Entries in leadership (38)

How My Cardiologist Almost Gave Me a Heart Attack (or, the Right and Wrong Ways to Communicate Numbers)

After going through a series of routine heart exams the other day (EKG, Echocardiogram, cholesterol check, etc.), the cardiologist comes in and says:

“Based on all your lab results, and calculating all your risk factors, you have about a 5% chance of having a heart attack within the next ten years.”

Getting weak in the knees, heart pounding through my chest, and feeling like I am about to pass out from the shock of this death sentence, I pause long enough to say:

“Wait. Doesn’t that mean that there’s more than a 95% chance that I WON’T have a heart attack within the next ten years???”

To which he replies: “Yes…I guess that’s another way of looking at it.”


In fact, he goes on to say that my results are excellent and that my heart is in perfect shape. As it turns out, statistically, 5% is the odds of ANY 50-plus-year-old male having a heart attack within the next ten years! So, despite the temporary panic he caused, it turns out that I am completely normal…heart-wise, anyway.

So what can we take from this near-fatal incident in terms of communicating numbers?


Businesspeople communicate in numbers almost every single day. Regardless of what function you work in, numbers are, typically, how we gauge -- and explain to others -- how we’re doing. And it's how most managers manage.

As management guru Peter Drucker famously put it, “It you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

But a crucially important point to keep in mind – whether delivering a presentation, or writing a report, and whether communicating to your boss, employees, or customers – is that it’s not the numbers themselves that matter; it’s the story the numbers tell…and the message you intend to deliver.

Numbers without context are absolutely meaningless and confusing...and, worst case, potentially damaging.

A few examples:

  • If I tell you that I have “a 250 average” is that good or bad? The answer – as is the answer to most questions (*my students all know this :) is: “It depends”! If that “250” number is my baseball or softball batting average, it’s not too great. If 250 is my bowling average, you can sign me up right now for the Pro Bowler’s Tour!
  • When the iPod first came out way back in 2001, if Steve Jobs had announced with great fanfare that it had a 5GB hard drive, how many non-techies would have been impressed with that and raced out to buy one? Not too many, probably. But by saying that this tiny little gadget will fit “1000 songs in your pocket,” well, communicating it to a global audience in that way changed the world.
  • Let’s say we’re discussing high school graduation rates and I show you a complicated, detailed graph that indicates that, nationwide, 30% of high school students end up not graduating. Is that impactful? Maybe...once you’ve deciphered it. But what if, instead of saying “30%” I show you a photo of ten bright-faced high school students…and then put X’s across the faces of three of them, while stating: “See this group of ten kids? Three of them will not graduate from high school. Now that we know this…what are we going to do about it?” Which of those two scenarios do you think will have a greater emotional impact? 

So, again, it's not the NUMBERS that matter, but the story, and the meaning, and the humanity, and the emotion behind those numbers. That’s what moves people and spurs them to action.

And when communicating numbers (whether spoken or written), keep in mind that it’s not just WHAT we say (the facts and figures), but HOW we say it (tone of voice, body language, facial expression, framing).

So, going forward, when communicating numbers, I urge you to consider your listeners or readers, by putting yourself in their shoes and using empathy and emotional intelligence to visualize and anticipate how your message may, ultimately, be received.

Otherwise, failure to do so can, literally, give someone a heart attack.

Lessons in Leadership & Confidence From Eleanor Roosevelt

From my annual book recommendations list for this year, "17 Books That Can Change Your Life in 2017 (If You Actually Read Them)," I keep going back to revisit #17, You Learn By Living: Eleven Keys For a More Fulfilling Life by Eleanor Roosevelt.

While her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, famously said that, “The only thing we have to fear…is fear itself,” it was his wife, First Lady and prolific author and world-changing social activist Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote (on page 29): 

“Fear has always seemed to me to be the worst stumbling block which anyone has to face… The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility…once you have met it and lived through it, you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before. If you can live through that, you can live through anything. You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this…I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

She is also the author of the following timeless, inspirational gems:

“You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you, if you realized how seldom they do.”

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

“What could we accomplish if we knew we could not fail?”

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself."

“Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each new thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

“You can often change your circumstances by changing your attitude.”

The word “confidence” comes from the Latin for “with trust or faith” (and is related to such other words as confide, confident, confidant, fidelity, fiduciary, etc.). So the key to keep in mind regarding this definition is that in order to be able to instill confidence in others, it is important to trust and have faith in oneself.

Here’s the bad news: You are always going to struggle with your confidence. Why? Because EVERYONE does, at one time or another! "Fear of the unknown" is an absolutely normal, human emotional reaction.

And, the future is always unknown!

The only way, really, to make oneself completely confident all of the time would be to just do the same old thing, the same old way every single day of your entire life. But that would be predictable and boring…and will lead us nowhere.

The only way to grow is to try, to take risks, to fail, and to learn, and to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone…into the zone of the unknown. As the title of the book reminds us, "You Learn By Living."

As Eleanor Roosevelt simply put it:

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out, eagerly and without fear, for newer and richer experience.”

We learn by living.

How a Command & Control Culture Can Lead to a Crisis: The Cautionary Tale of Samsung and their Exploding Smartphone

What is the potential impact of an organizational culture in which employees tell their bosses what they WANT to hear instead of what they NEED to hear? Or one in which they don’t speak up at all?

What happens when an organization maintains a traditional, old-school, top-down, command and control, management-based culture rather than a more open and transparent, cutting-edge, bottom-up, leadership-based one?

One vivid example is the current crisis at Samsung as detailed in today’s New York Times article, “Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Crisis Signals Problems at Korea Inc.” – although better described by the article’s print edition title: “A Top-Down Breakdown: How a Rigid Culture May Have Helped Lead To a Crisis at Samsung.”

Among the key points mentioned in the article (summarized/paraphrased below) regarding how Samsung’s dysfunctional culture contributed to, if not caused, its current crisis:

  • Samsung, like South Korea as a whole, fosters a rigid, top-down, hierarchical, micromanaging, hidebound [i.e., unwilling or unable to change because of tradition or convention] culture that stifles innovation, buries festering problems, and evades accountability;
  • Samsung engineers and mid-level managers are seldom allowed to second-guess management goals set by senior-level leaders…and their “no questions asked” corporate culture has grown more inflexible in recent years;
  • Managers constantly feel pressured – out of fear of losing their jobs – to prove themselves through the accomplishment of short-term goals at the expense of long-term objectives;
  • Supervisors often use harsh and violent language when communicating with their staff, creating a climate of fear and intimidation;
  • Racing to accomplish over-ambitious goals in order to get the Galaxy Note 7 to market, extensive product testing and other safety-related measures related to the design and manufacture of the modified batteries were disregarded;
  • And in its race to beat Apple, Samsung, rather than innovating new products, pushed its existing technologies beyond their limits to the point of failure;
  • South Korean culture encourages and expects top talent to enter and adopt the norms of companies like Samsung, rather than possibly launching their own start-up companies, thereby further inhibiting entrepreneurship and innovation. As the article states, they are trying to identify and appoint the next Steve Jobs, rather than creating a societal culture that would enable and empower the next Steve Jobs to emerge.

In one of my favorite business books, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (apologies for the language, but that’s the title) by Stanford management professor Robert Sutton, he tells this memorable story based on the research of Harvard’s Amy Edmondson (who coined the term “psychological safety”) regarding the impact a toxic organizational culture has on the behavior of its employees:

The results of a hospital leadership and productivity study determined that nurses who worked for administrators who had been identified as good leaders committed MORE (not less, but more!) mistakes than those who worked for bosses who were identified as jerks (i.e., a-holes). The initial conclusion: Managers who are tough jerks – even if it may be unpleasant to work for them – got the best results from their people.

Although, not quite.

Upon further analysis, what the results actually revealed was that the nurses who worked for good leaders did not MAKE more mistakes – they REPORTED more mistakes when they were made! This way they could be remedied, documented, learned from, and not repeated. They were encouraged to, and rewarded for, bringing mistakes out into the open rather than sweeping them under the rug.

The nurses who worked for the jerks lived in constant fear, and were so terrified of acknowledging or admitting mistakes when they occurred that they did everything possible to ignore them and/or cover them up for fear of the repercussions.

So the question is: What are you measuring and rewarding in your workplace: mistakes COMMITTED, or mistakes REPORTED? And are you creating a culture of openness and accountability and trust where people feel free to speak up and speak out…or are you the next Samsung waiting to happen?

Similar stories have been told about co-pilots who failed to speak up to more senior pilots when they could and should have, resulting in crashes; students not speaking up to teachers if/when the teacher may be wrong; children not feeling empowered to question their parents, etc. When there is hierarchy, when there is an imbalance of power and/or rules against questioning authority, when there is a culture of fear and intimidation, when there are penalties for speaking up, or for speaking out of turn, or for being wrong, you are potentially creating a recipe for failure…and even disaster.

As management guru Peter Drucker wrote: “What gets recognized and rewarded is what gets done.”

There are many lessons we can take from the Samsung story, but as my professional focus tends to be on management, leadership, teams, organizational development, and innovation, the question I’d like to leave you with is this:

What kind of culture and climate is your organization creating, through its norms and practices…and are you creating a culture of ownership, empowerment, accountability, and leadership at every level…or are you in the process of writing the next cautionary tale?

Listen Up! 8 Tips for Becoming a Better Leader By Being a Better Listener

Quick! Who’s the best manager you’ve ever worked for? Picture him or her in your mind. Now think: what made you pick this person?

OK, now: Who was the worst manager you’ve ever had? Do the same thing: visualize working for this person while thinking about what made them so horrible.

I can’t guarantee it, but if I had to guess, one of the key differences between these two people was that the good manager actually listened to you, while the bad one didn’t.

Am I right?

When the good manager listened to you, how did it make you feel? Valued? Validated? Respected? Trusted? Confident? Engaged? Empowered? Smart?

And how did the bad manager make you feel most of the time? Probably the exact opposite.

So if you’re a manager — or even if you’re not — look yourself in the mirror and answer this question honestly: Are you a good listener?

More importantly, if you asked other people that question, what would they say about you? If you’re interested in becoming a better manager -- and a more effective leader -- you might find it valuable to revisit how, how often, and how well you listen.

When we do 360 degree evaluations, "Listening" is very often one of the categories that most managers rate themselves the highest in...while others around them rate them the lowest. In other words -- this is where we find the biggest gap: Between the ears. 

Good Leaders Listen

Early in my career, I temped in the PR department of a major Hollywood studio. Despite the excitement of working on a studio lot, the job, itself, was mind-numbingly boring, consisting mostly of answering phones, taking messages, and making copies. If you’ve ever temped, you know what that’s like to sit there all day, watching the minutes drag by, while your brain turns to mush. Especially if you aspire to doing something a little more creative and stimulating with your life.

One afternoon, one of the department managers came running out of her office, frantically looking for a PR rep to proofread and edit an urgent press release that needed to go out.

Finding the office empty (with the exception of yours truly sitting there doing nothing), she barked at me: “Where the hell is everybody?” I told her that they were all out to lunch, but that I’d be more than happy to take a crack at it. Without even looking at me, she snarled: “What are you talking about? You can’t do this: you’re just a temp.”

I tried to tell her that I had a B.A. in English, a Master’s degree in Communication, and a year’s experience working for a top New York ad agency, but she just didn’t have any interest at all in listening to me. She left the press release draft on my desk, told me to give it to the first PR rep I saw, and dashed out to a meeting.

The press release was a mess. It was badly written, poorly structured, and filled with grammatical and spelling errors. With nothing else to do, I took it upon myself to re-write it...just as an exercise to alleviate my boredom.

When one of the PR reps finally got back, I explained the situation to him and gave him both the original copy and my revised version — without telling him I was the one who did it. His response regarding my revision: "This looks fine -- what's the problem -- just send it out!" So they sent my version out to print...without making a single edit. And no one ever knew -- or asked -- who did it.

This department was always short-handed, overworked, and in need of help. And I was right there in front of them -- ready, willing, and able. I tried numerous times to bring this to their attention, but my offers to assist went unheard, as no one was willing to listen.

A week later, I was hired -- full-time -- to work as an assistant to a comedy writer/producer at Disney. On my first day on the job, I asked him what made him hire me over three other candidates with stronger resumes. His response: “During the interview, you asked really good questions. And no one else did. You struck me as a good listener; and I need someone who knows how to listen.”

So, asking and listening -- not telling -- is what got me that job.

And I soon discovered that having a manager who was willing to listen to me made him a pleasure to work for. 

The simple lesson: To be a better manager – or just a better human being – it doesn't hurt to try being a better listener.

8 Quick Tips for Becoming a Better Listener: L-I-S-T-E-N-U-P!

Look at the person: Make eye contact. Pay attention to facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. There’s an old saying that we have two ears and one mouth, so we should spend twice as much time listening as talking. Management guru Peter Drucker said that “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” And that can only happen if we make the time, and take the time, to truly stop, look, and listen.

Inquire: Ask questions. Ask follow-up questions. Delve deeper. Seek examples. Use paraphrasing and summary clarification to validate understanding. When someone asks you a question, don’t just answer the question — care enough to answer the question behind the question. And when you listen to the response, actively listen to gain true understanding...rather than just selectively listening or listening to respond.

Show that you’re interested: When someone is talking to you, it’s important to physically demonstrate that you value the speaker -- as well as what’s being spoken. Put yourself in their shoes, try to see things from their point of view, and listen with empathy. Engage them in dialogue to make them feel like they’re the most important person in the room. But it must be done genuinely and sincerely -- or it doesn't count. People can see right through you when you're faking it.

Treat the person with respect: Even if you disagree with what they're saying, and may not even like the person, show respect for their viewpoint, and express appreciation for their candor and their contributions. Seek to connect with them on a human level, and on an equal level – person-to-person – regardless of title, status or position -- and even if you are more knowledgeable or experienced. If you treat them with dignity and respect, you will earn their trust and respect in return.

Encourage the other person: Engage them in dialogue and empower them to speak their mind without hesitancy, self-censorship, or fear of retribution. Create an environment of dialogue, exchange, interaction, openness, honesty, self-disclosure, vulnerability, and trust.

Never make the person regret that they opened up to you: Once you lose the person's trust and damage or destroy the relationship, it’s almost impossible to get it back. Allow the other person to be vulnerable, and be willing to display your vulnerability as well. Maintain confidences and confidentiality. Don’t gossip or talk behind anyone’s back. And follow the “Vegas Rule”: What’s said here, stays here.

Understanding is the key: It’s not enough to simply hear the words being said; you must get at the meaning and the intent of those words. Listen not only with your ears, but with your eyes, your brain, your head, and your heart.

Put your smartphone down: This might be our biggest obstacle to true listening in this day and age. We’re so busy with our devices that we ignore the people right in front of us. Ask yourself: Is the person on the other end of your device more important than the person or people right there in the room with you? If not, put the phone down. Seriously, put it down. Face down. Or in a pocket or drawer or briefcase. Be present. Be focused. Be here now. And give the person speaking to you your undivided attention. Isn’t that what you would want? I think it is.

In closing, many managers feel and act like their job is to do all the talking and provide all the answers. But the best leaders know that they don't. They recognize the value and the power of leveraging the collective brain power of the people around them -- by listening. 

Steve Jobs said that we shouldn't hire smart people only to tell them what to do; we should hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do.

So, for a leader, listening requires self-awareness, time, effort, vulnerability, and courage.

Or, as Winston Churchill put it: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Slow Down! How Thinking Too Fast Can Ruin Your Next Meeting or Job Interview

So, you have an important job interview scheduled, or a big meeting coming up with the boss or with an important client. You’ve done your homework and you’re prepared, primed, and pumped up.

But have you thought about your thinking speed?

We all know that interviews and high-stakes meetings can be very stressful, and when nerves flare up our tendency is to think and talk too fast, leading to our potentially blowing that meeting that we prepared so long and so hard for.

In his best-selling, award-winning book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman takes a deep dive into how we think – and shows us how we can be more effective...simply by slowing down. According to Kahneman, one of the biggest problems is that we tend to -- especially when under stress -- think too fast.

When your brain reacts and responds automatically and instinctively – almost thinking without really thinking, that’s what he calls “thinking fast.” This is how we think most of the time. On the other hand, “thinking slow” is when your brain hits the pause button and takes a brief moment to consciously reason, consider, question, analyze, and decide -- before responding or acting.

Of course “thinking fast” is a good thing. We couldn’t possibly – and wouldn’t want to – have to over-analyze every single thought before responding. But, on the flipside, how often do we make mistakes because we jump to conclusions or have impulsive, knee-jerk reactions when we might have benefited from pausing, even momentarily, to devise a more well-considered response?

So how can you leverage the power of “thinking slow” when on the spot in your next meeting or job interview?

One simple and powerful way to do so is by keeping in mind this extremely effective storytelling technique called “PARLA.”

PARLA stands for Problem, Action, Result, Learning, & Application.

Let's say the interviewer asks you a question like, "Can you tell me about a time wherein you faced a similar situation?" or you're in a sales meeting and the potential client asks, "Have you ever worked with a company like ours before?" In either scenario, you might use the PARLA method to structure your 5-part response as follows:

P – Problem: Let me tell you about the time I faced a similar situation...;

A – Action: Here’s the action I took...;

R – Result: Here’s the outcome of that action...;

L – Learning: Here’s what I learned...;

A – Application: And (*this is the most important and relevant part to the listener) here’s how I would apply what I learned from that prior experience in the future....

Very often when an interviewer or a potential client asks us a question, what often happens -- in our excitement and enthusiasm to convince them to choose us -- we excitedly blurt out something like, “Because I have a degree in x, and ten years’ experience, and I’m a hard worker, and a team player, and blah blah blah.” Not only are we thinking fast, we’re talking fast, and often just rambling on and on. And that’s exactly what so many people do.

Instead, why not try to differentiate yourself by taking a breath and a brief, two-second pause...followed by a confident, PARLA-based story that will make you stand out from the crowd.

One time a new potential client asked me "How much experience do you have working with millennials?"

My PARLA-structured response: “I've definitely spent a lot of time working with millennials! In fact, I teach a graduate course in 'Leadership & Team Building' in the HR Master's program at NYU -- and most of my students are millennials. And I've worked with a number of tech start-ups who have mainly millennial populations ("Problem"). One of the things I always make sure of when training millennials is to keep things as fast-paced, varied, and highly-interactive as possible ("Action"). I've found that when I do, it dramatically increases their attention, comprehension, and retention ("Result"). So every one of my training programs is designed and delivered with my company's "3 E's" -- Educate, Engage, and Excite -- in mind ("Learning"). And, so, I would definitely make sure that any leadership program we do for your millennial employees is highly interactive and experiential as well ("Application").

It's that simple: PARLA.

By the way, the "P" for "Problem" just refers to the comparable challenge, issue, or situation you're using as an example.

And note that even if things didn’t go well in the Results phase of your example, what’s important is that you took an Action to address a Problem, and that you Learned something valuable from it that you can Apply going forward. And, in truth, that’s really what the interviewer is, ultimately, looking for: whether or not you have the relevant experience and the capability to do the job.

Lastly, PARLA is not just a storytelling technique for use when BEING interviewed or trying to persuade someone; it is actually a classic behavioral interviewing technique that an interviewer may use to question you! If an interviewer ever starts a sentence with, “Tell me about a time when…” you will now immediately recognize that that is what they’re doing…and what they are looking for in terms of a response. So (not to give away any behind-the-scenes interviewing secrets :), but now that you are aware of this very popular interviewing methodology, going forward you will be better equipped, and can be better prepared, to respond on the spot.

Seizing the opportunity to tell a powerful, well-structured personal story using the PARLA format will capture and hold the interviewer’s attention, bring your experience to life, shows that you can think on your feet, and demonstrates with poise and confidence that you have what it takes to do the job...because you’ve been there before.

That’s the power of “thinking slow” in action.

For additional resources to help you improve your thinking skills, please check out my blog post entitled, “15 Fascinating Books to Help You Become a Better Thinker.”