Expand Your Business Reading List

IMG_3805I’ve been reading a lot of literary fiction this year. I always enjoy escaping into a different world, meeting diverse characters and the underlying complexity that informs their choices. Storytelling that challenges me to understand a different perspective or imagine another person’s motivations doesn’t just fulfill my leisure pursuits it stretches my mental muscle. And there’s proof that it does just that!

A 2013 study by researchers at The New School in New York City found that people who read literary fiction improve their empathy. These readers have a greater capacity for understanding social behaviour than those who solely read non-fiction or genre fiction. And we all know how important emotional intelligence (EI) is to being an effective leader.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman brought widespread recognition of the concept of EI when his book was published in 1995. He argued that the most successful leaders had greater EI, or the ability to recognize their own and others’ emotions and use that information to adapt their approach and work styles.

So, I propose the at-work book club with a twist. Sure, it’s valuable to consult the latest productivity tome or a bio from a well-respected leader, but add literary fiction to the reading list. Expose yourself to challenging characters who push you to alter your perspective and think about how you’d manage a scenario outside your sphere.


Connecting Counts When Crafting an RFP Response

conversation_puzzleHave you ever been chatting with someone for the first time, trying to get to know them and open up about yourself, and felt like you’re in an alternate reality? The kind of conversation that goes like this:

You: “I just got back from Italy. It was one of my favourite vacations because of the history and culture there. Have you travelled anywhere new recently?”

Stranger: “I bought this iWatch last week. It’s the coolest thing.”

You: “Oh, neat. I don’t have one, but hear that it’s great for tracking steps and being reminded to move more. Do you track fitness with it; what’s the most important feature for you?”

Even Stranger: “My favourite beer is IPA. There are so many great craft beer options now.”

You: “I agree. I think I’ll go get one at the bar. It was nice to meet you. So long!”

Dumbfounded, you feel like you were speaking a different language entirely. You put in the effort to give and take, but your partner in this dance was not engaged or worse, rather self-absorbed.

Now apply this example to writing a response to a request for proposal (RFP). Like an introductory conversation, you need to strike the right balance of sharing information about yourself or your business that you want to get across with providing targeted answers to the questions asked in the RFP. Yes, it’s part sales job, but there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.

You could take the approach of Even Stranger and share random information unrelated to the presented topics, but meant to sell your so-called strongest features. In Even Stranger’s case, he thinks having the latest tech gadgets and drinking trendy beer is going to win points. But that conversation comes to a quick close given the frustration of it being so one-sided and disjointed.

Personality aside, make your sales pitch flow by knowing (or at least listening to!) your audience. Try to get a sense for what is most important to them, learn as much as you can about their needs or interests and then craft a response that addresses those needs, while weaving in your story in an impactful way.

Let’s take another look at that conversation and how it could have gone.

You: “I just got back from Italy. It was one of my favourite vacations because of the history and culture there. Have you travelled anywhere new recently?”

Stranger: “I haven’t recently, but I love to travel and I’ve been to Italy before. It is fantastic. I did a lot of walking when I was there. I wish I had this iWatch back then; it would have been handy for tracking my steps. Did you find you walked a lot there?”

You: “I did. I tracked steps with my phone, and I do love to know what my stats are and the reminders to move are helpful when you sit at a desk all day. Besides the fitness tracking, what other features of your watch do you like?”

Less Stranger: “Well, I’m still learning. I just got it last week. Hopefully I can answer you in a couple of weeks! What was your favourite historical attraction in Italy? I love the Pantheon.”

You: “I agree! That was my favourite…”

And You will keep talking to Less Stranger to at least find out more about them. Craft an RFP response more like this and, congratulations, you’ll be invited to the next round. Connecting with your audience by showing interest in what they value and sharing relevant information is the key to developing successful RFP responses and communications in general.


True Leaders Don’t Need False Bravado

I just returned from a week in a tropical paradise, contorting my body into various poses at the guidance of a yoga teacher. What does a yoga vacation have to do with business or communication, you ask? Well, during the course of the week I was reminded of the importance of vulnerability in building relationships and leadership presence.

Our teacher, Monica Bright, was helping 17 women in need of a break to “relax and rejuvenate”, as was the name of our Mexican retreat. Several of the participants on this retreat were new to yoga or had never practiced with this instructor. She had the challenging task of establishing trust in a very short period of time. We would have just seven days together and were immediately spending three hours a day being led in our yoga practice by a … stranger.

Yet by the end of the week, Monica had created such a rapport that those new acquaintances (myself included) were dedicated followers and wishing they could attend her regular classes — in Chicago, just an hour and a half flight from Toronto for yoga. How did she do it? By opening up, sharing herself and being vulnerable.

She regularly shared examples of her struggles and how she was continually growing from her experiences. She recognized the value she saw in learning from all of us, her students. She opened up and was courageous in sharing her emotions. In return, we all felt safe to ask questions, seek guidance from her, and be ourselves. We trusted Monica’s leadership.

The ability to gain trust is so important for new leaders in business and those leading through times of change or uncertainty. Everyone expects you to be knowledgeable. Competence is decided by a board of directors or a hiring manager. Trust is more tricky.

You need to establish trust on an individual level. The best way to do that is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Yes, it’s important to celebrate successes, but acknowledge your mistakes and what you learned from them. When problem-solving with your team, it’s OK to say, “I don’t know, let’s figure this out together.” Own up when someone else is better suited to managing a specific customer, and ask to learn from them. Seek external guidance when your gut is telling you something doesn’t add up.

In a world that’s currently consumed with the false idea of perfection, it’s the warts that make us authentic, approachable, and trustworthy. Be vulnerable and you may find yourself greeted with this: “Namaste.”

Resolve to improve non-verbal communication

The start of a new year brings resolutions for many people. In recent years there’s been a bevy of literature about habits: how to set positive habits, break bad ones, increase your willpower. As a communicator, I see the influence that people’s habits have on how they are perceived. In the business world, it’s of particular importance for leaders to understand how their habits may be affecting their efforts.

If actions speak louder than words, then your unconscious behaviours have tremendous impact on either confirming or negating the messages you share with your team and organization. Consider changing up these every day habits to better support the outcomes  you desire:

  • To foster a culture of innovation and creative problem-solving, ditch your friends. Well, at least at meetings or training events when there are other people present. Take advantage of opportunities to spend time with new people and have unique conversations that may lead to creativity. Sit at a different table!
  • If you’re pushing for transparency and a more approachable leadership team, forego the podium when giving presentations.
  • Trying to encourage employees to give and receive feedback more openly? Develop a new feedback habit: ask two people you normally wouldn’t approach for feedback on an idea before going to your usual suspects.
  • When you’re trying to develop a more collegial and connected team, take a look at your daily routines at the office. Could you enter by a different door so that you walk past people you don’t usually greet? Eat lunch in the cafeteria once a week rather than dine at your desk.

Your workplace habits communicate a lot about you and your priorities. Changing some of these simple behaviours can help send the right message to employees. Lead by example and, with time, others will follow suit.


We Didn’t Start the Fire

As we near the end of the year, there’s no shortage of reflections in the media about the best and worst of 2016. From albums and movies, to celebrities and politicians (or those who are despairingly both!), we’re ranking and re-enacting to share some lessons.

In the business world, one such reflection that can be useful is reviewing business blunders. Fast Company provides a look back at three public relations (PR) crises that could have been averted with better communications planning and PR know-how. And while the article accurately identifies the blunders that led to media issues, I’ll add my two cents.

  1. A PR issue is rarely a communications problem solely. Aside from the Cheerios example in the article, all of the issues stemmed from poor business decisions and deep-seated cultural problems within the organizations. By the time these made their way to the media, it was far too late. At that point, communicators assume the role of firefighters, trying to mitigate the fall-out.
  2. Don’t start fires, value your risk managers and listen to communications counsel. Every action you take – in business and in life – communicates something about you to your audience. That’s where a strategic communicator can offer real value. By helping you to identify what your proposed action will communicate, so you can ensure you’re choosing the right path in advance and are prepared to live with the consequences. This is basic risk management, folks, and incorporating communications planning to neutralize any potential issues that arise from a decision.

What I’m saying is, the communications function is not just about getting media hits or managing a social community. It is tied to every aspect of your business and you’ll reap the benefits if you begin incorporating a communications mindset at earlier stages rather than calling them in to clean up the mess. Many crises can be avoided by including a communications expert in your strategic planning and daily operations. A New Year’s resolution maybe?

Knit Wit

I recently took up knitting. I’m always one to try various creative, crafty pursuits — knitting, jewelry making, painting — anything that allows me to flex my creative muscle, work with colour, and enjoy a tangible finished product afterwards. If it’s beautiful, all the better.

As a child, I dabbled in knitting, too. My Scottish grandmother knitted a lot: strange doily-like neck wraps, scarves and hats, but I remember the utilitarian slippers most. My Mom made those slippers and that’s how we learned. My sister and I lOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAearned to knit by making the slippers that my maternal family could knit with their eyes closed.

So, back to modern times, and I’m trying to knit again. Only now my tastes are much more discerning. I want to knit scarves with modern colour combinations and fancy ribbing. I want to make hats that fit just so.

My approach to this pursuit? I drop by the local knitting store, pick up some wool and needles and download a free pattern online. And I’m all set. Away I go.

When I encounter a problem, I simply Google it, watch a YouTube video, and, of course, I have Amazon deliver me a dictionary of 400 knitting stitches. Every source I consult tells me that I should spend the time knitting a swatch of 4” x 4” first to check my knitting gauge against the pattern. If I knit tighter or looser than the gauge of the pattern, I’ll need to adjust the pattern accordingly to ensure the final product is the size I want it to be.

But do I knit a single swatch? No, of course not! I need to create right now. I need to finish the hat. I want to wear the scarf tomorrow.


Not what I had planned. I could fit a lot more hair under there!

I’m surprised when I finish the hat and it sits on my head like a watermelon rind that I scooped the insides out of. There’s no stretching to the perfect fit, a snug warmth. I’m devastated. I invested so much time on it.

My a-ha moment? Well, I regularly advise clients and business partners to take the time to understand their audience, the root of their business challenge, or the opportunity before them, before diving head long into developing creative ad campaigns, PR strategies, or blasting off email sales pitches. If you don’t take the time upfront to identify the need or test the likelihood of a communications strategy’s success, even the most inventive prose will be wasted.

In communications, as in knitting, take the time to understand the environment, obtain an outside view or an expert opinion first, and when it comes time for creativity, you’ll be much more likely to achieve what you set out to do.