Being Underestimated Can Be a Great Thing

This spring, I attended the 2016 annual meeting of shareholders of Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited in Toronto. Fairfax’s chief executive Prem Watsa opened his remarks with the following joke:

A young boy enters a barbershop.

The barber whispers to a customer, “This is the dumbest kid in the world. Watch while I prove it to you.”

The barber puts a dollar bill in one hand and two quarters in the other. He then calls the boy over and asks, “Which do you want, son?”

The boy takes the quarters and leaves.

“What did I tell you?” says the barber to the customer. “That kid never learns!”

Later, when the customer leaves the barbershop, he sees the same young boy coming out of an ice cream store licking a wafer-style ice cream cone.

He summons the boy and asks, “Hey, son! May I ask you a question? … Why did you take the quarters instead of the dollar bill?”

The boy licks his cone and replies, “Sir, because the day I take the dollar, the game is over!”

Being Underestimated Can Be a Great Thing Although the barber sought to characterize the young boy foolish, the joke was really on the barber.

The barber never suspected the boy’s recurring motivation to seem stupid. Additionally, the barber never learned his lesson or questioned his own assumptions.

Idea for Impact: As the above joke attests, being underestimated, underrated, or misjudged can often have its benefits. Don’t sweat when others think less than you actually are. Don’t let them make you feel small. Embrace their misjudgments with equanimity. Believe in yourself with humble confidence. Then outthink, outsmart, and outperform. Surprise them.

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.

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.

Save Yourself from Email Overload by Checking Email Just Three Times a Day

Save Yourself from Email Overload by Checking Email Just Three Times a Day

Email, instant messages, and alerts have evolved into our primary mode of communication. From project management to socializing, everything at work and in our personal lives centers on electronic messages. Many of us have found the unending tide of these messages unmanageable.

Research has shown that checking messages just a few times a day can help reduce stress and prevent the feeling of being incessantly ‘invaded’ by emails.

If you feel weary, annoyed, and unproductive from a daily deluge of messages, try the following techniques to regulate your electronic communication.

  • Turn off alerts on all your devices. Productivity studies have shown that people take 15 minutes on average to return to serious mental tasks (thinking about a project, writing reports, or debugging computer code, for example) after being interrupted by an incoming email or an instant message.
  • Maintain a zero inbox, i.e. consistently process all incoming email and get your inbox to zero messages. See my previous article on this productivity technique.
  • Set up and use subject-specific folders to hold your incoming and sent messages. This makes it easier to retrieve emails later.
  • Relieve Inbox Stress and Email Overload Do not check emails continually throughout the day. Instead, process only three times a day: once in the morning, once during lunch, and then again before going home. Don’t waste the most productive hours of your day doing email.
  • Reserve time to focus on email. Set a time limit on your activities and blast through the messages without interruption. Stop when the time runs out. (Remember Parkinson’s Law: work will expand to fill the allotted time.)
  • When you process email,
    1. If you can respond to a message in less than two minutes, do so right away.
    2. If a response may need more than two minutes or you must look up information, defer it. Leave the incoming email in your inbox or file it in a ‘Draft’ folder. Dedicate the last email session of a day to respond to such emails and clear the Draft folder.
    3. Delete, file, or delegate.
    4. Process all emails and fully clear your inbox by the end of the day.
  • Tell people you correspond with the most (your boss, employees, peers) that you check email only a few times a day. Let them know that if they need to reach you immediately, they could come over to your desk or call you. If possible, encourage them to follow your email discipline.
  • Limit off-the-clock correspondence. Don’t make a ritual of catching up on work email after dinner or during the weekends.

Idea for Impact: If your inbox is driving you crazy, some discipline can help you process—not just check—emails and mitigate some stress.

How to Get Good Advice and Use It Effectively [What I’ve Been Reading]

How to Get Good Advice and Use It Effectively

Learning How to Take Advice Is Critical

To be effective in your job and personal life, you must be willing to identify your blind spots and recognize when and how to ask for advice. You must seek and implement useful insights from the right people and overcome any immediate defensiveness about your attitudes and behaviors.

Proverbs 15:22 suggests, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Effective advisers can bridge the gap between your vision of what you want to achieve and implementation of that vision.

'Taking Advice' by Dan Ciampa (ISBN 1591396689) There is extensive literature which offers guidance on giving advice (I particularly recommend Gerald M. Weinberg’s The Secrets of Consulting) and being an effective mentor. However, few resources address the equally important topic of using advisers wisely—particularly about when to solicit advice, how to seek trusted advisers, and how to best act upon their advice. Dan Ciampa’s excellent book Taking Advice fills this void.

“How Leaders Get Good Counsel and Use It Wisely”

Drawing from his vast experience as a leadership consultant, Ciampa provides a comprehensive framework for getting and using advice in Taking Advice. He identifies four elements of work and life where you’ll need advice:

  • strategic aspects
  • operational aspects
  • political aspects
  • personal aspects

Taking Advice’s most instructive element is the framework it provides for thinking through the kind of advice network you may need. Ciampa suggests that you deliberately build a “balanced advice network” which includes a mix of advisers from whom to seek the most effective advice. He identifies four types of advisers and details their specific roles and purposes:

  • the subject-matter experts who can offer you deep specialized/circumstantial knowledge
  • the experienced advisers who’ve previously faced similar circumstances or have been in similar positions
  • the partners who could engage in working relationships and operate up close or hash out ideas in greater detail for a longer duration
  • the sounding boards who proffer a ‘safe harbor’ where you can freely express your mind, discuss your insecurities, seek advice on personal challenges—all while feeling assured that they’ll honor confidentiality and ensure that your discussions remain private.

Providing practical examples, Ciampa describes three considerations for selecting the right advisers and forming strong relationships with them:

  • content: the adviser must possess the kind of expertise you’re looking for
  • competence: the adviser must have direct experience in your context
  • chemistry: the adviser must be compatible or sympathetic with the style and substance of your goals, targets, and mindsets

To derive the most help from advisers, Ciampa recommends techniques for productive advise-seeking:

  • Listen, understand, and accept feedback without becoming defensive
  • Seek advice as quickly as possible when facing challenges
  • Anticipate roadblocks and involve advisers in planning for contingencies
  • Avoid “yes-men” for advisers; do not bar opinions which may clash with or defy your own

Idea for Impact: Become a Good Advice-Seeker

Ciampa draws heavily from his leadership consulting experience and provides case studies of a few large companies’ senior leaders who, by virtue of their position, often feel insulated and isolated at the top. Nevertheless, his examples will benefit anyone seeking advice.

Recommendation: Read. Taking Advice offers important insights into a seemingly obvious dimension of leadership success, but one that’s often neglected, poorly understood, or taken for granted.

The comprehensive and practical framework discussed in Taking Advice will help you find the right kind of help from within and beyond your organization, get the most from your advisers, and deal effectively with emergent situations in your life and at work.

How to Email Busy People

How to Email Busy People

When you ask something of somebody, one of the cardinal rules of the “art of the ask” is to make it as convenient as possible for that person to respond to your request. This is especially true if you’re asking something of a busy person.

When you email busy people proposing a meeting, don’t give them a range of options with the intention of being considerate of their busyness.

  • Don’t be longwinded: “I’m available any time on Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon except from 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM when I have an appointment with my dentist. Let me know when works best for you.”
  • Don’t give them a whole bunch of options (“… any time this week”) or, worse yet, don’t ask them to leaf through their calendar and suggest a time (“I know you’re busy. Let me know when you want to meet.”)

Instead, keep your ask as brief and simple as possible. Make it easy for busy people to respond by offering few choices: “How about 9:00 AM on Tuesday?” If you know their Tuesdays or mornings tend to be busy, you may propose one alternative: “Are you available on Tuesday at 10:00 AM or on Wednesday at 3:00 PM?” If they’d like to meet with you, they’ll glance at their calendar and say “OK.” If neither of your proposed times works, they’ll suggest another time.

Idea for Impact: Avoid imposing more busy work on already busy people.

Thou Shall Attend the Office Holiday Party

Attend the office holiday party The office holiday party may seem like a mandatory celebration. Perhaps it is not in your tradition to celebrate Christmas. May be you are introversive, do not enjoy partying, or you feel uneasy about being around many unfamiliar people. You might even dread interacting with coworkers who you are not immensely fond of.

Despite your reluctance, the office holiday party comes with an implied obligation to attend it and enjoy it. Generally, companies consider the holiday party as a morale- and camaraderie-building occasion, not just as a mere ritual. Therefore, your management will take notice if you do not attend and may deem you negligent or arrogant if you ignore the office holiday party.

Unless you have a perfectly compelling reason — not an excuse — not to, you should partake in this celebration. It pays to attend the office holiday party, attempt to like it, exchange gifts, and make the most of it.

Great Opportunity to be “Seen”

As you move up the corporate ladder, one vital skill for your success is to be on familiar terms with the influential managers in your organization. The art of forming coalitions and winning the support is more about “who knows you” and “what they know about you” than about “who you know.” The most effective way of earning this recognition is showing up where the action is, “being there” and acting the part. For this very reason, the office holiday party is a great networking opportunity for you to introduce yourself to peers and management with whom you would not normally interact.

Office Holiday Party Etiquette

  • Attend and enjoy the office holiday party A word on propriety for the organizers: do not call the holiday party a “Christmas Party” and alienate employees who may not celebrate Christmas. The term “holiday party” is more inclusive.
  • Attend the party. Do not arrive too late or leave too early. You need not stay for the length of the party.
  • The holiday party is not a social occasion. Even if the party has a festive theme and setting, it is still in the professional context. Dress appropriately and conduct yourself professionally. Do not eat excessively or get drunk. Do not pass judgment, exchange inappropriate comments and jokes, or deride other guests.
  • Be Seen. Do not spend all your time hanging around familiar people. Mingle and introduce yourself to as many other guests as you can. Make sure you are “seen” by everybody important. Attempt to enjoy the party and make the most of it.
  • Bring a thoughtful and practical gift for the gift exchange ritual. Stay within the prescribed guidelines for buying gifts.
  • See my articles on how to start a conversation, how to help people pursue a conversation, how to introduce people to one another, and how to remember names.

The Winning Idea: Attend and enjoy the office party

Professional visibility and career success is often about fitting in and being visible to the influential managers and peers. Unless you have a perfectly compelling reason not to, you should partake in the office holiday party. Consider it a career advancement exercise, mingle with everybody, and enjoy it.

What the Deaf Can Teach Us About Listening


Lessons of Silence

Bruno Kahne, a corporate consultant for the aeronautical industry, shares how deaf people helped his corporate clients be effective communicators. His article appears on the website of the strategy+business magazine, published by management consulting firm Booz & Company. See full article or PDF file. Below is a summary of the article.

Through their “handicap,” deaf people develop certain communication skills more thoroughly than most hearing people, which make them uncommonly effective at getting their point across. When they interact with one another, deaf people act in ways that let them communicate more rapidly and accurately than hearing people.

To improve your “hearing,” consider some of these lessons from our experiences and training sessions.

  1. Effective Communication » Paying Attention Do not take notes. You will be more present in the interaction and you can concentrate more. And the more you do it, the better you remember.
  2. Don’t interrupt. A deaf person ensures that he or she first understands the other speaker before trying to be understood. Try this the next time you’re in a business discussion, ideally one in which there’s some tension — let the other person finish what he or she has to say, then silently count to three before responding.
  3. Say what you mean, as simply as possible. Deaf people are direct. They reveal not only their thoughts, but also their feelings, both positive and negative, more clearly than hearing people do, as they express them with their whole bodies. Similarly, the deaf are often far better than hearing people at finding the most economical way to convey their message.
  4. When you don’t understand something, ask. Deaf people feel completely at ease saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” Those of us with hearing aren’t nearly as willing to admit confusion or lack of comprehension. We often sit silently in meetings while our colleagues use acronyms or technical jargon we don’t grasp because we think asking for clarification is a sign of weakness.
  5. Stay focused. The deaf cut themselves off from any distractions, they don’t multitask, and they focus their attention entirely on the conversation.

Overall, the most inspiring thing about communication with deaf people — and the behavior most worth emulating — is their incredibly strong desire to exchange information efficiently and without adornment.

Call for Action

Effective Communication » Listening All of the suggestions in the article are trite and obvious. When I discuss such desired behaviors in my seminars or during one-on-one coaching sessions, I can sense my audience negligently declaring, “I know that.” My response is usually along the lines of “Sure, you know that. And, tell me how and where do you apply these ideas in your everyday interactions?”

Most of the articles I write on this blog are about simple ideas. I hope my articles serve as a reminder of key principles and help you tune-up your communications and behaviors. As you read through my articles, instead of declaring, “I know that,” ask, “How do/can I apply these principles in my everyday interactions?” Take responsibility for the effectiveness of your communications and your ability to influence and get the results you desire.

***Via ‘I can see what they’re saying,’ Doc Searls at Harvard

Remembering Names at a Meeting

Remembering Names around a Table at a Meeting

Ever wonder how a waiter/waitress serving an eight-seat table at a restaurant remembers each guest’s food orders? At many restaurants, the order-sheets contain a layout of the table and a letter or number associated with every seat. As each guest orders food, the waiter/waitress writes down the order along with the letter or number associated with that guest’s seat.

At Southwest Airlines, flight attendants go to every seat, ask customers for their choice of beverage, and record the passenger’s choice on a seat-map.

Remembering Names around a Table at a Meeting

Blogger Adam Gurno presents an extension of the two practices listed above for remembering names around a table at a meeting.

  1. Draw a quick map of the table/layout of the meeting. Place yourself on it, to give yourself a reference point.
  2. As people introduce themselves around the table, fill them in. If you feel last names are necessary add those too, but don’t do it at the expense of writing down someone else’s name. You can guess at the last names later. If you miss one, leave it blank and fill it in as soon as you can – if someone else refers to them, etc, etc.
  3. If everyone introduces themselves, try and jot down as much information as possible. If you think that you will run across them later, include information that will help you recognize them down the road.
  4. Refer back to the map during the meeting when you are going to need to speak. This way you will be prepared with a person’s name.

Positive impressions are invaluable. As we discussed in a previous blog article, remembering names is an important social skill — mastering this skill can offer a distinct advantage in networking and building relationships.