Monday, June 03, 2013

Can You Forward This?

An interesting article once appeared in the Harvard Business Review about an exchange of emails.  I thought the article useful, practical and sensible, so here is a short summary:

A busy executive crafted an excellent email response to an important query posed by her subordinate. Thoughtful, useful, and personal, her answer cut to the heart of the issue while presenting an effective approach for managing it.

The only problem was the executive's note was too personal and, as written, couldn't be shared with anyone beyond the original recipient.  Yet it offered a thoughtful response to a business issue that would impact the behaviour of literally hundreds of employees.  After another email exchange, the executive and her direct report recognised that, as useful as the message was, it could not be shared with other employees.  They spent a quick half-hour editing the original note into a more formal directive.  This revised communication had the desired organisational impact.

A happy result?  Not exactly.  Senior people should (almost) always write emails as if they would be — and should be — forwarded to key players in their organisation.  Rewriting and revising individual emails into more scalable missives is time-consuming and inefficient.

If you're editing even only three emails a week into a forwardable focus — particularly in collaboration with a colleague — then you're arguably wasting 10 hours a month on communications rework.  Why not write it as forwardable in the first place?  Every single significant response to a serious query should be written as if it can and should be forwarded.

This is the happier and healthier corollary to the "Never write anything you wouldn't be comfortable seeing on the front page of the New York Times — or WikiLeaks”.

The downside of this approach is that when you write only in a style to be forwarded, you inherently throttle back some of the personal touches in your communication.  Indeed, this approach insists that communicators be a little less intimate and individual.  That is a loss.

On the other hand, many executives personalize their communications in ways that get in the way of information sharing and, in reality, blur the professional focus of the message.  While efficiency shouldn't always be prized above personalisation, personal flourishes that undermine efficiency waste time and attention.  Those are resources that effective executives are reluctant to squander.

Our True Values

On leadership training programmes we often spend time discussing authenticity and self-awareness. Part of this involves exercises to explore personal values so we can better understand what is important to us and what we stand for.  For many of us, articulating our values and having a language for them is hard: it is often only when our values are challenged in some way that we recognise them as being imperative to the way we choose to live our lives.

Values exist, whether we recognise them or not.  They are core beliefs that guide us on how to live our lives in a meaningful way.   They emerge from a mix of our background and experiences, our emerging personality and sense of self.  Some may remain constant throughout our lives and others will develop and change. When our actions and behaviours are consistent with our values, we are usually happy and centred.  But when they don’t, we can become unhinged and feel compromised.  This is why making a conscious effort to identify our values is so important.

A great start is to think about times in your life when you were most happy, fulfilled and proud.  Think about who you were with, what you did and what choices you made. Then think about times when you were less satisfied and fulfilled.  Gradually exploring the insights from these thoughts will help to start the process of articulating what matters most to you in life.  Choosing then to consciously live these values, to consistently demonstrate and show them will help you to become centred around what you stand for and help others to understand who you really are.

So, how about making June the month you identify what you stand for and investing some time in identifying your values?  It will be time well spent and will, at a minimum, provide you with some food for thought in how you choose to live your life.

I will end with 2 powerful quotes, both from Malcolm X, the Civil Rights Activist, who absolutely knew his values and what he stood for (the second has been attributed to other sources too).

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I am for justice, no matter who it is for or against”
“If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything”

Don’t rush what should be taken slowly

Having just returned from a boating holiday where the maximum cruising speed is 6mph, I’ve been starkly reminded of just how fast the pace of modern life is. After the leisurely flow of English rivers, stepping into my car and navigating traffic and motorways at speed was a sharp awakening indeed.

Speed, and with it the expectation that everything can be done quickly, is inherent to the mindset of modern business life, affecting everything from communications, production, market responsiveness and logistics. There are benefits of course, but the danger is it can give the illusion that everything can and even should be done at speed – and that change can be affected instantly.
Navigating a boat has factors inherently different from driving a car. Steering and manoeuvring has to be done with anticipation – a rudder is not as instantaneous as a car steering wheel. Even more significantly, a boat does not have brakes – you need to slow down ahead of time or use reverse gear to stop. To navigate a boat effectively, particularly in a crowded marina, you need anticipation as you don’t always have the luxury of changing your mind at the last minute.

So whilst speed of communications is great, it’s vital in business not to carry the expectation that all can happen instantaneously. There are some things where slow is definitely best, including strategic decision-making, affecting major changes and altering the direction of a business.  These all require levels of anticipation, precise actions, intelligence gathering and monitoring - all more akin to navigating a boat than driving a car.
Slow is also best when it comes to leading people. We can’t just expect to turn the steering wheel and assume everyone is with us – leadership needs to anticipate the time it will take and the continual reinforcement of new direction.

The anticipation and thoroughness needed to navigate a boat is also needed when taking important decisions in our own life. When it comes to moving, changing jobs or taking on new responsibilities it is best to takes things slow and steady. Most car drivers today apparently use way too much acceleration and braking – if you used the same approach to drive your life you’d wear yourself out in no time!