Memphis • 022123 • 3:49p • (7 minute read: Repurposed from a prior post)
At the front end of COVID, in their April, 2020 One World concert, the Rolling Stones performed their then 51-year-old hit song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” As long as they’ve been making music together, it seems safe to say that between practice, recording sessions, and concert dates, the band might have done this song, what, 10,000 times? Yet, when separated by distance (each of the 4 performers was in a separate location, perhaps their own homes) and combined by digital magic, the band seemed a bit out of sorts, although Charlie Watts (don’t you miss him?) played some mean air drums throughout. So what, you might ask? The performance was fine.
Here’s what. Many of us at present, and for the foreseeable future are confounded by the same space-induced dilemma that faced one of the world’s most accomplished rock & roll bands. The people on our teams know the music, the lyrics, and generally how to put them together, but it’s as if, when visually separated, and we cannot see the conductor’s baton or hear their voice un-delayed in real-time, we’re uncertain as to if and how to proceed. We’re missing the non-verbals, essential eye contact, the knowing glances… the whole social order is a little out of whack. As a result, our performance is a bit less polished and yet considerably more taxing for the performers. Add new people, new gear and a little fear to the mix (our performers generally haven’t worked together nearly as long as the Stones), and the performance gets harder and more dissonant.
Please humor me and write this down somewhere: “It’s not, repeat, NOT about the device or software, the technology.” Don’t get me wrong, We’re not anti-technology, at all. It has its place. But at its root, communication isn’t about the device, digits, or electrons. Rather, it’s about making meaning, and doing so at the proper time, in a fashion that works best for the parties involved, even if you do it with smoke signals. Here are 3 things we’re encouraging leaders to do that will make this process go a little better:
Amp your ‘meaning making’
Communication is much more than opening your mouth, your laptop, or phone and just broadcasting into space. There are a host of other important elements like addressing, sequencing, personalizing the content, pace, and listening, really listening.
Awkward as it may be, we need to get over our reluctance to tolerate some dead air space when conversing with others…….. You see, when our mouths fly open the instant that the other person shuts up, it’s a pretty good sign that, rather than listening, we’ve… just… been… waiting… to… talk. This has become a regular occurrence during cable news interviews where the interviewers regularly cut the guest off. If you’re going to do all the talking, why have them?
Let’s realize that good communication is about making meaning, not just pushing content into the ether. When you’re separated by proximity with your other party or parties, it takes real work to gauge how effectively we’re really making meaning, on BOTH ends, as opposed to yapping, and waiting to yap. For openers, a lot of us need to get better at taking quick time-outs in our conversations and presentations to check for meaning. For asking questions and being patient enough to shut up and listen. Sometimes I’ll ask someone in the audience to “tell me what you just heard.” This is a test not for them, but for me. Because if they missed the message, it’s likely my fault, not theirs.
Also, we need to get more adept at making eye contact (if possible) via whatever platform or device we’re using. My sense is that when in distanced video mode, it helps to hold the gaze with each person about a half beat longer than usual, just long enough to insert a slight, but perceptible smile. That can be especially hard to do if you’re simultaneously “cheating” by glancing at your notes, in hand or on another device. I’m smiling now because I’ve done that, a lot. Trust me, you’ll do better when you focus your gaze on your audience. Look at the tiny red light of the camera, NOT just your laptop screen! Doing so helps hold their interest, and it wins you points for trust.
One point that we made in our Contented Cows books.
is that, because people have so much coming at them, we’ve really got to simplify the messaging. In his book, Beating the Street former investment guru, Peter Lynch, who ran Fidelity’s Magellan Fund for a number of years and made people a lot of money said that if you couldn’t explain what a company did and how they made their money with a simple blunt instrument, a crayon, then you didn’t understand it well enough to own it. That same principle holds true for us as leaders. If we can’t explain in credible, compelling fashion, to our team with that same set of crayons, where the organization is going, why it’s going there, what it stands for, what their roles are, and what’s in it for them, then people aren’t going to buy in, in which case, we’re not seen as their leader, but just another damn supervisor barking orders.
You MUST Care
Most leaders tell the folks on their team that they care about them. The good ones do more than tell… they back it up. They do that by taking a sincere interest in each teammate’s agenda, their life plan. What do they want to do when they grow up? What are their hopes, fears, accomplishments? And some of you are thinking, “Gosh, Isn’t that a lot of investment for somebody who’s only part time or a temporary member of the band?” Of course it is, but do you want them to invest in you and your gig or not? Do you want them to Commit, with a capital “C” or just mail it in? I’m sure that U.S. President, Joe Biden has been telling his Ukrainian counterpart for a year that he cares about him. On February 22, 2023, he proved it by showing up in the middle of a warzone, amid air-raid sirens, no less, to be with him!
Good leaders take time on a regular basis to chat up their teammates not about the work, but about them personally. Granted, there’s a line we shouldn’t cross, but it’s worth it to find that line with each person.
They also encourage the folks on their team to grow, to stretch, to take some risk. Those gambles don’t always turn out well, and sometimes they crash and burn. In those moments, we get another chance to back up this caring stuff by taking heat for them, by laying down on the tracks and getting hit by the train so they don’t have to. Or, by bending the rules for a deserving person. And you’ll get beat up for that, too. (I’ve often remarked that leaders are blood donors) That’s part of the deal. People notice that stuff, they appreciate it, and most of them return the favor, in spades.
If you care about people, you show up, in person when they’re having a tough time… If you care, you tell them the truth… If you care, you don’t let anybody abuse or humiliate them, ever! Good leaders also demonstrate that they care by making sure that their team doesn’t have to work with turkeys. If someone on the team isn’t cutting it, or clearly doesn’t belong, they act, because they realize that one of the meanest things you can do as a leader is leaving someone at the end of their rope, twisting in the breeze.
We Must Stay Relevant
Speaking of twisting in the wind, a lot of us are in danger of doing that at present, as we’re being asked to do many things very differently than ever before. I thought of this when I watched the first major televised COVID-era sporting event, a NASCAR race at Darlington Raceway in front of zero in-person fans. Oh the cars made their usual throaty roar, but the roar of the crowd was crickets.
I would pose the question, “Are we learning and changing quickly enough to meet up to the task ahead?” I worry that most of us are not, and I include myself in that. In fact, the one thing that scares the bejesus out of me is that my pace of learning won’t keep up and I’ll quickly become irrelevant. Ever feel that way? My suggestion is that each of us be serious, deliberate, thoughtful, and determined to take steps that will ensure that we remain relevant, as people, and professionals. Read more (and different), meet some new people, get a coach, attend some webinars, better yet, teach one, or, take a lesson from Charlie Watts and learn to do an air-drum handshake.
Though you won’t always get what you want, “if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.”