My manager recommended me to the “Taking the Stage” workshop series, a leadership program that helps women develop a more powerful presence and good communication skills.
The first session was about choosing to take the stage. Many women are brought up to play supporting roles, but hesitate to be in the spotlight. Instead of talking about their individual accomplishments, they talk about their team’s. Instead of talking about what they’re interested in, they talk about their families. Even the way women sit shows a habit of self-minimization. While men might stretch over more than one chair, women can often be found perched on a corner of their chair, with legs crossed as if to minimize the physical space occupied. (I think wearing skirts has much to do with this!)
We watched a video by the leadership training group who developed the program. Then the facilitator asked us about our first impressions.
I told the group that the video was different from the way I’d grown up, and the part that interested me the most wasn’t the part about overcoming fears (which I recognize to still be useful), but about envisioning what kind of leader I wanted to grow into. In general, I prefer focusing on growing towards things rather than growing away from things. I wanted to think about this a bit further, because maybe something about what I’m learning can help other people develop their inner leaders too.
I’d never felt the need to blend into the background or to minimize my accomplishments. Perhaps it’s because I saw both of my parents achieve remarkable things, or because I saw my two older sisters establish themselves, or because I was in the spotlight at a young age. The first news article I remember my mom saving was when a local tabloid had an article on me as a child genius who uses computers. I remember my dad asking me to put the floppy disk into the computer so he could take a picture. I said, “But it’s not even on!” And the reporter spelled my name incorrectly, too. <laugh>
Yes, I was the kid who cried when her Grade 1 classmates made fun of her name, and I was also the kid who wrote down an explanation of what made her upset (on a half-sheet of intermediate pad paper – I still remember!) and figured out how to deal with it (I think I decided I needed a day off). I was the kid who was unafraid to raise her hand and try to answer a question, unafraid to get it wrong–or right!–in front of almost all the students in the entire grade school. The principal invented a whole new award for me in graduation. And yes, I still get those agh-I-don’t-know-if-I-can-pull-this-off moments, but I know that no matter what happens, I’m sure I’ll get a great story out of it.
So it had never been about whether or not I would take the stage, but about what I would take the stage for, what I would do with the opportunities that came up, and how I could share those opportunities with others–how I could help other people discover their own spotlights.
Taking the stage isn’t about being boastful or elbowing other people out of the way. I learned that from my parents, who always ended up with press attention when it
came to their major projects. They never did something just for the exposure. They
did whatever they wanted to do, and they made things happen.
I remember when my mom told me how difficult it was for her to encourage the employees to talk about their accomplishments, and how important it was for them to do so because otherwise, it was hard for her to find out about their strengths. Culturally, Filipinos look down on boastfulness, saying that boasting is like trying to lift your own boat. Many cultures have similar sayings that discourage people from sticking out, from distinguishing themselves. But my parents showed me that accomplishments don’t need to separate you from other people. It’s not about being superior or inferior. It’s about making things happen, inspiring other people, and teaching them about you and about themselves.
So there are a few interesting ways to look at this:
I believe that being female–or being a foreigner, or being Asian, or being young, or being a geek, or being Filipino, or being a person of many interests–doesn’t put me at a significant disadvantage when it comes to what I do and who I want to be. I’ve worried about this before, and every so often I think about work-life balance and other topics. Yes, these things may make some possibilities harder than others, but there are still so many that would be a terrific fit. I see more opportunities than most people think about. I don’t need to claw my way to the top and struggle with organizational politics so that I can enjoy a position of power. (Knowing me, I’d probably get bored along the way). I trust that I can find or shape a life where I’ll be happy along the way, and as I grow in skill and understanding, people will help me find ways to help more and more people.
So what would I like to learn from this program on Taking the Stage?
The second session in the Taking the Stage women’s leadership program I’m taking at IBM was called The Power of Voice. We learned about some of the vocal habits that undermine people’s confidence and rapport, such as trailing off or using a rising tone at the end of sentences.
We also had a short discussion about what makes presentations engaging. Many of the participants mentioned enthusiasm and passion–if not for the content, then for something beyond that.
The three key tips I picked up were:
I’ve thought about finding a speaking or presentation coach who can help me learn how to make even better use of my gift of spreading enthusiasm. I’m good at collecting and retelling stories. I’m good at finding something worth being excited about, sharing my enthusiasm, and helping people remember why they care about their work. I’m good at mixing presentations up with creative approaches. I’m good at scaling up – getting more value from the effort I put into making a presentation. I’m good at handling questions and dealing with the unexpected.
The first thing that can help me become an even better speaker would be to learn how to use even more vocal variety. I’ll start with varying tempo, then I’ll learn how to vary pitch, and maybe even learn how to bring in different accents and sound effects. These will help me build more dramatic tension into storytelling, use emotional modulation, and pick the right voice. Articulation would also be good to improve.
I can practice on my own with vocal exercises, aerobic exercise (to increase my breathing capacity), and perhaps even podcasts. I can also practice in my presentations, which usually come once or twice a week during conference season. Once I get my work permit paperwork sorted out, I’ll sign up for Impatient.ca‘s longform improv classes. In the meantime, I can look around for acting workshops or speech coaches who won’t charge an arm and a leg, and I can check out lots of books from the library on how to improve speech.
Other things I can work on in the future: storytelling, navigational structures, vocabulary =) (richer words! more concrete expressions!), improvisation, humor, rhetorical structures, illustration… There’s so much to grow into!
I’m interested in this for a number of reasons:
Next actions: Check out library books on voice training, and ask for quotes from voice coaches in Toronto. Waiting for paperwork: sign up for improv classes, and look for acting workshops.
I’ve just finished listening to Mark Dymond’s presentation on embracing challenge at a Top Talent webinar on leadership.
Know your flight envelope and grow it
Mark compared embracing challenges with flying at the edges of a flight envelope, the capabilities of an airplane in terms of speed and altitude. When you’re close to the edge of what’s possible, you need to fly differently. Unlike airplanes, though, you can expand your flight envelope over time, learning new skills or becoming comfortable with more situations.
I love expanding my flight envelope. I prefer to work on new challenges than do things I’m already comfortable with doing. If I know how to do something like the back of my hand, then it’s time to teach it and leave it. (Related book: Refuse to Choose) In fact, I often teach people in the process of learning a topic, helping people expand their own flight envelopes along the way.
Leadership and vision
Among the leadership quotes that Mark shared was this quote:
The role of a leader is to define reality and offer hope.
The power that writers, speakers and leaders share is the power to name reality and show the way. The words you use to describe something makes it easier for other people to recognize it, shapes the way people think of it, and brings complex ideas into the reach of understanding.
In challenging economic times and in tight and tense situations, the people who help other people see what the challenge is, understand what the important aspects are, and figure out how to move forward–those people are leaders, whether or not they have the title.
You can lead no matter where you are in an organization. You don’t need to wait for an opportunity or a job title. All you need is to develop the ability to help people understand what’s going on and how to move forward.
I’m an entry-level employee at IBM, and my world is filled with opportunities to lead. I can help people understand emerging trends and how to make the most of them. I can take what I’m learning from mentors, courses, and experiences, and share that with others. Through my words, actions, and reactions, I can influence people’s energy, their vision, their ability to adapt, and their skills. And I’m relatively new around here–imagine what more experienced people can do!
IBM has this to say about the leadership competency of embracing challenges:
Outstanding IBM leaders see opportunity in complex and challenging situations. They get energized by complex and challenging problems and take personal responsibility to ensure that they are resolved. These leaders are able to do this by identifying the central issue in the complexity and getting themselves and others focused on addressing those “vital few” priorities. They take accountability enthusiastically while accurately conveying the risk or difficulty involved. These leaders’ enthusiasm and their belief in a positive outcome in difficult situations inspire others to believe they can succeed and embrace the challenge themselves.
The role of a leader is to define reality and offer hope. Learn how to see the opportunities. Learn how to communicate so that other people can see them. Learn how to lead people forward.
Client focus, team focus
Mark told us a story about a troubled project that he took on when no one else wanted it. IBM was at risk of getting sued, and tensions were high. He and a number of other people were on a conference call about the client. During the discussion, he muted the phone and explained the three alternatives he saw. One of the executives unmuted the phone and repeated what he had said, improving the ideas further. During the follow-up discussion, he again muted the phone and told the people in the room about the alternative he thought was the best, and why. Once again, the executive unmuted the phone and said what he had said.
This story reminded me of the stories I’ve heard about people’s anger and frustration when other people take credit for their work, which had formed a large part of a leadership discussion in another group. On one hand, Mark could’ve been upset that his ideas were used without attribution (or if there was, he didn’t include that as part of his story). But he focused on the problem and on helping the team address it. It didn’t matter that the client didn’t know that it was his analysis or his idea. What mattered to the client was that the problem was addressed. The executive wasn’t trying to take credit for his work, and indeed added a few improvements. It was all about solving the problem, and I’m sure that person remembered that Mark helped the team look good.
This is not to say that there aren’t people who unintentionally or intentionally don’t recognize other people’s contributions, and I understand how people can feel unappreciated and frustrated. In a tight situation, focusing on the client and the team means not letting ego get in the way. If this happens systematically, though, then it can poison the working environment and stifle working relationships.
I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve felt that people were stealing ideas from me or not giving me enough credit. I do what I do, and I often write about what I’ve learned along the way. I celebrate my own progress and my own accomplishments; external recognition is just icing on the cake. If my slides are reused within the company without attribution, I don’t mind. It’s the company’s intellectual property, I saved someone time, and people often come to me for additional information through referrals or search anyway. Whether my manager or his manager or his manager’s manager knows about all the things I do doesn’t bother me either, as opportunities come in from all over. If I ever find myself in that kind of a situation, I think I’d simply respond by sharing even more value and reaching out even further, so I can find or build opportunities to improve my situation.
(I do occasionally keep an eye on blogs that aggregate me, though – I’d definitely like to rank higher in search results than they do, or at least have a link back to my site, so that people can learn more! =) )
So: when stakes are high, focus on the client, support your team, and don’t let ego get in the way. If you feel underappreciated, figure out how you can improve your situation.
Thoughts on challenging times
It seems every leadership presentation I attend mentions that we live in challenging times. With all the news, I know that’s true, and I know a lot of people and a lot of businesses are struggling. Personally, I think I’m incredibly lucky to have such an awesome life. My life isn’t going from bad to worse, it’s going from good to better. I’m alive. I love and am loved. I’m learning so much. I have all these opportunities to make a difference. I can connect with all sorts of amazing people throughout the world. I can support my favourite causes. And you’re telling me it gets even better than this during boom times? Wow!
So I want to figure out if there’s something about the way I do things or see things that I can share with other people, so that they can feel this way about their days too. =)
Next quarter, I’ll be working on a mostly-full-time Drupal project (building in even more complex functionality) and a part-time social media strategy project. A fascinating engagement opportunity has just come up that will involve even more responsibility, and I hope my manager will agree that it’ll be good for the company, our team, and me. My schedule might get shuffled around a bit, but I’m sure it will be amazing.
I’m challenging myself to learn more about using my voice to reach out and connect with people even more effectively. I know mentors, books, classes, and coaching can help me get the most of my practice time.
IBM’s holding another one of its awesome collaboration jams (72-hour web-based brainstorming/discussion), this time on Smart Work.
I’m passionate about helping people connect and collaborate. All the topics highlighted are things I’m deeply interested in: teams, Gen Y, collaboration…. After I get through my 9-12 AM leadership development class (whee!), I’m looking forward to joining the Jam.
Anyway, I was inspired to make this:
There’s so much more to say, but I still have to figure out how to say it… =)
Join us for the Jam and/or the videocast! http://www-01.ibm.com/software/solutions/smartwork/virtual/
Yesterday, I gave my Remote Presentations That Rock session at the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange virtual conference. 98 people attended and shared their insights with me through a lively text discussion, lots of whiteboard interaction, and the occasional phone question. It was a high-energy presentation – I poured lots into it, and people gave me lots of energy back. We finished exactly on time thanks to tip #3 (Make time for learning) and tip #6 (Start strong and end strong). One of the organizers said it was one of the best presentations she’d seen.
What worked well
For my next presentation, I’d love to find a way to incorporate more real-time feedback throughout the session. Maybe if I left the whiteboard on and asked them to indicate something (state of understanding?) while listening… Elluminate has tools for indicating some feedback, but it’s displayed in the participant list and therefore mostly out of sight. Visually indicating feedback on the slides themselves would be more engaging, I think.
Because of my parents (my dad’s an advertising photographer) and my amateur interest in photography, I knew that good lighting could make a big difference. Although the room’s top-lighting evenly lit the background, it lit my face with high contrast – bad for detail and a feeling of connection! I was thinking of using one of the desk lamps to improve my lighting, but they were clamped to the desks and the power cords were routed within the cubicle dividers, so I couldn’t borrow any of them. Fortunately, I had a hat. (Oh, the many uses of a hat…) The hat brim blocked the light from the top, the room diffused light on my face so that I wasn’t in shadow, the webcam compensated for the brightness levels (and here the teal background helped again; white would have probably been too bright), and we were good to go. The only thing that was missing was a reflector or a secondary light source to provide shaping. ;) I could’ve brought the clamp-lights we have at home, but I didn’t make space for them in my bag. (And I might’ve been tempted to color-gel them too, as they’re daylight-balanced instead of tungsten-balanced… Ah, pickiness! ;) )
Webcams make a huge difference in terms of communicating energy. People tell me I’m great at sharing my enthusiasm on the phone, but seeing someone be passionate about a topic is even more effective.
Lesson: Webcams are great. You should definitely have one if you do lots of remote presentations. Also, hats are good for dealing with top lighting. ;) Better yet, plan your remote presentation setup in advance, and bring extra light if you can.
(Yes, I think about these things.)
I think the key thing I’d like to do even better next time is to collect real-time feedback throughout the session. That would be cool, particularly if I end up with interesting data after that.
One of the best things about doing presentations with plenty of time for Q&A is that the resulting discussion helps me think about fascinating topics. For example, one of the participants asked about the advice I gave on encouraging interaction and planning plenty of time for questions. He pointed out that this involved different group mechanics.
As I thought about that change in group mechanics, I realized that I really do flip the “expert-audience” dynamic on its head. When I present, I’m not an all-knowing, all-powerful expert, and I’m not just talking to silent listeners in a darkened auditorium. My mental model of a presentation is that of a well-lit circle of participants. I might be there to share what I’ve learned, but other people also bring a lot of questions, experiences and insights. My work as a speaker is to set the stage for a conversation and get people to think and talk. Sometimes, in quieter cultures, that reflection and conversation happens outside my session, and that’s okay. More and more, though, people really step up to that challenge. They share terrific thoughts during the Q&A, and I learn so much more than what I would have if I had come in “knowing everything”.
I can see how this flip might be difficult or unexpected. In many cultures, the idea of active speaker and passive listener is strong. Traditional education is structured that way. Hierarchical organizations work that way. So it might not always work as perfectly as it did yesterday, but it’s worth it. It might need a little more introduction to encourage people to participate. It might require several attempts before people see it’s okay. It might also be that people may not have the conversation right there with you, but they’ll think about it and talk about it afterwards, and that’s great too.
Adapting is challenging, but the benefits of the approach are so compelling that I don’t want to give presentations any other way. Even in a real-life keynote where I can’t have that two-way communication going on in the background, I try to expand the conversation both before and after the presentation.
Now that I think about it, I can see how the same theme of experimenting with the power dynamic runs through other aspects of my life. I’m relatively new to IBM, having joined it right after grad school. I read books and talk to people about great management and leadership (and many other things). I influence the way people feel about the organization, and how they see their connection to the big picture. I haven’t waited for someone to give me a job position or title that reflects that, because the opportunities to make a difference are all around me, and I want to help others see those opportunities for themselves too.
Even when I was growing up, I thought about dynamics. I read parenting books, getting a better understanding of what my parents were thinking about. I realized that they’re not all-knowing and that they’re also figuring some things out for the first time (despite raising two other kids).
I’d like to keep playing with dynamics as I grow older. If I manage people, I’d like to be the kind of manager focused on serving people and making sure they have what they need to excel. If I follow the executive career path, I’d like to be the kind of executive who values listening to people from all over the organization and outside it. If I build a business, I’d like it to be the kind of business that looks for a problem and solves it instead of making a solution in search of a problem.
I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic and the other ideas shared in that session. I suspect it’ll be well worth the time I spent preparing and delivering the session, and reflecting on the results. This, too, is work: gaining a little more understanding, changing the way we work just a little bit more, and sharing my experiences with others.