Chasing Better Conversations

The fact that a lot of people are talking doesn’t mean there are a lot of real conversations going on.

More to the point, the fact that there is measurable attention being paid to any particular topic does not guarantee progress.

In the mid 1940’s, the Congress of the United States introduced legislation to make it illegal for women to be paid less than men for comparable work. Decades of talk have failed to realize the goal.

And while the relative timeframes may not be quite as jarring as in the case of equal pay for equal work, the list of issues that have been the subject of conversations for years with little movement is lengthy. In no particular order:

  • How long have those in and around the legal industry been discussing challenges associated with the billable hour? (It was a hot topic when I first worked with a law firm in the early 2000’s — and it had been going on for a while by then.)
  • Or Diversity & Inclusion?
  • Or how about the challenges facing the educational infrastructure?
  • Or mass transit in your community?
  • Or the cost of healthcare?
  • Or the national debt?

As noted — the list is long. It can easily balloon to ten or twenty times what we might list here — without breaking a sweat.

Without respect to the topic, wherever today’s attempts at meaningful dialogue are framed by the same principles, perspectives and values as yesterday’s conversations, movement — never mind, progress — will be marginal, at best.

This is not to suggest there hasn’t been movement — even scrambling — on many of the issues we’ve been talking about for a long time. There has.

And we’re sure not suggesting that we should shut down the talk.

But how much time are you willing to invest in conversations that barely move the needle.

Keys To Better Conversations

“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” — Samuel Johnson

There are circumstances that, by their nature, tend to sharpen focus. But where important issues are at hand, and progress is the goal, we should hope for productivity before there is impending doom.

To that end, here are five thoughts on instigating better conversations.

1. Make Listening (vs. Talking) The Priority

We spend a lot of time on this blog talking about listening (yes…ironic). This is likely a subconscious reaction to the fact that we are so bad at it. But the focus is warranted, if for no other reason than nothing is communicated until someone decides to listen.

Intentions listening is not about hearing something; it is about dispensing with agendas, suspending preconceived notions, and striving more to understand than to be understood. NOT natural; but if the only thing we do is commit to the act of intentional listening, we will instantly change the quality of our conversations.

2. Connect Around Shared Values & Aspirations

Intentional listening is the key to the identification of core commonalities. Shared experiences are a good place to begin; but conversations that become substantive enough to effect measurable progress around big issues find footing in core values and aspirations. This is why communication aligned with things such as personal health and the future of our children tend to capture attention.

3. Dispense With Expectations

Listening is tough; but this one is nearly impossible. Yet, in conversations that matter, expectations are often a predictor of failure. Expectations easily morph into conditions; and when it comes to better conversations, a condition is synonymous with an agenda. Most of us resist conversations that are driven by an agenda.

4. Agree on Milestones

Identifying specific milestones serves three purposes. (1) It outlines the conversation, providing bite-sized continuity; (2) agreed upon milestones provide another point of alignment around commonality; (3) realizing a milestone serves as a win-win moment. The more you realize common goals, the more you experience the possibilities that come with building around shared values and aspirations.

5. Build a Bridge to the Next Conversation

Better conversations do not seek to end a discussion, but to make on-going dialogue a given. Next to Listening, nothing will change the nature of your conversations more than a commitment to tee-up the next conversation. This is the real win — a demonstrated understanding that learning is never ending, and that better conversations are the only path to real change.

No matter the topic — innovation, mental health, diversity & inclusion, leadership, a better world for future generations — if we continue to have the same old conversations, the past is, indeed, prologue.

The key to a better reality tomorrow — however you might define it — is a better conversation today.

The Ultimate Building Block for Communication During a Crisis

When your audience or market believes you always have their best interest at heart, every message will resonate — even in the midst of crisis.

Nothing drives the impact of a message more than the presence (or absence) of trust.

Trust provides a more effective platform than any pulpit…from sanctuary to bully. Once earned, it lifts communiques above the noise and confusion of any market place.

Trust shapes context and tone, making it possible to eliminate all of the ifs, ands or buts that characterize average messaging.

Trust makes it possible to accomplish more in less time, with fewer words and less falderal than the grandest strategy.

Trust is the product of an intentional, disproportionate investment in listening. This is the brand of listening that, to borrow from St. Francis of Assisi, seeks less to be understood than to understand. This kind of listening speaks volumes.

Where there is trust, there is mutual respect, a ready ear, and fertile ground for motivation, collaboration, innovation and change.

If You’re Wrestling With Communication

The degree to which an audience embraces a message — whether it be partners, work force, professional allies, vendors or a target market-at-large — is in direct proportion to the degree to which the audience trusts the messenger.

This should be good news where genuine relationships have been cultivated.

Even so, many wrestle with the content of messaging in a crisis. What should a communication plan look like? Here is a suggested framework.

  • Be proactive — when it comes to communicating with stakeholders, internal as well as allies and vendors, take the initiative — communicate early.
  • Be honest — trust is a powerful building block, but nothing can destroy it more quickly than blowing smoke.
  • Be transparent — akin to honesty, this is about pulling back the curtain, and telling the whole truth — done properly, nothing deepens trust more quickly.
  • Make it about the audience — messages that resonate address real issues or needs, and deliver value.

Use this framework for your communication in the midst of today’s crisis, and you’ll accomplish two things: you’ll have a much better shot at delivering a message that resonates; and, you’ll strengthen the bond of trust with every facet of your audience…which will have its own payoff on the other side of Covid-19.

Is It Marketing Or Is It Sales?

Years ago I worked with a Managing Partner who regularly referred to the Marketing Department of his law firm as the PR Department. I’m certain it was a habit rooted in the days when law firm marketing efforts centered on work that was public relations in nature.

Though I believe he knew the marketing group’s responsibilities covered a broader terrain, the habitual use of the wrong label both perpetuated and was emblematic of a narrow view of the discipline. 

Today many professional service firms do something similar — saying marketing when what they really mean is sales.

Or perhaps more to the point — expecting (or hoping) that marketing efforts designed to create visibility and awarenessmight be able accomplish the lead generation and one-on-one work required to land new clients.

You know this. But in case we need to underscore the point — marketing and strategic business development (sales) are not the same thing.

Confuse them, attempt to blur the distinctions in hopes that one will cover for a lack of focus on the other, or ignore either, and be prepared to be completely unhappy with the sum total of your investment.

Hit Pause

I need to inject two relevant notes here.

  • First — I do my part on a daily basis to spread the problem. The very title of this Blog — Marketing Brain Fodder— suggests that everything we discuss here falls under the marketing banner. This is not true. An audit would probably reveal that the majority of content for at least a decade has focused on business development / sales. So I’m guilty…and I’m considering appropriate options.
  • Second — I believe the siloed-nature of our organizations works against us…diminishing the value of resources, inhibiting creativity and strangling innovation. Turf wars and resource battles consume too much time and energy. Underscoring the distinction between sales and marketing can easily be twisted to be an argument for more defined silos. While the topic for a separate post, we should underscore that this is not a case for more defined departments, teams or silos.

Hit Resume — Here’s The Point

If this is just a labeling issue, that is one thing. Anyone working in the legal space for 15 years or more knows of the problematic nature of the “Sales” word. Again — a topic for another post. 

For now, if while we’re using marketing as the umbrella, we all understand that when it comes to the pursuit of new business in the professional service arena, sales is a different animal, then we might debate the value in saying what we mean.

On the other hand, where we’re not clear about the difference, we run the risk of inadequate planning, misappropriation of resources, faulty expectations, and poor ROI in both marketing and sales.

Understand The Difference

If you’re part of a leadership team, prior to judgements as to whether your marketing efforts are effective, be certain you’re not looking for target identification, lead generation and qualified pitch opportunities. These are the purview of a strategic approach to sales (or, if you’re squeamish over the label, business development). An increase in sales requires appropriate investment.

If you’re in marketing or sales, clearly articulate the difference. Great marketing is an asset, to be sure. But perpetuating confusion between the two serves the objective of neither. Marketing is not the same as sales.

Around Corners & Beyond Barriers: The Vision of Leaders

In 2001 Erik Weihenmayer reached the peak of Mount Everest — an impressive feat in-and-of itself. But one thing should be noted: Erik is blind. I first learned of his story several years ago, and was reminded of it thanks to a recent story on NBC’s Today Show.

But Everest is only part of the story.

In 2005 Erik became the first blind climber, and 1 of only 150 total climbers to have completed the Seven Summits. He has scaled the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite, ascended Losar, a 2700-foot vertical ice face in the Himalayas, and kayaked the treacherous whitewaters of the 277-miles of the Grand Canyon.

Did I mention that Erik is blind?

In 2005, he co-founded No Barriers, a nonprofit organization with a most appropriate brand tagline, “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.”

Individuals who inspire us — those we might be persuaded to follow — possess a unique perspective.

When eulogizing his fallen brother Robert, Ted Kennedy referred to Robert’s own explanation for the way he saw the world — “Some men see things as they are and say Why. I dream things that never were, and say Why Not.” 

This is vision of the highest order. It is the ability to see through barriers — even the barrier of the unknown. It’s the way we see the world when unobscured by fear, synicism or out-right self- interest.

Without respect to title or station…in offices and homes, at work or play…the women and men who inspire us to listen and follow have this view of things.

Even if you’re not at the peak of a mountain, you can tell you’re in this rare air because a lot less time is spent focusing on all that is wrong. Things are seen through the imagination — the mind’s eye.  Reasoning around why not is an organic response…even in the face of unimaginable challenge.

This is the perspective of leadership — and it is where creative thinking and innovation find footing. In this environment, we have a shot at discovering real solutions.

It’s not that leaders ignore problems or challenges. It is that leadership embraces a perspective that transcends what is staring it in the face.

Not all the time. Not in every situation. And certainly not to an elite few. At times a leader’s way of seeing things comes in an awkward instant to the most unexpected among us. (Every parent knows what this is about.)

It is this transcendent brand of vision that sees around roadblocks…and charts the course for great human adventures — in moments on Everest, no doubt; but more to the point, wherever a path is chosen and a first step taken — at home, in your office, anywhere.

It may be human nature to spend most of our time on the realities we face. If my boss would change this…if my partner would fix that…if the others on the Board just knew what I know…if we didn’t have to contend with all of these old dinosaur ideas, we could accomplish so much more. 

We analyze all that is wrong…pontificating on why we’re in the fix we’re in. And before we know it, the meeting is over…the month has closed…another down-quarter has passed. The kids are grown…and gone.  Why did so much conspire against our dreams? When did we relinquish leadership, and decide to follow the fearful and vision-less?

The poet T.E. Lawrence describes two types of dreamers. He said…”All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous…for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

Leadership — the kind that inspires a team to address the impossible — spends less time wandering around the dusty recesses of the same old conversations.

Leaders envision possibilities.

And wherever we might have dreams — of relationships that endure, of fairness and inclusion, of transformative creativity and innovation, of scaling the most formidable challenges we might face — there echoes a resounding call for this kind of vision.

On Professionalism

We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face. We may write about it, design programs and build entire initiatives around it. If we have enough juice we might be able to insist on a moniker or title that insinuates we have arrived.

But when it comes to what it really means to be a professional, titles, labels, and even robust branding efforts have little to do with the reality.

When it comes to determining what it means to be a professional, what we do speaks much more eloquently than what our business card (or Linked In profile) says.

Professionalism is a characteristic. It is the sum of traits that form the foundation for behavior in defining moments — whatever the venue might be.

The only thing most of us are able to control with respect to this discussion is our own personal pursuit of the traits we deem central to the professionalism to which we aspire.

The temptation is to act as though defining moments on a big stage…in the glare of bright lights..in the context of high visibility.

In our gut we know that true professionalism is defined daily — in scores of moments that are often more private than public…where there is little fanfare.

Simply calling someone (or something) professional, does not make it so.

In the interest of a productive pursuit, and with acknowledgment of personal blind spots, here is a six-pack of some of the traits present in the consummate professionals I have had the opportunity to know.

  1. Professionals accept responsibility. They don’t whine or shrink in the toughest moments. Nor, it should be noted, do the best of the best demand the spotlight for sustenance.
  2. The professional possesses crystal-clear self-awareness, and is constantly honing the ability to understand personal limitations. This is manifest in honesty, intentional listening, and a big-picture perspective.
  3. Professionals don’t engage in turf wars, and do not tear down others. Rather, they build bridges, and are apt to deflect credit.
  4. The professional doesn’t avoid difficult moments, conversations or problem personalities…approaching challenges with honesty.
  5. Professionals follow up, and follow through. Always. No matter what. As cliche as it may sound, this is fact.
  6. The professional is always professional — without respect to position or title.

This is not offered as an exhaustive list. It does, however, represent the foundational traits to which I personally aspire. Have thoughts and/or additions that might be instructive for all of us? Please contribute.