“How can I seize new professional opportunities when others still see me the same way?”
My first two years in Mexico City, as a new foreigner in Mexico, the easiest way to get work was to teach English in companies. Bookish, sociable, and with a passion for language and communication, I became the marketable face of a corporate language-training program. This was great at first, but it soon became limiting. As I finished a master’s degree in counseling psychology and co-founded Conversari Communication, I was eager to open new doors as a consultant and workshop facilitator. My problem: to my professional contacts, I was still the English teacher. That’s when I learned…
People treat you how they see you.
It’s not their fault. We are hardwired to form impressions of others within the first 10 seconds of meeting. Once formed, these impressions are hard to change, and they determine the way people treat you, as well as the opportunities and limitations you are likely to face in your personal and professional life.
If people see you as the cool kid, or the big boss, then that’s probably good news for you. But if people see you as an analyst and you want to be director, or if they see you as an English teacher when you want to be a consultant, then you have some personal branding to do!
Personal branding is the active process of crafting and managing your professional identity.
In a nutshell, personal branding is the process of actively shaping the way people see you, so that you will be treated the way you want to be treated, and so that you can attract your preferred opportunities.
Just how did I update my personal brand to move into a different role?… Two steps.
Step One: Clarify your unique value
A successful personal brand starts on the inside. It’s hard for others to have a clear picture of who you are and what you add to an organization if you don’t have a clear idea yourself. Many careers stall and sputter precisely because someone is unsure or unclear about who they are, what they offer to an organization, and what they want.
On my own rebranding journey, I began by formulating my own vision and mission statements, and by clarifying my unique value proposition. Once I knew where I wanted to go, I started to immerse myself in the culture and language of my goal. Before I could communicate a convincing new identity to the professional world, I had to update the programming code of my mind. I read business books, watched YouTube videos, and listened to hours of business podcasts on headphones at the gym. I tried on new language like “unique value proposition,” and looked for opportunities to use these foreign words until they became as natural to me as “present-perfect tense” and “phrasal verbs.” Armed with this coding update, I was ready for Step Two…
Step Two: Manage your professional image
Once you have clarified your unique value and your preferred professional identity, it is time to take inventory of how others actually see you. This “360 image” assessment can reveal hidden strengths as well as image limitations, and let you know just how far you need to go. From there, mount a marketing campaign to introduce the new you. Like any effective marketing campaign, you must use both personal and public channels, in both written and oral forms. Trust takes time and consistency, so the key to creating a strong personal brand is sustaining a congruent message.
Identities are sticky. Our person is formed in community, where we internalize the mirror-images that others people reflect back to us. I was used to presenting myself with an academic air and selling my time for 10 cents to the dollar of a consultant’s rate. To change, I needed the support and feedback of others. To secure a clear new image as a consultant and corporate communication trainer, I had to spend time with other consultants and business professionals who saw me as one of them, and I had to leverage their feedback to make changes in my behavior. Their feedback led me to replace bookish theory in my trainings with executive summaries and a focus on immediate practical application. In my dress, I traded in scholarly sports jackets for business suits. In my body language, I adopted a straighter posture and grew accustomed to larger gestures with open palms.
I also had to make tough choices. If I was going to be a consultant, I had to turn down English teaching jobs—even if that meant economic uncertainty for a while. Transformative change always includes a leap of faith into an unknown new identity. For others to accept my new identity, I had to be clear and congruent with all my actions and communications. That started with updated content and feel to my CV and LinkedIn profiles, updated website bios and new business cards. But that was not enough. I started blogging about organizational development and business communication, I posted business-related content across social media channels, I went to business networking events, and I eventually enrolled in a top MBA program.
We need others to realize our own dreams.
If others see us in the way we want to be seen, their conscious and unconscious support propels us toward our personal vision. If our networks harbor a limiting view of our role in the world, however, we risk being held back instead.
Today, as I write this blog on the way to facilitating a client workshop and attending an entrepreneurship conference with my business partner, I pause and reflect on my continuing personal brand evolution. I still tend to get over-zealous with theory in my trainings, and I still approach my business work with a counselor’s aim to help the people. But I have to smile when I think of teaching English. I can use the simple past tense now: I used to be an English teacher.
Not all training or trainers are created equal. When you think about training, are you prioritizing what will really create change, or what will look good on a resumé?
The course in Leadership begins. The instructor, a PhD in sociology and psychology, gets started:
“Ladies and gentlemen, pay close attention to what I’m about to say. The purpose of this course is to teach you to be better team leaders. At the end of the course I will give you an exam to see if you’ve learned it all. I am going to give you some technical notes to read (185 pages) and my book: “How to be a good leader in 5 steps”. I want to warn you: nothing that you’ve learned before this course will work. Please pay close attention, because I won’t repeat anything. If you get distracted, I will ask you to leave the session. The rules are: leave your cellphone in the basket at the door, don’t interrupt, and leave all questions until the end. Discipline is important – no jokes. Leadership is a serious subject. Are we clear?”
A month later, the company’s director of training asks herself: “Why are the team leaders behaving the same way after that ‘great’ course?” They all passed their final exam and their exit evaluations were satisfactory. There was a course and nothing changed. What went wrong?
All the following things:
- Participants DON’T READ. Contrary to what you might believe, the majority of training participants don’t read – pre-reading, manuals or their own notes. At the end of a course or workshop, they’ll never read or study what they were given. They don’t have time. They expect to assimilate or learn what they need during the course and be able to apply it immediately.
- Participants will behave the way you treat them. If you treat them like students (banning cell phones, passing obligatory attendance, not interrupting the instructor, etc.) they will behave like students. They will sit passively, take notes and pass the exam. They won’t really learn anything.
- A participant needs to know how the course will benefit him and what its immediate application is. If the objective is to “teach” then there is nothing of interest to the participant. Passing an exam is not aan authentic benefit for the participant. The participant needs to know how all of this will apply in the short term.
- Learning – or failing to learn – is the participant’s responsibility. No adult learns by obligation. No one can make them learn. And even when they’ve assimilated the content, if there is no real transfer of information it doesn’t apply. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” doesn’t work on adults.
- Past experience is the starting point for learning. A participant cannot ‘erase’ her experience. Quite to the contrary, it should serve as a springboard. To apply new behaviors, you need to know what to unlearn and in so doing, change your behavior, or how to build new learning adding on to what you’ve already done. Additionally, feedback based on past experience is important and valuable.
- Participants need to see role models of what they’re learning. The trainer is the first model they should be taking examples from. It doesn’t matter how much experience or wisdom trainers have, but what they can model for participants.
- Seriousness – meaning the absence of emotions – doesn’t favor behavioral learning. Science has proven that learning is more powerful and permanent when it is accompanied by emotional experience. Games, role-playing, videos, even debates, among other tools, generate emotions that favor learning.
Are you going to invite teachers with lots of knowledge and experience or facilitators who know how to extract the best learning from participants?
We respond almost instantly to text messages – and that immediacy lends itself to problems. Whatsapp and other texting platforms are here to stay, and using it for business is blurring the line between personal and professional communication.
A recent NY Magazine article detailed the use of a period to end a text message. Does it make the sender seem insincere, snarky, dismissive? Is it an innocent grammatical symbol? What about what happens in professional settings when we use instant messages to communicate? Do these factors influence workplace communication?
eWeek reports that 80% of professionals are using text messages for business. A top executive will send out dozens of text messages on any given day. The official forms of communication in the workplace that helped mediate messages in the workplace years ago have been replaced by a varied set of tools that everyone has access to at a moment’s notice.
- Check tone: When we write quickly, we may easily forget to check our tone, whipping off answers or abbreviated messages that can cause misunderstandings or worse: injured feelings. Without tone of voice and body language to moderate how your message is interpreted, extra care is needed. That’s why emoticons or emojis can help for personal texts, but should generally be left out of all professional communication.
- Consider purpose: Sending a report via text message and expecting extensive, productive feedback is unlikely. Save texts for simpler, time-sensitive matters.
- Consider your professional image: It is important to understand that though texting has become an integral part of our professional toolset, it does require some time and thought and it is not the same as sending messages to friends. Any instant message sent to professional contacts and colleagues should always include complete sentences and proper punctuation.
- Remember that it’s evidence: Just because you might delete the message or conversation on your phone, it can remain as evidence of your interaction long after. Though it does not need to be formatted like a printed letter, you should always consider that it will need to be as clear as possible, given the shortness of time that the recipient will likely dedicate to it. Read your message out loud, if you can, and make sure it makes sense and is appropriate for the context, recipient or organization.
Becoming an effective leader is challenging as it is. And when we encounter a new culture, sometimes the very characteristics that made us effective in the past can suddenly become handicaps.
Most of us are aware that culture matters, but what do differences mean for our communication on a daily basis? Here’s an example of one “aha!” moment that a client had. A Mexican executive with an MBA from the United States and multiple experiences with multinationals, he was not unfamiliar with multicultural challenges.
However, as a new Mexico country manager for a company based in the U.S., he was receiving comments from supervisors that he was too passive or weak as a leader, as reflected in his participation in meetings. His results were fine. These comments were alarming after a long and successful career as a senior executive.
Looking carefully at how he participates in meetings, he discovered the problem. He had adapted a style of meeting participation that was effective for him in Mexico, but ran counter the expectations at his new company. In Mexico, he knew that if he offered his opinion first in a meeting, out of respect for authority his team would be unlikely to offer countering viewpoints. As a result, he learned to ask everyone’s opinion first, and then offer his last.
In his new company, leaders are expected to “drive the conversation,” pose the challenging questions and be the first to participate. However, embedded in this ethos is an understanding that everyone can share an opinion, and that even conflicting viewpoints are not viewed as disrespectful to leaders.
He then understood that the comments weren’t an attack on his leadership, but rather a clash of cultures. The executive was faced with two challenges: first, adapting his own meeting management style, and second (and far more challenging), preparing his Mexican team for this enormous cultural shift and finding an appropriate middle ground. This “aha” moment allowed him to open dialogue for his own success and that of his team.
Share with us below your cultural “aha” moments!
We all want to be remembered. Every presenter wants you to remember her message—and wants you to remember her. Yet how often do we go about our day rehashing details of a Powerpoint presentation or a spreadsheet we saw at a meeting? Not so often, right?… Well, why not? And why is the mind more captivated with Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, or something that happened on the news, than with a work-related topic far more relevant to our life?
To answer these questions and discover the key to being remembered, we have to look inside the brain and trace the 500 million years of our evolution from lizard to spreadsheet. Here the three-paragraph version:
In a simplified way, our human brains of today are a concert of three different brain structures that have evolved in order over time. First, when we were slimy little lizards just crawling out of the seas, our brain was only what is now our brain stem or “reptilian brain,” devoted to subconsciously meeting survival needs like warmth, food, water, and species reproduction.
Fast forward a few hundred million years to the post-dino world, and our furry human ancestors developed an emotional processing and memory complex called the limbic system, which we share with all other mammals. The key function of the limbic system is to create memory of dangerous moments like lion attacks or car accidents, and to advantageous events like finding yummy food or falling in love. Ever notice how you can remember the smell of past flame’s perfume even years after the fact, or about how a car accident seems to play out again and again in slow motion, while hours of a regular day are almost entirely forgotten? That’s the mind’s emotional significance meter — called the Amygdala — at work, selectively storing memory based on its perceived survival relevance. In allowing us to learn from the past by codifying events by emotional significance, these limbic system memory traces proved to be especially survival-promoting, as we could now act very quickly to avoid what harms and to pursue what helps.
Finally, starting about 2 million years ago, our grunting forefathers in the Rift Valley of Africa developed the third brain structure called the neo-cortex. This structure allows for abstraction, organization, and the development of language and number systems. This is the brain structure associated with being human, with being rational, with blog posts, and with managing a spreadsheet.
How does this crash course in evolutionary biology help us be remembered? In a nutshell, we have to recognize that we are still mammals, as well as being humans. The key message here is that our memory is tied to emotional significance. That has not changed in the last few million years. Knowing this, the key question becomes: How can I make my presentations emotionally significant for my audience?
The answer is not to go for shock value over content. Pulling the fire alarm or yelling at the next meeting will certainly leave a strong memory trace, but it will probably be associated with avoiding you, rather than with remembering your message.
A more productive answer is almost as old as language itself: storytelling. Story has the unique ability to combine a key message or moral with an emotional experience, and has the advantage that we do not have to experience an emotionally charged event ourselves in order to get the memory trace benefit—we can live the experience vicariously through a character and his or her adventure.
All of the world’s religious traditions, folk traditions, and pedagogical traditions have recognized that for a message to create culture, it first has to be remembered! All use story for this. Hollywood and the world’s best writers create cultural sensations and inspire tremendous loyalty and identification through their stories. Advertising has been savvy at this since its inception, but the rest of the business world is just now catching on. Steve Jobs used only a few image-heavy slides to support narratives carrying his revolutionary ideas. P&G, Nike, and a host of other fortune 500 corporations now employ corporate storytellers to create messages that “stick” and help create or transform culture.
So, next time you present, ask yourself: “How can I tell a story to give emotional significance to my message?” If not, you may be figuring out just how soon you will be forgotten…
For most of us, having a problem is not pleasant. It would seem to me that the word’s very definitions make it clear why: a solution is doubtful, it’s difficult and it can cause unpleasantness and worry.
Late Middle English (originally denoting a riddle or a question for academic discussion): from Old French probleme, via Latin from Greek problēma.
1. A matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome
2. A thing that is difficult to achieve or accomplish
3. A source of perplexity, distress, or vexation
No one wants to have a problem, and we avoid it at all costs, but when we can’t avoid it, we don’t actually recognize that we have one. We postpone the necessary conversations, the meeting with the logistics team is delayed, the email we need to send to ask for a change in response times never leaves the inbox…or we do have the conversation but don’t actually say what needs to be said. Who knows what the logistics team understood? The email that CC’d the whole office wasn’t clear and now, to make matters worse, there are complaints. Sound familiar?
Having a problem requires an ability to recognize that something is not working – with my team or me. It requires clarity in my communication with others so that my position/request/solution is clear. I must be able to listen to another person (and really listen, not just wait for my turn to rebut) so that we can reach an agreement and a solution together.
Most of us have these skills to some degree, but business and team leaders frequently evade problems as often (and as professionally) as possible.
We tend to be non-confrontational because there is an absence of trust in our own environment – we don’t trust that the other person will listen, we don’t trust that they won’t seek revenge, we don’t trust them to be sincere, we don’t trust that we won’t be sidelined or scapegoated, we don’t trust that we won’t be seen as negative, the pessimist, the one with the bad news. This lack of trust costs businesses millions of pesos, hours or rework, jobs, resignations, new hires and a long list of etcetera’s. How much do you trust your team?
Not trusting in another person impedes confrontation, limits exposure of conflict and blocks the search for a solution. It creates false harmony, harbors gossip. We know that there is an elephant in the room, we can all smell it, see it, the elephant mistreats us all and, though no one wants to admit it, we all feed it. We give it food, water and care for it. How big is the elephant in your office?
Hernández, the general director of the Nocommunication Company, is worried about the decline of sales in his organization and has asked his directors and key employees into a meeting to analyze the situation. In this meeting, Hernández speaks, expresses his concerns and asks all those present to do what is necessary to solve the problem and improve sales numbers. At the end of the session, Hernández leaves with a feeling of having done his duty to push his colleagues towards a solution and thinks that everyone will be raring to do so.
A month later nothing has happened. Figures are still declining.
So Hernández now changes his strategy. He doesn’t speak to his directors, he makes decisions. He increases incentives to salespeople, requests changes in client service processes and asks for a loan to reinforce finances that have been pressured by low sales.
Another month later and everything is the same…or worse. There is low morale and dangerous symptoms appear: two very capable employees quit, the rumor mill is spinning around possible layoffs and a feeling of internal inequity, and there is a very real heaviness to the office.
Hernández, now angry and worried, calls for an emergency meeting, literally scolding his executive team for not achieving positive results, and demands that everyone place all their energy and commitment into regaining prior sales levels. At the end of the meeting, it is clear to all the directors that once again, NOTHING will happen.
Does the organization have a problem?
If it does, it is due to:
- Someone saying something wrong, explaining it incorrectly or having it misinterpreted.
- Someone not speaking up, keeping silent, being afraid to talk or ask for something.
- Someone is afraid to let others express themselves and does not allow for it.
Company employees frequently fall into any of these three categories, including in relationships with clients, suppliers or third parties.
In this case, is it possible that (1), he has not explained himself thoroughly, or (2), his people don’t feel comfortable speaking up out of fear? And in the latter case, this would mean that there’s not enough information to find the source of the problem. Or is it (3), where there is no forum for self expression because the leadership is afraid to hear what is really going on or is afraid of losing authority.
And this leads us to a series of good questions for leaders of any team:
- How can you ensure clarity and that your team members do not misinterpret you?
- What do you do so that your team members feel comfortable speaking up, whether it’s to propose something that differs from your point of view or let you know you’re in the wrong?
- Are you afraid you’ll lose authority by letting others express themselves? And if so, what can you do to get over that fear?
This case methodology, used as best practice in the development of leaders and executives at the Harvard Business School and the Instituto Panamericano de Alta Dirección (IPADE) in Mexico, always identifies communication as the common denominator in all organizational problems. Regardless of whether those problems are financial, commercial, production-oriented, caused by error, lack of technical knowledge, bad attitudes, or even natural problems, one or more communication problems are present, like those in this case study.
Do you have problems in your area or business? Check for communication problems.
Is the competition beating you? They probably communicate better.
Colleagues won’t listen to you? Perhaps you’re not listening to them or you’re not letting them express themselves.
Your boss doesn’t understand you? It’s possible that there have been may statements on both sides that have never been discussed or that you haven’t expressed.
Open, honest, direct conversations will help you find a solution.
There’s been a recurring theme with clients in the past few days about an apparent incapacity or difficulty in saying ‘no’ to impossible requests, too-tight agendas or differences of opinion. This is not just endemic to Latin America. More and more it strikes people all over the world, focused 24-7 with trying to please everyone. It would seem that the two-letter word is so dreadful that we would rather accept the impossible and have to come up with the most intricate excuses just so we don’t have to actually say ‘no’. Negatives are uncomfortable. We worry about being disliked, seeming stubborn or even losing the business/client/partner/friend (the list goes on).
I confess that a ‘no’ is not only possible, it’s healthy. Limits, even as children, are good for us. They are necessary and beneficial to the individual and the relationship – whether it’s professional, romantic, familial, etc. Limits give us clear parameters and allow us a starting point and some security to move and try new things. Having said that, and understanding that saying ‘no’ is uncomfortable for many of us, I’d like to share with you that it is indeed possible to give a ‘positive no’.
An example of a common occurrence for me as an account director at an advertising agency in Mexico:
“Ale, I need the changes to the TV, radio and print campaign for tomorrow.”
- Answer 1: “Yes, I’ll get right on it.” This answer implies destroying personal and professional limits that you’ll be hard-put to reestablish. The request is impossible to do in 24 hours. You open the possibility of doing shoddy work, making mistakes or simply not delivering in the limited timeframe.
- Answer 2: “No. I can’t do it. I’m sorry.” This option shows stubbornness and a lack of willingness to solve the problem. Feelings of injustice that this kind of request was made at all can push us to want to answer like this, but we should avoid it all costs.
- Answer 3: “I understand your need for a quick turnover with this, but what you’re asking for simply can’t be done in 24 hours. If you agree, what I can deliver are changes for the TV campaign in 24 hours, and in 48 hours we’ll have changes in radio and press pieces. I need to coordinate a lot of people on the team for this and I don’t want to let you down.”
This last option doesn’t just open the door for a richer dialogue in finding solutions; it also shows a transparency and collaboration as key elements of this professional relationship.
Again, I’m not asking you to start shouting “NO” left, right and center and deal with the consequences. Instead, be aware of each situation and explain it as completely as you can. A ‘positive no’ offers an explanation of why you have to say ‘no’ and gives alternatives to get to the best solution.
Believe me, the honesty that a well thought out ‘no’ implies will be appreciated. And you’ll be surprised at the results and the strengthened relationships that this type of dialogue brings.
Google, Amazon, and other data-driven companies have used their their strength – data analysis – to challenge conventional thought in human capital and what makes sense in terms of hiring and retaining new generations.
They have discovered that attracting great people will fail if employees encounter a command-and-control, stifling work environment. They have identified new key factors of high-performance cultures: transparency, autonomy, voice and collaborative decision making.
These factors threaten most traditional work cultures in which secrecy, hierarchy and centralized decision-making are the norm. Most executives are daunted by the change. Making the leap to an organizational culture designed for 21st century work and a workforce made up of Millenials is no easy thing for traditional, hierarchy-heavy organizations. Companies that have failed to make this leap question why they have difficulties retaining young talent. Google, Amazon and other top companies have excelled in these areas and are the “hot” options for young adults entering the workforce. There’s a reason for that.
At Conversari, we’ve discovered that “soft skills” are fundamental management competencies and are a company’s best bet when thinking about how to shift to a modern work culture. These include abilities to:
- Lead with an inspiring vision
- Co-create clear objectives and boundaries
- Provide feedback and internal trainings
- Communicate and negotiate across disciplines
The good news about these skills? They can be learned. And they happen to be just what young talent wants out of leadership.
I often hear that my coachees are able to describe, with some degree of detail, the external circumstances that affect their results, the results their teams obtain and even the results they achieve with their supervisors.
Whether you’re a supervisor, the leader of an organization, part of a team or business unit, the most powerful question and one that opens the door to more advanced reflection is – What is your contribution in the achievement of those results? What are you doing to elicit feedback from your boss? What are you contributing to your team, organization or business unit so that you get the right results?
Without diminishing the importance of external factors on results, doing a proper, clinical analysis of what I am doing or not doing to obtain certain results allows me to identify points that I might not otherwise notice. It allows me to review my actions and places responsibility on me, with myself and with collaborators, for my actions or inactions in achieving results.
Whatever the results are that you’re getting, but especially if they are not the desired ones, stop and ask yourself this one question – What am I contributing to these results? Take a minute or two to think back on your contribution and then develop an action plan to correct the least efficient contributions. If it seems difficult to identify your own contribution, ask for help. Coworkers can be excellent mirrors for our own behaviors and see things we are unable to see.
Be sure of one thing. You are contributing to the achievement of results at all times, whether those are personal, a team’s, your organization’s or your business unit’s.