Bringing Back-To-School Night Back To Work: 5 Steps To Make The Most Of Your Relationships

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When my son Sam was in second grade, I sat – really squatted – in a tiny chair in his classroom to hear his teacher – let’s call her Ms. Rose – talk to the gathered parents about the classroom atmosphere our kids would experience that year. One parent mentioned with a puzzled expression that her son had shared with her what sounded like a very questionable exercise that the kids had been asked to do in her class. I forget the exact exercise but recall that it sounded absurd on its face. Ms. Rose smiled and replied calmly, “I’ll make you a deal. You don’t believe anything your son or daughter tells you about what goes on in my classroom, and I won’t believe anything they tell me about what goes on in your home.” I immediately knew Sam was in good hands.

In the coming weeks, many of us will stumble awkwardly through our kids’ grade schools, middle schools, and high schools carrying a copy of their daily schedule, trying to find their lockers, looking to understand their path through the school each day, and thinking back on the energy and chaos of our own school years. Most importantly, we’ll have the chance to spend 7-10 minutes with each teacher. For some of us, those few minutes will be the only exchange we have all year with a person who will impact our child’s learning. How can we make the most of that, and every interaction we’re afforded on back-to-school night?

Andrew Selesnick has been an educator for almost 30 years. His career has taken him from English teacher, to high school principal, to assistant superintendent, and for the last four years to the superintendent of the Katonah – Lewisboro School District in Westchester County, New York. As the father of two high school students himself, he has been to more than his share of open house events at schools, from just about every angle. We had a chance to meet recently to discuss best practices for everyone regarding these rites of passage. The lessons he shared are applicable well beyond the unique structure of back-to-school night.

Jay Sullivan: The typical open house structure doesn’t allow for much interaction. How do we get the most out of the evening?

Andrew Selesnick: There is an overarching attitude we can all have about the experience. But there are also some specific things we can do.

Sullivan: What are the big picture items parents should start with?

Selesnick: Assume good intentions. The teachers are trying to pack a lot into a short time period. They have the best interests of your kids at heart. As you are racing around trying to find your kids’ classrooms, you’ll appreciate how your child is shifting gears so many times in a day, from science to history to gym, etc. Now look at the number of parents in the room with you. The teacher has that many kids in the class each day, and every hour or so a new crop comes in. There’s a lot of shifting gears going on for the teacher as well. In each period, the teacher is thinking about which kid is struggling, which kids need to be challenged at a higher level, and which kids they haven’t called on in a while and need some attention. If you assume the best of intentions on the part of the teacher, you’ll naturally approach the conversation with a positive tone.

And teachers need to make the same assumptions about the parents. The pressure has become fierce lately to make sure every child is meeting their potential. That’s a lofty, albeit legitimate, goal, and one every school should aspire toward. With the pressure, or even the perception of pressure, ratcheting up on both sides, it’s understandable that teachers and parents approach their interactions hesitantly, perhaps even defensively. The more honest and open the parent-teacher partnership can be, the better. Open lines of communications will allow both to share their unique expertise about the child. Teachers should assume they will get positive, realistic, legitimate questions and concerns from parents. That will help everyone have a more relaxed exchange.

Sullivan: It seems that tension is driven by a lack of trust.

Selesnick: I’d say it’s more a lack of a true relationship. Both the parents and the teachers have a relationship with the student, but the parents and teachers don’t interact enough to have a true relationship with each other. As a result, both parties must try harder to be open and trusting during the few exchanges they will have during the year.

Sullivan: Would more interaction help?

Selesnick: More balanced interaction would help. Often, after back-to-school night, the only time teachers and parents interact is if there’s a problem. Nowadays, parents and teachers are connected by email. Communication between them when things are going well is important. Even a short email from the teacher commenting on an assignment well done, or a message from the parent indicating their child seems excited about the class, would help build trust. That way, if the situation arises where the parent and teacher need to address any challenges during the year, there is already a foundation for the relationship.

Sullivan: Beyond the broad approach of assuming good intentions, what specifically can both parents and teachers do to get the most out of the school event?

Selesnick: Teachers will often focus on sharing the content of the course with parents. That can be conveyed better through a handout. I think everyone would be better served if the teachers spent the brief time they have with all the parents talking about their approach to teaching, the environment they hope to create in the classroom, and how they plan to try to connect with each student. They should just be themselves and let the parents know they view the kids’ education as a partnership. Most importantly, they should keep it brief and leave room at the end for a few questions. Relationships require listening.

Sullivan: Relationships also require two parties. What should parents be doing?

Selesnick: Parents might find the evenings more valuable if they ask good questions without assumptions. Ask, “What should I be doing at home to help my kid succeed?” Again, that goes toward the idea of building a partnership with the teacher. Even consider asking, “What should I not be doing?”

Sullivan: Can you elaborate on that?

Selesnick: Sure. Here’s an example. Let’s say you are helping you child with a writing assignment. Don’t have a pencil in your hand. If you have a pencil in your hand, both you and your child know that you’ll be tempted to jump in and edit the paper yourself.

Sullivan: That would never have occurred to me.

Selesnick: Your kid’s teacher might have very specific suggestions as to what you can do and avoid doing to help your son or daughter thrive academically. Another question both parents and teachers can ask each other is, “What kind of communication from me would be helpful?” That question avoids making assumptions, and helps people get what they need. The act of asking questions also goes a long way toward building trust.

Sullivan: So if I understand you correctly, we can all make the most out of back-to-school night if we, 1) assume the best of intentions all around, 2) focus on building a relationship instead of the content of the particular course, 3) ask good questions of each other, 4) listen well to the responses, and 5) create the expectation of further communication.

Selesnick: I think that would set us all up for a better evening, and a better pattern for interaction throughout the whole year.

Sullivan: Agreed. Thanks for the valuable lesson.

Originally published on

Posted in Meeting Skills, Networking, Uncategorized

5 Keys To Build Trust

Someone recently asked what I would consider a necessity for a module on building trust. I think about this topic a lot because there are so many things people can do to affect a positive or negative interaction with others, hence building or breaking trust.

I try to follow a few simple tips when building relationships:

1. Assume the better, not the worse.

Everyone is fighting a battle I know nothing about. So, I just try to be nice (most of the time) and I find that really helps in building relationships and trust.

2. Offer more genuine praise and less “feedback.”

I have seen trust broken by the overuse of smiles and inauthentic compliments. Too much feedback, besides being demoralizing, totally kills trust and respect. I give compliments abundantly but not inauthentically and try to let the little things slide. You did things slightly differently than I asked but still got the desired outcome? Who cares. You see something from a different perspective? It doesn’t mean you are wrong. I pick my battles and try not to get stuck in the “yes, but…” conversations.

3. Pick your close friends and share your struggles with them.

Don’t put others down. But, share your challenges and your burdens with those you trust. Some may call it gossip – I would call it “getting things off your chest.” Not everything. Not every day. But form a tight-knit group of co-workers whom you call friends and whom you can talk to or text.

4. Work hard and show up when you say you will.

Be the person others know they can count on. Get up 5 minutes early so you’re never late and finish what you start.

5. Listen to others.

Push the laptop out of your way, flip your phone over, and look people in the eyes when they speak. Listen, process, and respond. Let them vent to you, let them open up to you, and then offer your thoughts and opinions. It’s okay to play the devil’s advocate if you don’t agree. Just be real.

Bottom line:

Be authentic. Be kind. Assume the best. Praise appropriately. Don’t over-correct. Find your real “work” friends. Be on time. Listen well.

That’s the formula I try to follow. Flawlessly? Absolutely not. To the best of my ability? There is no reason not to. Give it a try and let me know how it works out.

Posted in Coaching, Leadership Skills, Life Skills, Networking

If I Only Remember One Thing About You, What Do You Want It To Be?


When it comes to technology, I’m neither a gadget guy nor a Neanderthal. I’m happy to use the latest and greatest, as long as it’s easy and helps me get more done or enjoy the experience more. The difficulty is often figuring out what a given product does or how it helps. This issue is driven by the level of communication skills on the part of the tech companies themselves. But it isn’t just a tech company-specific problem; anyone that works to promote their product or service needs to hone a clear and concise message.

Yesterday, I spoke at ILTACON, the annual conference for the International Legal Technology Association with 1800 attendees – the tech teams from law firms and legal service providers and 200-plus exhibitors of tech products and services. Tons of tech talk and gadgets galore. With a few hours to kill before my presentation, I wandered the exhibitor floor, learning about a wide array of hardware, software, platforms and cloud-based solutions for law firms as they try to ensure they leverage technology to serve their clients.

I stopped at more than 20 booths, hearing pitches about video-integration, cyber-security platforms, document amalgamation and e-learning solutions. Most of the initial pitches were hard to process. Although the typical attendee at this conference is more familiar with technology than I am, I’m not stupid. I can translate fairly quickly. However, many of the exhibitors struggled to convey a clear, succinct message about who they are and what they do.

Without a strong message, it’s tough to be memorable, especially in a sea of hundreds of exhibitors.

I asked each person I spoke with, “If I only remember one sentence about your company or product when I walk away from this booth, what do you want me to remember?” Almost all struggled for a bit before sharing their clear idea, and many of those needed some work. Only three vendors nailed it.

Ben Freeman is the Head of US Operations for Tessian. When I stopped by Tessian’s booth and asked what they did, he responded, “We help lawyers hit send with confidence.” No jargon. Nothing complicated. Just enough to make me want to learn more. Their software builds algorithms about a particular lawyer’s email habits – who she emails, how often, at what email address and on what legal matters. If a lawyer (or anyone, for that matter), tries to send an email on a case to someone not usually on that chain, at that client, or involved in that matter, the software alerts them. In fact, their software does a lot more than that, but you have to start the conversation somewhere, and this was the best place to start. We’ve all sent an email to the wrong party at some point, so we can all relate most easily to this aspect of Tessian’s service.

Alan Doucet is a new Strategic Account Executive at Olympus. As I approached his booth, I thought he was talking on his phone, which seemed odd given that he was supposed to be pitching his product. In fact, he was showing someone else a device. When I asked him what it does, he assumed I was a tech professional at a law firm – a valid assumption given the audience for the conference. He said, “You and your lawyers dictate documents all the time. You want your audio to be as clear as your ideas.”

He didn’t start with “This is the new DS 9500 Pro Audio Recorder.” He didn’t start with anything about Olympus. He started with me – his singular audience at the moment – and identified a specific need I might have. Talking to the audience about the audience is a powerful way to start a conversation, and far more engaging than talking about your own self or service. Again, his product does far more than provide top quality audio recording on an easy-to-use device. But you want to start with the simple and move up from there.

Ginny Gonzalez is the Chief Marketing Officer for TCDI, which provides a broad range of tech services for law firms. While she was explaining some of the firm’s many services, I noticed a sign in their booth about their “Military Spouse Managed Review” program. When I asked about it, Ginny went from being enthusiastic to beaming. “We’re so proud of this program,” she started. “It ensures that military spouses don’t have to change jobs just because they’re changing bases.” Again, easily said, and easily remembered.

Military professionals move frequently. If their spouse is a lawyer, that spouse often has difficulty finding a job in the new location. TCDI’s services include reviewing documents on complex matters that require a lawyer’s skill set, but can be performed remotely and aren’t limited by jurisdiction. What was telling in Ginny’s case was the change in her tone of voice and expression. When she had an emotional connection to her topic, she spoke about it more genuinely, with more conviction, with simple language and in a memorable way.

What are the takeaways for you?

Keep it simple and relatable, speak from the other person’s perspective, and leverage how you feel about your topic to bring authentic energy into the conversation. These exhibitors were at a tech-for-lawyers conference – an intersection of two industries steeped in jargon. If they can manage simple and clear messages, you can, too.

Originally published on

Posted in Coaching, Meeting Skills, Networking, Uncategorized

From Listing Skills To Leveraging Stories: How To Show, Not Tell, Your Value


It’s been along year already. That’s not a comment on the political environment, but on your own schedule at work. You’ve accomplished a ton. You’ve been involved in some projects that were planned, and some that sprang out of nowhere. Some were crises – challenging and interesting – that tested your skills. Others were mundane and tested your patience. In any event, you’ve worked hard, grown as a professional and developed new talents. If you’re in the market for a new role, think of how you have grown in the last twelve months. When you’re interviewing, whether for a different role in the same organization, or at a new employer, you must consider what you bring to the table. But just listing your skills on your resume isn’t enough.

You’ve written at the top of your resume, “Hard-working and innovative professional with a proven track record of success.” That’s interesting, but you’re asserting a generic, self-serving conclusion. It means little or nothing to the prospective employer. During the interview, you’ll be talking about your talents and your skills – all necessary steps in the conversation. But it’s not the conclusion you draw about your abilities that I’ll notice. It’s the simple story you can tell that PROVES to me you have the goods. Let’s talk about telling stories.

Whether you are currently interviewing or simply starting to determine your “personal brand,” you should always be thinking of how you differentiate yourself in the marketplace. Think of it this way, regardless of the industry in which you work, and whether your organization provides products or services, you are the key product you are offering – your integrity, your self-discipline, your innovative ideas. Think in terms of, “What do I claim to offer, and how do I prove that value?” I can’t answer the first question for you. But the second point is simple – you prove your value through the stories of your accomplishments. Stories resonate with us more than facts.

Stories are tricky. Too short and they don’t make the point or are too vague. Too long and they’re boring and pedantic. Some ground rules:

1. Telling stories about your accomplishments is not bragging.

(Unless you are stretching the truth. Don’t stretch the truth; that’s called lying and eventually you will be exposed.) Telling stories will allow you to back up your conclusions about the skills you claim you have. If you can’t tell me where you were successful professionally, why would I hire you? You can tell meaningful stories about your success not from the perspective of “Look at how great I am,” but from the perspective of, “This group or individual was facing a challenge and I was lucky enough to be able to help them overcome that problem.”

2. Stories don’t need to be long and complicated to make a point.

Distill down the facts of your story to the key elements important for this person to hear: not so short that your story becomes an over-eager, “I’ve done that!” but not so long that the person starts to think, “Where is he going with this?” Tailor your story to meet the needs of the interview. What issues has the other person raised as challenges in the role for which you are interviewing? What story can you share that shows you have dealt with that challenge?

3. Stories have a structure.

Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. All stories begin with grounding the facts in time or space.

There’s a small firm in Peoria….

On the outskirts of Boston….

A month into my current job….

Two weeks ago, Tuesday….

(N.B. If “Two weeks ago Tuesday,” was also “a month into my current job,” find a different story.)

All stories end with a line that lets you know the story is complete. In your case, that line should sound something like, “So it felt great to be able to help solve that problem for the client.” That type of ending highlights your talent, while coming across as modest and grateful rather than arrogant.

The middle of the story will change in length and content based on the audience to whom you are speaking and the needs in the moment. Every story has myriad details we include or don’t based on the setting. Include those details you think drive home your main point, but always err on the side of brevity.

4. Don’t go negative.

No one likes a downer. The story should never be about how someone else failed and you stepped in to save the day. You can highlight a problem that existed, but not the party who created the problem. You should feel comfortable sharing an instance where you failed, but, ideally, it’s a small failure, not a major disaster. And even then, the focus of the story is about how you made things right in the end, not about beating yourself up over a personal failing.

5. Use the story to introduce a question.

“Recently, I was working with a technology group that needed to accomplish X. How are you dealing with those issues?” That simple, one sentence “story” creates context. The substantive, specific question tells the interviewer that you both understand the issues her company is facing, and have dealt with this problem before. Now the conversation is less about whether you possess a particular skill set and more about how you are already putting your skills to work to solve the interviewer’s challenges. You can seem incredibly smart in an interview by asking relevant, insightful questions, even before you get around to talking about your skills.

6. Leverage any element of your story that appeals to the five senses.

People are more likely to remember stories that appeal to our sense of sight, sound, smell, taste or touch. The interviewer isn’t just assessing you in the abstract. She or he is assessing you in comparison to many other candidates. The more memorable your story, the more likely you’ll be remembered.

Last month I was coaching a senior associate at a law firm who was on the cusp of making partner. He is a smart attorney with excellent technical skills, but his quiet demeanor was keeping him from standing out as a strong client relationship person. As we sat at the massive table in the stately conference room at his firm, he shyly commented that he didn’t have any stories to tell, which I flatly refused to believe. (You don’t work long, hard hours for 10-plus years without having lots of stories.) It only took a few questions about his work life to help him realize that every client he had helped, every project he worked on, every pro bono matter he had handled, all provided instances of his success. Each provided ample material for a story about the different talents he brought to bear to help the firm. Once he started seeing those moments in terms of stories, he was able to convey his value with much greater confidence. His voice became stronger and his body language became more animated. He simply became more convincing. You can too.

These are just a few pointers to keep in mind as you hone your own stories about your professional successes while you look to new and different opportunities in the workforce.

Best of luck.

Originally published on

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Interviewing Skills, Meeting Skills, Networking

How Do You Inspire And Engage Your Team?

Why do people listen to you? Is it out of obligation? Admiration? Fear? A little bit of everything? As a leader your job is to inspire, mentor, encourage, and continuously develop your team. You want to foster an environment of true ownership and accountability, rather than one of obligation. When it comes down to it, your goal is to keep your top performers who add value to you and your company.

Here’s how.

1. Lead by example.

Surely, you’ve heard that leaders “walk the walk” and “talk the talk.” But what does that really mean? Never ask someone on your team to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself.

Your team looks to you to gauge how they should act. As a manager, you set the tone for those around you.

2. Develop trust.

Honor your word. Trust in management is crucial. It takes a long time to build trust, but only one wrong move to destroy it. Creating an environment of trust builds feelings of safety among your employees. And this safety breeds a more innovative, creative working team. When it’s okay for them to make mistakes, your employees will feel comfortable to develop new, inventive ideas and solutions.

3. Know the people you manage.

What are their personal and professional goals and challenges? Understanding this can help you align your team’s talents to your business goals. Knowledge is power. Get to the heart of what motivates each individual on your team and speak to them in a way that resonates. Think beyond the standard motivators like salary, benefits, or job security. Don’t get me wrong, those factors play a huge role in an employee’s happiness. But they’re not everything. They represent a baseline of satisfaction. You want to tap into true motivators – achievement, recognition, job satisfaction, progress, and personal growth.

4. Encourage problem solving.

Know that you don’t have all the answers. You have a team for a reason. Encourage a safe environment where those around you can creatively develop solutions and come up with new ideas. Your job as a manager is to foster an environment for others to shine. Their success is your success!

5. Provide constructive feedback.

Try to avoid feedback that is nitpicky. Micromanaging can demotivate a top performer. Instead, focus on a person’s strengths and big picture areas of improvement. When you’re thinking about areas of improvement, separate those that are crucial to company growth from those that are a stylistic preference.

6. Acknowledge top performers.

This shouldn’t be done just once a year. Offering recognition and praise on a regular basis keeps your top performers motivated. Even something as minor as a brief shout out or accolade at a meeting, or a quick company-wide email acknowledging someone’s hard work, can go a long way.

Want to learn more? Find more information about Exec|Comm’s Motivating and Mentoring programs here.

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Leadership Skills, Uncategorized

The Courage Of Questions


Many of us think of communication as the delivery of words, information, ideas, opinions.

And this is accurate – a Merriam-Webster definition of communication is “information transmitted or conveyed.” But what about the other important element in a successful exchange of ideas?

Asking questions.

Questioning is courageous. It takes courage to request information, help, or clarification. Show that you’re self-confident and invested in the content of a meeting by saying, “I don’t quite understand. Can you please help me?”

Revealing to a room full of people that you need help is vulnerable and brave. It’s also important for all levels of professionals to adopt this crucial aspect of communication. Why?

Well, we don’t know everything! Learning is a life long journey, and asking people for information or help understanding a concept allows us to grow.

It’s respectful to others. It’s hard to build a strong connection with a self-focused “know it all.” Asking shows that you’re interested in the other person’s perspective. Whether you’re curious about someone’s weekend plans, or their views on the future of self-driving cars, people enjoy being asked for their thoughts, experiences, and opinions.

It puts our humbleness on display and encourages others to do the same. In today’s information-driven business environment, it can feel like there’s an unrelenting pressure to be the expert in the room and possess all the answers. Some of us take that pressure too far, dominating conversations with breathless run on statements that don’t allow others to participate. We over-talk our points to demonstrate our depth of knowledge, and interrupt others when we have something “important to add.” Freeing ourselves of this pressure and asking information from others, allows for a more balanced meeting that feels increasingly like a conversation and less like a presentation. Does anyone really want to attend another presentation?

The next time you’re in a meeting or responding to an email, check your talk impulse at the door. Spend equal time considering, what can I say and what can I ask of others?

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, E-Mails, Meeting Skills, Questions

Mindfulness And Trust: The Keys To Successful Leadership

“What keeps you fulfilled in your role?”


Whether we are navigating a busy sidewalk, or navigating through our career, when we lose perspective, we lose our bearing and risk faltering. Having perspective on our situation requires self-awareness; we need to be conscious of who we are, how we got wherever we are, who is around us and how our actions impact those around us.

Kevin Wijayawickrama of Deloitte Advisory keeps those concepts top-of-mind every day. Kevin wears two hats, as the leader of Deloitte’s Advisory Practice in the Western U.S., and the head of the healthcare group for Deloitte’s Western Region. In those dual roles, Kevin is responsible for inspiring, protecting and developing more than 5,000 professionals. I recently had the chance to speak with Kevin about what keeps him on track, and what advice he has for other business leaders.

Kevin identified three approaches an effective leader can take to build trust with her or his team, because without trust, nothing else much matters. 1. Know yourself. 2. Do your homework. 3. Let go of the stress of the day.

Jay Sullivan: You’ve spoken and written frequently on mindfulness in the workplace. What does that term mean to you?

Kevin Wijayawickrama: I think of “mindfulness” as purposeful human engagement. You have to take time to know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. Then you have to reflect on the other person. Our work lives get so busy dealing with tasks and initiatives, we sometimes need to remind ourselves as leaders that the people we are dealing with aren’t just cogs in the wheels of the machinery. They are living, breathing human beings who have goals and dreams and fears and aspirations. We need to be conscious of those attributes of the people we work with so that we treat them with respect. That will help you as a leader build a stronger level of trust.

Sullivan: Nice in concept, but what does that mean in reality?

Wijayawickrama: When I am meeting with someone, I try to make them feel that they are literally the most important person in the world to me at that moment. I don’t wear a watch; I don’t want to be distracted by time. I do my best to give 100% of my attention to whoever is in front of me. I can’t say I always succeed, but the effort is there, and I think the effort is appreciated.

Sullivan: But your team spreads across 10 states. How can you be present to everyone?

Kevin W, Deloitte Advisory

Wijayawickrama: You can’t, and you don’t need to. As a leader, you need to influence and impact those closest to you, and trust that the example you set is being carried through the ranks. That’s why it’s so important to build the right level of trust. Trust works two ways. You create a level of trust by consistent behavior, borne out over time. As your team feels that trust, you can trust them to act in accordance with the behaviors you’ve modeled.

Sullivan: How does this come into play at Deloitte?

Wijayawickrama: We recently instituted a “Next Gen Leadership Initiative,” which involves the top 10% of the partners at the firm. In addition to a formal, structured training program on leadership, we assign each person a coach and a psychologist. These two professionals help these top leaders identify their strengths, their challenges and their potential. Again, it all goes to increased self-awareness leading to increased effectiveness.

Sullivan: You also talk about doing your homework. What does that look like as a leader at Deloitte?

Wijayawickrama: Get to know your people. When you’re trying to build trust, you have to let people know you care about them. Get their kids’ names right. Understand their family situation. Know where they came from before they started to work for you, and ask them very directly where they want to go career-wise. Unless you’re a fantastic actor, you can’t appear to be genuinely interested in your team unless you actually are genuinely interested in your team. You need to be aware of what’s important to them. The easiest way to do that is to simply ask them. You can’t assume anything; you need to ask open-ended questions that force them to give you concrete information instead of a perfunctory answer.

For instance, the younger elements of the workforce are interested in fulfillment. When I entered the workforce, I would never have had the nerve to think I was owed that. I just wanted a job. Now, people want to know their work matters to them and to others. How it matters to each person is what you as a leader need to learn.

Sullivan: Where did you learn these lessons?

Wijayawickrama: When I came to this country from Sri Lanka as a young man, I had nothing. But I had the tremendous good fortune to be mentored by more senior business leaders. They, not only introduced me to a solid path for growth, but showed me how to walk that path and how to guide others to do the same. Much of what I do as a leader I do to say “thank you” to those who nurtured me.

Sullivan: You also talk about “letting go of the stress of the day.” How do you accomplish that?

Wijayawickrama: That’s where perspective and self-awareness come into play again. None of us alone are going to cure cancer, address global warming, or solve the big political issues of the day. But each of us can deal with the small issues in front of us by staying focused on the only important issue to us – the person with whom we’re meeting at any given moment. If I know that my role is to simply deal with the challenge in front of me – to not get distracted – I let go of the distractions. I focus on being present to those in my day. That’s what makes for transformative meetings.

The nature of work life is evolving. The chat around the water-cooler is a thing of the past as more teams function remotely. Instead of interacting with people sporadically throughout the day, we’re all more likely to limit our interactions with our teams to scheduled appointments, often on the phone. That means that those conversations need to be less tactical and more strategic. If I want to get to know someone I rarely see face to face, I have to work harder to build trust, to make those conversations purposeful. We have to talk less about “what’s on your plate today?” and more about “what keeps you fulfilled in your role?” It’s a tall order, but the payoff is tremendous. If I’m talking to you about your long-term goals, the little stuff of the moment doesn’t get in the way.

Sullivan: Very helpful advice, and thanks for your time. If you’ll excuse me now, I need to go revise my agenda for my next meeting.

Originally published on

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Executive Presence, Leadership Skills, Uncategorized

2 Ways Kevin Anderson’s Wimbledon Attitude Can Help You Build Confidence

Kevin Anderson, the No. 8 seed, after beating Roger Federer, the No. 1 seed, in the 2018 quarterfinals at Wimbledon Tennis Championship, July 2018:

“I think the toughest thing players face when going out playing somebody like Roger in this setting is giving yourself a chance. I feel like the times that I’ve played him before, or other guys … with his ranking and history, I haven’t really allowed myself to play.”

Roger Federer after losing to Kevin Anderson:

“As the match went on, I couldn’t surprise him anymore. That’s a bad feeling to have.”

Kevin Anderson is a 30-something successful professional tennis player and even he gets intimidated by a tennis match – of which he has played thousands. Allowing yourself to be the best you can be in any situation is a life-long challenge. Whether playing tennis, giving a presentation, or leading a client meeting – having the skills to succeed is one thing, but having the confidence to excel gets us to the next level. Two pro tips to build confidence:

Focus on your audience.

You might be nervous in a pressure situation, but think about your audience. It’s not all about you and your performance. Your audience’s critical takeaway is how your viewpoint impacted them, and whether they got what they needed. Shift your content to what the audience values, and your nerves will die down.

Don’t think so much.

Practice, prepare, and polish your presentation so that when you are in the act, you are not thinking, you are communicating. This doesn’t mean memorizing. This means knowing what the key points are and adding value to your slides by giving specific examples. Keep it simple – the audience will only remember about a quarter of what you say anyway!

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Leadership Skills, Uncategorized

4 Keys To Creating Commitment At Work

“Leadership requires acknowledging the sacredness of every individual, not from a place of fear, but from a place of love.”

Emergency room doctor Philip Schwarzman, left, examines patient John O’Brien at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, Calif. (Photo by Katie Falkenberg/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

An engaged workforce produces better results. Whether you manage a team of finance professionals, a department of insurance underwriters, or a practice group of lawyers, you’re always looking for ways to keep your people engaged. As the Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer of Providence St. Joseph Health, Debra Canales stays acutely aware of the level of engagement for 120,000 employees across a $26 billion enterprise. She recently shared how she promotes employee engagement across a health care system providing life-saving care to literally millions of patients across seven states.

Jay Sullivan: Why is engagement so important?

Debra Canales: When people are engaged, they transcend the immediate and focus on the core values. At Providence those core values include respect, integrity and, most importantly, compassion.

Sullivan: How do you get people to focus on those values?

Canales: You talk about them all the time, and you adopt language about each person’s role that emphasizes those value. For instance, all of our employees are “caregivers.” In a very personal way, we tend to the patients we serve. When you think of yourself in terms of the care you provide someone else – whether you are a nurse bathing a patient in pain, or the checkout clerk in the cafeteria making sure someone’s hurried lunch is as pleasant as possible – it changes your attitude toward your role and toward those with whom you interact.

Sullivan: You can’t achieve that level of commitment just by a name change.

Canales: No, you can’t. You have to start the conversation early and reinforce it along the way. Providence has a unique history, founded by two religious orders. The Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of St. Joseph were small and resourceful groups of women dedicated to tending to the sick. Employees hear about our history from the moment they are hired, through the on-boarding process, and throughout their work lives.

Every employee knows the story of our humble beginnings, the challenges the sisters faced, and the creativity they employed to overcome obstacles. Every organization struggles along the way with growing pains and external pressures that require new ideas and approaches to continue to live their mission. The sisters had to adapt and evolve in order serve their communities.

Sullivan: So for the sisters, you could say, “Necessity is the Mother Superior of Invention.”

Canales: You could say that.

Debra Canales

Sullivan: How do you keep that message and spirit alive?

Canales: You prove to your people that you’re dedicated to taking care of them. Last year we modernized our EAP program to include training around compassion. For six months, we closed every clinic for ninety minutes every other week, a total of 18 hours of discussion around compassion, mindfulness and team-building. Honestly, I don’t think it felt like “training” for our teams; it felt like care-giving to our own people. We discussed how to weave our mission of compassion throughout everything we do. Seeing the suffering of the sick, and working hard to ameliorate it, can cause fatigue. Talking about our role in alleviating that suffering helps our own staff heal, and helps prevent burnout.

The discussions and exercises helped our people bring their best selves to work. They feel called to something bigger and more meaningful than themselves.

Sullivan: It sounds like the language you use in these settings sets the tone.

Canales: That’s right. Throughout our facilities, and throughout the way we help develop our people, you’ll see the phrase, “Know me. Care for me. Ease my way.” It’s simple language focused on how we impact and treat all of those around us, and it’s written from the perspective of the individual in front of us at any one moment.

Sullivan: What’s your role in this as the leader of leaders?

Canales: Formal leadership formation here takes three years. We ground our leaders in a sense of purpose and vocation, and they live in their values. People are always watching their leaders to see how they are living the values of the organization. We call it “the Shadow of Leadership.”

We also take risks on our people. We celebrate and learn from our mistakes. You encourage greater creativity if you acknowledge mistakes publicly.

Leadership is a full-body experience, not just from the neck up. It involves the mind, the body and the soul. All of our senior leaders are all-in on our commitment to creating an environment where we help people recognize their full potential that they otherwise wouldn’t see. That also results in building a more diverse workforce. Men and women are represented equally in our senior leadership ranks.

Sullivan: You seem to view leadership as a mission in and of itself.

Canales: Our commitment to something bigger than ourselves is a huge factor in the attraction to working here. We recently recruited a top finance professional from the tech industry who was attracted to the added dimension of our mission. You feel the mission at Providence. I believe that leadership requires acknowledging the sacredness of every individual, not from a place of fear, but from a place of love.

Sullivan: Powerful stuff. In sum, for leaders to create an engaged workforce, you have to constantly emphasize your mission, give people the space and avenues to explore their own growth in that mission, put serious attention toward developing your leaders in that vein and then use language that brings all of that together. Those are lessons for all business leaders. Thanks for your time.

Originally published on

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Executive Presence, Leadership Skills

Melania’s Unspoken Message

You’ve probably heard about Melania Trump’s recent controversial outfit choice. She wore a green trench coat with the message, “I really don’t care, do u?” while boarding the plane to visit the detention centers that are holding immigrant children in Texas. Without spoken words, Melania’s clothing sent a message to the world – whether she intended to or not. This reinforced the idea that what you wear will influence people’s impression of you.

People will judge you in the first few seconds of meeting you, solely based on the way that you look. And, even if they already have a solid impression of you, your wardrobe choices can easily change that perspective. Showing up to an important event without putting effort into your appearance will send the message that you don’t care. Overdressing for a casual meeting could send the message that you’re stuffy or less relatable.

There is no right or wrong way to dress. However, you should make intentional clothing choices.

Imagine you’re in an elevator. A woman walks in wearing a pinstripe, mid-length, navy blue pencil skirt with a matching tailored blazer and a silk cream blouse. Her hair is pulled back into a low, sleek bun and her makeup is neutral and simple. What is she communicating to the world? Based on her image, we can assume that she is professional, mature, assertive, and powerful. Your style is an outward representation of who you are, how you view yourself, and what you want from the world.

Not only does the way you dress influence the way others perceive you, but it will also impact how you feel. Northwestern conducted a study to determine how what we wear impacts the way that we feel. In the experiments, they had one group of students wear a white lab coat to perform non-medical tasks, then they had another group of students perform the same tasks without the lab coat. Surprisingly, the students who wore the lab coat made half as many errors as the students who wore regular clothes. They called it “enclothed cognition.”

Be mindful of the message you’re sending with your wardrobe, so you don’t detract from the true value you add. As always, we’re here if you need help.

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Leadership Skills, Life Skills, Uncategorized, Women in Business