Monthly Archives: July 2010

Is Your Standardized Correspondence Reader-Centered?

In planning the curriculum for the business writing class I teach, I reviewed George Searles’s text, Workplace Communication: The Basics, a book that I found to be very readable and very helpful.

Searles offers many terrific lessons and a great deal of succinct advice. But there was one “aha!” tidbit in particular that I found to be profoundly important for those who represent the public sector in their communication. That tidbit was the idea of reader-centered phrasing in one’s writing–that is, phrasing that focuses on the reader’s interests and knowledge rather than the writer’s.

For example, a listing of office policies and contact information may indicate that “We don’t take phone calls after 3pm on Wednesdays.” With reader-centered rephrasing, this becomes “You may reach us by phone until 3pm on Wednesdays.”

Where the first statement is likely to elicit a frustrated sigh and perhaps a knowing statement made to a friend about the expected work ethic in a government office, the second is unlikely to even give the reader pause.

It’s amazing the difference a few words can make, isn’t it?

Compare: “We cannot process your claim because you did not submit the required forms,” with “We will process your claim as soon as we receive the required forms.”

If this latter statement also includes a second sentence listing what those required forms are, so much the better. Perhaps this information was shared in a previous communication, but when it takes only 20 seconds of your time to list itagain, you gain that much additional goodwill from the reader. Just imagine yourself as the recipient and you can see the difference it makes.

Heaven knows that goodwill from citizens toward government offices is something it would behoove us to cultivate any chance we get.

Now, it’s one thing to resolve to use this sort of reader-centered phrasing as we go forward responding to inquiries, applications, and the like. But what about all those templates you use to streamline your communications: the files you open, change the name of the recipient, update the date, and send to print? What about all those form letters used by your colleagues?

I invite you to pull out one of the letter or email templates you’ll be using in the next week and review it for any opportunities to revamp the sentences to be more reader-centered. Then share any changes you made in the comments below!

Yes, but do you like doing that?

There’s a rather hilarious moment in the video “Trombone Player Wanted” where Marcus Buckingham shares the most common answer he gets when asking people he interviews to share a strength. The answer?

“I’m a people person.”

It’s funny because as viewers we recognize how common an answer this is–perhaps most of us have even said it ourselves when floundering to answer this question in an interview or some other setting. From the voice in which Marcus shares this, we also get a sense of how frustrating he finds this answer because of everything it leaves out: “Which people?” he asks. “What are you doing with them?”

What’s interesting to me is how much easier it becomes to answer the question, “what are your strengths?” as soon as he adds these additional, more detailed questions. Asked the general question, we tend to stumble over our words, trying to think of something to say that offers a decent answer but that also doesn’t make us look full of ourselves.

But asked which people we like working with, or which writing we like to work on, or which teams we are energized by being part of, or which details we like working with–asked any of these things most of us can immediately start narrowing this down and, after offering some descriptive information about times we have and haven’t enjoyed people or writing or teams or working on details, can likely come up with a relatively clear statement that’s far more informative about a strength or talent we have.

The other important aspect of this is that in sorting through elements we like and don’t like about a particular type of task, we end up becoming aware of those things that others might tell us we’re very good at–things we might know ourselves that we’re good at–but that in fact we don’t like very much.

Becoming aware of this keeps us from mentioning them when we’re asked about our strengths! This is key in making sure that we don’t forever get assigned to a role we don’t like in teams we’re part of. Because if I mention that I’m great at tracking budgets, it’s pretty likely I’ll get volunteered to track the budget whether I like doing it or not.

So in thinking about your strengths, bring some detail to the questions you ask yourself. You might start with what you like doing, but then take your answer further. Do you always enjoy doing that, or only under some circumstances? If it’s only sometimes, start listing the circumstances. Who else is involved? Which pieces would you rather not have to handle?

What other questions would be helpful to ask to get at what we love to do? Is there anything you’ve realized that you need to stop volunteering for because, in spite of your skills, you just don’t like it very much?

Are You Sufficiently Valuing the Time of Those Around You?

In a post today on the Harvard Business Review blog, Marshall Goldsmith makes this very important point:

“People have less time today, which means the value of that time has increased. Leaders who waste their workers’ time are not looked upon favorably.”

I’d simply add that this applies to co-workers as well. If you make an effort to be sure that you’re using your portion of the meeting time and presentation time well, your colleagues and staff will notice and appreciate it.

The challenge, of course, is asking ourselves which details are truly relevant to the situation at hand. We’d love it if others were interested in the full back story and all of the supporting reasons for our decisions.

But in practice, we get antsy and impatient when others share more information than we need. We need to get in the habit of remembering this when we’re doing the sharing.

What can you do to make sure you aren’t eating away at others’ time and patience when you have information to share?

Navigating the Choppy Waters of Conflicting Approaches to Leadership

So it occurs to me that we’re nearly two months into the current session of Emerging Leaders Academy and we haven’t had any explicit discussions about what we all mean by the term leadership.

This isn’t to say we haven’t been discussing the topic in all sorts of ways. We’ve pondered what the future might look like in the public sector, a world where efficiency, adaptation and trust may be crucial to getting anything done.

We’ve talked about listening skills as a way to make sure we’re remembering to tune into others’ needs and desires as we forge ahead in sharing and implementing our ideas and plans.

And we’ve talked about identifying areas of strength and passion that we can build on as well as areas where we have a need for skills development if we’re to attain our goals in order to identify and reach out to the right people to play mentoring roles.

Implicit in all of these discussions, from my point of view, is the issue of leadership–the Public Management Center approach just happens to be one where we assume that each of us has to define what leadership looks and feels like for ourselves.

A class can offer tools to facilitate that development and some suggestions about what approaches might most enrich those who lead and those who would follow. And a class can offer stories and examples that reflect what leadership has looked like in particular times and places. But our classes won’t offer lessons or stories that assert this is what leadership should or must look like.

Because of this, we fall squarely into what Dr. Ronald Riggio calls “new wave” leadership–a belief that there is no fixed set of theories or practices to guide decision-making and a belief that good leadership requires a focus on the followers as much or more than a focus on the leader.

According to Riggio, “the most popular leadership theories today are transformational leadership and Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory. Both of these theories assert that effective leadership depends on the leader’s ability to engage, energize, and develop followers. In addition, theories of shared leadership are emerging. In shared leadership, the decision making power and responsibility of leading the team is dispersed among many members.”

Riggio asserts that there are 3 main themes in this new wave approach, which he describes as follows:

1) A Greater Focus on the Follower. The successful leader is able to engage and motivate followers. There is shared, or at least consultative, decision making and followers are empowered to take on responsibility and act independently. In transformational leadership, for example, the leader’s goal is to develop followers’ leadership capacity – eventually turning followers into leaders. Moreover, effective leaders recognize the individual strengths and needs of followers in order to allow each follower to maximize potential.

2. Decentralized Decision Making/Empowered Followers.
Often speed of action is critical, so followers need to be empowered to act without direction from the leader. In today’s knowledge-based world, a leader cannot hope to lead alone. In all likelihood, followers have more accumulated knowledge about the team or organization’s purpose than does the leader, so it makes sense to share the responsibility.

3. Recognition of the Complexity of Leadership.
The increasingly interconnected and international world of the 21st century, the ever evolving technology, and the constantly changing environment, means that this is not your father’s or mother’s world. Today’s world is fantastically complex and requires all of a leader’s capacity, and the shared capacity of the team, to stay competitive and effective.

I lean towards agreeing with Riggio and find myself keenly aware that this means PMC Director Charles Jones was right when he identified trust as a key element of public sector leadership in the future: relying more on one’s followers means that a leader must believe in their capacity to act in the best interests of the leader and the organization without paternalistic oversight.

This also points to a challenge, however, in that we’re in a moment of generational transition in the workplace.

Some, perhaps many, of today’s agency and department heads learned leadership and management skills in a much more Theory X era, one which understood motivation as coming more from sticks than from carrots and which assumed employees had little intrinsic motivation to perform or achieve. This tends to make for controlling leadership behaviors.

Today, however, hese folks have been joined in the workplace by Generation X and Generation Y who, as employees, generally expect their needs, opinions, and expertise to be at least consulted but more often actively taken into account in planning and decision-making processes.

So this leads to several questions. First, do Riggio’s views of the characteristics of today’s leadership ring true? If not, what’s missing?

Beyond this, though, how do we keep Gen X and Gen Y–and, of course, those baby boomers who also believe in a more shared sense of leadership–engaged in the workplace when they’re reporting to more “traditional” managers? How big an issue is this?

Chime in below in the comments.

Take Two Minutes to Make Your Workspace Work

It would not be a surprise to anyone I know that, when I completed Gallup’s StrengthsFinder assessment, my top 5 talent areas did not include any that could be understood as detail-oriented.

I am a terrific idea generator. If you need a strategic thinker to help map out a good course of action, I may be your gal.

But if you need a messy stack organized or a spreadsheet created to track the minutiae, you’ll likely get better assistance from your dog than from me.

Yesterday, for example, I arrived to teach CPM without a pen in my bag, and managed to misplace not one but two that I borrowed from participants during the day. My brain just doesn’t track the details well.

Lucky for me, I also have a reasonably low tolerance for clutter. Since I can’t organize very well, I try to get rid of things so that I don’t have to make decisions about where to file or store them.

This is especially fortunate in moments like last week Tuesday, when we moved the KUPMC and Public Administration offices from one floor of the KU Edwards Campus to another. I didn’t have too many files or piles to try to keep track of as we loaded in one office and unloaded in the other. And those I do have are made up more of reference materials than things I use on a daily basis.

As such, most are still sitting in their boxes while I ponder (in a vague, back-of-the-mind way) whether I’ll put them in the equivalent locations to where they were in my other office or identify new spots. Or whether, as is looking increasingly likely, I’ll determine that most of the items are so seldom needed that the mental clutter of having them in my space exacts a higher cost than it would to look them up again online or elsewhere when I next need to refer to them.

Because while I don’t have so many piles, I still have some. And they tend to line the edges of my desk because I can’t quite decide how to file them. But since packing these up to move to the new office, my desk has been a lovely, wide-open space. I look at it and imagine the amazement the pioneers felt as they emerged to the west of the tree-covered plains of the east and gaped at immense spaces of the prairies.

Okay, maybe it’s not quite the same.

But I do very much appreciate the way the clear desk has had something of a calming effect on my mind this week, and it reminded me how much our physical surroundings affect us. As I’ve been typing this I’ve realized that I need to move my printer further away from my computer to create more openness in the area of my workspace that I most use to hopefully further leverage this feeling of calm to support my work. This two-minute task will be utterly worth the trouble.

To some extent our workspaces are fixed–we have real walls or not, windows or not, and we often inherit furniture that is not quite matched to our functions, let alone taste.

But don’t overlook the little things you can fix to make a big difference in decreasing your annoyance factor or improving your ergonomics in subtle but important ways: scoot your phone over so that you can stop nearly tipping over your coffee mug with the cord every morning. Move your trashcan or recycle bin so that it’s located within reach of where you generate most of your trash or so that it’s finally out of range of your knees. Ask your facilities folks to raise your overhead cabinets further up the metal rails that hold them so that you can stop having to be careful about bumping your head. Order a new mouse that will actually track whenever you use it, not just when it wants to.

Fix something little in your space so that you no longer have to expend the energy it takes to be annoyed. Then tell us what you changed in the comments below so that the rest of us can maybe borrow from your ideas.

Reaching out to create a “Developmental Network”

Last week, KU Public Administration Department Chair Marilu Goodyear met with participants in our Emerging Leaders Academy to discuss the research on mentoring and offer some guidance to help them identify areas in which they might seek mentoring and people who they know who might fill that role.

Emphasis on people. Plural.

Marilu cited research by Kathleen Kram who interviewed employees in organizations about mentoring. When asked if they had a mentor, most people said no. But Kram’s research found that in fact most of her interviewees named multiple people in their work lives who served various mentoring functions. Kram thus posited that most career professionals have “developmental networks” of people in their lives rather than single mentors.

The following graphic, from Marilu’s 2006 article “Mentoring: A Learning Collaboration,” offers an example of what such a network might look like.

As she notes, “these networks consist not only of senior staff in the profession but also of peers and even junior professionals, who often can help veterans learn a new skill. Family members and friends can also play important roles in a developmental network, particularly in the areas of role modeling and psychosocial support.”

This approach takes away the expectation that one senior executive in an organization can both know and provide everything a junior executive needs, an assumption that was rarely borne out in practice.

Importantly, it also relocates the responsibility for effective mentoring relationships from the organization and the senior executives to the mentees who “develop their own developmental networks in relation to their particular needs. Mentees reach out to individuals around them to seek assistance in the functional areas where they need help.”

Have you ever found mentoring from an unlikely source who fits with this idea of a “developmental network”? What possibilities does this approach open for you? Share your experiences in the comments!

The Freedom in Flops and Failures

There are big failures like the Deep Water Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fortunately, however, most failures don’t have stakes that are quite so high. In a recent post on Lifehacker, Jason Fitzpatrick suggests we bear that in mind and “embrace the inevitability of failure” to achieve higher levels of workplace productivity.

He notes that “when you abandon the stance that the mistake-maker is flawed and embrace the stance that mistakes are part of human cognition and everyone will make them, you can focus on productivity instead of scapegoating the mistake makers.”

This rings so true that I can feel myself breathe a bit easier just reading his words. I think of my experiences working with college writers to improve their papers at the KU Writing Center.

A lot of students who knew about our services for their entire time at KU would spend multiple semesters avoiding us before finally coming in. I absolutely understand this–coming in means admitting that one’s writing isn’t perfect.

Of course, the Writing Center staff approached this as a given and believed that no one’s writing–even (especially) our own–was perfect. Starting with this assumption allows space for improvement.

We didn’t blame the writers for imperfect grammar or disorganized drafts; we assessed what they needed and offered some assistance to make the paper better. As long as they were making an effort, we were right there with them to offer support and guidance.

What if we bring this idea into the workplace?

As long as we’ve put a good-faith effort into doing our best, we could embrace the inevitability that all of us will fall short sometimes. This would allow us to direct our attention to dusting ourselves off and moving forward with new information rather than stalling out on the self-flagellation that can accompany failure.

Are there flops and failures that have contributed productively to your skills and perspectives today? Have you helped your colleagues or your kids navigate through a failure and watched them come out stronger on the other side? Share your stories in the comments to helps us all embrace the possibility of failure and dive in anyway.

Own it!

The current fiscal crisis has created a lot of challenges in the workplace. But this brings with it a lot of opportunity for innovation.

Have an idea to streamline a process? You’ll likely find a pretty receptive audience.

So make the most of that by writing up your proposal with clarity. Save your readers the time of wading through the clutter of unnecessary words, and let your idea shine. Own it.

Addressing this issue in his always insightful blog, business writing guru Kenneth W. Davis suggested recently that we try “kicking the props away” in our writing and offers this gem from Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman and their book about online writing:

“Some puffed-up writers use long words, techie talk, trendy terms, and convoluted sentences to cover up or deceive or sound important or go along with the crowd. Most people who inflate their writing, though, are simply insecure, often for no good reason. They don’t feel their ideas are strong enough, and they prop them up with elaborate language.

If your ideas are any good, they can stand on their own. So kick away those unnecessary props. All they do is turn a strong writer into a wuss.”

Read more of Davis’s weekly nuggets of wisdom on his Manage Your Writing blog.