CategoryCommunication Skills

Leaders Plan and Communicate Expectations

In college at MIT, I played baseball for Coach Fran O’Brien. MIT hired Coach O’Brien in 1969. In the twenty seasons prior to Coach O’Brien’s arrival, MIT Baseball had one winning season. He inherited a Division-III, no scholarship, no recruiting team that expected to lose.

During my senior year in 1993, Coach led us to a record-setting, championship season that inspired many stories and my book Beaverball.

So how did Coach O’Brien prepare us to compete?  One lesson that we learned as baseball players that applies to all of us as leaders and managers is the need to plan and communicate. We can put the team – our organizations – in better situations to win, to succeed, every day.

Leaders plan for and expect success.

The greatest menace to success and leadership may be the willingness to make excuses or may be the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions or even a tendency to feel victimized.  Look, you’re going to get bad calls, bad bounces, bad weather.  But we can plan for and expect success by focusing on and planning for what we can control, communicating that plan, and moving forward.  

Think about it this way.  Can you plan for failure? Yes, absolutely.  Here’s a plan for failure:

  1. Stop returning your phone calls;
  2. Stop paying your bills;
  3. Smoke 12 packs of cigarettes per day; and 
  4. Drive with your eyes closed.

Here’s another plan for failure:  don’t have a plan.

So, if we can choose to fail, can we choose to succeed? Absolutely.  Therefore, success should not surprise us.

Coach O’Brien always had a plan, and that rubbed off on the team.  Before the season started, he scheduled every practice and every practice had a schedule of drills and every drill had small group assignments. Guys on the team did their own planning, too. House, our catcher, smoothed the dirt in front of and around home plate to reduce bad hops. Gass, our right field, preserved the shape of his glove by wrapping it in a towel between games.  

And consider what we observe from other great leaders out in the world and close to home. Three time Super Bowl Champion and former Head Coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh, was well known for his meticulous planning to build championship teams. Bill Belichick now as Head Coach of the New England Patriots, and from his early days as a Coordinator, shares this trait. My best teachers and coaches had lesson plans, game plans and practice plans, and they adjusted these plans as we struggled or improved, or as the situations changed.

Coach O’Brien expected to win. And he expected us to expect to win.  Success should not surprise you.  If it does, you may attribute it to luck or to mistakes made by your competitors.  Winning consistently is a byproduct of building teams focused on achieving goals, working the plan, communicating and reinforcing expectations, and getting after it. 

Thinking Through Risk and Uncertainty: Contemplating the Coronavirus

“Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us. The fact is some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable…Simple processes help us sort the mess and prioritize.”

from “Managing Risk by Screening Out Trouble”

The coronavirus presents two specific risks to most of us. One, we transmit the virus to someone vulnerable (older, ill, or immunocompromised). Two, we or someone we love gets sick or injured in some other way and can’t access the health care system because it’s overwhelmed. These risks highlight the interconnected nature of the situation. Our individual choices affect others.

Given the risks, how do we contemplate a path forward?

We know what we don’t know.

This is a numbers game. And the numbers will get worse before they get better. In forestry, for example, trees planted years ago give us the forests we have today. Waves of trees can grow in massive booms. Foresters call this “a wall of wood” or “the pig in the python”.

With the coronavirus, the spreading that occurred silently weeks ago gives us the infections we have today. We don’t know the infection rate, which makes it difficult to know the pervasiveness, speed and, ultimately, decline of the coronavirus. What tells us we can return to normal? When we have smog alerts or forest fires or car crashes or hurricanes or food poisoning, we have metrics and indicators that signal “all clear!” Why? Because we have data.

We don’t know what’s knowable.

It does not matter if this situation is better or worse than people think, thought or said; it just is. And currently, we don’t know what “is” is. We can’t yet touch the bottom of the pool because we don’t know how deep the water is. We need data, and data requires testing. Each and every failure to deliver, offer, conduct, collect and communicate the results of a test reflects a small crime and failing in this battle.

Anything short of complete, ruthless transparency obscures our ability to know what is knowable, develop plans and support each other. From here, we can chart a path for our teams and help people make decisions for their local situations.

We know what to do.

In forestry, we have systematic approaches that apply generally to situations requiring clarity for making decisions. First, work to understand the local situation, as it varies by region and market. Second, question the data to understand its quality (e.g. seek trustworthy sources such as Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center). And third, make (phone) calls to know what’s knowable and confirm that people have what they need to follow the simple practices we know work well.

With a clear sense of where we are and how things work, it’s easier to organize our teams and get moving. This gives purpose to our work and confidence in the process with an eye towards the future.

For those interested in a further discussion of strategic thinking (and how the coronavirus affects the forest industry), click here to read a five-page white paper.

Communicating in Public: How to Prepare and Deliver a Wedding Toast

Since clipping on my first tie as a child, I’ve sat through many a wedding speech. Unfortunately, most memorable speeches and toasts carved out mental real estate in my head for the wrong reasons: they went awry or too long or both.

Those ‘toasts gone bad’ motivated me years ago to draft a four-part wedding speech “recipe.” Since then, I shared it with friends and colleagues to help them settle nerves and organize thoughts before stepping to the microphone. The recipe, like the PREP framework outlined in an earlier post, reduces anxiety by removing the need to figure out how to start, organize, and end a tight and heartfelt toast, especially for last minute preparations.

Brooks’ Four-Part Wedding Speech Recipe

  1. Relationship 1: note how you know or met the person inviting you (easy for siblings; “he’s my baby brother…”).
  2. Entertainment: share one fun or personal story that most folks in the room don’t know that is also appropriate and “easy” to tell (no 12-part sagas or “making” it funny; it’s just a story).
  3. Relationship 2: tell how you met the spouse or when you realized that he or she was “the one” or when you learned the relationship was serious.
  4. Toast: say “raise your glasses” and how happy you are for them and wish them love forever….

An alternative on “Relationship 2” as suggested above is to share a single piece of advice, lesson or story from your own marriage or from your parents. These often resonate and ring with truth (and humor).

One final recommendation: do your drinking AFTER delivering the speech.

Have fun!

The Most Important Person on the Team

Who is the most important person on your team?  As much as we’re “all created equal,” we join and work with teams comprised of higher performers and lower performers. Some salespeople exceed quota; others struggle to keep up. In sports, most players, at any given time, watch from the bench. How do we reconcile “managing our stars” with “managing the team”?

Years ago, Ian “House” Somerville and I co-captained the MIT baseball team, an experience I wrote about in Beaverball: A (Winning) Season with the MIT Baseball Team.  As captains, we met regularly with Head Coach Fran O’Brien to discuss upcoming opponents and issues relevant to maintaining team chemistry. Before our spring trip to Florida, House and I recapped one particular lesson that Coach O’Brien emphasized to both of us. He said, “The most important person on the team – and to me – is the last man on the roster, the person sitting at the end of the bench. Why? Because if that man really believes that he will have every opportunity to earn playing time, then he will push everybody else on the roster above him, improving the team’s attitude and performance.”

Coach explained how even the best player on the team would feel competition at practice, keeping him sharp and on top of his game. Each person, at some point in the season, needed reminding that playing time and leadership were not rights or entitlements; they were privileges that one earned. The minute a job or leadership role becomes an entitlement, we have a morale problem, a performance problem, or both.

Did Coach believe that team success relied on lavishing attention on our newest, part-time intern? No. He simply highlighted the importance of reinforcing expectations. A manager holds everyone on the team to the same standards for key values such as hustle, integrity, and cheering your team. If the star third baseman dogs it on and off the field, the manager must hold him accountable.  As a player, and as a teammate, it’s incredibly motivating to see leadership in action, to see deed follow word.

Coach reinforced expectations with everyone on the team. He said, “running around is fine for getting into shape, but during practice and games we want focus.”  He explained how each person contributed to the team’s success.  For example, during practice drills, he would tell Eddie, our back-up catcher, “Gun those guys down! Make them work for that extra base, Eddie. Help us get better!”

The message isn’t complicated.  But it requires a commitment to communicate consistently.  As managers, it is our job to “hold the line” on the most important values and expectations, and to take the time required to clarify how each person adds value. In recognizing this lesson, not only do we serve the team, we help ourselves.

Communicating in Public: How to Make Effective Impromptu Comments

At times, you will feel compelled or asked to share your opinion in a meeting, at a business event or during a conference.  For these situations, a bit of advance planning will reduce the pressure and increase the likelihood of making a valuable contribution.

Effective impromptu comments have specific characteristics. First, they are relevant. Second, they are specific. Third, they are brief.  While many of us know and appreciate natural comedians or gifted story tellers who can talk all afternoon and hold their audiences, most of us benefit by being relevant, specific, and brief.

The PREP approach for impromptu comments advocated by Toast Masters International provides one strategy for putting this thinking into action. PREP stands for Point, Reason, Example, Point.  Make your point.  State the reason for the point. Give an example that supports the point. And close by restating your key point. In Loving Trees is Not Enough, I ask readers to consider this response to questions about the value or purpose of annual training at work:

Point: “Professionals at all levels practice basic skills annually.”

Reason: “We practice these skills to keep them sharp.”

Example: “Look at Major League baseball players.  Each year, teams have “spring training” to review and practice the same fundamental skills being learned by the youngest little league players. And Major Leaguers are the best players in the world.”

Point: “We are professionals and we train annually to keep these skills sharp.”

PREP provides a framework for organizing our thoughts in impromptu speaking situations. Think about how this approach could improve meetings.  How often have we listened to people ramble on without making logical sense or contributing useful points?  This framework reduces anxiety and increases effectiveness by removing the need to figure out how to start, organize, and end our comments.

We can reduce the PREP approach further. First, state a single, relevant point. Second, give a specific reason or example that supports this point. Third, say “thank you” and sit down.  Impromptu speaking success is simply one relevant, specific, and brief comment away.