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It’s all about the relationships. Really.

I noticed a trend in the course materials I’ve been creating and revising lately. No matter what the main topic, I found that somewhere in the handouts I noted that the skill wasn’t just about improving or mastering a series of tasks or honing a new ability. Rather, it was also about building and maintaining relationships.

So in the business writing handouts, for example, I highlighted that it’s worth taking the time to compose clear emails with a relevant subject line, that stick to a single message and note what, if anything, is needed from the reader in return and by when. The most immediate reason for this is that it wastes less of everyone’s time: the recipient doesn’t have to wade through unnecessary information and/or you don’t have to send a follow up asking for information that you didn’t give a due date for, for example.

But the more important issue is that business communication is about relationships. It’s worth paying attention to who, in your inbox, always starts their messages with a salutation and returning the favor–even if this isn’t your standard practice. Creating documents and writing presentations that acknowledge the humanity of those who will receive them reaffirms that we are more than the sum of what’s on our task lists.

And the business etiquette handouts likewise center the issue of relationships, building on a comment by Emily Post about the profound misunderstanding most of us have about what etiquette is. It’s not about putting on airs: it’s about how our behavior touches one another whenever our paths cross–that is, relationships.

Valuing what’s human in each other certainly has a payoff in productivity. If we’ve built relationships with our co-workers and colleagues we know who to turn to for guidance on particular issues or who to call to make sure an important piece of paperwork makes it to the top of the pile.

But I hope it’s more than that. It’s also about enhancing the time we spend at work and about making sure we get and give the encouragement we all need to have days filled with as many activities as possible that speak to our hearts as well as our minds.

So be efficient, but not to the point of being brusque and negatively impacting a relationship (thanks to Paul for commenting on this in a recent post!).

And be chatty and personable, but not to the point of frustrating your partner in the conversation who may have some important work to do.

Does remembering that it’s about the relationship as much as accomplishing the task at hand cause you to rethink you’re approach to anyone or anything in your work environment?

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?

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.

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.

The Part We Have Control Over

How will you know if you’ve achieved your goals?

The answer seems obvious: when the goal is met, right? “My goal is to get admitted to this program.” or “Our goal for the event is to attract 150 attendees.” or “The goal for the software roll out is that it should result in no down time on the server.”

That’s fine to the extent that the person or group setting the goal has control over most or all of the factors that will affect its success. But is that realistic?

What if it storms on the day of the outdoor event? Or, for that matter, on the day of the software roll out? What if you’ve assembled the strongest possible application packet that you can put together but it isn’t enough to sway the gatekeepers?

In this very thoughtful post on The Tiny Soprano, blogger Natalie Christie shares what she dubs “probably the most valuable piece of advice I have ever received.” In her words:

I had the privilege when I was 20 years old of learning from the stupendous Dame Joan Sutherland. She was a vocal titan, but in person remarkably grounded in an earthy, no nonsense Australian diva kind of way.

I would start to sing a phrase and she would interject with probably the most valuable piece of advice I have ever received –

“Stop. Think of the note before you sing it.”

So, before I even started to make a sound, I would focus silently on the quality of the sound I wanted to make, the way I wanted the vowel to be shaped in my mouth, and the intention behind the words I was about to sing.

The difference this advice made to me as an artist and as a person was profound. When I followed her advice, I felt strong. More in control, of my voice and my craft. It was not about me so much anymore, but about the music and the responsibility I had been blessed with – to do it justice, to make it sing, to move people.

Can you sense why that’s a BIG shift?

Because intention shifts the focus away from the outcome – “Oh please let her like my voice!” to the process – “How do I want this note to sound?”

And when we shift from outcome to process, we dislodge ourselves from the fear and unpredictability of the future.

That is, when we shift to a focus on the process we focus on the part where we actually have control. We can’t imagine every possible eventuality that might affect the outcome–whether positively or negatively.

We can, however, make every effort to make sure that our role in the process is as creative, thorough, thoughtful, appropriate and/or enthusiastic as the situation calls for. Once we’ve done that, whatever happens will happen. But we won’t be left stewing over the “what ifs” in regard to our effort and attitude. And that counts for a lot.

Click here to check out Christie’s full post, as she develops this idea further and makes some suggestions about bringing this focus on the process into the little everyday moments in addition to our bigger projects.

What does a focus on the process rather than the outcome change for you? What experiences do you remember fondly because of your approach to the process even though the outcome wasn’t what you had hoped for?

“A Perfect Kansas Night”

This year’s Symphony in the Flint Hills happened a couple of weeks ago. One attendee has posted a recording of Governor Parkinson’s welcome to the audience on YouTube.

The Governor’s words offer a rich reflection on the beauty and history of the state and are a lovely tribute to those of us who call Kansas home.

And here are some great photos of the event that offer a better view of the music, the attendees, and the beautiful vista. Click on the photo below to go to the slide show.

Don’t we all need “a human shield from idiocy”?


Robert Sutton, professor of science and management engineering at Stanford and author of a terrific book on dealing with and surviving difficult people at work, is working on a new project about what it is, exactly, that good bosses believe about their role that makes them so good.

Among the dozen points he identifies is this gem, phrased from the boss’s point of view: “My job is to serve as a human shield, to protect my people from external intrusions, distractions, and idiocy of every stripe — and to avoid imposing my own idiocy on them as well.” Click here to read his whole list.

Sutton’s list is useful and compelling for a couple of reasons. The first is clear in the statement above: he doesn’t pull any punches about the behavior we all observe in our workplaces or about the fact that some of these less-than-productive behaviors come from the boss. He points to the boss’s key role in running interference so that her/his staff are better able to do their work and the frustration that stems from bosses who don’t recognize this role and/or are themselves the source of the interference.

The second reason, and this is huge, is that his list isn’t simply a compiled set of ideas that ring true to him personally. Rather, he notes that each item that makes his list has some grounding in research and has been shown effective. This should make the book he’s working on worth a read.

In your experience, what do good bosses do that sets them apart from bad or even average bosses? Tell us your stories in the comments below.

Staying in Touch with Friends Who’ve Lost Jobs: Tips for “Unemployment Etiquette”

In our super-connected world, there are a million and one ways to keep in touch with old and new friends and acquaintances.

But sometimes this doesn’t make it any easier when there’s a new layer of awkwardness inserted into a relationship due to a friend’s job loss. It’s not uncommon for the still-working person to find themselves not sure about what to say. How do you express support appropriately, in a way that’s supportive?

The always-astute Lynn Gaertner-Johnston offers some terrific guidance on this in a recent post on her Business Writing Blog, including both “Do’s” and “Don’ts.” For example:

*Don’t talk about how bad things are where you work, especially if they lost their job there. Working in hell may be preferable to not working at all. Don’t complain; and

*Do invite the individual to low-cost and no-cost events. Warmly receive both acceptance and rejection of your invitations.\

Click here to see the rest of her helpful suggestions.

ASPA of Greater Kansas City’s Annual Awards Dinner & 50th Anniversary Celebration coming up on May 19th, 2010

The ASPA Greater Kansas City chapter invites you to celebrate their 50th anniversary at the annual awards dinner. It will be held on Wednesday, May 19 at The Villa, 4120 Baltimore in Kansas City, Missouri. The cost is $45 / $35 for full-time students.

The chapter will recognize the 2010 award recipients in a number of categories. Of special note: Dr. George Frederickson of KU Public Administration will receive the award for Distinguished Public Administrator of the Year at an Academic Level. Congratulations, George!
Additionally, Lieutenant Jodi Andrews of the Shawnee Police Department and KU MPA student, will receive the Stanley Fisher Memorial award.

For more information or to register for the awards dinner visit http://www.aspaonline.org/ASPAKC/.