This story first appeared in Government News magazine April/May 2015
By Dr Marianne Broadbent
How well are you able to articulate and share you story – as a professional, a team leader, manager or executive? When others ask you ‘what do you do?’, do you mumble something and be a bit self-deprecating, or do respond enthusiastically about your work, your contribution, and how you are contributing to the success of your organisation?
Each of us has a story that we need to be able to share with others – with clarity and in context, claiming our achievements appropriately, demonstrating a good level of pride, but without hubris.
In working with many individuals in either executive search or organisational capability and development work we often start a session with some general queries, which gives the individual an opportunity to share their background with us. What they choose to share – and not share – and how they do that, often provides interesting insights.
I have a strong view that neither assessment and screening, nor client selection interviews should be ‘gotcha’ exercises. It is in everyone’s interests that candidates really shine, are articulate (but honest), and are able to explain their relevance to a particular role. I have coached many otherwise very good candidates on the key elements of their own story. Sometimes they have not applied for a role for many years and have not spent time reflecting on and articulating their achievements. Others think their track record is self-evident, but the client wants to know that they can present their case effectively and with robustness. After all, that will be the tone and tenor of most of their internal meetings.
We each have to be able to explain in a lucid way what we have achieved – both in written form and in oral form, and be able to maintain a challenging discussion about that. It often takes reflection, and gaining clarity first in our own mind. Then it takes practice. This not being manipulative. It is about having the nous to understand what someone else needs to know about you. It is about others managing their risk in relation to your role, or perhaps your appointment to their organisation. It is just good preparation.
Think about how you explain your achievements to others
About a year ago I was working with a group of women as part of an organisation’s effort to develop and retain good female talent. Most had engineering or infrastructure backgrounds and were seen by their executive team as people who could reach that level. All had been at the organisation for three years or more.
At the end of the first workshop, I asked each of the 15 participants to share one key work-related achievement over the past three years. About half grasped the opportunity, some struggled and two indicated that they really had not achieved anything of note.
These two women, who were seen as high achievers by others, did not see themselves that way at all. Fortunately other members of the group stepped in and were able to quickly articulate for them what they knew they had achieved. They were surprised by what others considered achievements. Somehow they had inflated expectations for themselves and thought they just did not measure up. Needless to say, we spent some time over the next weeks, providing opportunities for participants to practice sharing their stories, getting them used to the fact that this is just a normal expectation of people working at their level.
Early in my time working for a US based company I was reproached for not sharing some great client feedback that I had received. My boss was of the view that if any one of us did particularly well it reflected on all of us, so it was my duty to share this feedback. And yes, we learnt to share any negative stuff also, and support each other through that!
There are some organisations where we have been involved in succession planning and talent management over many years. For example, in one company we have a good understanding of their major projects and market breakthroughs over the past four or five years. Now, when people claim to have ‘landed’ a particular project, we are able to query them and get them to clarify exactly which part they ‘landed’ and when – as we can share with them others that might have claimed that achievement also.
Use every opportunity presented to you
In working with the group of women mentioned earlier, we also had them work on a good ‘elevator pitch’. A couple of them already had these skills well honed. They knew how to make the best of each opportunity – and did.
One lunchtime, several of us got into a crowded elevator and one of the women didn’t miss a beat. She saw in the corner the executive she had been trying to connect with for a day or so. Over the noise and heads of others she quickly gave him a rundown on the project she was leading and asked him a couple of quick questions. Obviously none of this was confidential, and it was very impressive. The executive quickly replied, as he would have had a lot of witnesses if he tried to obfuscate. It was very impressive.
Remember that you are always marketing yourself . . .
That statement, that you are always marketing yourself, sometimes takes people back a little. It seems some of us think we can turn our charm on and off, and that we will be able to articulate a situation or form a relationship when we need to. Our behaviour every day is what people see and take note of, not just when we decide that we need a colleague or business partner’s help so it is time to start forming a good relationship with them.
A couple of months ago I was involved in working with some senior managers on track for executive roles. They were a well committed group and their organisation had put some effort into their development over the years. But there was one person I had reservations about and could not quite figure out why initially. It was something about how he formed relationships. I used the word ‘expedient’ as a way to describe his relationship building as it was very much on an ‘as needs’ basis: that is, I need, therefore I will start to build that relationship. When I shared my view with the manager concerned he reflected on it for a while then thought that was probably a reasonable description. He came to realise, that, longer term, it would not serve him well.
Some years ago, when still with Gartner, I was asked by a local sales team if I would join them on a visit to a particularly difficult executive. He agreed to meet with us but I warned my colleagues that I did have some reservations as I had had previous encounters with that person. The executive explained in the first few minutes that he really didn’t need our services, as he got all the information he needed from vendors. Vendors were very generous and he didn’t have to pay them for their advice. It was one of those situations where I thought why did this person agree to a meeting – did he enjoy insulting people, wasting their time or purporting to be extra smart? I closed off the meeting quite quickly as prolonging it just played to his warped ego.
When he was exited from that company about 12 months later I had moved into the executive search business. He was then very keen to meet with me and assumed I would do everything I could to secure him a role. It was a misguided assumption on a number of levels. It is difficult to advocate for someone who does not grasp the foundations of good relationship building, or just good civility and graciousness. Clients expect those attributes in their executive teams and always, rightly, express the importance of good behaviours.
How we interact with others on a daily basis is how others will see us. Whether we like it or not, we are always being assessed by those around us.
Dr Marianne Broadbent is Managing Partner, with the Leadership Consultancy, NGS Global. c/- email@example.com, www.ngs-global.com
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