Tag Archives: communication skills

Giving at the Office…A Leader’s Best Gifts

christmasgiftboxGot your Christmas shopping done yet? That’s a common question at this time of year and one that usually causes my eyes to roll up in my head because procrastination is my middle name. Actually my middle name is Mary but you know what I mean. Anyway, the Christmas shopping question tends to push my “get moving” button before I’m actually ready to er, get moving.

Nonetheless, once in gear, I manage to rise to the occasion long enough to consider things that might delight my loved ones and please my friends. After all, it is not the gift itself that is the reward. It is the happiness element that comes with it that makes gift -giving so much fun.

I like the idea of happiness being the real gift and I think it translates well too, when it comes to exchanging gifts at work. Of course, it is always a little more challenging to give meaningful gifts to people at work, but here are a few ideas to consider. They cost nothing. They can have lasting effects. And, to the best of my knowledge, they aren’t fattening.

The Gift of Attention

Give a few minutes of your undivided attention to each of the people you lead, each day.

That means spending the time listening, being curious about their interests, thoughts and opinions and suspending judgment long enough to learn something about them that you might otherwise miss.

The Gift of Inclusion

Take a little time to remind those you lead, why you come to work everyday. Give them the big picture (even if you’ve done it before) and show them how they fit into it as individuals. Yes, I know, it’s the old vision thing again. But, believe me, when people can see where they are going and that there is a place for them on the proverbial bus, that creates some happiness.

The Gift of Challenge

Consider those you lead and give each a challenge for the New Year that will allow them to stretch, grow, and learn more about themselves and what they can do.

I hazard to say that everyone likes a challenge. It gets the juices flowing and allows us to test our boundaries. Giving the gift of challenge suggests faith in each person’s capability and potential. And, its value is that much greater at times when the individual doubts or fears his or her own possibilities.

The Gift of Encouragement

Of course challenge on its own can become onerous if not accompanied by encouragement and the support that goes with it. So, with each gift of challenge, include whatever each person might need to accomplish it, including resources, education, training or a friendly ear. That will ensure, I think, the highest possible opportunity for success and resulting happiness.

The Gift of Truth

Find ways to convey to those you lead that you will always be straight with them no matter what the circumstances. And then make sure you follow through.

Leaders who are truthful, both in good times and bad also give the gift of useful information. Useful information allows people to make good decisions for themselves. Being Truthful with them acknowledges their capability to respond as adults. It is respectful. And, even if the news is not good, it gives them their best opportunity to work through it and find satisfying resolutions.

This of course is not an exhaustive list. They are only the gifts that first come to mind for me. What gifts do you have in mind for those you lead? Please feel free to add to the list!


Note: Originally published in December 2009


Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values

Leadership & Creating an Environment of Service

Servamt Leadership 2 No_optA lot has been said about the leader as “servant”. I expect, given that it is a relatively young term (having been ‘born’ in 1970), it is also subject to wide interpretation. As such, while some people will experience great results from their efforts to serve, others will consider it a fad that will go away if they ignore it. Still others will make every effort to embrace the notion of the Servant Leader but find themselves exhausted, confused and possibly resentful because people seem to be walking all over them.

So what to do?

Well, first I’m thinking that we need some clarity about what it means to serve or be a servant. So I looked it up in a number of dictionaries and found this:

“Servant leaders are humble stewards of their organizations’ resources.”

A Servant is one who serves another, providing help in some manner.”

“A servant is a person who performs duties for others”.

So far so good.

Then I went to the Thesaurus for some synonyms for the word servant. Between the words attendant and steward lay these words, lackey, flunky, minion and drudge.  Okay then, herein may lie a problem.

Perhaps it is that many of us, when we think of the term Servant Leadership, take this subservient perspective (a.k.a. lackey, flunky, minion and drudge). In other words, it suggests that by serving, we are also submitting to the whims of others for no other reason than to render them superior. And, let’s face it, our egos are going to have a hard time with that. So, if you have been leaning in that direction when you think about the notion of Servant Leadership, I have some good news for you. I don’t think it’s about that at all.

Here’s what I do believe it’s about. It’s about…

knowing the Over-arching purpose I believe a good servant leader will focus on an over-arching purpose. This purpose becomes the master and the guide for all activities undertaken within the framework of the company. The leader serves the purpose through people. For instance, Southwest airlines’ over-arching purpose is stated as: “To provide the best service and lowest fares to the short haul, frequent-flying, point-to-point, non-interlining traveler.” This simple statement lets everyone know why Southwest Airlines is in business and whom it is there to serve.

However, in order to succeed, this understanding of service must permeate the organization and so it also becomes the role of the leader to:

Serve the people who are working to fulfill the over-arching purpose. This means providing the resources needed for people to do their jobs well and happily. It includes delivering needed training, supplies, connections, information, accommodation, direction and anything else that allows people working in the company to move the organization closer to the achievement of its purpose.

Encourage and develop an environment where people serve each other.  Where we can go wrong with this servant leadership thing is that we fail to expect all people working in the organization to serve too. Or, we simply don’t convey it very well.

Those who believe servant leadership to be a role only for the designated leader would be wrong. In truth, an environment that embraces service will do so in an all-encompassing way. This means that regardless of title or position, each person will both lead and serve another, or a group of others, to achieve company goals and make a contribution to the achievement of its purpose.

So, having said all that, what does it actually take to create this environment where service is king? Well, for what it’s worth, this is what I think about that.

It takes Discipline: Staying focused on the over-arching purpose and using it, as a guide for providing service to others is not easy. As humans, we can become easily distracted. It may be easy to stay the course and remain true to the purpose when times are good. But, when they are not so good, it becomes tempting to stray and do what is expedient instead.

It takes Humility: Putting others before ourselves is sometimes a challenge, especially in business, but humility is an essential ingredient in a successful service environment. I’m not talking about being obsequious here. I’m talking about simply being unselfish and mindful of others’ needs and contributions.

It takes Collaboration: Simply put, in order to serve the purpose and each other, we have to learn to work together, avoid internal politics and protectionism and share our ideas and resources with each other more freely.

It takes Trust: Trust is often an earned thing. However, a leader who serves the people will, in my view anyway, start from a platform of trust rather than skepticism. In my experience, people respond well to a leader who conveys faith in their intent. People who feel trusted are more likely to be willing to serve the over-arching purpose. Will you be disappointed? Yep, from time to time you will. But, if you start out not trusting my hunch is you’re going to be disappointed anyway.


It takes Faith: I’m not talking about the religious kind of faith here. I’m talking about the kind of faith that makes you believe so strongly in your company’s purpose and its people that all of your activities centre around them and the financial results that you realize from that come as a by-product of your collective effort.

So, is servant leadership for the faint of heart? I’d say no. Is it about subservience, or slavery? Certainly not.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*Note: this post was originally published in 2010.

1 Comment

Filed under communication, Customer Service, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, organizational Development

Getting the Questions Right

This post, from September, 2011 examines the power of questioning as an effective leadership tool.


My brain is all clogged up.  I’m trying to write a blog post and it’s coming out like the Sermon on the Mount. I hate when that happens.  Sermons have their place but am not ordained to deliver them.  Besides, to me, one well-placed question is worth a hundred sermons.  In fact, one well-place question can be just the lubricant a clogged brain needs for the wheels to get going again.

So maybe I’m onto something here.  Maybe it is that leaders who feel they must have all the answers would be better off if they focused on the getting the questions right instead.

What are the right questions?  Well, that’s a good question in itself isn’t it?

I’m thinking that the right questions are those that do two powerful things:

They stimulate curiosity and exploration ~ Not all questions are going to do that.  Some simply call for answers that are already known by someone.  The really good questions are those that have everyone scratching their heads, thinking about possibilities and going into explore mode.

They get to the heart of the matter ~ I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in meetings where people get royally bogged down in discussions that go absolutely nowhere.  Sometimes, in those situations one simple question can turn the tide, stop the noise and bring about an “oh, yeah” moment that puts the meeting back into production.

What does it take to get good at getting the questions right?  Here’s what I think:

We have to be interested in what is being said.  That’s kind of an obvious one; otherwise, what’s the point?

We have to learn to suspend judgment, be willing to listen more and talk less.

We have to practice.   Asking a powerful question is an art.  Like any other art it takes work.  We’re not always going to get it right so practice, (while not always making perfect), will certainly move us closer to the highly competent arena.

Finally, what are these questions?  Well, let’s start with what they aren’t

They aren’t complex.  Sometimes we can get all bound up in making our questions sound authoritative, profound or deeply intellectual.  In my experience, a question like this usually comes out like, blah, blah, blah with a question mark at the end of it. If no one understands the question, it’s not likely that people will find it appropriately stimulating.

They aren’t necessarily perfect ~ If a question comes from a place of curiosity, even if it is only partially formed, it can spark conversation and get juices flowing enough for others to complete it and move on to explore something that they may not have otherwise considered.

So, just to get you started, here are some sample questions that I think are pretty powerful:

How will we know when we have it right?

What are we not saying? (Aka the elephant in the room question)

Who must we involve?

What is more important?

What do we really want?

What are we really saying?

What would happen if we did X instead of Y?

These are just a few questions.  And yes, they are the kind that coaches ask of their clients.  If you are a leader, you are also a coach.  Trust me, you are.  And if you don’t think so, think again.

So now I’m curious.  When people are stuck how do you help them to move on? What questions do you use to get the conversation going?  Do you have a favourite question? What is it? What does it do?


Filed under communication, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Uncategorized

Making Key Distinctions ~ Not Just The Facts Ma’am

This post, from 2011, touches on the importance of critical thinking and its role in the process of decision-making.


Lately I’ve been pondering on the importance of critical thinking as a vital leadership skill.  When I talk about critical thinking I’m referring to a conscious, deliberate and focused mental practice that allows us to uncover accurate information on which we can make sound judgments and take meaningful action. So, it’s a big deal.

It is, of course, such a big deal that it requires much more than one blog post to examine. But, it occurred to me that often, one of the things that gets in the way of our ability to think critically is the way we process incoming information particularly as it pertains to the rather fuzzy distinctions we tend to make between facts, inferences, opinions and assumptions.  So, in this blog post, I think I might be able to at least shed a little light on that.

Let’s look at the definition of each of these words:

Fact is something known with certainty that can be objectively demonstrated and verified;

Inference is an interpretation of events that provides explanations for situations in which all of the facts are not available or yet to be determined;

Opinion is a subjective statement based on personal beliefs and;

Assumption is a supposition or idea that is unsubstantiated by fact or conscious reasoning.

To the critical thinker, the goal in processing new information is to get as close to fact as possible.  Facts are hard evidence.  I think it safe to say that the farther away we get from fact, the less reliable will be our evidence.  As such, it is an important leadership skill to be able to clearly identify sources of information and put them in the proper perspective.  This does not mean that facts are the only basis on which leaders will make a decision. However, it does allow them to place value on the information received and guide the decision-making process accordingly.

Here’s a simple example of what I mean when we draw conclusions based on our personal observations.  It comes from a course that my colleague and friend, Maureen Hannah and I developed on the subject of critical thinking.   It is a schematic meant to illustrate the possible conclusions that could be drawn from available information.

I think that consciously discerning between fact, inference, opinion and assumption makes room for clarity in decision-making.  As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “ Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts”

What do you think?

Leave a comment

Filed under building awareness, Building Relationships, communication, Leadership Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Leading with Emotion

This post is from 2011.  I was inspired to write it after watching an interview with someone who is never ashamed to show emotion and is highly successful in engaging and inspiring others to excel. 


I “grew up” working in a very large organization which, for the most part, was notorious for its, um, conservative culture.  In my early experience, this meant that emotions, when expressed at work, were largely met with disapproval.  There were a couple of exceptions of course.  Anger was one.  And the other was fear.  Together these two sentiments, along with their not-so-distant cousins, irritation, exasperation, disgust, nervousness and envy formed a large part of my early working environment along with apathy, the place of neutrality where it was relatively safe but not very inspired.

I think we have learned a lot since those early days.  Thank goodness.  More and more we are encouraged to bring our whole selves to work with us.  More and more, leaders are seeing the benefits of doing the encouraging.

I’m wondering though to what extent business organizations are taking this concept of giving other emotions, like love, joy and surprise greater space and actively incorporating them into their everyday culture.  I know there are some. Zappos.com comes to mind for one. But, I ‘m thinking there are more that still squirm when considering the notion of bringing these perceived softer, and potentially messier, sides of humanity to work and giving them pride of place.

So, I tried to find somewhere where leading with emotion has worked a kind of magic that can, potentially be translated into any organization no matter the focus or the product.

I came up with Celine Dion.  Okay, I’m imagining some eyes rolling in an upward direction here.  Celine Dion is not everyone’s cup of tea.  She is often portrayed and perceived as overly dramatic, too effusive and excessively ostentatious. But hey, who better to study when considering the impact that overt emotion can have on organizations than someone who does it in a big way?

Ms Dion and her husband Rene Angelil operate their own company. M. Angelil is President and Manager of (wait for it) Feeling Productions. In 1999 they entered into a partnership with Cirque du Soleil to produce the Las Vegas Show, A New Day. At $300 million, it was reportedly the biggest contract ever negotiated in the history of the music business.  And they did it practically on a handshake.

Here is the beginning of the story of how A New Day came about.  Although it may be tempting, I urge you not to skip watching it because there are clues in here about the power leading with emotion can have on a company of diverse people with diverse interests. Pay particular attention to Celine as she meets the show’s dancers for the first time.  Listen to what the dancers are saying about her and the show. What emotions are at play?

Here is what I am learning from this:

I don’t have to be perfect to be inspiring

In fact I expect that the opposite might be true. Imperfections especially, if I am self-deprecating about them, have a way of making me more human and perhaps more forgivable.

I do have to acknowledge the value that others bring and…tell them…often.

What is more encouraging than having someone say something like, “You changed a bit of my life today”? To me, that’s pretty powerful.

One small gesture of appreciation can lead to very big things.

Celine’s back stage gesture to the cast of Cirque du Soleil triggered a set of events that otherwise might not have happened.  Genuine enthusiasm, admiration and pride for the work of others are powerful motivators.

As a leader, my positive emotions can be even more infectious than my negative ones.

I just have to call upon them more often by looking first for what’s right , not what’s wrong.


What stood out for you?  If there is one take away here that will help you engage and inspire others, what would it be?

(Please note, the use of the video clip is in no way an attempt to infringe on copyright.  It is being used here solely to serve as a learning instrument)

Leave a comment

Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, motivating & Inspiring

4 Barriers to Effective Communication & What to Do About Them

Communication is a big deal.  And, getting it right is an ongoing challenge for everyone.  Maybe that’s why this post, originally written in 2011, has received the most visits of all other posts on this blog.  Its’ message provides only a small piece of the communication jigsaw puzzle but, you never know, it just might be a corner piece.


I’m wondering how many words have actually been written about communication. Suffice it to say there have been a great many.    I suppose it is because we haven’t cracked it yet, this ability to convey messages so that what we say is heard in the way we mean it and conversely what we hear is received in the way it was meant.   Indeed, the road to clarity always seems to be under construction.

Even if we try to simplify our communication processes, barriers come up that can sabotage the message and render it ineffective by the time it gets to those who must act on it.  There are a lot of reasons for this.   Here are four that come to mind for me.

Cultural Barriers

There are many factors that make up what we refer to as “culture” but to me, cultural difference is about attitudes and beliefs that come from our personal environment and experience.  As such, two people could get the same message but interpret it in two entirely different ways simply because their frames of reference and language differ.

Here is an example from a Scandinavian advertising campaign.  It was developed for the vacuum cleaner Manufacturer, Electrolux, then interpreted and  used, without modification, in the company’s American campaign.  It read, “Nothing Sucks like an Electrolux”  

What To Do

  • Consider the cultural makeup of the intended audience.
  • Seek to understand where there are differences.
  • Fashion the message to ensure that it says what you mean and also takes those differences into account.

Linguistic Barriers

Variance in expression or colloquialism is common even among those who speak the same language.

When my parents brought our family to Canada from England, there were a lot of expressions we used that were interpreted differently in our new country.  This once placed my mother in an embarrassing situation when she was sitting around a table with her co-workers one day discussing the time they each got up in the morning to get ready for work. When it came to my mother’s turn to speak, she said, “My husband knocks me up every morning at 7:30”.

It was only after the laughter had died down did someone explain to her the North American meaning associated with what she had just said.

What To Do

  • Minimize the use of slang and idioms when delivering the message
  • Keep the language used in the message simple and as free as possible from business speak or (dare I say it) sports metaphors.
  • Make clarity and simplicity the goal over showcasing linguistic ability.


We all have them.  Bias is, after all, shaped by our experiences and who we are.  It becomes an obstacle to effective communication though when we consciously or subconsciously choose to speak only to those who are more likely to understand and agree with us.  It’s natural.  But in leadership, it is also important to extend the reach of our message to those whose biases do not necessarily align with our own.

The workplace, for example, now employs more than one generation of people.  Each generation has its view of the world.  Each generation also has its challenges.  And yet, the messages you send must finds ways to reach and engage everyone to be effective.

What To Do

  • Acknowledge your own biases first
  • Look through the lens of those who are least likely to align with your views
  • Listen.
  • Fashion your message to include something that everyone can relate to.


It was Oscar Wilde who said, “When you assume, you make an ass out of U and Me”  

Assumptions sabotage effective communication and have the potential to lead everyone down unintended paths.  For instance, you may assume that because people are nodding while you speak, they understand and agree with what you are saying. Similarly, if you invite questions about your message and get none, it would be easy to assume there are none.   The truth is, few people will risk the potential embarrassment of being the only one who doesn’t agree with or understand your message or doesn’t know what to ask.   To assume they do would be a mistake.

What to do

  • Work on the basis that all your assumptions could be false
  • Make your assumptions known to others to determine their validity
  • Anticipate questions and concerns that could come out of your message and bring them up to encourage conversation


Communication barriers are always going to be with us because humans are complex beings. That’s what makes understanding and being understood such a challenge…and sometimes a great source of fun. Like this…

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

(Please note the video clip is used here for illustration purposes only and in no way meant to infringe on copyright)


Filed under communication, diversity, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Leadership and Straight Talk

This post is from June, 2011


I happened across a movie the other day called Straight Talk.  It’s about a young woman who was accidently hired by a radio station to be an Agony Aunt.  This young woman, (played by Dolly Parton), was delightfully guileless and dished out her unadorned advice with clarity and good humour.   For example, her counsel to one caller who was obviously playing the martyrdom card went something like this: “Get down off the cross honey, somebody needs the wood!

It made me smile.  And, it also made me think about how important straight talk is in leadership.

Straight talk in organizations, when delivered with sincerity, tends to achieve understanding quickly. It brings clarity to confusion.  It allows for quicker problem solving. It values truth.  It builds trust. It grows integrity.

And yet, in so many organizations, we are incredibly bad at it.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this.  I suspect most of them have something to do with internal politics, bureaucracy, or perhaps a belief that the more complicated or obscure the language, the more important the message.

Whatever the reason, to me, creating an environment that values candid and respectful discussion is a leadership imperative and a key to building sustainable organizations.

So how might we go about establishing this straight talk environment?  Well, it could begin with establishing some principles, not unlike these:

Principle # 1: Talk to the Organ Grinder, not the Monkey

When we talk to the wrong person (or people) about something, we often do it to gain support or sympathy for our position.  It doesn’t usually solve anything and can create ill feeling and unnecessary speculation.

Principle #2: This organization is a jargon-free zone

I’m a fan of simple language. Business jargon (or any kind of jargon for that matter), may sound more intelligent or important but it has this tendency to get in the way of understanding.

Principle #3: Feedback goes stale. Serve while fresh. The longer we take to share information with each other, the less value it will have for us.  Ask permission… then deliver it when it’s fresh.  For one thing, it’ll be easier to remember and that usually makes it more useful.

Principle #4: People are not punished for speaking their minds

Often people are reticent to speak up for fear of ridicule or some other subtle form of punishment.  Taking the hammer out of the communication toolbox allows for more open and meaningful conversation.

Principle #5: Everyone has something important to say.

Adherence to this principle makes a promise to those who may be reticent to speak up, that their opinions count.

Principle #6: Listen first…talk later.

Listening is part of having respectful and candid conversations.  It allows for good questions.  Good questions invite thoughtful answers, which in turn, increase the quality of conversations.

Principle #7: R-E-S-P-E-C-T in this organization is an important noun and verb

This principle (otherwise known as the Aretha Franklin principle) pretty much speaks for itself.  Without it, the chances of establishing a culture of straight talk are pretty dim.

What do you think?  What would principles would you add?  How do you achieve straight talk in your organization?


Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, organizational culture