to craft new business solutions and find new approaches to open doors with clients. You’ve applied for government loan programs, not completely sure what they are offering or how best to use the revenue. And you’ve heard about colleagues whose health has been impacted by COVID-19.

How do you keep going when…

…you miss those who have been furloughed or laid off?

…you’re so grateful for and humbled by those colleagues who have kept the creative juices flowing?

…you’re making decisions on the information available when you know that information will change, sometimes by the day or hour?

…you’re thinking, praying and pulling for those you know who are or have been sick?

In the movie The Martian, there’s a scene that really struck me. (Mild spoilers ahead.) It’s after the hatch explodes and Watney loses his crops. He covers the opening with a tarp, but every time the wind blows, he can hear the tarp snap taut and strain. He winces, knowing if the tarp tears or blows open, it’s all over. Yet he grits his teeth, inhales deeply and perseveres. As he says at the end of the movie, “In space, you solve one problem, then you move on to the next, and then on to the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

We’re all in what feels like the Martian landscape now. You may be trying to figure out how to teach your kids, manage your finances in the face of uncertainty, stay healthy in spite of an invisible and unpredictable virus, connect with loved ones, maintain your mental health and keep your business afloat. Each news bulletin feels like the snap of the tarp. We need every bit of grit we can muster to stay focused on the task at hand. We need to solve one problem at a time and move on to the next. Then, we’ll get to come home.

If you’re in management, here are some straightforward ideas to help you through this difficult landscape:

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  • Over-communicate with your team, while being clear and concise – they have a lot of information coming at them, too.
  • Make decisions based on what you know at the time and remain nimble enough to change as quickly as the news evolves.
  • Let your team know that today’s decisions are made on the best available information, and that those decisions may change tomorrow. Your honesty and transparency with your team will help everyone know that we’re all in this together and help them appreciate that sudden changes in direction are part of the larger plan to keep everything moving forward.
  • Focus on what’s in front of you. If you don’t solve today’s problems, tomorrow’s problems won’t matter very much.
  • In spite of the point above, make sure you’re solving today’s problems with an eye on meeting your larger objectives for down the road.
  • If you manage with honesty and integrity, your team will be both understanding when you make the tough calls and a bit more forgiving when you make the inevitable misstep. Keep true to your values and guiding principles, even when it’s tough.
  • Channel Mark Watney: grit your teeth, breathe and keep moving forward.

Like you, I’m working on solving some bigger problems each day. Tonight, I’m just learning to cut my own hair.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

Posted in Communication Skills, Innovation, Leadership Skills, Uncategorized, Working Remotely

Meet Me In The Middle

Fist bump between colleagues at work. Success in business. Everyday work in the office.

As a communication professional and executive coach, I teach people how to be effective communicators. How to have conversations that connect rather than divide.

One of the most common stumbling blocks I encounter when teaching effective conversation skills is the existence of confirmation bias.

So, what is it?

Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs while discounting information that contradicts them. It feels better to find evidence that confirms what you believe to be true rather than to find evidence that falsifies it. Why go out in search of disappointment?

When these beliefs are strongly held, entering conversations with people who don’t share them can create a conversational minefield, as we are reluctant to accept their point of view as valid, and them ours.

As a coach, I pride myself on questioning my deeply held beliefs, staying aware of my confirmation bias, and helping others do the same. But being a coach is occasionally like being a shoemaker who goes barefoot.

This dissonance became abundantly clear to me over the last 24 hours.

Last night, I spoke with a close friend about the implications of these uncertain times. Unfortunately, I entered this conversation armed with my carefully curated belief system, aided by my own unchecked confirmation bias.

 “We’re in for the long haul; this thing is going to go on for months.”

 “That seems drastic,” she replied, “let’s keep positive and hope it’s only a few weeks.”

“That’s simply not realistic,” I sternly objected.

“But I need to be optimistic.”

“Well your optimism isn’t realistic.”

We hung up; I knew I had mis-stepped. Feelings hurt, my friend called me back to tell me so.

She explained, “I need hope. If I don’t feel hopeful, I won’t make it through this. I need to be positive”

My friend navigates her life on this concept, which feels scarily upsetting to a skeptic like me. But recognizing her distress, I apologized half -heartedly.

It only took a few more hours for my viewpoint to be challenged again – when a friend who I disagree with on nearly every policy issue texted me.

 “I’d rather get sick and succumb to this disease before putting my children’s future at risk.”

“How ridiculous,” I thought. How could he be making a cost-benefit analysis at a time like this?! My emotional adrenaline surged.

Emotions still on high alert the following morning, I was forced to reevaluate my conversations. Come on coach, you’re trained for this. Stop going barefoot and put some shoes on.

Shot of two colleagues having a discussion in an office

And then it dawned on me, my confirmation bias was on full display. I carried my own firmly held beliefs into my conversations, unchecked. By failing to question them, I limited my ability to effectively connect with friends. I needed to do what I teach my clients – question my beliefs. What information could I intentionally seek out that supported my friends’ points of view?

I read about the positive effects of hope on the individual psyche, I sought out information on the risks to the economy, and I opened my mind. She needed hope and he was worried about his children’s futures. Those beliefs systems had merit.

Given the uncertainty we are all faced with, it might be fair to say that most of us are no experts right now.

We are a bit lost, stumbling through this crisis together. In emotionally charged situations, the pull of confirmation bias only intensifies. But it’s now more critical than ever to call it out and stop it from dividing us when we most need to be connected.

As a coach, I am trained to call people’s attention to this – to help them overcome it. As a friend, it’s just good sense. I invite you all to meet me in the middle. Trust me, you’ll feel better.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to check if confirmation bias is creeping into your conversations:

  • Do I have particularly strong feelings or beliefs about the issue at hand?
  • What if I thought the opposite of those ideas?
  • Do I avoid, block, or even attack informed people who appropriately disagree with me?
  • How do I react to points that I agreed or disagreed with?
  • Which parts did I automatically agree with?
  • Which parts did I ignore or skim over without realizing?
  • Am I basing my conclusions on selective evidence?

Do you need more help with this or other communication skills? Contact us.

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Leadership Skills, Meeting Skills, Uncategorized