Answering, ‘So, What Do You Do?’

When we meet new people, we’re often faced with the question, “So, what do you do?”

Most people respond with what’s printed on their business card. “I’m the Chief Talent Officer at Acme Industries,” or “I’m a Managing Director at Megabank.” Starting with your job title can be presumptuous. It tells the other person that you assume she knows about Acme, or that he knows what it means to be a Managing Director at a bank. You could be starting the conversation by confusing the other person or making them feel uninformed. More importantly, however, it communicates to the other person that you view yourself in terms of a status you’ve achieved. We should be proud of our professional accomplishments, but introducing ourselves in terms of our status can make us appear self-important or pompous.

Instead, try to introduce yourself not in terms of your status, but in terms of how your role impacts the end beneficiary of your job – your clients, your audience or your company. I never introduce myself by saying, “I’m the Managing Partner of Exec|Comm.” No one knows what Exec|Comm is, and saying I’m the MP makes me sound pretentious. Instead, I say, “I help people communicate better.” It opens the door to a conversation.

When you’re introducing yourself, you want a simple statement of how you impact others, just enough to make them want to hear the next sentence.

Our human nature is to be all wrapped up in ourselves – our needs, our goals and our issues. You’ll distinguish yourself from other professionals if you focus less on yourself and more on the other person.

Talking about yourself in terms of your impact rather than your status makes you intrinsically more attractive to other people. Of course, your simple statement about yourself should be sufficiently clear.

I was once working with a group of partners at a global law firm helping them hone their messages when giving presentations. Most of the partners in the room introduced themselves by sharing their titles. “I’m an insurance attorney.” That line doesn’t start conversations; it ends them. (I speak from experience. I practiced insurance law for seven years.) One partner in the group was a superb marketer. When I asked him what he does, he replied, “I marry money to movies.” What a great line. He found funding for art projects. I needed to know the next line. I wanted to learn more. That’s what you want an introduction to accomplish: the listener wanting to learn more.

One of his colleagues quickly caught on, but missed the mark slightly. He said, “I make my clients’ problems go away.” Without a small dose of context, he sounded like a hit man for the mob. Since he was a tax attorney, we massaged his message into, “I help companies return the most value to their shareholders.” His message became succinct and engaging, and positioned him as focused on the needs of his client. That’s about as good as it gets.

Think about the world around you. How is it better off because of what you do?

You’re not a “financial planner.” You “help people make sure they can retire in comfort.”

You’re not the “Assistant Art Director” at a travel magazine. You “help people figure out their next vacation.”

You’re not the “Operations Manager for Acme Industries.” You “help employees stay safe on the job.”

The more closely you can tie your statement of who you are and how you add value to the person standing in front of you, the easier it is to make them interested in what you do. Let’s say I’m a real estate lawyer and I meet someone at a conference in St. Louis.

Them – “So, what do you do?”

Me – “Did you see that construction going up across the street from the hotel? I make sure that when projects like that get started, the builder has the money to finish.”

Them – “You’re working on the new building?”

Me – “No. Not that one, but lots of others. I help negotiation construction loans for builders. What do you do?”

Don’t forget that people are more interested in talking about themselves than in listening to you. After a few sentences about you, flip the conversation back to the other person. It not only makes you a better conversationalist, it helps you understand how to tailor the rest of the conversation. The more you learn about the other person, the easier it is for you to craft a message about yourself that resonates with that person. If someone asks me what I do for a living, and I know that person is a lawyer, I say, “I help lawyers communicate better.” If I know the person is an accountant, guess what I do for a living. I help accountants communicate better. If you make your message less about yourself and more about the other person, you’ll be a more effective communicator.

For those of you launching your career, or with kids about to do so, I’ll share some insights next week about how to help young people position themselves better during interviews.

Until then, reflect further about yourself. “So, what do you do?”

Originally published on Forbes.com.

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Life Skills, Meeting Skills

Read it Write

Stack of Books

Fall is a great time to cozy up with a book. As you head from the beach to the fireside, grab a newspaper, magazine, book, or e-reader and settle in.

Good readers make good writers. Here are 3 lessons about good writing to note as you read:

1. Research thoroughly and outline completely before you write.

Biographies and books about historical events highlight the value of thoroughly researching, exploring and mastering the topic. These tomes are often the culmination of years of voracious reading and copious note taking.

Most non-fiction writers use extensive outlines to help them track timelines and events, before they create the final manuscript. An extensive and detailed outline makes it easier for the writer to stay on-track. That makes the finished piece easier to read.

2. Present information logically, as you write.

Newspapers and magazines are great examples of how to organize information. Articles and editorials lead with the key point and then add details to support it. This structure makes a story easy to follow and even easier to skim. The fairly short sentence and paragraph structure of most periodicals also provides for a more reader-friendly experience.

3. Vary the verbs and involve your reader.

Romance novels and thrillers use active and dynamic verbs. They keep the characters, the plot and the action moving along heatedly. Weak verbs, especially the overused “to be” verb, bore the readers. That’s why writers avoid it. Also, thrillers focus on action, with few superfluous words or details. Imagine if more business writing focused just on the action and omitted the fluff.

To keep these lessons fresh, keep a folder of articles, editorials, feature stories or excerpts from books that you enjoyed reading. These can inspire you when writing an email, status report or proposal. They may even help with that upcoming holiday family newsletter

Lastly, if you’re a book reader, remember that you don’t receive gold stars for finishing books you don’t enjoy. Try reading the first 50 pages. If it bores you, move on. There’s no shortage of other books to start.

Posted in Uncategorized, Writing Skills

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 nit picky. 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 & Mentoring program here.

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Leadership Skills, Uncategorized

3 Habits That Detract From Your Credibility And How To Avoid Them

Most communication skills are not about “right” and “wrong.” The overall impression you make on others is a combination of many factors, and the frequency of certain behaviors. Here are three language habits that undermine your authority.

Qualifying Language

Sometimes, we can’t state things in the absolute, and need to qualify what we are saying. Lawyers are taught never to say, “You will win the case.” Financial advisors are quick to point out, “Past performance is no guarantee of future success.” Because we must qualify much of what we say, it’s important to state with certainty that which you can. Yet too often, we pepper our speech with “kind of,” “sort of,” “basically,” and “essentially,” among other words and phrases. All these phrases qualify the integrity of our statements.

If I say, “I kind of like sushi,” I’m suggesting I don’t dislike sushi, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.  But if I say at a business meeting, “I sort of think we need to go with plan A,” I come across as hesitant, reticent to take a stand, and weak. What does it mean to “sort of think” something anyway? And if I say, “I sort of think we basically need to do X” I’m now three steps removed from taking a stand.

I’m not suggesting you should never use these words or phrases.  I only suggest you use them when you mean them.

Moreover, although many people use these phrases frequently while speaking, some people use “basically” and “essentially” in their writing as well.

The Fix: To minimize the use of qualifying phrases in your writing, search for “basically” and “essentially” in your document and make sure you are using them appropriately.  To minimize your use of these phrases in your speech, slow down.  If you pause between sentences, you will not only seem more poised and in control of yourself, you will be more conscious of your word choice and be able to cull out the unnecessary language.

Filler Words and Sounds

Muttering “um” and “ah” and other hesitancy sounds undermines our ability to sound confident and convey our ideas fluidly. We tend to fill in the pauses, particularly between sentences, because we are uncomfortable with the silence. The pauses between sentences are rarely as long as we feel they are in the moment. In fact, the silence between sentences gives our listeners the time they need to process the ideas we are conveying. We tend to use filler sounds most frequently when looking down at our notes or away from our audience to gather our thoughts.

The Fix:
 To avoid using filler sounds, only speak when looking directly in someone’s eyes.  If you talk only when you are looking right at someone, almost all the filler words will disappear.

Up-Speak

Up-speak is the inflection in our voice that, traditionally, indicates we are asking a question; our voice goes “up” at the end of the sentence.  “Would you like fries with that?” In the last two decades, many people have started using up-speak to end every sentence, undermining the sense of certainty in their speech.

If I ask someone, “Where do you live?” and they respond, “I live in Hoboken,” with their voice inflecting up at the end of the sentence, I know they aren’t asking a question or uncertain where they live. They are saying “Are you familiar with Hoboken?” or “Have you ever been there?” But if that becomes their speech pattern and they then say in a business meeting, “I think we need to close the deal sooner,” with their voice inflecting up at the end, it sounds like they are looking for confirmation, or hedging their bets. Neither result come across as confident.

The Fix: To avoid using up-speak, use clear, sharp, definitive gestures when speaking. If your hand gestures are strong and emphatic, it’s more likely your voice will match the power of your gestures, and you will land each sentence as a statement instead of a question. You will sound more confident. The size of the gesture doesn’t matter as much as the crispness of the motion, such as a flick of the wrist in a karate chop motion, rather than a gentle pat-on-the-head motion.

In conclusion, your overall impact as a communicator is not based on an isolated instance of what you say or the way you say it. It’s based on the cumulative effect of many behaviors – these and others. If you say “sort of” or “basically” two or three times in a long conversation, who cares? There will be little or no impact on your credibility. But if in every sentence there are “um’s” and “kind of’s” and instances of up-speak, you’ll undermine your sense of confidence in yourself and your ideas. So, slow down, only speak when you are looking at people, and use sharp, definitive gestures when speaking.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Leadership Skills, Life Skills, Public Speaking, Writing Skills

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.

Man working from hoe with a desktop and laptop
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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