Those closest to us

Our friends, allies, the people who care, they are the ones who are most likely to say the little things that we need to hear. Especially the things we don’t always want to hear.

Yes, we all crave more pats on the back, but as long as people are speaking up and telling us what’s not working for them, it means they still care and they’re still paying attention.

The dangerous thing is when we speak and we hear nothing back. Crickets.

What we need to avoid isn’t criticism, it’s the deafening silence of apathy.

The right time

There is a right time to have that direct, elephant-in-the-room conversation with a respected colleague.  The one where you say out loud what both you and she have been thinking.

That time is now.  Right now.  Today.

Conversations swirl around in every which way, between everyone but the two people who need to sit down and talk.  As if that truth is somehow not really out there if we don’t look it in the eye.  As if we can get anything – anything – of substance done if we don’t get this out of the way first.

I promise, it will be a huge relief to everyone to talk about this – that thing that matters most, that thing that’s keeping you from getting from here to there.

These conversations need to be rife with respect and dripping with caring.  You can’t fake wanting the other person to succeed.

And you can’t wait another day.

Enough with the bad news

You can subscribe to this blog using an RSS Feed (like Google Reader), or by signing up by email. I hope you do one or the other.

(NOTE: for those who find the phrase “RSS Feed” terrifying, it’s actually very simple. Google Reader, for example, is just a web page that puts all of your blog feeds into one place. It’s great.)

The email subscription for my blog is run by Feedburner. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Feedburner site. As long as it is easy for people to sign up for email updates I’m happy.

But Feedburner has one setting that has, slowly and persistently, been wearing me down. Feedburner’s default notification is that I receive an email every time someone unsubscribes from my blog, but I don’t get an email when someone subscribes.

Put another way: the default setting is to send me bad and discouraging news.

So, for the past few years, I’ve been occasionally getting emails like this:

Subject: so-and-so unsubscribed from Sasha Dichter’s Blog.

I almost wish the content were a little humorous. You know: “Sorry, we know you’ve been doing your best, but Sara decided to stop reading. It didn’t work out. Better luck next time.”

I let this continue for so long for two reasons. The first was inertia (finding the darn box to uncheck on the Feedburner site was difficult). But I also told myself that getting this feedback was important, because I could make some sort of connection between the unsubscribe rate and posts that I’ve written, and in so doing I’d improve as a blogger.

What I’ve figure out, though, is two things:

  1. The data are largely irrelevant. I have no idea if someone is unsubscribing because they have a new email address, because they started using an RSS reader, because they’d stopped reading months ago and finally got around to “blog housecleaning,” or because they actually didn’t like something I wrote. (plus it’s not even clear that creating strong reactions is itself a bad thing).
  2. My interest in getting the emails was a perverse form of rubbernecking. There’s a certain fascination with (and motivation) that comes from feedback that tells you you’re not doing a good enough job.

Enough already.  Yesterday I unchecked the box.

I finally figured out that this kind of negative feedback wasn’t helping me at all. It was feeding in to doubt, self-criticism and fear, and was making me more averse to taking risks. All bad stuff.

Are there places/people/things in your life that are set up ONLY to give you negative feedback? Have you been quietly telling yourself that it is useful or, worse, that you deserve it?

Any boxes in your life that you’ve been meaning to uncheck?

First to 100

I’ve been trying to teach my 5 ½ year old son to play tennis.  Our typical session has been short – usually less than 10 minutes – so progress has come in fits and starts.  Last week, I could tell he was starting to lose interest in our standard drill: me standing 5 feet away from him, bouncing the ball to him for him to hit.

So we invented a new game: I moved across the net, stood at the service line, and hit balls to him at the other service line.  Each time he connected with the ball he got a point.  Each time he missed entirely, I got a point.  Then we spiced things up: each time he hit the ball over the net and hit it in the court, he got two points.

This was a big deal.  Suddenly, his waning attention transformed into pointed questions about the rules and the point system.  He decided he wanted to get to 100 points and he began angling for a lot of things to count for 2 points – a ball that first bounced on his side or a ball that landed in the doubles alley, for example.

Interesting.  I had created an arbitrary system with an arbitrary set of rules (which I made up as I went along).  But in his eyes, it was my job to define the rules of the game, and he’d decided he wanted to win at this game.  I had suddenly become judge and jury on allocating something that was free for me to give out and mattered a lot to him.  Needless to say, he got a lot of free two-pointers (final score of game 1: he trounced me 137-37).

Seem like a far flung example?  It strikes me that this tennis court parable is an awful lot like work environments, where managers create (inadvertently or not) point systems that are no less arbitrary than the one I created on the tennis court.  These points aren’t just about money, they’re about attention and opportunities and consultation and respect.  What’s valued and sought after will vary depending on the culture of your organization.  But you can be sure that, to anyone who values the work they do, the currency your culture trades in matters to them.

It was unbelievably easy for me to be generous with my son in giving out points.  What about at work?  If you have the respect of your colleagues and peers, then they’re watching you just as closely, and once the rules of the game are defined, you have the option of being generous or stingy in giving “points,” not just to people who work for you, but for peers and even for supervisors.  It’s something everybody values, and cultivating your own genuineness and generosity here is one of the easiest ways to motivate, energize and inspire those you hope to lead.

(P.S. Still reading?  Please think about helping me fulfill my birthday wish by giving to Acumen Fund.)

add to : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

Frankly my dear…

At a NYC Middle Eastern place where I sometimes grab lunch, I get to-go plate with some stewed chicken and vegetables, beans or okra, and brown rice, all for $6.50.  This is the steal of a lifetime in Manhattan.

They pack it in a round, aluminum takeout container with a plastic top, and place the container in a paper bag within a plastic bag  (it’s a lot of wrapping).

Today, a sunny day, I took the bag, walked halfway down the block, and sat down outside to enjoy a little sun with my lunch.  When I went to grab my food, there was a pool of sauce at the bottom the bag, and the container was dripping wet.  And, for once (when it has to do with spilling things), this wasn’t my fault: the container had been put into the small paper bag on its side, and everything drained out immediately.

This might have been a small mistake by a new person at the cash register, or it might have been how they do things every day (it’s happened before).  What it feels like is that they’ve gotten things 90% right but haven’t actually taken that last step to understand the full customer experience.  They’re incredibly nice, they treat customers right in the restaurant, they clearly make their food with care…but when I spill broth all over the place just trying to eat my lunch,  repeatedly, it feels like they don’t care about their customers.

That’s the kicker: you may care passionately about your customers, but they might not know!

They easiest way to fix this is to ask them what they think.  In person.  And listen to their answers sincerely.  For example:

  • If you’re a teacher, could you call up a parent and asked what she and her son or daughter think about the class you teach?
  • If you’re a customer service rep, can you go off script and ask the “Did I solve your problem today satisfactorily” in a sincere way, with a follow-up question?
  • If you work at a nonprofit, could you call up 10 of your donors and ask what they really think about the organization, and what their experience is as major supporters?
  • If a regular lunch customer comes in, could you ask how their sandwich was last week?
  • And if you’re a blogger, could you email the five people who comment the most on your blog and ask them for some feedback?

If you give this a go, and you’re genuine, at the very least your customers will feel more valued and they’ll know that you actually care.  More likely still, you’ll probably learn at least one thing you could change that will make big a difference to a lot of folks.

add to : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

The sound of silence

One of the newest, and most interesting (also potentially most unsettling) phenomena for public speakers is the prospect of your audience tweeting your presentation in real-time.  If done right, it can serve as instantaneous feedback for parallel conversations that enrich discussions in real time.

But before going all high-tech on you, let me ask: 140 character real-time commentary notwithstanding, how do you know how your presentation is going?

Try this: listen for the sound of silence.

Recently I had the chance to listen to a series of excellent presentations to a medium-sized (45 person) group.  Sometimes, instead of giving all my attention to the presenter, I started listening to the room, and I discovered a distinct difference between quiet and silence.

Quiet was when people were listening.  But they were also taking notes and shifting around and perhaps doing some other small thing.

Silence was when the presenter got everyone’s full attention.  It’s the “you could hear a pin drop” moment  when the entire room was energized and focused on the speaker, hanging on each and every word.

And guess what?  9 of 10 times, it’s powerful stories that create that silence.

If the goal of your presentation is to convince people to act, if you’re trying to sell them on an idea, if you want them to remember what you said after they (and you) walk out the door, how much of their attention do you think you need?

You need it all, for as long as you can get it and hold it.

So lead with your stories.  Lead with the memorable narratives that capture people’s attention.

Your first objective isn’t trying to convince people that you’re smart or credible or have done your homework.  Your first objective is to convince them you’re worth listening to.  Get their attention first,  capture their imagination, get them to put everything else aside and engage with you personally and with your ideas.    Once you’ve done this, tell them what you want them to do.

But not the other way around.

So listen for silence, and build your presentation around finding ways to create it and exploit it.

add to : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

Plus first

In February I blogged about Randy Nelson’s, President of Pixar University, talk about the core skill of innovators being “failure recovery, not error avoidance.”

Before getting to this point, Randy talks about the environment that nurtures creativity at Pixar.  One important element is having a culture where the expectation is that you will “plus” other people’s ideas.  Randy explains this by talking about improvisational theatre, the core principle of which is that you have to accept any idea that’s thrown out by the other actor(s) on stage (you can also hear Emily Levine talk about this at TED) and then build on it.

For example, if you’re an improve actor and you say, “It’s a lovely day today” and the other actor says, “Yes, except for that 20 foot wave that’s crashing to shore,” you have to accept what that actor has said and work with it (so you could say, “Yes, which is why I have this inflatable suit on, just in case.”)

In many professional situations, there’s a real tendency to skip this step and instead jump to the contrary point, the little bit that could be improved, your small suggestion.

All of you smart, critically-minded people out there (you know who you are) ask yourself how often, when asked to give feedback of one sort or another, jump right in to all the little or big changes you think should be made.  This is actually the easy way out: you feel like you’re being helpful, improving the output, and it makes you look smart to boot.  And when you’re talking to someone you like and respect, you assume they know you think they’re smart/capable/etc. and that the thing they’ve just done (the practice presentation, the brainstormed idea) is pretty good.

Try plus-ing first instead.  If something is mostly good, start with that.  And don’t talk in general terms (“It’s really great.”) as this is neither credible nor useful.  Give this part real attention and thought.  Give it as much analysis as you give your (subsequent) critique. Tell the person what’s good.  Be very specific about what you like.

This will accomplish three things: first, it will give the person just as much feedback about what works as about what doesn’t, so she has a chance to amplify and strengthen the best part of what she’s done.  Second, the person will feel good and gain in confidence.

Perhaps most important, it gives you practice at giving positive feedback in an honest, genuine, and specific fashion – which is actually much harder than it looks.

add to : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

When you have to nail it

I used to commute by car to work, which reinforced my deep-seated loathing of being stuck in traffic.  Never mind the fact that most traffic is caused by things that seem like they shouldn’t cause a slowdown (rubbernecking).   I find it unbelievable that, with all the technology out there, we don’t consistently get traffic information to drivers in some way (GPS systems, cellphones, digital radio, you name it).  It would be hugely efficient in terms of time and gas saved, and it would make drivers unbelievably happy if we could get this right.

Which is why I want to love Google maps.  It’s free, it’s on my phone, it has traffic information.  I’ll show those car companies who’s boss!!

Or will I?

In my experience, Google maps is plagued by both false positives (it says there’s traffic and their isn’t) and false negatives (it says there isn’t traffic and there is).

If I’m honest with myself, “plagued” might mean the 20% of the time that I notice, but these misses either cause me unnecessarily to leave the highway for local roads or to stay on course only to be stuck in 90 minutes of traffic.  As far as I’m concerned this renders the product completely useless.

Google has a long tradition of beta testing products that aren’t quite done, and it most cases this works.  Even Gmail is still in beta, officially. There are a lot of products where “mostly good enough” is OK.  This isn’t one of them.

You need to know when being quick and getting it mostly right is good enough – and when it’s not.  I’d be quick and mostly right with my blog not with my website.  Quick and mostly right with email but not with a phone call.  Quick and mostly right on a panel discussion but not for a radio interview.  And never quick and mostly right when applying for a job.

So be quick most of the time, but know how to recognize the times that you either nail it or blow it.

add to : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

You are at the top of my list

If you’re trying to get someone’s attention for the first time, it’s hard to stand out.  People are flooded with information, emails, RSS feeds, tweets…how do you make yourself heard or seen?

Why not try being unbelievably responsive?  If you meet someone for the first time and four days later send an email to say thanks and follow up, the timing of your note communicates, “The time I spent with you really wasn’t that important.  Those things we said we’d do?  Probably not going to happen.”

Even worse?  Waiting four days and sending a lackluster note.

Everyone is in constant triage mode.  But everyone, up to our BlackBerry-touting President of the United States, responds to some people right away and some people later on (or never).  So you have a chance each and every time to stand out from the crowd by being fast.  This says, “you are on the top of my list.”

This doesn’t apply to every email you receive – then you’re a slave to your Inbox.  But for the people who are most important to you (you’d know who they are, don’t you?), you’d better be writing back in 24 hours or less (immediately is good too).

Last Sunday I spoke on two panels at the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference.  I gave out almost an inch of business cards after my panels.  I promise you I will think very differently about how to respond to the people I heard from a day or two after the conference and the person who, two months from now, is going to write to say, “we met back in March and…”

add to : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

How to Listen to your Critics

Recently I took a short vacation at a well-known family resort. Before going, I had searched the Web looking for feedback about the hotel from other travelers who had been there.  Mostly I found a lot of complaints about ‘terrible service.’

To my surprise, virtually every person working at the resort was incredibly polite and professional – the check-in woman who got us a room right when we arrived, 4 hours before check-in (after a 4:30am wakeup that morning); the woman who mercifully got a load of laundry done on a Sunday; the guys renting the giant water tricycles…you get the idea.

More surprising still, the day I was leaving I rode up the elevator with two women, one of whom was in the middle of a rant to her friend.  “I’ve never, ever, been to a hotel with such unbelievably poor service!  Never, in all my years!!!”

Who do you think is more likely to run home and share their opinions on a travel discussion board?

The point is, we all know intellectually that the people who stand up and give feedback are, in general, those who represent the most extreme views.  They might be the angriest or the happiest, but they’re not average (and I do think people tend to speak up more when they’re unhappy).  Even knowing this, it’s very easy to feel like the best way to listen is to respond to the people who talk the loudest.

Another example: I recently held a meeting for a group of 10 people to ask for their feedback on a new program.  Over the course of the one-hour meeting, six people spoke freely, three made a few comments, and one person said nothing.  After the meeting, we sent a note to the participants and were very specific and very direct that we really wanted feedback and further thoughts.  Only then did the person who had been silent in the meeting write an incredibly thoughtful, two-page email in response.

There are two points here:

1. Listen to those who talk the loudest, and be honest with yourself in reflecting on the feedback you’re hearing.  If there’s a kernel of truth, that person is a “canary in a coal mine” – someone who is speaking up early and probably represents a silent majority.  But also be ready to hear the feedback, consider it, and discard it.  This too is a form of leadership.

2. Make sure you ask for feedback lots of times in lots of ways.  This is as much about creating a culture of feedback (within your organization and with your stakeholders) as it is about how you ask, being genuine when you ask, and asking a lot of times in lots of different ways.

To end, a quotation from the Buddha:

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it
or who has said it,
not even if I have said it,
unless it agrees with your own reason
and your own common sense.