Posts Tagged ‘creating a culture’

Take the Bus to be Happy at Work

Saturday, June 1st, 2013

After his first dinner as head of the Catholic Church, the newly selected Pope Francis rode the bus to his hotel with the all the cardinals instead of taking the car specially prepared for him.

We learned that Francis flew economy from Buenos Aires to Rome, he kept his silver cross in lieu of a new gold one, and he carried his own luggage and paid his bill at his hotel himself. When asked by reporters why he did all of these things, his spokesperson said, “Pope Francis would like to set an example of how members of the clergy should behave.”

I think we’ve forgotten the power of setting a good example. I know very little about the new Pope yet I already respect and admire the man, and not just because he’s the Pope, but because he’s visibly living his beliefs.

I think we underestimate the power of acting in line with our beliefs as compared to talking about our beliefs. As the saying goes, it’s easy to talk the talk. But, it’s important to walk the walk. Especially if you’re a manager or in a position of authority, your actions make an impression on others. A junior employee checking out of a hotel and paying her own bill? It would be noteworthy if she didn’t do this. But, a senior manager bringing a coffee for a junior employee—stop the presses! Setting a good example can be as simple as getting someone a coffee. Every good example doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. In fact, sometimes a small action can have a big impact.

Several years ago, I was the CEO of a business that had a lot of challenges. Each day I had one meeting after another, with very little unplanned time. One day, when I was walking between meetings, one of my managers, Dave, asked me if I was eating lunch that day. As it happened, I didn’t have lunch plans, so Dave invited me to the baby shower of someone on his team. “Sure, Dave, why not?” Dave and I went to Daisy’s shower along with the rest of his department. We admired all the little baby clothes and ate cake and after an hour, returned to the office. It was fun, especially since it was spur of the moment.

Imagine my surprise a year later, when Daisy told me that she had decided to stay with our troubled company because I had taken the time to attend her baby shower. “Denice, I was really worried about the challenges we were facing and I was concerned I would lose my job,” she confided. “I had another job lined up, but when you came to my baby shower, I thought: ‘How bad can the business be if the CEO has time to come to a baby shower?’“ I had no idea at the time the impact that my spur-of-the-moment gesture had.

Sometimes even small actions, like getting coffee or riding the bus, can have a big impact. So, if you’d like to be happy at work, get on the bus. I promise you, you’ll enjoy the ride.

Crying at work makes me happy

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Crying at work makes me happy. Odd? Weird? Wrong?

I often cry at work. I don’t really like to, but I know that it’s as much a part of who I am as my eye color.

You see, I cry when I am inspired. People inspire me. People at work inspire me. I think we are surrounded, every day, by ordinary people doing extraordinary things, including at work.

Let me give you an example. I was recently in a hotel in Birmingham, England. The bellman, James, who I guessed to be in his 70s, was kind and gracious as he escorted me to my room. We chatted about the weather and the hotel. If you were to call Central Casting ask for a normal, down-to-earth person, they would send James.

“Denice, do you have a job where you work with people?”  James asked me as he made me a cup of tea. (I was in England, after all.)

“Yes, James, I do.”

He went on to add, “I think working with people is great. In fact, I believe I was put on Earth to do this job.”

Inspiring? Absolutely. Without a doubt, this was a special moment. Here’s why: like many of us, I look up to people who have a huge impact on the world. I admire presidents, astronauts and scientists dedicating their life to improving life on the planet. In reality, these are two-dimensional people because I will never know anything about them except for what I see on the news. But, in talking to Phil, I met a normal and dare I say, average human being, and at the same time, shared an inspiring moment that has stayed with me for many days.

This brings tears to my eyes. And, I often have these moments at work. My job brings me into contact with such a variety of people, from CEOs to accountants to factory managers to receptionists. And yes, I am inspired by spending time with CEOs—they lead businesses, create powerful strategies and successfully navigate the complex business world. But, I can be even more inspired by the “average person.” And, when I get inspired, the emotion that washes over me brings me to tears.

In these moments, I can feel my pulse quicken, my breath shorten and my eyes fill with tears. I cry.

So, if you’re like me and crying is your response to emotional situations at work, what should you do?

I acknowledge my reaction and explain it. Amazingly, once I acknowledge it, I usually stop crying. Let’s be clear, I’m not sobbing. My eyes are filled with tears, and my voice is a bit shaky, but I am not a soap opera actress finding out that my future husband is my long-lost brother. I find that people, in general, are very understanding. They appreciate my candor, and often, compliment me on being honest.

And, in the end, I give myself a break. I accept that crying at work is not my best corporate behavior, but because I cry when I am inspired by people’s amazing stories, I would not change my behavior for all the political correctness in the world.

Go ahead: inspire me, and pass the Kleenex.

Connecting in a disconnected world

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

How do we connect in a disconnected world?

I realize that I am not the first to address the communication challenges of today, when we’re all connected 7/24 and via a multitude of electronic devices—PDAs, tablets, laptops—the list is endless. While offering convenience, these devices also keep us tethered like electronic dog leashes. And, like the dog on the end of the leash, we have a limited range of motion and minimal human contact.

There are many tips for managing one’s electronic arsenal. But I won’t address those here, other than to mention one technique that I find very successful: I shut them off. Dazzling.

Instead, I’d like to talk about a different phenomenon I’m seeing that I think is related to the pervasiveness of personal communication devices. Increasingly, I see extreme reactions to direct human contact. When I make what I think is a small gesture of human kindness, the response is overwhelmingly—and I think disproportionally—positive.

Here’s one example. Recently I was the after-dinner speaker at a senior management class at Siemens. My talk was about what it means to be a senior executive at our company. In other words: how to be a good leader. I knew four of the 30 folks attending the class and beforehand I memorized the other participants’ names so that I could respond to everyone personally. One of my strongly held beliefs about leadership is that good leaders invest in the people around them. In this case, my investment was to learn the names of the folks attending the class.

During pre-dinner drinks, I walked up to each person and introduced myself, addressing them by name as I said hello. Most folks were wearing name badges, but a few were not, yet I still addressed them by name. Silence. The people standing around us were astonished.

After a buffet dinner, everyone sat in a circle in a large meeting room.  I made my remarks, and then opened the floor to Q&A. Most of the people were too far away from me for me to be able to see their name badges, so gradually, everyone realized I knew their names.

It was a transformational moment. Yes, I know this sounds a little odd. In my ten years at Siemens, I have spoken to at least 30 such classes. Each time, I memorized all of the names before I arrived, and each time, it was clearly appreciated. But this time was different; I could really see that it had a big impact on the participants.

While I was happy my gesture made a positive impression, I also had the nagging sense that this was a little sad: I was getting way too much credit for something I think all leaders should do in similar situations. I thought about it in the car on my way home and came to the conclusion that people found my action so remarkable because we’re increasingly disconnected on a human level. Although we’re über-connected electronically, I would offer we’re more disconnected from other people than ever before.

Connecting with people, having an impact, even a small one, makes me happy at work. Try it. The next time you are in a seminar or workshop or some other similar situation, try to learn everyone’s name before you go. Yes, it takes some time, but we all learned how to memorize in school, so this is not a new skill. It takes me about an hour to learn 30 new names and faces. (Flashcards are my friends.) I guarantee that people will appreciate the effort and that you’ll be rewarded well beyond your investment.

Every voice should be heard

Friday, November 18th, 2011

“The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except for the best.”, Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living, Naomi Levy

I was recently on vacation in Italy with my husband Michael and his siblings. Michael and I love Italy, particularly Tuscany in the north, and each time we go we enjoy it a little bit more. Its charms sneak up on you as you discover a new vista, small hilltop village, little restaurant, or ice cream place. (Better known as gelato in Italy, or as I call it: heaven in a cup!)

When I am somewhere this magical, I like to read something a little different that is more oriented towards self-improvement. I don’t try to master a new skill, but I am inspired to diverge from what I would characterize as my normal reading: “work, plane or trying to fall asleep” reading. Even better, I like to read about other people’s journeys of transformation, which is what Rabbi Levy’s Hope Will Find You is about.

But, this blog is not about her amazing book, which I highly recommend, but rather to reflect on the quote:

“The woods would be very silent if no birds sang expect for the best.”

This quote struck me. I started thinking about its implications, and I as often do, how it related to my work. I was intrigued as to why this quote made such an impression on me, as there are many insightful passages in Levy’s book. And then I realized, it had an impact because it connected with one of my core values about what I believe it takes to be a great leader: every voice, regardless of whose it is, should be heard. It’s easy to be happy at work when you work for a great leader.

Especially at work, I think we get intimidated to speak up unless we think what we’re about to say is “the best.” I’m not sure what it is that keeps us silent: fear, effort, the risk of looking stupid or just laziness and lethargy. But, I find myself in more and more meetings where people are silent and I think this is a tragedy. As a skilled facilitator I can overcome this: I call on people and ask for their comments. But, I can’t help think about this quote—think of how silent the world would be if only the best birds sang.

Aren’t you happier at work when you know your voice is being heard? If you were a little bird in the woods, wouldn’t you sing? It wouldn’t matter if you were the best singing bird in the woods, you would sing away. I would offer that speaking up at work, instead of taking the easy path of remaining silent, would give you more satisfaction than sitting in the audience waiting for the Lady GaGa of birds to launch into song.

Say “please,” please

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

I travel a lot and because of this, I am often in public places, by necessity. Everywhere that is connected with being away from home: airplanes, airports, restaurants and hotel lobbies.

On each trip, I am surrounded by hundreds of people I don’t know and the point we have in common is that we are both in the same place at the same time. We may have other points in common, but who’s to say? These are fleeting encounters and, like most people, I don’t need to personally meet everyone I come into contact with.

But, if I were to speak to these people I share a brief connection with, I would ask this: “When did you stop saying ‘please’ to strangers?” Now, this is not true for each person I encounter. I would estimate about 15 percent of my co-travelers say please and thank you.

I was at an upscale café today and a mother said to a waiter, “Bring two apple juices for my children.” “Please” hung in the air, just yearning to be said. She could have even said, “Would you bring two apple juices for my children?” and at least made it a request. I still think she should have tacked a “please” on to it, but hey, maybe I’m willing to accept even the smallest courtesy in the face of blatant discourtesy.

I think the world would be a happier place if we were better about saying “please” and “thank you.” It’s not just about being polite and remembering the manners our parents drummed into us when we were young; it’s also about recognizing that you are speaking to a person, not some inanimate object like an ATM or luggage belt.

And, of course, “please” and “thank you” are very important in the workplace. Even if it’s a colleague you may not regularly work with, saying these two words is a mark of respect and everyone deserves this. I recently heard a very funny story from my friend, Mary, who told me, “Just yesterday, someone at work thanked me for saying thank you to him.” Wow. I had to smile when she relayed this story, but in fact it’s a little sad. Has saying thank you become such a rare occurrence?

Plus, I am always more motivated to help someone who asks nicely and thanks me afterwards—so, if for no other reason, saying “please” and “thank you” may get you something you want.

You’re welcome!

Add light, not heat

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

When I was in South Africa, I had the pleasure to meet a woman who is a senior executive in a large German company.

We shared experiences, both professional and personal, and it was so much fun to make a connection with a new person. One topic led to another, and soon we were talking about how you get people to rally around a new idea.

“I always want light, not heat,” she said as she described what a perfect discussion should look like. “So often, you are in meetings and the tone gets very heated. But does this move the topic forward?”

She continued, “I want to add light to the topic. Let’s make whatever we’re talking about clear to everyone, and then we’re having the right discussion.”

I thought about what she said and was struck by the truth of it.

“Heat” in a meeting usually means raised voices and people backing away, like you would from a hot stove. Add “light” and you have a completely different dynamic: everyone can see the topic more clearly and create a common understanding. Everything at work is easier when folks are starting from the same point.

I will apply this new insight to meetings I attend in the future. If the atmosphere starts to get tense, I will try to extinguish the heat and add light—who knows, it might keep all of us from getting burned.

Ask an unexpected question…

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

I met 10 colleagues I had not met before at Siemens Southern Africa. As I travel the world in my new job as chief diversity officer, I will meet new colleagues that I would not normally come across in my day-to-day work.

Folks walk into these meetings a little apprehensive because I do not specify an agenda or topics before our meeting. There’s nothing for them to prepare. Here’s why: we are all very task oriented and we rarely have 30 minutes during our day or even our week when we simply talk to someone. Every discussion, every meeting—well, at least the good ones—have objectives, goals and expected outcomes.

I’m not suggesting we should depart from this behavior: they’re important elements of working efficiently and effectively.

But, I work better when I get to know the person sitting across from me. I ask, “What motivates you?” I leave it up to the person whether they want to focus on work or life topics. This doesn’t mean that I need to know everyone’s deep, dark secrets. I’m not a big fan of “too much information.” I do want to know what motivates someone, though. It’s fascinating to me to learn why someone does what he or she does, especially at work.

Guess what? Most folks love to be asked this. This surprised me. I did not realize it was such a radical question, until I observed the reaction it got when I asked it.  People’s faces light up and they visibly relax. Sometimes I ask it another way: what makes you happy at work? I think the positive reaction is because they know they can answer this, they can get an “A.”

I encourage you to try it sometime. Ask an unexpected question, just be prepared to answer it yourself! (As I will do in an upcoming post.)

The opposite of talking…

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

…is not “waiting to talk.”

When did we all stop being able to listen? When did what we have to say become so urgent that we have to blurt it out right this minute, even if someone else is talking?

This is my number one pet peeve and I would offer, one of the biggest single contributors to what makes work hard and at times, frustrating. If nobody’s listening, then so much time is wasted because we miss potentially acting on good ideas that go unheard.

Yes, I concede that there are people who talk much longer than they should. But, most people know how to say what they have to say and give the next person their turn. Skilled moderators or conversation partners know how to gracefully interrupt those long-winded folks. Did we lose the skill of how to listen politely?

There are classes and seminars about listening. Listening well is not easy; you have to quiet your own inner voice to really listen to someone else. It takes focus and you have to put energy into it—just think about how hard it is to listen to anyone when you’re tired.

But, do we really need to attend a class before we can get better at this? Or can we just think back to what we learned in kindergarten?

  • Everyone gets a turn
  • We all have to share

And another of my pet peeves:

  • Please use your indoor voice

Here’s what I suggest: the next time you’re in a meeting and feeling frustrated, pay attention to what’s happening. I would bet that there is a lot of talking and very little listening. I have learned to stop it in a way that makes my point and is funny at the same time. I ask, “Can someone tell me what is the opposite of talking?” This usually causes a confused look on most people’s faces—is this a trick question? Finally, a brave soul suggests, “listening.” “Wow,” I reply, “Watching us today I thought the opposite of talking was waiting to talk.” This usually gets a laugh and for the rest of the meeting, people try to do better at listening.

It may not be sustainable, but it’s a good start.

It’s all in the numbers

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

I found an article on from January 10th 2010 titled “Survey: More Americans Unhappy at Work.” It’s worth reading. (click on the title to go to the article)

It cites a recent Conference Board study, which found that 55% of us are unhappy with our work. 64% of workers under 25 are unhappy.

These are astonishing numbers to me. Think of it this way, if you’re happy at work then the odds are that the person sitting next to you is not.

This is worth fixing. I would like to sit in a room at work with 20 colleagues and have 19 of them be happy to be there. OK, I’d even settle for 18. When one out of two people are unhappy, the whole tone of the office changes. Little irritants grow out of proportion to the incident. People are impatient and no one listens.  BlackBerries abound, as people would rather pay attention to their PDAs than to the people sitting next to them. Does this sound like any of the meetings you’ve attended recently?

One person can make a difference. You can make a difference. One person can change the tone of a meeting. I often use humor—probably sometimes inappropriately—to lighten the moment. This in and of itself doesn’t make people happy at work, but I find it makes us all happy in the moment. And in this moment, 100% of the people are happy at work. It’s a start.

We’re all CEOs of our families

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

I was talking to a dear friend this week and we were discussing a variety of people related topics: managing folks for performance, giving feedback, providing a support structure for people, and learning how to give encouragement at the appropriate moments.

All of these topics are very relevant if you’re a manager at work—or—the CEO of your family.

So many folks I know work so many hours. This blurs the boundaries between “work time” and “family time,” especially as our electronic gadgets turn into dog leashes tethering our work to us wherever we are.

It’s natural that behaviors that are successful at work would also be helpful at home. One could argue that it’s actually the reverse—behaviors learned at home are helpful at work. Maybe. I don’t remember getting feedback as a kid; but I remember getting grounded!

I’m not kicking off a “chicken or egg” debate, but I will suggest that the skills from both worlds are transferrable. I like taking some of my management skills home, whether it’s to effectively prioritize household tasks or to structure a decision we have to make. Equally, I like taking certain family skills to the office and I think it makes the work environment richer. For example, I love celebrating an important milestone the same way you would at home—cake, balloons and even better, as a surprise. It takes a little extra effort to organize this for someone at work, but the reward is a shared moment of happiness and celebration.

I would love to hear from other family CEOs!