In Canada, Gretzky, a brilliant ice hockey player, is a national hero. Gretzky was so good that when he retired, his number – 99 – was retired from all North American professional hockey teams. He was once asked why he was so successful. He had no immediate answer for the reporter, but he went away and thought about it. Later he summed it up perfectly: “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.”
The simplicity of this message belies what it conveys for us in business. It’s not the grand vision or the 90-day plan, but the simplest action I can take right now to achieve my goal. In ice hockey it is skating to where the puck is going; in business it might be making that phone call to a client, or having that difficult conversation with a team member.
This is backed up by current research in the recent best-seller Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader where the author, INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra, shows that becoming a leader is not an event but a process with kinks and curves.
Ibarra turns the usual ‘think first and then act’ philosophy on its head, arguing that we learn through action. She says action increases your ‘outsight’: the valuable external perspective you gain from direct experiences and experimentation.
Of course through experience, champions such as Gretzky build up formidable outsight, but it all starts with that simple first step. Skating to where the puck is.
Please comment; I love hearing from you.
Immediately the leaders wanted to talk about how to handle vulnerability. One leader said sometimes he’s so passionate about what he’s saying that he tears up. He questioned if this was appropriate.
Recently, Michael Clarke, Australia’s cricket captain, broke down on national TV discussing the tragic passing of teammate Phil Hughes. Many a blogger commented on how powerful the moment was as a positive influence on young boys. This comment captured the sentiment: “Not so long ago it wouldn’t have done at all for the captain of the Aussie cricket team to cry for a mate, and say how much he loved him, publicly. Glad our boys can see this.”
Our culture deeply conditions us to be brave and hide our feelings, particularly at work. For women leaders this is compounded by fear of being seen as weak or emotional if we tear up.
Tears at work are awkward. If you tear up (it can happen), how would you recover? If someone else at work tears up, try offering a hug or a pat on the back, or try some humour to break the tension.
Tears are a sign of vulnerability, not weakness. Brene Brown the world’s foremost expert on vulnerability, says staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take to experience deep connections.
Real leaders cry – and real leaders also recover with grace.
Please comment, I love hearing from you.
What makes sport such a spectacle to watch is the emotional rollercoaster it unleashes on players, fans and even unsuspecting passers-by. Could you imagine watching sport and feeling nothing? No emotion – that would be almost impossible.
In the business arena, despite embracing the need for emotional intelligence, we shy away from emotions as being too messy, unpredictable and dangerous.
Philosopher Descartes said ‘I think, therefore I am’. When it comes to sports or business, I prefer this twist on his words: ‘I feel, therefore I am’.
So how can leaders tap into emotion at work? One way is to speak to the emotion in the room, as this is often the biggest undercurrent in any situation.
A senior leader announcing the company’s new hot-desking policy started by sharing what he felt when he first saw the policy. “Yesterday when I opened the email announcing the new hot-desking policy, I immediately felt “Here we go again, another sexy label for what seems like a cost-cutting measure.”
Immediately you could see the nods around the room. By speaking to the emotional elephant in the room, the leader earned both trust and respect. He then went on to explain why his initial fear was unfounded. Imagine staring at the emotional end of the stick instead of the logical end. As Richard Branson said: “In business your intuition and emotions are there to help you.”
So where have you seen this done well at work? Please comment, I love hearing from you.
In the TV sitcom Modern Family, all the characters at different points speak directly to the camera. They talk to the audience in a break-the-fourth-wall style confessional.
The fourth wall is the invisible barrier between the audience and characters in a movie. You physically see the other three walls: one behind the stars, and one on each side. In movies and TV shows breaking the fourth wall sometimes works and sometimes it simply annoys the audience as they lose the illusion of being immersed in the story.
There is the same metaphoric fourth wall between you and your audience when you present. Your first goal as a presenter should be to break this wall, otherwise your audience will not connect with you and your message.
At an early-morning breakfast seminar Carolyn Creswell, the founder of Carmen’s Muesli, opened by saying: “When the alarm went off this morning, I thought, this better be good, and then I thought sh** – I better be good!” The audience laughed and immediately connected with her. She had successfully broken the fourth wall and she was one of us.
Standing behind a lectern or speaking to your slides rather than your audience strengthen the fourth wall and leave your audience feeling disconnected. Instead, share the real you perhaps through a relevant story or a humorous opening that captures people. Learning and using people’s names also work towards dissolving that fourth wall and immersing your audience in your presentation.
If you are directing a Hollywood blockbuster or a TV soap, by all means respect the fourth wall. However, if you want your next presentation to be a blockbuster, spend the first couple of minutes smashing that wall to connect with and dazzle your audience.
As communicators we have our biases. If you are a bottom-line person, you love communicating your point. This feels both right and satisfying to you, but the problem is you risk losing half your audience: the flowery people. If you are a flowery person, you paint pictures every time you speak and while you appeal to the other flowery people in the room, you probably drive bottom-line people insane!
To be master communicators, we have to make sure our communication appeals to both types of people: it needs a clear point and it must paint a picture. Not easy to do! This might sound counterintuitive, but the quickest and easiest way to win over your entire audience is through a short story.
Imagine you’re a leader. You’re talking to your team (made up of both bottom-line and flowery people) about seeing opportunities where others might see none. You could share this story.
Many years ago two salesmen were sent by a British shoe manufacturer to Africa to investigate and report back on market opportunities. The first salesman reported back, “There is no opportunity here – nobody wears shoes.” The second salesman reported back, “There is massive opportunity here – nobody wears shoes!” If we see opportunities where our competitors don’t, imagine the difference we could make.
A short, purposeful story paints a picture and, if done well, it also makes a point. It’s a slam-dunk for both flowery and bottom-line people.
What are your thoughts? Please comment, I love hearing from you.
* Thanks to my mentor Robi Mack for her use of these terms.
A confession, yet again I have become addicted to watching ‘The Voice’ on Channel 9! One of the contestants Jackson Thomas an electrician said he applied to audition because ‘Rather than fixing lights, I want to be under the spotlight’.
For technical people, our expertise is like fixing lights. Yet when we present we have to translate our expertise into something that works under the spotlight. Technical expertise is about detail and mechanics. Presenting is about connecting and creating meaning for your audience.
Storytelling can help you shine under the spotlight. Just like Megan Cook, Product Manager from Atlassian did with this story.
A few years ago I was travelling to Penang with my fiancée Kieren so he could meet my grandmother. We had to take a bus from KL to Penang and the first bus was cancelled. The second bus showed up late, it was packed, and belching smoke and felt old and rickety. We did make it to Penang in one piece and my grandmother was so happy to see us.
A year or so later we were travelling to Japan where we had a complex journey involving 4 changes of train and signs in a language we didn’t understand. I thought it would be very stressful, but it was not at all. The trains were on time, super clean and fast, and all the complex changeovers were really easy. My stress level and mood were vastly different with each experience and our products effect our customers in the same way. Everyday we have that same opportunity, we can build or put band aids on rickety buses or make trains that work and deliver great results for our customers.
Fixing lights is about information, being under the spotlight is about inspiration. Please comment, I love hearing from you.
Quite often our first exposure to inspiring storytelling is when we see a motivational speaker on stage. And they usually narrate an epic story that involves scaling Mount Everest or sailing around the world solo.
But interestingly in leadership I find what works on a daily basis is not epic stories but everyday stories. Stories about shopping in Bunnings, or going to a restaurant with friends or dropping your kids off to school. Everyday stories work because your audience can relate to them. They can see themselves in your stories.
An epic story has your audience in passive spectator mode, they enjoy the spectacle of your story, but they are not involved in it. An everyday story on the other hand engages your audience differently. They emotionally invest in your story and relive their own experiences through your story.
Here are some examples of everyday stories that have delivered potent results. So unless you are a motivational speaker, the next time you embark on a story think everyday not epic, to unlock the power of storytelling.