I was leading a customer service exercise the other day and a woman asked for solutions on how to deter the same customer from asking for their password over and over. We crafted some solutions as a group (One of which was to make it more difficult for the person to reach her. We did NOT encourage that idea!)
In this case, sometimes people give themselves permission to forget things because the answer is so readily available somewhere else. How many phone number did you have memorized 10 years ago? How many now?
This situation reminded me there is often an emotional aspect to customer service that sometimes alludes us. It put me in mind of this story I heard from a 20-year veteran staff member from the Boston Public Library.
Every week for several months, a man would come in asking for information about radios. He seemed distant, unfocused, a little "off," Even though she repeatedly served him, he repeatedly asked for the same information. Of course, after multiple visits she became quite frustrated.
After being absent for several weeks, the man finally returned and approached her. He said, "I was on medication for the last few months. I don't remember much, but I do remember that when I was here, I was helped."
It's a touching story and a good reminder that what might seem a nuisance for us, might be priceless to someone else.
Sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves that effective leadership really is all about people.
I occasionally look back through my archive of communication materials to remind myself of important ideas and interesting observations. I rediscovered this interview with Gary Smith, President and CEO of Ciena, next-gen software and telecomunications company from October 4, 2015 (New York Times).
Look for how he draws leadership inspiration from his personal life. Experts (like DLM Communications, as a totally random example) can share with you great techniques for effective leadership, but learning them through your personal experience is often the best way to drive them home, to make them meaningful to you.
In this interview, you can see Smith’s leadership approach evolve from analytical observation to personal connection.
Here is an edited version of that interview…
Tell me more about your parents. How have they influenced your leadership style?
My father was particularly influential. He never said a bad word about anybody, and I’ve taken some lessons from that. He was always very positive, and he did it naturally. He’s not confrontational at all and will do anything to avoid a confrontation.
My mother was a little more confrontational and very direct when she needed to be. I’ve taken a little bit of both of them, and part of the skill is to know when to pull on the different levers. It’s very situational.
What are some other leadership lessons you’ve learned over the years?
Early on in my career, I was told, “It’s all about people.” I got it intellectually, but it took me quite a while to really get it. It really is all about people, and if you get that right, the other stuff will get addressed. But you have to work at it all the time.
Culture takes an awful lot of time and effort, and it can be destroyed very quickly, because it’s built on trust and respect. You’re respecting the individual and what they do, and you’re trusting them, and they’re doing the same for you. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like personal relationships.
How do you hire?
I tend to focus more on whether the person is the right fit for the company. So I’ll ask questions like What do you truly enjoy doing? How can I tell if you’re having a bad day, and how does that manifest itself? What are the things that really irritate you, and what do you do about it? What’s it like to work for you? How do you interact with your peers? What do you do if you don’t agree with the direction of the company?
If you are a leader in a new role, or veteran manager, take a look at role models in your life – what you respect about them, how they deal with people, what they think of you. The lessons you need to elevate your approach to communication leadership are all around us.
“Empathy” is one of those buzz words that is overused. But despite being ubiquitous, in this era of social and political divide it’s more important than ever.
I often use an exercise in my workshops that gets to the heart of this.
Two participants learn about each other’s hobbies or interests. Then they are asked, “given unlimited resources, what is the ideal gift you would you give to that person?”
I like to kayak. Someone could buy me a new kayak. But, no, think bigger. Someone could buy me all the of the Rangeley Lakes in Maine, dozens of kayaks, and pay for lessons so all my friends can join me.
What people quickly discover is receiving this imaginary gift is really very satisfying. Coming up with the idea is equally gratifying. This exercise supports the old adage, “It’s the thought that counts.” (I have a friend who once gave his girlfriend batteries for their anniversary. It doesn’t apply in that case.)
When I was 13 years old my grandmother gave me a newspaper clipping about the life cycle of cicadas; they were going to emerge after being underground for 17 years. On it she wrote in her loving scraggily letters, “David, these insects are older than you are!” Grandmothers are supposed to do nice things, but I won’t ever forget it. This gift told me that not only was she thinking of me, but she made a connection I might not have made myself.
Buying me Maine and every kayak in the state would be wonderful. But, if you realize it’s sharing the wonder of the natural world that is compelling to me, not the real estate, that shows me you understand who I really am.
You can’t necessarily buy your clients expensive things – in some cases any gift might be considered a no-no. But true empathy is making a connection on a deeper level.
The next time your client tells you about a trip they took to NYC, make a note of it. Think about something you did that might be meaningful to them. The sights. The crowds. The shopping. Then go one step forward and make a connection personal to them. “I know you have a big family. I do too and we found a great place to stay off of Time Square.” Or, “You told me you were an avid bird watcher. I loved a private bird watching tour I took through Central Park. I recommend going with Dr. Robert "Birding Bob" DeCandido."
Making these kinds of thoughtful connections are moments your client won't forget. When we have so much competing for our attention, being memorable might be the greatest gift you can give.
I love this quote from the British Pakistani novelist Mohsin Mahid: “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.”
Including a personal experience in any kind of public engagement is a proven method of grabbing and keeping audience attention.
I recently directed a show called, “The Improvised Life of a Man Named Jack.” It was a kind of cross between “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Jack was the star, hero and narrator of his own life story.
With the exception of deciding in advance which actor was going to play Jack, all of the characters, dialogue and relationships were created in the moment to tell the evolving story of one man.
As with most improv shows, scenes were inspired by audience suggestions. The cast broke the fourth wall – the most dramatic of all walls! – and asked the audience things like “What’s her name?” or “How do they know each other?” But, we quickly discovered the most compelling scenes came from deeper, more personal questions.
The inspiration that came from the audience member's reply fueled a rich and dynamic scene that propelled the story forward in a way everyone could connect to. When you hear someone confide, “I left my family behind to come to America,” our emotions stir at a visceral level. Suggestions like "Her name is Rachel!” or “You met on the playground!” give information, but they don’t provide any emotional context.
Drawing on personal experience to brighten up otherwise mundane topics is common in all kinds of media. Planet Money, the NPR podcast which often explores curious money-based concepts regularly uses this approach. At the beginning of a recent episode discussing the national interest rate, two friends dug through a bin of bank receipts asking each other how they felt about the amount of money in other people’s accounts. What did it mean to them, and by extension, what does it mean to you?
Nondini Naqui, founder of Society of Grownups and a recipient of the “Ten Outstanding Young Leaders of Boston” award spoke to a crowd at the "Delight 2016" annual conference about financial literacy – a topic notoriously inaccessible. She could have simply listed facts and pointed at bar charts, but what kept the audience engaged was reference to her feelings, her family and her fears. (Got 19 minutes?)
Adding a personal experience to your presentation is the mark of a great speaker, and true of almost any TED Talk you can pull up.
So when you are writing notes to deliver your research, keynote speech or actuarial tables, ask yourself what is the emotional connection to your work? What does it mean to you? What can it mean to your audience?
In the words of John Stewart Mill, "There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home."