Dispersed Teams and Distressed Times How to manage your team with compassion during a crisis

When we work from home, our idiosyncrasies are often laid bare. There is nowhere to hide from that nagging voice telling us we should be doing something else – research, networking, long-term projects– anything other than doing the dishes or barking into the wilderness on Twitter. If you’re the type of leader who likes to be described as “conscientious”, “productive” and “efficient”, managing a team from home during the coronavirus pandemic could test both your self-image and your reputation.

It’s normal for people to feel overwhelmed by change, regardless of how carefully it’s planned. This is the underlying reason why 70 percent of organizational change initiatives fail.

As therapist and writer Lori Gottlieb wisely points out, change and loss travel together.

You have options to help your team adjust to the loss of business as usual. Many are common sense – be clear and consistent regarding expectations, streamline communication, but give employees options and choices to engage in their work, etc.. Some options, however, will require a new approach.

1. Avoid role-based assumptions – student, client, millennial, boomer. etc. Not every millennial prefers text communication or lives at home and not every boomer is opposed to new technology or financially secure.

Here’s an example: A former colleague of mine is an instructional designer at a college that offers trade programs. Most of the faculty were entirely unfamiliar with online learning platforms when in-person classes were cancelled in March. Within a week, the automotive services technician instructors moved course material online, created and uploaded video tutorials and organized exam criteria. A group that had resisted change embraced it. And they actually enjoyed it.

2. Think small. George Loewenstein, a behavioural economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University advises “people need to be given productive activities while they wait out uncertainty“. Otherwise, fear sets in, followed by paralysis. What daily operational needs need to be taken care of? How can your team take care of those needs and still feel like they’re being productive?

Even a small task is better than none at all, and your team will be able to maintain a sense of contribution.

3. Focus on facts. When speaking with an overwhelmed colleague, ask blanket questions that draw out facts. “What do you need?” is often the best way to start. As people formulate answers, you’ll get a sense of their priorities, expectations and perceived reality. And they will too. Facts focus on reality, taking our attention away from catastrophic and dramatic thinking.

Attention Filter

From all the facts in the world, our attention focuses on those that are the most dramatic.

4. Listen. We are dealing with a mass casualty incident. People are grieving. If you have the fortitude, try to see people as they are, feel as they feel. Active listening could help. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it entails hearing what the other person is saying and reflecting it back to them. That’s it. You might think it sounds phony, but it’s one of the best communications tools available, used in everything from hostage negotiations to psychotherapy.

5. Document as much as you can. Log daily communiqués. Write down your observations about team dynamics. Track the work that is completed in a central location. Note how it is being produced and how your priorities shift. There’s a good chance this won’t be the last pandemic we’ll face. Use the data to understand how your firm functions in a crisis, and what it reveals about your future capacity.

6. Follow through and follow up. Many of our vulnerabilities are being tested and brought to the surface. Your team needs to know that it’s acceptable to express that vulnerability and trust that they won’t be taken advantage of. It will take time to digest all of this uncertainty, but keeping your word, referring back to something your colleague has said or checking in are small ways to show you care.

Almost everyone is managing unanticipated adjustments to their home lives, their job security and their financial well being, not to mention their health. Most will fit somewhere on the continuum between well-adjusted and equipped and falling apart at any given time in the next few months. Your job as a leader is to understand this and make good decisions that keep your firm healthy – financially, culturally and physically.

Stay Close to Clients Despite Social Distancing Five ways to show you care

If you’re working remotely during the Coronavirus pandemic, you might be tempted to hide under the blankets and wait for the situation to resolve. Between the 24/7 news cycle, the scramble to organize immediate work and disperse teams, life feels chaotic.

Don’t forget about your clients in the midst of the chaos. Clients – no matter where they’re located or what their business needs are – need comfort and caring in addition to professional expertise in times of uncertainty.

Five simple actions to take when business is anything but usual:

1. Manage your own state of mind. Fear, anxiety and catastrophic thinking will not help you or your clients. Be good to yourself – take a step back and observe how you’re feeling. Could you reframe the situation from a different perspective? How would someone you admire handle it? Above all, remember that you’re not alone.

2. Practice radical empathy. The people who “get ahead of the situation” aren’t necessarily the smartest or most technologically proficient. They’re the most empathetic. Ask clients “What do you need to get through the next few weeks?” and work at understanding their answers.

This is a time to listen with your ears, your brain and your heart.

3. Be human. Ask your contacts how their families are. Maybe they have aging parents who live alone or they’re suddenly home-schooling children. Maybe their spouse is a health care worker coping with exhaustion. I’m surprised by how many professionals know absolutely nothing about their clients’ personal lives, despite professing to care about them. Client care means more than caring about clients’ legal budgets.

4. Take initiative. My dad was a criminal defence lawyer in a small prairie city. After he’d  visit clients in jail, he’d usually call or visit someone in their family to let them know how the person was doing and to ask how everyone was coping. As a child, I was often beside him when he did this. I witnessed elders sobbing, heard siblings express deep worries and felt gratitude that someone with the power to do something helpful actually followed through. It was a small gesture that made a big impact. If my dad could do it, you can do it.

If you can help, now is the time to do so. Buy grocery gift cards for their staff, purchase something from their business or offer a discount on your services (as I’ve done for my current clients).

5. Follow up. COVID-19 will impact every part of our economic, technological and social infrastructure for a long, long time. I have no scientific backing for this statement; I’m basing it on my observations of the stock market, economic policy and the reduced hours so many businesses are being forced to adopt.

Your clients will need personal and regular communication as they navigate the uncertainty. Brief email bulletins and social media updates convey your efficiency, but a phone call to inquire about someone’s well being will speak volumes about your character.

I wish you, your families and your businesses well as we all face the crisis. Stay calm if you can and stay healthy. If you need help, know that you are welcome to reach out at any time. I’ve always offered phone consultations free of charge; I don’t plan on changing that policy anytime soon.

Show, Don’t Tell Apply an old creative writing tool to new client feedback

If an important client rated her satisfaction with your firm’s service quality as a “five” on a scale from one to seven, would you know how to improve her opinion? Would you be comfortable explaining why it matters?

Presented with this scenario, you might be tempted to do one of two things:

1. Breathe a sigh of relief that they weren’t ranked at four or lower.
2. Say “Hmmm…. interesting.” and file the results, never to be seen or spoken of again.

You have other – and better- options. Most of those options involve using the feedback to improve service delivery in a way that increases your esteem and trustworthy reputation among clients. This, presumably, was the original intent of your feedback request anyway. Right? Right.

Data points can fit neatly into bar-graphs, but they can also be useless when one of your lawyers keeps doing something that irks her client.

The old creative writing maxim “Show, don’t tell” could help you frame client comments in a way that illustrates context and resonates with people inside your firm.

How it works

Say, for example, your client rates her lawyer’s communication efforts as “satisfactory”. Here are a few ways you could aid interpretation and act accordingly:

  • Ask the client to describe the context surrounding her comments. Dig for specifics, if not facts.
    • Why is a certain process working/not working well? How often does it happen? How does it impact on your client, her organization and her objectives?
    • Your report could describe the setting the client works in or the back story – experiences, facts, etc. – that helps readers understand what the client really means.
    • You could also mention secondary characters adjacent or influential to what’s happening or foreshadow a future development, such as your client’s CEO, competition or investors.
  • Identify actions that lawyer needs to update and the effort it would require.
    • The client might say that she’d appreciate a monthly work-in-progress status report that she can use in meetings with stakeholders because she doesn’t have the time or resources to do this on her own.
    • You could help the relationship lead at your firm create the report template. Are you willing to assist with this or find alternate resources? Would the investment result in a closer, more trustworthy relationship with the client? Would it differentiate (and improve) your service model? Could the template be used for other clients?
  • Identify behaviours that the client appreciates or that need to change. Billing procedures, responsiveness and communication often fall into this category.
    • Improving satisfaction might require a change to career-long habits and ingrained or efficient processes. Unfortunately, this means dealing with personalities.
    • The results are often best for your firm, but temporarily painful for your people. A thoughtful change-management strategy would alleviate friction and equip you with firm-sanctioned language that persuades colleagues of the value of the exercise.
  • Include dialogue if you are quoting from an interview. Direct feedback helps readers hear what the client is saying and how she is saying it.
    • Sometimes, what the client doesn’t say is actually more useful. Does she gloss over or refuse to comment on certain aspects of your services? Does her description of “value” align with yours?

Why it matters

Word of mouth referrals from friends, family and professional experts are still viewed as the most trustworthy sources of information and business. But trust in organizations and their leaders fell to record lows in Canada this year and creativity thrives in workplaces where people aren’t afraid to share ideas.

I’m not advising you to extrapolate feedback to the nth degree or make rash assumptions (which would be downright dangerous). But by applying some creativity, your feedback efforts could do more than evaluate satisfaction or lawyer performance – they could spur the type of innovation that distinguishes your services, brings you closer to your clients and keeps your firm in business for a very long time.

When Writing Feels Wrong Solutions to writer’s block

When I began blogging five years ago, I had an endless list of topics to write about. I needed to promote my consulting work; blogging was a cost-effective way to show my expertise and sharpen my skills at the same time. It was a conduit to networking. It even led to new business.

Then, in spring 2017, I developed writers block. It lasted for a long, long time – almost two years. I felt jaded by the endless expert opinions and the pressure to constantly self-promote online. And while I continued to write for my clients – churning out site content, editing biographies and updating websites – publishing anything for my own blog became increasingly difficult.

I broke the pattern, though, with the help of a poignant realization, a few activities and some sage advice.

The good advice
A fellow consultant casually said:

“Blogging is a commitment. It’s sort of like Botox – once you start, it’s hard to stop because the image and the expectation have been created.”

When I heard this, I laughed. And then I cringed, because the metaphor is true (and no, I don’t use Botox).

The activities
There doesn’t seem to be much appetite for creative writing in the professional services webscape. Sure, there are some personal stories of leaders who made career shifts, struggles with law firm culture and the odd winning formula for the management challenge du jour. But a lot of the writing is painfully dull and formulaic.

So I shifted my focus. I took two creative writing courses – one to overcome obstacles in getting words from my brain to my laptop, and the other to experiment with non-fiction: essays, memoirs, poetry and other genres. Both courses began with a healthy discussion of the difference between a writing “persona” and a personal perspective.  The lesson? Your writing doesn’t define you – you define your writing, by matching the tone and voice to the purpose of your words and the intended audience.

Writing from the perspective of a persona creates nuance in your professional brand and space between you and your readers. For example, you might be somewhat soft spoken or quiet in a crowd, but your writing persona could be perceived as clear, spare and strong. Or, you might have an aggressive, direct style in negotiations, but a more nuanced persona in your writing, depending on the topic.

The realization
After all my attempts to wrestle writer’s block into submission, was this: I am more than the sum of my words and the number of people who read them. I write because I have something to say. I’m not going to win a Pulitzer; I am okay with this.

If you want to build your professional reputation through blogging or publishing articles, don’t waste time worrying about every Twitter comment, self-proclaimed expert and prolific postulator. Concentrate on your craft. Mix it up. If it matters to you, it matters. You’ll accomplish what you set out to do, which, very likely, is to communicate why your words are important and, in turn, why your expertise is too.

ACMP Vancouver Member Profile Natasha Chetty featured in December Newsletter

The Association of Change Management BC Chapter (ACMP) interviewed Bellwether Strategies principal Natasha Chetty for its December member newsletter.

ACMP is dedicated to advancing the discipline and the profession of change management, while supporting its members in developing individual and organizational change capabilities.

Read the interview below and learn more about ACMP by visiting their website or attending one of their events.

MEMBERSHIP PROFILE – NATASHA CHETTY

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I started in marketing and communications and gradually realized that most of my work involves change management, from strategic planning to internal communications to branding and reputation management. Many of my clients are trying to honour unique workplace cultures, but they realize they need to embrace change if they want those cultures to remain successful. The principles of change management offer a credible path forward.
Why did you decide to join ACMP Vancouver?
I joined for the camaraderie and to learn from others in the field. I also appreciate the resources that ACMP offers – webinars, networking events, etc.
What are you working on?
I’ve been working with a national law firm on a rebranding project. It was exciting to get involved at the early stage and see how deeply they’ve been able to implement changes. I’ve also been helping one of my smaller accounting clients merge with a larger firm; it’s gratifying to know that the reputation building program we worked on over several years created real equity in their organization.
Do you have any recommended change management books/resources to share?
Humble Consulting by Edgar Schein. He reinforces the need for consultants to recognize the messy, human aspects of change management and to be more concerned with being perceived as practical and helpful, rather than being impressive.
How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
Travelling, running and eating (not necessarily in that order). I’ve also been trying to make jewellery and expand my culinary skills to varying degrees of success. My partner and I spent six weeks in Africa in 2016; we enjoyed it so much we’re planning a return trip next year.

 

Change Management for Communications Consultants IABC/BC Meeting - May 31, 2017, Vancouver, BC

Join the IABC/BC Independent Communicators Special Interest Group on May 31, 2017 for our last meeting of the IABC programming year.

Consulting and freelance communicators are often involved in projects that involve organizational change initiatives. Whether you’re facilitating a process change or full-scale merger, you need to have a sensitive approach and a well-considered plan.

At this interactive session, we’ll learn and share some of our best experiences in communicating and managing organizational change initiatives.

Members: FREE
Non-members: $20

The IABC/BC Independent Communicators Special Interest Group (SIG) is open to communication professionals who work as self-employed freelancers or in a consulting role.

Registration for this event is limited to 16 participants. Please visit the IABC/BC website to sign up or contact SIG chair Natasha Chetty of Bellwether Strategies with any questions.

Humble Marketing Oxymoron or Appealing Alternative?

What would happen if you pared your firm’s marketing activities down to the essentials that matter? I’ve spoken with a lot of professionals lately who feel pressured to keep up with a constant stream of promotion.

In response, some are opting to take a more humble approach. They don’t want to downplay their capabilities, but they’d like to feel more at ease with the style in which they communicate them.

If this platform sounds appealing, here are a few ways to get started.

  1. First, determine if it makes business sense for your particular firm. Does it align with what your target clients, referral sources and employees expect? How? Some stakeholders want to see all your firm news all the time, others don’t.
    • If you have an aggressive growth strategy, your marketing and communications need to reflect it.
    • If you want to become more selective, it could make sense to focus intensely on a few messages and communication channels.
  2. Then, make it a strategy that guides deliberate marketing and communication choices. Then go for it. Say “no” everything else.
  3. Try prioritizing social listening to find out what clients are talking about. Posting endless streams of announcements on your site and social media profiles without ever engaging in market or industry conversations is not humble; it just adds to the noise competing for reader attention.
    • A listening strategy helps you learn the issues and problems that vex target audiences, and then make an informed contribution or propose a solution at the right time.
  4. Be seen in all the right places. It’s possible to be visible without appearing grandiose. Try techniques that place you directly in front of your target markets.
    • Speaking engagements or media interviews as a subject matter expert are good starting points.
    • Involvement in industry initiatives such as research studies also works; it demonstrates a collaborative approach and often generates early-market information that can be a competitive advantage.
  5. Emphasize how you learn and earn capabilities more than awards and accolades. It shows that you’re focused on continuously generating quality results for the clients who keep your firm afloat.

One way to gauge whether a more humble marketing approach is right for your firm is to decide what you are emotionally committed to as an organization. Is there a central purpose or goal that everyone can support? If so, any efforts to convey it have a good chance of being perceived as authentic and a good chance of persuading clients that you’re the right provider to help them.

Why Face Time Matters More than Ever

No, not the Face Time app on your iPhone, “face time” as in one-on-one meetings with direct reports and others in your organization.

As firms relentlessly pursue efficiency by automating processes, collecting loads of data and creating “lean” teams, more of us are deliberately disengaging from our work.

And we often blame management when things don’t improve. Bad management, to be exact. A 2014 Gallup poll shows that companies fail to hire proper management 82% of the time. Ouch.

What exactly makes a “good” manager? Harvard Business Review recently published a summary of research done in studies of knowledge-based businesses. The researchers found that effective managers:

  • Lead by example when it comes to working hours
  • Ensure even allocation of work among team members
  • Maintain large networks across the firm
  • Prioritize one-on-one meetings with direct reports
  • Are engaged with their own work

Of all these practices, more frequent one-on-one meetings with direct reports could be the easiest way to improve management. They are time consuming and relatively expensive, but they could also be the most rewarding.

Whether you’re a managing partner, practice group leader or administrator responsible for getting work done through others, you can find creative ways to prioritize conversations with direct reports. Schedule meetings with standing agendas. Connect the agendas to operational plans and firm values. Gather feedback and listen for what your reports are and aren’t saying.

This is what will help you make the most out of data and process improvements (including automation).  Facilitate conversations to uncover and connect  insights, and then leverage them into value that you can communicate to clients and propel your team forward. It cannot be done any other way in a professional firm.

Some corporate clients now refuse to pay outside counsel for time spent in conversation with firm colleagues regarding their legal matters. And some lawyers are using this as an excuse to bow out of important internal conversations.

On a simplistic level, this might be a mistake. It doesn’t just inhibit strong firm management; it inhibits strong matter management by limiting growth of the collective intellectual capital that comprises a firm’s competitive advantage (presumably why the firm is hired to begin with). It it doesn’t encourage delegation where appropriate, either, which often costs clients more in the end.

Prioritizing one-on-one or in person meetings is a good idea, regardless of whether your clients will compensate you directly for it or whether you’ll receive any external recognition for it.  It could also make your firm management happier too:  visible leaders are often perceived as more credible leaders. When your firm is ready to launch development initiatives, you’ll have an easier time convincing people to cooperate.

An abbreviated version of this post was published on the Canadian legal blog slaw.ca on December 28, 2016.

To Share or Not to Share: Consider These Questions Before Posting on Social Media

The flurry of social media activity during and after the recent U.S. presidential election has prompted a lot of us to reconsider how Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn activities reflect individual reputation.about-6-in-10-americans-get-news-from-social-media

Then there were the reports of fake news – sensational and otherwise – designed to sway public opinions. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been slow to recognize the responsibility associated with the fact that two-thirds of users of his site get news from it (and that some of it is blatantly false, defamatory or hate-filled) even though it isn’t a traditional media outlet.

Ninety-nine percent the news that comes across my social media feeds meets my expectations of professional communication. But recently, some of it has been surprising. I don’t know whether to attribute it to algorithms or to decisions made by individuals.

Which has made me reconsider my own criteria for professional posts. I use LinkedIn and Twitter for work, but leave Facebook strictly for friends and family. I also work alone, so I don’t exactly have a social media policy.

It boils down to three priorities:

  1. Is it newsworthy? The noise on Twitter and LinkedIn feeds often feels chaotic to my introvert mind. If the information isn’t unique or fresh, I won’t share it. And, as with any news posted on any media, it needs to be factual.
  1. Is it helpful? If it can be used to genuinely help one of my connections, it makes the cut. If it is a pithy quote in a pretty picture or if I say “so what” after reading a LinkedIn article, it doesn’t. I also prefer to share information with some amount of depth.
  1. Does it further my brand? Social media activity should reflect professional values and identity as much as any other communications. It’s worthwhile to convey “who I am” through the information that I share and the people I engage with.

My social network tends to be sceptical of professionals who reveal too much personal information. Most of them manage risk for a living and are somewhat conservative by nature; they have specific expectations of what I will share or recommend.

If I am going to surprise my connections with a post, I’d rather it be one that adds a relatable, respectable dimension to my brand than one that would cause them to question my judgment.

Delivering Feedback Fairly and Constructively

In my last blog post, I discussed how professionals can constructively process tough feedback they have received and the consequences of avoiding colleagues who deliver it.

But what if you’re the messenger? Leaders can’t avoid difficult conversations. Those who do it well build firm cultures where people feel safe to speak up and feel motivated to improve, all for the sake of their clients.

Before delivering the feedback…

  • Check your bias. We’re often drawn to evidence that confirms what we might already believe, such as generalizations about the employee’s age ( boomers or millennials) or past experience. We also tend to be tougher on others than we are on ourselves.
  • Confirm facts without creating drama. What happened and what was the consequence? People might construct their own narrative, extrapolate or anchor their opinions unless you emphasize that this is a situation that can – and should – be overcome.
  • Gather background information. Does the feedback align with any management systems, such as performance reviews or productivity metrics?
  • Set up a meeting with your colleague, but don’t cause unnecessary alarm. Tough criticism is best delivered face to face, in a well-considered conversation.

As you speak…

  • Ask, don’t tell. Yes, it’s important that the mistake(s) be corrected, but it’s also important to draw out defensiveness by learning the employee’s perspective, checking assumptions and building trust. Collaborating to find a path forward will feel a lot safer for everyone.
  • Look for small ways to improve that could deliver long-term results, and determine how meaningful they are to everyone involved.
  • Check for understanding. Your colleague might not be able to articulate his interpretation of the feedback in the moment, either because you’ve observed a behaviour or attitude he may have thought he was masking or because he is embarrassed. Can he acknowledge someone else’s interpretation of the situation being discussed? It indicates empathy, if not understanding.

Afterwards…

  • Follow up. Don’t dust your hands off and walk away, thinking your job is done. It isn’t. Leaders earn a lot more respect if they ask the employee what his or her perspective is on the feedback after some time has passed, and if both you and the employee can implement strategies to prevent a similar situation in the future.

There are as many management resources on providing feedback as there are situations that require it. If you’d like to learn more, two of the best I’ve found are Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein and Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, a Seattle based consultant who has worked with CEOs and executives at major corporations for several decades.