Business Relationships

The Mueller probe. Russia probe.

That’s what I think of first when I hear the word “probe.” Congressional hearings. Senators hovering in elevated seats, staring down at the solitary witness with a prosecutorial air. Probing, probing, probing, probing.

A spectacle.

Given this context it’s easy to forget that great things that can happen when we probe with a measure of grace in our everyday lives. Not the lawyer/prosecutor/interrogator probing. No, the probing for greater personal connection.

Lynne Waymon, my esteemed colleague, friend and the CEO of Contact Counts, a training firm that teaches professionals how to better network, told Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal about a survey her firm conducted with over 1000 professionals (WSJ, 5/23/17). According to Waymon, only 1 out of 4 professionals sees value in asking probing questions of strangers.

I’m shocked. We’re not talking senate-hearing-probe here. We’re talking probing to elevate everyday relationships.

Everyday probing, Waymon elaborates, involves taking a risk. I’m demanding more of you when I ask thought-provoking questions. I’m making an assumption that you’re in this conversation to make something of it.

Risky, yes. But business success tends to amplify when we take conscious risks. Business relationships blossom when we consciously probe.

Want to minimize the risk?  Here are my Top 5 Conversational Probing Tips. They work in business and in absolutely every aspect of your life:

  1. Always a 2-fer

When you ask someone a question, think Question/Answer/Follow-up Question. The second question confirms that you have heard, that you’re interested, and that you long to know more. It demonstrates curiosity. It’s the relationship builder.

The exception? When the first question creates clear discomfort or disinterest in your conversation, notice the discomfort and move on, unless it is time to have an intentionally disruptive conversation with this individual.

  1. The low-risk probe

Asking for specifics as you probe is simple, surefire, and the least risky way of advancing and deepening any conversation.

Statement:  I had such a great time in New York over the week-end.
Question:  What did you enjoy most during your visit?

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But how often have you spoken with someone who immediately starts telling you how HE always wanted to visit New York or how she had an amazing time on HER last trip to the Big Apple. Probing opportunity wasted.

  1. The high-impact probe

Asking for the WHY drives a conversation to the other person’s deeper purpose and motivation. Your conversation drops to a more intimate, more vulnerable and ultimately more enriching level. It is simply inevitable.

Statement:  I just love spending time in New York.
Question:  Why do you think you enjoy being in New York so much?

  1. The what-did-you-feel probe

Asking to name an emotion may seem a little therapy-ish to you. Overuse it, and folks may indeed tell you to stop “being my shrink.” But our emotions are the hidden level beyond thought where we commit to, or resist, any situation or experience. Naming an emotion will invariably invite powerful personal testimony.

Statement:  I had such a great time in New York.
Question:  So how do you feel while you run around in New York?

  1. Know when to un-probe

I hang out with professional coaches. Many of them are masters at asking probing questions. Coaches have also been trained to keep themselves out of the conversation. While that may work in a coaching conversation, it NEVER works in a business conversation. Keep probing and probing, and you become one of those senator-probing-machines, even when you do it with a smile.

Want to deepen a relationship? Probe, probe, and then find a sincere AND substantive link to your own experiences.

It’s oh so clear. If you want to succeed in your relationships – any relationships – asking a probing question is a non-negotiable skill. NOT probing isn’t an option.

Don’t ask the probing question like a prosecutor, ask it with grace. But ask. Ask it often. And reap the rewards.

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It’s a bruising paradigm.

We expect a leader to have answers. The level of your leadership pay is commensurate with the expectation that you execute strategy and don’t make a mistake. An apology is a very public acknowledgment of having erred. A sign of weakness. Or so the story goes.

Yup. Bruising.

Leaders are human. They err.

Here’s what’s even more brutal. The pressure to fake the knowing, to have a solution, to be in charge of the execution game, is relentless. We can fake the I’m-a-smart-leader-who’s-in-control part. For a while. We can’t fake the apology part. EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER.

An exquisite apology is a powerful reset point in any relationship. Professional, personal. It gets us to the human truth of events that occurred. It invites the possibility of redemption and a path forward. It unmasks the I-have-it-all-under-control game. It is ultimately liberating for every party involved.

Need to apologize? Here are a few essentials:

1. Choose unequivocal language.

Our choice of language needs to signal full ownership of the apology. No I regretI wish I hadn’t. Cautious words that signal half-hearted remorse. An apology requires an unequivocal verbal cue. I am sorry thatI apologize for. Amplify such cues by adding qualifiers that indicate the depth of your apology. I am so very sorry that. I apologize profusely for. Amplify with language that is authentic to you, not clichéd.

2. Convey understanding.

If your behavior has caused financial, physical or emotional harm to your business or the people you engage with, convey clearly that you are aware of this impact. We want to know that you understand the depth and scope of the damage you have caused – and its impact on people. For us to move forward with you, we need to know that you “get it.” When you don’t demonstrate insight, any apology remains a narcissistic exercise.

3. Drop all conditions.

No but I had a little too much to drink. No I didn’t have all the information. No circumstances were beyond my control. No other people have failed much worse. All of that may be true. It doesn’t matter. Assume unconditional responsibility. No butif onlyunder other circumstances. Own it. Fully. Don’t diminish your 100% ownership of your actions.

4. Feel it.

Clever apologies don’t stir us. Cognitive insight alone is never enough. We long to know that you had an emotional awakening which prompted you to apologize. That your emotions were stirred as you reflected on the impact of your behavior. Especially if your apology is caused by any misdeeds on your dark side. Yes, we need your apology to come from the heart. And that’s the part we cannot EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER fake.

A heartfelt apology is a sign of strength. Always is. It flips the narrow leadership story – hey, I have all the answers – to a human leadership story – I am a leader who loves to execute and win, but yes, I am human, and I own my mistakes with integrity.

More helpful story, right? More successful story, as well.

All it takes is an apology. Apologize freely. Apologize well. Apologize from the heart.

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I worked out with a trainer for the last 5 years. Liked the discipline. Appreciated Reggie’s focused and yet very personable demeanor during the work-outs. 2019 is the year of simplifying my life – and as part of this simplification I decided to do without the trainer part. Focus on swimming laps in my pool and going to the gym once in a while on my own.

Simple, right? Well, as the moment to tell Reggie approached, I found myself hemming and hawing. Wanted to procrastinate. Wanted to find the “perfect moment” to say it. I suddenly felt awkward and tongue-tied. It was tough to get the words out.

Endings are hard. Good-byes are difficult.

I had to be reminded, again. This ending made me think of the many professional situations in our lives when it is time to say good-bye. Because we have accepted a position in another company. We may have been let go. We got transferred within our company to a new role, a new business, a different location. And then there are all those moments when we stay but someone we have worked with closely moves on.

Saying good-bye is part of the dance of life.

Don’t avoid the good-bye. A loss is a loss. If you’ve spent any time at all in the corporate world you have likely attended a program about how we move through change. You’ve seen a powerpoint slide about the emotions we may experience when there is a loss, whether we frame it as a loss or not. The emotional change journey, as taught in corporations, is based on the wisdom and books of Dr. Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross (On Grief and Grieving and On Death and Dying).

Yes, it was “just” a professional relationship. And yes, feelings will kick in. Saying good-bye is not a simple transactional moment. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge a loss. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the rich encounters you and I had. Even if what we had was not always easy or friction-free.

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts you may wish to consider when it is time for a professional good-bye. This I know – you will have many opportunities to apply them:

Good-bye Do’s:

  • Do it in-person
    If at all possible, have a private moment with your colleague or colleagues. If at all possible, do so in in-person. If it was a truly significant relationship, go out and share a meal. Honor the relationship by not rushing the good-bye. Linger for a moment. Be realistic – this will take time, especially if many colleagues are involved. Take the time. It will be time well spent.
  • Celebrate the best of the relationship
    Explicitly state what you experienced as the highest good in the relationship. Remember the moments when you had shared successes, when working together was a joy, when you conquered obstacles together. If your colleague was helpful to you along the way, state it. If there were rough patches in your relationship, acknowledge them in a light-hearted way but focus on what you valued, instead. Leave with the good.
  • Acknowledge what you feel
    If feelings come up about a colleague’s departure or your own, state them in feeling language. If you feel sad, say so. If you don’t feel sad, do not say that you are. Stick to what is true for you in the moment, not a fantasy script of what should be said in a moment of good-bye. This sounds obvious but is not easy to execute. Because emotions can feel overwhelming we are tempted to “shut down” when it’s time top say good-bye. Don’t. Stay present.
  • Have a stay-in-touch plan
    If you would like to stay connected with a colleague, state it and be clear about how you will follow-up. Make it specific. Will you connect via your preferred social media platform? Will you call her in a month to grab a meal? Will you wait 3 months so he can adjust to new professional circumstances? Whatever your thinking of, state it. Your specificity shows that you mean it.

  • Wish them the absolute very best
    Whether you liked this person or not, whether you will miss them or not – wish them the absolute very best. It’s good karma. The Golden Rule. Get in the habit of wholeheartedly wishing the best for others. Your inner homework is to make sure that you do, indeed, fully and unconditionally wish the very best for others. Your transactional reminder is to not forget to say it.

Good-bye Don’ts:

  • Avoid the good-bye
    Because good-byes can be uncomfortable, it is tempting to avoid them. We suddenly get very busy on our day of departure. We feel overwhelmed or distracted. We may feel nauseous or “not fully here.” Our mind may have already raced to what we will do the week after. Beware. Plan time for your good-byes. Show up for them. Don’t get caught like a deer in the headlights. Don’t shun the good-bye.
  • Offer follow-up platitudes
    I suggested earlier we think ahead about how we wish to stay connected. As helpful as it is to be genuinely connected with professional colleagues, truth is there are also those colleagues we’re happy to see go. If that is the case, acknowledge it to yourself. And do not resort to platitudes like let’s stay in touch or let’s grab a drink. Wish them the very best – but don’t “play nice” by pretending you wish to extend the relationship.
  • Give Gifts
    Unless the gift is an object which is powerfully connected to a significant moment in your professional relationship, skip it. No bottles of wine, flowers, candy, company pens. The biggest gift is a moment of genuine connection and being present for whatever the good-bye moment holds. Everything else is camouflage. Drop the camouflage. Show up.

Saying my good-byes to Reggie reminded me of just how uncomfortable a good-bye can be – and how powerful, at the same time, when we show up for it. Do the dance. Choose to show up. Be genuine. Be prepared. And tap the part of you that will enjoy the dance.

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I stumbled into a new restaurant last night, here in Hollywood/Florida where I live. Indonesian Cuisine. The food was sumptuous. Better yet, it was matched by the quality of the service. Attentive, energetic, consistent, helpful. The server, the busboy, the owner. Everyone.

Professional is the word that comes to mind.

Earlier in the day I had spoken with my chipper 94-year-old mom in Germany. Our chat reminded me of how two years ago, after mom had a minor stroke, I arranged for her to move into an Assisted Living Facility. The unforeseen part of that experience? Within a matter of weeks I had a seemingly endless stream of interactions with professionals I had never before met. Doctors, many of them. Nurses, even more. Physiotherapists. Social Workers. Bank Clerks. Receptionists. Taxi Drivers. Security Guards. Assisted Living Directors. Car Mechanic. Apartment Liquidator. Newspaper clerk. Clergy.

I was taking care of mom, and I was witnessing a whole lot of professionals being professional.

Being helpful, not helpful. Present, not present. Focused, distracted. Flexible, rigid. Warm, aloof. Grouchy, joyful. All while performing their jobs. And I thought of you and me. The choices we make, every day, as we show up for work.

It’s not like we don’t know. I saw it in my Indonesian restaurant, and I saw it so clearly while in Germany, tending to my mom. How we show up at work, moment by moment, human interaction by interaction, is a conscious choice. It always is. The fundamental choices we make in every human encounter change their day, and they change ours.

A little reminder of what works, regardless of your personality type or what line of work you’re in:

  • Choose Joy.

It doesn’t need to be big ra-ra joy, and no fake cheer, please. But the moment you and I have a professional encounter with another person, whether we know her or not, whether we like him or not, let’s infuse it with a sense of delight in the encounter. Let’s make this sense of delight our most elemental choice, and let’s make it a conscious one. The starting point, always. It will infuse every second that unfolds. The alternative isn’t pretty.

  • Manage Your Irritations.

When you’re having a “bad” day, don’t dump your crappy mood on others. Ever, ever. We have two choices, always. We can be transparent about what is bugging us. When that is not appropriate to the situation we’re in, we can manage our irritations. Not stuff ‘em, but be aware of them and mindful of containing them. Anything else is not cool. Bad-mood drip drip drip is poisonous. Show up as a grown-up, please, and don’t drip. Be cool.

  • Demonstrate Understanding.

We like agreement with others – but what we truly desire is understanding. You and I cannot always offer agreement, and we frequently don’t receive it. But we can always seek to understand. And we can, to the best of our ability, convey to the other person that we have understood. No fake “yeah, I get it.” No easy platitudes, no surface-skimming. No, an understanding of the deeper yearning, the stuff beneath the surface. The human and sometimes messy part. Agreement is nice. Being understood, truly understood, is better.

  • Drop the mask.

The professional mask, that is. It is so seductive. The “I’m efficient mask.” The “I know what I’m doing mask.” Don’t get me wrong. By all means, be efficient and know what you’re doing. We expect nothing less of you. But when this ability turns into your primary public demeanor, it becomes a professional shield. The “crisp” mask. Clean execution of required behavior – whether it is greeting a client or delivering a performance review at work – in a professional human exchange is never enough. Go beyond required. Warmth works. So does kindness.

Over the last two years, mom has had her good days and she has the not-so-good ones. Her social filters are gone. I think of a moment when she was in a Rehab clinic and complained, yet again, about the inattention of the staff at the clinic. We bantered back and forth about what transpires in a human exchange. I know that when I greet the nurse with a smile and a good attitude, mom admitted with a wistful sigh, I always get a smile in return.

It’s a two-way street. It always is. And the choice begins with us.

Always does.

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Empathy.

A great word. Like passion, like integrity, like synergy – a word in danger of becoming an easily uttered cliché.

What does empathy-in-action actually look like? Do I “feel” more for my colleagues? Do I behave more kindly toward them? Is it something I say that unequivocally articulates my empathy?

I remember an interview the great Cate Blanchett gave for her Oscar-nominated performance in the film “Carol.” In the interview, Blanchett defines acting as an act of empathetic connection with a character. When you act, you temporarily walk in another character’s shoes. And Blanchett draws the sort of distinction actors love to make: You don’t have to be a killer to convincingly play a killer. No, acting is a momentary, highly-skilled Shoe Swap.

Watching the tv show “Undercover Boss” is one of my guilty pleasures. In “Undercover Boss,” a CEO goes undercover for a week and, under the guise of being a trainee, performs some of the tasks that frontline employees in the business perform on a daily basis. A classic Shoe Swap. Invariably, the CEO is startled by the disconnect between the firm’s corporate strategy and the hardships faced by its workers in daily execution. As in a way cheesy and “manipulated” as the show is – the impact of the Shoe Swap experience is clearly transformational for most CEOs. By the end of the experiment, they are invariably reduced to tears.

A Shoe Swap is powerful.

When I received my Mediation training at the Brooklyn Courts, back in the 1990s, shoe-swapping was one of the techniques we learned to help shift an adversarial relationship. Yes, powerful.

Next time you wish to behave more empathetically toward a colleague, don’t just think nice thoughts. Do a mental Shoe Swap. Here’s how it works.

You sit in a meeting. You have a strong reaction to an idea proposed by a colleague. You feel the heat rise in your chest. Your mind is itching to reject the asinine suggestion put forth. You’re planning a brilliant retort. Uhuh, your mind is ready to do battle.

Go to your internal cue word: Shoe Swap.

  • For the next 45 seconds, intentionally abandon your thoughts, your feelings, your reaction.
  • For these 45 seconds, FULLY try to understand the reasoning, the rationale behind this colleague’s point of view.
  • Contemplate the challenges your colleague may be facing.
  • FULLY put yourself in your colleague’s shoes.

45 seconds. We can do that, right?

A Shoe Swap does not mean we agree with another person. It does not suggest we abandon our beliefs.  You and I may not be reduced to tears like the CEOs in “Undercover Boss.” But if we engage in our 45-second Shoe Swap with sincere intent, there’s a superb chance we’ll end up with a more complex understanding of the situation at hand.

Shoe Swap accomplished. Empathy in action.

You and I are responsible for our mental cuing.  A Shoe Swap does not magically happen by itself.

Incorporate the phrase “Shoe Swap” into your mental programming. Triggered in a conversation? Think Shoe Swap. Execute in 45 seconds. Powerful shifts will occur in your conversation. 45 seconds is all it takes.

Swap freely.

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Trust is an ephemeral thing. Sometimes hard to describe, harder to quantify.

And yet, every relationship – professional and personal – is transformed when trust becomes the guiding force in that relationship.

I think of an interview Adam Bryant, former columnist of the New York Times Business Section’s inspired Corner Office column, conducted with Tobi Luetke a few years back. Luetke is the young, German-born founder and CEO of Shopify, an e-commerce software company. Luetke holds a personal net worth of US $ 1.2 Billion. One of his secrets? At Shopify, they get explicit about trust.

We talk a lot about something called a ‘trust battery,’ Luetke tells Bryant. It’s charged at 50% when people are first hired. And then every time you work with someone at the company, the trust battery between the two of you is either charged or discharged, based on things like whether you deliver on what you promise. (NY Times, 4/24/2016)

At Shopify, the notion of charging the trust battery is not just a cute little phrase – it’s an integral part of the work culture. 

We decided to create a metaphor, Tobi elaborates, so that we can talk about this in performance reviews without people feeling like the criticisms are personal.

Marvelous.

A metaphor awash with brilliant allusions. A battery becomes depleted and needs to be charged. Most of us desire a long battery life. It behooves us to notice when a battery isn’t charged. If we don’t notice, trouble ensues. Clear, right?

Trust is not a fixed, static entity. There is no neutral, no holding pattern when it comes to trust. Our actions either charge or deplete the battery. Desire more success? Start to view yourself as a trust charger. It puts you into the driver seat for shaping the underlying and often invisible dynamics in any relationship.

Because each relationship is different, start with a little reflection to better understand how you currently charge or discharge trust:

  1. How do I experience the notions of “charge” and “trust?

For example: Charging, feeling charged, intentionally charging another person are more than nice ideas. How do you FEEL when you are charged, when your battery is full? How do you EXPERIENCE this sensation in your body, in your thoughts?

– Tip: When we know what it feels like, we have a better sense of what it is we’re seeking to invoke. And we have a better notion of when we’ve been successful!

  1. What are 3 everyday behaviors I already engage in that charge the battery? 

– For example: I genuinely praise colleagues or team members when they have done a great job.

– Tip: Do it more often, with more people.

  1. What are 3 behaviors I engage in that tend to deplete the battery

– For example: I give one set of instructions, and when I have a new insight I change my instructions and give new guidance.

– Tip: Think things through more thoroughly before giving instructions to your colleagues so you don’t become the leader who is constantly “changing his mind” and driving folks bonkers.

Yes, trust is ephemeral, but it is fueled by our simple everyday behaviors. How would you fare in the annual Shopify Trust-Battery-Review? Conduct your own trust-performance-reviews. Don’t conduct them merely once a year, conduct them often. Make them an integral part of how you “do relationships.” You will be amazed at just how quickly the batteries get charged.

Theirs. And yours.

Charge on.

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Yeah, we know.

Every aspect of work flows better when our business relationships work.

We know – and then we get busy. Transaction mode takes over. Execution fever. We forget.

Old-school wisdom is that if we desire stronger relationships, we need to spend more time with folks. Yup. Here, however, is the deal. We can be really really busy and still deepen our relationships. If you don’t have more time to spend, use language that accelerates connection!

“People with rich vocabularies,” success guru Tony Robbins suggests in his wise little book Giant Steps, “have a multihued palette of colors with which to paint their life’s experience.”

Multihued. Yes. Here’s the good news: The colors in your palette don’t need to be high-falutin’. A rich verbal palette works best when used in person – and it works equally well on the phone, in a Zoom meeting, in writing. So, busy or not, cultivate your connecting palette!

Here are my top 5 verbal cues that I know will strengthen any business relationship you’re in – and all other relationships, as well!

  1. I was touched by …

Most of us, even if we’re a little gruff on the outside, have a keen desire to impact folks. The deepest impact occurs when we touch someone’s heart. This simple phrase indicates to the other person that s/he has, indeed, via an action or a gesture, had that sort of impact on us. Powerful. Get in the habit of being touched, please.

  1. You really helped me …

It feels good to know that something we have done, no matter how small it may have seemed to us, has been of help to someone. It feels even better to hear this acknowledged. Whenever possible, let someone know that something they said or did, even if it was routine behavior for them, was helpful to you. “Help” is a fundamental relationship word.

  1. I never looked at it this way before …

Especially in a conversation that may have had its rough patches, acknowledge that the other person had a positive impact on you. Made you think of new possibilities, had you question hidden assumptions, forced you to reach beyond easy answers. This phrase celebrates the positive aspects of a potentially uncomfortable conversation. I mean – someone had an impact on you; how powerful is that! Relationship instantly enhanced.

  1. I don’t agree with …

You may wonder, hey, really – how is disagreeing with someone a relationship-builder? Folks who have strong relationships with others are not afraid to disagree. They don’t waste time dancing around a moment of disagreement. They state their disagreement “in neutral.” No raised voice, no elevated emotion, no drama. Just a fact. The moment a disagreement is stated, the conversation can shift to new ideas and fresh solutions. Instead of offering me platitudes or making me guess what you really think – you actually let me know. Honestly, respectfully. How liberating is that.

  1. I know we can come up with something better …

Even as we discard a present state that we believe isn’t working, we look to the future with unwavering optimism in our ability to deliver. The word “we” is a potent non-blame word. And the affirmation of my faith in the “we” is a sublime relationship-shaper. Add the verb “can” – and whoa, power magnified. Get in the habit of saying “we can!”

There are folks with whom it is tough to build relationships. Agreed. But even a tough nut tends to crack when s/he is approached with a relationship-enhancing cue. The most common objection I hear to the just-listed cues: This is simply not how I talk. That, of course, is the very point. Would you object in this manner when you learn a foreign language? No – you would learn the language.

Toss the objections. Expand the palette.

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I like the old saying Fake it til you make it. Better yet, my colleague Alisa Solomon’s adaptation. Fake it til you feel it.

It works. Until it doesn’t.

I read lots of books on leadership. I love being inspired by new leadership thinking. Yet once in a while, someone utters something that puts all this new book wisdom to shame. Someone delivers a back-to-basics message.

Gustavo, a CEO with a resounding success record of turning troubled companies around, was addressing a group of mid-career professionals. His audience expected to hear insights on strategy, tips on execution, pointers on how to build great teams. Here’s what they got from Gustavo instead:

  • Be genuine
  • Care about people

You may go DUH. Of course. I know that.

Good. It’s the stuff we can’t fake. It feels especially compelling during Valentine’s Day week, a week when I like to celebrate my love of all beings.

Be genuine. Care about people. These tenets are the basics Dale Carnegie so compellingly wrote about in his 1936 classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Back to the future. One of those books, social media and technology and all, that feels as fresh today as it did back then. We can’t fake the basics with technology. We can’t fake them with charm. We can’t. We sniff out the fakers at once. Without these two basics, our personal impact in the world is forever diminished. Lasting impact is impossible.

Let’s dissect these two tenets, shall we!

  • Be genuine

We have created lots of code language around this notion. Be vulnerable, be transparent. Yeah, I like those words. If we’re going to go modern, I like be real best. Genuine has a more old-fashioned ring to it that I like even better. Allow me to translate: Don’t bullshit people. Don’t deliver fake-peppy talk. Don’t unload unexamined clichés on folks. Don’t dress up your conversation with lots of fancy jargon you’ve learned in a communication skills class. Don’t pretend to have answers that you don’t have. Don’t act like you have it all together when you don’t. Don’t hold me or anyone else to an idealized standard that no one can meet. Including you.

Have healthy boundaries, yes. But be real. Be human. Be genuine when you speak with me.

  • Care about people

It doesn’t mean act nice. Doesn’t mean showering folks with gifts or compliments. Doesn’t mean discussing career planning or feigning interest in someone’s personal life. It may, in fact, mean firmly holding someone accountable and offering a bit of tough love. On the most essential level, caring about people springs from an unwavering belief that in the larger scheme of things, you and the other person are one. Regardless of position, of education, or social standing, at the soul-level there is no separation or separateness between you and me. Act from that place. It is the well from which true caring springs.

Have healthy boundaries, yes. And do not hold yourself separate from others.

I believe in fake it til you make it – when it comes to confidence, when it comes to tackling that which you have not yet mastered. You can’t, however, fake the people stuff. It doesn’t work.

Drop fully into being genuine and caring about people. If you already embody these qualities, you know how they help you meet every challenge with grace. If you have a sense that you can drop a little deeper, go ahead, make the drop.

And if you were to hop into a dinghy and head for a desert island where internet distractions are not to be found, take Dale Carnegie with you.

A very happy Valentine’s Day to all.

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Last Friday, Cory Booker, the US Senator from New Jersey, announced that he will seek the Democratic nomination to become the next US president. His instant media blitz that day involved an appearance on the talk show “The View.”

I believe that in this moment, co-host Meghan McCain says to Booker, authenticity is the most important political currency you can have. And after some elaboration McCain asks: How do you convince people that you’re authentic and not a phony?

I cringe. Not at McCain or Booker. This is not about them. No, I cringe at the ease with which we toss about the word authentic. Ever since Bill George popularized the notion of Authentic Leadership in his book “True North,” we have steadily killed the meaning of the word.

I want to be authentic with people.

It has become the most overused leadership cliché of the past decade or so. Mind you, I am in favor of not being inauthentic. Or a phony. But you and I can authentically be many different things. Which authentic Self will you bring?

I think of a conversation I had with Jen Congdon, Head of a Business Unit within a highly profitable publishing empire. Jen and I were talking about how to play well with folks who have social power. She mentioned her relationship with Chuck, the empire’s legal counsel. Chuck, it was clear, pushes Jen’s buttons. She saw him as the quintessential young buck climbing the social ladder, with a lot of bravado in the mix.

In a way Chuck is so transparent, Jen sighed. You just need to stroke his ego a lot to get things done. Another sigh. But I have to be authentic with people.

Are there things you genuinely appreciate about his talents as a lawyer? I inquired.

Yes, there are, Jen sheepishly admitted.

And can you authentically let him know that you appreciate those things? I asked.

I guess so. Vera said it with a pained look on her face.

We say authentic when we mean vulnerable. We say it when we mean genuine, truthful, direct. Transparent. When we mean “act according to our values.” When we long to express a strong emotion we have. When we want someone to “fully own their life story and tell it.” Why not toss the word authentic and say what we actually mean?

Let us not pretend that we all agree on what the heck authentic is. And what it looks like. I urge you to be mindful of the following myths that are frequently attached to the word authentic:

Myth #1: Just Be Yourself

When you go on a job interview and your best friend tells you Just Be Yourself. When you have to give a crucial speech at work and your colleague suggests Just Be Yourself. Let’s be clear – nobody in a job interview wants you to just be yourself. Or when you give a speech. Chances are, we don’t want you to be boring. We want you to be prepared. We want you to make choices about which Self you bring.

You and I can authentically be many different things. My joy can be authentic. My enthusiasm can be authentic. My fear can be authentic. My doubt. In key business situations, we want you to bring your Best Self. And we want you to be intentional about it. That’s grown-up authenticity.

Myth #2: To Be Authentic I Have to Say What I Really Think

No, not really. A thought is merely a thought. It may feel authentic for a moment. A minute later another thought may feel authentic. Thoughts come and go. Repetitive thoughts may indicate a pressing concern. When you and I have a pressing concern, in a business situation or a personal relationship, let us consider context: Is this a good moment to express what I’m thinking? Is it essential that I express my thoughts right now? Will expressing my thought enhance the conversation we’re having?

Expressing a thought is a choice. Not expressing a thought is a choice. Both can be authentic choices. Sometimes not expressing a thought is the more enlightened one. And authentic, as well.

Myth #3: I Like to Keep It Real OR I Like People Who Keep It Real.

When I hear keeping it real this is what comes to mind: Gosh I’m tired of all the platitudes. The bullshit. The polite stuff. All the things we’re avoiding and not talking about. All the fake conversations. Let me cut through the crap.

A noble impulse, one I empathize with. Beware, however. We have all been with folks for whom keeping it real means going on an angry tirade. Attacking and blaming. Unloading pent-up anger. Going on and on. Dumping. Letting it rip.

Authentic expression? Perhaps. I think of this behavior as unfiltered narcissistic authenticity. Yes, I say what is on my mind, with little regard for my audience. It, more often than not, has scant positive impact and much unintended detrimental impact.

Myth #4: Being authentic means I tell you “my story.”

Bill George popularized the notion of telling our “crucible stories.” Stories of moments in our past when we overcame barriers and obstacles. When our lives transformed and we learned major life lessons. Crucible stories can often be inspiring. Old leadership thinking used to be that we hide our struggles and shortcomings from those around us. Current thinking, championed by the likes of George and Brene Brown, suggests that considered vulnerability fosters connection and personal impact.

I agree. I love stories. I love to tell them, and I have coached many folks on how to tell them well. Here’s the deal, however. Stories are often carefully selected for their potential impact. They are crafted and shaped. At times colored by all the things we leave out and don’t say. For every story we tell there are hundreds we do NOT tell. Each story we tell is a choice of omission. It is manipulated authenticity. We choose to highlight one facet of our narrative over others. Let’s not confuse this with being authentic. Because we could authentically tell legions of other stories that we withhold.

In case of doubt, bring the YOU that enhances execution and personal connection. Check the other selves at the door. Here’s a bit of wisdom from someone who pre-dates the likes of Bill George and Cory Booker and Meghan McCain.

I’ve learned that it’s what you leave OUT of a performance, not what you put INTO it, Tony Bennett says. Less is more. It’s not because of my age, but it’s the right thing to do.

Tony Bennett is 92. He knows.

When you style a song, there’s the craft of singing. And there are the choices you make while you sing. Yes, less is often more. Just one of many authentic choices a performer makes.

When you lead, please don’t be yourself. Bring your BEST self. Make sure your best self comes wrapped in a bit of craft. Be vulnerable when your vulnerability will be helpful to those you lead. Use keen judgment about what to leave OUT.

And stop worrying about being authentic.

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5 Ways of Directing Your IMPATIENCE Well

Patience can be hard.

I was reminded of it again at the start of this year. Hanging out in beautiful Hoi An/Vietnam – and then I came down with a pesky cough and fever. Darn it, that’s not how this was supposed to go. I felt weak. Void of energy. Emotionally down. I could do little to affect what was happening. Couldn’t magically make it go away. You know what it’s like, you’ve been there. Impatient for this circumstance to change.

At once. Right now.

Yep, patience can be hard. Impatience is harder.

Not the petulant, self-righteous, I want it right-here-right-now impatience. That’s the easy kind, the one that may have gotten us what we wanted when we were a toddler. It rarely works for grown-ups.

No, I’m thinking of the sort of repetitive impatience that gets triggered in places of work. Impatience with the slow pace of change in your organization. Impatience with processes that plain don’t work. Impatience with colleagues who never get their stuff done in time. Impatience with questionable ethics. Impatience with glaring incompetence and the same tired excuses for why something cannot be done.

Our daily frustration with individual and systemic mediocrity.

I get it. You’re impatient for change. Impatience with the status quo is the hallmark of an inspired leader. You sometimes feel like you will burst out screaming if things don’t change fast.  

Scream at home. When you want to get things done in business, however, focus your impatience. Consider these 5 ways of directing your impatience well.

  1. Open the Door of Possibility – with Grace
    NOT: What we’re doing right now sucks. I know what will work better.

You may like the language of bluster and bravado. It may feel authentic to you. It really does capture exactly how you feel. Dump authentic for a moment and opt for skill and finesse. Invite folks into your point of view – don’t hit them over the head with it.

BUT: It seems we have been struggling with this same dilemma for a while now. I have a few ideas that we may wish to consider.

  1. Respect Tradition
    NOT: Really, I can’t believe we’re still doing this the way we did it 30 years ago.

Most of us have worked in situations where processes feel arcane. Like, really, who ever thought THIS was a good way of doing business! Work flows inhabit progress. Rituals seem rigid, not nimble, don’t make any sense. Truth is, they likely made sense to someone at some point. Especially when rituals are tied to a company’s core values. If core values and tradition matter where you work, find a way to publicly honor them before you go on the attack!

BUT: I can see why this way of doing things contributed to so many of our early successes. There are some very impressive companies that we all know who have found ways of improving how they do things. Let’s see what we can learn from them.

  1. Test Your Ideas – BEHIND the scenes first
    NOT: I will bring this up at our next Executive Meeting to make sure everybody is in the same room and hears the same message from me.

Yes, you will have a captive audience. You also run the risk of being labeled a loose cannon or a troublemaker. Before you bring up a potentially explosive topic in a large forum, test it in private 1-1 conversations. Float an idea by a colleague or two. Think of these as casual, low-risk lobbying conversations. Instead of forcing your idea on these colleagues, invite their honest reactions. Pay attention to what they say and what they don’t say. Truly listen. Then decide what to do with your idea.

BUT: I will test my ideas in informal 1-1 conversations to hear what others think and discover if my ideas resonate before I take a bold stand in the “big” meeting.

  1. Forge Alliances
    NOT: I will take this on as my pet project because nobody here is as passionate about this as I am.

Don’t be a martyr. Don’t assume that you’re the only one, or the most qualified one, to take on a cause. You may, in fact, be the most qualified. You will, however, have a lot more impact if you have allies. Your effort will be harder to dismiss. Take your lobbying conversations to the second level – that’s the level where you switch from testing an idea to getting a commitment of support from your conversation partners. That’s how allies are born.

BUT: I will work to make sure that at least 3 other key influencers are as fired up about making this change as I am. We will be a rebel tribe. Together, we will have a powerful voice.

  1. Accelerate the Process
    NOT: Great conversation. Let’s revisit this at our next monthly staff meeting.

We know that when we desire change and momentum, this is not a compelling way to end a meeting. And we’ve all been in meetings, especially those where new ideas were proffered, that end in deferment. Don’t accept deferment. Ask for more. Suggest next-step commitments. And make them time-bound, please.

BUT: Great conversation. Let’s commit to the following three actions! Can we get this done by the end of next week? Who will take on which item? Awesome.

Successful impatience is strategic, it is persistent, and it pushes the proverbial envelope while playing successfully with others.

Celebrate your impatience. Impatience with the status quo is a powerful incubator for new ideas and new ways of doing/being. Season your impatience with your ability to be patient. They are flip sides of the same coin.

Hard? Perhaps. Not harnessing your impatience is harder. Go and grab it by the horns – and direct it WELL!

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