The Exec Q&A communication Jedi progression

Most folks respond to questions from an executive or folks who’ve got a higher ratio of impactful things to do/time than we do in the course of their work week. Handling Q&A, verbal or written, is a skill and I’ve become mindful of the following progression as I work on my own abilities to do so. Each stage builds on the other.

(1) Padawan learner: We are prompt. We answer questions promptly but tend to bury the answer in a blur of detail in our attempts to be complete.

(2) Jedi Knight: We deliver clarity over completeness. We answer the question first and provide just the amount of extra detail required for clarity.

(3) Jedi Master: We anticipate follow up questions. By putting ourselves in the shoes of the asker, our extra detail minimizes follow up questions and back-and-forth.

(4) Jedi Council: We see and answer the question behind the question. Awareness is the gift of competence and, at this level, we go beyond the question to the interests of the asker and, thus, to the question behind the question.

(5) Grandmaster: We become the one asking the questions. :-)

While this post has been focused on responding to executives/folks busier than us, I’ve come to appreciate the value this skill adds in life. Learning to listen for the interests of the asker, answer the question behind the question, and do so with clarity over completeness are very useful skills – both at work and at home.

Two question career advice

Someone I know shared the following two questions when I asked her about her favorite pieces of career advice – “First, are you going after hard problems? And, second, would most of the folks who work closely with you now want to have you on their team when they go on to their next gig?”

I love the two question format of career advice. I’ve found myself mulling both questions and frequently asking myself if I am going after hard problems since that conversation.

Questions are powerful. Good questions can be game changing.

Our work won’t speak for itself.

Our work won’t speak for itself. On a good day, it may just do 70% of the talking required. But, it still needs us to make the effort to package it and make the case for it.

But, it bears repeating – it won’t speak for itself. And, even if we build it well, they may not come. In fact, unless we put in the effort to sell it, they most likely won’t.

A useful assumption, then, is that quality work will do half the talking. The rest is up to us.

The world and the places we work seem fairer places once we internalize that and do the work to make sure our efforts count – after we do the work.

PS: The note to self version of this started with – “To my intense disappointment, I’ve come to realize that our work alone won’t speak for itself.” :-)

Hard skills and real skills

In a conversation with a friend who is in the midst of building out a team, I asked about the the top skills he was looking for. Two observations –

1. The top three skills that he spoke about at length were – attitude, mindset, and self awareness (especially about blind spots).

2. We spoke about a few skills which were contenders. But, not one was a “hard” skill – analytics, problem solving, etc.

I was reminded of a post by Seth Godin to stop calling skills “soft” just because they weren’t easily defined. This conversation reminded me that it is these “real skills” that matter – they make great organizations and noteworthy careers possible. Or, as Seth put it  –

Imagine a team member with all the traditional vocational skills: productive, skilled, experienced. A resume that can prove it.

That’s fine, it’s the baseline.

Now, add to that: Perceptive, charismatic, driven, focused, goal-setting, inspiring and motivated. A deep listener, with patience.

What happens to your organization when someone like that joins your team?

Friday connect-the-dots time

Here’s an idea for today/Friday. Take 10 mins – or maybe 30 – today and just invest in connecting the dots for yourself or others.

What does connecting the dots even mean? We are, for the most part, working in places that are matrixed and cross-functional while dealing with problems that are multi-faceted. So, you can think “dots” as the people in these places or ideas that constitute the many facets of the problems we face.

Here are some examples –

People: Find time to get to know two colleagues you work with personally, block an hour to have a get-to-know conversation with your manager (under the pretext of career development if needed), or organize a lunch or activity for your team.

Ideas: Take the time to delve into a hard problem, map out your development goals, start a monthly internal newsletter sharing insights from your customer conversations, or interview someone who is either insightful or productive.

Start with a small idea today. Then, rinse and repeat next week and the week after until connect-the-dots time is a fixture on your calendar.

Every one of our workplaces and jobs thrives on connection – between people and ideas. These connections make workplaces more collaborative, productive, and smart. While it might seem like we’re spending time on “extra-curriculars,” it is the unsaid bullet in all our job descriptions.

And, tiny, consistent investments in making these connections can transform our outputs and outcomes.

Profitable, difficult, or important?

This weekend, I’m reflecting on a vintage Seth Godin blog post from this week – profitable, difficult, or important? I hope you take the time to go read it.

Seth talks about two talked about trillion dollar companies – Apple and Amazon – who’ve each gotten to where they are by doing work that is “profitable” and “difficult” respectively. They made a choice, stated a promise, and kept it. It is commendable.

He then goes on to make a powerful point about “important” work.

“But the most daring and generous, those that are often overlooked and never hit a trillion dollars in the stock market, are left to do the important work. The work of helping others be seen, or building safe spaces. The work of creating opportunity or teaching and modelling new ways forward. The work of changing things for the better.

Changing things for the better is rarely applauded by Wall Street, but Wall Street might not be the point of your work. It might simply be to do work you’re proud of, to contribute, and to leave things a little better than you found them.”

I’ve observed that very few careers combine profitable, difficult, and important. The best most get to is a combination of two of them.

And, it is on us to work toward the combination that fits how we will measure our lives.

What we want to do vs. who we want to be

Most early career advice revolves around finding what we want to do. While picking that mix of industry and function is important, it matters that we also invest in understanding who we want to be.

We may occasionally find a role that is perfect for us at a given period of time. But, if we don’t do the work to understand our motives, values, and long term life priorities, it gets harder to make the sort of career decisions that help us shape both our careers and our lives.

Work is an important part of our lives – but, for most folks, it isn’t life. So, fitting life decisions based on career choices instead of the opposite is an approach that has it backwards. Anyone who has tried it knows that any success you experience will feel incomplete. And, the most predictable outcome of this approach is burn-out at work and unhappiness at home.

This isn’t an either-or choice. We can’t have who we want to be figured out when we are 21 and then start on a career that is a perfect fit. Instead, it is a constant, iterative, process that we need to invest in parallel. With intentional investment, thought, and time, these paths will begin to converge.

And, when it does, the juice will feel well worth the squeeze.