Dispelling Ambiguity in the Hybrid Workplace

Set clear expectations!

That is rule number one in manager and employee relations. What a manager wants from an employee begins with the job description and gains credence when the person is hired, and the job is explained. Yet because this rule is so apparent, it is easy to forget.

Something fundamental to the expectations equation is even more critical now. It is clarity. Be specific about what the job is and what an employee must do to satisfy requirements. However, there is more urgency now to clarify that we are migrating to the hybrid workplace where employers and employees come to the office on an as yet to be a determined basis. 

Defining clarity

Clarity, as Bartleby, the workplace columnist for The Economist, writes, “One of the great theoretical attractions of hybrid working to employees is that they get to choose what days they come in. But the point of in-person working is to spend time collaborating and bonding with their colleagues: that is much more likely to happen if companies are clear about who they want in the office on which days of the week.”

Cali Williams Yost, Founder & CEO of the Flex + Strategy Group, a strategic advisory firm, advises managers to begin with clarity. “Not just the tasks of each person’s job, but also what are the broader strategic priorities of the business and the aspects of the culture we value.”

In short, there must be agreement on when and where employees work. And now, in a time when employees have been accustomed to determining their hours when working virtually, their sense of autonomy is heightened. Therefore, before management decides which days employees convene, managers should converse with their employees to determine their wants and needs.

According to Yost, who has been advising on flexible work environments for 20 years, management creates clarity when it is explicit about what needs to be done. Yet there must be wiggle-room. “At the enterprise-level, flexible operating guardrails should be as broad as possible to allow adaptation to the realities of different departments, jobs, and people deeper in the organization.” When such “guardrails” are established, managers “have the flexibility and freedom to work and manage their lives to make sense for the business and for them personally. Otherwise, it can feel like chaotic, inefficient whack-a-mole.”

New role for managers

Some companies are okay with employees mainly working virtually, but those same companies expect managers back in the office most of the time. “The realities of the business they run should dictate how, when, and where [managers] lead a flexible work team,” says Ms. Yost, author of Tweak It: Make What Matters Happen to You Every Day. “It requires mastering the basics of good management that are no longer optional, like setting clear goals and priorities, regular check-ins, providing feedback and development opportunities.” 

The world of work has changed, too. Management “means getting comfortable coordinating and communicating intentionally across onsite and remote locations and recalibrating the way work is done as realities of the business and people change,” says Yost.

Flexible options

One company, Ansana, cited in the Bartleby column, has “meetings free” Wednesdays. However, if a manager wants a meeting on that day, they must discuss it with employees first, e.g., something the firm labels as “re-contracting.”

This approach is in line with what Cali Yost advises. “One-size-does-NOT-fit-all in terms of how, when, and where the work is done best based on the realities of a particular industry, or even across departments, teams, and people. The consistency does have to come from the process an enterprise and a team follows to set their flexible operating guardrails, not from the same outcome for every job.”

As Yost explains, “some tasks and priorities may be done best onsite, while others they may be done better remotely or perhaps it doesn’t matter whether it’s onsite or remote. That task or priority gets done well” due to factors like “the nature of the job, the maturity, and experience of the team.”

This approach is not without difficulty. “It takes effort, experimentation, and time,” says Yost. “People are tired, and they want easy answers” that are not easy to come by in times of uncertainty. Such feelings do not go away quickly, but what Yost has determined through her work is that both managers and employees report that flexibility, supported by enterprise-wide guardrails, provides clarity as well as the ability to be productive.

Flexibility is essential

Ultimately the success of the hybrid workplace will depend upon flexibility, allowing employers and employees to determine the best working hours. And in doing so, they might discover that things go better when they are discussed openly and collaboratively and with greater clarity.

First posted on Forbes.com 5.17.2022

Marshall Goldsmith: How to Earn Your Life

Try this.

Step one. “Do for yourself what you have done for others.” You have shared advice with others when they could not see it for themselves. Therefore, “you are capable of imagining a new path. You’ve done it for others. Do it for yourself.”

Step two. Ask yourself: “What do you want to do for the rest of your life?”

This exercise, called “Flip the Script,” comes from The Earned Life: Lose Regret, Choose Fulfillmentby Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter. Goldsmith is a legend in human development because he is one of the seminal figures who pioneered the potential of executive coaching. Coaching over 300 CEOs gave him an unmatched cache. 

His impact, however, emanates not from his credentials. Instead, it is his plain-spoken “street cred.” In-person, as in print, Marshall is a generous soul. He makes the complex simple, not by giving you the answers. Rather he does it by challenging you to think for yourself. After nearly 50 years of exploring human behavior, The Earned Life is an insight into what makes us tick and how we can tick over even better.

Getting started

One of the central issues that forms the book’s backbone is what he calls The Great Western Disease, that is, “I’ll be happy when…” Nothing wrong with aspirations, but to let them define you, and worse, deprive you of joy on the way up is heartbreaking. So Marshall urges a different path. Stop beating yourself up. Live in the present.

Marshall offers the Earning Checklist that is anchored in four attributes he wrote about in his doctoral thesis when he was 27 years old. These attributes are motivation, ability, understanding, and confidence. Delving more deeply, Marshall dissects each in ways that challenge the reader to think about why they are motivated, what abilities they possess, and how our understandings have shaped up. Confidence is critical. As Marshall writes, confidence “is the product of all your other positive virtues and choices, and then it returns the favor by making you even stronger in those areas.”

Nothing happens overnight

“Earning your life is the long game. Check that: It’s the long game.” Playing that game, which is your life, requires two things: “self and situation awareness.” Work these disciplines until you feel that your earned life becomes a habit, something you do as part of your routine. In short, such a habit enables you to become a more fulfilled version of yourself.

Note of caution. Credibility is not a “do it once” endeavor. “It’s one thing to be competent, it’s another thing to gain credibility with one but not the other,” as Marshal writes. “You have to earn it twice.” Failure to reinforce your credibility diminishes your ability to “make a positive difference – and lessening the impact of your life.”

Practical and tactical

Filled with stories and exercises, The Earned Life also contains some of Marshall’s best practices that he developed and shared globally, sometimes for decades. Chief among them is Feedforward. As Marshall writes, “Feedback comprises people’s opinions of your past behavior, feedforward represents other people’s ideas that you should be using in the future.” 

This approach forms the basis of Stakeholder-Centered Coaching, which is a process that enables leaders to learn from their stakeholders who have a vested interest in the leader’s success. The process requires vulnerability, but the payoff is two-fold. As Marshall writes, “Leaders earned their employee’s respect. Employees earned their CEO’s gratitude.”

The Earned Life explores what life can offer us if we are willing to shirk self-imposed constraints. If we are ready to invest ourselves in becoming our better selves – however we define it — then, and only then, can we say that we have deserved our place. We have earned it.

First posted on SmartBrief.com on 5.13.2022

Close the Loop

Even the best managers sometimes fail in one aspect of their communications. 

But first, let’s talk about what they do well.

  • One, they communicate purpose, letting people know what the organization believes and how their contributions matter.
  • Two, they make vision and mission tangible. Their management behaviors reinforce what the organization is trying to achieve.
  • Three, they listen to their people. They pay attention and listen with intention.

All these steps are positive.

What managers forget

What do good managers – all of them well-intended – forget to do?

Close the loop!

Closing the loop means letting people know when and why vital decisions have been made.

Very obvious–and so apparent–it’s not always communicated.

The backstory

For example, good managers solicit the input of others when discussing important issues. Good managers encourage a healthy debate. Wisely they often speak last so as not to influence the discussion. (This practice avoids “going along with the boss” syndrome.)

At the same time, the boss may solicit advice on a course of action from individuals one at a time—all well and good.

So here’s what happens. The decision is made, and people who have contributed to that decision are not informed.

This habit makes people feel left out and in the cold.

What managers should do

A manager who solicits ideas is under no obligation to act upon those ideas. 

However, what she is obligated to do is thank others for their suggestions. Then let them know who made the decision and why it was made. 

We call this “closing the loop.”

Closing the loop does three essential things: 

  • One, it communicates the decision and reason for it; and 
  • Two, it affirms the value of the person who made the suggestion. 
  • Three, it lets them know their input is valued and will be sought again.

Closing the loop makes employees feel included and valued and crucial to the team.

First posted on SmartBrief.com 4.22.2022

Lesson from Ukraine

After Pablo Picasso received word that Nazi dive bombers, flying on behalf of Franco’s Nationalist forces, had destroyed a city in the Basque country of his native Spain, he was inspired to memorialize the devastation. 

The result, a huge mural on canvas, would become a commemoration of the horror of modern warfare.  

He called his work “Guernica.”

Today we see the equivalent of Guernica live on round-the-clock news. So our challenge becomes how we should react.

Our response

The human reaction, of course, is to sympathize with the Ukrainians whose worlds have been turned upside down. When we see footage of this disruption, we empathize. The video of the little boy walking all by himself into Poland is etched in our hearts. His tears may have moved us to tears. 

How we mobilize can take many different forms. First, it will be to stay vigilant and keep abreast of the news for some. Others will want to donate to reputable organizations that are actively using their funds to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the Ukrainians, both inside and outside of their homeland.

The Polish people have been exceptionally generous. They, whose people have known centuries of war, are opening their borders to Ukrainians. The refugees are given food, water, and toiletries at the train stations. At one point, authorities said they did not need shelters for the newcomers because many Poles were opening their homes to Ukrainians.

And it’s not just the Poles. One news report show told the story of a 75-year old widower who resided in a border town in Moldova. He had taken in a mother, her pregnant daughter, and two children. He told the reporter that these refugees could stay as long as they wanted.

It should be noted that few, if any of these Ukrainians, are seeking a better life outside of their country. They have been displaced, but they are not seeking a replacement country. Their loyalty, commitment, and love of country are something to admire.

Sacrifice writ large

Reflecting on the trauma overseas gives us a window into a fortitude. Ukrainian men are staying to fight; in fact, all men between 18 and 60 must remain in-country if they are needed for national service.

Service to the nation is the highest calling of a patriot. Flying a flag may make us feel good. However, lifting a weapon in defiance is an act of resistance with life and death consequences.

As we in the West look at the unfolding catastrophe, we are wise to consider what we would do in similar circumstances. Sacrifice for the greater good is heroic. It requires bravery.

“Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency,” wrote the poet Maya Angelou. “We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” And the people of Ukraine—and their neighbors–are giving us an example of what it means to live these words.

First posted on Forbes.com 3/10/2022

Never Say “If” When You Apologize

If I offended anyone…

That statement rips through the heart of every public relations professional when she hears her client stand up and use the conditional “if” while making an apology.

Nothing undercuts sincerity like the conditional “if” does.

Imagine this. You are in a boutique that sells fine china. You have a backpack draped over your shoulder. You turn slightly to see another display, only to hear the crash of china smashing to the floor in bits.

The store owner comes running over with a look of horror. You say, “If I broke this china, sorry.”

Of course, you broke the china; it’s lying in a hundred pieces on the floor. There are no ifs, ands, or buts when you do something careless or hurtful. 

Offense provokes a response

How do we know this? Because you are making an apology. We don’t apologize for saying nice things about other people. We apologize when we say something stupid that offends.

Using the conditional is supposed to let you off the hook. But, instead, what we are saying is, “I didn’t know what I was saying.” Admitting something like that in public does nothing to improve your authenticity. If true, you sound clueless. If not—which is more likely the case—you seem insincere.

That old sincerity thing again. 

Origin of apology

The real problem with using the conditional if in an apology is that you are putting your ego ahead of another person’s pain. By using if you are saying, “Hey, I am only doing this because my boss (my company, my banker, my spouse, etc.) want me to.” 

Such words are in keeping with the word’s original meaning, apologia, meaning “in defense of.” Until the 17th-century, apologias were made in defense of a cause. But something changed. According to the Merriam-Webster definition, William Shakespeare is credited with popularizing apology as in, “I’m sorry.” And to which he added something even more critical. Forgiveness.

Quality of mercy

When you make a mistake, own it. Again. And ask for forgiveness. 

The point of an apology is to say that you are sorry, not that you “may have offended.” Sorrow is a way of showing compassion to someone you have wronged. Apologizing is not a sign of weakness; it is an admission of humility. You put yourself at the mercy of another. As the Bard wrote in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

A good apology may evoke the need for forgiveness, which as Shakespeare notes, rewards the one who forgives as well as the one who is forgiven. Nothing to be sorry about in that sentiment.

First posted on Forbes.com 00.00.2022

What Broadway Understudies Can Teach Us

The understudy position is a tradition within the theatre community. An understudy learns the lead role or two, and if the star is indisposed, steps in and performs the part. Some understudies have become stars themselves, among them Shirley MacLaine, Elaine Stritch, Vivian Vance, and Bernadette Peters.

Today the role of understudy is in the spotlight. With the Omicron variant of Covid sweeping through our country, theaters are not spared. Recently Hugh Jackman, starring in a revival of the Music Man, salutedKathy Voytko, who, with eight hours’ notice, stepped into the role Marian the librarian. “The courage, the brilliance, the dedication, the talent,” Jackman said at the close of the performance. “The swings, the understudies, they are the bedrock of Broadway.”

Understudies on stage

Elliott Masie, who produces shows on Broadway,recently penned a piece about the roles of understudies and a term new to me, swings. Swings learn multiple roles and are ready to jump in when needed. 

When Covid struck in March of 2020, Elliott began staging The Empathy Concerts. These concerts have become an avenue for Broadway performers to perform in virtual productions open to the public. It has been an excellent opportunity for singers and actors to keep their craft alive in front of a live (albeit virtual) audience. 

Recently, Allie Trimm, who has performed in an Empathy Concert, assumed the lead role of Glinda in the show, Wicked. As Elliott writes, her parents flew the red-eye from the West Coast to see their daughter perform on Broadway. Thrills for all.

Understudies in organizations

Elliott, who runs a learning, technology, and development company, believes that the roles of understudy and swings have applications to the off-stage world. 

Consider an understudy being groomed for the senior-most roles in the C-suite. Of course, these individuals have to know the business, but they must also possess the ability to lead others, just as an understudy would if she were in a lead role.

Swing performers are vital to the organization because they can move into new roles and responsibilities by virtue of their talent and their capacity to acquire new skills. In addition, they are agile and perfect for a world where change is endemic.

Whether you are being readied for a role in senior leadership or have opportunities to assume new responsibilities beyond your immediate job, the challenge is to be prepared. This commitment to learning requires a willingness to learn and personal growth. Then, like understudies and swings, you learn new skills to assume a new role. 

Understudies in service

There is another aspect of the understudy role: service. Often, an understudy will never assume the lead role, yet as every lead actor knows, someone behind her can step in and do the part. Being an understudy is a commitment to the team. Understudies prepare themselves to step into the role. In doing so, they keep the production rolling, and the audience entertained.

After all, the show must go on!

First posted on Forbes.com 1.29.22


What Bob Dole Taught Us

Upon the passing for Senator Robert Dole, I wrote a piece for Forbes.com about the man and his service to the nation. You can read it here.

Thinking further on Doe’s life, I want to draw up five lessons his example teaches us.

Value sacrifice. Bob Dole grew up in Russell, Kansas. He was called to service in World War II and served bravely, suffering grave wounds. As a Senator he worked hard for veteran’s rights.

Work hard with others. Bob Dole was a fierce partisan, but not so fierce that he was not able to see the better angels of others on the other side of the aisle. His cause was not a better party, but a better America.

Don’t bear grudges. Fellow World War II veteran George H.W. Bush was a fierce rival for the presidency. The two sparred often, but when the political game was over, the two become fast friends. Dole’s salute to President Bush’s casket is testimony to his respect and friendship.

Laugh at yourself. Bob Dole did not filter himself very well, but when he made a gaffe, he apologized, often with a joke at his own expense. He also penned a book on political humor.

Know your purpose. Service to the nation was his calling, from his days in the Army to his days in the Senate, Bob Dole knew that he was elected to serve the people, not the other way around.

Godspeed, Bob Dole.

First posted on LinkedIn 12.12.2021

There’s No Business in Showing Off

In golf, there’s a saying: “Drive for show and putt for dough.” Every golfer likes to hit it long off the tee, watching the ball soar up and drop far, far down the fairway. But, unfortunately, long drives do not win tournaments. Putting does. The difference is getting onto the green, reading the break, and then stroking the ball into the cup to make par or birdie.

Working for show

This saying came to mind after reading “Office theatrics” by Bartleby, the work and management columnist for The Economist. The column cites examples of how the virtual and even the hybrid workplace turned work into a performance. That is, employees were feeling it necessary to show off how busy they were. “The simple act of logging on is now public,” writes Bartleby. “Green dots by your name on messaging channels are the virtual equivalents of jackets left on chairs and monitors turned on. Calendars are now frequently shared: empty ones look lazy; full ones appear virtuous.”

According to two academic studies from France, research “found that white-collar professionals are drawn to a level of ‘optimal busyness,’ which neither overwhelms them nor leaves them with much time to think.” Such an example, being French, reminded me of the Palace of Versailles, where noblemen and noblewomen competed among themselves to look the grandest. And this being Versailles did nothing productive.

On the surface, these examples are funny, but when you think more deeply, you realize that these behaviors are protective measures. The boss wants me to be busy, so I will show him how busy I am. Busyness is not a goal; productivity is. Yet showmanship praises the former and ignores the latter. The fault lies with management. It has put employees on the defensive. The time is now to neutralize that adversarial stance.

Producing for results

“You can fool all of the people some of the time, you can fool some of the people all of the time,” Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” Fooling around hurts not only morale but productivity. 

Ask people how they want to work. People react to the system handed to them. Give them a voice in how they do their work and when. In a hybrid environment, flexibility can be a virtue. 

Make recognition a team affair. Employees know who contributes a great deal and who does less. Honor the team for what it does. Ask the team to cite the contributions of its members.

State clear metrics on productivity. Make it known what people need to do. For example, there will not be bonus points for “showing off.” Instead, there will be recognition and reward for creativity, initiative and collaboration.

Find time to play. There hasn’t been much levity during this pandemic, and it shows. Employees are weary. Insist that employees take time off without the need to check their devices for messages, texts or email.

Fooling the boss is the result of conditions created by management. Undoing those conditions and treating people with respect will change the equation. And get the work done right.

First posted on Forbes.com 00/00/2022

What I Learned about Coaching from Speechwriting

Much is written as well as taught about the process of executive coaching. For me, my introduction began with my first career: speechwriting.

Speechwriters are storytellers. They help leaders put their stories into words.

Executive coaches are story makers. They help leaders create their stories to grow their skills as individuals and their capacity as leaders.

Speechwriting and executive coaching are, of course, two distinct disciplines. Speechwriters work with words. Executive coaches work with behaviors. Both are in the self-improvement business. One focuses on words. The other on actions. Both focus on the same goal: authenticity. Keeping it real with honesty, integrity and compassion.

Speechwriters and coaches emulate each other’s professions with how they begin their processes—with good questions! Here are three good starter questions.

What’s happening? Context is essential. Both speechwriters and coaches need to know the lay of the land. How is the organization performing? What does the competitive landscape look like? Placing the speech in the context of vision (what the organization wants to become), mission (what the organization is doing), and values (what holds the organization together) is essential.

What challenges are facing the organization? Even in the best of times, there are clouds on the horizon. As well as rainbows. Asking your client (or her aides) to give a quick overview of organizational strengths, structural weaknesses, opportunities for growth, and threats to the status quo or the future is an excellent way to get a feel for the challenges. Speechwriters can integrate some topics into their presentations. Coaches use this information to know the challenges the executive is facing.

What is our plan of action? Good speeches are calls to action. Good coaching is anchored in action planning. It is the speechwriter’s job to encourage the client to be specific in what the organization will do and what role the audience (stakeholders) will play in it. It is the job of an executive coach to encourage the client to look at what they can improve and be specific about road-mapping action steps.

These questions may spark a host of other questions, but these three provide a framework for discussion that gets to the heart of the matter. They place the speechwriter or the coach on the road to understanding their client better.

Touching the heart

These questions are diagnostic. There is one other element: the heart. We call it empathy.

Empathy is the feeling of understanding another person’s suffering. Leaders need to do more than understand; they need to alleviate. They act with compassion to make things better for an individual and the team. 

Speechwriters who tap into the vein of empathy through stories and examples will enable their clients to come across with a sense of concern for others. Likewise, executive coaches who remind their clients to connect with their people on a personal and professional level enable them to build a strong sense of rapport and commitment.

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think,” wrote neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, “but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.” And to which I add “the impetus to act.”

First posted on Forbes.com 1/07/2022

Watching Ted Lasso Can Make You a Better Manager

Say you land a job about which you know little, in a field you know even less about, and in a country different from your own. If you do, you will be emulating the premise of Ted Lasso, a new show from Apple TV+.

The good news is that Ted Lasso, co-created by Jason Sudekis and stars in the title role, is a comedy. The better news is that the 10-part television series is an insightful primer on management and leadership.

Lasso is an American college football coach hired to manage a “football” (soccer) team in England’s Premier League, the world’s highest competitive soccer league. An outlandish premise, yes, but a treat to watch as well as from which to learn. 

You see, Lasso is an everyman who makes up for what he doesn’t know about English football with a deep and profound understanding of human nature, in particular as it applies to creating a team culture. Without divulging the plot twists and turns (and delights), the series reveals vital lessons that every manager would be wise to follow.

Trust your people. Lasso’s right-hand man is Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt). The two have a long history together, and while they do not always agree, they trust one another. The two of them readily embrace the outside perspective that comes in the form of the team kit man, Nathan (Nick Mohammed).

Lay back. To me, the heart of Ted Lasso’s leadership is “laissez-faire.” It is an endearing quality that adds charm to his character while it reveals his faith in people. Lasso sees talent, skill and desire in players that others may overlook. That is the genius of the manager. Look at the best in others and allow them to prove themselves. 

Make tough decisions. Management calls for setting direction and ensuring that the train stays on the rails. Leadership requires making tough decisions about people. Lasso’s natural style is laid back as it relates to people, but he knows that his role is to make the final call. He does it so well that others emulate his example.

Believe. In the first episode, Lasso posts a handwritten sign saying “Believe” over the door to his office, which by the way, has a very open-door policy. Lasso does what all great managers do: enable people to believe in themselves. (Yes, you will find such signs in every high school and college locker room, but with Lasso, the message is not a cliché; it resonates with authenticity.) 

Believe begets confidence

Belief in self is what distinguishes the winners from the also-rans. Belief is the cornerstone of confidence, which is essential to leadership. People have to believe that the person in charge is capable of doing the job. That sentiment leads to faith in the leader. And when the leader can turn, dare say transmute, that confidence to the team, great things can occur.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. That statement can be ascribed to Ted Lasso because the root of his ability to connect with others is his willingness to trust them. He looks at people with an open heart, a willingness to suspend judgment as a means of enabling them to fulfill their role in the team.

Managers who balance direction with guidance, belief with confidence, and purpose with conviction, are those who point their teams in the right direction and watch them soar. Or at least do their very best.

First posted on Forbes.com 9.21.2020