The Lamest Question

Picture this: you’re at a professional event, and you meet someone new. You extend your hand and introduce yourself. Next, you likely utter the lamest question known to man: what do you do?

Sound familiar? Don’t feel bad. The smart ass in me always wants to offer a reply like, “I help unicorns make magic” or “I run a luxury refuge for stray Siamese cats. We’re up to 4,000 residents. Let me show you all of their pictures!”

The question, “What do you do?” is a standard part of any introduction. But, it’s always struck me as lazy and a little rude. First, it’s so commonplace that it doesn’t make you a memorable conversationalist. Second, it’s no secret that many people mistake vocation for worth. Your job title and company become a proxy for how much money you make. Even worse, the person posing the question is often only doing it to tell you what he does. And, then you get to listen to him drone on about himself.

The point of networking is to make meaningful connections with people so you can achieve great things together. And, intuitively, we all know that there’s much more to someone than a job title. We just have to ask the right questions to learn more and build a foundation for connecting.

Salaam Coleman Smith, former President of Style Network, once gave me a great piece of career advice. She told me that, more than anything else, the ability to make people feel at ease determines career success. It’s a building block for fostering trust. Once you become an executive, your skill set and ability to do the nuts and bolts of the job is a given. But, the ability to make people feel at ease is a game changer.

As part of my attempt to make people feel at ease, I ask people high quality questions when I first meet them. These typically tell me something substantive about the person, and they give us both a springboard for more meaningful interaction. I often like to pose questions about family and hobbies because people tend to care about those things most. Don’t get me wrong: occupation will often come up in the course of the conversation. But, it’s an organic part of the exchange and not the opening shot.

The next time you’re at a professional event, consider some of the following alternatives to the standard “what do you do?” question:

  1. How long have you been coming to [insert event name]?
  2. Are you enjoying the event so far? What did you think of the keynote speaker?
  3. Are you based here in [insert city name]? Are you a native? If not, where are you from?
  4. Do you have kids? This can spawn a million follow-up questions.
  5. Are you married? How long have you been married? How did you and your spouse meet?
  6. Seasonal questions are good ones. In the summer, you might ask, “Have you taken any amazing summer vacations?” If its close to a holiday, you might ask, “Do you have any special holiday plans?”

The next time you’re tempted to ask the lamest question, think about how unimportant job titles are in the grand scheme of life. I know it sounds extreme, but imagine how you want your tombstone to read. I don’t know about you, but “Denise Conroy, President & CEO” just doesn’t cut it for me.

Stop Asking for Things

“Know your worth.” How many times have you heard that phrase? It’s probably one of the most commonly uttered pieces of career advice. Somehow, that very broad statement has come to mean asking for something. That “something” is usually a raise, promotion or perq. And, generally, it’s good advice. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your value and asking for it. But, when should you stop asking?

Mad MenI’m a huge fan of the series “Mad Men.” In that series, the main character, Don Draper, is an unlikely source for all kinds of career and life wisdom. In one famous episode, he has an exchange with Peggy Olson, his protégé. It’s the late ‘50’s, and women are not treated well in Corporate America. Peggy’s no exception. But, when she asks Don for her next bump up the ladder, for which she’s not ready, he rightfully says, “You’re good. Get better. Stop asking for things.” That quote has been emblazoned on my brain ever since because I’ve wanted to say it so many times in the course of my career.

In my experience, the employees who ask are often the people who don’t deserve it. They’re heavy on courage and light on self-awareness. In my last blog, I talked about ‘A players.’ A players rarely have to ask for things. They distinguish themselves with hard and smart work. They produce and managers notice. It’s really that simple.

In my 22-year career, I’ve never once asked for a raise. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I don’t lack in the courage department nor do I tend to undervalue myself. But, I am usually very focused on the task at hand…A.K.A. my job. My approach has been to focus on excellence in performance and the rest will follow. And, it has. In one of my previous roles, I took on two new departments. My first thought was not, “I need to get paid for the new workload.” Instead, I thought, “How can I turn these two departments into bottom line contributors?” Within two months, my boss saw momentum in my new organization and gave me a significant raise out of the blue.

Feel like you’re always asking for things? Consider a few things:

  1. Your boss is smart and decent. He/she likely understands the business and your contribution. It’s rare that true ‘A players’ get overlooked. Superstars make life easier for managers. They reduce worry and workload.
  2. Pay attention to feedback. If your manager consistently points out areas for improvement, believe them and address them. Come up with a meaningful plan for improvement and make your boss part of that plan. People want to help those who help themselves.
  3. Stop looking at what other people have. I’ve found that envy often drives people to ask for things. I can’t tell you how many times employees have asked me for promotions and raises based on merely seeing other people move up the ladder. It’s petty, and most managers see through it. Focus on yourself, and the rest will fall into place.
  4. Believe in yourself. The world is full of opportunity. If you feel like you’re always (legitimately) asking and not receiving, maybe it’s time to move on. Over the weekend, I was reading about the new head coach of the San Francisco 49’ers, Jim Tomsula. Tomsula has a fascinating background. He started his coaching career at his high school alma mater and eventually became the 19th head coach of the storied 49’ers franchise. There were some notable and unusual detours along the way, including two stints in sales roles outside of football to support his family. Through it all, one thing remained constant: his belief in himself and his desire to coach in the NFL. We can all learn something from that.




“A” Players Are Everything

The cover of the July/August issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR) makes a bold yet astute assertion: “It’s time to blow up HR and build something new.” Sign me up.

It’s no secret that I loathe so-called conventional wisdom on anything. And, the modern human resource function at most companies is teeming with wisdom that’s stale, hackneyed and does little to advance the bottom line. In fairness, HR professionals mean well. By design, most have very little interaction with core business functions. Additionally, they’re tasked with having tough conversations when it’s often too late to impact the game. So much of the function has evolved to serve a purely legal purpose. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Netflix does it better. The same folks who lure us into binge watching House of Cards and Orange is the New Black have developed a superior approach to HR. Back in 2007, Netflix wrote what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has dubbed “one of the most important documents to come out of Silicon Valley.” That bare bones document is 127 pages of Powerpoint goodness, nothing short of a manifesto for those of us who make things happen.

To read more, click here:

The centerpiece of Netflix’s approach is hiring “A” players. I know, I know…that’s a given, right? Not really. Today’s standard business organization is structured like the classic bell curve with the expectation that mediocrity prevails, and exemplary performance is in short supply.

Conversely, Netflix recognizes that acquiring the best employees money can buy is transformative. One A-level player can often do the work of many mediocre and/or sub-par players. Therefore, it stands to reason that a company full of “A” players is a smaller, more productive organization.

Moreover, “A” players not only have the absolute best skill sets, but they’re also fully formed adults. They act reasonably and always with the company’s best interest at heart. They don’t need a 200-page employee manual to define the company’s best interest. They’re the same people that don’t need to be reminded on deadlines, how to be collaborative or when not to take a vacation. They just get it. Netflix recommends that managers pose the following “keeper test” to identify “A” players: which of my people, if they told me they were leaving for a similar job at a peer company, would I fight hard to keep?

HR professionals spend significant time on employee morale programs. This includes everything from providing premium coffee to organizing employee carnivals to hiring on-site personal chefs. In a culture of “A” players, the caliber of player IS the perq. This is the same as an athlete like J.J. Watt preferring to play with the best players in the NFL rather than have his favorite flavor of Gatorade on the sideline. As Netflix eloquently puts it, “Great workplace is stunning colleagues.”

Here are five additional pointers from the Neflix playbook on creating a distinct culture where “A” players thrive:

  1.  Give Generous Severance Packages. As part of evolving to an “A” player organization, you have to be willing to let go of employees whose skills don’t fit. That also applies to those people who have contributed historically and no longer fit the organization’s current needs. Awarding generous severance packages helps eliminate the emotion for everyone, and it gives people a positive and practical reason to move on.
  2. Eliminate Performance Reviews. Communication about performance between managers and employees should be organic. Conventional performance reviews are outdated, and they do little if anything to improve employee performance. Instead, consider implementing company-wide 360 reviews which tell an employee what her colleagues (supervisor, peers and direct reports) think of her and how she can improve. The companies with the highest performing and most collaborative cultures do these face to face rather than anonymously.
  3. Eliminate Performance Bonuses. It’s blasphemous, I know. But, most employees don’t know what factors drive their bonus and how they can impact it. If you’re disciplined about hiring “A” players and paying them at the top of the market, the performance bonus is unnecessary. “A” players play at the top of their game every day because it’s how they’re wired. A bonus doesn’t impact their performance.
  4. Emphasize Freedom and Responsibility. Cultures populated by “A” players don’t need incessant policies to govern behavior. For example, Netflix doesn’t formally track vacation for its employees. Their expense policy reads, “Act in Netflix’s best interest.”
  5. Don’t Tolerate Brilliant Jerks. Everyone knows at least one brilliant jerk. Maybe it’s the guy in your organization who’s been the number one sales person ten years in a row. He’s the definition of a rainmaker, but nobody can stand to interact with him. And, his emails…the epitome of obnoxious. Brilliant jerks are an enormous threat to high-performance, collaborative cultures. Resist them.

Better Than I Deserve

My husband Ned and I have an extraordinary friend. He has a saying that seems especially apropos this week. When asked how he’s doing, he always responds with, “Better than I deserve.” I’ve heard him say it many times, yet each time, it delights me. With this gracious and humble mindset, it’s no wonder that my friend, an uber talented contractor/designer, is married to an equally talented, gracious and successful woman. They share a wonderful life together, inspiring everyone around them. As another of my dear friends is fond of saying, “You run with your own kind.”

Today is a good day for reflection on a few levels. I’m most certainly feeling “better than I deserve.”

For the last 10 years, I’ve been working towards the goal of one day becoming a CEO. Every career move I’ve made has been with that specific goal in mind. There have been curveballs, detours, wins, losses and lessons learned. But, through it all, I have pursued that goal with laser-like focus. And, I never stopped believing that if I kept working, it would happen one day.

I’m happy to report that today is my third “official” day on the job as President & CEO. It’s exhilarating and completely humbling. My colleagues inspire me. They’re smart, diligent and they each have stellar character. I’m energized when I think about all of the things we’ll accomplish together.

In my personal life, I have a lot for which I’m thankful. I have a loving and supportive husband who makes me laugh non-stop – often hysterically, like a 10 year-old. He’s the glue that holds our crazy, ever-changing life together.

I also have a slew of great friends who always seem to crop up at the times when I need them most. I can’t explain their timing, but I’m grateful for their presence in my life. They make me laugh, listen to my ups and downs, motivate me and…did I mention they make me laugh?

One of those friends is embroiled in a fight right now. It’s one that neither she nor anyone else deserves. She’s a remarkable person, a fiery pitbull who makes things happen – often against all odds. I recently learned that she’s battling an aggressive form of cancer. In true form, she’s applying her trademark tenacity and resolve to the challenge at hand. She inspires me and reminds me of what it really means to be tough.

I know this is supposed to be a leadership blog. And, it is. I’m a firm believer in reflection as a means to grow as a leader. It’s very easy to get caught up in the day to day: jobs, commutes, family obligations, etc. I’m especially guilty of getting wrapped up in daily anxieties. But, when I slow down a little and reflect, there’s a lot to put in the win column. I’m not religious, but I certainly feel blessed. I wish only the same for each of you!

Manufacturing Opportunity

Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, recently wrote a piece in Harvard Business Review’s June issue about creating opportunity that really resonated with me. In it, he wrote:

Some people think of opportunity the way it’s defined in the dictionary—as a set of circumstances that make something possible—and they talk about it as if it just arrives organically. You “spot opportunity” or wait around for “opportunity to knock.” 

“I look at it differently. I believe that you have to be the architect of the circumstances—that opportunity is something you manufacture, not something you wait for.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’ve long been a firm believer that the person who has a plan wins. It doesn’t have to be a perfect plan, but it does have to be thoughtful and rational. And, it has to be presented with conviction.

Passionate, driven people with a clear and proactive point of view stand out from the rest of the herd. I know that sounds ridiculously simplistic, but we human beings often make things way more difficult than they need to be. How many times have you heard a colleague lament about “if things were different” or “what we ought to do is _______”? Far too many people wait for someone else to initiate change and improvement, missing out on opportunity in the process.

The problem with waiting for opportunity is three-fold. First, it may never come along. Second, waiting wastes precious time for you and your business. And, third, languishing in the status quo creates unnecessary frustration for everyone involved.

I’ve manufactured opportunity throughout my entire career. The best example of this is my time at Outdoor Channel. I started at the network as the Director of Research in late 2004. Very quickly, I noticed that there was no coordinated marketing function – highly unusual for a network in 30 million homes with $100 million in revenue. Instead of promoting our brand with a unified voice, various people inside the network were doing random and disparate marketing activities. There was no cohesive look or message and no organized approach to driving viewership. Surprisingly, we were actually spending a significant amount on marketing activities. Yet, we had no tangible strategy nor were we tracking the return on our marketing investment.

So, after about 10 months in the business, I put together a proposal to start a consolidated marketing function. I presented it to my boss and asked for permission to forward it to the CEO. My boss graciously agreed, and two weeks later, the CEO invited me to his office to discuss my plan. He liked what he saw and presented my proposal to the Board of Directors. A few months later, I was named the network’s first Vice President of Marketing.

Over the next five years, I was promoted two more times under vastly different management regimes. More importantly, I assembled a team of some of the best and most entrepreneurial marketers in all of television. Together, we helped propel Outdoor Channel and had a lot of fun in the process. In 2011, that team won CableFax’s “Marketing Team of the Year Award.” Our “little engine that could” reigned supreme against much larger networks like TBS, TNT and TLC.

It all started with a simple plan.

I’d love to tell you that the plans and strategies I’ve crafted in my long history of creating opportunity have been magical and complex. I’d also love to tell you that they’re something only I could have created. The truth is that anyone with tenacity, conviction and good observation skills can manufacture opportunity.

The next time you find yourself “waiting for opportunity to knock,” knock it on its ass, and come up with your own plan. Always remember that the person with the plan – any plan – usually wins.

To read the entire article on Biz Stone’s inspiring story about creating opportunity, go here:


Know Thyself

Coming off of a rare two-week vacation, I’m in the mood to reflect a little. So much has happened in the last year or so – both professionally and personally. My experience underscores the importance of knowing what you want and being willing to risk absolutely everything to get it.

You see, a little over a year ago, I blew up my life. Or, at least that’s what everyone thought. I was 41, newly single after almost 20 years of marriage and living in a sleepy southern town.

And, on one random January day in 2014, I quit my job. I had been contemplating a change, but certainly hadn’t mapped out any details. I had no firm back-up plan, no fleshed out exit strategy. On that cloudy Tuesday, I just knew that I was ready for a change. Immediately. I had never done anything like it. That day was both terrifying and exhilarating.

My job at that time wasn’t just a job. I walked away from what many consider to be the dream job. And, I fully bought into that view when I took the position three years earlier. Heading up marketing for two brands that millions of Americans revere, was definitely a step up in my career path. I can’t tell you how many times women’s (and more than a few men’s) eyes would light up when I told them what I did for a living. It was very gratifying.

And, I wanted something very different – in a much bigger city.

So, I said goodbye to stellar colleagues and friends, moved to Atlanta and embarked on a 10-month journey to discover what I wanted from the next chapter. I was positively defiant about not settling for just any job. For a Type-A overachiever, the uncertainty of the process was challenging. Some days it was positively gut wrenching.

It’s funny how the job search process is a lot like dating: you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. Not only does the process tell you what you want, but it glaringly highlights what you don’t want. It’s a rare opportunity to reflect on your entire career, culling out the things you like most and least. I call this “the filter.” I firmly placed the following things on my “no thanks” filter:

  • Companies not located in major cities
  • Cultures founded on negativity
  • Excessive bureaucracy and complacency
  • Organizations that pander excessively to myriad of non-business issues (e.g., feelings, employee carnivals and clam bakes, faux team building exercises, etc.)
  • Companies that too often use the phrase “that’s not how we do things here”
  • Cultures unwilling to do hard things to grow
  • Companies with complex organizational structures/too many specialists

Conversely, I also honed in on my “yes, please” filter:

  • An entrepreneurial culture, unafraid to fail and learn
  • The latitude to be a change agent
  • The power to move quickly
  • The ability to be both creative and analytical
  • The ability to drive meaningful innovation and growth
  • The leeway to run a tight-knit, high performance team
  • A role that takes me a step closer to my ultimate goal: running something

Once my filter was squarely in place, I quickly found the right opportunity: a CMO role with a small yet successful company with bright growth prospects and the right mindset to take things to the next level. And, while I was focused on figuring out my next professional move, I unexpectedly met my soulmate. We have been married for three months, and I consider myself beyond fortunate to have him in my life.

I wrote this blog entry because I know so many friends and professional acquaintances right now who aren’t in the right work situation. These talented people range from complacent to miserable. They waste precious energy on lamenting about what isn’t instead of being proactive and changing their circumstances.

I’m no expert, but I know this much from experience: life is too short to waste your talents and time on something that doesn’t excite you. With a little courage and some patience on developing the right filter, you can be on your way to your next big thing.

Constructive Conflict

When I was in graduate school, I worked with kids involved in gangs in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood. My work was part of a federally funded program to teach gang members conflict resolution skills. Every week, we’d have group sessions with these young gang members so they could talk through their issues and learn the language of constructive conflict resolution. I know it sounds very “touchy-feely,” but it worked.

One morning, one of our group members arrived late and visibly shaken. He apologized and explained that his mother and her boyfriend had gotten into a fight the night before. The fight went on all night and ended with the boyfriend holding his mother at knifepoint well into the morning. When we all voiced our sympathy, he quickly responded, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

I’ve thought about that kid a lot throughout the years – and that quote. (NOTE: It’s actually part of a longer, very powerful Frederick Douglass quote.) Work environments tend to be conflict averse. When examined within the context of that kid’s struggles and those of the quote’s original author, our aversion is, well…pathetic.

155HHow conflict averse are we? A recent survey published in June’s Harvard Business Review revealed that over a quarter of people hint at disagreement rather than objecting outright. Furthermore, only 28% say they “always speak up when they feel they’ve been misunderstood.”

That’s unfortunate, as conflict can often give birth to great things, especially when that conflict is constructive. At its best, conflict gives daylight to divergent views and starts a meaningful dialogue among smart people. It can also be a great way to destroy silos, build team cohesion and improve working relationships.

People tend to think that conflict has to be unpleasant and include yelling. It doesn’t. Here are five things to keep in mind when initiating constructive conflict at work:

  1. You’re Paid to Have a Clear Point of View. People value individuals with a clear perspective. In order to show yours, you may need to disagree with your colleagues. That’s ok. Keep it calm, professional and thoughtful.
  2. Minimize Emotion…And, PLEASE Don’t Whine or Cry. I’m amazed at the number of high-level executives I have witnessed resort to whining when they disagree. Resist the urge. It makes you look like a two year-old and diminishes your reputation. Similarly, if you’re going to cry, don’t. Take a step back, get some perspective and address the issue when you can do it sans tears. I’d like to say that tip is directed solely at women. Sadly, it is not.
  3. Use Your Words. Instead of bluntly saying, “I disagree,” sometimes it’s better to say something like, “I have a bit of a different view. Let me explain…” For the really sensitive one-on-one discussions, use the classic active listening formula. For example, let’s say someone leading another department (Bob) hasn’t been responsive to collaborating with your team, and it’s no bueno for growth and progress. I recommend approaching Bob and saying something like, “I feel frustrated when you don’t respond to my calls/emails to improve our teams’ working relationship. I’d like to work with you to find a way forward.”
  4. Keep It Out in the Open. Passive-aggressive behavior is so common in today’s workplace. And, it’s absolutely destructive. If you have to disagree with someone, go directly to that person and privately explain your perspective. If you need to offer an opposing perspective to a group, do it with the group instead of complaining after the group has disbanded. Being open and direct will lead people to view you as a straight shooter, and that’s a good thing.
  5. Get Over It. Once you’ve offered your differing point of view, move on. Grudges are toxic – for you and the people around you.

Keep these simple things in mind, and remember that constructive conflict is the surest route to progress. And, as my friend from grad school reminds me daily, progress is the goal.

Tell Me More About That


Ned and I on our wedding day. He’s mesmerizing me with his mad listening skills.

My husband, Ned, is a master conversationalist. He’s gregarious, articulate, well read, authentic and very funny. But, it’s not what he says that makes him special. It’s actually his listening ability that sets him apart. He has a very simple yet effective tool that he uses in conversation. He often inquisitively utters the phrase, “Tell me more about that.” It’s amazing to watch that simple phrase transform a conversation. The other person lights up. And, Ned gets the opportunity to listen and learn.

I’ve always been fascinated with people. I’m curious about what makes them tick. It’s little wonder that I started my career in market research. Focus groups, surveys, quick polls…I love it all.

Obviously, listening is a huge part of understanding people. And, I’ve always considered myself to be a good listener. So, imagine my dismay in 2009 when I went through a professional 360 survey and learned otherwise. For those not familiar, “a 360” is a type of employee evaluation where you get reviewed by your manager, employees and peers. The intent is to give a well-rounded assessment of performance, where you’re at in your career and the things you can focus on to progress.

SelfawareI did my first 360 as the kick-off to the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute (BMLI). A yearlong program, BMLI is the flagship leadership development program for female executives in the cable TV industry. It’s also a life changing experience. Since its inception 20 years ago, the program has mentored over 800 executives.

For a high-strung Type A personality, your first 360 can be intense and harrowing. You can get 1,000 pieces of positive feedback, but it’s the areas for improvement that are emblazoned on your perfectionist brain. I learned that people didn’t think I listened very well which came off as arrogant. My first reaction was something like this:

“What?!?! Me? Arrogant? I’m the most down to earth person I know! Who said that? Those people are jerks. Humility is my middle name. I’ll bet it was Jeff who said that….”

Once I calmed down, I met with an executive coach who was able to put everything into perspective. The first thing she asked me about was my speaking style. She asked me how often I asked questions that started with words like “how” or “what.” The benefit to these sorts of questions is that they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” They require a more detailed response, and they also require the person posing the question to listen.

92HI started to reflect on my behavior. I realized that I frequently relied on closed-ended questions in the interest of getting things done. I’d wrap up meetings with phrases like, “Everyone good with that?” Unbeknownst to me, I was curtailing discussion and conveying that I knew all the answers. What sorts of people know all the answers? Arrogant ones.

Honing your listening skills isn’t just important for the knowledge you can gain. It directly affects people’s perception of you. Perception is everything. Here are a few things I’ve learned on my path to becoming a better listener:

  1. Watch the Closed-Ended Questions. Closed-ended questions are a one-way street. I know we’re all in a hurry, trying to accomplish more and more. But, be mindful of how many times in the course of a day you ask questions that can only be answered with a simple yes or no. If it’s the majority of your questions, you’re probably missing out on some good collaboration and the opportunity to let your direct reports solve problems.
  2. Pose “HWW” Questions. Ask questions that start with the words how, what or why. These sorts of questions encourage dialogue and provide the opportunity for you to become a better listener. Example: You might ask your team, “How might we proceed on this project?” instead of “Should we come up with a promotional plan and timeline to move this thing forward?”
  3. Be Patient. If you’ve been asking primarily closed-ended questions for a long time, people get used to that style. It’s very intimidating to some. So, when you start asking open-ended questions, be prepared to hear crickets. It will take people a little time to adjust to having the opportunity to talk more. The first few times you pose an “HWW” question, you may have to wait as long as 20 seconds for a response. It will seem like an eternity, but stick with it.
  4. Practice and Keep Track. Like any good habit, becoming a better question asker/listener takes lots of practice. When you start out, keep track of how many times in the course of the day you ask open-ended questions. And, note how people respond. I know it sounds nerdy, but when I started building this skill, I used a simple spreadsheet to keep track. I noted the question I asked in one column and how people responded in another. At the end of the day, I reflected on it. It only took a few weeks before it became a habit.

Being an effective listener is absolutely critical to being an effective leader. And, with a little self-awareness, practice and patience we can all get there.





Three Things That Matter

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who labor over minutiae and waste time that could otherwise be dedicated to things that matter. Business is riddled with “minutiae zombies.” They walk around aimlessly, missing major opportunities because they’re focused on fleeting, insignificant details. Over time, these people are like a dense swarm of gnats in your eyes.

zombies-work-d-sign-48671158Case in point: I once worked with an S-level executive at a multi-billion dollar company who loved swimming in the trivial. This individual would insist on frequent and laborious catch-up meetings with senior executives that consisted of walking through a random punch list of unimportant topics. These topics included everything from “someone on your marketing team gave someone on the digital team a dirty look” to “Bob thinks you don’t like him.” Not once did this person advance an issue that mattered. Ironically, this same executive lamented frequently about being overlooked for a promotion. Heads up: that’s probably not a coincidence.

Throughout my career, I’ve done a lot of formal and informal mentoring. One of the things I get asked most frequently is how to get noticed for your achievements and climb the ladder. As you take the leap from “doer” to visionary leader, the ability to identify meaningful things and craft strategies around those things is paramount. It’s the difference between unlimited career potential and being “capped.”

Admittedly, this is easier in theory than in practice. In today’s work environment, we’re inundated with more information than ever through an endless barrage of reports and dashboards. Likewise, most staff meetings are a round robin, covering a random list of activities akin to “what I did on my summer vacation.”

Developing a keen eye for the truly critical takes practice and discipline. All of the information is there. You just need to harness it. And, your people are your greatest asset. Leveraging their perspectives is the surest way to improve your strategic focus. To accomplish this, I like to employ a tactic I call Three Things That Matter.

Every Friday, I ask my team members to shoot me an email describing Three Things That Matter. This isn’t anything fancy format-wise. It’s just a standard email. I like this exercise for a number of reasons:

  1. Unlike a traditional weekly report that tends to be a laundry list of activities, this tactic encourages people to focus and think critically.
  2. It’s a development opportunity, improving team members’ ability to identify what matters most. This is an important step in their leadership journey.
  3. It gives me a good “temperature read” on the team at large (e.g., morale, common challenges, areas for development/improvement, opportunities, etc.).
  4. It helps me focus and be a better people manager.
  5. It’s a fitting way for all of us to wrap up our week, taking time out for contemplation and strategic thinking. This is often overlooked in the fast-paced world in which we all live.

Additionally, I hold all of my staff meetings and one-on-one sessions with direct reports on Mondays. I like to kick-off the week with clear communication and direction. Three Things That Matter sets a considerable portion of the agenda for those meetings.

two-male-zombies-standing-empty-city-street-looking-camera-45438212Without a doubt, reading through my team’s Three Things That Matter is my favorite part of every week. It energizes me and serves as a constant reminder that smart, positive people can accomplish anything. I promise if you try it, you’ll be delighted and impressed with what you learn. And, you’ll score another point against the “minutiae zombies.”

Relentless Civility

I traveled to London on business a week ago. While stuck in traffic on the drive from Heathrow to my hotel, I had a delightful conversation with my cab driver. In our musings, we stumbled on the topic of civility. Something he said really stuck with me: “Civility is easy to give and costs absolutely nothing.” If you imagine that quote in a British accent, it’s even more erudite.

This simple statement got me thinking about civility in business – or rather what I often see as a lack of civility. Undoubtedly, business is harder than ever in many regards, and that affects simple interactions. Technology has definitely made things easier. But, it’s also eliminated boundaries, rendering us on-call 24/7. We’re now constantly bombarded with emails, texts, LinkedIn messages and myriad of push notifications.

Even the best at time management can find it overwhelming. Often, people just respond to the critical things. The rest falls by the wayside. That’s an understandable and common tactic. But, it’s extremely limiting.

Business is all about connecting with people. It’s really hard to widen your circle if you’re just doing the bare minimum to keep your head above water and make it to the next day. Relationships matter, and the world is increasingly small. Someone emailing you about a job today might be in charge of hiring for the job of your dreams tomorrow. Likewise, a cold call about a partnership that’s not a fit right now might generate ideas or open a door in the future.

During the course of my career, I’ve been fortunate to have two exemplary role models for graciousness. The first was Roger Werner. Roger was the President and CEO at Outdoor Channel, and a real pioneer in television, building and transforming cable networks like ESPN and Outdoor Life Network. He was also a master of civility. I used to marvel at his handling of virtually every cold call or introductory email that came his way. He treated every inquiry with brevity and grace. I still think about his demeanor often, as it’s such a rarity in today’s harried, disconnected business culture. He made everyone feel important and at ease.

My second role model for civility was Kathleen Finch, President of the Home Category at Scripps Networks Interactive. As the head of HGTV and DIY Network, Kathleen has reinvented both brands, catapulting them into a viewership renaissance. She’s also perhaps the most gracious person I’ve ever met. She has a super-human ability to respond to virtually everyone who contacts her. And, she’s exceedingly generous with her time, often taking time to mentor lots of people inside and outside of her organization.

It’s no accident that people like Roger and Kathleen have been successful. Treating people well matters. And, as my cabbie friend in London said, “It costs absolutely nothing.”

Admittedly, I’m not perfect when it comes to returning every email, LinkedIn/Facebook message or phone call. But, I never let perfect get in the way of better. In the last year, I’ve put disciplined effort into building better habits around increased responsiveness. My goal is relentless civility.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Turn Off Notifications. A constant barrage of email and other push notifications makes genuinely connecting with people seem daunting. Turn them off. Bonus: you’ll be more attentive to the people around you, making you more memorable — and a rarity.
  1. Set Aside Time for Civility. I set aside 90 minutes first thing in the morning and 60-90 minutes at the end of each day to return emails, phone calls and other messages. I receive anywhere from 100 – 200 emails/messages per day depending on the season/day. I make an attempt to respond to everything, including cold calls, job inquiries and introductory emails. Which brings me to my next tip…
  1. Keep It Brief and Be Honest. People tend to overthink this stuff. I hypothesize that rejecting people and ideas is perceived to be negative. Most folks avoid the negative. I believe that ignoring people under the guise of “I’m too busy and important” is a more negative signal than merely telling the truth.

Take Jane Jobseeker as an example. Her resume looks great, but you’re headcount is frozen for the foreseeable future. I have found that it is perfectly acceptable to respond by saying the following:

Hi, Jane.

Thanks for reaching out. Your resume is impressive, especially your experience with Big Data. We don’t have any roles that fit your skill set right now. Please keep in touch and ping me again in 6 months just so we can keep the lines of communication open.

Best of luck in your search,


You know how long it took to write that response? 30 seconds. It’s brief, honest and polite. And, I kept the door open to someone who could be a valuable resource in the future. Most importantly, I was gracious to someone who is working hard to find her next role. Think she’ll forget that?

  1. Be Vulnerable and Punt. Sometimes I need more time to respond to someone. I might need to do some research before offering an opinion. Or, if it’s something really critical or delicate, I may need some extra time to be thoughtful. In those instances, I just say so. I send a brief (2-3 line) email to the person and tell them why I need additional time to respond to their inquiry, and I provide a date by which I’ll respond. And, I make sure that I keep my promise and respond by that date.

For example, last week, I was playing catch-up after a chaotic week of international business travel. I needed some extra time on a few email inquiries. I simply told those people that I was playing catch-up (that’s the being vulnerable part), and I told them that I would provide them with a full response by Monday (that’s the punting part).

If all else fails, remember the advice of Henry James. The author said, “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.”








%d bloggers like this: