Reconsidering the “no” (follow-up post)

It’s been over three years since I published a post about “saying no for the greater good”. The overall idea of the article is that you shouldn’t be afraid to say no – whether it’s to a specific feature, a project, or a prospect. Always keep the end goal in mind: delivering the best possible product and services to the right customers. I am, of course, not the only one who supports this view. In fact, a Google search for “saying no to a feature request” renders over a billion results (try it!). I thought it might be a good time to elaborate on the topic and point out why simply saying no might not be enough. 

Identify the reason for the no

Be honest with yourself and your team members. Is the reason for the “no” completely based on what’s best for the product and/or the customer, or could there be another underlying factor that influenced you, such as reluctance to push your team, personal preference, or risk averseness? I highly recommend keeping track of every no and capturing the reasons, so that you commit to an analysis of individual items and any patterns that might crystalize in the process. 

No, but…

There certainly doesn’t have to be a yes for every no. However, consider where you can say “no, but…” instead. We may not be in a position to agree to these contract terms, but we can compromise on a particular item that is important to the customer and let them have the last win. We don’t have the bandwidth to take on this particular project, but if you’re open, we can collaborate with a contractor. This particular feature is not feasible for us to implement, but we are considering this connector in order for our customers to use best of breed tools to achieve a particular objective. Your default should not be a “no” full stop. 

Consider the consequences of a no

As you weigh the pros and cons of a specific request, don’t forget to evaluate the potential consequences of saying no. Sure, you should ask yourself what the return on investment will be (“How many new opportunities will this bring?”), but also think about how a “no” might negatively impact you (“What will happen if we don’t do this?”). 

Adjust to the times

As a leader, you need to widen your scope of evaluating factors that inform your strategy. It’s not just things in your immediate periphery, such as your industry or technology trends, but you also have to look at broader factors such as the state of the economy, current and upcoming legislation, and yes, even a pandemic. In a climate where stress is high and budgets are tight, you may have to rethink some of the views you’ve had before, and adjust as needed. Where you would have said “no” before, a “yes”, “maybe”, or “no, but” might be more appropriate now. Always be agile. 

There is nothing wrong with saying “no” to a feature, a project, a contract term, a price, or even a customer. You have to be able to do it – and do it frequently. But do it for the right reasons. Always strive to find an alignment of what’s best for your customers and what’s best for your company. They are not opposing objectives. 

What about you? How have your thoughts on saying “no” evolved?

Five signs of employee engagement

As I mentioned in a previous post, “employee engagement” is arguably one of the most misunderstood terms among managers, as it often gets confused with employee happiness. In reality, engagement should measure how much an employee’s goals and values and those of your company are aligned. If they are well aligned, you have a foundation to hold each other accountable. Engagement without accountability, on the other hand, is bound to result in entitlement.  

What signs can you look for in order to determine if an employee is truly engaged? Note that just because someone is not exhibiting all of the behaviors listed here, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are disengaged, but these are some positive signals.

They take an interest in what’s going on in the company as a whole

An engaged employee tends to consider themselves as part of the entire team, not just as a member of their department. They are genuinely interested in learning about the company strategy and how the different arms of the company support it. They may read daily and weekly updates in Slack, attend product demos and/or marketing webinars, and subscribe to the company newsletter and blog.

They participate

An engaged team member ensures that they participate in discussions if they have something valuable to contribute. They try to avoid multitasking when interacting with others. While I recommend making it clear that nobody is expected to participate in every volunteer activity or team building activity, you do want to talk to team members who are not regularly participating in much of anything so you can determine why that is. 

They seek information and feedback

The more engaged your employees are, the more they strive to become better, not just in their particular role, but as a contributor to the success of the organization. Therefore, they research the industry, ask probing questions, and thrive on feedback. Be sure to make yourself available to provide it to them on a regular basis. 

They get out of their comfort zones

Engaged employees understand that in order for the company to grow, they need to grow. As a result, they are not just okay with being pushed out of their comfort zones – they actively seek out opportunities to do so. They may volunteer to do presentations, even if they don’t like public speaking. Or they may mentor a team mate even though they prefer heads down work over human interaction. 

They live the company values

Engaged employees understand how important it is to internalize and exhibit the company values. They live and breathe them, especially when nobody is watching. 

A highly engaged employee, whose goals are aligned with your company’s, thrives on accountability, as they take ownership in the business. Be sure to hold up your end of the bargain by coaching them, challenging them, listening to their ideas, and allowing them to stretch themselves. 

What about you? How can you tell if an employee is engaged?

Why we’ll be going back to the office (once it’s safe to do so)

Long before COVID-19 forced us to work from home full time, I had written a post about the benefits of working in the office, such as creating a sense of community, supporting team members who might be struggling, learning from each other, and increasing collaboration across departments. The pandemic has shown that many jobs can be done remotely – some even better. In fact, several of the big tech companies like Twitter and Facebook announced that some of their workforce will be working remotely indefinitely. Not surprisingly, this idea keeps getting floated in our company. At this point, we are planning to return to the office when everybody has had a chance to get vaccinated and achieved the desired immunity level afterwards. We will start out with 2 days per week and ease back into a new routine. Here’s why.

Communication

While we’ve learned to use different communication channels, such as Zoom and Slack, in fairly effective ways and even developed a communication playbook, there’s a component to in person conversations that simply cannot be replicated. All too often, I see people multitask during virtual meetings, which doesn’t convey the level of respect for your team members that you would want, and it also doesn’t make for the most effective communication. In addition, in order to foster emotional intelligence, it is important to focus on and allow for non verbal communication. 

Empathy

There’s no question that working in isolation except for virtual meetings tends to make you more focused on yourself and less empathetic to others. As soon as some of us returned to the office (socially distant and mask-wearing, of course), you could feel that the human interactions and connections became enhanced and the tone more empathetic. 

Inspiration

Great work spawns more great work. Witnessing a Services developer implement a complex integration, a Product Engineer be laser focused on a new feature, or a Sales Rep consult a prospect makes everyone more aware of each team member’s contributions to the company, and, as a result, to each other’s lives. It makes you want to do your best work.  Listening to our Support team help our customers and each other is inspiring. I miss overhearing those conversations, not just because of the level of care that I believe is contagious, but also because it has resulted in new ideas for our products and services. 

Integration of new team members

If you’re fortunate enough to be hiring, you know that it can be challenging to onboard new team members remotely, especially when they’re new to the role. You have to ensure that you as the manager and the rest of your team are available for hands-on training and ad hoc questions, even when they’re “heads down”. If your company culture is as important to you as it is to us, you need to find ways to demonstrate how each one of you lives the values you subscribe to, which admittedly, is a bit easier in an office environment. 

Team over self

One of our values is that the team comes first. Literally “showing up” for your team members a couple of times a week can serve as a great reminder that personal preference or convenience, while important, sometimes needs to take a backseat to what’s best for the team as a whole. After all, some projects or initiatives may be achieved more effectively in person. 

In a company which is as customer-facing and customer-focused as we are, it’s not all about being heads down all the time. It’s also about fostering the best possible culture, collaboration, fun, and service. While it’s certainly not impossible to achieve all of this in a remote environment, being together in person does make those things easier. That’s why we decided on a hybrid set-up once it’s safe to return to the office. We will be more intentional about what we want out of a day in the office and also provide our team members plenty of opportunities to work from home. 

What about you? Does your company plan to work remotely indefinitely?

How do you identify leadership qualities?

I have always been a proponent of promoting from within your organization whenever you have an employee who you trust and in whose potential you have a high degree of confidence. But how do you recognize someone’s leadership qualities? Here are a few indicators to consider – not necessarily in isolation but as an overall package. 

Listening versus talking

A good leader does not need to be the center of attention or to engage in any type of battle for positions. They don’t dominate the conversation, and they’re typically not the loudest person in the room. Instead, they tend to practice active listening. They ask thoughtful questions and help others think things through before arriving at a conclusion. They don’t typically jump in to offer up their opinions right out of the gate. You’ll also notice that the individuals with leadership qualities are often addressed by others in conversations more often than other participants. 

Taking blame and giving credit

Being a leader means taking responsibility for failures and handing out praise for successes. When interviewing candidates for any position, I frequently ask about an example of a failure and an example of success, and always pay attention to when someone uses “I” instead of “we” and vice versa. Consider being alert to those nuances in your one on ones with team members as well.

Grit

Resilience in the face of challenges is a valuable trait for any employee, but it’s even more important if you’re in a leadership position. Who on your team can adjust quickly to new circumstances and sees opportunities where others see problems and barriers? Who is willing to do what it takes, even if it’s not in their job description, to get the team on track? 

Locus of control

One of the characteristics that I value most in an employee is their locus of control. People with leadership qualities tend to have a strong sense of their ability to control the outcome of situations. They don’t have a victim mentality, but instead, they focus on the things they can control and have a high degree of confidence that it will be enough. In addition, individuals with leadership potential are able to help others build up their locus of control. 

Discipline and investment in professional development

Looking at highly successful leaders, you’ll detect a pattern of discipline, designed to help them be intentional about how they structure their day. They are smart about their time management, as they create routines. They have the self awareness to know when they need to tackle a specific type of task. Look for this level of self-discipline and awareness in order to assess leadership qualities. If an employee structures their day based on an awareness of their performance levels as opposed to personal preference, it’s generally a good sign. Furthermore, a team member needs to be invested in their own professional (and personal) growth and understand that no matter where they are in their career, there’s always more to learn. 

Effective communication with everyone

We prefer that every member of our team have great communication skills, but when identifying leadership potential, it is crucial that the individual knows how to communicate effectively with everyone. This includes employees outside of their department, customers (happy, indifferent, and unhappy), and any stakeholder on any level. Can they break down difficult concepts to non technical users? Can they sell a vision? Do they exhibit high levels of empathy towards others? 

No show-offs

People with leadership potential don’t typically need to show off. Their words are intended to add value to the conversation, and their actions are meant to make an impact, not to elevate the way they are perceived by others. 

Risk taking

Leadership involves taking calculated risks. A team member with leadership potential does not need an insurance policy for everything. They are deliberate in their actions and welcome being held accountable. While they don’t overstep their “jurisdiction”, they don’t need someone else to make every decision for them. They also understand that no outcome is guaranteed and know when to take a chance. 

What about you? What are qualities that you look for in a potential leader?

Tips from our communication playbook

Effective internal and external communication has always been a key ingredient for a positive and productive company culture, but it has become even more important since the outbreak of COVID-19. While we’ve been lucky enough to work from home in the past year, we have certainly learned some lessons and identified ways in which we can improve. In fact, we recently created a communication playbook, intended to provide best practices and guidelines. Here are some of the tips it contains:

Identify target response times 

Especially in a time where you can’t just walk up to a colleague’s desk and ask them a question, you need to establish expectations around response times. For instance, we strive to respond to all emails within 24 hours or less. Even if we don’t have all of the information that someone is requesting, we still respond and provide the sender with an ETA. For internal communication, we mostly use Slack, so we also captured guidelines for that in order to help team members find the right balance between heads-down time and communication. For example, be as specific with your requests as possible. What do you need, why do you need it, and when do you need it? We also recommend agreeing on acronyms such as “ayc” (at your convenience” = no rush on this) and “rq” (“really quick” = I’m only giving you a quick answer right now as I am not currently available), and even emojis such as a checkmarks in order to acknowledge the receipt of a message. We want to minimize the number of instances when the sender has no idea if the recipient has seen the message. 

Talk about what not to say

Sometimes, we fall into bad habits without realizing that they can stand in the way of good communication. That’s why our playbook includes phrases to avoid. “Like I said”/”As I said before” or variations thereof don’t really serve a purpose other than implying that the other person didn’t understand you before or wasn’t paying attention and that you were right all along. “I’m sorry if” should always be replaced with “I’m sorry that”, because “if” means that it’s up to the feelings of the other person whether you’re sorry or not. Own your actions and their impact on others. Another phrase to avoid is “We apologize for the inconvenience”. The word inconvenience has a tendency to sound as if you’re minimizing the problem or challenge that your customers are facing. A sincere apology should convey that you understand the degree in which you negatively affected them. 

Streamline email communication

For many of us, email takes up a significant portion of our day. To streamline email communication, we included recommendations in our playbook. For example, if someone has been copied on an email who doesn’t really need to be included, move them to BCC and inform the other recipients. In addition, if several people are copied in an email or thread, bold the name of the person from whom you need a response. Keep your emails as concise as possible. If someone has been passive in a long email or Slack thread, and you want their input, summarize the main points of the thread up until this point instead of asking them to go back and (re)read everything. 

Identify the best channels for specific situations

It is helpful for your team members to understand when to use which communication medium, so be sure to cover this topic in your playbook as well. If you intend to expand knowledge and information sharing and achieve greater alignment, you may recommend writing things down instead of having private conversations, and keeping discussions posted in public channels instead of private ones.  Slack and emails may be good media for asynchronous communication, but not so great when you need to resolve a conflict, reduce friction, or find yourselves in an awkward situation. In those cases, video calls tend to be much more effective. On the other hand, too many video conferences can cause fatigue, so don’t overdo it – sometimes a phone call is sufficient. 

Make only one assumption

One of the biggest challenges of non face to face communication is to convey tone. Have you ever seen a harsh comment that is followed by a smiley face? Confusing, right? While we try to educate our team members on communicating clearly regardless of the medium, there’s always room for misinterpretation. We also can’t deny the fact that empathy levels can decrease when you’re not seeing your teammates in person for over a year, as it has been the case during the pandemic. Reiterate how important it is to focus on facts and to not make any assumptions. Except for one: Assume good intent. It will make you happier and, as a result, a better communicator. 

Our communication playbook is a living, breathing document, and all team members are encouraged to share their thoughts and suggestions. What are yours?