Posts filed under ‘Soft Skills’

The Victims of Change

The Question:
“How do you suggest we deal with the victims of the changes we embrace?”

The Details:
“We produce a magazine. A new application offers too many advantages for us to ignore.  With decreased markets, we must be very  cost conscious if we’re to survive. This new solution will almost totally eliminate the need for our current Grpahic Designer

The downside to this new way of doing business is the loss of significant annual income for this designer.

I am looking at transitional solutions, but all so far are only temporary, and seem to delay the inevitable loss of income for this person.

Do you have any suggestions or broader perspectives that might help me find transitional strategies  that are more acceptable to both parties? (Us and the Designer).”

That you even feel the need to ask the question means that you’re doing more in this area than most. Whether you can take comfort in that or not is up to you. The question is a real one, New technologies often displace workers – as you point out in your description, there is an inevitable loss of income for the individual(s) being displaced. You also recognize that it’s the transition that’s most painful. The bad news is that unless we, both employers and employees, plan in advance for these types of transitions, then there is little we can do to mitigate the pain unless the organization is willing to assume the bulk of the burden and carry the employee through the transition. MOst organizations don’t choose this course.

The organization, for the reasons you offered, must more forward with any process that legitimately reduces costs without compromising quality of products & services. An organization can, either through incompetence or deliberate intent (or a combination of both), delay the deployment of an advantageous advance, but to do so for too long places the organization at risk.

To seize upon a displacing technology without considering the impact on the employees is not uncommon. As to whether or not it is ‘moral’ is another matter entirely, one I’ll leave for ethicists to debate. Regardless of whether or not such practices are moral or not, they do have inevitable consequences.

The survivors of any one particular round of technological displacement will inevitably ask themselves, “Is this how the organization will treat me when something comes along to replace what I do?”. The amount of loyalty & dedication they afford the organization in the future is in proportion to the amount of caring and compassion the organization displayed to them in the past. It’s not a complicated equation – and it’s one that the organization creates, and they control all the variables.

Putting aside the contentious questions of what an organization is obligated to do for their employees, there’s the legitimate question of what they’re capable of doing.

Helping an employee transition via re-training is one option. Another is to reposition the employee in some other capacity within the organization. This is one of those situations where the employee’s ability and willingness to learn new things is crucial. If the employee fundamentally does not want to learn a new skill, then they are deciding that obsolescence is preferable to change. An irrational, though common, response to this type of change.

The other side of the coin is that the employee can, I’m reluctant to use the word ‘must’, take responsibility for their own future. Unlike ‘Diamonds’, there is no guarantee that any skill is “forever”… A flint knapper has no place in a modern knife factory – a pen & paper draughtsman has no place in a modern architect’s office. The list is endless, and endlessly growing. Almost all the skills we have today WILL be obsolete before we retire. Anyone who thinks otherwise is going to be stunned and surprised by each transition.

It might sound like a cliché, but if an organization wishes to assist their employees through this type of change, then glorifying our ability to learn new things is a good first step. This means, that training budgets must increase beyond today’s paltry pittance, and such budgets must acquire a certain robustness that allows them to survive at consistent levels through downturns in business.

If the desire is to increase an organization’s ability to Change, then it must increase its ablity to learn.

September 30, 2008 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

An all too typical Change problem

“Hi Peter

Just wondered if you had any quick tips on approaching Change with someone who doesn’t believe their old system needs changing? (I am always hearing the line ‘when we were at Acme Co. we didn’t have a problem, This product worked fine!’) They always find something to complain about with the new way.  Plus they are very disgruntled that they are not the one in charge anymore and therefore not calling the shots – a bad fall from grace.   It feels like you can never do anything right for them. Aarrgghh!!!“

There’s nothing in the above question, not even the growl of frustration at the end, that’s unique. The described situation is present in the office environment of every reader, as are the beliefs that a) the employee is in the wrong and b) implementing Change should be easier than it is.

Life would be so much easier for Management if people just did what they were told and didn’t complain so much. Of course… if we take that thinking to the extreme, then it leaves open the door for the nastiest of societies – where everyone must submit to the whims of whoever is currently above us in the pecking order. The ‘right’ to complain, the personal need to know and agree with the reasons for doing something differently – are things we all hold dear. In a sense, this ability to resist a new ideas is the difference between freedom and slavery.

Connecting someone’s reluctance to accept a Change at work, to the difference between freedom and slavery, might seem a bit hyperbolic – but accepting a Change we don’t agree with, without pushing back, does mean that we have to swallow our independent thought on the matter – give up our ability to choose what we do – and to the vast majority of us, that’s never done with a smile.

None of this solves the problem at hand – so how can we mitigate the conflict in this specific situation?  The description contains its own answers.

1)    “Someone who doesn’t believe their old system needs changing”

Here… management (or anyone attempting to bring about a Change) has their work well defined for them. Explain why the old system is no longer sufficient. Better yet? Figure out how you can help the person in question decide for themselves that the old system is now past its prime.

2)    “When we were at Acme Co. we didn’t have a problem, This product worked fine!’

Again, the answer is readily available, how is your environment different from their old environment? There is no harm in agreeing full heartedly that, Yes! In that environment the old system was the best solution… but in this environment other factors are at play. And yes, the old ‘cop out’, “we do it differently here” is allowed, if and only if, ‘doing it differently here’ is demonstrably better.

3)    “They always find something to complain about with the new way”

Yes. People do that. This goes away once people see the reason for doing it the way they’re doing it. A child being taught to ride a bicycle who doesn’t want to ride a bicycle will make the same statement when they fall off… I told you this wouldn’t work!…

Contrast that response to that of another child, one who wants to learn, when they fall off, they just take the problem in their stride and get back up on the bike – to try again and again, until they master the beast.

4)    “Plus they are very disgruntled that they are not the one in charge anymore and therefore not calling the shots.”

Yes, once again… people do that. People don’t like not being a part of the decision making process – especially if they were once an integral part of that process. Sooo… a possible solution? What can you do to include them in the decision making process? Understanding that if THEY had been the one to suggest the new system… ALL of your problems would never have arisen in the first place.

We all resist change we don’t understand, resisting change only becomes a problem when we’re the ones… trying to implement a change… on others.

Peter de Jager
Toronto, Ont
September 2008

September 29, 2008 at 9:27 am Leave a comment

At the Heart of Time Management

Is reading this article the best use of your time right now?

If you can extract the core lesson contained in the above question, then not only don’t you need to read this article, but you never have to attend a course on time management. You’ve just saved a lot of time and money. You can go about your business. Good-bye.

What? You’re still reading? You mean I have to finish this article? I was just about to take a break you know. Okay. Okay. Just for you, I’ll continue, but I have a cold beer waiting on the deck, so hurry up and finish reading… I have better things to do right now.

Time Management isn’t a overly complex topic. When you get right down to it, a good time manager really only needs two sets of information.

1) Which of all the tasks we have to complete, is the most important?
And please, don’t adopt the strategy used by some psychotic managers… Everything is Priority #1!

Making everything Priority #1 isn’t possible. When everything on your plate is Priority #1, then the reality is that nothing is Priority #1.

2) How much time do you have available to do the tasks on your plate? If you have time aplenty for everything, then you don’t have a time management problem.  Please stop reading so I can leave, that beer is getting warm.

What! Still here? I can see how this is going to play out. Sigh. Okay. On we go.

Since you’re still reading, I can only assume you don’t have enough time to do everything you’ve been tasked to do. (but you have the time to read this article… weird) I won’t ask why you took on more than you can handle, that would be rude.

With more work, than time, we’re faced with a problem. We can’t do everything.

This is perhaps the most important thing to know about time management. Time Management is not about doing everything on our plate, it’s all about deciding what to do, and most importantly, what not to do.

This is where Time Management gets difficult. Prioritizing our tasks is fairly easy, some things are obviously more important than others. Identifying how much time we have, is also relatively easy, since we can start with 24 hours a day and work our way down to a more reasonable/realistic number.

Where we all have a problem is coming to the conclusion that task ‘X’ won’t be done this week, because we don’t have time for it.

Of course, to get to that point, we do need to become proficient at allocating time to the tasks we’re choosing to complete and then focusing our attention on those tasks until they are complete

The most basic tool to assist us in this, is the ‘to do’ list. We all know how that works. List the stuff we must do on top in order of priority, then the stuff we should do if we have time for them, and then at the bottom the stuff we’re unlikely to ever get done (like that rapidly warming beer on the deck).

The mechanics of the TD list aside, there’s an aspect of the TD list that’s rarely mentioned. Part of the problem we have managing ourtime is the overwhelming sense of chaos that swirls around our heads. There’s little more demotivating than the certain knowledge that we’re disorganized, that we’ll never get it all done no matter how hard we work.

This sense of constant chaos cheats us of any sense of progress towards a goal. A daily ‘To Do’ list, compiled during those few calm moments before the day starts with a rushing vengeance, is the perfect solution to our all too common panic attack.

Writing down what we have to do, immediately removes the certainty that we’ve forgotten something. It stops the constant mind juggling necessary to keep everything in memory and allows us to focus on a single task.

Time Management becomes an exhilarating experience as we strike a task off the list with a swooping flourish of a lurid purple marker (am I disclosing too much?). This is such a pleasure, that you’ll find yourself putting things on the list, just so that you can strike them off the list.

The sense of progress we didn’t have before, is now there for all to see as a flurry of purple strokes across the page.

The truth about the heart of Time Management is contained in the opening question. We can’t answer it until we know what we should be doing right now, and how much time we have available. Simple, if not easy. Now, the next thing on my list is that beer. See you later… maybe… if I have nothing better to do. I’m not kidding.

July 8, 2008 at 11:48 am Leave a comment

Out! Out! Damn Pebble!

It requires no great skill to opine on what’s wrong with the world. All we need do is go about our lives, and pay attention to all that annoys and peeves us. Like a sharp pebble caught in a sandal, wrongness is self evident at every step. Flaws aren’t silent; they whisper their presence at every turn and plead for our attention.

Only one thing takes less skill than noticing errors and that’s whining and moaning about them, that and looking to someone else, anyone else but ourselves, to make things right. It’s a habit picked we up in childhood when we lived under the protection of loving parents. It was best forgotten as we aged.

Nor is there any great intelligence necessary to imagine we know what needs doing. Even the naïve child we once were, suspected that sandals, free of pebbles, tread softer.

There are great gaps though, between seeing what’s wrong, knowing what’s right, and stepping from certain pain to possible relief. If the worried world around us is any evidence of our ability to cross them, these are insurmountable gaps. Huge gaps only ancient heroes and leaders can bridge. That is, if we believe that heroes and leaders are a thing of the past. Or worse, that no heroes or leaders lie sleeping within us.

These gaps are kept alive through no base lack of knowledge about either the problems or possible solutions. Nor is there, if our whining is any meaningful measure, a lack of desire for a world free from stony pebbles.

Yet the pebbles persist, despite our earnest wishes. Perhaps they exist because all we do is wish and pray for better times?

Removing even a pathetic pebble from a sandal requires us to do a lot more than wishing it away… we have to care enough, even for a tiny pebble, to bend down and act.

There are no guarantees here. No parents to ensure we won’t stick our hands in too fierce a fire. No warranty on the correctness of our solutions. No protection that we won’t make things worse through our actions. Never the less, action is all we have, without it, even that teeny pebble will eventually wear us down. The pebbles exist, that we have no control over. What we decide to do once the pebble gets our attention is entirely under our control.

Admittedly the real world is more complicated than mere a pebble in a sandal, but problems are still like pebbles in that they make their presence known by annoying us. And because of this, real world problems are at a distinct disadvantage… the bigger they are, the more people they annoy. And even problems the size of mountains can be shifted, one person, one pebble at a time.

The eyes that see a wrong, can see the hands to fix it.

July 4, 2008 at 2:37 pm Leave a comment

Simple Wisdoms… Difficult Lessons?

We call them many things, from adages and aphorisms, to maxims, proverbs, old sayings and memorable quotations, but regardless of how we’ve labeled these sage old saws, they all deliver exactly the same thing. They are all, snippets of wisdom, lessons learnt, sometimes at great expense through hard won life experience. Together they provide a large library of life lessons, all neatly encapsulated into pithy phrases. Sometimes they’re repeated so often, they lose meaning through excessive exposure.

Somewhere along the line we arrived at a point where we shun the simple in favour of the complex.

We’d rather take a long, expensive University course on Ethics, than adhere to the ancient Golden Rule, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”

We’d rather invest in extensive quality programmes, than follow the advice of an old carpenter, “Measure twice, cut once.” And we need to be beaten into submission before taking regular backups, rather than remembering, “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.”

Despite our proven reluctance to follow these inherently simple bits of advice, all of them demonstrate a remarkable ability to survive in our global consciousness. Every country, every culture has a variation on, “Look before you leap!”, “A stitch in time saves nine” and “Slow and steady wins the race.” They persist from one generation to another because, even though we don’t always pay them any heed, we offer them as our best possible advice. We practice a bizarre contradiction, we know these sayings contain deep truths, but we choose to ignore both our own knowledge and the wisdom of the past.

While there are many management (and personal) challenges, the most important of them all, and perhaps the most intractable, is the answer to the question, “Why don’t we do, what we know we should do?

While I don’t think there’s a simple answer to the question as to why we ignore what we know, I do believe there’s a proven strategy to overcome this human flaw. Pay conscious attention to what we’re doing, and compare what we’re doing, to what we know we should be doing.

That’s so obviously true that it’s almost one of the maxims we’re discussing. In a sense it’s nothing more than a verbose variation of “Look before you leap!” or even “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.” Is it any less true because of that similarity?

One could examine our organizations and identify problems solvable and avoidable if only we consistently followed a set of simple maxims, but that could get awfully complicated faster than we could blink. Imagine having a “Department of Aphorism Audits & Accounting”, or an “Administration of Adept Adages”? The mind boggles and things just get silly.

A simpler approach, (and that’s the goal… right?) is to adopt a personal motto and measure all our actions against its succinct guidance. No, my personal motto isn’t, “Keep it Simple Stupid” (although it could be as evidenced by this article), mine is a little more suited to the world’s laziest man, “Never do today, what you can put off until tomorrow!” (Consider this advice carefully, it doesn’t necessarily mean what most people take it to mean. As an exercise for the reader, think of it in terms of Pareto’s 80/20 Principle and a rationally prioritized to-do list.)

The obstacle to all of this sage advice (the traditional proverbs and maxims, not my ramblings) is still the point identified in the second paragraph; we shun the simple, and insist on elevating the importance of the complicated, and costly. The phrase, “This can’t work, it’s too simple” is heard frequently in most organizations, along with another thought, “If it costs more, it must be better.” (The retailers of the world salute this thought process.)

So? If all the accumulated wisdom of the world is to have any value, we have to pay attention to at least one small snippet of it. What truth will you make your own? What one bit of advice will you measure all your actions against?

If you get comfortable enough with that concept, what one truth would you select as the foundation of how your team, department or organization operates? Start with just one, and if that becomes second nature, then add another one, move slow and steady and win the race. Remember big trees fall under small strokes. Aw heck… you get the idea.

July 2, 2008 at 10:48 am 1 comment

Change Management Interview

Something different.

A few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of being interviewed by George Torok for his radio show Business in Motion.

It’s a one hour conversation on the topic of Change Management, you can listen to it here:

George Torok
Host of Business in Motion
www.BusinessInMotion.ca
www.Torok.biz

June 13, 2008 at 4:12 pm 1 comment

As Others See Us.

If you don’t recognize the tail end of this quote from Robert Burn’s ‘To a Louse’ then here it is in its entirety, “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursel’s as others see us!”. Why am I waxing poetic this month? Mainly because a sad incident a few months ago that has stuck in my mind.

I’d just given a presentation on Change Management and was afterwards approached by a contingent of a half dozen dejected looking employees from a company which shall remain nameless in this article. They wanted to have a private and confidential discussion about some changes going on in their organization. They wanted advice on two things; how to cope with the changes and how to communicate to management that they were on a path to destruction because of how the changes were being implemented.

None of this is unusual, I get asked these types of questions all the time. What was different this time was some of the language used in their responses to my standard information gathering questions. I could easily comment on their queries on coping with Change, as the techniques are the same regardless of the Change, company, person etc. etc. Change is Change is Change.

To offer advice on how to communicate with management isn’t as easy. To offer advice without knowing the culture first hand, is presumptuous. To dispense communication strategies without knowing the details of the existing Status Quo and the Change being implemented isn’t only naïve, it’s dangerous.

So when I asked if could come into the organization to gather this information their responses were as follows;

No – management isn’t listening to anyone who takes issue with their policies
No – the powers that be, won’t listen to anything that might change their actions.
No – that’s pointless – they only hire those who agree with them.
No – they shoot the messenger on a regular basis – I can’t risk my job.
No – upper management is convinced there isn’t a problem.
No – the dark overlords know best. (Their words… not mine)
No – management has no interest in people issues.

Now, we all know that ‘gaps of disagreement’ between staff and management are not unusual, but their choice of words, combined with the deer in the headlights look of desperation on their faces in front of me – suggested that this was more than the normal amount of disagreement. Other comments described management as a ‘not very nice people’, ‘bullies’ and ‘interested only in themselves and not the organization’.

Here’s the question, and the purpose of this particular article, are we certain we know how we’re perceived by others in our organization? Do employees really know how they’re perceived by management? And even more importantly (in my opinion) does management really know how they’re perceived by the rank and file?

Regardless of the accuracy of the above statements by this post-presentation contingent of employees, is management aware that they are not seen as leaders? Do they care? Should they?

That that question is even asked is a symptom of something wrong. We all know people who literally do not care what employees think of them. Why is that wrong? If we can’t answer that question, then we’ve lost touch with what it even means to be a leader. I can’t imagine how an organization can excel if employees don’t respect, and even admire, their managers.

I’m not a great fan of most Human Resource management instruments, many of them seem more like Astrology and tea leaf readings than anything I’d use to manage either myself or others. That personal quirk aside, there is one I’m willing to treat with great respect, primarily because it’s nothing more than a process by which the feedback loops between ourselves and everyone around us – which should take place on a regular basis – do take place, at least from time to time. I’m referring to the class of HR tools known collectively as “360-degree feedback”.

The 360 concept is simple. Your peers, subordinates, managers and even your clients provide feedback on a variety of your attributes – anonymously of course. Robbie Burns would love it.

All of us, regardless of where we sit on the organization hierarchy, need to know how others see us. Regardless of whether the impressions of management, such as the ones listed above, are accurate or not – it’s information we can use to our advantage.

There’s a risk of course. Ask for feedback and, guess what? You’re going to get feedback… can you handle the truth? What about the lies?

Not all the truth will be ‘pleasant’. Under the guarantee of anonymity (need I stress how important that is?) people are willing to provide both the good, the bad and the ugly.

And, under that same guarantee, there are those who will seize the opportunity to inflict some petty revenge. Luckily, these are usually exceptions and stand out as anomalies amongst the rest of the feedback. Good 360 instruments are designed to identify these aberrations.

Regardless of the feedback, it’s all information we can put to good use, unless we don’t care.
Frankly, even after a lifetime of experience with organizations of every stripe, I don’t know of more than a handful of managers who would pride themselves on a reputation as bleak as the one painted by the contingent that prompted this discussion. And even in those rare situations, would a competent board of directors support a management style worthy of the ‘Dark Lord’ comparison? Assuming they wanted the organization to prosper?

Putting the extreme end of the perception spectrum aside, are we seen as; fair; reasonable; competent; hard working; pleasant to work work with? If that’s what we believe, how do we know it to be true? Most people have trouble telling us we have something stuck in our teeth, never-mind anything really important such as our pet project is doomed to failure. Especially if we’re sending out unconscious signals that negative feedback is unwelcome.

The advantage of the 360-degree feedback process is the enforced anonymity of the feedback. We all enjoy both giving and receiving positive feedback – it’s the negative stuff that presents us with the largest difficult and the largest benefit. The amount about benefit depends entirely on our willingness to give more than a little credence to the negative comments we’re sure to receive.

So? Was Robbie Burns on the mark? Do we really want the power to see how others see us? Or is ignorance truly bliss? (ps. You do have something stuck in your teeth.)

May 23, 2008 at 11:31 am 2 comments

Notes Numbering Seven to a Meeting Planner

If you’re looking for “The Room that Eats Speakers” you’ll find it just below this article.

The article I posted yesterday was warmly received by almost a thousand meeting planners, so I thought it worthwhile to continue the theme for a day or two – here’s an article specifically for past, present and potential meeting planner clients.

——————————————————

1) Content first: Decide who you want to speak for your conference based on the value of their message and their ability to enthral your audience, not on their reported ‘fee’.

Once you’ve decided who you want as your keynoters, then negotiate with them.

Negotiation Lesson 101:
Make at least one counter-offer to anything that anyone proposes.
Negotiation Lesson 102:
If what they are asking is way above your budget, then come clean…
tell them your budget. Don’t be ashamed of it, just let them know it
your budget will NOT insult them.

Remember, fees are not cast in stone (regardless of what anyone says), stealing an idea from Pirate pop culture “they aren’t ‘rules’ they’re more like ‘guidelines’”. Believe it or not, speakers value more than just money, but at the same time remember that ‘exposure’ is not always a selling point. People can die from exposure.

2) The Clock is Ticking: Stick to the schedule. You’ve paid the speaker mega-bucks to speak for you for an allotted time. If you want them to do the best possible job for you, give them the time you promised them.

Professional speakers will never make your job more difficult than it already is: They will never never never speak past their allotted time. Please, please, please do the same for them. Protect the time you gave them, to do their best for you they need that time. (Although they’ll do their best with whatever time you actually give them.)

Yes, you guessed correctly! There’s some personal history here. What do you do, when you travel to the other side of the world and the 90 minute keynote is ‘trimmed back’ to 20 minutes because of avoidable delays? You do your best – knowing that they got far less than they paid for.

3) Listen to your Audience: Hand out speaker evaluation forms, read them, and pay attention to what they have to tell you. Feedback is gold, never miss the opportunity to bend down and pick it up.

4) Hug (=Squeeze!) your Speaker: Within reason, extract everything you can from your professional speakers.

a. Are they willing to meet with your breakout session speakers the night before
and offer some speaking hints and tips from the professional?
b. Are they willing to do an executive breakfast/dinner session with key members?
Board members? Student members?
c. While they’re with you, could you get them to give an additional presentation
for the local board of trade?
d. Will they do media interviews before the conference?
e. Will they provide a follow-on article for your newsletter? Web site?
f. Will they contribute books and materials for draws?
g. Will they do a book signing in the exhibit hall? At one of the vendor booths?

Not all of the above will be possible, not all of it will be for free, but a speaker who wants to create a long term relationship with your association will be more than willing to do one or two or three of the above. It costs nothing to ask.

5) Dark Speaker Secret: Even though I speak for a living… here’s a dark secret. Speakers – regardless of their fee, content or style – do not make your meeting a success; they merely add an experience for your people to discuss. Make sure you include enough networking time in your conference. Running from speaker to speaker is not a conference, it’s a marathon.

6) Google is your friend: When anyone gives you client references, they offer you the names of clients who are certain to provide good feedback; this is not a secret, it’s obvious. So… get onto the Internet, Google the speaker. Speak to some folks they haven’t provided as references.

7) Lucky Number Seven: And finally? If a speaker has done a great job for you? Write them a knock your socks off letter of thanks/reference, and spread the word to your peers on how they helped make your meeting a success.

Speaking should be a win/win/win proposition. A win for the meeting planner, a win for the audience, and finally — a win for the speaker.

I wish you all the best on your next meeting.

April 22, 2008 at 10:29 am 2 comments

The Room that Eats Speakers

Here’s a Catch-22 that affects all of us, we learn best from failure, but the last thing we want to discuss are our failures. In the spirit of sharing, I’m going to discuss some personal professional ‘failures’.

Some background, not as any sort of self promotion, but in an effort to position the context of this article. I’m a keynote speaker. I’ve spoken for more than a quarter of a century and have a reputation sufficient to take me to 37 countries and have me invited to speak at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In short, I know what I’m doing, I do it well, I’m a bona fide professional.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t failed to deliver from time to time. Not often. Three times to be exact, in more than 25 years.

The first time it happened I wrote it off as ‘the fault of the audience’ … what can I say? It was early in my career and didn’t realize that it’s never the fault of the audience.

The second time? It was a presentation I was giving for the first time… I wrote that failure off to not having the timing down, and suspected that the flow of my talk wasn’t perfect. Better than my first excuse, but as we shall see, not the real reason.

The third time? I knew it wasn’t the audience. I’d grown out of blaming others for the quality of my work. Nor was it a new talk, it was one I’d given hundreds of times, and I’d presented it as I always had, but despite my knowledge of the topic, my passion and delivery – the presentation fell flat, and I died on stage for the third time. If it wasn’t the audience, and if it wasn’t ‘me’ – then why did I fail? As a speaker – that’s an important question. The answer is an important one for any meeting planner.

Each time I failed, I had the same sense of never once connecting with the audience. With that as the only thing in common that I could easily remember – I sat down, took pen and paper and wrote down everything I could reconstruct from my memory about those painful experiences. The result is this little bit of sharing.

Cavernous rooms – Exhibit halls are not the best rooms to speak in. The 50ft ceilings swallow all but the best sound systems. They place a great distance between the speaker and the listeners.

Elevated podiums – When the podium is 3ft or more off the ground? Then you’re guaranteed to be far away from the audience, not only with respect to distance, but psychologically as well. Here’s a made up formulae to consider, the difficulty of creating rapport with your audience, increases as the square of the distance between you and the listener. I’ve nothing but my experiential data to back that up.

Open space in front of podium – A tall podium usually causes the first row of seats to be 20-30 ft from the podium… They have to be that far back or they’ll get a crick in their neck looking up to you! This adds more space between the speaker and the audience. At one of my failures, there was literally enough space for a pipe band between myself and the audience. I remember them well as they marched out and I marched up to my guillotine.

A wide centre aisle – if the room is large, the temptation is for a wide central aisle – meaning that if the speaker stands in the centre of the podium, then he/she is speaking to blank space all the way to the back of the room!

Wide rooms vs. deep rooms – some rooms are wider than they’re deep. This means that listeners to the left and right of the speaker are further away than those all the way at the back of the room. For a speaker to make eye contact with those on the left, requires that we turn our back to those to the right. AND if we’re wearing a lavalier microphone? Then you MUST turn your shoulders in the direction you’re speaking OR the mic won’t pick up your voice.

Rounds vs. Rows – If a room is filled with round tables rather than rows of seats, then 300 people or more are scattered over a few acres… being spoken to by a tiny speaker far away in the distance? Eye contact? You’re lucky if you can see the speaker… sooo… the meeting planner solves the ‘problem’ by…

Cameras and large screens – and in doing so they deliver the final death blow to the valiant speaker. In order that the audience can see the speaker, they’ll bring on the camera… which requires lighting… which ensures the speaker will never even see the auidience through the glare of the lights.

Now, I’m well aware that large audiences forces some of the above onto the meeting, but when they ALL converge at a single meeting then the risk of failure is high. As I thought back to each of my three failures? All of the above were in play, I was doomed from the start.

As I’ve grown older, and spoken more, I’ve grown wiser. This week I was presented with the room that eats speakers. But! I now recognized the beast. I was able to make some changes – both in the room layout (minor changes) and in my presentation (more minor changes)… I’m told the meeting was a roaring success. I’d beaten the monster. It didn’t eat me this time.

The key? Know that certain rooms pose more of a challenge. If possible? Change the room, if not? Then be aware of the room, know the threats, embrace them and respond to them. (But change something in the room… the room layout is not fixed in stone.)

April 21, 2008 at 10:00 am 8 comments

Can you Live with that?

Here’s a quick scenario. You’ve advertised a vacant position in your department and have received several hundred resumes — a dozen of which are excellent. You’ve decided one of them will become your next employee. Just before you call the lucky candidate, your boss comes into your office and hands you her niece’s resume. She makes it clear she’d like her to have the job. However, the niece is not as qualified as the candidate you were going to call. What do you do?

Welcome to the hard and rocky field of business ethics. Notice the question was “What do you do?”, it was not the far easier question, “What is the right thing to do?” Why? Because most (all?) of us know what we should do… “Sorry Boss, but your niece doesn’t have the necessary skills to fill the position. Perhaps next time.” The problem is, there is inevitably a consequence to such a stance. A consequence most of us would rather avoid if we could.

If you don’t hire the niece, will your boss hold a grudge? How will you know? The sad fact is that most, not all, of the ethical dilemmas placed at our doorstep, are placed there by people who know full well their actions are unethical. This is what causes the dilemma, not the difficulty of figuring out the right course of action. Doing the right thing is usually not what these people want you to do.

Ethical business behavior is important. How many of those resumes in our imaginary scenario would be from Arthur Andersen or Enron employees? How many would still be gainfully employed if even a small number of people had stood their moral ground and raised their hands in protest when they encountered dark deeds?

We could of course choose to ignore the issue of ethical behaviour. Most of the little dilemmas we encounter won’t bring our organization to their knees. Besides, as I’ve pointed out above, we usually know the right thing to do, even if we don’t always have the courage of our convictions. The issue isn’t one of ethical training — it’s one of responding to, or even better, avoiding unethical behaviour.

There is a technique available to those who’d rather not face these little problems. Make ethics an issue in your department. Talk about it, distribute articles on it, make a point of requesting that the training department offer at least one “Ethics and Management” seminar each year, devote some time to it. In short, become known as someone who places a visible value on ethical behaviour, one who asks the ethical question of every decision. At the very least it will prevent your manager from handing you resumes from relatives — for fear you might call them on it.

One of the reasons why we steer clear of ethical discussions is that how we respond to these scenarios speaks volumes about what we hold to be true. To be judged “unethical” is personal, because it is based upon the choices we consciously make. If you’re interviewing someone for a job and you ask them what they’d do if they found a wallet with a $1,000 in it, along with the address of the owner… would you really hire them if they said they’d take the money and throw away the wallet? If you were being interviewed, would you state proudly(?) that you’d take the money… and still expect to be hired?

The issue of Ethics is difficult to address in a corporate environment for exactly those reasons. The “wrong” answers bring with them harsh judgments. It is precisely because of these “harsh judgments” that ethical training, or at least awareness, is important to every organization and everyone with people responsibility.

Despite the catastrophic consequences of unethical corporate behaviour, how many “Ethics” seminars/workshops have typical managers/supervisors attended during their career? How many organizations have posted an Ethical Charter, or have an ethical review board, or a recognized method of safely airing an ethical issue?

Ethical behaviour is never a problem until it becomes a crisis, then the time to pay attention to it is long past.

March 4, 2008 at 11:35 am Leave a comment

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