Ditch The Talking Points, Make Listening Points

By: On September 3, 2014
Oh no, more talking points...

Oh no, more talking points…

You’ve been to this meeting. You and a bunch of peers are gathered to do some planning or training. Over lunch, a senior leader of the organization has been asked to come spend time with the gang. It’s a great opportunity for both the leadership group and this senior leader to have exposure to each other.

More than likely, the leader emailed the meeting organizer, “What do you want me to say?” Leaders almost always do that when they’re asked to join a meeting with middle management or a customer or a key partner. They know that others expect a leader to say something.

So that’s what the leaders do.  They say… something. They come armed with talking points. Sometimes they say something good. Occasionally it’s memorable – especially if they use hand-drawn pictures. More often, it’s forgettable, benign, and sanitized. You and your colleagues parse and interpret. You read the tea leaves.

Then you go back to work.

It’s not tragic, but it’s a wasted opportunity.


Try this instead…

Now flip this scenario around. Say you’re the leader in this situation.  There’s another way to handle this interaction, one that has a better chance of building trust and credibility with a key group. The strategy is to create listening points. Here’s how you do it.

  • Listening Point step 1: Think of an issue that is of mutual interest. It could be a strategy that this group is trying to implement. It could be a trend you’re sensing in the environment.
  • Listening Point step 2: Ask a few real, provocative questions about the issue. Here are a few questions you could try on for size (I got several of these from Tom Paterson, a master strategic facilitator):
    • What might I be missing about what it’s really like to do your job right now?
    • Where do you see opportunities we might not be taking advantage of?
    • Where do you see dangers to which we are apparently blind?
    • Where are we wasting resources?
    • What excites you about our direction?
    • What concerns you about our direction?
  • Listening Point step 3: Listen for anything – and I mean anything – that you can commit to act upon or bring to your own peer group for further consideration.
  • Listening Point step 4: Commit to take that action and communicate when they will hear back from you.
  • Listening Point step 5: Follow up as promised.

This approach has several benefits over the usual way executives make appearances.

  • You can direct your comments to the real felt needs of people in the group rather than shooting in the dark with pre-prepared comments.
  • You have the opportunity to make a real contribution to something of shared interest. This is much better than playing a figurehead role where people are left wondering what you really do all day.
  • You can build credibility with a key constituency through actions plus words instead of just doing happy talk.

I understand why leaders fall back on talking points. It’s a safety net. Leaders often feel like they’re safer if they take the initiative and fill the air time with scripted comments, much like politicians do on talk shows. Interactions like the one I describe above are largely unscripted. And unscripted can feel out of control.

But the control you get by hiding behind talking points is shallow. You get momentary control but you lose the influence you only get by surfing through an improvised conversation. That’s when people learn what they really want to know about you.

How does she really think?

How open is he to influence? How humble is he?

What excites her? What makes her crazy?

Like anyone, they’re really trying to figure out whether you’re someone they want to follow and listen to and deal with. They know that talking points can be an elaborate screen. Listening points – and especially your response to the conversation – provide a window into who you really are.

And that’s what people really want to know.

Who are you really?

Will you listen?

Is there a chance that you’ll be open to their influence?

If you answer those questions convincingly – in how you act more than what you say – you’ll develop an environment of optimism and innovation.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

How to Provoke Change Without Alienating Your Peers

By: On May 29, 2014

Sara has a problem. She was recruited into an important role at a new company, one where her ability to succeed is directly affected by how well she can get tenured colleagues at this well-established company to change how they think and act. She comes from a company and industry known for innovation. The company she’s joined, while no laggard, has lost its creative mojo over that past few years.

Sara’s no dummy. The first couple of months in her assignment, she acted patient, interested, open, respectful. If she was honest with herself, she would admit that it was partly just that – an act. Privately, she looked around at this company – and even this industry – and thought they had missed the boat on so many things that make a cutting edge company. Decisions seem bureaucratic.  Resource allocation seems upside down. She can see waste and old thinking all around her. Inwardly, she’s getting aggravated with the glacial pace of change, with what seems like the team’s willful blindness.

It came to a head today when Sara was in a meeting with her boss’s team. They were having their 27th discussion about how to allocate resources in next year’s budget. She could feel her blood pressure rising. She didn’t even notice that she had rolled her eyes a few times. To let off steam, she had made a few snarky comments to the other new team member next to whom she had strategically seated herself. She has a playlist of snappy one-liners dancing on the tip of her tongue, waiting to get out there like itchy thoroughbreds in the starting gate.

CrossroadsSara stands at a crossroad. Here are the likely outcomes based on how she handles herself:

  • Option 1: She indulges her impatience. She buys into the heroic tale that she’s the one who is here to shake this organization from its lethargy with a well-placed kick in the rear. In so many ways, she says, “What’s wrong with you people?!?!?”

    If she chooses this option, here’s what’s going to happen. The shutters will come down. She’ll find herself suddenly on the outside of the group looking in. Her job will get harder, not easier as colleagues distance themselves from her. While she may be able to explain her demise with a martyrdom tale of how she tried to help these people but they wouldn’t listen, the fact will remain. She won’t have helped them. And she’ll be at best marginalized and at worst out of a job.

  • Option 2: She embraces the situation with curiosity, respect, and humor. Yes, she’s going to keep nudging and challenging because to not do so would be simple self-preservation. And Sara wants to make a difference, not just keep a job. But instead of boring people with “how we did it at my prior fabulous company/industry,” she influences her peers by asking questions first. She chooses questions that will both inform her and potentially provoke new thinking. Questions like:

    • Tell me more about how you do things and how you’re structured?
    • What led you to doing things that way?
    • What’s worked for you about that? What’s frustrating or not working?

That kind of approach will begin to earn Sara the right to suggest alternatives instead of just getting slaughtered.

If Sara chooses that second option, she’ll be showing a different mindset – one of curiosity, respect, and appreciation. She’ll have to remind herself that you can both respect an organization’s past and acknowledge that it’s time for change. Grownups can hold those two things in their minds at the same time, avoiding the trap of thinking that you have to trash the past to motivate change.

Most of all, she’ll give herself a chance to make a difference, to serve this group of new colleagues with her different perspective and ideas. That’s why she’s here in the first place. She knows that the long-term road to happiness at work – and even to promotion if her mind is set on that kind of thing – comes through serving others.

If you’re trying to influence a team or a workplace, start there. Start with a mindset of service. Build curiosity, humor, respect, and appreciation on top of that attitude. Then persistently pursue excellence with your new colleagues. You’ll have earned the right to challenge them because you will have demonstrated that you’re for everyone’s success. Then even when your ideas and questions unsettle them, they’ll buy your intent.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

Three Marks of High Leverage Change Opportunities

By: On April 15, 2014

Dear Change Agent,

Let’s say you just took over a major business unit of a well-known consumer services company. You were brought in from outside the industry because you had a stellar history of creating healthy growth in other consumer-oriented services companies.  Recent results have been mediocre. New competitors lurk around the corner, some of them bigger and badder than the company has ever faced.

You can see fundamental issues in the business – as fundamental as a casual attitude toward customers and the frontline employees who serve them. You know this because employee turnover at key frontline sales and service positions is through the roof. Maybe these symptoms are normal for this industry, but they’re not normal for you.

You’ve been in your role for 30-60 days. You’ve gotten out in the field and seen first-hand what’s going on with customers and employees. You’ve started collecting people to go along with your observations. You’ve sorted your insights into what’s right, wrong, unclear, and missing about this organization.

Maybe your analysis looks something like this.

Four Helpful Lists Filled In

It’s time to plan some action. But not any old action. Anyone can get busy. The relentless pressure you’ll feel to DO SOMETHING will tempt you to jump into the busy-ness pit. Stop. Think.

Look especially for high leverage change opportunities, those places where you can push a little and get a lot of result.  Here’s what to look for:

  • Avoid this!

    Avoid this!

    Push Levers, Not Rocks – Look for initiatives where focused effort on a relative few people, processes, or customers will touch many others. For instance, if your problem is improving how your sales organization interacts with customers, it will be tempting to focus energy on training front-line salespeople. That’s pushing a very large rock uphill and probably the wrong place to start. Instead, ask yourself where the high-leverage few are. Usually that’s going after sales managers or opinion leaders in the sales organization.

  • Find Double-sided Initiatives – You’re new into a culture with unwritten rules on how things run and what matters. If you want your ideas to be accepted, look for initiatives that can be positioned in at least two ways – to appeal to the existing cultural norms and to drive the organization toward the new cultural rules that you want to instill. So if the existing culture is cost and numbers driven and you want to foster a customer-obsessed culture, look for initiatives that can be positioned as reducing costs to your corporate colleagues while you emphasize the impact on customers to your own team. Avoid if possible single-sided moves that only play to the existing culture or the desired culture. If you completely conform to the current culture, you lose your edge for change. If you ignore the current culture in the zealous pursuit of change, it’s only a matter of time before the organization spits you out.

  • Select Symbolic Initiatives – Look for efforts around which you can wrap your change story. So if you’re trying to change the culture from being casual toward customers to being customer-obsessed – and you’ve chosen your sales leaders as the leverage point – be ready to explain the initiative in terms of how it supports that change and why that change is important. The argument for driving a customer referral program could go something like this:

    • “Delighting customers isn’t just a feel-good thing to do. It’s the smartest way for us to run our business and to protect ourselves from powerful new entrants to our market.”

    • “While our salespeople are the ones who most directly touch customers, our leaders are the ones who create an environment that drives how salespeople think and act. It’s our job as leaders to make selling easier over time and there’s no better way to do that than to get customers spreading the love.”

    • “We’re going to invest in and measure an initiative to help salespeople generate and track leads from referrals. But we’re going to deliver this program entirely through our sales leaders because you are the ones to make this happen.”

To make the initiative really symbolic, be ready to both publicly recognize progress and firmly deal with those who don’t get on board. And by firmly deal with, I mean potentially letting some of those people go. You don’t have to be nasty, but you do have to be resolute based on the business case and your principles.

Observe. Diagnose. Select. Act. You’re on your way.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.


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Where to Start When You’re a Change Agent

By: On April 1, 2014

Dear Change Agent,

Let’s start with the bad news. If they hired you to be a “change agent,” it means you automatically have a target on your back. Companies hire change agents and “thought leaders” when they’re scared to death to do the hard stuff, unsure what to do, or both. I’ve known quite a few people hired into these roles and many of them end up leaving the company – sometimes with the thanks and accolades, but often without.

But you wouldn’t have taken this role if you were faint-hearted or looking for a safe job. Where to start? Like in most of life, there’s an inner game and an outer game. The inner game almost always comes first. You have to decide on the mindset you’re going to use in this job. While I’m tempted to give you happy talk about how you can choose your mindset – and that’s true to some extent – I want to acknowledge that circumstances will probably influence the way you play the game.

Which set of circumstances best describe your situation?

  • Scenario A: You have life circumstances that demand a stable income stream and job situation. It could be a special needs child, a mountain of debt to pay off, or an aging parent. In this case, while you’re hired to play offense, you’re going to have to play a fair bit of defense at the same time.  You will want to pay careful attention to identifying and managing the stakeholders in your organization. You’ll need to communicate carefully with the board or your boss, to keep expectations very clear. Your mindset will be about balance and prudence.

  • Scenario B: You have margin in your life to take more risks. While you’re not looking to get fired, you can afford to play more offense. Like an actor or musician, you can view roles as assignments in a larger career that may have pauses or flat-out busts. Your mindset will be less about keeping everyone happy and more about doing fantastic work that will make you even more attractive in the next gig. You will also want to keep your external network very fresh since things can change quickly when you play offense in a change agent assignment. Your mindset will be about making bold moves.

Now that you know what mix of offense and defense you need to play, what next? You’ll be drowning in things to do and many will be urgent. But the first fire to put out is discerning exactly what change needs to happen to get your organization rolling.

You’ll need to get out and observe a lot of people and situations. You already know that those observations will need to include seeing the customer experience and getting your hands dirty with frontline employees. You need to see things for yourself, not just hear about them. Yes, you’ll want to see data and hear reports but nothing beats first-hand observation.

As you’re out collecting information, start to gather people too. Many people will want to talk with you. Many will be playing angles with you, trying to shape your perception, often to preserve the status quo and their own personal position. But you will find a few people who, with the right prompting, will give you the straight scoop. Note them. Build connections to them. Draw them in regardless of role and title. Be sure to include some of your peers in this network since they can be important allies in the future.

After a period of observation – usually 30-60 days is a realistic amount of time you’ll get for this – it’s time to shape your conclusions. Ask yourself and your growing circle of influencers a few simple questions:

  • What’s right about this organization? These are the strengths you can build on. They’re also traits you can unapologetically praise, which will put political coin in your bank account with the veterans in the crowd.

  • What’s wrong about this organization? These are the weaknesses you need to correct. They may be obvious to all or only to those with a fresh set of eyes. Note which variety they are.

  • What’s unclear about this organization? You’ve been brought in because change is required and that usually means there’s ambiguity. This is where you can note questions to be investigated further and hypotheses to be tested.

  • What’s missing in this organization? You’ll see voids that need to be filled.

I first heard these questions from master strategic planner Tom Paterson. It’s amazing how they can help sort the jumbled mess of your observations into actionable insights.

It helps to capture your thoughts in a simple table like the one below, using the columns to capture the answers to the questions. To make the identification of key issues easier, sort them into categories like I’ve done in the rows. You may use different categories based on your situation. I’m just showing you a few that I often use as starting points.

Once you get your thoughts out and categorized, you can start to hone in on the issues that are most urgent and fundamental to change. You might circle the issues that are most urgent and star the ones that are most fundamental to change.

 Four Helpful Lists

If you’re like most of us, you’ll wish you had more time and more data. Maybe you’ll be able to buy more time. Often you won’t because the board or your boss is impatient, or the external circumstances are pressing.  In that case, you will have to make your best calls.

You may also be able to extend your learning window and still show action by sorting your insights into two additional categories and acting accordingly.

  • For the insights that seem certain, urgent, and important, identify one or two moves you can make immediately. Identify something tangible you can achieve in 60-90 days that will symbolically and substantively show that you’re moving forward.

  • From your hunches (probably largely in the “Unclear” column), pick one or two hypotheses that you can test. Propose a pass/fail experiment that will help everyone gain more insight.

Once you get your mindset straight and do an effective fast-track diagnosis, you’re on your way to making the most of your change agent assignment.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

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