Throwing Around the Word ‘Leader’

It’s an easy mistake to make: Calling managers “leaders”.  I often find myself correcting my own words in an, “I’m sorry, I mean ‘Management Team'” back-peddle, when I’ve thoughtlessly used the term ‘Leadership Team’.  That’s usually what we refer to them as, right?  The ‘leadership team’?  But what we really mean is the group of managers that meet to make decisions without the rest of us. Does that responsibility for resource allocation and accountability make them leaders? (the debate goes on…)

We often refer to people above us in organizations as “leaders”. Perhaps it’s an expression of hope.  Maybe it’s an affirmation we’re expressing (the whole “thoughts become things” bit). We may want them to lead.  We may want to see some leadership along with their management responsibilities. In fact, I think we long for that, secretly.

What’s interesting is when they refer to themselves as leaders. I have had experience with a few management teams that refer to themselves in front of org chart subordinates as “the leadership team”.  That’s a pat on one’s own back – don’t you think?  I simply can’t resist interjecting an innocent, “You mean the ‘Management‘ team, don’t you?”  I know, some people could really be insulted by that.  For those individuals, I wouldn’t recommend that they open their 360 feedback.

‘Leader’, ‘Manager’ – “What difference does it make?”, you ask?  Well, for one, learning to carefully choose our words might actually help us to communicate better…  Besides that, though, keeping the word ‘leader’ sacred might create a cultural view of the term as earned through behavior and not obtained through promotion.

Think about that as a norm in your organization!  What impact would the simple, intentional selectivity of the usage of one word have on organizational results?

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Be More Successful -> More ‘Professional’

Over the past twenty years, there has been an occasion where I have been accused of not being professional (usually when someone is suffering deep emotional problems). Worse, I have myself thrown the term out to describe someone else’s behavior (I have always been mentally stable). I don’t even know what “professional” means. I do get paid – isn’t that professional? Let’s put it this way: In the good old days, I wouldn’t have been able to go to the business olympics – only amateurs were allowed (and while my performance may be amateur, I have been paid on numerous occasions for my athletic acts of business which is a clear violation of both old-school olympic and current NCAA standards. Though I don’t have enough tattoos to make any NCAA team nowadays, even women’s soccer.).

Let’s face it: appearance matters. And while I do mean the way you look, I don’t just mean the way you dress and do your hair. The way you appear to others makes a difference. (oh yeah, I finally found a description for ‘professional’).

Back in the tumultuous aftershock of 9/11, I was stuck trying to save my own business and looking for work at the same time. I got pretty good at interviewing (either for a new client or a new job), and learned a valuable lesson: It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it. In other words, my verbal appearance made a huge difference when interviewing. Time after time I was able to win positions or contracts (before they were frozen due to the economic hit) by my ability to answer questions freely, non-chalantly, and completely. It was my ability to communicate that made others think, “This guy is sharp, we should seriously consider him” (suckers).

Now obviously, you have to be able to produce good work for your charade to be fruitful in the long run. If you’re interviewing, you need to have the right resume in the first place to get very far, but in the end, I believe its one’s ability to communicate effectively that determines, to a large extent, where their career goes.

Communicate with words. Communicate with physical appearance. Communicate with personal style and with business results.

Photo by S. Diddy

A Voicemail I’ll Never Forget

Sometimes I get into a work mode where I am completely focused on churning out email responses to my workgroup, and it's usually late at night and I am just ripping through all the email that I received during the day:  read, decide on action, respond. read, decide on action, respond.  Thats when I usually send something sensitive to the wrong person (like when I hit reply instead of forward and sent it back to a key vendor, basically insulting them) or like last night, when I did one of those typos that actually works and changes the meaning of the entire message and sends one of my direct reports into a 15 minute panic state. The solution, for me as well as all of us, is to slow down, be intentional about our communication and not just haphazard, especially when we are using computer-mediated communication without all the voice tones, inflection, facial expressions and body language that help get our messages across the way we intend them.

But sometimes, even when we say the right thing, technology messes it up for us.  Like this past Thanksgiving, for instance.

You know that new technology that takes a voicemail and converts it into text in an email and sends it to your phone?  Well, my mother-in-law left a message for her son about Thanksgiving dinner, saying, "Dinner is at five, come over before whenever you want, we're going to play games and have snacks."   What ended up on his phone was, "Dinner is at five, come over before when ever you want, were going to play games and have sex."

Either way, it was a Thanksgiving to remember.

Ban on Inter-office Email

Ok. I am going on strike. At least for a while.  I have seen too many run-ins with misinterpreted, written communications, mostly in emails, that I am now staging a sit-in in my office (where I sit anyways, so it works out quite conveniently for me).

I am staging a ban on inter-office email.  Please note that this is not a ban on email, just the inter-office kind.  You know what I am talking about, the kind that you can just pick your rear up and walk five steps to the left and talk to the person face to face, but instead you hammer out a few words and pass it on.

So, I am looking to stop those behaviors in myself and others and promote genuine, face to face communication. And when that won’t work, I will pick up the phone.

I think our communication is becoming too fragmented and aloof in a world washed with email and instant messaging. Those are great tools, but they are changing out workforces and ourselves to the point that we react to messages instantly, without much thought, and process them as if they were some sort of checklist.

So, here are a few possible slogans for the ban:

“Got Talk?”

“Just Say…Something!”

“I spoke instead of emailed and all I got was real communication.”

Do you have any suggestions?