Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tongue Fu!

What is sharper than a knife? What can hurt more than a punch in the gut? What can sting and hurt longer than a hive a bee stings?

Words. The old phase is right … words cut at you; words hurt. Words can cause emotional pain which can last longer and hurt stronger than physical pain.

We don’t normally intend to hurt others. Yet, there are some nuances that can hurt which we might not realize. Subtle word choices can cause resentment vs building rapport. Can build relationships vs create conflict. Can make people comfortable vs making people defensive.

In his book What Got You Here Won’t get You There, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith devotes two chapters to this topic. One of his best practices focuses on limiting destructive comments – eliminating those needless sarcasms and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty. Another is more specific and subtle – don’t start with “no”, “but”, or “however.” These small words can put people on the defensive. Goldsmith believes that the overuse of these qualifiers secretly say to everyone, “I’m right. You’re wrong.”

In his book, Tongue Fu!, Sam Horn shares his thoughts on martial arts for the mind and mouth; words to lose and words to use. Like Goldsmith, Horn suggests subtle word choices that promote positive, constructive conversations. Horn’s goal is to “create light, not heat.” Here are some examples.

  • AND instead of BUT – Allows you to connect instead of cancel
  • NEXT TIME instead of SHOULD – Coach instead of criticize
  • PLEASE instead of YOU HAVE TO Request instead of order
  • CAN instead of CAN’T – Devise instead of deprive
  • DO instead of DON’T – Specific what you do want instead of what you don’t want
  • SPECIFICS instead of EXTREMES – Specify and request what you do want

While it is a little word here or there, it does make a difference. Learning to respond positively takes practice. Our habits of reacting with the BUT and SHOULD words have been ingrained. Start practicing today. Over time, new habits will emerge.

TAKE-AWAYS: Sometimes it’s not the big changes that make the most impact. It can be the smaller ones. Subtle word choices can create light in an otherwise dark conversation.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Career Planning

Recently, I got an invitation to meet someone via LinkedIn, a networking website. It was an HR person (recruiter) from a local insurance company. To date, I used LinkedIn to keep up with friends and totally forgot about the job opportunities and other career pieces of it. While I was not interested in the position, it did remind me that my resume was out of date. Not just in content but style too.

Reading online and some recent Business Week articles showed me a good direction. My old resume talked about what I specifically did at those jobs. Not good. A prospective employer doesn’t want to know what you did at other jobs and what you did at 4:30p each day. A prospective employer wants to understand how you can add value to their company. I revised the content of my resume, taking this into account. I also tried to remove industry specific contexts to highlight transferable skills and results. I focused on successes/accomplishments and the complexity involved. I gave these as examples of what I could accomplish at their company. I also showcased areas where I am the leader or champion for my organization.

Prospective employers want to understand transferable skills. How are you at negotiating, collaboration, and other competencies. I took notes of these so I can promote them in the resume or cover letter for the specific position. Don’t under-estimate the cover letter. You can use the cover letter to elaborate and highlight pieces on the resume – use the cover letter strategically. This can help provide that traditional 1 page resume while still emphasizing what you want.

Now I have a generic resume ready. I’m not looking for a new position. I like my current position and employer. However if an opportunity arise inside or outside the organization, I want to be ready.

TAKE-AWAYS: You never know when a career opportunity might arise. Be prepared. Keep your resume up-to-date, reviewing it at least twice a year. Focus your resume on how you can add value for a prospective employer. And don’t under-estimate the power of the cover letter.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


As I move up the organization, my word and name alone do not have the power that it did at lower levels of the organization. That’s understandable. My credibility will increase as I prove myself at higher levels of the org. Until then, I need alliances and associated credibility/power.

I’m a person who does not complain alone – I complain and try to do something about it. I took a Gallup strengths test several years back where the results showed that 2 of my inherit talents (without trying) are development of people and processes. While I don’t have HR responsibility for my current project team and other coworkers (who could a future team), I still want to help them grow. Earlier this year, I presenting a mentor program idea to my VP and he said that I could pursue it further. Recently, he approved proposing it to the CIO.

As I was building the mentoring strategy, I reviewed it with our HR department who gave me good ideas and helped me link it to the HR mgmt directives to which people are accountable. When I reviewed the strategy with my VP, I told him that I worked with the HR dept and explained the feedback. The strategy and my personal credibility got the strategy approved to propose to the CIO. My VP gave me some good advice … take my HR Director with me as I present to the CIO. I will gain associated power and credibility. If there are questions from an HR standpoint my HR person can answer them, showing support from multiple sides.

Over time, I’m learning better when I should speak and when I should just shut up (and let others speak). While a PM has some good credibility, others hold credibility too (and we want to let them shine and be heard). Do we feel the code is ready for implementation … the user or QA Tester could have more credibility to answer. Sometimes a title has more power so you might need a VP to address a topic in a meeting.

You might notice that I started interchanging credibility with power. Credibility is a type of power. Power can be abused though. It’s taking me time to understand and navigate these waters. I hope you can learn from my travels.

TAKE-AWAYS: Know when to leverage other’s credibility. The PM alone is not the most powerful player on the team. The most powerful player is the team as a whole (team members, stakeholders, and sponsors) and you should leverage your team and individual credibility when needed.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

2 cents

As I moved to larger and larger projects, I noticed that I needed to be in the details less. It was hard. I’m a details guy at heart. However, I worked long hours, couldn’t balance meetings with doing work too, was personally always on critical path, and generally stressed.

This is the point where I started leading by guiding principles. I cannot be available 24x7 to the team – meetings, different time zones, vacation, and more. At the beginning of the project, I establish project guiding principles to help guide the team when they have questions.

I also noticed that to support guiding principles, I also needed to enable confidence in the team so they could be self-sufficient. The team needed to be confident in their own knowledge and less dependent on me. I started answering questions less and asking the team to answer each other’s questions or directing them to the guiding principles. It can be hard. Again, I’m a details guy at heart.

A Businessweek article showcased a book that helped, What Got You Hear Won’t Get You There. It highlighted that past practices that make you successful might be less useful as you continue up the organization. One that spoke to me was “Don’t add too much value.” By being the answer man, people were less self-sufficient. I don’t need to give my thoughts on everything. In addition, as you get higher in the organization, simple brainstormed ideas can be interpreted as edicts that the team should follow. Need to be careful of the power you have.

When I catch myself giving too many answers, I literally pull out two pennies. You see it coming … I can only give my 2 cents worth. For questions directed to me, it reminds me to try to get the team to answer first before I give my thoughts. Sometimes I can be very passionate about a topic where I need to constrain myself from dominating the discussion – I literally can only give my 2 cents worth. I think … if I can only give 2 responses in this meeting, am I willing to give up one of my cents. It helps me evaluate the value that the comment will have.

TAKE-AWAYS: Watch adding too much value. If you keep answering all the questions and have to be involved everything, the team will be dependent on you; you will be on critical path. To build a self-sufficient team, you need to manage how much value you add – don’t add too much value.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Managing your stress

I learned a few years back that if I don’t manage my stress, I am less effective manager and leader. The first step was to understand what causes me stress. My topic 3 stresses were: overwhelmed by email, surprises, and feeling like I didn’t accomplish anything today. Once I identified these, then I could attack them.

Overwhelmed by email. I applied a “focus” approach. I use Outlook as my email client. I setup email rules to send email to specific folders. I have folders for each project, general work announcements, industry news, and a I-can-get-to-this-when-I-can folder. To help with this, I put a prefix on my emails to help the routing. When things appear in my inbox, I move it the appropriate folder. Then I can be focused when I read my email. I can go to project-A’s folder and be focused on that project. Then I can go to project-B and so forth.

With Outlook 2003, it has multiple colored flags. I flag emails for follow-up. I have my own system which denotes priority and allows me to priority/focus my time on the more important follow-ups first. I put a blue flag on emails that should be documented and shared more broadly. To help with that, I publish bi/weekly project team notes. I encapsulate the project team meeting and other decisions (and emails) for the time period. It provides an easy recap of events and decisions. From a historic perspective, the notes are handy to show previous decisions that could now take change control to overrule.

Surprises. It’s easier to address an issue if you’ve thought about it before. I do heavy risk brainstorming. I’ve mentioned in some previous blogs that I have a recurring Outlook task that appears every 3 weeks – “brainstorm risks.” I go to a quiet, few distractions place. I bring the project plan, last status report, project binder, and more. Then I brainstorm what can wrong from now to the end of the project. More importantly, I brainstorm varying mitigations to reduce the impact or eliminate the risk. Now when team members come to me with an issue, I might have already brainstormed it or something close to it. I can be calm (and help calm the team) on how to deal with the issue.

Feeling of non-accomplishment. It’s anal, but I print my Outlook calendar every day and set daily goals and prioritize them. I use a highlighter because colors can help give relevance to me. (Yes I can be anal, otherwise known as a strong J in MBTI). Orange is a must do today. Red is urgent. Yellow is important. Green is done. At the end of the day, I can see how many of each category I was able to do. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. One more piece … I identify 2 main categories – goals and opportunities. Goals are things that I want to accomplish today. Opportunities are items that I would like to do if I have time. Today’s opportunities could turn into tomorrow’s goals.

TAKE-AWAYS: Know what causes you stress and manage it.