Category Archives: Culture

The Introvert’s Guide to Glad-Handing

One day back at MarkLogic, we invited our local congresswoman, Jackie Speier, to visit our offices.  Regardless of what you may think of her politics, she’s an impressive person with an fascinating background including, for those with long memories, that she was the congressional aide shot five times and left for dead on the runway in Guyana when Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate Jonestown.  I was looking forward to meeting her.

She arrived — early of course — with a few handlers.  We exchanged the usual greetings and took a few pictures.  Then, she said, “would you mind if I went around and met a few people before the presentation?”  “No, no — not at all,” I said.  Leaving the handlers behind, off she went into the sea of cubicles.

Affordable Care Act

What I saw next blew me away.

Cube by cube she proceeded, “Hi, I’m Jackie — what’s your name?”  “Great, what do you do here?”  “Oh, I see [from the picture on your desk] you have a son, what’s his name?’  “How old is he?”  “Oh, [insert something in common here].”  More chatter.  A few laughs.  “Are there any questions I can answer for you today?”

There are extroverted people.  There are gregarious people.  There are charismatic people.  And then there are politicians.  She was the best room-worker I had ever seen in my life and she did it as effortlessly as she did naturally.

“This,” I thought, ” is why you’re not a politician, Dave. You have no skills.”

But leading the troops is a key part of the job of a startup CEO.  While such glad-handing often comes naturally to sales-oriented CEOs, it usually does not for more product-oriented ones.  A sales-oriented CEO is typically an extrovert; a product-oriented one an introvert.  So what’s a poor introvert to do?

First, Run A Normal Communications Program
All CEOs should run some sort of baseline company communications program.  This could look something like:

  • Bi-annual kickoffs where the company is brought together to hear about progress, learn about new initiatives, and recognize achievement.  Think:  educate, decorate, inebriate.
  • Post-quarter all hands calls/meetings after the off-quarters to discuss company performance, progress on quarterly goals, and go-forward priorities.
  • Topical all-hands emails and follow-up live calls/meeting to announce breaking news and provide commentary.
  • Separate and/or built-in “town hall” sessions with open employee Q&A to the CEO and the exec team.

This is baseline.  If you’re not doing this and you’re over about 20 people you need to start doing aspects of it.  If you’re over 150-200 people you should be doing all of this and quite possibly more.

For most CEOs — even the introverts — this isn’t hard.  It’s structured.  There are presentations.  Most of the questions in Q&A can be anticipated, if not solicited in advance.

Management by Walking Around
Let’s say you’ve set up such a program and are getting good feedback on it.  But nevertheless you’re still getting feedback like:

“You’re in your office and in meetings too much.  People want to see more of you.  The answer isn’t more all hands meetings.  Those are fine.  But people want to see you in a more informal and/or 1-1 way.  I know, you need to do more MBWA — management by walking around.  You’ll be great at it!”

“No, I won’t,” thinks the highly self-aware introvert CEO, imaging a nightmare that goes something like this:

CEO:  “Hey, Bro-dy!” [Struggling to choose between Bro and Buddy.]
Employee:  “Did you just call me grody?  What the –“
CEO:  “No, Buddy, no,  I called you Bro, Pal.”
CEO:  “So, how’s my Buddy doing?”  [Slaps his back.]
Employee:  “Ow!  I just had shoulder surgery.”
CEO:  “Whoops, sorry about that.”
Employee:  “No problem.”
CEO:  [Notices wedding picture on desk.]  “Hey, how’s that lovely wife?”
Employee:  “We split up three months ago.”
CEO:  [Thinking: “I bet this never happens to Jackie Speier, I bet this never happens to … “]

Sure, the CEO thinks, let’s try some more MBWA.  Or maybe not.

Find Your Way
The problem here is simple — it’s a classic, in this case “reverse,” delegation mistake.  The well-intentioned feedback-giver isn’t just telling you what needs to be done (i.e., help people get to know you better through more individualized interaction),  they’re telling you how to do it (i.e., management by walking around).  So the solution is simple:  listen to the what and find your own way of how.  If you’re not a natural grip-and-grin type, them MBWA isn’t going to work for you.  What might?  Here are some ideas:

  • Every Friday morning do three, half-hour 1-1s with employees across the organization.  This will play to your introvert strength in 1-1 meetings and and your desire to have substantial, not superficial, interactions with people.  If you’re disciplined, you’ll get to know 156 people/year this year.
  • Management by sitting in the way (MBSITW).  Pick a busy spot — e.g., the coffee room or the cafeteria — and camp out there for a few hours every week.  Work on your laptop when no one’s around but when someone walks in, say hi, and engage in a 1-1 chat.
  • Small-group town hall Q&A sessions.  Attend one department’s group meeting and do a one-hour town hall Q&A.  It’s not quite 1-1, but it’s definitionally a smaller forum which will provide more intimacy.
  • Thursday lunches.  Every Thursday have lunch with 3-4 people chosen at semi-random so as to help you build relationships across the organisation.

So, the next time someone tells you that you need to do more MBWA, thank them for input, and then go find your way of solving the underlying problem.

Let’s Take the Cult out of Silicon Valley Culture

I am big believer in strong corporate cultures.  Culture can be used to set powerful norms.  Culture can bind people in an organization to a common set of values bigger than their quarterly objectives and key results (OKRs).  Culture helps attracts the right people to your organization – and can drive out the wrong ones when they get swarmed with corporate antibodies for showing the wrong values and behaviors.

Culture, to paraphrase Henry Ford’s thoughts on quality, is what happens when no one is watching.

But never forget the first four letters of culture spell “cult” and too often, in Silicon Valley at least, corporate cultures become corporate cults:

For many Silicon Valley companies, culture is a point of pride and is meticulously captured in long slide presentations, such as the Netflix or HubSpot culture decks. [2]

When culture turns to cult in Silicon Valley, it’s often arguably benevolent – a strong leader espousing a visionary worldview combined with positive incentives for employees to spend as much time as possible with each other and/or at work.  The company provideth all:  free transportation, interesting work, fun recreation, great food, social events, perhaps (indirectly) even a significant other.  So why not spend all your time with the company? [3]

But sometimes Silicon Valley cults are not benevolent – Theranos being the best recent example.  Continuing to work in such environments, prioritizing the needs of the cult over common sense and business ethics can do lasting damage to your personal relationships, to your health,  and to your career.

cultsI first started studying corporate cults when Business Objects was competing with MicroStrategy back in the 1990s.  I found this book, Corporate Cults:  The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization, and had a few conversations with its author, Dave Arnott.

The first thing I learned from Dave was that, if you’re competing against a cult, that you should not attack it.  Attacking it, per Dave, only makes the cult stronger as the attack drives member together to defend the cult.

Consider some of the following similarities between cults and startups:

  • Charismatic leadership. Startups are often led by charismatic people, passionate about their beliefs and persuasive that the company is on a broader mission. [4]
  • Isolation from friends and family. This happens naturally at startups with long work hours, but is often exacerbated by the culture committee’s active social and events calendar.
  • Homogeneous recruiting. MicroStrategy supposedly preferred recruiting in its early days not just out of MIT, but out of one specific fraternity.  Many startups recruit similar people, all from the top programs across the country.
  • Hazing and rites of passage. Many startups have rigorous bootcamps where only the best get through.  Trilogy’s three-month bootcamp was the intense I’ve heard of.
  • Elitism.  Once recruited and having passed bootcamp, members are reminded of how much better they are than anybody else.  For example, HubSpot loved to tell recruits (based on specious logic) that it was harder to get into HubSpot than Harvard.
  • Specialized vocabulary.  At HubSpot, you’re not an employee, but a “HubSpotter.”  You don’t delight your customers, you give them “delightion.”  No one ever “quits” or is “fired,” former employees “graduate.”  How pleasant.
  • Demands for absolute loyalty.  Theranos did this frequently: “if anyone here believes you are not working on the best things humans have ever built, of if you’re cynical, you should leave.”
  • Excommunication of former members.  Former employees are more “dead to us” than “working somewhere else.”  Theranos was particular brutal in this regard, not only frowning on continuing relationships with former employees but subjecting them to constant surveillance and stunning legal harassment.

I’m not saying long work hours, free lunch, and and ping pong tables are bad.  I am saying that many Silicon Valley cultures border on cults.  Leaders should pay attention to this and try to avoid falling into common cult patterns, for example, by ensuring diverse recruiting programs, by building on-boarding programs that are more training than brainwashing, and by creating a culture that values dissenting opinions.  [5]

Employees should keep an eye out for lines getting crossed.  As they say with authoritarian leadership, it’s a boiled-frog problem — it happens slowly, you don’t notice any changes, and then wake up one day in an authoritarian regime.  Don’t let that happen to you, waking up one day to discover that you’re working at a malevolent corporate cult.

# # #

Notes

[1] Hint:  if everything is too secret, if management is routinely caught lying to customers and investors, if anyone who challenges management is summarily fired, and if you hear things like “if you don’t believe [our new product] is the most important thing humanity has ever built, you should quit now” – then you should probably go find a new job.

[2] Which nevertheless didn’t stop HubSpot from getting a good mocking in Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble.

[3] Some would certainly argue that even this is unhealthy.  Dave Arnott would argue there should be a line between “who are we” and “what we do.”  Even benevolent cults somewhat dissolve this line.

[4]  Which was so marvelously parodied in HBO’s Silicon Valley in a minute-long montage of founders pledging “to make the world a better place through Paxos algorithms” or “make the world a better place through canonical data models to communicate between endpoints.”

[5] Which is particularly important in a culture led by a strong leader.

 

 

Not in My Kitchen, You Don’t: Leaders as Norm Setters

There are two types of restaurants:  those where it’s acceptable for a cook to pickup dropped food and serve it, and those where it’s not.

food on floor 2

Sure, when asked, everyone would say it’s unacceptable to serve dropped food in their kitchen.  But is that how their kitchen actually runs?  One of my favorite definitions of culture is, to paraphrase Henry Ford’s thoughts on quality, “what happens when no one is watching.”

And if managers really run such clean kitchens, then why are there so many:

  • Websites with typos?
  • Webinars with logistics problems at the start?
  • Demonstrations where something breaks?
  • Presentations where the numbers don’t foot?
  • Customer meetings that start late?

The fact is most managers say they run kitchens where it’s unacceptable to serve food that was dropped on the floor, but all too often they don’t.  Dropped food gets served all the time by corporate America.  Why?  Because too few leaders remember that a key part of their job is to set norms — in our company, in our culture, what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Defining these norms is more important than defining quarterly OKRs or MBOs — both because they persist over time and because they help define culture — yet few managers treat them as such.  Sure, some managers like to emphasize values, and will frequently story-tell about a focus on Trust or Customer Success.  And that’s great.  But that’s all positive reinforcement.  Part of norm setting — particularly the part that says what’s not acceptable is our culture — needs to be negative reinforcement:  you can’t do that here.

gordon

That’s why I love Gordon Ramsey and his shows like Hell’s Kitchen.  “YOU CAN’T SERVE THAT, IT’S BLOODY RAW!”

He is a clear, if overzealous, communicator who sets very clear norms.  The power of norms is that, once set, the culture reinforces them.  Everyone quickly understands that in our kitchen you don’t serve dropped food and people will call each other out if someone attempts to do so.

I remember over a decade ago, mixed in a deluge of corrections I’d made on a press release, I wrote something like this:

“No, No, No, No, No, Goddammit, No — Never [break this rule and do that].”

The guy who wrote the press release was new.  He complained to HR that my feedback created a hostile work environment.  The complaint made me pause.  Then I thought:  you know what, for someone who writes like that guy does, I want it to be a hostile environment.  Cook like that in someone else’s kitchen.  But not in mine.  (Yes, he quit shortly thereafter.)

Over time I’ve learned that you don’t need to scream like Ramsey (or my younger self) to establish clear norms.  You just need one, simple, almost magical word:  unacceptable.  Just as it’s unacceptable in this kitchen to serve food that’s been dropped on the floor:

  • It’s unacceptable in this marketing team to publish work with typos.  (Work on your writing skills and have a better process.)
  • It’s unacceptable in this events team to have logistical problems at the start of an event.  (Test them all, three times if necessary, before running the webinar.)
  • It’s unacceptable in this SC team to have demos crash during sales calls.  (Test every click before you start, and don’t go off-road for the fun of it.)
  • It’s unacceptable in this finance team to create slides where the numbers don’t foot.  (Cross-check your own work and then have someone else cross-check it again.  Or, better yet, use a system to publish the numbers off one database.)
  • It’s unacceptable in this sales organization to start customer meetings late.  (Our standard practice is to book the meeting room 30 mins before the meeting start, arrive 30 mins early, and test all logistics.)

When it comes to norms, you get what you expect.  And when you don’t get it, you need to be clear:  what happened is unacceptable [1].

Since this is all pretty simple, then why do so few managers spend time defining and enforcing such operational norms?

First, it will make you unpopular.  It’s far easier to be “surprised” that the webinar didn’t work for anyone on Chrome or “understanding” that sometimes demos do crash or “realistic” that we’ll never eliminate every typo on the website.  But remember, even here you are norm-setting; you’re just setting the wrong norms.  You’re saying that all these thing are, in fact, acceptable.

Second, it’s hard because you need to be black-and-white.  A typo is black-and-white.  Numbers that don’t foot are black-and-white.  But amateurish PowerPoint clip art, poorly written paragraphs, or an under-prepared sales presentation are grey.  You’ll need to impose a black-and-white line in defining norms and let people know when they’re below it.  Think:  “this is not good enough and I don’t want to debate it.”

Third, your employees will complain that you’re a micro-manager.  No one ever calls Gordon Ramsey a micro-manager for intercepting the service of under-cooked scallops, but your employees will be quick to label you one for catching typos, numbers that don’t foot, and other mistakes.  They’ll complain to their peers.  They’ll cherry-pick your feedback, telling colleagues that all you had were a bunch of edits and you weren’t providing any real macro-value on the project [2].  You can get positioned as a hyper-critical, bad guy or gal, or someone might even assert that it’s personal — that you don’t like them [3].  A clever employee might even try to turn you into their personal proof-reader, knowing you’ll backstop their mistakes [4].

But, know this — your best employees will understand exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.   And they will respond in kind:  first, they’ll change their processes to avoid breaking any of the established norms and second, they’ll reinforce those norms with their teams and peers.

# # #

Notes

[1] And people who do unacceptable things don’t last long in this organization.

[2] No one would ever say “the ambiance was great, the service prompt, and the customer should have been happy despite the raw scallops,” but somehow many business people will say “the vision was great, the idea creative, and that the CEO should have been happy despite all the typos and math errors.”

[3] Ergo be careful in your approach.  Feedback should always be about the work — criticize the performance, not the performer.  And you must be consistent about enforcing norms equally across all people.  (Norms aren’t just for the ones you don’t like.)  Proof-read only the first page or two of a document and then say, “continued review, but stopped proof-reading here.”  Or, borrowing from The Best Work Parable, you might just stop everything at page two, send the document back, and offer to read only a properly written version of it.

[4] This begs fundamental questions about approvals.  Say you approve a press release about last quarter’s results and it contains both several typos and several incorrect numbers.  Does your approval let people off the hook for those errors?  How will they see it?  What does your approval actually mean?  Are you approving every number and every comma?  Or are you, in effect, approving the release of the headline on a given date and assuming others are accountable for quality of the body?

Quota Over-assignment and Culture

Here’s a great slide from the CFO Summit at Zuora’s 2017 annual flagship Subscribed event.

underassign

Since they talk about this as under-assignment, since people aren’t great at flipping fractions in their head, and since I think of this more intuitively as over-assignment, I’m going to invert this and turn it into a pie chart.

quota over

So, here you can  see that 22% of companies have 0-11% over-assignment of quota, 44% have 11-25% over-assignment, 23% have 25-43%, 5% have 43-100% over-assignment, and 7% have more than 100% over-assignment of quota.

Since this is a pretty broad distribution — and since this has a real impact on culture, I thought examine this on two different angles:  the amount of total cushion and where that cushion lives.

The 0-11% crowd either has a very predictable business model or likes to live dangerously.  Since there’s not that much cushion to go around, it’s not that interesting to discuss who has it.  I hope these companies have adequately modeled sales turnover and its effects on quota capacity.

The 11-25% crowd strikes me as reasonable.  In my experience, most enterprise software companies run in the 20% range, so they assign 120 units of quota at the salesrep level for an operating plan that requires 100 units of sales.  Then the question is who has the cushion?  Let’s look at three companies.

cushion

In company 1, the CEO and VP of Sales are both tied to the same number (i.e., the CEO has no cushion if the VP of Sales misses) and the VP of Sales takes all of the cushion, giving the sales managers none.  In company 2, the CEO takes the entire 20% cushion for him/herself, leaving none for either the VP of Sales or the sales managers.  In company 3, the cushion is shared with the CEO and VP of Sales each taking a slice, leaving nearly half for the sales managers.

While many might be drawn to company 3, personally, I think the best answer is yet another scenario where the CEO and VP of Sales are both tied to 100, the sales managers to 110, and the aggregate salesrep quota to 120.  Unless the CEO has multiple quota-carrying direct reports, it’s hard to give the VP of Sales a higher quota than him/herself, so they should tie themselves together and share the 10% cushion from the sales managers who in turn have ~10% cushion relative to their teams.

I think this level of cushion works well if you’re building it atop a productivity model that assumes a normal degree of sales turnover (and ramp resets) and are thus using over-assignment simply to handle non-attainment, and not also sales turnover.  If you are using over-assignment to handle both, then a higher level of cushion may be needed, which is probably why 22% of companies have 25-43% over-assignment in their sales model.

The shock is the 12% that together have more than 43% over-assignment.  Let’s ponder for a minute what that might look like in an example with 60% over-assignment.

company4

So think about this for a minute.  The VP of Sales can be at 83% of quota, the sales managers on average can be at 71% of quota, and the salesreps can be at 63% of their quota — and the CEO will still be on plan.  The only people hitting their number, making their on-target earnings (OTE), and drinking champagne at the end of the quarter are the CEO and CFO.  (And they better drink it in a closet.)

That’s why I believe cushion isn’t just a math problem.  It’s a cultural issue.  Do you want a “let them eat cake” or a “we’re all in this together” culture.  The answer to that question should help determine how much cushion you have and where it lives.

10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Moving into Management

I went looking for a post to help someone decide if they should move into management, but couldn’t find one that I really loved.  These three posts aren’t bad.  Nor is this HBR article.  But since I couldn’t find a post that I thought nails the spirit of the question, I thought I’d write one myself.

So here are the ten questions you should consider before making a move into management.

 1. Do you genuinely care about people?  

Far and away this is the most important question because management is all about people.  If you don’t enjoy working with people, if you don’t enjoy helping people, or if you’d prefer to be left alone to work on tasks or projects, then do not go into management.  If you do not genuinely care about people, then do not go into management.

2. Are you organized?

While a small number of organizational leaders and founders can get away with being unstructured and disorganized, the rest of us in management need to be organized.  If you are naturally disorganized, management will be hard for you — and the people who work for you — because your job is to make the plan and coordinate work on it.

This is why one of my managment interview questions is:  “if I opened up your kitchen cabinets what would I see?”

3.  Are you willing to continuously overcommunicate?

In a world filled with information pollution, constant distractions, and employees who think that they can pay continuous partial attention, you’d be amazed how clearly you need to state things and how often you need to repeat them in order to minimize confusion.  A big part of management is communication, so if you don’t like communicating, aren’t good at it, or don’t relish the idea of deliberately and continuously overcommunicating, then don’t go into management.

4.  Can you say “No” when you need to do?

Everybody loves yes-people managers except, of course, the people who work for them.  While saying yes to the boss and internal customers feels good, you will run your team ragged if you lack the backbone to say no when you need to.  If you can’t say no to a bad idea or offer up reprioritization options when the team is red-lining, then don’t go into management.  Saying no is an important part of the job.

5. Are you conflict averse?

Several decades I read the book Tough-Minded Management:  A Guide for Managers Too Nice for Their Own Good, and it taught me the importance of toughness in management.  Management is a tough job.  You need to layout objectives and hold people accountable for achieving them.  You need to hold peers accountable for delivering on dependencies.  You need to give people feedback that they may not want to hear.  If you’re conflict averse and loathe the idea of doing these things, don’t go into management.  Sadly, conflict averse managers actually generate far more conflict than then non-conflict-averse peers.

6. Do you care more about being liked than being effective?

If you are someone who desperately needs to be liked, then don’t go into management.  Managers need to focus on effectiveness.  The best way to be liked in management is to not care about being liked.  Employees want to be on a winning team that is managed fairly and drives results.  Focus on that and your team will like you.  If you focus on being liked and want to be everyone’s buddy, you will fail as both buddy and manager.

7. Are you willing to let go?  

Everybody knows a micromanager who can’t let go.  Nobody likes working for one.  Good managers aim to specify what needs to be done without detailing precisely how to do it.  Bad managers either over-specify or simply jump in and do it themselves.  This causes two problems:  they anger the employee whose job it was to perform the task and they abdicate their responsibility to manage the team.  If the manager’s doing the employee’s job then whose doing the manager’s?  All too often, no one.

8.  Do you have thick skin?

Managers make mistakes and managers get criticized.  If you can’t handle either, then don’t go into management.  Put differently, how many times in your career have your run into your boss’s office and said, “I just want to thank you for the wonderful job you do managing me.”  For me, that answer is zero.  (I have,  however, years later thanked past managers for putting up with my flaws.)

People generally don’t complement their managers; they criticize them.  You probably have criticized most of yours.  Don’t expect things to be any different once you become the manager.

9.  Do you enjoy teaching and coaching?

A huge positive of management is the joy you get from helping people develop their skills and advance in their careers.  That joy results from your investment in them with teaching and coaching.  Great employees want to be mentored.  If you don’t enjoy teaching and coaching, you’ll be cheating your employees out of learning opportunities and cheating yourself out of a valuable part of the management experience.

10.  Are you willing to lead?

Managers need not just to manage, but to lead.  If stepping up, definining a plan, proposing a solution, or taking an unpopular position scares you, well, part of that is normal, but if you’re not willing to do it anyway, then don’t go into management.  Management requires the courage to lead.  Remember the Peter Drucker quote that differentiates leadership and management.

“Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things.”

As a good manager, you’ll need to do both.

Six Words That Can Make or Break Your Credibility: “I’ll Get It To You Tomorrow”

I can’t tell you the number of times people I’ve worked with over the years have said, “I’ll get it to you tomorrow,” and then don’t.  Sometimes they take a few extra days.  Sometimes, amazingly, they don’t get it to me at all.

Maybe I’m the problem.  Maybe I’m one of a rare breed who thinks that tomorrow is a date and not a euphemism for “later” — which itself is all too often a euphemism for “never.”

But I do notice and I think other people do, too.  In fact, probably the first and simplest sign that someone is in over their head is failing to hit tomorrow promises.  Heck, if you can’t accurately say at 2 PM that you’ll get something done before the end of the day, how I can expect any accuracy on your estimates of a major project?

I’m not so anal that I track every interaction with people.  But once I feel like a may have a “tomorrow” problem, I do start tracking.  I’ll randomly file promises for tomorrow under my tomorrow tasks and for next week under my next week tasks.

When I see problems, I usually start our snarky:  “somebody tell Garth that tomorrow never came.”  Or, “hey Scarlet, are you going to get to that again tomorrow, which is another day.”  Or, “yo, Annie, did the Sun come out yet because it is indeed tomorrow?”  There is just too much great tomorrow-themed material to resist. “Say hi to George Clooney there in Tomorrowland.”

But unfortunately when you’re in this situation, it’s usually not funny.  We can apply the same logic to broken promises as Malcolm Gladwell applies to broken windows:  one the first one breaks, a bunch quickly follow.

So the moral of the story is simple.  If you want to work in a culture of professionalism and proper expectations management, at a company that properly under-promises and over-delivers to its customers, then it all begins with you and the simple tomorrow promise.  Don’t make it if you can’t deliver, and once you make it, deliver. If you find that you can’t, then reset expectations accordingly — but never, ever promise “tomorrow” and then go silent.

Just as you’d be shocked at how many don’t answer questions in business meetings, you’d be shocked at the number of times people say tomorrow and mean “later” — once you start paying attention.

A Simple Trick to Reduce Cross-Cultural Confusion

Have you ever been to a business meeting that felt like this?

I love communications.  Back in the day, I spent hours learning the comprehensibility of different typefaces on the theory that you shouldn’t fumble the ball on the two-yard line by building a great message, only to put in a typeface that people can’t understand.  Yesterday, I just started The Sense of Style, a manual that one-ups Strunk & White by providing research-backed rules driven not just by elegance, but comprehension.

When working with non-native English speakers, it’s easy to blame language as the source of miscommunication.  But language problems are pretty easy to identify — “Huh, what did you say?”  The scary situation is when everyone leaves a meeting thinking they’ve agreed to something, but no one actually agrees on what that is.  And that can easily happen even when everyone speaks fluent English.

That’s where culture comes in.  Most big miscommunications — the kind that derail projects and cost people their jobs — are driven by culture, not language.

If you work with India, trying to communicate without Speaking of India is like trying to trying navigate Mumbai without a map.  Living in France (as I did for five years) is greatly aided by French or Faux, which has nothing to do with language and everything to do with culture.

I’ve always found it interesting that the literal translation of jihad is “struggle.”  I often feel like communicating is a jihad in this sense:  an ongoing struggle to understand each other.

Having been to too many meetings where a false agreement was reached, I have come up with two different tricks that help minimize confusion among teams:

  • Real-time minutes.  Allocate a material chunk of the meeting to present the minutes of the meeting while it is still occurring.  But putting key decisions and action items on the screen somehow grabs peoples’ attention and gets them to focus.  Hey, we didn’t agree to X.  Or, that’s not what I meant by Y.  This trick works well for most groups, particularly those where both language and culture are not a real impediment.
  • First-draft-by-you minutes.  For more difficult situations, where miscommunications are frequent and important, I have found that it is incredibly useful to find out “what you heard” through the minutes as opposed to me simply re-writing “what we said.”  Thus, one great trick is to pick someone on the remote team and ask them to write the minutes and send them only to you, so you can see clearly was heard as opposed, perhaps, to what was said.  Once you identify and close any gaps with that one person you can then rollout the revised minutes along with someone on the ground who can explain them.

That’s it.  Two easy tricks to reduce miscommunication in the workplace.