Thursday, September 30, 2010

7 steps on how to say "no" and have people still like you

Although spelled only with 2 adjacent letters of the English alphabet the word "NO" can sometimes be the hardest word for people to pronounce especially in response to requests for time or services in a work situation. The reason it's so difficult is rooted in fear. Fear that if you say "no" you could lose your job, lose an interesting opportunity, be cast as inflexible, not a team player and worst of all: someone won't like you.

But many times it's important to say "no" or at the very least "not yet". Overcommitting yourself is as bad a sin as undercommitting. Setting boundaries is critical to ensuring what you do produce is focused and of high quality. "Say what you're going to do and do what you say" is a creed I live by and one critical to success. It will build trust in you and "your brand" and through this will bring you power. Setting boundaries will also help you keep your sanity.

As important as it is to set boundaries this type of conversation can still be considered or easily turn into a confrontational one. Many people avoid confrontation. There are certain techniques to handling confrontational conversations to be discussed in a later post. The aim of this post is to turn a confrontational refusal into a cooperative and constructive way to move forward. So, how do you do that?

Here are the basic steps I've found successful in saying "no" to someone's request but remaining on good terms with them:
  1. Acknowledge the request head on. Don't beat around the bush. You want to make sure that you understand the request and ensure it is actually a request of you. (It would be embarrassing to say 'no' to someone who isn't actually asking you to do something. That's happened to me in the past! Misunderstandings happen. Let's minimize those.) Restating the request demonstrates that you've listened carefully and are in the moment dealing with the issue. For example if someone came over to ask you to create a presentation for them you could start by saying "I understand you'd like for me to create this presentation by the end of this week. Is that accurate?"
  2. Validate the need. You want the person requesting your time to know that you know this request is important. You want to treat both the request and person making the request with respect. By validating their needs you get the both of you onto the same team. It de-personalizes the next several steps. If you are on the same team it's not about personalities - it's about the best and most effective way forward to satisfy this important need while not distracting you from your priorities. Be empathetic to their need because tomorrow you may be the person making a request of them. Continuing the presentation communication example above you could say something as simple as:  "I know this presentation is incredibly important and urgent."
  3. Decide if it's really a "no" or a "not yet" and prepare your response accordingly. In considering the importance of the request, your priorities, your existing commitments and your talents with respect to completing the request decide if you can take this on at all. If so, can you take it on in the time frame requested? If the answer is "yes I can do it but not in the time requested" make sure to figure out a commitment as to when you can offer to do it.
  4. State clearly your response. If it's a "not yet" share your time frame and ask if that works (and if it doesn't work then this may end up being a "no" in the end). If this is a "no" deliver the response firmly but at the same time empathetically and respectfully. For example, "Unfortunately I'm unable to fit this additional project in at this time. That's probably not the response you wanted to hear."
  5. Explain your response. This doesn't have to be elaborate but do give a reason. If it's due to a personal reason you'd rather not share you can keep the explanation high level. The requester doesn't have to agree with your response and explanation necessarily but it is your truth and the sooner that's acknowledged the sooner everyone can move forward and figure out how this thing can get done. I recall reading sometime back about an experiment showing that people are generally more receptive to messages if you give a reason even if that reason doesn't make sense than if you didn't give any reason at all and just delivered the message. Part of it is that it seems that our brains are programmed to be more open to messages and requests once we simply hear the word 'because' without actually hearing the rest of the reason. From personal experience I think this is spot on. Back to the example you could say something like: "Unfortunately I've got 2 other presentations to deliver in the next few weeks. When I work on presentations I want to make sure I deliver something high quality. To take on a 3rd presentation would dilute my ability to focus on producing a great end product. I would hate for you to get something substandard."
  6. Offer alternatives (this one is very important) Don't leave your requester high and dry. You've listened to them and empathized with them. You're both on the same team (in terms of this exchange) now. If it were your request being refused wouldn't you want to hear some tips on how to move forward? Of course you would! So once you've said 'no' immediately follow up with ideas on how the requester can proceed without your participation and still be successful. "Have you asked Becky or Mike to help you out? They are just as well-versed on this topic as I am. Perhaps I can send you a related presentation I did last year that you could use as a starting point or as a template. Would that be helpful to you?"
  7. If possible offer to initiate the alternatives. Building off of step 6, actually spend a little energy and get that person started on the alternatives you suggested. This is a little 'extra credit' but very powerful. Perhaps you can arrange an introduction to someone that can help with the request or perhaps use Google to quickly point them in the right direction with data they need. If you've offered to do something make sure you go and actually do it and do it quickly. That way you can send them on their way and get back to focusing on what you need to do without having to worry about fulfilling a promise later. Step 6 and 7 together offer them a resource and path forward. If you don't leave them empty-handed they are more likely to remember this exchange as a helpful one rather than one where you refused to do something they wanted. (I've gotten away with this for years! ;) ) "You don't know Mike personally? No problem. Let me introduce you. I'll let him know how important this project is and let you take it from there."
Hopefully this offered some tips on how to turn a "negative situation" into a positive one! If you have other suggestions please leave them in the comments! 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tips for asking someone to be your mentor

[UPDATE: Watch my YouTube video answer on this topic by clicking here!]

A reader of this blog wrote in and asked: "How do you ask someone to be your mentor? (these people are typically very busy and you are asking for some of their precious time). What qualities do you look for in a mentor?". Thank you for these 2 great questions!

I've been very lucky in my professional life to have had several mentors throughout my career. 5 in total to be exact - 3 formal ones and 2 informal ones. As I've written previously my first mentor was not sought out by me but after gaining so much benefit, both professional and personal, from that relationship I reached out for mentors since then.

The first part to getting a mentor is identifying possible candidates. Much like dating there has to be a certain "match" and an interest on both sides. If there are people around you that you admire or wish you could emulate that puts them on the list of your candidate mentors! If not then ask for recommendations. At one company I found my mentor by asking my boss. Asking your manager is recommended anyway as it accomplishes two things: 1. it lets your manager know your desire to grow through mentoring and that you're taking strong interest in your career by making this type of commitment; 2. it also lets your manager know that you'll be meeting someone outside of our immediate organization to talk about topics usually reserved for 'the boss' such as your career. A good boss will be very encouraging of your mentoring desires and may know folks at their level (or higher) that would be a good match for you! Or they may know great Business or Life Coaches who specialize in career and life coaching for hire.

Once you've identified your list of candidates set up a short meeting, perhaps coffee, with the individual at the top of your list. Typically these folks are very busy so be respectful of their calendar and be patient to get that initial meeting. If this person's name came from a recommendation perhaps the person that gave you the recommendation can set up an introduction. And please do keep that initial meeting short to demonstrate that you keep your commitments when it comes to people's time.

If you are going the paid Business Coach route you still need to set up an initial conversation because you still need to ensure a great "match". Especially if you are paying for them! Many Business Coaches will set up initial consultations for free.

When meeting time arrives start off by explaining the purpose of the meeting (i.e. to see if there is a mutual interest in starting a mentoring relationship). Explain why you think this would be a good match. If possible enumerate the qualities you've seen or heard about the candidate mentor/coach that you admire. It's important to establish rapport early in the conversation or quickly recognize that it's difficult to do so and may not make a great fit. Don't be shy! Be eager! Most everyone would be flat out flattered that they are being approached with this kind of request even if in the end there isn't a fit. Talk a little bit about yourself - what you do, where you see yourself going. Also talk about what you expect to get out of a mentor and what kind of time commitment you expect. Do be sure to be flexible as you are the one essentially asking a favor even if in the end the relationship ends up being very beneficial to both of you. Both of you should have enough of a conversation to decide if you'd like to proceed.

Hopefully the answer is "yes" to proceeding from both of you but be very prepared to hear "No" from the candidate mentor. Don't take it personally! I've had some candidate mentors say no to me because they were already mentoring 3 other people and simply could not take on an additional person. You may hear "no" because the person honestly feels that they can't offer you much help or time. Not everyone is prepared to be a mentor and that doesn't make them a bad person of course. You may decide "no" on your part because the qualities you thought the candidate mentor possessed were not quite there. If this isn't your mentor that's fine just move to the next person on the list or grow your list through conversations with peers and friends.

Regarding the 2nd question about qualities to look for in a mentor success really depends on the chemistry between the two individuals. Will you feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics with each other? Is this someone you can trust? Did you feel you established a good rapport with the person after that initial meeting? Below is a good list taken from the article: "6 Qualities of a Good Mentor":

  1. Authentic – the mentor “practices” what he/she “preaches.”  A good mentor will not only tell you what the best approach is, but is utilizing the approach him/herself.  The mentor doesn’t send you in one direction while he/she goes another saying, “you have to learn the hard way.”  The purpose of working with a mentor is to learn from the mentor's mistakes.
  2. Personally Involved – the mentor should take a personal interest in the mentoring relationship.  The mentor should get to know you, how you work, what your goals are, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and any other pertinent information that you (the mentee) believe to be relevant.
  3. Listens – a good mentor will genuinely listen to your concerns and not be eager to get the conversation over.  You shouldn’t be a list item on your mentor’s day sheet.  He should know your current projects by name and be able to ask you, first hand, how things are going.
  4. Continues to Learn and Grow – a good mentor knows that he couldn’t possibly know everything there is to know in any given field today – the world has become much too complex.  Things change, people change, circumstances change – and it’s all great.  A good mentor will remain open to new ideas and even try them.
  5. Assumes You’re Great – a good mentor doesn’t assume that you’re a loser just because you are coming to him for advice.  He recognizes that you have talent and are successful already, (otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to afford his fee! [Editor's addition: or that you wouldn't necessarily recognize the benefits of mentoring even without a fee!]).  At the very least, he should see your potential or otherwise not take you on as a mentee.
  6. Builds You Up – A good mentor is tuned in, tapped in, turned on, and in their wholeness, they will uplift you.  When someone fosters insecurity in you, they are not tuned in, tapped in, turned on, and they’re not a good mentor for you in that moment.

I agree with all these qualities and would explicitly add one more: trustworthiness - can this person keep things confidential? You need to have an open and safe place to discuss anything and that space isn't created if there is fear of information getting out. Establish the "all our conversations stay in the room" rule at your first session.

I hope this helps give some tips on finding a great mentor! Keep the questions coming and thanks again!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Preparing for a 'showdown'

A mentee once asked me "What do I do to prepare for a showdown?"

A 'showdown' is a meeting that is expected to be confrontational. Attendees have very different opinions of or approaches to something. It is also usually considered by the participants as "high stakes" (so we aren't talking about figuring out "where to go for lunch today?"). Showdowns also occur when their is a perceived power imbalance between participants or emotional baggage between participants that aren't necessarily tied to the meeting topic.

So what to do when you have to participate in a crucial meeting with layers upon layers of related and unrelated challenges? Here's the advice I'd give the mentee:

  1. Be prepared - take the time to seriously prepare for this meeting. Do your homework! This means 2 things: 1) make sure you know your material cold. 2) Learn as much as you can about everyone's point of view before the meeting starts. I am a big fan of "having the meeting before the meeting" so to speak. I advocate going to as many attendees as possible beforehand and invite them to share their perspective with you in order for the actual meeting to be more efficient and productive. This will also allow you to focus and be prepared for the issues likely to arise. (It's not guaranteed that everyone will share all their concerns with you beforehand - but you can try!)
  2. Be open - being open to others' opinions will have 2 very powerful effects. First, it will go a long way to diffusing a tense meeting. Showing that you value other people's opinions will put other participants at ease and actually afford you some "goodwill points" towards your argument. Secondly, by being open to new information you might actually learn something and perhaps even change your mind! Or an even better result would be for folks with opposing viewpoints to work together to formulate a 3rd path forward which takes into account everyone's input. This can only happen with an open mind and a positive attitude.
  3. Be confident. This doesn't mean being arrogant. The more you've prepared the more confident you will feel. And the more confident you feel the more naturally open you're likely to be during the meeting. If you are not confident that your approach/solution is valid it's unlikely anyone else is going to be arguing for or agreeing with you. In fact, if you aren't confident going into the meeting that's a worthwhile feeling to pay attention to and explore. Perhaps in the back of your mind you aren't sure and need to do more research or propose a different way forward. So go in there and be confident or do something different until you do feel confident.
I like to start 'showdown' meetings with a direct and sincere invitation to everyone to have an open mind. I state that everyone's perspective is valued and needs to be heard and considered. I then "confess" that while I'm certainly coming into the meeting with a preference I am open to having my mind changed. The last thing I do by way of introduction is ensure we all agree on a clear and crisp description of the problem at hand and invite everyone to alter or improve that description. The point is to start off on the same page about the problem. If I'm not leading the meeting I still try and make sure all these points come across early on.

Of course the above approach doesn't work 100% of the time. Nothing is guaranteed. You may find someone there that's bent on making you fail. Many times in real life "other considerations" prevail over working through a showdown most logically. We tend to label these "other considerations" under the banner of 'politics'. Even in the face of politics the above steps are still going to give you the highest probability of rallying the crowd to your side and leading you towards success.

If you have other suggestions for dealing with 'showdowns' I'd love to hear them!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Happiness is not that elusive

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” — Thornton Wilder

On a fellow named Nic Marks gives a wonderful talk about the "Happy Planet Index" asking people to reconsider how one measures a country's success. He'd like for us to replace GNP and GDP as measures of national success and well-being with this index that measures happiness as a function of planetary resource usage. Putting planetary resource usage aside for the moment "happiness" is a wide and complex topic to enter in with your mentee. But isn't their happiness and well-being something you as their mentor inherently care about?

Periodically I'll ask my mentees if they are, in general, happy. No matter the answer I get I always want to know why. If they are unhappy I like to dig deeper to see if there's something we can work out together. If they are happy I'd like to learn what makes them tick and perhaps also learn a thing or two that could help me be more happy. Mentoring is, after all, a 2-way street.

What I like most about Nic's talk is his straightforward boiling down of the actions one can take today and everyday that have been proven to lead to happiness. And those actions aren't that hard! I would recommend watching the whole presentation but if you don't have the time you can advance the time marker to 13:08min where Nic discusses the 5 things you can do to improve the sense of well-being in your life. I list them below but Nic talks about them in a little more detail.  They are:

  1. Connect - Be social 
  2. Move - Be active
  3. Take notice - Be observant
  4. Keep learning - Be curious
  5. Give - Be generous

I'd like to add a sixth one:

    6. Give Thanks - Be grateful

We've all heard the cliches that there's someone out there worse off than us. That's almost definitely true but may not strike the right chord. Comparing oneself to others usually leads to competition, stress and unhappiness. Gratitude for the abundance one already has independent of what others may or may not have is the key. Whether it's outward gratitude expressed to someone in particular or gratitude that's inwardly focused when one recognizes the "positives" of life - both will work!

There are several techniques for "practicing gratitude". Some people pray. Some people make sure to say a specific "thank you" to at least 3 people a day. Others make daily written lists of what they are grateful for from that day. Still others may have a ritual or a picture or a thing on their desk that reminds them to be grateful. Whatever it is a well-placed reminder to focus on "the treasures" one already has will spark an important, positive feedback loop in the brain.

I derived the title of this post from the fact that these are all steps right in front of each and every one of us and we can all start immediately. None of these 6 activities have any barriers to entry. They cost nothing to engage in and yet are powerful and effective. They can and will bring about a sense of well-being if put into practice over time. Try it - you'll like it!

For Nic Marks' talk click here.

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” — Epictetus

Monday, September 6, 2010

Motivation Part III: Self-motivation

This posting is for mentors and mentees alike. One of my favorite topics is motivation. Today I'll point you to a nice, brief article about self-motivation: How To Motivate Yourself

Of the steps mentioned the 2 most critical ones in my opinion are:

  1. Break down big goals into smaller more achievable goals. Some goals have good, natural break points (such as weight loss - 25 lbs can be done 5 lbs at a time). With others you can set aside a certain amount of time to work on that goal (even using a timer to help with time management). For example, you need to re-organize your closet? Do it in 15-30 minute chunks every day or week and over time you'll notice significant improvement.
  2. Celebrate the successes - especially the small ones! Celebrations create a positive feedback loop that will help you gain momentum to propel you towards your goal.
Another aspect not mentioned explicitly in the article is getting passionate about your goal. This does not mean getting 'obsessed'. I had an uncle that loved the phrase: "If you can't do what you like then like what you do." It's hard to get motivated to do something you hate. The key then is to find something that you like about achieving that goal and reframe your thoughts around that positive aspect. For example perhaps your goal is weight loss and to achieve that you need to exercise. I hate exercising. So I focus on an aspect that I can enjoy. I like to exercise to music and so when it's exercise time I get excited not so much about the exercising activity but instead on the fact that I get to blast my music for 30 minutes. Others may focus on what they'll look like if they stick to their exercise regimen over time.

"Tricking" yourself into liking what you do will get you far in many aspects of life especially if you are currently "stuck" in a job. Rewarding yourself after achieving milestones will also help you like what you do. The good news is that the more you practice thinking positively and finding the silver lining the better at it you will get. And the easier it will get! The additional good news is that if you master this 'trick' it will help you in all aspects of life and not just work. If you have tricks on learning to like what you do please share them in the comments section! I'd love to read about it.

For past postings on different aspects of Motivation please see:

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What to do about a 'bad' manager Part I

A mentee once asked me "what can I do about my bad manager?"

Ah, what an interesting question and one many folks are asking as this economy forces more of us to stick to our current jobs longer than we may like. It is also a situation that has to be handled very delicately and diplomatically because in the end the boss is still the boss and presumably has the power and leverage in this situation.

When encountering this issue I like to first understand what the person means by 'bad' (by the way, other unprintable adjectives have been used in real life but I chose to stick with 'bad'). I generally categorize the feedback into 2 buckets: 1. "not on the same wavelength"/"communication issues" and 2. "incompetent leadership/management" or in other words "truly bad management". This second bucket will be addressed in another post.

So let's take the first bucket. Here's the kind of conversation I would have with the mentee:

Clearly not everyone was meant to click with everyone else. Perhaps the rapport you felt during the interview process has faded or more likely you have a brand new boss due to an organizational change. I would first want to find out if the issues are communication related. For example are you a 'move towards' person and your boss a 'move away' person? Are you a visual person (where drawing pictures aids the communication immensely) and your boss is someone that prefers to talk everything out (pictures don't mean much)? Are you a strategic thinker and your boss a tactical thinker? Or vice versa on any of these example questions?

If you can't answer these questions it probably means you haven't yet paid enough attention to the dynamic of your manager/employee relationship.

Another aspect to examine carefully is the existence of other workplace issues for you that are being projected onto your manager. For example, budgets are pretty tight in tough economic times and they tend to get even tighter towards the end of the year. I know of companies where you couldn't even purchase pens in the 4th quarter. That is incredibly frustrating but not necessarily the manager's fault. It's critical to separate circumstances out of your manager's control from their talent as a manager. The circumstances are what they are and it's best to focus your energy on creative ways of dealing with those circumstances rather than assigning blame to the boss.

Back to the "communication"/"not on the same page"/"not see eye to eye" reasons. If you determine that your manager is in fact talented and well-intentioned then something else must be off. Your styles may be different. Your approach to communication may be different or even in conflict (i.e. they are "big thinkers" but you need detailed conversation to be successful in your job). Here are some suggestions to move forward:

  1. Start off by resetting your opinion of your manager! If he/she is well-intentioned and competent you need to internally recognize that before proceeding because if you stay stuck with a negative opinion it will show one way or another. And that will only hurt the situation further.
  2. Analyze and identify what the differences between you and your manager are in order to tailor your approach to resolving those gaps. Review the questions listed above and figure out the answers. You may simply have different personalities. To use an MBTI-type example you may prefer to be "directed" but your manager prefers simply to "inform" you. (more in depth in another posting on this one).
  3. Make a list of these possible differences in your brain or on a piece of paper.
  4. For each item on that list make another list of possible workarounds. For example in the case where your boss is always thinking and communicating at a very high level/strategically and you need tactical guidance perhaps you can find an alternate person to work with to figure out a certain set of work issues. Perhaps your manager can even suggest who to talk to in those cases if you explain your need for this level of conversation in order to be successful at work.
  5. To the extent that the workarounds involve your manager or aren't obvious take the opportunity to sit down with your boss and openly discuss your perspective on the differences. Ask for their perspective and their suggestions for workarounds. Approach this conversation with the intent of searching together for an improved relationship. An open and honest conversation aimed at making the relationship better and helping you do a better job will be more than welcome by a good manager!
To summarize - if you actually have a good boss but it's just not working out make sure you separate the circumstances around your manager from your manager him/herself, figure out if you have different communication styles, personalities or approaches to work life and then build workarounds first with yourself and then in partnership with your manager.

I hope this provided some useful context and suggestions. In a second post on this topic I will explore ways to deal with a "truly bad manager" - someone who should never have gotten into management in the first place!