Don’t Be Interesting—Be Interested!

Management Guru Jim Collins’s “Golden Rule”

Jim Collins's 'Golden Rule': Don't Be Interesting---Be Interested! In the December 2005 issue of the now-discontinued Business 2.0 magazine, 30 business visionaries disclosed their “golden rules”—attitudes they swear by more than any other. Jim Collins, the renowned leadership consultant and author of such bestselling management books as Good to Great and Built to Last, recollected a lesson he learned from his mentor, the American intellectual and public servant John W. Gardner:

One day early in my faculty teaching career, John Gardner sat me down. “It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting,” he said. “Why don’t you invest more time being interested?”

If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet—their lives, their history, their story. Where are they from? How did they get here? What have they learned? By practicing the art of being interested, the majority of people can become fascinating teachers; nearly everyone has an interesting story to tell.

I can’t say that I live this rule perfectly. When tired, I find that I spend more time trying to be interesting than exercising the discipline of asking genuine questions. But whenever I remember Gardner’s golden rule—whenever I come at any situation with an interested and curious mind—life becomes much more interesting for everyone at the table.

The Technique to Become the Most Interesting Person in the Room is to Find Others Interesting

Becoming likeable requires creating lasting impressions in others by becoming genuinely interested in them In the conduct of life, people tend to focus more on becoming more interesting—i.e., impressing others with their personae and their stories. While trying to become more interesting is a worthwhile pursuit, it is certainly not everything in becoming accepted and well-liked. Becoming likeable requires creating lasting impressions in others by becoming genuinely interested in them.

John Gardner’s advice (via Jim Collins) echoes self-improvement pioneer Dale Carnegie’s legendary advice that the ticket to one’s success in life is one’s ability to make others feel good about themselves. In his masterful manual on people skills, How to Win Friends & Influence People, Carnegie writes, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

It is a common fallacy to assume that you must just be an interesting person to get people to like you. Observe this human tendency in the next networking meeting or social gathering you attend. Most people tend to be absorbed in just one thing: being interesting themselves—blabbing “I did this … I did that … I like this … I’ve been there” and offering bits of information that nobody else but them really cares about.

How to Build a Bit of Intimacy, Even in a Brief Conversation

Become genuinely interested in others and make them like you Making others like you amounts to making them feel special about themselves—making them feel that you really “get” them. The next time you meet someone new at a social setting, try this easy technique to be more interested.

  • The key to become absorbed in a conversation is to focus on being curious about others. So, tell yourself repetitively, “This seems to the most interesting person in the world. Let me discover why.” Look for opportunities to connect.
  • When you meet someone new, make eye contact and smile. Introduce yourself with a simple “Hi, my name is Joanna Kovaleski. I am Megan’s real estate agent.”
  • Pay attention and make them feel like they are the only people in the room.
  • Ask a question or two about the person before talking about yourself. “How do you know Megan and Eric?” “Is this your first time in Chicago?” As I’ve written previously, chatting with somebody in socializing situations should be less about discerning the details of the other’s life and more about building a bit of familiarity to initiate stimulating conversations, debates, discussions, and exchange of ideas about topics of mutual interest. These prospects will all be missed if your initial interaction starts with annoying cross-examinations such as “What do you do for a living?”
  • Ask a follow-up question based on what they have just said. Try to understand who they are and why they are there. Learn about their interests and hobbies.
  • Say more about yourself. Use what you’ve just learned about the other person so far to selectively highlight anything you have in common.
  • Then, ask one question to bring the focus back to the other person.
  • People love to talk about themselves; so, make them. Everyone’s got a story to tell.
  • Don’t talk too much or too little. Try taking your focus off yourself.

Idea for Impact: Become Genuinely Interested in Others and Make Them Like You

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) To be interested in other people—and consequently get them interested in you—is a significant social skill you must develop and hone. But don’t feign. As Carnegie cautions in How to Win Friends & Influence People, “The principles … will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks; I am talking about a new way of life.”

The following books have helped me with improve my socializing skills. Perhaps you’ll find them useful too.

How to Decline a Meeting Invitation

Meetings Suck

How to Decline a Meeting InvitationIt’s not without reason that everybody gripes about meetings. Meetings distract people from meaningful work.

However, when purposefully conceived and efficiently run, meetings are not wasteful. Meetings are important instruments of organizational endeavor—they provide a chance to pull resources together for communication and decision-making. There are, therefore, only two serviceable objectives of a meeting:

  1. To inform and update
  2. To seek input and make collective decisions

Participating Effectively in Meetings

Participate in a meeting only if the agenda includes something important, timely, and worthwhile for you.

Ask the following questions to decide if you need to participate in a meeting:

  1. Has the meeting been well-defined? Do you have all the information you need to decide if you need to attend this meeting? Are the purpose and agenda of the meeting clear? Do you have the relevant background material? Are all the relevant participants invited?
  2. How will you benefit from this meeting?
  3. Is the decision being made at this meeting important to the success or failure of your team / organization?
  4. Does the meeting really need you? In other words, will your presence influence the discussions and the expected outcomes?

How to Politely Decline a Meeting Invitation

How to Politely Decline a Meeting InvitationIf you’re been invited to attend a meeting that you think is avoidable, try to persuade the meeting’s leader that your productive time may be better used elsewhere. Share your rationale so that the meeting’s leader has some context for why you’re not participating. Here’s how to decline the meeting:

  • “May I send somebody else to fill in for me?” Find a delegate who could represent your interests.
  • “May I suggest somebody else?” Propose other participants if the items on the meeting’s agenda are not within the purview of your role, or if you don’t have the expertise and authority to impact the conversation and the decision-making.
  • “May I provide my inputs in advance?” Take some time to review the agenda items, do your homework, organize your remarks or inputs, and brief the meeting leader or other participants beforehand.
  • “May I participate in the most relevant segment of the meeting?” If one or more items on the meeting agenda aren’t relevant to your goals, attend just those parts of the meeting that are applicable. Consider asking, “Could you please move my agenda item to the top of the meeting? I can’t stay for the whole meeting.”
  • “Could you please postpone this meeting?” Or, “May I skip this week’s update … I am still working on my task. Therefore, I am not yet ready for a productive conversation yet or give you a status-update.”
  • “I am sorry, given my department’s goals for this year, I don’t find this meeting helpful.” Request a summary of the meeting and follow-up as needed.

The key to saying “no” to a meeting is to say it decisively without appearing to be dodging your responsibilities. Make a deliberate effort to meet the needs of all the meeting’s participants.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Become Hostage to Meetings

Being in too many meetings can wreak havoc on your schedule and pinch your ability to focus on larger, more-worthwhile goals. Just go to all the ones you absolutely need to, and delegate or curtail your participation in the rest.

The Cost of Leadership Incivility


Steve Jobs’ Misguided Advice for Being a Good CEO: “Throw Tantrums!”

Indra Nooyi got Advice from Steve Jobs: Throw Tantrums

When Indra Nooyi became CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, she met with Steve Jobs, the famously driven but short-tempered and ruthless leader of Apple. One advice Jobs had for Nooyi on being a good leader: “throw tantrums.”

During this 2016 interview at the Stanford Business School (YouTube video), Nooyi acknowledged Job’s advice as “a valuable lesson.” She elaborated that Jobs advised, “don’t be too nice … when you really don’t get what you want and you really believe that’s the right thing for the company, it’s OK to throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around. People will talk about it, and they’ll know it’s important for you.”

During another 2016 interview, at the New York Times’ DealBook Conference (YouTube video), Nooyi recalled Jobs advise again. “If you really feel strongly about something—if you don’t like something people are doing—throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around, because people have got to know that you feel strongly about it.” Though Nooyi hasn’t gone as far as to throw things around, she disclosed, “I’m beginning to use certain words a little bit more freely and I am screaming a bit more, pounding the table … which is really not the way I was … it is effective. It shows the passion that I have for what I’m doing.”

No Need to Ape the Style of the Icon-of-The-Moment

Leadership Throw TantrumsPeople will go to extraordinary lengths for causes they believe in. Nonetheless, this advice of throwing tantrums and using “certain words a little bit more freely” to express passion is abhorrently misguided, even if it worked for Steve Jobs and Indra Nooyi!

The ultimate impact of a leader hinges on his/her enthusiasm to make the organization’s endeavors personal, to engage others openly, and to draw attention to successes as they emerge. For that reason, Nooyi’s anecdote is demonstrative of Jobs’ passion for building great products.

My primary protestation relates to the reality that leaders model the behavior they want in their organizations. Admissibly, there may be a time and a place to throw temper tantrums at Apple, PepsiCo, or at your organization. However, unchecked and unhindered outbursts of passion, and cursing and incivility are certainly counterproductive.

Steve Jobs could throw temper tantrums because he could! As I have written in previous articles, brilliant men and women can get away with fanatical pride, temper, abuse, and other disruptive behaviors because their spectacular success can and does cover many of their sins, even in the eyes of those at the receiving end of their crudeness.

Aggressive—and successful—managers and leaders can pressurize, scream, intimidate, and even terrorize their employees. They vindicate that their offensive behavior works because they “deliver the numbers.” Others rationalize their behavior by exclaiming, “Yeah, he’s tough on his people, but judge his abrasiveness in the context of everything he’s achieved.”

The Leader Sets the Tone for Workplace Culture

Workplace incivility can take many subtle forms and it is often provoked by thoughtlessness more willingly than by actual malice. A leader’s behavior tells employees what counts—and what’s rewarded and what’s punished. Leaders are role models. Therefore, others pay attention to everything they say and every move they make.

The tone at the top is the foundation upon which the culture of an organization is built. A leader is the face of an organization and the figurehead to whom employees ultimately look for vision, guidance, and leadership. When leaders throw temper tantrums, swear, or engage in appalling behavior, the message they convey within their organizations is that such behavior is acceptable.

The human brain is wired to learn by imitation. For instance, a child is wired to mimic the behaviors of higher status individuals like parents and teachers. Similarly, adults emulate the behaviors of those they deem of higher status—employees look at their boss to determine how to behave in the organization and what it takes to be promoted. In competitive work environments of the modern day, when employees see that those who have climbed the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace uncivil behavior, they’re likely to follow suit.

'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 1501127624) Postscript: Don’t blatantly imitate a hero. Those of you who worship Steve Jobs had better perceive his operative style as an anomaly rather than as a model of leadership worth imitating. Simply lifting his methods from anecdotes such as Indra Nooyi’s and the Walter Isaacson biography and imposing them on your employees will not necessarily yield Jobs-like results. As I’ve written previously, the career advice that works for the superstars is not necessarily what will work for most ordinary folks. So, don’t be misled by their “it worked for me” advice.

How to Increase Your Likeability: The 10/5 Rule

Air India Maharajah illustrating the 10/5 Rule of Customer Service The 10/5 Rule, also known as the “Zone of Hospitality Rule,” is a well-known guiding principle for extending courtesy to customers in the hospitality, healthcare, retail, and other service industries. The rule instructs,

  • Whenever a staff member is within ten feet of a guest, the staff member must make eye contact and smile to greet the approaching guest.
  • When a staff member is within five feet of a guest, the staff member must also look the guest in the eye and acknowledge him/her with a salutation such as “Hello” or “Good Morning, Mrs. Smith.”

Many companies have adapted versions of the 10/5 Rule to improve friendliness, customer-service, and responsiveness. As I’ve written in a previous article, Walmart’s iconic founder Sam Walton instituted the ‘Ten-Foot Attitude’ and said, “… I want you to promise that whenever you come within 10 feet of a customer, you will look him in the eye, greet him, and ask him if you can help him.” At Disney theme parks, “cast members” are encouraged to make eye contact, smile, greet, and welcome each guest as part of Disney’s famous “Seven Service Guidelines.”

Courtesy is an Influence Technique

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) As expounded in Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help book How to Win Friends & Influence People, we are much more likely to feel warmly toward any person who sincerely makes us feel good about ourselves.

Likeable people not only succeed in their personal relationships, but also tend to be more successful at the workplace. Indeed, highly competent but unlikeable employees do not thrive as well as their moderately competent but more likeable peers.

Idea for Impact: Be courteous. Even simple acts of courtesy (making eye contact, smiling more, listening, showing sincere interest in others, for example) work as an influence technique because folks are much more likely to do things for—and accede to requests from—people they perceive as likeable.

Avoid the Lectern in Presentations

Avoid the Lectern in Presentations

Standing behind a lectern while presenting can make you seem stiff, unemotional, and disconnected. A lectern creates a barrier between you and your audience—it not only blocks out two-thirds of your body, but also restricts your natural hand gestures. The lectern may even entice you to lean on or hold it, making you look tense and uneasy.

By walking around the room and getting closer to your audience, you establish a bigger presence in the room and are harder to ignore. You encourage your audience to move their heads and eyes to follow you around the room, so they’re less likely to doze off during your presentation. Your watchful eyes may also prevent them from using their tablets and phones.

Walking about can make your presentation appear like a natural conversation and thus help you overcome any public speaking anxiety. You can also better gauge your audience’s reactions.

  • Always present standing up, even if you’re presenting to an audience of one or two. Standing while presenting not only lets you make better eye contact with your audience, but also helps you breathe and project your voice more clearly. You will appear to have more influence since your audience will be literally “looking up to you.”
  • Move around naturally. Mix it up to avoid looking nervous. Don’t always walk from the front to the back or from side to side.
  • Make your movements look relaxed and confident. Do not tap your foot, rock, sway, swing, or dance on the spot. Don’t try anything over-the-top, dramatic, or flashy.
  • Keep an open posture at all times; avoid crossing your arms or creating a symbolic barrier between you and the audience. Use hand gestures selectively for emphasis—do not gesture so much that your body language poses a distraction.
  • Stop moving and pause briefly after making each important point. As I mentioned in a previous article, pauses can help you emphasize your message and gather your next thoughts. In addition, the audience gets a chance to absorb your point.
  • When responding to a question, move closer to the person who asked the question.

Idea for Impact: When presenting, walk around the room naturally and interact with your audience. Moving around the room not only helps you keep eye contact with the audience, but also emphasizes an air of confidence, openness, and authority. You’ll also look more conversational, interesting, and memorable.

How to Handle Employees who Moonlight

How to Handle Employees who Moonlight Moonlighting—working a part-time job or having a business “on the side”—can pose a challenge for employers. Moonlighting can lead to divided allegiance, conflicts of interest, and poor job performance.

Employers expect employees to be present and prompt at their jobs. If employees are hustling to attend to multiple commitments, fatigue, lack of sleep, poor attentiveness, tardiness, and absenteeism can become problems. When an employees’ moonlighting hurts their on-the-job performance, employers are within their rights to discipline and terminate employees. For these reasons, some employers limit or prohibit moonlighting.

The proactive approach to moonlighting

One way to head off moonlighting problems is to have a policy about part-time jobs and running side businesses. Institute a policy that sets performance expectations, protects proprietary information, avoids conflicts of interest, and averts divided allegiance. Your moonlighting policy cannot regulate employees’ off-duty activities or prohibit employees from having other jobs. But it may expect employees to disclose and get approval for supplementary employment. A moonlighting policy may also require senior managers and leaders to disclose directorships and financial interests in other companies.

Tell employees they can’t mix their business with your company’s business

If you find an employee doing side work for pay from your office, tell him that this is a clear violation of office expectations; he should conduct no business other than your company’s during work hours. Tell your employee, “You can’t mix your other business with our business. Your time at this job should be exclusively for this job. Our company resources are for our company’s purposes only.”

If your employee gets occasional calls that he needs to attend to, reiterate the above expectation and encourage him to answer the calls during break time and away from his desk. Encourage him to respond to those calls with “I’m at my other job right now. Let me call you back later.”

Discourage employees from selling stuff to other employees

Problems from employees moonlighting in part-time jobs and running side businesses If you find an employee selling stuff to other employees or soliciting outside business during paid working time, discourage it as soon as you discover it. Explain how this interferes with your office’s work.

Discourage your employees from turning your office into a showroom and making customers of other employees. Selling merchandise could impair work relationships when a buyer is unhappy with a product or service. Worse yet, side-businesses can easily grow unmanageable in case of network marketing programs (e.g. Amway, Herbalife) that encourage upselling or getting others involved as salespeople.

Employees can involve their colleagues in side-businesses outside your office, as long as such activities don’t harm at-work relationships.

Idea for Impact: Managers can forestall many employee problems by being proactive and setting expectations

In general, moonlighting is neither unethical nor illegal. It may become an issue when the employer specifically prohibits it and/or where the other job is with a competitor, supplier, or customer and is therefore a potential conflict of interest. The only time you really need to challenge an employee’s moonlighting is when it can affect your business in terms of conflicts of interest and deficient work performance.

Bear in mind: don’t overlook or disregard such concerns until they become major problems.

Stop asking, “What do you do for a living?”

How to Start a Good Conversation

I despise being asked “What do you do for a living?” when I first meet someone.

I didn’t like being asked “What does your dad do?” while growing up in India.

Many people routinely use this question as a conversation-starter with strangers. It could be argued that they intend to inoffensively learn of somebody’s area of expertise or interests and then engage them in a meaningful chat.

Stop asking 'What do you do for a living?' about indirectly sizing up people However, this question is often about indirectly sizing up the other’s socioeconomic status. People may be assessing, “How valuable are you? How much money do you make? What is your social status? What is your financial status? Are you richer, smarter, and more powerful than I am? Am I above you or below you in the socioeconomic ladder? Are you worth my time?”

Look, we live in a judgmental world where a person’s identity is at first ascertained by what he or she does for a living. Nevertheless, when becoming acquainted with someone in an informal setting, conversations shouldn’t be about inquiring after the other’s livelihood or about scrutinizing the other’s standing in society.

Chatting with somebody in “socializing situations” should be less about discerning the details of the other’s life and more about building a bit of familiarity to initiate stimulating conversations, debates, discussions, and exchange of ideas about topics of mutual interest—prospects that will all be missed if the initial interaction starts with annoying cross-examinations.

So, let’s try to make a conversation without seeking to interrogate one another.

If you’re looking for clues to a person’s passions or areas of interest to engage them in conversation, start with simple questions such as “how do you know Maria and Joe,” “is this your first time in Chicago,” or “what does your name mean?” Wait for personal details to flow into the conversation naturally. Or, wait further into the conversation before popping the “what do you do?” question.

Etiquette for Office Cubicle Dwellers

Etiquette for Office Cubicle Dwellers

If you work in an open cubicle farm, you already know that a lack of privacy and frequent interruptions can cause cubicle dwellers to get on each others’ nerves. Here are some ground rules and etiquette tips to follow.

  • If you like to listen to music or the radio, keep the volume low or use headphones. Your neighbors may not work best with background music (or noise) and may not share your music preferences.
  • Don’t speak loudly. Avoid long, loud conversations—sometimes unrelated to work—with colleagues or on the phone. Step out of your cubicle into the hallway or an empty conference room. Don’t pursue conversations on sensitive topics—it is impossible to know who else is listening.
  • Avoid popping into others’ cubicles and parking yourself at an open seat. Don’t interpret an “open door” policy for a “no door” choice. Cubicles have made it easy to walk by someone, interrupt them, and start chatting. Don’t interrupt them if they seem busy. Prior to starting a conversation, take a second to ask them if now is a good time to talk. Remember that in the modern workplace, distractions kill productivity more than anything else.
  • Speak to people from the front. If someone’s sitting with their back to the entrance of their cubicle, don’t startle them. Instead, knock on the wall of their cubicle or take a moment to walk around to their front before talking to them.
  • Don’t look at others’ computer screens as you walk by their cubicles. Keep your glances out of other people’s space.
  • Workspace Cubicle Etiquette Don’t expect others to keep track of their neighbors. If you intend to seek out Anna but can’t find her at her cubicle, don’t expect James to know where Anna is because he’s right next door to her.
  • And, James may not want to have a chat with you while you wait for Anna. Don’t bother James. Leave a note for Anna and move on.
  • Don’t linger around someone’s cubicle if they are chatting with another person or on a phone call. Revisit at another time.
  • Don’t yell across cubicles. Walk over to the other’s location.
  • Never borrow items from other people in the office without letting them know. If they are away, leave a note on their table saying that you took the item and will return it as soon as possible.
  • Pay attention to personal hygiene and cubicle cleanliness. Don’t eat a smelly lunch. Don’t overuse perfumes. Don’t take off your shoes.
  • Personalize your workspace (it’s a sign of nesting) with framed pictures, area rugs, memorabilia, fresh flowers, a candy jar, and the like. Be discerning; don’t flaunt anything distracting, political, religious, unprofessional, or offensive.

Party Etiquette: Can you take your leftovers home?

Party Potluck Leftovers Etiquette A reader’s question about party etiquette: at the end of a party, could you expect to return home with leftovers of the food or the drink you contributed to the party?

No, not unless the host offers.

You’re a guest in your host’s home and anything you contributed to the party is tantamount to a gift. Unless the host decides not to preserve the remainder of your contribution and suggests that you take your leftovers home, don’t expect to return with your leftovers. Just return with your empty dish.

At potluck parties, however, you can take your leftovers home, but first offer to leave some or all of the leftovers for the host.

Party Etiquette for the Vegetarian Guest

  • Party Etiquette for the Vegetarian Guest When RSVPing to a party, mention your dietary restrictions and allergies: “Thanks for the invitation. I must tell you that I am vegan and gluten-free. I am also allergic to peanuts.” Be as specific as possible; mention if you can consume milk products and eggs. Elaborate if you can’t eat anything particular: butter, marshmallows, honey, gelatin, chicken stock, or lard in desserts.
  • Offer to provide for yourself and help out: “May I bring my five-bean and avocado salad with baked nachos? That should also cover the appetizer course for you!” If you’re comfortable with meat substitutes, offer to bring the meat-alternative dish that’s most suitable for the occasion: “May I bring a Tofurky dish? I’ve heard it mimics the taste and texture of a Thanksgiving meal.”
  • If the party is in your honor and the host insists upon cooking for you, suggest an easy dish they could prepare for you. Don’t make the host search for a dish that best suits your preferences.
  • Understand that your hosts can’t cater to every guest’s preferences. Don’t be offended if your host forgets about your dietary restrictions. Appreciate that they’ll be spending a lot of time preparing for and cleaning up after the party. If your host hasn’t made any accommodations to cover your dietary needs, just eat salad, quick-and-easy canned soup, or whatever is practical for the host to organize quickly for you. Don’t grumble.