How to boost your confidence at work

baby meme

This past week, I was invited to join a senior management meeting on behalf of my boss. Normally, this would be a great opportunity to gain exposure to leaders way above my pay grade.

However, I knew this meeting was going to be terribly uncomfortable. I not only had to present bad news, but also my team had made certain business decisions that some meeting members opposed.  

On top of that, only people with 20+ years of work experience were attending the meeting, and then there was me…who is less than 2 years out of business school. I could envision boss’s boss’s bosses throwing darts at me while I stand on top of the meeting room table wearing nothing but a giant diaper. A proud moment indeed…

With an uphill battle to fight, I needed a quick shot of confidence to overcome my nerves and stand by my team’s position.

Here are some ways I tried to zap confidence into myself.

1. Know your stuff: Nobody likes to be caught with their pants down. In the days leading to the meeting, I sharpened my message, anticipated potential questions, and gathered the necessary data / analysis to support my stance. The key is to look prepared and like you know what you’re talking about.

2. Dress to impress: We are all superficial creatures. We tend to make snap judgments of others based on the way they look. He, with the untucked shirt and disheveled hair, looks like he just woke up. She, with the short and tight skirt, looks like she’s fond of a certain kind of attention. At work, the key is to look sharp. Whether your workplace dress code is business formal, business casual, or just casual, make sure you look impeccable…much like Miranda Kerr and James Bond below.

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james bond

3. Give yourself a pep talk: Talking to yourself can seem a bit loony, but giving yourself a pep talk can be quite effective. Remind yourself of your strengths and accomplishments. Use these reminders to justify why you deserve a seat at the meeting room table (or a job position or even a date with someone).

4. Power pose: In her popular TedTalk, Harvard Business School professor, Amy Cuddy discusses how our body language not only influence how others see us but also how we see ourselves. By simply changing our pose for 2 minutes, we can feel significantly more confident. Check out the pose spectrum…

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5. Smile! When we are nervous, the last thing we want to do is smile. More often, we put on a frown and furrow our brows while trying to curl ourselves into a fetal position. However, studies indicate that we can actually become happier by smiling (rather just smile because we are happy). Next time you find yourself filled with nerves, just smile and you will feel happier and more relaxed.

How to motivate others to work with you

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Whenever a particular co-worker passes by my section of the office, I witness grown men and women attempting to dive under their desks to hide from him. Whenever he leaves, you hear comments such as:

“He just scheduled another hour long meeting with 20+ people to talk about nothing.”

“He asked for 5 minutes of my time, and he ended up talking for an hour!”

“I already gave him this information. I don’t know why he’s asking me again and again.”

“He always wants something from me. I don’t know what he’s done for me in return.”

To avoid being that guy, here are some ways to increase your likelihood that people would want to work with you.

1. Cherish people’s time

We are all busy. For people to pay attention to you, you are competing with a zillion things – emails, unfinished work, phone calls, meetings, urgent matters, instant messages, and (potentially more important) people. It’s more likely that people will pay attention to you if they know you respect their time.

A. Understand clearly what you need and what they can offer

I think the key to respecting people’s time is to first clearly understand what you need from engaging them. Instead of approaching someone with a vague question, think carefully beforehand so that you can ask them very specific and pointed questions which are relevant to their function / expertise.

B. Do prep work to save time

People hate giving you information that they know you have or that is widely available. If you have questions to ask someone, be sure to check first whether you have this information on hand. Additionally, be sure to get background information before you approach someone. This will save both of you some time.

C. Select an appropriate mode of communication

Has this happened to you before? Someone sets up an hour long meeting for something that could have been easily resolved through a quick email. Or, someone sends two dozen emails for something that could have been resolved through a quick face to face or phone call. Think about the nature of the conversation and select the most appropriate form of communication.

D. Keep to your reserved time

My fellow co-worker is quite famous for his drive-by’s. He will walk past my group’s section and stop next to someone’s desk and say “Hey! Do you have 2 minutes?” The problem is that 62 minutes later, he’s still there!  The opposite extreme is the people that reserve your time for a meeting, but then they themselves are 30 minutes late! People do not want to work with you if you waste their time.

 2. Listen

People are inclined to work with you if they know you genuinely listen to them. I’ve been on telecoms where a question is asked, and someone will immediately start answering the question only to realize that they have no idea what the answer is 3 minutes later. Thus, 3 minutes of everyone’s time could have been spared if the person just listened to the question in the first place.

A big part of listening is giving people a chance to speak and asking probing questions. I’ve seen people that just ask a series of questions and then try to answer the questions themselves or keep on explaining the questions. The other person only needed to be given the chance to answer. Often times, probing questions are necessary if you are listening to understand rather than listening to get a superficial yes / no answer.

Remembering is proof of successful listening. OK. Maybe we don’t all have great memories with so many things going on. However, if you don’t remember, then people don’t think you’ve listened to them.

3. Earn their time

People generally respond well to give and take relationships. Even outside of work, you would probably stop inviting / hosting a friend for dinner if she never reciprocates. Hence, nobody likes a taker, so don’t be one.

The best way to get someone to do work for you is to do something that benefits them. The first step to do that is to have a good understanding of what they do, what common issues they may face, what support they need, and what you could offer, which could include:

  • Relevant Information: In today’s data-driven world, information is key to effective decision-making, but there is so much of it and often resides in disparate places. If you have access to a system or have seen a news article / report that could be helpful to the individual, then share it freely.
  • A good word: A super easy way to get on someone’s good side is to give their boss positive feedback about them and let them know that you’ve done so.
  • Contacts: You could refer someone that could help this person’s work or career. For example, for this person’s role, you may know his Africa counterpart. It could be good to put them in contact to share best practices across regions.
  • Funding: Providing someone with extra budget to pursue their project is probably one of the most powerful ways to get someone to work with you.
  • Career Development: If you know of any good opportunities that the person could be interested in, then you should not only point them in that direction but also put in a good word if possible.
  • Personal Interests: Bring up information that may serve their interests outside of work. For example, if you know someone is really into fusion food, then you could alert them if a new fusion restaurant is opening.

Be careful not to make the relationship too transactional — only doing something for someone when you need a favor. It’s important to keep the give and take dynamic in mind, so be sure to give even when you don’t need to take.

4. Maintain the relationship

Once you develop the working relationship, it’s important to maintain it even if you no longer work with the person directly. This is good practice since you may work with this person again or need something else in the future. Periodically, be sure to catch up over coffee or lunch just to see how they are doing. It’s much easier to rekindle a relationship than to establish one from the beginning.

Public speaking = a necessary evil for managers?

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak in front of 100+ people, including fellow employees (among them our high flying execs), external groups, and the media. I almost fainted when I received the news. All I could imagine was looking like this kid…

Since then, I have been observing various managers in my company and their relative public speaking ability. We all know that great leaders are typically amazing public speakers (think Martin Luther King Jr. rather than George W. Bush). However, I am learning more and more just how important good public speaking skills is to becoming a great manager (and not just a sports coach or political leader). This is a shame because public speaking is so feared that it has its own phobia name: glossophobia. Jerry Springer made an astute observation / joke about public speaking once:

I read a thing that actually says that speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. I found that amazing – number two was death! That means to the average person if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.

Why public speaking is must have skill for managers

From “rigorous” research after weeks of observing other corporate leaders, I believe here are some reasons why public speaking is a necessary evil to becoming a good manager (no matter what organization / sector you are in).

  • Communicate your key points and messages clearly and convincingly: For me, this was particularly apparent during conversations about budget and resource allocation. For managers that could clearly get your message across, then to them the spoils go.
  • Build credibility: Stuttering, limited eye contact, and plenty of filler words don’t exactly inspire confidence. Thus, people may automatically dismiss you even before they actually listen to your content (no matter how good it is).
  • Inspire and move people to action: As mentioned earlier, this is a key part of a manager / an organizational leader’s responsibility, marshaling the necessary people and enabling them to accomplish certain objectives. This is much easier if you can rally your team like Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday.

How to improve your public speaking ability

In preparation for my dreaded speech, I’ve been on a quest to improve my oratory ability. Here’s what I picked up so far as some critical must have’s for a convincing speech:

  • Get the mechanics right: These are the basic foundation for a great speech, including: no stuttering, no filler words, look confident and make good eye contact, insert natural pauses, place your hands, feet, and body in natural position (vs. wringing your hands or putting them in your pockets). The list goes on…
  • Identify your key messages and keep them simple: People have attention spans shorter than a dog in a park full of squirrels. Therefore, it’s crucial to figure out what are the key 1 to 3 takeaways you want to impart on your audience. Once you have identified those messages, you need to embed them in you speech in a simple, direct, and highly digestible way. A tactic that some politicians use is the “tell them” method. (1) Tell them what you’re about to tell them; (2) Tell them; (3) Summarize what you just told them.
  • Use the power of stories and stats: Since childhood, we’re all programmed to pay attention and listen to stories. Embedding vivid and interesting stories in your speech will make it more memorable. It’s also important to incorporate some statistics in your story (if relevant) to establish more credibility in your messages (so it doesn’t sound like you’re just making everything up.)
  • Speak authentically: Bill Clinton is the king of connecting with this audience and speaking as if he’s just chatting with you over a beer. The most inspirational and moving speeches are those that come from the heart. Ok, but how do you do that? I think the most important elements to convey authenticity include: (1) revealing something personal (not too embarrassing…but much like the one in the Al Pacino video above), (2) understanding your audience and tailoring your speech to their interests / concerns, (3) believing in your message, and (4) injecting some emotion in your speech by changing your speaking pace, volume, and non-verbals.

Management: a noble profession?

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When you hear people complain about their bosses or watch movies like Office Space, you think: Wow. Managers are really the bane of everyone’s existence. As someone who currently has the word “Manager” in her title, that’s a scary thought. Would it be better to become a doctor (although I can’t stand blood) or a teacher (although I can’t stand snot)? Is becoming a manager a truly worthy profession or just a pain in the neck?

What is a manager? 

It’s a nebulous term, but I’ll give it a go any way. For me, a manager coordinates people, budget, and other resources to achieve certain business objectives. To do so, a manager needs diverse skill sets, but some key ones include:

  • Influence others: Motivate and move others to action. This requires not only good communication skills but also superb listening skills and high emotional intelligence. It’s not enough to tell people what to do. You have to convince them that it’s the right thing to do.
  • Problem solving: Address problems quickly and effectively by engaging the necessary stakeholders while keeping others focused on moving ahead.
  • Looking ahead: Identifying potential obstacles or opportunities in the short and long-term. Plan and act proactively upon them to either mitigate risks or capitalize on opportunities.
  • Maximizing team’s potential: Identifying strengths, weaknesses, and passions of team members and assigning them to roles that optimizes their chances of success.

Why managers matter?

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Managers matter because they all impact our lives in profound ways (as anyone who has ever had a bad manager knows). The above infographic (albeit an advertisement and US-focused) is stuffed with interesting facts. To highlight a few…

  • 71% of employees aren’t fully engaged due to strained relationships with their superior!
  • Only 35% of people prefer a raise over a better boss, meaning most people value a better manager over more money.

If bad managers can make our lives so miserable, imagine how a good manager could not only improve your life but also our society by inspiring motivated and happy people to achieve great things.

Why have they become such a pain?

If managers could be so important, then why does the profession have such a bad reputation? I think a big issue is how managers become managers. We all start off as grunts in some function (IT, Design, Supply Chain, etc.). We spend hours getting good at doing really detailed work related to the function, whether it’s running Excel models, programming, or designing advertisements. We also get really good at managing up (since we’re grunts at this point and there’s no one to manage down). When we get good enough at our functional skill and when enough time passes, we eventually get promoted to managers. Now, as managers, we are expected to manage people below and budget, which are completely new skillsets that we need to learn.

Therefore, organizations tend to promote managers not for their management ability, but for their functional skills and expertise.

At this point, I think a manager’s success also depends largely upon a company’s performance management process. If a manager’s promotion depends on only his / her boss, then this problem will perpetuate. As this newly promoted manager has had plenty of experience managing up, then the company will continue to promote him / her even if the minions under the newbie manager hates him / her.

How can management become a noble profession? 

I think there are a zillion things to make this profession more (positively) impactful, but to (over)simplify here are so key ones:

  1. Attract more managers that could be good at managing others: They display EQ skills such as listening, compassion, and adaptability and not just high IQ.
  2. Conduct 360 Reviews: Evaluate managers based on feedback from people above and below.
  3. Don’t be a pain in the neck: Enough said.

When should I speak up in a meeting?

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Recently, I was asked to join a senior management meeting that involved people who were much above my pay grade. The host thought my attendance would serve 3 purposes: (1) provide support for tough questions asked regarding my business area, (2) provide me with a good development opportunity / visibility, and (3) (of course as the most junior person in the room) record meeting minutes and action items (When can robots take over this function?).

Where to sit?

I entered the room and scanned about 15 participants in a semi-circle. That guy has 20+ years of experience, and that guy probably has the CEO on speed dial, and then there’s me who joined the company a year ago fresh out of business school. The first question I asked myself was: “Given my support / development / note-taking role, where should I sit?”

At first, I played it shy and tried pulling up a chair at the side. Then, I caught the eye of a familiar face and took the opportunity to catch up by sitting right next to him…which also happened to be the middle of the semi-circle. Nothing like a note-taker in a power seat.

When to speak?

Throughout this multi-day meeting (yes…another issue for another time), I struggled with deciding when to speak and when to keep my trap shut. Fundamentally, the struggle was between my support / note-taking role versus an inclination to assert myself as a competent business leader versus a risk aversion to not look like a babbling idiot.

Learning from this experience and other meetings, I realized that there are a few appropriate and important times to speak up when you’re the most junior person in the room:  Continue reading