Thursday, February 26, 2015

Perfecting Your Three-second Statement

In their 2009 book Brand You: Turn Your Unique Talents into a Winning Formula.*, social scientists John Purkiss and David Royston-Lee discuss the concept of the three-second statement: a brief (usually one- or two-sentence) response to the question “What do you do?”

Often, people who pose this query expect to hear about your career and professional aspirations. But a three-second statement can communicate more than just what you do for a living—including aspects of your personality, and passions of yours that are unrelated to your vocation.

Why is it important?

Like an elevator pitch, the three-second statement is designed to convey information in a clear, concise form. It permits you to instantly connect with individuals whose interests are similar to your own, and can elicit further conversation and idea-sharing.

Imagine yourself at a typical social gathering, like a reception or mixer. Introductions at suchlike events are typically brief—often less than ten seconds—before the conversation drifts on to another topic. The next person you meet could lead you to a great opportunity, and it never hurts to make an endearing, memorable first impression. A succinct but informative description of yourself will help you achieve exactly that.

Keep the following principles in mind when crafting your three-second statement:

1.    What is your unique combination of attributes?

In addition to your primary job, do you have another hobby or side gig that you think may be of interest to people? What else are you passionate about?

Aim to list two items—for example, “I’m a venture capitalist and hobby photographer.” Or, “I’m an ophthalmologist and blues guitar player.”

Many people have similar professional training, and most of us cannot realistically claim to be the best or most qualified professional in our field. However, by highlighting interests, passions, and personal attributes aside from our day job, we can still stand out from the crowd.

2.    Tell your story.

After your three-second statement, your conversation partner will likely follow up on the item that most interests her (either your career or your hobby/side gig). You can then elaborate on the topic in question. You may find that it’s helpful to think in advance about how you would answer common follow-up questions, like: How long have you been doing X? What do you most enjoy/find most rewarding about it? What are some of the challenges involved?

3.    Keep business cards handy, and your website up-to-date.

If you strike up a conversation with someone who is keen to learn more about you or your work, but pressed for time (as many professionals are), you will find it’s helpful to have business cards close at hand. A frequently-updated website with a memorable, easy-to-spell URL likewise comes in handy for situations like these.

4.    Test your three-second statement on a trusted friend or family member.
Before you put your three-second statement into practice, you may want to seek feedback about it from a person you trust to offer constructive criticism. Perhaps that individual will suggest that the items you’ve chosen are too commonplace, or not sufficiently interesting or memorable. Or she may offer fresh ideas that hadn’t occurred to you.

5.    Honesty is the best policy.

Don’t even think about exaggerating your credentials. Odds are you will eventually come across an expert interlocutor who can call you out on even minor misrepresentations. Instead, strive to offer a realistic appraisal of your skills, talents, areas of specialization, and past accomplishments. This is another area in which the advice of a person you trust (see item 4. above) may prove useful.

*London: Artesian Publishing LLP, 2009.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Vulnerability and Self-interest: Qualities of Great Leaders

What is more important in a leader: the ability to project authority, or a knack for earning the trust of one’s cohort?

Surely both qualities are indispensable. But the latter is a precondition for the former. Unless they trust you, your team will be unwilling or unable to recognize your authority as a competent decision-maker. In other words, their confidence in you is a sine qua non of your effective leadership.

What is the source of this confidence?

There are many possible answers to that question—depending in part on the individual and the circumstances. However, two important but somewhat counter-intuitive leadership traits often go overlooked: vulnerability and self-interest.

Before I elaborate, allow me to define both terms.

Vulnerability in this context refers not to weakness, but rather to the capacity for empathy, humility, and accountability. In order to relate to the personal challenges faced by your employees, accept constructive criticism, and admit your own shortcomings, for instance, you must first let down your guard and accept that you are merely human.

Self-interest means the intellectual and moral steadfastness to pursue your own best interests, and the best interests of your business and your team, even in the face of counter-pressures.

Vulnerability and accountability

Occasionally, you will encounter people who attempt to mask their own vulnerability, presumably because they worry that others will try to exploit chinks in their emotional armour. But this is a false choice. It takes courage to acknowledge one’s vulnerability; on the other hand, many people associate a refusal to acknowledge vulnerability with a lack of authenticity, or even a deficiency of courage. Have you ever known someone who consistently refused to admit her own defects and attempted to mask problems—either personal or professional? Are you left with a favourable impression of that person?

Vulnerability is a prerequisite for developing meaningful personal connections with other people, including co-workers and employees. One of the most important ways this manifests itself is in the form of accountability and forgiveness. We all make mistakes, and the way we respond to them (both our own and those of our peers and employees) is crucial.

 A rigid, institutional intolerance of error has the effect of deterring even mundane risk-taking. A manager who refuses to countenance the missteps of her employees is somewhat like a vehicle without brakes. If we were all obliged to drive brake-less automobiles, motorists would putter along very slowly, avoid hills, and approach stop-signs and intersections at a snail’s pace. In other words, no one would get anywhere very quickly, and our society and economy would suffer the consequences. In the case of a business enterprise, this is analogous to reduced productivity and diminished willingness of employees to venture outside their comfort zone.

Nonetheless, forgiveness is not exactly the same as tolerance of error. Instead, the goal of a leader should be to identify miscues and point them out to the responsible party, allowing reasonable leeway while discouraging repetition of previous mistakes. Naturally, in order to build credibility for this purpose, leaders must be prepared to take ownership of their own failings too.

Self-interest versus selfishness

Through his magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and political economist Adam Smith popularized the idea that self-interest on the part of individuals would ultimately enhance the general welfare of society. One of the examples he cites is that of a baker, who produces bread for his customers not purely out of benevolence, but also in order that the baker himself may earn a living.

Centuries after the publication of that work, debate still rages as to exactly what Smith had in mind, and about the extent to which “greed is good.” But self-interest and greed are not necessarily synonyms. Another interpretation of “self-interest” is “taking care of oneself in order to better one’s chances of helping others.”

Leaders nearly always face extraordinary demands on their time. On a personal level, it is crucial to appreciate the role of time management and the effect of stress with regard to your own health and well-being. If you aspire to a long and successful professional career, you need to ensure that you lead a healthy lifestyle which includes adequate down-time. At times, this will require you to delegate duties to others. It may also require you to turn some invitations and opportunities down.

This concept of self-interest can also apply to your business and your professional team. In order for your enterprise to thrive, you will need to make choices, some of which may be difficult. But by putting the rational interests of your business ahead of competing priorities, you will increase your chances of success over the long term.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Pros and Cons of Friendships at Work

Employers who aim to improve the loyalty, efficiency, and engagement of their workforce would do well to focus on employee morale. And one of the surest ways to improve morale is to encourage camaraderie/friendship in the workplace.

When employees care about each other, they are more likely to become invested in each others’ success, communicate readily and openly, and cooperate on major projects in a way that capitalizes on their comparative advantages. (For example, “You’re better at writing, and I’m more conversational. So I’ll field phone calls while you take care of e-mails.”) Workers who have developed friendships on the job are also more likely to remain with the company, even if the work itself becomes less appealing. Finally, a reputation for camaraderie and positive employee morale may also enhance your company’s prospects for recruiting top talent.

With all of that in mind, here are some ways to encourage camaraderie in the workplace:

  Participation in community service/volunteer events. Set aside some time for employees to volunteer for a charity or non-profit organization, and allow them to choose the organization. Or you could sponsor and take part in a public event on behalf of worthy cause, like the local Terry Fox Run, or a Pride parade.

  Team-building exercises. Though they may seem clich├ęd, team-building exercises can be effective in helping employees develop a “we’re in this together” mentality. Well known examples include the mine field (leading a blindfolded person through an obstacle course) and the trust lean (catching a person as s/he falls backward). Some companies have even tried sheep-herding and scavenger hunts. In any event, remember that the purpose of the activity is to foster trust and a willingness to cooperate within the group, rather than competition between individuals. Choose accordingly.

  Empathize. Make an effort to be consistently respectful, amicable, and professional toward employees, colleagues, and clients. Practice empathy and compassion. Take the needs and concerns of your employees seriously, and take individual preferences, personality types, and working styles into account in your personnel decisions. With respect to the type of workplace atmosphere you hope to instill, be proactive and set an example.

  Keep an eye out for potential conflicts. It is axiomatic that some people simply don’t get along well with each other. Watch out for personality conflicts that you sense may become problematic, and trust your instincts. Where possible, try to match or group people you believe will work well together. If you find that one individual in particular doesn’t seem to collaborate effectively with anyone, you may need to take that person aside to address a specific issue, or even consider letting her go.

The downsides

As the title of this post suggests, the effects of camaraderie in a professional setting are not all rosy. Possible disadvantages include ruptured friendships if one friend departs and the other remains, and more time spent socializing (which may detract from productivity). In certain cases, friendships at work can lead to the formation of cliques and even divided loyalties—consequences that you’ll need to watch out for. As a manager or business owner, you’ll also need to remain cognizant of the line between friendliness toward your employees and friendship with them. While it’s possible to be friendly toward someone while maintaining an air of professionalism, it can be very difficult to reconcile the obligations of management with the responsibilities and commitments of friendship.

In most cases, though, the positive effects of workplace camaraderie far outweigh these potential difficulties, and the challenge of maintaining an affable but professional workplace atmosphere is manageable.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Your Work Environment Shapes Your Mentality

Which is better: a tidy, organized workplace, or a cluttered, messy one?

For most people, the answer to this question seems glaringly obvious. Clearly organization trumps slovenliness and disarray in the workplace.

Or does it?

In reality, the answer may be more ambiguous than you’d expect. A 2013 study led by psychologist Kathleen Vohs suggests that clutter and organization both have pros and cons; the former tends to promote creativity, while the latter is more conducive to observing social and ethical norms, following procedures, and getting mundane tasks done.

In other words, the choice of which of those two states (order or disorder) to favour largely depends on what you hope to achieve, and what sort of work you happen to be doing. (Naturally, personality and individual preferences are significant factors too.)

Messiness can promote thinking outside the box

Innovation, by definition, involves a break from convention, and many of the most successful start-ups in history owe their genesis to a moment’s inspiration. Nowadays, every business owner is seeking a competitive edge, and the ability to come up with fresh and useful ideas certainly helps. Writing in the New York Times, Vohs described the details of the study she and her colleagues undertook, and some of its practical implications for managers and entrepreneurs hoping to spur ingenuity.

One component of Vohs et al.’s study involved two groups of research participants, half of whom were deployed to a tidy room, and the other half, to a disheveled one. All of the subjects were assigned the task of devising innovative uses for ping-pong balls, and the ideas they came up with were rated on both quantity and quality. (Unoriginal ideas, like using the balls to play beer-pong, received a low creativity rating.)

Both groups produced the same number of ideas. But the novelties emanating from the messy room were significantly more creative, and included using ping-pong balls as floor protectors for furniture, and to make ice trays. Comparable results, indicating a correlation between disorganization and creativity, have been found in subsequent studies.
The take-away is clear: a bit of messiness (within reasonable limits, of course) can foster fresh approaches to everyday problems, exactly the sort of thinking that enables small businesses to address unmet needs in the marketplace, and thrive as a result.

But of course, disarray is not without some drawbacks.

Tidiness correlated with generosity, and adherence to convention

While thinking outside the box is well and good, there are also plenty of occasions in life, including in professional environments, where it pays to recognize what’s working, and stick with it. Why re-invent the wheel?

In another component of their study, Vohs and her colleagues found that research participants who had been exposed to tidy environments tended to be more generous in their donations to a charity that supplied books and toys to disadvantaged children. When offered a choice of snacks between a chocolate bar and an apple, participants from the more orderly environment also tended to favour the healthier option.

One needn’t perform a scientific study in order to think of some other advantages that stem from organization. By maintaining order around your desk, you can avoid wasting time hunting around for things, and won’t become sidetracked as easily. Having a clear process in mind for the tasks ahead, and all the tools and materials that you need on hand, can save you mental and physical energy. This is crucial if your workload is heavy, and especially if it involves run-of-the-mill administrative duties.

But as Vohs et al.’s research indicates, it is hazardous to presume that disorganization in the workplace is a liability. In fact, under the right circumstances, it can even be an asset.