Category Archives: Career Management

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.

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: https://hbr.org/2015/06/twitters-cofounder-on-creating-opportunities

 

Tell Me More About That

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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.

 

 

 

 

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