The most important leadership skill?

Photo of a businessman and busineswoman in deep discussionAs a leader, which is more important: good people skills or good communication skills?

Perhaps they’re inseparable.

Perhaps it’s impossible to have good people skills without good communication skills – and if you’re a good communicator, you’re probably also good with people.

“Communication” is often viewed as the ability to convince, negotiate, explain, and so on.

Those are all great skills to have, but the key to all communication is listening. (I know. You’re not surprised, of course; listening is what most communication teachers talk about.)

But without tools and structured practice, listening is hard. The habit of listening in order to respond is ingrained in us all. We listen to hear what we want to hear – or, worse, we listen to hear what we want to argue about.

What’s needed is the skill to listen for true understanding.

This doesn’t mean you suddenly start agreeing with the other person. It doesn’t mean your priorities change. It doesn’t mean you abandon what you want or need. It doesn’t mean you change political parties or religious affiliations.

It just means that you gain the understanding necessary to influence someone.

Leadership starts with *true listening* - listening to understand - because understanding is necessary for influence. (Have you taken the quiz?)Click To Tweet

It’s almost impossible to influence someone without understanding them. And it’s definitely impossible to understand someone unless you’ve listened to them.

Which means it’s really hard to lead effectively if you don’t know how to listen well.

If you liked this post, you might like this video on communication styles and approaches.

And the article “Are you one of the 69%” (of managers uncomfortable communicating with their teams).

Or maybe you’re a speechifier?

Don’t forget to take the leadership communication quiz!

gljudson Better conversations

Standing out – virtually

Cartoon of 3-D people in a virtual meetingIf you’re not in the office with your manager, how do you stand out and get noticed?

And if you’re not in the office with your team, how do you know who’s doing what – and how well?

These questions are bouncing around all over the place right now. And I get it. Things have changed, and it feels weird and unnerving.

Are you working your tail off, but your boss isn’t paying attention?

If you’re the boss, how can you tell who is working their tail off, and who’s not?

In all seriousness, I’m a little frustrated by these questions. It really shouldn’t be all that different with remote teams from what it was with co-located teams. If, as a team member or a team leader, you were paying attention and doing good work and making it known before – well, forge onward; that’s what you need to do now.

On the other hand, if you were working hard and doing good work but not letting anyone know? Well, that’s one of the Five Deadly Shoulds of Office Politics that I cover in my book: thinking that because you’re doing well, someone will magically notice.

As I said recently (and also not-so-recently), your career is yours, and it’s your responsibility to make yourself known and visible. Don’t wait for your performance review and expect your manager to “just know” all that you’ve done. Status reports might seem like a painful annoyance, but in reality they’re an opportunity for you to let people know all the good things you’ve done – especially when you can’t bump into them in the hall or by the coffee machine. Don’t be shy about sharing – it’s not arrogance if it’s real, and it’s not boasting if you do it in context.

If you’re the manager, you have a responsibility to understand what your team is up to. Asking for a weekly status report isn’t micromanaging – and if you tell them you want it because it’s how you track their performance, they’ll be happy to send it (and if not, that’s a warning sign, right?).

Go around the team meeting Zoom-room and ask everyone to share one accomplishment from the week. Randomly drop your team a note asking them to tell you about a success, even if it’s a small one. Dedicate a Slack channel to accomplishments. Think up other ways to encourage sharing wins.

As a manager, it’s your job to normalize talking about successes.

Managers need to normalize sharing about success AND employees need to be clear about what they've accomplished. #VirtualRecognition #VirtualLeadershipClick To Tweet

As an employee, it’s your job to make sure your manager (and others; see my book!) knows about your successes.

If you liked this post, you might like What HAVE you done? (References the New Year, but relevant at any time.)

My book, The Five Deadly Shoulds of Office Politics: how they mangle your career (and what to do about it) is on Amazon here. If you have Kindle Unlimited, it’s currently available there.

Want to dig in and figure out how to promote yourself – or understand your team? Book a Personal Leadership Profile.

gljudson Career development

When “awkward” is a good thing

Dizzy and bewildered emoji

The barrier to learning isn’t complexity. It’s awkwardness.
~ Christopher Voss, author and negotiation consultant

Learning is change. Change is learning. Both are challenging. You’re doing things differently. You’re thinking new thoughts. You’re discovering new perspectives and new ways of being.

You are becoming different.

And that’s awkward. Fumbling through a new language, going from an iPhone to an Android, figuring out how to go  someplace you’ve never been (literally or metaphorically), starting a new job… I’m sure you can think of a half-dozen things right now that you’re learning as you change – and feeling awkward about – especially given the upheaval caused by the pandemic.

What we forget, as Voss alludes to, is that awkwardness is normal in these situations. If you weren’t feeling at least a little awkward, you wouldn’t be learning or changing.

Since all change involves learning, and all learning involves change, both cause awkwardness.

So there’s nothing “wrong” with you that you’re feeling awkward – or even clumsy – as you go about doing something new. In fact, it means you’re on the right track. Keep going!

If you liked this post, you might like How’s learning working for you?

Christopher Voss was the lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI. He now runs his own negotiation consultancy and training company, The Black Swan Group, and has written my all-time top business book (except it’s about life and relationships and everything else as well), Never Split the Difference: negotiating as if your life depended on it. I HIGHLY recommend this book for anyone who ever negotiates anything – which is everyone. Read it. It’s entertaining and practical and profoundly useful.

gljudson Career development

The myth of the Career Fairy Godmother

Photo of a phone, closed laptop (with a pair of glasses on top) and a mouse floating in space before a blue background with fairy lightsI have bad news: there’s no magical Career Fairy Godmother poised to grant your wishes for success.

Your career is yours.

No one cares about your career as much as you do – or at least, as much as you should.

But here’s the challenge.

You went through your school years being told what to do to succeed. And “succeed” meant on their terms – your parents, caretakers, teachers, professors, employers.

Your entry-level job was probably similar: do what you’re told = success. According to their definition.

What’s your definition of success?

What do you want?

Don’t expect to have it handed to you. Don’t expect to get the promotion, the raise, the cool new project, just because you’ve been “good” up till now.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I was at a conference session – a panel of three executive-level women discussing careers and success.

One of them said, “You just need to work hard and do your best, and you’ll get recognized and rewarded.”

I nearly fell out of my chair.

No, and no, and no.  In my book The Five Deadly Shoulds of Office Politics, I name this as one of the deadliest: that you “should” be magically recognized for your accomplishments.

People who work hard, do their best, and stay quiet about it are virtually invisible. No one notices, because you’ve done what you were supposed to do.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not suggesting you not do what you’re supposed to do.

But I am very definitely saying that, if you want to grow your career – and grow it in the direction you’d like it to go in – you need to take ownership of it.

You need to define what you mean by “success.”

You need to educate yourself and gain the skills you need for the next steps along the way.

You need to learn to communicate and negotiate effectively.

You need to understand what it means to lead well (whether or not you want an official leadership role or title).

You need to make sure your boss and your boss’s peers know who you are, what you excel at, and what you want.

Yes, that means you need to understand how to claim and be proud of your accomplishments!

And it means – find mentors who can help. Because they’re the closest thing there is to a Career Fairy Godmother.

Too many people wander through their careers at the whim of their managers. Which means they’re probably neither as successful (on their own terms) or as happy as they’d wish to be.

It’s not too late. (It’s never too late.)

It's never too late to take ownership of your own career - what an important reminder. Define success, map the path, start today!Click To Tweet

Take ownership of your career. Define success for yourself. Figure out how to get there.

Why not start today?

If you liked this post, you might like What is your failure saying about success?

Want to ask your manager to support you in attending training? Download this guide

gljudson Career development

What’s on the flip side?

Grayscale photo of a wooden chess pawn with two shadowsWhat’s on the flip side of your skills?

What’s on the flip side of your success?

What’s on the flip side of your failures or problems?

Similarly, what’s on the flip side of your employees’ skills, successes, failures, and problems?

There are two sides to everything. A failure at one thing is a success at something else. 

And vice versa. You can be immensely successful in business, and – as all too many divorced, lonely businesspeople can bear witness – terrible in your family life. Or a caring, empathetic, supportive manager and friend – but impatient, unkind, and critical to yourself.

Your detail-oriented team member is great at – let’s say – quality control or creating financial reports. But they can’t lead a meeting without putting everyone to sleep with their focus on minutiae.

Every light casts a shadow, and no shadow exists without light.

What frustrates you about the individuals on your team? And what’s the flip side of that frustration?

What strengths are you overlooking because they’re showing up as weaknesses? What weaknesses are driving you crazy – but could be strengths in disguise?

It’s often a matter of degree: a strength taken to extremes becomes a problem, as when the decisive individual charges off a metaphorical cliff, or a compassionate friend burns out. That decision-maker gets labelled impulsive, and the burned-out friend becomes suddenly unreliable at best, or chronically ill at worst.

Everything has a flip side (strengths and weaknesses both), and it's worth taking the time to find out what's there.Click To Tweet

And don’t forget to look at yourself, too, as I suggested in the beginning of this article. What have you been beating yourself up about that, if you look at it differently, use it differently, take a different approach, might be a positive instead of a negative? And similarly, what skills have you been over-using – wielding as a blunt instrument instead of a finely-tuned tool?

Everything has a flip side, and it’s worth taking the time to find out what’s there.

If you liked this post, you might like What ISN’T success?

Have you taken the Leadership Communication Skills quiz yet?

gljudson Career development, Difficult people

How to keep remote employees engaged

Photo of bored-looking man wearing glasses and a suit with chin on hands staring at a laptop screenA lot of people are asking variations on this question.

How to keep remote teams engaged. How to keep remote employees engaged with the company culture. How to make sure remote employees feel part of the team / part of the company. How to onboard remote employees.

And so on. And on. And on.

Apparently it’s a deep and burning issue.

Bluntly: I don’t get it.

It’s no different from before

Treat employees with respect.

Communicate effectively.

Offer development and advancement opportunities.

Make sure they know how their work fits into a bigger picture.

And for onboarding, give new employees more than a half-day overview of company policies; give them a six-month ramp-up, including regular check-ins with their manager and at least one peer mentor or “buddy.”

Okay, it is a little different

Without casual meetings in hallways and by the coffee maker, it takes more intentionality and focus to stay connected. Which is why I’ve been recommending virtual office hours for years now as part of managing remote teams.

Since remote employees can’t just stick their heads into the leader’s physical office space, they need a way to “stick their head” into a virtual space, and have permission – in fact, encouragement – to do so.

Just open up a Zoom (or your platform of choice) meeting at a specified, regular time each week, and let people know they can hop on if they want to talk. You can lock the room when someone’s there, and then anyone trying to come in knows to come back later. Or enable the “waiting room” function and let people in one at a time.

It’s the equivalent of the open office door that is then closed when someone’s with you. And it helps take the place, at least partially, of those random meetings in hallways or by the coffeepot.

Yes, I know people are talking about “Zoom fatigue.” Do it anyway. (And consider that if your team is suffering from Zoom fatigue, you’re probably holding too many other meetings.)

How to keep remote employees engaged? It's the same as before - respect, communication, opportunities - just *more intentional*. Click To Tweet

Who’s asking this “how” question?

Maybe I’m cynical, but my guess is that the companies asking how to keep remote employees engaged are the companies who were having engagement issues when everyone was in the same building. Sure, there are some ideas that may be new (I’m a little startled by the number of people on LinkedIn who called my “virtual office hours” concept “brilliant,” but hey, I’ll take it!). But in essence, it’s the same set of core principles:



Opportunity for development and advancement

And I’ll add one more point: be an engaged manager and leader

If you were doing those things before, keep doing them. If you weren’t, well, get started!

If you liked this post, you might like Managing a Remote Team (video)

Wondering how to convince your leadership to pay for professional development? This guide will help.


gljudson Management & Leadership

Proposing routine maintenance for … employees?

Cartoon image of three service techs with toolsYour company takes care of the things it owns.

The office HVAC system gets regular inspections. Computer hardware and software are upgraded and scanned for problems. Potholes in the parking lot are patched and resurfaced. Manufacturing equipment is routinely overhauled and serviced. Security systems are maintained.

And so on.

We wouldn’t dream of ignoring holes in the roof or keeping outdated, unsupported software on company computers. We would never skip maintenance on expensive equipment or allow critical files to be unsecured.

But what about the people?

People are any organization’s most valuable asset. And while many organizations pay lip service to this concept, sadly few follow through.

What holes are you ignoring in your staffing? How are you making sure skills are up to date? What institutional knowledge is at risk when high-performing employees seek other opportunities? Why are those employees leaving? What’s the bottom-line impact of employee turnover?

How much are you losing because you’re not conducting routine maintenance on your employee population?

Perhaps that sounds dehumanizing – implying that the individuals on your payroll need maintenance, as if they were a piece of mechanical equipment or part of your physical plant. But way too many companies are better at maintaining their physical assets than they are at supporting their people.

Does your company demonstrate the importance of their employees? Or is it just lip service? What, specifically, does your company do to show that supporting, training, coaching, and leading matters?

Perhaps your company is outstanding at all of that.

Or perhaps not. Because this is a whole lot more than annual satisfaction surveys, suggestion boxes, or public statements of support for diversity and inclusion.

What’s needed?

What do you, as an individual employee, need in order to have more fun and find more meaning in your work?

What do you, as a leader, need in order to be better at supporting your team members, your peers, and your boss?

Looking at the company as a whole, what needs do you see going unanswered?

Get specific

To be successful in presenting your case – whether it’s to executive leadership, HR, or your immediate manager – you must be clear and specific.

What, specifically, is the need? What, specifically, should be done to address it? What are the costs involved in leaving things as they are? What are the costs of the action you’re recommending?

Remember that the human brain takes loss far more seriously than gain. It is far better to not lose $100 than it is to gain $100. So emphasize what’s being lost because this “routine maintenance” for employees isn’t happening. (To calculate the cost of attrition, download the employee replacement costs spreadsheet.)

Present your case

Prepare a short executive-summary style explanation of the problem and your solution. Don’t overwhelm your audience with the details of your research or why you think this is important. You need to grab their attention right up front with what matters to them, and a long introduction won’t do that.

If you do a good job with that executive summary, they’ll ask questions. So have the details ready to back up your request.

What if they say “no”?

Invest in your own maintenance.

It’s your career that’s at stake.

If you liked this post, you might like Whose career is it, anyway?

Wondering what leadership development plan might be good for you? Take a look at the Empowered Leadership program.

gljudson Management & Leadership, Strategic thinking

Strategy: the alternative to spaghetti

Red blocks with letters spelling STRATEGY, INNOVATION, SUCCESS, PLANThrowing spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks doesn’t actually work.

Supposedly a test to see if the spaghetti is cooked (if it sticks, so the theory goes, it’s done), it fails miserably. On the one hand, if your spaghetti is so well done that it actually does stick to the wall, it’s overdone for a good meal. And on the other hand, whether it sticks or not, it makes a mess. Either way, you’re likely to burn your fingers.

The term has become a metaphor for attempting random ideas to achieve an objective – the exact opposite of a well-thought-out strategic plan.

Whatever your objective may be – whether it’s a big project for your team, a shift to work-from-home for all, a leadership development plan for a distributed employee population, or simply making a decent spaghetti dinner – you’re better off stopping to think before you throw spaghetti – metaphorical or real – at the wall.

What are you actually trying to achieve?

One of the reasons spaghetti-throwing is so seductive is that we often aren’t clear about the actual objective.

If your definition of success for this effort – leadership plan or spaghetti dinner – is fuzzy, it’s no wonder you’re defaulting to random ideas.

What’s the goal?

How can you get there?

Work backwards. What do you need? What options do you have? What are the potential obstacles? What milestones do you need to meet in order to make the deadline?

Which path looks best?

Experimentation is not the same as spaghetti-throwing.

Experimentation is a well-thought-out process for testing an idea or option.

Pick the best of your potential options. Obtain the needed resources. Move forward.

Do you need to pivot?

Just because you’ve developed a strategy for achieving your goal doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to work.

Your dinner guest may be on a gluten-free diet, or allergic to the tomatoes you were planning for the sauce.

Your emerging leaders may be in different time zones, or have child-care responsibilities that disrupt your planned delivery schedule.

There’s no shame in realizing that some aspect of your plan isn’t going to work.

Don’t ignore the problem, and don’t revert to spaghetti-throwing.

Think. Revise. Adapt your plans. And move forward.

If you liked this post, you might like “Sandwiches or salad? Goals matter!” (Food reference is a coincidence…)

Curious about a leadership development plan for your distributed employees? Let’s start a conversation!

gljudson Strategic thinking

The paradox of process

2020-07-27_improvement_cycleProcess is good. Process is important. Process keeps you from reinventing the wheel every time you complete a recurring task.

Without process, you run the risk (or, more accurately, the certainty!) of confusion. One client’s employer had no process for anything – proposals, contracts, customer interactions, project kick-off and closing – everything was ad-hoc, unnecessarily unclear, and fraught with misunderstandings. (Yes, she fixed it!)

BUT – and this is important – process should not be a straitjacket. 

When process becomes “this is how we’ve always done it,” you’ve got a different problem: inability to improve.

And when you confuse process and outcomes, you start sliding into failure.  “We followed the process! We did it the way we’ve always done it!” But what about the results?

Are you meeting goals? Are you achieving what you want to achieve? Could things be better? Should things be better?

It looks like a paradox, a contradiction in terms, but it’s not.

Stick to a process – and keep improving.

Follow the process – and evaluate it.

Add missing steps. Remove redundant or unnecessary steps. Explore efficiencies. Rearrange to streamline flow.

Observe. Tweak. Test.

Improvement seldom comes from a “big bang” change. Instead, improvement evolves incrementally.

Just don’t forget to communicate what you tweak, so everyone knows what’s happening.

Because in the end, that’s what process is for: consistency and efficiency for everyone involved.

gljudson Strategic thinking