Lessons From My Year of Decluttering

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Earlier this year I told you I had begun a process of clearing both physical and mental clutter in my life. This has been quite a big undertaking, but I am on the other side of it. Life feels much easier and lighter. I want to share what I've learned about clutter (no matter what kind) and how you can begin to address yours.

What Is Clutter?

Most of us think of clutter in the physical sense — for example, a pile of papers on your desk or a closet full of outdated clothes that don’t fit anymore. But let’s take a look at a much broader definition.

  • Clutter can be anything that drains your energy, whether that's a messy physical environment or a relationship that depletes you.

  • Clutter encompasses what you keep tolerating and allowing to frustrate you. This could range from a repair job that you keep putting off to bad habits that you know you need to change to perpetual underperformance from team members or ongoing issues in your other work or personal relationships.

  • Clutter can include remnants of the past or parts of your life, personal or professional, that just don't fit anymore.

  • No matter what form clutter takes, it can distract you, deplete your energy and affect how you “show up” with others every day.

Managing Relationship Clutter

As I examined the clutter in my own life, tackling my physical environment was easy. I cleared stuff out of my house, replaced the old, drafty front and back doors, installed new porch lights and got a new yard service. Essentially, I got rid of all the visual reminders of what didn’t work, which released some of my mental capacity for other things.

The next step was to look at my relationships, which was much thornier work. When you have to continue interacting with people you find draining, things get a bit more complicated. It’s not as easy as tossing out old magazines!

You can, however, take steps to minimize the impact of these relationships:

  • Think about both how a particular relationship serves you and how it's holding you back. Get clear about the one or two reasons you want to stay engaged in this relationship. This will allow you to be more intentional about the choice you are making to continue the relationship and why.

  • Next, identify one thing you could do differently with this challenging person that would allow you to maintain your relationship and your energy. Experiment with setting boundaries for yourself. For example, you could shift your interaction to more phone calls vs. in-person meetings, shorten the time you interact or change the cadence of how often you interact.

  • Identify at least one way to restore yourself after you have to spend time with a frustrating or energy-draining person. For example, if you know a colleague that sets you off will be at a meeting, plan to do something energizing right before or after. It can be something as simple as taking a quick walk. Focus on what works for you.

  • Start taking steps to address underperformance that feels exhausting to deal with. Check out my previous blog post on how to stop tolerating ongoing performance issues in your team.

Declutter Your Behavior

You might discover, though, that the most damaging clutter in your life isn't in your physical environment or your relationships, but rather in your mindset or behavior. If this resonates for you, review these resources to leave your limitations behind:

  • Notice your "thinking traps." These affect your stress level and confidence.

  • Identify one or two behaviors that undermine your executive presence. This could include acting as you did in a past position instead of adopting new practices to help you succeed in your current role. For example, I see leaders involved in far too many details and failing to delegate and more fully leverage their teams. Or they fail to recognize that how you get results is just as important as the results themselves.

  • Take a look at my products and services, which will give you many more resources to draw on when you're looking to make lasting change.

No matter what area of your life you want to declutter, remember to enlist support from people who understand your goals and give you energy.

I want to challenge you to identify one thing you will do this week to start decluttering.  And remember that small steps can lead to big results.

How Are Your Blind Spots Getting in Your Way?

Blind spots. We all have them. But do you really understand how they’re getting in the way of your success?

Imagine racing a high-performance car. You are looking ahead, planning your next move to sustain your performance without compromising your speed. You need to switch lanes and have just a split second to decide which way to go. But you can’t see because your car has a huge blind spot. What do you do? Do you slow down and risk losing the race? Or do you move to the next lane, with unknown consequences to you and others?

Like a race car driver, a high-performing leader moves at a fast clip — zipping from one move to the next, making quick decisions; all the while focused on getting results. If you are like many leaders, you have limited time to reflect. You may not realize that you have blind spots — behaviors that could be hindering your progress and possibly putting others at risk.

So, what can you do? Here are three tips to help you identify and address your blind spots:

1. Ask others for feedback

Identify people with a range of perspectives who will be open and honest about your performance and ask them for feedback. Be sure to ask what you do well, how you may be getting in your own way, and what you should do more or less of to be effective in your role.

As you prepare to request feedback, think about the importance of anonymity and the approach that will yield the most insight. For example, you can use your company’s 360 or upward feedback tool, use a simple online survey tool like SurveyMonkey, sit down and have a direct conversation, or work with an executive coach who can interview others on your behalf and summarize the key themes. Whatever you decide, be sure to choose a method that fosters honest, candid feedback and gives you enough context to interpret the comment.

2. Validate the feedback

Everyone reacts to feedback differently. You may find yourself choosing to deny it or ignore it. However you feel about the feedback, I would urge you to at least validate it. Look for evidence and examples through your own observations, reflection, and conversations with others. Whether you agree with the feedback or not, entertaining the possibility that “it might be true” will open you up to noticing things you might not otherwise see.

3. Take Action

So now that you have gathered and validated the feedback, what should you do? Just remember that feedback has value only if you do something with it. Start by choosing one or two areas that you’d like to focus on first. Be careful not to overload yourself with action items, and remember that your action items don’t have to be huge. Small steps can lead to big results.

Are You Missing the Two Most Important Steps in Giving Feedback?

Do you struggle with giving candid, constructive feedback? Read on if you answered, “Yes.”

If you’re like most managers and leaders, you have the best intentions when you are giving feedback. You want to communicate clearly and constructively without damaging the relationship, ultimately improving performance. As you know, this can be easier said than done.

So, as a feedback provider, what can you do to set up the conversation for success? Well, as I’ve coached people over the years, I have noticed two areas that can make a big difference:

1. Describe what you observed.

When you are giving feedback, be sure to state the behavior you observed in objective terms. In other words, state the facts without interpreting them. This will make the person much more open to what you have to say and more likely to hear your underlying message.

Let’s use Jane as an example. From the past two team meetings you have attended you might think that Jane can’t control her temper when others don’t agree with her point of view. If you share your conclusion with her, it could immediately raise her defenses, resulting in a counterproductive argument.

Instead, focus on the sharing the facts without sharing your interpretation. For example, you could say, “In the past two team meetings, you raised your voice at Jim and Sue when they disagreed with your suggestions.”

2. Communicate the impact of the behavior.

Sometimes you can focus so much on communicating the behavior that you may overlook the importance of explaining its impact. So, challenge yourself to think about any quantitative or qualitative consequences, and come up with at least two or three to share. This will go a long way in reinforcing the importance of the feedback, and will offer clues about what may be required to resolve the situation at hand.

Building on Jane’s situation above, here are some examples: “Jim is embarrassed and does not want to attend future team meetings.” “Sue has concerns about working with you.” “The rest of the team does not want to bring up any ideas that you may disagree with.” “Other leaders have heard about these two meetings, and are questioning your management style.”

Although there are many other important steps involved in preparing to give feedback, I would encourage you to spend more time on these two. It can be the difference between a constructive and counterproductive conversation.

Can You Really Afford Not to Ask for Help?

One of the common themes I find in coaching high-performing women managers and leaders is their reluctance to ask for help. This shows up in their personal and professional lives. As you know, women are socialized to take care of others, so naturally it can be easier to put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own.

In the working world, this can limit a woman’s ability to take her performance and career to the next level. When combined with the added demands of a family, especially a two-career family, it also dramatically increases the risk of burnout. This has huge implications for women, and their employers.

Below are four common traps that women often fall into, and suggestions on how to reframe them so that they don’t get in your way.

1. "I should be able to do this."

This trap is all about having high expectations and standards for yourself, which has pros and cons. On one hand, it can drive you to consistently deliver high-quality work. On the other hand, it may cause you to overlook how you can empower others, develop them to contribute more, and help them feel important. Next time you fall into this trap, ask yourself what you are indirectly communicating to others when you choose to take it all on yourself.

2. "I like things done a certain way, so I'd rather just do it myself."

Is the pursuit of perfection getting in your way, whether it’s about how your spouse loads the dishwasher or how a PowerPoint presentation is formatted? We all have our preferred ways of doing things, but at what cost? In the big picture, how important is it for this task to be done perfectly, and to be done by you? What higher-priority items should you spend your time on instead?

3. "It will take more time to explain this task than it would to do it."

This trap is all about the short-term vs. long-term trade-offs. In other words, it may take more time to delegate and explain this task this time, but the next time you need help it will go much faster. By investing time now, you can set the stage for getting ongoing help with this and other tasks.

4. "Everyone's already so busy. I don't want to overload them."

This is the classic trap of deciding for others before you even give them a chance to weigh in on the decision. Who knows, you may find that others are too busy help. But then again, you might not. People may want to help you because they think what you’re working on is interesting or challenging, or they see it as a chance to demonstrate their capabilities. To them, it may be worth taking on more work to have that opportunity. Trust that they will let you know if they can’t help.

In the long run, taking it all on yourself can limit your success and the success of your team. Just remember that there is an implicit trade-off in the choices you make. Keep these traps in mind so that you make those choices consciously.

What Kind of Leader Are You?

If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t given much, if any, thought to your brand as a leader. When I coach high-performing managers and leaders, leadership brand comes up time and again — because being deliberate about assessing and developing your brand can have a huge impact on your success.

So, if you’re ready to take a look at your brand, here are four steps to get you started:

1. Find out what you are known for today.

Whether you realize it or not, you do have a brand. The question is how well it's serving you. As you define your current brand, limit yourself to three, one-word adjectives. Reflect on performance reviews and common themes you have heard from others in the past, and consider collecting feedback from others. You can conduct an anonymous online survey, ask people yourself, or have someone else (like an executive coach, mentor, or supervisor) gather feedback for you. Whatever you do, choose an approach that will give you candid information. Remember to ask people to give you specific examples. What do you say or do that demonstrates your brand? You have to understand what it looks and sounds like.

2. Determine what you want to be known for.

Your desired brand must be authentic (i.e., true to you); this is not about misleading anyone. Again, limit yourself to three one-word adjectives. I once coached a female executive (let’s call her Michelle) about her desired brand.

She wants others to view her as:

Credible – Michelle wants others to recognize her specialized industry expertise because it is important for the role and business she is in.

Confident – Michelle wants to have a physical presence that conveys that she is a strong player.

Respectful – When she disagrees with a point of view, Michelle wants to do it in a manner that still encourages ideas and input from others.

3. Define how to reinforce your desired brand.

Again, it’s important to determine what you would say or do to reinforce your brand. In Michelle’s example, demonstrating credibility might involve proactively sharing specific industry information with the leadership team in the context of a top priority or project. Confidence might entail speaking louder, making direct eye contact when addressing a group, standing or sitting taller, or speaking up at least once in every leadership meeting.

4. Take action to close the gap.

Identify one or two actions you will take to close the gap between your current and your desired brand. This may mean that you have to stop or start doing something. Using Michelle’s example of being respectful, she has to stop interrupting others when they speak and resist that urge to jump right in.

Just remember that your leadership brand is important context for how you show up as a leader — in your everyday words and actions. By proactively defining and managing your brand, you will get better results. So, what are you waiting for?

Are Your Headlines Getting Lost in the Details?

No matter how high up you go in an organization, communication can be a challenge. As a manager or leader, there’s a fine line between sharing too much information and not enough. Too much detail can leave others with the impression that you can’t see the big picture or focus on what really matters because you are bogged down in minutiae. Or people may think you are defensive when you dive into details in response to a question or comment, even if your intent is to merely explain or inform. On the other hand, not sharing enough detail may leave others thinking that you don’t fully understand the situation or issues at hand.

Wherever you are on the scale of detail-orientation, the most important thing is to make sure that the people receiving your communication get the “headlines,” the two or three key messages you really want them to understand.

Here are some guidelines I use with my executive coaching clients to help them focus on what to say and how to say it.

1.Consider the kind of impression you want to leave, and how you want to be viewed.

Taking this into consideration will help you determine the best method(s) to use for your communication (e.g., call, email, meeting, etc.), how to frame your message, and how you “show up.” Remember that how you communicate can reinforce or detract from the leadership brand you want to build.

2.Map out the two or three key messages that you want your audience to leave with.

If you had only 60 seconds to get your message across, what are the most critical things you want your audience to know? Once you’ve figured that out, think about how you can make those messages stand out, and connect your supporting information back to them. For example, if you are putting it in writing, using color and bold can help. If you are presenting the information in a group or one-on-one, you can use your handouts/material to reinforce your key messages.

3.Practice sharing your headlines first then filling in the details to ensure understanding.

Sometimes we can fall into the trap of providing all the information to support our point of view and then concluding with our summary of what it all means. Most leaders expect that you have done your homework — especially if you are high performer — and will ask you for more information if they need it. So, if you assume they want all the detail, you may lose their attention. Of course there are some leaders who are very detail-oriented, so adjust your style for your audience.

Either way, I would encourage you to start with the headlines and then provide more information as needed. This would work whether you are communicating something for the first time or merely responding to someone else.

Often, minor tweaks in your communication can make a huge difference. Just make sure you aren’t losing your audience in all the detail.

Creating the Outcome You Want

My clients are high performers with a relentless drive for results. But even with that drive, sometimes people overlook how they can create the outcomes they want.

For example, I met with a leader who was excited about a promising business relationship that could really take his company to the next level. After having two fruitful meetings with this potential client, he shifted into “wait and see” mode because he felt the ball was in the other party’s court.

Although he may not have had as much control as he wanted in this situation, he had much more power and influence than he realized.

To get him thinking about how he could create the outcome that he wanted, I asked him a few questions. Even though you may be faced with a different type of opportunity or challenge than his, the following questions will shift your mindset

and approach — leading you closer to the outcome you want:

What would you like to have happen?

Start by defining what the ideal outcome would look like. Get really specific about the most important elements, for you and the other party involved. These elements could include your role and responsibilities, your working relationship with the other party, your compensation, and so on.

What would it take to make that happen?

Next, consider the key pieces that would have to be in place for the ideal outcome to happen. In the example above, it was more credibility and trust between the two parties. As we talked further, he also realized that minimizing risk for both parties mattered a great deal.

What are the first two steps you can take to lead to the outcome you want?

After you’ve answered the first two questions, you will find that the answer to this last question comes much more easily. You begin to see the small steps you can take to start moving things in the direction you want. Remember that it can be subtle things that you say or do. The most important part is making sure the steps tie to the outcome you want and what must be in place to make it happen. In this example, this leader realized that crafting some kind of pilot project was the best way for both parties to try something on a small scale, to minimize risk, and to advance their working relationship.

Although we don’t always have control over a situation, we can influence the outcome. Just remember that getting really clear about what you want shifts your mindset and helps you naturally and easily start creating the outcome you want.

How to Keep Your Good Idea from Being Shot Down

Have you ever found yourself frustrated because you have a good idea that doesn’t go anywhere? No matter how big or small the idea, we’ve all faced this at some point. After reading John Kotter’s book Buy In — Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down, I thought it would help to share some of his strategies to “save” good ideas.

Take stock.

Start with being crystal clear about your idea. Can you explain your idea in a short elevator ride? If not, you need to distill it down to the essential elements and keep it simple. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in giving so much context or justification for your idea that you lose your audience in the details. Think about the basics of what they need to know.

Next, think about who might support the idea, and which likely supporters you should talk to about the idea before sharing it more broadly. During my years at Deloitte Consulting, this strategy was invaluable for getting buy-in and for identifying potential attacks, and from whom they might come. Remember to think about how you can engage your supporters to respond to naysayers, and ask them about when and how you should communicate to key stakeholders. If you do it right, the decision-making meeting should be a non-event — because you had all the right meetings before the meeting.

Finally, role-play the meeting or conversation in advance, anticipating and responding to attacks or objections. Sometimes it can really help to have someone brainstorm with you.

Anticipate the four basic attack strategies.

Although the book lists 28 attack strategies, at the core they are all about the following four basic attack strategies:

  1. Fear mongering – This strategy aims at raising anxieties of the group to prevent a thoughtful examination of the idea. It gets people responding irrationally and emotionally.

  2. Death by delay – You may have experienced this frustrating strategy first hand. This is where so many meetings or steps are proposed that you completely miss the window of opportunity for the idea.

  3. Confusion – This tactic muddies the water with irrelevant facts, convoluted logic, or so many alternatives that a productive dialogue gets stalled.

  4. Ridicule and character assassination – This is what I call playing dirty, whether it’s through verbal or nonverbal communication. The attacker may raise questions about your competence or preparation, redirecting the conversation away from the idea itself.

Develop your responses in advance.

So, what should you do to respond to these attack strategies? In a nutshell, Kotter recommends doing the unexpected, taking the high road, and staying focused. Here are the four elements he suggests you integrate into your response.

  1. Let attackers into the discussion and let them go after you. Kotter suggests doing this because it gets people’s attention. Without their attention, you won’t have a chance to explain the issue or your proposed solution.

  2. Keep your responses clear, simple, crisp, and full of common sense. Don’t get mired in explaining all the logic and facts, which can make any audience glaze over.

  3. Show respect constantly. Don’t fight or collapse or become defensive. By treating others with respect, you draw an audience emotionally to your side, where they are more likely to listen carefully and sympathetically.

  4. Focus on the whole audience. Don’t be distracted by the detractors.

Remember that it’s about winning the hearts and minds of the majority, not the minority.

At the end of the day, it’s all about preparation. You can use these concepts to prepare before you pitch any idea – no matter how big or small because the basic approach is sound. Just don’t try to wing it, even if your idea seems bulletproof or you expect a friendly audience. A few minutes of preparation can go a long way.

Are You Taking Your Skills and Experience for Granted?

I once wrote a proposal for a multi-billion-dollar company seeking to develop its top leaders. Of course, the minute I hit “send,” I realized I had omitted a really important fact about my experience – so important, in fact, that leaving it out meant I had grossly understated my qualifications. I just couldn’t believe I had missed it! Although I had a chance to rectify the situation, this reminded me how easy it is to overlook what you know.

I see the same things happen with my clients. They often overlook extremely valuable lessons and experiences from the past that can help them with what they’re wrestling with today. Their oversight may center on skills that they just don’t notice they have anymore — in other words, areas where they have reached the point of “unconscious competence.”

With the Newberry Leadership System for High Performing Women, I help my clients build critical skills to the point where they are second nature, to the point of unconscious competence. However, I also find myself helping my clients remember what they already know and how to apply it to what they face today.

Here’s a quick example. I once coached a leader who has always been good at building a strong network of advocates. In fact, in the past it has helped her move up the corporate ladder very quickly. However, in the past two years, she has spent less and less time focusing on her network – to the point that she lost sight of its importance altogether. It wasn’t until she found herself in a political situation where she wasn’t supported that she realized just what she had forgotten. That situation was the rude awakening she needed to jog her memory. In our coaching session, we talked through how to bounce back from the situation, leveraging her skills and experiences from the past (and she had many to tap into).

Another one of my clients found herself frustrated about all the unexpected issues popping up on a mission-critical project. She really couldn’t afford any delays. When we started to delve deeper, she realized that she had forgotten about an issue tracking and management approach and tool she had used on another project. By putting that back into play, she got the right information from her team – information to help her anticipate and prevent potential problems.

So, the next time you find yourself dealing with a challenging issue, take time to ask yourself the following questions:

1.What is the underlying issue I’m struggling with?

Don’t get distracted by all the details, really focus on the core issue(s).

2.In the past, when have I encountered a similar situation?

Asking yourself this question will help you remember a past experience that may lend insight into how to approach the current situation.

3.What helped me work through that situation successfully?

What lessons did you learn that could apply here? This will help you remember key elements of what happened in the past, how you handled the situation, and what could be useful as you develop your approach to the current situation.

The Power of Letting Go

During a presentation I gave in Dallas on resilience, I led the group through an exercise where they had to pull out the most valuable lessons they had learned from working through difficult situations in the past. I want to share a common theme that emerged from our discussion that evening — the Power of Letting Go — because I see this come up all the time with high performers.

A woman who attended my presentation described a time when she had been working and pushing so hard to resolve a critical business issue. She explained how much was at stake in this particular situation, and that she really needed some key players to step up and take action. But they just weren’t getting engaged or responding as she had hoped. She worried about things unraveling, as any of us would in her situation. But she had also reached the point where there really was nothing more she could do. She went on to explain that at this low point for her, another leader in the organization gave her the following words of wisdom, “Just let go and let things happen.”

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? As a high performer, you may do whatever it takes to make something work, even when it means working crazy hours and jumping through hoops. For an outsider looking in, it may appear completely insane. “Failure” probably isn’t even in your vocabulary, and you may keep pushing and working harder because that has always worked for you . . . until you encounter a situation where that approach just won’t work.

As a high performer, you may not recognize that your drive for results may keep others from experiencing the consequences of their choices and actions. Think about it for a minute. Why would they jump in and do something when you’re so willing to take charge and do it for them?

Just remember that what you don’t do can be just as or more important than what you do. As I’ve admitted before, I too have learned from the School of Hard Knocks — and it helps me relate to what my clients face. I remember realizing the Power of Letting Go at two key points in my 14-year career at Deloitte. I recall feeling exhausted, frustrated, and burned out both times. Then I realized that doing more of the same just wouldn’t get me to a different result. There was nothing left to do other than stop trying so hard — and just let go. In 2010, I experienced this lesson again as I worked through some personal transitions. I am always amazed at how letting go leads me so much faster to what I want, personally or professionally.

I want to leave you with three things that have helped me and my clients realize the Power of Letting Go:

1. Recognize when you have done everything you reasonably could have to work through the challenge at hand.

Usually when you are working this hard, others can see your commitment, work ethic, and drive for results. The question is, do you see it? Look for the evidence.

2. Ask yourself what could happen if you stopped pushing so hard.

Take time to think about the consequences others might experience and the ripple effect of those, if you stopped pushing so hard. And don’t forget to think about how letting go would impact you.

3. Take a leap of faith that things will work out as they should.

There may be some things you don’t know or just can’t see about the situation because you are so immersed in it. Just let them unfold. Trust that if you have acted in good faith and given it your best shot, the outcome will be what it should be.

So, the next time you find yourself in a tough situation and pushing really hard, keep these three things in mind. You might be surprised at how letting go will help you take a giant leap forward.

Do You Have Mentors or Sponsors?

Whether you’re a man or a woman, you’ve probably heard time and again how important it is to have at least one strong mentor to guide you and help you develop the skills to get to the next level in your career. Most large companies even offer formal or informal mentoring programs. So you might think that both genders benefit equally from having a mentor. However, a Harvard Business Review article, Why Men Get More Promotions than Women, highlights that men benefit more than women.

The article shares research from a 2010 study by Catalyst, a leading nonprofit organization that works with businesses to build inclusive workplaces and expand opportunities for women and business.

Here is one of the most notable findings from the research:

“Although women are mentored, they’re not being promoted. A Catalyst study of more than 4,000 high potentials shows that more women than men have mentors— yet women are less likely to advance in their careers. That’s because they’re not actively sponsored the way the men are. Sponsors go beyond giving feedback and advice; they advocate for their mentees and help them gain visibility in the company. They fight to get their protégés to the next level.”

The article goes on to say that men and women both mention receiving valuable career advice from their mentors, but men predominantly describe being sponsored. Women explain that their mentoring relationships help them better understand themselves and how they work, and what they might need to change as they move up the corporate ladder. Men, on the other hand, tell more stories about how their bosses and mentors have helped them strategically plan their career moves, assume responsibility and leadership in new roles, and openly support their authority.

The research certainly has implications for organizations as they design mentoring programs and explore how to best support the advancement of women. But there are also important implications for what you should personally do. Here are three suggestions to think about:

1. Recognize the distinction between mentorship and sponsorship.

Both mentors and sponsors offer tremendous value in helping you develop yourself and proactively manage your career. Mentors typically serve as role models, providing guidance and perspective to help you further develop your skills and navigate challenging political situations. Sponsors, on the other hand, give you exposure to opportunities and visibility to influential leaders, and advocate on your behalf.

2. Have mentors and sponsors in your network.

Recognize that the skills required to be an effective mentor may be different from what it takes to be an effective sponsor. Mentors can typically hold any position in the organization and can help you close gaps in your skills, while sponsors have clout and yield considerable influence on key decision-makers. Remember to have both mentors and sponsors in your network, using your career goals as important context for whom you engage.

3. Be mindful of whom you choose.

It may be more comfortable for you to choose individuals who look like you. In fact, the research shows that men tend to gravitate toward men and women to women. However, when it comes to sponsors, more important than gender is the person’s role and level in the organization. Remember that it’s critical to gain sponsorship from leaders who hold senior-level positions and have influence and power. As you think about mentors, think about the skills you are trying to build and who may be able to help you fill those gaps.

So, to get you started, take a look at your existing network in the context of what you’re trying to accomplish personally and professionally. This will serve as an important guide to identify whom to engage as mentors and sponsors to get the support you need.

The Fine Art of Influence

Influence has so many implications, from getting your ideas heard to getting the support and resources you need to implement them. For some, the fine art of influence comes naturally, but for most it requires concerted effort.

Let’s start by taking a look at a common definition of influence:

Influence is the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others. (Source: dictionary.com)

Well, who wouldn’t want to be a compelling force that affects what others think or do?! You might be thinking that this sounds more like manipulating others to get what you want. However, what I’m referring to is learning how to develop win/win scenarios that allow you to get traction by being authentic, considering what is important to others, and doing what’s right for your company.

For example, I have a client who is trying to take the performance of her organization to the next level but keeps getting tangled in a web of politics. She needs help from another group to get the results she wants, but hasn’t been able to influence them to collaborate. Her focus is not self-serving. She truly has the organization’s best interest in mind.

So, we zeroed in on one critical relationship that could influence my client’s results dramatically. Below is a list of questions that I asked her in the context of influencing a specific person to take action. These questions may help you the next time you want to exert more influence.

What are you really trying to accomplish?

First, be clear about what you want and why. It will help you better understand and communicate your underlying intent. For example, you may want someone to invite you to a specific leadership team meeting. On the surface, it might seem to the other person that you just want to schmooze, but in reality you have and want to share key information with the group so that they can make better business decisions. Clarifying and sharing your intent will lead you to make the request in a way that will help the other person understand the “so what.”

How are you perceived by the other person?

Your credibility and reputation impacts whether the other person notices or really hears what you want. So, take time to reflect about what the other person thinks of you and how her “filter” might affect what she thinks of your request.

In my client’s case, the other person thinks of her as smart, direct, and focused on doing the right thing. However, they don’t know each other well, so my client may need to reinforce some of those attributes in her communication.

What is important to the other person?

Asking this question will help you zero in on what motivates the other person. It could range from looking good to his boss, to wanting to get promoted, to achieving a specific goal, to working less. If you don’t know the answer to this question, talk to others who might.

Where is the common ground for you both?

This final step brings it all together by combining your intent with what matters to the other person. People tend to be much more receptive if they view your request as aligned with their goals and objectives. Think about how you can frame your request or what you want in this context.

By taking even a couple of minutes to think through these questions, you can dramatically shift how you frame an idea or make a request — and your influence on the outcome. It can be the difference between sounding nitpicky and self- serving vs. sounding focused on something that matters to you and the other person involved, and that brings value to the organization. Give it a shot and see what happens.

Do You Provide “Strategic Snapshots” of Your Performance?

If you’re like most people, you have a sense of what you want to accomplish when each day begins—and then the day “happens.” You may get diverted by unplanned issues and be left wondering, “What the heck happened?!”

No matter what is going on in your day, I urge you to think about the countless opportunities you have to showcase what you’re doing to add value and make a difference. I like to call this providing “strategic snapshots” of your performance. In my signature presentation “Getting the Visibility You Want” (aka, “Tastefully Tooting Your Own Horn”) and in my coaching, I offer a range of strategies on how to do this in a way that works for you.

Before I dive into giving you my tips, I want you to consider the following points as important context.

  • We are all busy—usually too busy to notice how others are adding value and contributing on a day-to-day basis.

It’s not that we don’t want to notice; it’s just that our attention is divided. And your boss is probably no different from you in this respect. So, you have to help your boss notice how you’re making a difference. I’d like to say a mid-year or year-end discussion as part of your formal performance management process is enough—but it just isn’t. When I led Performance Management & Career Planning at Deloitte, I came to fully appreciate how often people are out of sync with their boss’s view of their performance.

  • This isn’t about bragging.

At the end of the day, this is about sharing important information that can add value to your company and shape the direction of your career. Remember that as someone who has a personal stake in your performance and development, your boss needs to know how and what you’re doing. And others in the company can benefit from learning about how you overcame specific challenges and what led to your success.

So, here are three suggestions on how to provide “strategic snapshots” of your performance:

1. Be clear about what you want to be known for.

Your desired brand/reputation serves as important context and a filter for what to share with others. So, take the time to get clear about the 2-3 things you want people to think of when they think of you. This isn’t about trying to be someone you’re not. It’s about helping others understand what differentiates you and why that matters.

2. Notice the opportunities in front of you.

Before you go into a meeting, have a call with someone, or write an email, ask yourself, “How can I demonstrate how I’m adding value, or reinforce my desired brand in this interaction?” Every interaction may not afford this opportunity, but asking yourself this question will lead you to provide “strategic snapshots” of your performance more often.

3. Find an approach that fits your style.

As you know, some people have no problem telling others how they are adding value while others struggle because they don’t want to come across as arrogant, or self-promotion doesn’t fit with their cultural norms. So, don’t just adopt someone else’s approach. Take the time to think about what fits your personal style.

As a first step, think about a couple of accomplishments you’d like to share and how and why they have relevance and value to others. By going through this thought process you will present the information differently—less like bragging and more like information that others really need to know.

Remember that it’s up to you to consistently share and reinforce what you want others to know about your contributions (i.e., provide “strategic snapshots” of your performance) no matter how your day unfolds. And it doesn’t have to involve a huge effort or time commitment. You should know my mantra by now: “Small steps can lead to big results.”

Are You Keeping Your Gold Mine of Ideas to Yourself?

If you have a useful idea and no one knows about it, does it really have any value? Well, I would argue that it doesn’t. If you find yourself holding back, what makes you reluctant to speak up? It usually starts with that fleeting thought that goes through your head.

Let’s take a look at three thoughts that might prevent you from sharing your views, and what you can do about each of them so that others can benefit from the value you bring.

“What I have to say is nothing earth shattering.”

If you fall into this category, take a second to ask yourself what others could gain from your perspective. Recognize that others don’t bring the same experiences you do, and what you see may not be as obvious to others (especially if they’re immersed in the issue/topic).

You may be dismissive when you have truly mastered a skill (i.e., you are unconsciously competent in performing it) or have deep expertise, because you know it like the back of your hand. Don’t underestimate the value you bring. While you may feel like you’re speaking for the sake of it, remember that others may find your comments insightful and relevant.

Whether or not you say anything new or insightful by your own standards, I want to remind you that there is tremendous value in being able to:

  • Summarize: This can help others in the room get refocused on what has been accomplished in the discussion and what still needs attention.

  • Bring people back to the big picture: Helping them connect the dots can refocus on what’s most important to the discussion at hand (especially if it’s been meandering).

  • Help a group see common ground: Noticing the alignment and common goals can help the whole group move forward, particularly when a range of perspectives have been shared.

"My idea is not ready for prime time.”

You may hear this from people who prefer to reflect before they share their ideas with others (often introverts). Unlike extroverts, who typically think and process out loud, introverts often want to be more thoughtful about what they say before they say it. At times this can be misconstrued as holding back ideas that could be of value to others, or perfectionism. If any of this sounds familiar, trust me that you’re not alone.

I would recommend that before you walk into a meeting; anticipate what might come up. What might they ask? What challenges may come up based on who will be present in the room? How would you respond? Taking even five minutes to prepare ahead of time will help you step out there a little sooner than you typically would, and with a stronger sense of conviction and confidence.

“Is this really worth my time and energy to share my views?”

Yes, we all have those moments where we are just ready for a meeting to be over. Of course you wouldn’t dare bring something else up because it may drag your unproductive meeting out even longer (and it’s already been going on long enough)!

Before you mentally disengage and start answering email on your phone, ask yourself what opportunity sits before you in this meeting. Remember that it’s up to you to see these moments as unique opportunities to accomplish something of importance to you and/or your team — whether it’s reinforcing your leadership brand, bringing direction to the group, advancing a relationship, or actually making productive use of an otherwise useless meeting.

I would ask you to identify one thing you need to keep in mind or do so that others can get value from what you uniquely bring. Don’t keep that gold mine of ideas all to yourself. Spread the wealth.

Networking for Results

When we expanded our business into the Dallas/Fort Worth area, several people commented on how quickly we plugged into the local business community and asked what we did to make it happen. Here are three simple strategies that have worked for us and our clients.

1. Get clear.

Networking can be a full-time job if you let it. So before you dive in, clarify what you want to accomplish personally and professionally. Developing specific goals will help you focus on who and what matter most, make the best use of your time, and make networking less overwhelming.

Let's take the example of Susan, a leader who told me that she really needs to start networking but finds it draining and difficult. Given her busy schedule, she just doesn’t know how to make it happen. I asked her what she was trying to accomplish. Susan explained that she is ready to take on a bigger role at her company, but that she cannot travel extensively. She admitted that her ideal role may be difficult to get at her company, so she will need strong sponsors to make it happen.

In particular, there are two leaders who could strongly influence her career path. Susan needs to make sure that they know who she is and how she is adding value. As a backup plan, Susan needs to build her external network to identify opportunities outside her company. Because we clarified Susan’s goals first, she could quickly develop a list of people she needs to network with internally and externally.

2. Be consistent.

Most people focus on their networks when they need something. They typically view networking as optional vs. core to achieving their goals. If this sounds all too familiar, I would urge you to set aside time each week to strengthen your network. Remember that it doesn’t have to be time- consuming. Even 5-10 minutes per week can go a long way. For example, in less than five minutes, you can send a quick email about an event or article of interest, make an introduction to someone your contact would enjoy meeting, or ask for advice or input.

As you develop your strategies, think about what would be of service to the person with whom you are cultivating a relationship. Whatever your approach, communicate regularly so that you stay top of mind.

3. Show your stuff.

The best way for people to get to know you is by seeing you in action. Volunteer for something that showcases your strengths, fits with your passion, and helps you develop strong relationships with the right people. When you get involved, others will notice how you think and the value that you bring — as long as you follow through on your commitments. Otherwise, you risk damaging relationships instead of advancing them. Again, you don’t have to invest a lot of your time, but be clear about how much time you can give and carve out something manageable.

Because networking can feel overwhelming, start by developing one achievable goal. For example, you could carve out ten minutes this week to clarify what you want to achieve through networking. If you already know, invest those ten minutes instead to reach out to someone with whom you want a stronger relationship. Remember to look for opportunities within what is already on your calendar (e.g., meetings, calls, etc.), rather than adding more to-do’s to your list!

Learning the Unwritten Rules

At a conference, I heard a senior director from Catalyst (a leading organization focused on advancing women) speak about Unwritten Rules: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You. Like the presenter, I wish I could say that doing a good job is enough. It simply isn’t. Although performance matters, understanding and playing by the unwritten rules can have a huge impact on your career advancement.

I want to share three of the strategies or “learning approaches” that Catalyst found in its research to help discover the unwritten rules. The research also reveals the effectiveness of each strategy in career advancement and breaks down the data by gender.

1. Observation

This approach involves taking time to really understand how things work by paying attention to what other successful employees do, how they behave, and who gets promoted. Almost 90 percent of survey respondents said they had learned through observation, and 49 percent would recommend this approach.

Most of us have a lot going on day-to-day, so this strategy may not get the attention it deserves. Take a minute right now to ask yourself how often you take time to simply notice what is going on around you and Connect the Dots. As organizations go through changes, and leaders move up or out, taking time to do this periodically may give you some important insight.

2. Mentoring and Feedback

The second key learning approach centers on regularly seeking guidance and input from others about what it takes to succeed, staying in tune with your own behavior and performance, and using the information to understand what matters most in the organization. Eighty percent said they used this approach, and 32 percent would recommend it to others.

Remember that engaging others in giving you guidance and feedback can also go a long way in creating sponsors, people who have a vested interest in your success and will advocate on your behalf.

3. Trial and Error

This strategy, which some may call “learning from the school of hard knocks,” is all about figuring out what works and doesn’t as you go along.

Although a huge percentage of respondents learned unwritten rules this way — 78 percent to be exact — only 18 percent found this approach helpful.

Wow, wouldn’t it be nice if someone just saved you the trouble and handed you a list of all the unwritten rules? Since that probably won’t happen, think about one small step you can take to put one of the most effective strategies into play for yourself.

Connecting the Dots for Others

There's one area that I always work on with my clients that they never realize they need to work on. It doesn’t come up in our initial discussions about their coaching goals, but it does affect their ability to truly lead with impact and build a strong leadership brand.

Let me explain. Usually, when I ask leaders about the most critical things they want to accomplish from a business standpoint, they rattle off a list of things. The same thing happens when I ask about their teams. Very few of them can easily articulate the two or three areas of focus that guide everything they do.

For example, I have a client who has the remarkable ability to dive into a completely new area of responsibility, learn what she needs to, and restructure the work to maximize results. On top of that, she empowers and develops her team to step up and sustain the performance. She has done this time and again, and can give me countless examples. Through our work together, she has come to realize that her primary focus is on creating sustainable value while minimizing risk for the business and developing future leaders. This is her beacon that guides everything she does.

By realizing this (i.e., Connecting the Dots for herself), she can now articulate a consistent message about her focus and intent. This provides tremendous value because she can give others a way to interpret what she says and does by constantly framing her actions and decisions in the context of her areas of focus.

Remember that others will draw conclusions about what you say and do using their own filters — and they may take away something different than you intend. Let me give you an example to further explain. I have another client (let’s call her Michelle) who has a strong focus on supporting her team. This means that Michelle invests considerable time coaching her new hires, but she also recognizes the need to get her employees working independently without her day-to-day guidance.

So she was surprised at her new hire’s frustration when she scaled back her one- on-one time with him. Michelle knew that pulling back was the best support she could give him because it would serve him well in the long run. However, her employee didn’t realize what she was doing. He didn’t Connect the Dots in the same way Michelle thought he would. In fact, he had drawn the opposite conclusion. By explaining her primary focus, Michelle helped him understand that she was supporting him and how. He now has a way to interpret her actions and understand her expectations.

Remember that Connecting the Dots for others is not a “once and you’re done” exercise. You have to do it again and again — and you can’t do it unless you have Connected the Dots for yourself. So take advantage of the unique opportunity you have to provide a framework to give others insight into what you think is important, what success looks like, and what will guide your decisions. It will also create a stronger sense of conviction for you — about what you want to accomplish, how you will get there, and what you want to be known for as a leader.

Keep Your Passion Front and Center

When I served as a panelist for OCA’s Professional Leadership Summit: What’s Passion Got to Do with It?, I didn’t realize how much I would get out of the experience. It forced me to reflect about my own career and how I’ve stayed in tune with what I’m passionate about over the years. I also benefited tremendously from hearing the other panelists’ stories.

So, I have three tips I’d like to share to help you keep your passion front and center:

1. Set aside time to re-energize and reflect.

As I have analyzed my career path, I realized that every three to four years I have taken some kind of big break—a leave of absence or sabbatical—to help me get perspective and clarity about what’s next for me. During that time, rather than obsessing about my career, I always focused on doing what I really enjoy (e.g., hiking, biking, international travel, etc.), to infuse positive energy into my life and give me the perspective I need to move forward.

I recognize that not everyone can take big chunks of time off. So, the next best thing is to make sure that you set aside time on a regular basis to reenergize and reflect. If you haven’t read it already, there’s a great HBR article, Manage Your Energy Not Your Time, that will help you determine how to recharge on a day-to-day basis.

As for reflection time, even as little as fifteen to twenty minutes, periodically, can really help. I know that one size does not fit all, so figure out how often you should set aside time to stay in tune with your passion and priorities. When you do take the time, ask yourself the following questions:

What do I enjoy most about what I do? What do I like the least? What am I tolerating (i.e., what is weighing me down)? What one step can I take to get more out of what I’m doing today? What one step can I take to move towards more of what I want?

I know that there are so many questions you could ask yourself, but these will get you started.

2. Surround yourself with the right people.

Energy, both positive and negative, is contagious. Surrounding yourself with people who can give you the support you need (whatever “support” looks like for you) and who get excited about the possibilities for you, can make a huge difference. Naysayers certainly have their value (e.g., they can help you think through potential risks) but they can also zap your energy, especially when you are trying to make a big, difficult change.

So take a look at who you interact with regularly or go to for advice, and think about the type of energy you get from each of them. You may realize that you need to make some shifts.

3. Make sure others understand your passion and skills.

Finally, always keep the pulse on what you are known for—your personal brand. If you don’t know what it is today, you don’t really know whether it’s hurting or helping you. So, clarify what your brand is and what you want it to be.

Remember that when that perfect opportunity comes along, you want the key influencers and decision makers to think of you. If there is a big disconnect between what that perfect job entails, and what others consider your skills and passion, you probably won’t get the job. So, set aside even five minutes each week to ensure that the right people understand the value you bring. I present on this topic all the time, so trust me when I say that you can do it tastefully and in a way that serves you and your company.

Let me end this article with a Call to Action. Determine one step you’ll take to keep your passion front and center. Remember that small steps can lead to big results.

Look for the Opportunities Right in Front of You

I can’t tell you how often I hear people complain that they don’t have time to focus on something important to them. There can be several reasons they don’t dedicate the time or make the effort. For some, fear holds them back. For others, the sense of urgency isn’t there. But in many cases, people simply do not see the opportunities in front of them to make progress on what they want.

So, I work with my clients to develop ways to achieve their goals without adding layers of work—which is key to getting the ball rolling. Below are three simple steps you can take. Think about each of these in the context of what you really want to accomplish.

1. Review what is already on your calendar.

To get started, look 1-2 weeks out on your schedule to see who you have meetings or calls with. You may find that you will be in front of important people with whom you want to cultivate stronger relationships or get visibility. By looking at your schedule ahead of time and in the context of your goals, you can begin to set the stage for making progress on what you’d like to accomplish.

2. Think about how you can make the most of that time.

Next, think about how you can make the most of the opportunity whether it’s a meeting, phone call, or something else. For example, I have a client who has a strong internal network but wants to expand her external network. With her work and travel schedule, she doesn’t have much time to participate in networking events. She’d been struggling to make time for quite a while.

When we looked at her calendar, she noticed that she had a two-day meeting coming up. It was part of a prominent leadership program for which she had been selected and it included leaders from other organizations. So, we worked together to establish 1-2 goals for this meeting. She identified two individuals she wanted to cultivate relationships with and developed concrete actions steps to do just that. Ultimately, she got more out of the program and made progress on her networking goal without adding any time to her schedule.

3. Set up a structure to help you.

Finally, make this process a habit for yourself. If the thought of looking out a week or two in advance sounds overwhelming, you can still make the most of any single opportunity sitting in front of you.

Before each meeting or call you attend, take a couple of minutes to ask yourself:

  • How do I want to show up (i.e., what impression do I want to leave? How can I reinforce my brand?)?

  • In this forum, how can I also make progress on one of my goals or priorities?

  • What one action will I take in this meeting or call?

My clients can attest that this really works! So, set aside time to strategically look at your calendar and set goals for your upcoming meetings and calls. As a first step, pick just one meeting in the next week to try this approach. If you’re really adventurous, block 15-20 minutes on your calendar each week to strategize about the following week’s meetings. You will show up with much more intention and may be surprised at the results you get.

Do You Have Strong Peer Relationships?

The importance of peer relationships keeps emerging as a theme with my clients. Strong leaders recognize that their leadership must extend beyond managing up and down; they must also manage effectively across the organization. Although it may not be on your radar screen, peers play an important role in providing perspective on your performance, no matter how far removed they may be from your do day-to-day activities.

Even if you don’t need much of your peers’ involvement to achieve your business results, most companies expect you to care about and invest in their success. An investment in your peers demonstrates your willingness to go beyond what matters in your microcosm of the world, to think about how you can make a difference in other parts of the company.

Ask yourself the following questions to quickly assess your peer relationships:

1. How well do you know your peers?

Using a scale of 1-10 (with 10 the highest), rate the strength of your relationship with each peer. Do you know what challenges your peers face, pressures they feel, or what goals are most critical to them? Based on this information and the strength of your relationship, with whom should you invest more time?

2. What do your peers think of you?

Do your peers view you as someone who is willing to give them support? To quickly assess this, think about how much time you spend listening, problem- solving, or brainstorming with your peers and the degree to which you think beyond your scope of responsibility.

3. What value can you offer to your peers?

As you consider your strengths, background, and experience, how can you leverage them for your peers? What can you offer in the context of what matters to them? If you don’t know enough about their priorities, find out.

As you contemplate your responses to the questions above, identify one peer relationship that you would like to strengthen in the next six months. Come up with a small step you will take this week to get the ball rolling, and remember that small steps can lead to big results

 

© 2013 Neena Newberry | All rights reserved.