Is there such a thing as email prowess? And is it important enough to be one of the core criteria for promotion? Many would disagree, but there’s evidence which suggests that electronic messaging is no longer a diversion from your work, but an essential component.
It’s fair to say that most managers see email as a nuisance, an activity they would gladly do without. Professionals from an older generation can remember a simpler age when it didn’t exist. They recall the false promise made that it would save time, a goal it certainly has never achieved.
Now, it’s become an obligation – a burden which distracts and takes attention away from the real jobs managers are supposed to be doing. If it were to disappear or be banished, many would cheer with relief.
Of course, that’s wishful thinking. Asynchronous electronic messaging isn’t going anywhere, even if it gets a slight makeover via tools like WhatsApp. The benefits it brings are far too great and there’s not a single company which has avoided the culture change it’s wrought.
Amidst this transformation, managers don’t understand their role as a skillful user of email. Here are three research-based conclusions which illuminate the need to develop this skill long before a promotion is contemplated.
Email Skill Does Matter
Researchers at Microsoft have been mining email usage data for several large companies for many years. Their expert analyses can predict how well a team performs. A key factor in measuring employee satisfaction is how quickly managers respond to messages sent by their direct reports.
This makes perfect sense. Managers who become the bottleneck to their team’s proper functioning can create havoc, bringing all work to a standstill.
Further research shows that the size of a manager’s email network also has an impact. Those with small networks tend to wield little influence, thereby putting the unit’s mission at risk.
Finally, managers who send email outside of working hours while insisting on immediate responses have an adverse effect on work-life balance. They merely have to forward a single short message to upset a subordinate’s weekend, vacation, holiday, sick-day…or labor pains. Ask around in your company and you may hear some real horror stories.
Collectively, these findings put to bed the notion that a manager’s email skills don’t matter. Unfortunately, many who are promoted fail to understand the centrality of these skills to their new role and never become proficient. As managers they lament: “Sorry…I’m really bad at email.”
Your Email Volume is Your Work Product
The quantity of managers who complain about their email volume is startling. To hear them tell it, they have nothing to do with the number of messages they are obliged to process each day. They are victims.
While this particular nonsense has no place in the managerial ranks, the company that fails to teach the right lessons to its staff fosters its continuance. In the cases where the executive are the worst complainers (and offenders) the entire firm suffers. All firms must therefore give staff the skills to manage ever-increasing volumes of email.
In a June 2012 Gleaner column entitled “How executives unwittingly turn employees into morons”, I shared a true story. A Vice President consistently and blindly ruined the productivity of those around him by insisting on replies to his messages within an hour. His ignorance and the ripple effect it produced could have been avoided with the right intervention customized for his level.
That training would have reshaped the common understanding. Email messaging is a multi-faceted activity that requires a number of simultaneous skills: operational effectiveness, writing, call-to-action crafting, reading between lines, tone management, plus others. They don’t come without effort and practice, yet most companies are blind to studies showing that the average manager spends 20% of his day on this task. The cumulative time spent producing and processing poor quality messages is immense.
The Human Resource Department’s Role
Traditionally, HR has been one of the least productive units in this area. When email was first rolled out, the department was often the last to adopt the new technology. Playing catchup ever since, many Human Resource professionals live in a perpetual email backlog, use poor techniques and never move beyond the basics. As a result, they aren’t role models.
Instead, most staff members are left to fend for themselves. This means that promotions occur without these skills being taken into account. If the 20% statistic is true, and email has the multiplier effect we just described, then the problem in your company is probably expanding as volumes increase.
In most firms, this logjam can only be broken by top leadership, which must start by taking responsibility for its own lack of skill. After a good intervention, the frequent complaints about email should be replaced by positive, collective action and include everyone who sends electronic messages.
Listen to this episode here.
Why is it said that a well-conducted strategic planning retreat can be the best executive team-building session ever? What elements should you include so that the time spent helps participants work better than before?
First, you must start by setting aside any recent, fluffy definition of “team-building”: it’s become synonymous with “entertaining.” For many it means “changing out of work clothes to engage in an activity completely unrelated to the job”. Here in the Caribbean activities such as paintball, casino nights, church services and Soca parties have all earned the label, even as they deliver a “feel-good” experience.
However, many executives are not amused. They see it as unproductive, a way to bribe employees by giving them some fun (they supposedly want) in exchange for doing work (which they don’t really want.) This perverse logic represents old thinking. It comes from a time when productivity had to be coerced.
By contrast, the highest performers who typically make it to the executive ranks are already motivated. For them, team building shouldn’t be a break from work. Instead, it should enhance it by giving them a focused, intense opportunity to fix communication problems, deal with unresolved issues and learn new soft skills.
However, if you are designing such an outcome, don’t expect it to be easy. The best way to start is by focusing on observable behaviors which are missing. Once they are identified, provide your trainees the chance to practice them in a safe environment. Think of it as the equivalent of sparring with a partner in boxing, practicing in the nets in cricket or doing 100 free throws in basketball practice. Repetition, especially under the watchful eye of a demanding coach, works.
A strategic planning retreat, due to its intense nature, can be engineered to produce such outcomes. Here’s how you do it.
- Recast the Retreat as a Balance
The worst mental model to have of a strategic planning retreat is to think of it as a round-about way to develop a key document. In fact, it’s easier to get the CEO or consultant to just sit down over a weekend and type away until the task is done.
When convinced by others, some leaders condescend to conducting a full team retreat just to get other people to agree to their ideas. In these settings, the event is simply a rubber stamp. The goal of including colleagues is to sell them on the CEO’s or consultant’s brilliance.
By contrast, an authentic retreat which infuses team-building at every step views the process of developing the details as co-equal with the final product. When they are both respected, you can achieve a fine balance between engaging participants and upholding the quality of the end result.
- Use the Retreat to Engage and Train
The best process to create a group strategy involves two kinds of thinking activities. The first, “divergence”, means generating new ideas. The second, “convergence”, is the activity of bringing about agreement between different parties.
In a strategic planning retreat, it’s possible for you to emphasize these two opposite phases, teaching participants how to recognize each one. Now, they can learn the relevant skills within each activity and how to switch between them.
In particular, convergence is fraught with danger. In these phases, a good retreat should have moments when the fight for contending ideas becomes fierce. After all, the stakes are high and people from separate disciplines see the same facts with the special lenses they have been trained to use.
Don’t be like members of weak teams which try to avoid such tussles by putting decisions to a vote. Effective groups work out their differences in an open discussion. Before doing so, take your participants through a self-evaluation of the specific skills needed when diverging or converging. As they make progress towards the end result, get them to reflect on how to improve them in real time.
The truth is that a strategic planning retreat is actually made up of everyday conversations. It’s just that you can seize the opportunity for participants to reflect on the quality of these discussions as well as the final output.
If you also provide an experienced coach to give feedback in the moment, that’s a huge bonus. She should encourage each person to take risks, to try out fresh skills. Expect some new behavior changes to occur in real-time that stick around for years to come.
The bottom line is that a strategic planning retreat is an ideal chance to practice and up-level everyday executive skills. By the end, the benefits the company gains far exceed that of the best party or outside exercise. That’s real team-building.
The audio version of this article can be found here, plus an archive of past publications
What allows a few corporate leaders to take risks so effortlessly? And why are so many of the rest over-cautious, trapped in behaviors that leave staff uninspired and disengaged? These tough questions resist one-size-fits-all answers but much can be learned from the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Few realize that he died with a disapproval rating of 75%, higher than any leader in modern times. At the time, many believed that his approach was not only wrong, but unnecessary. As a result, according to those close to him, he became increasingly disillusioned inside, but to outsiders, he just kept moving. He continued to put himself at physical risk, and today Americans revere him with a 90%+ approval rating.
However, King’s example isn’t only for CEO’s and Managing Directors. In fact, anyone who wants to make a difference must face similar challenges, regardless of their level. Here are two ways to remain motivated as a change agent in your company.
Fleeing Familiarity and Safety
Anyone who is inspired with the ability to see a shiny new vision is cursed by their good fortune. Why? Inspirational feelings soon wear off, revealing an opposing force which feeds on fear and pulls them backwards. It represents the familiar parts of their lives, the routines to which they have become accustomed, the comforts they have embraced. These were all-important right up until the moment when that new vision disrupted everything.
King was no different. He was living a comfortable, middle-class life as a pastor of a church and a father of young children when he was recruited as a spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. He was 26-years old.
Over the objections of others, he steadily abandoned the path other ministers in his circles had followed. This brought him into a sustained, dangerous confrontation with enemies intent on destroying his work and personhood.
However, at the very beginning he may not have perceived the upcoming threat to his life. Like many of us, it was probably more about giving up everyday middle-class certainty for a vision of the unknown.
In fact, a week before he was caught unawares by a nomination to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association he turned down an opportunity to head up the local NAACP chapter. He was too busy, he explained, taking care of this church to serve in a community position.
Thankfully, he accepted the new role in spite of the time pressure.
As a corporate change agent, you may know what it’s like to fail when the moment to step up to lead arrives at your doorstep, dressed in unfamiliar garb. Like Lot’s wife, you glance wistfully back at the fruits of your hard work, afraid to lose them. It pays to look ahead. Here’s why.
Being Willing to Be in Harm’s Way
As a first-time manager you may have been shocked to discover that the easy life you imagined after being promoted doesn’t exist. Now, you find yourself in harm’s way: the subject of criticism from employees below and executives above.
But it’s just the beginning. With every promotion it only gets worse: the risk increases, takes on new forms and arises in ways you never thought possible.
Seasoned executives will tell you that their perks pale in comparison to sleepless nights, undeserved attacks and targeted gossip that comes from any move into the limelight. They also share that leadership is about accepting such uncertainty, while consciously putting oneself in harm’s way. In other words, it’s a bad idea for the employee who has learned how to avoid risks at all costs.
Even King admitted that if he had been given time to think about becoming the leader of the new organization, he would have declined. It was a decision made in response to the moment.
Yet, we only understand it as a historic turning point in hindsight. On that critical occasion, the choice before him was similar to the ones you face each day. Like every other chance to lead, it eventually passes and life goes on, but the difference that you could have made is lost; sometimes forever.
Take this example and multiply it a few hundred times to get an idea of why change in your firm takes so long to bring about. Many company cultures are built on staff members clinging to familiar gains while habitually avoiding risks. They have learned to avoid the key moments when they could step up to lead.
As an agent of change, don’t run: instead, look for these rare opportunities. Prepare yourself to be in harm’s way. It’s not about being reckless, just understand the risk and accept it as part of the cost of leadership. The history of icons like Dr. King shows us that your decisive action in these key moments makes all the difference.
Click here for the audio version.
What can be done about the apparent high level of dissonance between local brands and their respective customers? Most executives and customers at companies like JPS, Digicel and NCB want a close, trusted relationship, but why do managers complain that this outcome is harder to deliver than ever?
As a consumer, I notice that the brands I frequent spend a lot of time and energy shouting (i.e. advertising) at me. They behave like someone who has become unhinged: yelling out unexpected things at inappropriate times, forgetting they know who I am and trying to interrupt to satisfy their insatiable need for me to “Buy Now.”
In their haste they forget that I once made a purchase and was probably satisfied. This dementia leads them to pool me with other strangers who have never spent a penny, treating us all alike.
This is an expensive error. Instead of having inexpensive, quiet conversations with frequent customers, they crank up their advertising budgets to an anonymous public that’s already complaining about too many distractions. They’d be much better off creating online communities that allow their customers to interact with each other in fruitful ways. In fact, they should know from experience why this is crucial.
Most companies have long abandoned the idea that an employee should never speak to someone outside their department without going through their immediate manager. It’s more productive to talk directly. Yet, firms are perfectly fine treating customers as if they are silos, doing nothing to encourage cross-talk. Consequently, they pay a high cost.
Not that your customers submit to this treatment and stay silent. They are too busy talking to each other about your brand via the latest technology. Behind your back, they are using WhatsApp, Messenger and other social networks that share news faster than any announcement, billboard or banner ad.
Some motivated fans go further, and set up their own Facebook pages, groups and Twitter hashtags. Case in point: West indies Cricket. There is one official Facebook page, but ten groups set up by individuals. Given the squad‘s poor performance, and the animosity felt towards its administrators, it’s not hard to imagine the content of these forums.
Unfortunately, in the case of the three major brands I mentioned, their Facebook pages are also filled with complaints. Hardly a complimentary note can be found. Why? People with strong feelings just want to know they are not alone and actively seek out others.
Fortunately, inexpensive technology now exists for your company to be proactive and turn the tide. Instead of waiting around, launch online communities that serve the needs of all stakeholders by giving customers a way to speak with, learn from and help each other.
In the past few months, I have set up a new (free) network for Human Resource professionals at CaribHRForum. To avoid making big mistakes, I did some research into online communities and was amazed: what used to be a hit-or-miss affair now has solid, recent resources and studies behind it. Here are the steps I recommend you take, condensing best practices I am learning to use.
1. Define Community Goals with Customer Input
Effective online communities are a partnership intended to satisfy the unmet needs of brands and their customers.
Your company should simultaneously develop objectives for the community while fostering a small group of customers. Give them access to a basic platform and get them talking to you and to each other about their needs.
2. Upgrade to a Scalable Platform
This is the point to make some tradeoffs. While Facebook is free, it’s noisy and distracting. The average person spends only a few seconds viewing their brands, according to data collected.
Paid community platforms allow members to be more focused and are built for growth. Select one of the many which exist that suits your needs and find someone to manage it.
3. Match hypothetical with actual behavior
Once you get up and running, put yourself in learning mode. Perform the following tests of your community member’s habitual behavior and your tactics.
Test #1 – Members should all be treated alike.
See what happens when you offer a feature or piece of content to different segments. They may not be real.
Test #2 – Members respond to incentives.
This assumption is the lazy manager’s default. In reality, people’s motivation can be complex, especially within communities with long-term relationships.
Test #3 – Members will recruit others.
Ask them to invite others and see how they respond.
Remember, your customers probably had an initial positive experience and desperately want to relive it. Your new online community is a structured way to bring them together to achieve a win-win: a meeting of your goals and theirs. Repeat the trick often enough and they’ll thank you for trading in your shouty ads for decent, engaging conversations.
You can find the audio version of this article here.
We Jamaicans have a difficulty noticing high standards, even when they hit us right in the face. This habit ruins organizations when leaders are the worst culprits.
For example, even our savviest business leaders sometime fall for hucksters who promise miracle “opportunities” which provide instant, effortless riches.
Case in point: I recall intelligent friends trying to convince me that Olint and Cash Plus were legitimate ventures being made available to the common man “by God’s Grace”. These weren‘t isolated con jobs. Apparently, we Jamaicans have a weakness for this kind of argument. We want to achieve success without giving in to the high standard which it demands.
In this context, I can think of two situations in which we are challenged.
1) The first occurs in the moment when we realize that we have just become part of a relationship which calls for higher standards than we have lived by. It’s often a shock. In one situation, a coach I hired threatened (in writing) to double her rates, then triple them, then fire me if I missed another appointment.
In another unrelated case, my late arrival at a meeting was met by a locked door.
As human beings, we don’t react well in these circumstances. “How dare they?” we exclaim, then indignantly try to beat down an “oppressive” standard. We look for weaknesses, loopholes and back doors. If there’s a bly or relationship we can find to free us from the obligation, we’ll use it. At the very least, we get everyone to agree: the upholders (like my coach) are Nazis, no better than Backra.
Paradoxically, we all love the end-result of high standards. Government and Rhodes Scholarships. Winners of Champs and Schools’ Challenge. The manicured lawns of the JCAA. Profits. The teacher we had in school who demanded greatness from us, and got it.
Perhaps we need to adopt a new personal maxim: “Whenever I am forced by a new environment to meet a higher standard, embrace the opportunity.”
2) But what should we do when the opposite situation occurs? Instead of being hit by a high external standard, we find ourselves in organizations where standards are eroding before our very eyes.
At Wolmers, I saw first-hand what happens when incompetent leadership suddenly replaces its opposite. Imagine a student being caned in the middle of prayers, interrupting a scripture reading. Eventually, teachers began to give up their role as disciplinarians. By the time I reached 6th form, prefects were giving twice as many detentions as teachers.
When standards deteriorate, most of us complain loudly. However, we may be disingenuous. Case in point: We desperately want to have an effective JCF, but also want to be able to safely “let off a smalls.” (Arguably, the only reason the JDF remains relatively unsullied is because it has fewer contact hours with our citizens.)
In daily corporate life, it’s just as easy to abandon high principles. For example, when a CEO or MD displays low standards, few are willing to confront him/her. Unlike our best police, soldiers or firemen, employees are unwilling to put themselves in harm’s way.
In fact, the propensity to play it safe is seen by many as a necessary skill for corporate survival. Sticking out your neck for an abstract ideal is judged as unrealistic.
If you find yourself in either of these two situations, resist the urge to walk away. Instead, follow these steps.
- Gain a deep understanding
Create a clear picture of the behaviors that comprise the standard. Break it down into small actions anyone can learn so that you can act accordingly to fix the problem.
- Look for colleagues who agree to the standard
While not everyone will see the situation the same, some may. Find others of like mind and strengthen each other’s resolve to take a stand and face the attendant risks.
This is no short skirmish. The battle to change a culture involves much introspection as protagonists struggle to either attain a high standard or keep one from disappearing. To succeed, they must find ways to speak truths on ever larger, more public stages. Do it well and you can create an internal change movement.
But that is only the start. The daily battle is to take risks in the face of disagreement and ridicule. It requires courage to live out of higher standards in both situations.
While we Jamaicans are usually not social cowards, our workplaces are staffed with people in play-it-safe cultures. They sincerely believe there is no alternative. They are wrong: there is. We just need to step up and accept the cost of high achievement. It’s no more than an inner resolve to take brave actions in service of higher standards.
Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2018, send email to email@example.com
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