The One Conversation That Can Instantly Improve Your Career

Originally published by Lindsey Pollak 27 June 2017

Do you generally prefer emailing, texting or talking on the phone? Do you love it when people write their whole message in the email subject line or does it make you cringe? How do you feel about voicemail? Emoticons? Infographics?

What these types of questions reveal is commonly known as your “communication style,” that is, your preferences about how people ideally should communicate with you. And understanding other people’s communication styles is essential to building successful working relationships with them. But, oddly enough, it’s a topic we rarely discuss.

This is a mistake.

Understanding the communication style of your colleagues, clients and — most importantly, your boss — has a lot bigger effect on your short- and long-term career success than you might think.

There are so many choices for communication —  and so many ways it can go wrong

Communication is a lot like today’s professional dress code: The options have exploded, and there are fewer rules than ever. That means that what’s appropriate depends on your particular workplace, industry norms and the specific person you’re interacting with.

Back in the day, we had just a few choices for communicating — write a letter, send a memo, walk over or pick up the phone. Now in addition to those stalwarts, we have email and texting, plus upstarts like bitmojis and Slack. (You don’t “Slack” at work yet?  You might soon; as a recent article in New York magazine said, “Slack…is likely either as integral to your workday as email or you have never heard of it before.”)

These endless options are a major reason that communication has become so complicated. There is literally no way to guarantee what method another person might prefer.

Not sure how your boss (or any VIP) likes to communicate? Ask!

I recommend becoming the world’s leading expert on how the people important to your career prefer to communicate. This is especially true of your direct boss: There is no better use of your time than knowing his or her preferences.

Sure, you could study her communication for clues to what she likes, but it’s easier and more effective just to ask directly. As Henrik Edberg recently wrote for The Positivity Blog, “Ask instead of guessing. …. This will help you to minimize unnecessary conflicts, misunderstandings, negativity and [wasted] time and energy.”

Cover everything, once and for all, in a style conversation

How exactly do you ask how your boss and other VIPs like to communicate? I recommend the “style conversation” approach. I give 100% of the credit for this concept to Michael Watkins, who wrote about it in his classic book The First 90 Days. He recommends having this conversation at the beginning of any new work relationship.

Depending on your needs and company culture, here are some topics you might want to cover in a style conversation with your boss, an important client or any VIP you come across in your career:

  • What form of communication do you prefer for routine matters? (e.g., face-to-face, phone, email, etc.)
  • What about emergencies? (My assistant, for example, texts me only if there’s an urgent message, like a cancellation or client issue. That means that when I power up my phone after a speech, I don’t have to check my email right away because I know from my texts if anything is urgent.)
  • Can I respond quickly from my phone or do you expect longer, grammatically correct messages?
  • Do you generally prefer a summary or all the background? (I have a client who sends two versions of some emails; one is a summary she calls “TL; DR. The “too long, didn’t read” variant hits the high points for a quick scan, then underneath she adds in the background for those who want more detail.)
  • How often should I communicate routine information or updates? (e.g., as it happens or one weekly summary)
  • What kinds of decisions should I consult you on and which can I initiate myself? For example, can I schedule meetings for you?
  • What is your preference for being copied on emails? Someone shooting for inbox zero might want fewer emails coming in; other managers want to read all the emails, or at least all client communication. Some people don’t read anything on which they are cc-ed.

Don’t make people guess about your preferences

By the same token, if you’re the boss, you will be a much better leader if you tell other people how to communicate with you. Some creative examples I’ve heard lately:

  • One executive with crazy busy mornings prefers status updates sent in the afternoons so they don’t clutter her email box or get lost.
  • One client likes to answer emails on Sunday afternoon, but makes clear to his team that he doesn’t expect a response that day so they don’t feel pressured to interrupt their weekend.
  • A millennial manger I just met schedules one hour of open-door morning office hours on his daily calendar. It provides accessibility to his direct reports, but also saves his day from being interrupted by constant requests.
  • A former boss of mine would become annoyed if someone used a cryptic subject line in an email (making it harder for her to scan messages on her phone), so she shares her preference for descriptive subject lines with new employees right off the bat.

These little quirks are exactly the reason that a style conversation can benefit everyone. If you truly want to be heard, you have to communicate the way someone wants and expects it. And, when you are in the more senior role, you can ease your employees’ jobs by expressing your own preferences.


When “Face Time” is FaceTime: How to Manage Virtual Workers

Originally published by Lindsey Pollack 20 September 2016

No longer just for hipster start-ups, even prominent companies – think IBM, American Express and 3M — now abound with virtual workers. In fact, nearly one-quarter of American workers currently telecommute at least part of the time, according to Global Workplace Analytics.

That means that whether you’re a new or seasoned manager, you probably manage someone remotely or will do so in the near future.

Working remotely comes with all kinds of benefits, both for employees and employers. But it also brings up new management challenges that we’re still figuring out. If you manage a virtual team, here are three key opportunities to build strong and successful relationships with employees based out of the office:

When they crave face time

FaceTime will never equal “face time,” but you have to use whatever technology you can to make sure that each employee feels equal in your attention, feedback and coaching, regardless of where he or she sits.

Be clear about how your team can reach you if they can’t just pop into your office. Your “open door policy” could become an open IM policy, for example. Or, if you normally have “office hours” from 9 to 10 each morning, let your offsite employees know that’s the ideal time to text or call you.

The key is to ensure that remote employees feel like they have access to you. Be mindful of how much informal feedback and coaching you give in person and seek out similar opportunities with your virtual employees.

Make sure your remote employees get just as much feedback & coaching as in-person employees. Click To Tweet

In addition to when, you’ll want to discuss how to contact you. In my book Becoming the Boss, I suggest having a “style conversation” to understand each person’s communication preferences and to communicate your own. Managing virtual workers is a situation where this understanding is imperative: Skype, for example, would seem to be a no-brainer but you can’t assume it’s a channel that every employee loves.

p.s. Just because you’re the manager doesn’t mean you automatically get to dictate how you and your virtual employees will communicate. The goal is ultimately to get the most out of your team, so make sure you’re taking into account their preferred modes of communication as well.

When you’re having a conference call

We’ve all been on those calls where we’re straining to hear the person who’s calling in from afar, or we’ve been the person calling in from the road and heard everyone in the room laugh at something we didn’t hear.

Conference calls can be brutal when you’re not in the room. So, if you’re the one leading the conference call or meeting, encourage participation from everyone, especially the people on the phone. You’ll also want to limit the side conversations happening in the room and either curtail them or summarize them for the virtual worker(s).

Finally, a note about logistics: Make sure everybody’s tech works to avoid that initial scramble of “Can you hear me now?” And, be mindful of time zones so that you’re not always making one region stay up late or get up early. The in-person office team shouldn’t always get to score the perfect time if you want everyone to feel truly equal in importance.

When the team is getting together

Lunchtime trainings. Team dinners. Birthday celebrations. Impromptu happy hours. Think of all the times that your team gets together in person, and how those informal functions foster camaraderie and team spirit – ties that virtual workers can miss out on.

I know budgets are tight for many offices, and sometimes all you can manage is one annual company meeting. However, I encourage you to think about what other chances there may be to bring in virtual team members to physically be with the group. While the big events are important, much of the bonding and coaching happens when you convene informally, and the team will be more cohesive if they see each other occasionally.

I have a unique perspective, since I’m often in the position of facilitating speeches or training that people have flown in to attend, and I see the power of people meeting and collaborating face to face. No matter how much technology we add to our lives, there is still something special about those moments.

Bottom line: It’s crucial to make sure everyone knows they’re an integral part of the team, whether they are sitting with you or not. Whether they are working virtually or in an office, people of all generations crave the social aspects and relationship-building opportunities that the office environment offers; it’s the reason co-working spaces have taken off so successfully. (I personally work in one!) That’s why smart managers are always cognizant of their virtual workers and make sure they feel like part of the team.


Poor Communication Skills Are Killing Your Authority

Originally published by Lindsey Pollak 26 April

Remember the “house phone,” that apparatus we now call a “landline?” Every Gen Xer recalls the torment of the long cord that was just a little too short to get you away from your eavesdropping siblings, the annoying busy signal, and let’s be honest, the thrill of calling your crush and hanging up pre-caller ID.

But as house phones became relics, so, too has the notion of practicing critical communication skills at home.

I hear a common lament from managers: As a group, millennials’ workplace communication skills, including phone skills, just aren’t on par with previous generations. The reason is simple: There are so many ways today to avoid speaking that they haven’t flexed that muscle as much as we used to. Many millennials have never called to make a restaurant reservation, taken a phone message for their mom or called to check the hours of the local movie theater.

As recent grads leave college campuses and head into corporate campuses, I thought it was a good time to offer three easy ways millennials can build their workplace communication skills.

Listen in.

I’ve heard managers say they’ve been embarrassed by a millennial who rambled on — or worse, stumbled and stuttered — when they were asked to speak at a client meeting. I find this is usually because they haven’t sat in on enough meetings to see these conversations modeled. I urge all young professionals to seek ways to be in observation mode, almost like being an apprentice. Some of my best learning moments in my first job at a nonprofit came when I would sit in the office of the organization’s executive director as she made fundraising calls. I could hear first-hand what a “soft ask” sounded like, and how she dealt with objections in a masterful way. If your manager doesn’t invite you to sit in on meetings or listen in on calls, take the initiative to ask. He or she is bound to appreciate the fact that you are looking to polish your delivery and content.

Practice your presentation skills.

Are you on the agenda for an upcoming meeting? Don’t go in cold. I’m often asked how I stay calm when I give speeches, and I have only one answer: Practice makes perfect. Sure, I get some jitters, but for the most part I feel comfortable because I’ve been speaking publicly for more than 20 years and have learned how to deal with common presentation missteps. I continue to practice frequently, study video of myself on stage and make changes to improve.

Here’s an example: After reviewing video of my speeches early on, I noticed that I frequently did an unconscious head tilt that was a little too cutesy. I also saw that I walked around too much when telling stories I was particularly excited about, which was distracting to an audience. Now the head tilt is gone, and I’m working on staying more still while I tell stories. I recommend everyone video or audio tape themselves to identify speech patterns or gestures you might not be aware of that are easily fixed.

Beware common conversational pitfalls.

Seasoned communicators avoid certain speech patterns that undermine their credibility. Here are three that you should eliminate ASAP:

  • Upspeak: You know what this sounds like? When people make their statements into questions? Stop. The best way to nix this habit is to envision the sentence you want to say as ending with a period and consciously lower your tone at the end.
  • Clichés:  We’ve all sat through meetings where the leader talks about “thinking outside the box” or “pushing the envelope.” Please, please help kill corporate buzz speak once and for all.
  • Filler words: These words, um, make you, like, sound unsure of yourself, you know? Often you don’t even know you are saying them, which is why taping yourself speaking is so helpful. You also can enlist a trusted family member, friend or colleague to help you identify when you’re saying filler words.

Readers, I’d love to hear your communication tips. How have you learned to sound like a leader? Please share in the comments!