Ask intimidating boss about priorities

How to Ask Your Boss About His Priorities without Sounding Disrespectful

In this time of confinement, we are each more aware of our limited resources: finances, time, energy, focus, humor, patience, and more.

Knowing our priorities helps us invest these personal and professional resources more wisely.

Our work priorities depend upon those of our boss.

Do you really know what three numbers keep our managers up at night? What are they measuring?

They be looking at different issues during confinement than in “normal” times

  • Cash
  • Sales pipeline
  • Employee health
  • Access to technology
  • Employee morale
  • Team communication
  • Employee autonomy
  • Interruptions during a workday

Especially during a crisis mode, it is vital to (re)align our efforts with our boss’ imperatives.

YOU and YOUR BOSS

How is your relationship with your manager?  Do you know there are 150 Million responses to “I hate my boss” on Google?!  (FYI 670 Million search “I hate my job.”)

Few of us are at ease calling our boss to ask about her priorities.  Coaching clients tell me this:

  • “It’s not my job to ask my boss about his priorities. My job is to follow his directives. He chooses. I act.”
  • “It would not make a difference if I asked my boss about her priorities. I still must do the same work.”
  • “We don’t have that kind of relationship. I am not her confidant. She asks us what is going on in the field. We don’t ask her what is going on in the board room. I think she’s a great boss because she listens to US!”

Employees expect the boss to take the lead.

And yet, you have the most to lose by not being aligned with your boss’ prioirities.  Your peace of mind, energy, and possibly job security depend upon it. 

How can YOU take this positive initiative and ask your boss about his priorities with utmost respect?

Prepare both the PEOPLE and the Content

Often preparation for a meeting focuses on getting the content right.

This process prepares the people too.

Prepare Yourself

The first person to prepare is YOU (and me!).  Mindset matters.

We all have some degree of the imposter syndrome. The underlying questions are, “What gives me the right (validity) to …?” “Should I ask my boss about his priorities?”

Try reframing the situation slightly to focus on results. You’ll discover empowering questions.

  • “How can I ask my boss about priorities in a way that makes her want to share them and even appreciative of the opportunity to do so?”
  • “How can I better help my boss perform well during these times of stress?”

Here, we focus on overcoming obstacles. Merely formulating these questions helps us to birth an action plan.

Prepare Your Boss

It is more the exception than the rule to enjoy strategic exchanges with our manager. He might be taken by surprise by your request.

Consider a two-step process to help him adjust.

  1. Tell him you want to ask about priorities
  2. Ask him

Prepare the Discussion Content & Process

I like to have a basic structure when engaging in open-ended discussions. Sounds counter-intuitive?!
Structure provides safety when venturing into less certain territory.

The following steps guides us in launching and closing the discussion with confidence. You will also gain pointers on how to stimulate the exchange if your first attempt does not generate the hoped-for response.

1. Explain the trigger for the discussion

Your boss might be wondering what makes you act “oddly.”

As humans, we fill in knowledge gaps with our own interpretation. And oftentimes with negative news!
Let her know from the onset this is a forward-thinking exchange. 😊

When you explain the trigger for the discussion, point out your motivation to grow professionally.

2. Confirm your objective to support your boss in her/his priorities

Products and services that sell well are those that satisfy a need. Your boss has needs too, among which performance criteria. Assure him that you are committed to those as well.

It sounds obvious, yet we can get caught up “doing our work” and forget the reason for it. The purpose of your discussion is to add purpose to your work!

3. Present the context which depicts the relevance of your question

As we work in increasingly complex organizational structures….and as we work from home during confinement (!)…your boss might not know exactly what you do.

He might be oblivious to the fact that you spend HOURS on projects that get dropped and that your motivation has taken a toll.

This is your opportunity to provide a succinct glimpse into your preoccupations. You can present these concerns in ways that reinforce the interest of the company or of the department.

  • To best use your time and focus
  • To maximize learning for the department
  • To best reach our quarterly objectives
  • To fully tap into collaborative teamwork

4. Make your ask

Your boss is the person who knows her priorities better than you do. There is a time for you to ask that she express them.

Directly.

Expecting an answer.

It’s O.K to leave a few seconds of silence. They might feel like hours (!). Your closed mouth puts the onus on your boss to speak.

It’s O.K to leave a few seconds of silence. They might feel like hours (!). Your closed mouth puts the onus on your boss to speak.

Many of my coaching clients fall into the trap of filling in silence. It makes them uncomfortable, so they speak.

Change your mindset about silence. Remember that when you ask a question and pause, your silence communicates loudly. It speaks of

  • Intent
  • Confidence
  • Self-Control
  • Interest

And more.

I was recently on a videoconference meeting where the decision-maker had been avoiding making a choice about when to kick-in an emergency plan. One of the participants finally presented the issue as a direct question.

“What is the minimum level of cash that triggers the emergency plan?” Silence.

His silence kept us quiet.

Finally, the manager responded. “I guess I have to make a decision.”

The participants remained silence still.

“Ok…” and we FINALLY got an answer!

Be serious about asking your boss about her priorities…and you will be taken seriously.

5. Prepare to listen MORE

Have you noticed how it is easier to listen when topics are relevant to us?!

The more we understand how our boss’ priorities relate to our work, the more fruitful the discussion will be for you or me.

You can guide the discussion with well thought-out queries.

  • If _____(such and such happened) what impact do you see that having on our work?
  • What might maximize our chances of success?
  • Where are the risks higher and where are the stakes lower?

6. Have a back-up plan

I teach a class on resilience. One of the keys to being able to pick up and get back into the game is to have a Plan B.

Think of professional soccer players. They fall all the time. And get back up again. They even have training sessions on how to fall so that they can rise up again quickly.

A Plan B gives room for margin.  You and I don’t have to be perfect on the first attempt.

A back-up plan is like a life vest. When we swim out of our comfort zone and into deep waters, we have something to keep us afloat.

As a Plan B, anticipate several of your boss’ priorities and ask her to comment on those and even to rank them in order of importance.

You could even present potentially conflicting priorities and explore how your manager evaluates and compares them.

7. Link strategies to actions

In the interactive story mentioned above, The Calamities of Jade, Jade had been previously assigned a Project A. She brings it up during this strategic discussion with her boss. “How does Project A fit in with your priorities? “

(We don’t know the answer yet. In fact, it’s YOUR vote that determines it! Click here to vote on #SafePlaceToTalkAboutWork.)

Our companies thrive because ideas get implemented. Your boss’ priorities impact decisions about how you and I spend our time, energy, attention, affection, and finances.

In the end, it comes to “Just doing it.”

Gain clarity on what needs to be done!

8. Close with thanks

Thank YOU!

Working with a Challenging Boss

How is your relationship with your boss?

I help managers and high potentials manage themselves and their bosses with confidence.

You spend most of your hours at work.  If your manager is a source of discouragement, you carry that with you in all facets of your life.  You used to have the commute ride home to unwind.  With confinement, that discouragement enters your own home.

Let’s (re)build your confidence and your positive impact.

Send me an email to share your goals and the obstacles that keep you from reaching them.  Let’s connect to see if my online training and coaching is the right solution for you to boost your confidence and your career.

Cover photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

Resilience to keep from hitting wall

Resilience: How strong is yours?

It’s the second week of confinement in Paris. It was tougher to set myself to work this morning than last Monday.  How about for you?

The realization hit.  BUMMER!  This thing is going to LAST. 

I’m going to need two vital skills:  Resilience & Endurance.

“It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself that determines how your life’s story will develop.” – Dieter F. Uchtdorf

Revolutionized World Overnight

I am reconnecting with friends by phone.  Many conversations begin with, “I can’t believe how our world has transformed, quasi overnight…” 

Life two weeks ago

At work

  • Which products and services to push?
  • Where to invest for growth?

At home

  • With whom to go out for some fun?
  • Where shall we meet to eat?

Today

At work

  • Which which employees to keep?  And for the others…??!? 😕
  • Where to find funds?

At home

  • What can we do at home?
  • Where can I find pasta?!

Last week’s vital skill:  Adaptability

Transformation went into full swing last week as companies put in place remote working and dealt with the overextended Internet.  Everyone had to be adaptable.

Did you too have the sound cut in videos and it took forever to exchange files?  We dealt with it.  If Internet cut, we used the phone.

Last week we were in frequent contact with colleagues.  We were establishing remote work.  This week we are trying to initiate “business as usual.”  That’s when we discover that we’ll need to change our weekly team meetings.  They were designed to be face-to-face.

Last week we understood when people checked in a few minutes late for the online meeting, but this week it’s less unacceptable.  That’s TOUGH, especially in cultures where the 9 o’clock meeting begins at 9:09.

On the personal front, maybe you had cleaning help and now….  Who will take the initiative to scrub the toilet and swipe off the toothpaste guck in the sink?!  And this is on top of extra childcare, longer lines for grocery shopping, and more.

What Skills for Today & Tomorrow:

Resilience & Endurance

Growth curveWe each want MORE than survival.  Thriving would be nice.  We want to grow.

In an ideal world, we hope for a perpetual upward trend.

OK, I can get my brain around the fact that there will be ups and downs.  But more ups than downs!

Now, with the upheaval of our society, I finally recognize that success might look more like this:

Stuck. need resilience BAD

What are the keys to thriving in this confused context?

Have you tried to unwind an unruly KNOT?

As a child, I used to have long red hair that I could tuck into my pants…until my dad was in charge of me for a few days.  Unlike my mom, he did not brush my hair daily.  My hair got tangled up.  A little the first day.  More the next. Until the only solution was to cut my hair short. (Now it’s short!)

Hair is easy to fix.  Life, career, client and relationships, and family are another matter.  That’s why these are ESSENTIAL.

Resilience – noun.  The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

Endurance – noun.  The ability to bear an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way.

Resilience BUILDING

How strong is your resilience?

Resilience is like a muscle.

When our resilience muscle is in shape, we can handle challenges and come out of top.  Obstacles are just that:  obstructions in our path that require a strategy to overcome. Until we reach the next one.  We might stumble, but we have the physical and mental strength to get up and try again.

When our resilience muscle is out of shape, obstacles become a wall.

Runner with resilience
Will you keep running…or hit the wall?

That’s what I want to help you avoid.

PLEASE plant the tree before you need shade.

Huh?

You and I have a long, tough road ahead.  Life has always been a marathon…and this next one might take us through desert terrain.  We will need shade for restauration and a fresh perspective.

NOW is the time to build the resilience muscle.

That’s why, during confinement, I am posting a daily #ResilienceBuilder.  It’s one step to gain the positive mindset, the constructive communication skills, and the endurance to thrive, even during tough times.

It’s my gift to you and you’ll find it on the Facebook group #SafePlaceToTalkAboutWork.

Enjoy your daily #ResilienceBuilders…and good mood boosters! 😃

P.S. AND they are designed for YOU to buid resilience and for you to HELP YOUR TEAMS OR KIDS build resilience too.

#ResilienceBuilder
#ResilienceBuilder
Paris Heat Wave

TGIF – Swimming at the Eiffel Tower

Hello for the weekly rendez-vous on Friday.  TGIF – Trust, Gratitude, Inspiration, and Fun.

Trust

My word for the year is “community.”  That means NO to taking on projects that I will lead solo, and YES, seeking out opportunities to collaborate.  This week I have fully benefited from networks of people I trust.  French school finishes next week and summer break is around the corner.  Many network events were planned while folk are still in town.

I mentor a young woman who is rebuilding her life after violence through entrepreneurship.  It was an honor to attend her graduation and learn how both she and her business grew.  “I am not the same person I was a year ago.”  I am honored that she trusts me and in my counsel.

I trust in the Harvard community in Paris.  In this case, I am the mentee 😊!  A senior HBS graduate counsels and challenges me as I embark on a new entrepreneurial venture.   Her input is both kind and demanding.  I trust that means she believes in my potential!

Station F corporate sponsor building

Here is a photo of Station F, the largest entrepreneurial space in France, where women from Harvard gathered for our most recent get-together.  There are three segments: this first hall is devoted to corporate sponsors (that’s why it looks empty.  It’s after business hours.)  The hall beyond the glass doors at the far end of the is where the entrepreneurs work on loooooooong tables.  Security is intense and we were not allowed in. And of course, there is a food hall!

Denise Dampierre at Station F in Paris

It felt eerie to be in such a place of connection (exchange of money, contacts, ideas…) when the lights were off.  Hope to see it in action soon.

Our moderator created a secure setting where we could express our conviction with trust.  Naturally, I did!

 

Gratitude

It’s heat wave time in France and I am grateful for water, especially drinking water.  It is so easy to take it for granted!

American friends ask if we have air-conditioning.  Like many Parisians, no we do not.  That’s why we freshen off where we can.  Temperatures climbed to 39.7 °C or 103.5 °F.

Calor!  Chaud! Hiess! HOT!  Yesterday I took it for granted.  Today, I am grateful for water.

Scorching sun.  Photo by Rob Potvin.

See more pics of Parisians combatting heat on Paris Match website

Inspiration

As you may know, I teach management in a French university.  On the final exam I asked a question about managers’ responses to failure.  (We had studied the impact of blaming vs. seeking solutions on corporate culture.)

I am inspired by the vitality and hope in this student’s response.

“If there is no solution, there is no problem.”

The phraseology caught me off guard, and I like it.  Challenges exist…yet they don’t have the last word!

Problem solving
Background image from Udemy’s Engineering Problem Solving course. Cool, isn’t it!

Fun

On June 21, the longest day of the year, Paris resonates with music.  It is the Fête de la Musique, a day where bands can set up on the street and play.  It’s fun and it’s free.

One of my sons sings in a band and I went to admire him.  I also ADMIRED this prancing princess who CLEARLY was having a blast.  Check out the video on the SoSooper Facebook page for more fun.  You get to see the boys dancing too!

Fete de la Musique
Shake it!

The cool of the evening is settling in…and I’m off to watch France and the US women’s soccer match.  Who to support?  All of them!

Wishing you a great week.

Sincerely, Denise

 

Neat & New Stuff

What’s YOUR Focus Word?

Boy looking through telescope. Searching Focus word!Research reveals the debilitating impact of decision-overload.  Choose a word-for-the-year to better stay focused on priorities.  It makes it easier to say “No” with respect and confidence.  Read on…

Girl Power

Wendie Renard and Amandine Henry on French female soccer teamWhy women’s soccer is sooooo important!  Read on…

Winning insights from Rosabeth Moss-Kanter of Harvard Business School

French soccer team winning FIFA World Cup 2018

Moss Kanter’s research reveals the correlation between blame and losing teams and mindset focused on solutions.

It is also a soccer inspired post!  Would you believe it?  I prefer rugby 🙂  Read on…

TGIF-rain in paris

TGIF – Us vs. Them

Hello for the weekly rendez-vous on Friday.  TGIF – Trust, Gratitude, Inspiration, and Fun.

Trust

I am trusting in the Power (and sweetness) of Diversity.

Diversity in icecream. Tin Pot Creamery

This past Monday France was on holiday for Pentecost.  It is the Christian “Diversity Day,” and what happened that day holds insights for how we create or break a sense of belonging. Let me explain.

Pentecost is a day when the group became defined by its center, not by its barriers.

Pentecost marks the day when the news about Jesus’ resurrection became international news.  His disciples, mostly uneducated small-town fishermen, spoke Hebrew and were following the Jewish calendar of celebrating Passover in Jerusalem. The city was full of people who traveled from other nations to celebrate the feast.  According to the Bible*, on Pentecost the disciples were given a supernatural ability to speak these foreign languages and told about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

In 2019 terms, this is like being confused while watching a foreign movie without subtitles. Then, amazingly, the actors come to you and play the scene in your own language and you understand.

What does this have to do with diversity?  Many groups are defined by their border.  It’s a barrier which describes who is “in” and who is “OUT.” 

  • We are women, you are men.
  • We are Ivy League School graduates…What’s your background?
  • We are…

and the list goes on.

Pentecost is a day when the group became defined by its center, not by its barriers.  By making the news of Jesus available to people of all languages, the focus became Jesus and not the cultural barriers.

Jesus Mafa African Mary & JesusI am trusting that each of us will choose to focus on common, centering principles such as justice and equal rights.  You and I, as we lead by example and act within our circles of influence, can make a difference in building inclusive cultures within our companies and communities.

And, I love this image of the Madonna and child by Jesus Mafa.  Why should Jesus look like a well-fed, richly clothed Italian infant from the Renaissance period?!   This image made me aware of some of my unconscious biases.

Maybe you too have seen the T-shirts that read, “I met God.  She’s black.” 🙂  When we meet God, I think every one of us will be surprised.

*For the Pentecost story, see Acts chapter 2

Gratitude

Thank you to the people who support the “cause” of others

  • For the men promoting women to leadership
  • For the whites insisting on equal rights for people of other races
  • For the atheists welcoming prayers of the faithful
  • For the healthy investing in equipment for the disabled

I am also grateful to one of my sons, he was about 10 years old at the time, who said, “Mom, you do stuff for Christians.  What do you do for non-Christians?”  That question changed how I invest my time and energy…and eventually to why I am writing you right now.

Thanks, darling.

Inspiration

Following up on these meaning-of-life thoughts, my inspiration this week comes from an Excel file!!!!!!

Isabelle Roux-Buisson is mentoring me on an entrepreneurial project, and she sent me an “Assumptions Dashboard” spreadsheet.  This has been so helpful and grounding.

assumptions entrepreneurs make

Entrepreneurship is like navigating in the fog.  We move forward step by step and try to get as much clarity as possible.  Writing down assumptions gives shape to potential obstacles.  Testing these premises opens the way for opportunities.

Her inspiring impetus boosted me to test market presuppositions and to move from the “I hope” stage to the “that door is closed but this one is open!” phase.

Isabelle is a senior executive in the tech field and a jury for the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition in Europe.  You can learn from her too!  Here is her interview on how she developed Emotional Intelligence throughout various stages of her career.

Fun

Last week, I hinted at our D-Day inspired haircutting ritual.  The Allied forces brought the harbor to Arromanches-les-Bains; we bring our hairdresser to our home.

It’s been going on for over two decades.  That means it’s working…and we make it fun!

Haircut at home for boys
Haricut at home for men

All six of us pass through Adrien Bracon’s expert snips.  When the kids were tykes it was exhausting having them sit still BOTH while in a barber’s chair AND while their brothers’ Chewbacca (massive head of hair) got trimmed.  HELL.

Instead we sip flavored coffee, exchange music, and send emails (!) while getting our hair reshaped.  And since there are six of us, haircutting time always falls around mealtime.  We easily transition to wine and cheese.

These pictures were taken at the same place with the same people, 15 years apart.

I love to take the bore out of a chore.  What small shift in perspective – a reframe – could make your life more pleasant? 

Get in touch.  This is what I talk about with clients: transforming a relationship challenge into an opportunity for growth.

See below the article on fresh perspectives inspired by inclement weather.  The cover image on the TGIF is from Christophe Jacrot, an amazing photographer taking pictures in the snow and rain.  It’s been raining every day in Paris this week.  That was less fun for me, but the plants love it!

Looking forward to being in touch next Friday.

Neat & New Stuff

Interview with Isabelle Roux-Buisson

Isabelle Roux-BuissonIsabelle shares how she leaned on emotional intelligence (EI) skills throughout her career.  Each stage of leadership requires different skills to connect with and motivate team members and other stakeholders. She shares how learned about emotional intelligence and then intentionally integrated these skills into her management style.  Read on…

3 Managerial Insights from Snow in Paris

Paris in the snowIt’s not literally freezing in Paris, but the weather sure is cold for this time of year and intense precipitation falls every day. This post presents fresh perspectives on work that were gained from inclement weather.  It’s a reframing with the intent to make your management as productive and more fun.

Read on…

Looking for Interview Suggestions

Can you recommend a wise leader with a message related to building constructive conversations at work?  Many of you appreciate the interviews I led with tried and tested leaders who overcame challenging conditions.

It would be an honor to know about them and to possibly interview them.  Please send me an email.

When Values Translate into Behaviors

Clarify Values – Know What Matters

Today, we celebrate 75 years since the Allied Forces invaded France’s Normandy beaches.

When our sons were little, we traipsed them off to visit Omaha Beach, Gold Beach at Arromanches-les-Bains, and the cemeteries of those who died for a mission.  We wanted our kids to learn of the price of freedom and to consider these freedom-fighter as heroes.

D-Day beach
Mulberry (artificial) Harbor at Arromanches-les-Bains in Normandy, France

President Eisenhower, in his June 6, 1944 speech to the embarking soldiers, appeals to their love of liberty.

What do you and I live for? What gives us the courage to face the impossible? 

When we tap into our mission and our deepest values, we unleash the courage needed to step outside of our comfort zone.

According to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Jay Light, previous Dean of the Harvard Business School, put it this way, “We need to know where we want to be in 30 years to decide where to invest the next month.”

That’s what the Allies did when conceiving the Normandy beach landings.  Let’s gain insights for our life today.

How Values Matter

Values facilitate decision-making.

Consider even the way we organize and manage our meetings.

Steven Sels, then CEO of Primagaz, share how their values guide their weekly schedule.  He handed me a fun-to-handle foldout that dedicates one page per core corporate value: growth through performance – go for niche and market share – invest in people – keep things simple – listen, learn and react – look for the unusual – manage change.

He went on to explain that their Executive Committee meets every Monday afternoon to hear project presentations for any team in the organization.  Teams are to submit a written pitch the week before and are allotted thirty minutes of discussion with senior management.

Through these Monday sessions, the company kept innovation simple, uncovered niche market opportunities, taught teams to collaborate and to pitch ideas, and modeled listening and learning by the executive team, and were able to move fast when implementing new ideas.  They lived their values and these principles took on meaning.

Compare that to corporate meetings that last looooong, where too many people are convened, and decision-making is slow.  Fuzzy values breads lack of focus.

Make Values Crystal Clear

In my workshops, I often ask this question which brings out people’s values.

“What would we need to function as One. Great. Team?” 

“What would we need to function as One. Great. Team?” 

In a few minutes we have a list of a dozen or more ideas and ideals which run the gamut from “Respect each other” to “Be on time” to “Listen” to “Have food.” 😉

It is worth digging deeper.

Translate Values into Behaviors

We continue defining how to collaborate effectively.

“What does ‘respect’ mean to you?” 

“Respect means not interrupting.”

“So, how do handle when one person monopolizes the discussion?  They might not realize it AND we do want to hear other people’s input.”

In this point of the discussion, the group begins to understand the value of valuesBeliefs lead to behaviors.

There is more than one way to skin a cat, and there are plentiful solutions for showing mutual respect.  In the ensuing discussions, values become clearer and more meaningful.

Behaviors are “real” and visible.  When associating beliefs with specific action, the ideals become more relevant too.  It’s a virtuous circle.

Commemorating D-Day Values

Normandy d-day
Town center is named after D-Day, June 6 in 1944

The soldiers, military, resistors, and civilians who contributed to the Allied victory on the Normandy beaches translated “freedom” into the action.  They all risked (and some lost) their life for it.

  • Some climbed into a boat on a stormy night and jumped off onto mine-filled beaches.
  • Others imagined, designed, and built an artificial harbor made of concrete blocks and old tankers that they would sink at Arromanches-les-Bains. This assured the logistic supply for the troops.
  • Others spoke and listened to the coded “personal messages” on France Libre, the French resistance radio channel on the BBC from London.

Thank you.  Their decisions to invest courage and valor 75 years ago allows us to live as are today.

In what will you and I invest so that we are where we want to be in 30 years?  Let’s think about it now.  A family friend and veteran says, “If I knew I would be living this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” 

Let us live without regrets with purpose NOW.

P.S.

Sometimes sharing values looks messy.  Here is a picture of our four boys at the American Cemetery and Memorial by Omeha Beach.  We invested energy in having them stand somewhat reverently in the cemetery…clearly not in having them sit quietly at the barber shop!

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
LOL

Photos of Arromanches by P Bracke

Muslims in prayer

Being an Outsider in the Paris “No Go Zone”

Last week I was invited to lunch in the Paris “No Go Zone” and here is what I learned about being an outsider.

My Outsider Experience

There I was waiting in front of a low-income housing complex in the middle of St Denis, the Paris suburb where Jawad Bendaoud housed the terrorist attackers who stormed the Bataclan on November 13, 2015 and killed 130 music fans and wounded another 413 people.

Equiping Juvenile Delinquents to Contribute Positively

I was invited to lunch at the restaurant Taf & Maffé to join the seven youth in juvenile detention that I was training in social skills.  The town justice service hires me to give wayward youth tools to contribute positively to society.  I love these sessions of authentic exchange and where I grow as much or more as they do.  This lunch opened my eyes wide with discovery.

White Anglo-Saxon, Female, Red-Head Outsider

As a tall, white woman with spikey, bright red hair, I often stand out in a crowd.  Here, surrounded by men of African and Middle Eastern origin, some wearing tunics and prayer caps, I definitely looked out of place.

I felt displaced as well.  My bearings were off.  I consider myself open-minded and had thought I had no specific expectations.  Yet, standing alone in unknown territory, I realized I looked for familiar signs.  Specifically, I searched for the welcoming signboard of a restaurant and a clearly displayed menu to lure me in.  There was nothing of the sort.  Just a high rise and men.  (I saw two women in veils, both begging.)

welcoming restaurant from outsider view
My unrealistic expectation

A man in a tunic pointed me towards the inside of the housing complex and I went in.

Outdoor “Mosque”

Beyond the entrance, in the building’s courtyard, lay a patchwork of colorful rugs.  I had not integrated that we were Friday and that, for the Muslims in St Denis, prayer time began at 1:48 pm. There wasn’t enough space at the mosque, so the “inn” made room for the faithful.

The man pointed me further down a corridor and I walked into a large hall with tables and chairs and people serving out of industrial size cooking pots.  Questioning eyes observed me as I scrutinized the room, noticing the buzz of activity and the full chairs.  I was not expected here either, so I waited outside for my crowd.

The youth finally arrived AND our group kept waiting (!), huddled in the small segment of the sidewalk that basked in the sun.  My confusion grew, yet since the youth were calm-despite-hunger, I remained relaxed-enough too.

Our dining room was being prepared.

Lunch is Served

We were ushered into a 20m² room which served as the office of an association which integrates refugees into France.  They had moved the printers and photocopy machine to the side, stacked papers in piles, and moved the desks to form one large table.  Again, I had not come with set expectations yet discovered that this is not what I had anticipated!  In retrospect I realized I had expected a “Chez Samir,” something like an exotic version of “Chez Sylvie.”

We enjoyed a flavorful, filling, and exotic meal of bissap (hibiscus) juice, chicken maffé (like an African paella), HOT chili sauce, and dégué (millet grain pudding flavored with orange blossom).

Even when everyone had finished eating, we stayed put.  Since I was leading the afternoon training session for the youth, my eye was on the watch.  Yet, as a guest, I let the organizers set the rhythm and opted to let go of control and to enjoy the company and the moment.

Waiting.  Not my Schedule.  Theirs.

By now a group of ten or more of us were huddled in the doorway, with still no indication of movement and easy chit chat around.  Then one of the youths announced, “It’s time.”

While we were eating, the courtyard had filled with men for the mid-day prayer.  Prayer time was now completed; we could open the door.

We joined the crowd of worshipers as they flooded into the street and flowed on their way.

I grew from the experience of being an outsider.

My Take-Aways from being an Outsider

Open-Mindedness

I (re)learned that open-mind is not a state of being that one reaches.  It’s a journey…that goes deeper and deeper.

As a Protestant white American married to an atheist French man from West Indies descent, I think of myself as open-minded.   Our marriage would not have lasted twenty-seven years had we not each made considerable concessions to and for each other.

Yet an open-mind cannot be earned and worn as a Scout badge for public recognition.  As I acknowledged my surprised reactions to these unknown surroundings, I discovered untrod paths of open-mindedness and traveled further along the journey.

Unconscious Bias

A decade ago, few people were aware of unconscious biases.  Now, “unconscious bias” is an often-heard, sometimes-understood term.

Unconscious bias. Lots of outsiders
Growth in awareness of unconscious bias over 15 years

Here is how the University of California, San Francisco defines it.  

“Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.

Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values. Certain scenarios can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs. For example, biases may be more prevalent when multi-tasking or working under time pressure.”

I confess, I had thought I was addressing and uncovering (a.k.a. eliminating) my unconscious biases fairly well.   Yet during my visit to Saint Denis, a neighborhood physically close to my home and yet culturally far removed from my norm, I kept bumping into my assumptions.

I expected restaurants to have outdoor signs and buildings to welcome residents, not worshipers.

Mostly, I realized that we (you and I included) have an uncanny bias towards thinking that we might be unbiased!  LOL

Empathy

The best way to grow in empathy is to get out of our comfort zone.

Authentic empathy comes from the heart.  It is experienced.  It is not an intellectual thought.

Alone on that sidewalk I felt insecure, with a loss of bearings.  Taking initiatives required effort and felt risky.  Instead of my usual proactive self, I waited for others to make the first move.

I caught a glimpse of what it feels like to be excluded.

In the past, I responded to other people’s slowness, reactivity, and lack of self-confidence with critique.  “C’mon.  Get over it.”  Thanks to my work in constructive collaboration, I have learned to replace judgement with encouragement.

I did not need advice on that street corner.  I needed courage poured into me and the strength that comes from a benevolent presence.

Transformative Trainings

In St Denis, I was hired to open these youths’ eyes, minds, and even hearts.  Through soft skills training and building their self-awareness and other-awareness, we connected constructively.  Here were their parting thoughts:

  • Hope
  • Motivation to look for a job
  • Confidence in myself

These youth also opened my eyes, mind, and heart.  That’s what I love about our workshops on constructive collaboration tools.  Through role plays and team activities we create a safe space for learners to step outside of their comfort zone.  They are free to laugh at themselves, to discover new insights, and to choose how and how much to grow.

For YOUR Team Too

Find out more about these trainings to bring out the best performance and collaboration from your teams.  We define our training program according to your organization’s needs.

Are you seeking to build a more inclusive culture?  We help build self-awareness, empathy, and trust which are pillars to developing a sense of belonging and contribution.

Your success depends upon negotiation skills?  We help you and your team understand other people’s perspectives and balance short- and long-term benefits so that you can negotiate creative outcomes where all parties gain.

You want to give your team a motivational boost?  We help you break down communication barriers and build relationship bridges so that expectations are clear, progress gets recognized, and success is achievable.

Be in touch.  It’s what we do:  transform difficulties into opportunities for growth.

SoSooper = from blooper to sooooo super!

Cover photo from The Great Courses Daily website
Restaurant photo is Chez Sylvain & Sylvie in Bordeaux region

How to move from book-wise to street-smart

I help teams collaborate constructively, to work smart together.  It means training them in positive teamwork theory and creating the environment of trust so that they apply what they learn.

Knowing what to do and doing it are two different stories!

To do this, I lead workshops and create “Aha! Moments” of self-discovery where participants realize how their behavior impacts other people.

  • “You mean when I say, ‘Whatever!’ it gets my manager really frustrated?!”
  • “You mean, the way a person listens determines the kind of information the other person shares?!”

Once they have grown in self-awareness, we move on to learn tools to build both performance and connection.

Knowing what to do and doing it are two different stories! 

Nike says, “Just do it.”

Even the Vice-Dean of Sciences Po business school, Olivier Guillet, calls for action.  In his interview, he recounted the incident when a philosophy professor sought business advice.  The insights he needed to hear (know what you can control, act on those, don’t sweat the rest) were those he taught in his Introduction to Stoics class!  He had not transposed his knowledge into the situation.

This story resonated with me as I notice a similar trend in my trainings.  People love to learn.  Applying the learnings are more of a challenge!

How can we accompany folk in translating a fascinating concept into a helpful new mode of operating?

Some people refer to this as moving concepts from the head to the heart.

Albert Einstein also talks about this phenomenon.  He challenges us to step into a new kind of thinking:  we cannot resolve our challenges by applying the same reasoning that created them.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”
Albert Einstein

Avoid getting lost in translation

Confusion

Changing our behavior is like learning another language.

Speak a Foreign Language

The first stage is confusion and discomfort.  We are out of our comfort zone!

To translate this into business terms, we might wonder why bother even learn about emotional intelligence or constructive collaboration skills.  It is unfamiliar vocabulary…and you have lived without it until now.

Most of us lived without romance…and then it swept us off our feet.

Translate from Theory-Wise to Street-Smart

Let’s consider the foreign language of listening.  Listening to our colleagues, our bosses, and our clients.

Most of us think we do it well…until we have a mirror-like experience.  That is when we discover that instead of asking open-ended questions, we make inquiries that can be answered with “Yes’ or “No.”  Or we think a colleague is rude and interrupts and we realize that in our moments of enthusiasm we cut her off in mid-thought.

Until we open ourselves up to feedback, there is no realization that there might be a better option.

One Phrase

Next, we can manage using one new relationship tool in a specific situation.  It’s like knowing one sentence in a foreign tongue.

Speak a Foreign Language

I recall being in a French boulangerie (bakery) and an American tourist walked in and very carefully pronounced the sentence he had practiced, “Je veux une tarte tatin.” (“I would like a‘tarte tatin.’”)

The baker responded, “Hein?” (“What?”) before she understood the words spoken with the unfamiliar accent.  Then she rattled on in French about how he had chosen the right bakery for this French delicacy because theirs was definitely the best.  And so one and so forth.

The tourist gave her a blank stare, took a deep breath, gathered his strength, and responded, “Je veux une tarte tatin.”

Translate from Theory-Wise to Street-Smart

In a training context, this likens to situational activities or role plays where we simulate a typical professional interaction.  Participants are engaged and learn.  Yet they refer to a skit; this is not about them.

One exercise consists of five types of listening:  distracted,  critical, and eventually to active listening.  Learners can name the listening styles, yet they do not realize how they listen under varying circumstances.

First Exchange

At the close of my trainings, I ask learners to share what they will put into practice.  Many pause, almost with surprise.  It is a moment when they realize they attended the workshops looking for tips to change other people (!).  They are invited to alter their own behaviors.  Yikes!

Be prepared to not get “it” right the first time.  As one start-upper called it, “Test and try.”  He did not say, “Practice in front of the mirror, record yourself ten times, then test it.”  Get into the discomfort zone and learn so that next time it will be easier and smoother.

The biggest change is more about deciding to change yourself than in applying any one specific tool.

Speak a Foreign Language

It is like going to the bakery and using sign language to point to various desserts and asking, ”Café?  Caramel?  Chocolate?!” and with your fingers indicating that you’ll take two, please (smile and make a happy face).  The purpose is to communicate and move forward.  Forget the perfect phraseology.

Translate from Theory-Wise to Work-Smart

In my trainings, learning is enjoyable and engaging.  It is also for a purpose.  Which relationship do you want to take to the next level of trust and cooperation?  What will you test and try?

Conversation

After practice and repeated efforts, we learn fluency.  This applies as much with new modes of behavior as it does with a foreign language.  When we learn to drive a car, it is hard to light the turn signal and focus on the road.  Soon it becomes automatic.

Speak a Foreign Language

I have been living in Paris more than half my life.  People no longer ask me, “Do you think in French or do you think in English and translate your thoughts?” It’s now a non-issue.

Translate from Theory-Wise to Work-Smart

At the start, it will feel awkward to listen differently.  In fact, when we first try to change the way we listen…we usually don’t change!

And yet, we become aware after the fact that there might have been an opportunity for a different outcome to a conversation had we managed our side in another way.

We might then ask trusted team members to provide a feedback loop.  “If I talk before I listen, let me know.”

With practice, we recognize the cues on our own and learn to adapt even while during a conversation.  We learn to put aside that super-interesting thought we wanted to share soooo badly and concentrate on what other folks have to say.  We even notice that team members may be more intelligent that we had previously thought!

Practice might not make collaboration perfect.  It sure makes teamwork more productive and enjoyable. 

And the person who looks back at us in the mirror SMILES. 

Paris in the snow

3 Managerial Insights from Snow in Paris

With the recent snowstorm in Paris, folk talk about other people’s responsibilities, especially what the governement should have done.

Today, I’m focusing on what I can do differently and what I learned about management from the 20 cm of snow in our garden.

Our decorative bushes usually stand proudly 1 meter high.  Laden with snow, they barely rise above the ground.

Commuting to work means schlepping through the snow and slush.  If it’s not cleared out, in the evening we’re slipping and sliding.  (I love the above photo by Christophe Jacrot taken in front of the Samaritaine.  Check out more of his beautiful pictures of Paris in the snow here.)

In dealing with our plants and path here is what I (re)learned about management.

1. Remove Needless Burdens

Laden and frozen branches approached their breaking point.  Removing the mounds of snow gives them a chance to survive.

They barely needed much help:  a bit of shaking off and retrieving the branches buried in the flakes.

Bushes laden with snow Burdened.

What are some of the burdens dumped on employees at work?

  • Negative criticism
  • Gossip
  • Expected 24/7 availability

Let’s take a closer look at the impact of negativity and how to lighten the load.

Negative Critique

Each snowflake numbs with cold and weighs down minutely.  It’s the culmination that damages.  Like most of the criticism we give and take.

“Late, again?” publicly announced.

“Why did you do it this way?  (regarding the format for the presentation or the homework in purple pen or the baked instead of fried chicken…)
Questions beginning with “Why” often put people on the defensive.  The intent behind the question is often, “Why did you not do it my way?”

“You didn’t do _____?”
The twenty major accomplishments slip by without a remark.  The one item remaining on the list gets highlighted.

“Yes, but ______” which really means, “No.  And I won’t listen.”

Taken individually, each of these comments seems innocuous.  “You are over-reacting!”

It’s a different story when you’ve heard a hundred of them in less than a week.

Take the Critique Test

Find out if YOU are the one inflicting minor chills on an ongoing basis!

Invite a colleague, friend, or family member to listen to you and to note both your reproving and your encouraging comments.  When we receive their feedback graciously (without being defensive), we discover a lot about ourself and our relationship grows in trust.

If you tend towards demotivating fault-finding, it’s more comfortable to find it out from a person of your chosing than during a formal review session!

Shake Off Negative Critique

Be quick to learn and to be flexible with others.

Avoid Taking Critique too Personally

When I shook the flexible branches, they easily dropped their burden of snow.  The rigid tree limbs held onto the piles of snow.

Are you insisting on being right?  That your viewpoint is THE ONLY VALID perspective?  Be flexible.  Be curious.

“Help me understand.  What would an excellent report look like?”

“If I were to do ______ and ______, would that be satisfactory?  If not, what is missing?”

“I hear that you are dissatisfied.  On a scale of 1 (very bad) to 10 (excellent) how would you esteem the quality of this work?”

Seek Benevolent yet Straight-Forward Feedback

There might be truth in the critique.  Does your reputation lean towards tardiness rather than timeliness?  Do you hide your work until the last minute so colleagues are not aware of your choices along the way?

Find out.  Seek feedback directly from someone you know appreciates you as a person.

Those branches did need some shaking up for the snow to fall off.

When a friend told me to arrive 10 minutes early, not right on time, I knew punctuality ranked among my needed areas for improvement!

2. Use the Available Resources

Since Paris is rarely under snow, we don’t own the equipment to shovel the walk and dig out the car.

The work still need to be done.

Out came the rake, the broom, and the metal dustbin.  These hardly classify as the ideal snow clearing tools, yet their availability rendered them optimal for me.

Years ago, upon graduating from Harvard Business School, a group of students and I spent two weeks in Peru on a humanitarian trip to build a sidewalk for a school teaching technical skills to polio survivors. In this jungle town of dirt roads, our sidewalk would enable students to access their classes during the rainy season.

The construction manager, a leathery-skinned man who looked ancient to me and was probably forty-years-old and prematurely aged by challenging conditions, instructed me to level the ground.  Which tool would generate the optimal results: the short-handled flat-edged shovel, the rusty round-edged shovel, or the stick?  THE ELBOW GREASE!

A tool makes A difference.  How we use it makes ALL the difference.

3. Work in Layers

Armed with imperfect tools, I discovered the most effective tactic lay in working in layers: first raking off, then hand shoveling, and finally brushing away snow as needed.  Each step made the next one possible. I tried beginning with the hand shovel, but cutting corners simply broke my back!

On a professional front, I focus on layering in my training classes too.  Teaching a concept with theory, then sharing an example, introducing multiple perspectives through a role play or activity, and inviting each participant to share a take-away and thus to take ownership of their learning.

It’s like tiramisu: a combination of different and complimentary layers that get repeated.  Together they create a delicacy.

Try layers in personal as well as professional relationships too.  When a child resists homework, parents often address the challenge in the same way again and again.  Voice.  More Voice.  DO IT NOW.

That’s re-investing in the losing strategy.

Consider additional tools and layers:

  • Break down the work into smaller chunks
  • Sit beside your child with your work as he does his
  • Engage in a conversation (veritable exchange) regarding his view of the value of school.  Try these discussion-inviting questions:
    • “Describe what life would be like if you dropped out now….”How would it be different if you graduated from high school…or college?”
    • “What bothers you the most about homework?”
    • “What is one benefit about doing your work for school?”
    • “If you were not to do homework, how would you use this time and energy?”
  • Frame grades to celebrate successes

 

This Paris snow storm got me inspired .  Read here about insights on diversity.

What do you think of these life lessons taken from current events?  Let me know in the comments.

Cover photo by Christophe Jacrot from his site, Tiramisu from LaBombacha

 

Boy looking through telescope. Searching Focus word!

What’s Your Focus Word?

For years now, I enjoy a Word-for-the-Year.  This year it is “Community.”

This focus word is more like a road to travel than a destination.  Think of Robert Frost’s diverging road in the yellow wood.  Frost chose the road less travelled; his focus word could have been “adventure” or “beyond comfort zone” or “curiosity.”  Someone with an inclination towards “security,” “comfort,” or “one step at a time” may have followed the path well-trod.

 You and I face a TON of decisions daily.  Research reveals the debilitating impact of decision-overload.  By the time 5 o‘clock rolls around, our brains are spent from making choices as varied as which of the five cereals to eat for breakfast to allocating resources to major business projects.

A focus word streamlines decisions.  It’s a lens through which we view the world.

Through the perspective of my focus word, community, it does not matter which cereal I eat so long as I breakfast with my kids.  In my business, I’m seeking partnerships.

Don’t you too wish to look back over the day or week or year and assert with assurance that we lived One. Great. Time.

How will we measure “great”?  Through the focus word!

The Focus Word vs. Chaos

People ask me, “But, isn’t this limiting?  One word for the entire year?!”

Science affirms that our natural tendency is towards chaos. 

An unkept gardens grows into a mini-jungle.  Without an agenda and a leader, a meeting can oh-so-quickly degenerate into a griping session or a game of office politics.  No house-rules about eating invite snacking and fewer sit-down family meals.

It takes effort to keep chaos at bay.  Intentionality.   

You and I know that our energy is finite.  Effort is good.  Exhaustion isn’t helpful.  The focus word helps set boundaries that are simultaneously clear and gentle.

The Focus Word & Barrier or Center-Orientation

A mentor speaks of two ways to define groups.  This can be applied to behaviors as well.

  • According to the barriers. 
    On one side people or actions are “in” and others are “out.” 
Star-belly Sneetches are “In”. Plain bellies are “out.”
Center is the focus
  • According to the center.
    Those whose life is most aligned with the center enjoy the greatest sense of belonging and stability.  The core is the key.

A focus word provides a center-orientation to your day, week, and year.

Examples of Focus Words

The focus words frees us from guilt at having missed our goal or “crossed the boundary.”  Tomorrow we are presented with yet another opportunity to move closer to the center.

Here are some examples

Slow

Slow” was one of my previous words.  Changes abounded in personal and professional life and I felt confused and sometimes trapped.  Many circumstances lay outside of my control.  No matter how hard I pressed life’s accelerator, the situation did not move faster.

Slow meant

  • Give people space.  My concern lay foremost on my mind…not on everyone’s.  Respect their priorities too.
  • Grow in the waiting.  Consider this period of my life as a gift to me to prepare for an upcoming action-packed rhythm.  What can I learn about myself and others?  Where do I need to heal/grow/give/be silent?
  • Be vs. Do.  Love myself. Period. And allow others to be vs. trying to change them.  Sooo much easier said than done!

The “Slow” focus word impacted my daily routine (I integrated more time for thinking) and my attitude towards others (I would catch myself judging people and remember to listen and observe before jumping to conclusions). 

When waiting grew frustrating, I would take long walks to review my life’s journey.  Five years ago, I could not have imagined my current life!

Decisions

I worked with a woman who chose “Decisions” as her focus word. 

The word seemed obvious as she faced upcoming transitions.  She grew even more through the more subtle, daily decisions she learned to recognize and take

  • Her attitude in face of uncertainty
  • Her actions when others behaved inappropriately (according to her)
  • Her time management and priorities
  • The food she ate and her exercise practices

Fruitfulness

One woman chose to apply this Bible verse to her life, focusing one of these fruit per year:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5: 22-23

She was mature in years and experience and was going through the cycle again!  Her focus word impacted her behavior so powerfully that friends recognized when it was the year for joy or tolerance (forbearance) or gentleness.

Impact

A focus word has impact.  We grow both for ourselves and those with whom we work and live.  

I hope that at the end of this year, friends, colleagues, and family will feel enjoyment  at being together. ?

Choosing a Focus Word

How do we choose a focus word?  From the heart and soul, not the head.

Psychologists assert that our beliefs, not our intellectualization, impact our behaviors.  A focus word that sticks addresses our emotions and our vulnerabilities.  It goes beyond the rational.  We can be blind to those underlying assumptions and mindsets.

Here are two ways I have found helpful to remove our barriers and identify a focus word.

Ask

I was taught to ask in prayer.  The focus word is a spiritual exercise.  Do you believe in a higher being?  Ask for a focus word. 

Alternatively, petition trusted friends. “If you would give me one word for the year, what would it be?”

When they answer, notice your physical reaction.  Does it hit you in the gut?  Are you comforted in your mind?  Do you feel embraced?

With that awareness, sit with the word for a week.  The initial reaction, whether positive or not, is not always the last word.  Some of us need a wake-up call.  Others crave encouragement. 

To sit with the word, I put it on my calendar as an all-day event that lasts a week.  I see it everyday and let it ruminate.

You can ask me.  Send me a note.  It would be a delight to work together to identify a focus word for the year…it’s a way to build community with you! 

Do the Pizza Plan

Another useful technique is the Pizza Plan.  This four-step process brings to focus important facets of your life (pieces of pizza) and your satisfaction in each (crust and goodies).  This funny-looking pizza gives insight into the challenges opportunities (!) for the upcoming year.

I created a free four video series for you.  Discover it here.

Get more clarity sooner.  Write me. I will walk you through the process and be a mirror for you.  It sure helps to gain fresh perspective!

What is YOUR Focus Word?

Share your word in the comments below.  It’s great to hear from you…that’s community too.