CategoryCommunication Skills

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.

Learning: Tips for Conducting Informational Interviews

Informational interviews provide one avenue for learning about a business, developing professional relationships and sharing ideas.  We initiate informational interviews as job seekers, entrepreneurs and researchers to tap the experience and knowledge of others. As with job interviews, successful informational interviews rely on preparation and practice. How?

  1. Write an interview guide. This is the single most valuable way to prepare. Whether 30 minutes in person or 15 minutes by phone, know what you are going to ask to make the most of the time available. When developing your guide, ask yourself “What do I hope to learn in this interview from this person?” Defining the purpose of the interview helps you order and phrase the questions correctly.
  2. Start with general questions and move to specifics. Begin with general questions about the industry, for example, before getting specific about the person’s responsibilities or research.
  3. Learn about the interviewee prior to the interview. Know the person’s background and education. The interviewee is doing you a favor by setting aside time to meet with you; it is your job to be prepared.
  4. Do not exceed your requested time. However, be prepared to stay longer if the person is willing.
  5. Dress as if it were a job interview. First impressions always matter. Get to your appointment a few minutes early and be courteous to everyone.
  6. Ask open-ended questions which promote a discussion. Listen and guide.  And don’t interrupt; you will gather more information and stories.  Like I learned while counseling students in college, the greatest gift is often a sympathetic ear.  Work through the history, and the issues will come out.
  7. Avoid body language that indicates a lack of interest. This includes folding or crossing arms, slouching, or looking around the room. Turn off that cell phone and don’t check it. Take notes, and keep the pen moving.
  8. Share. Productive informational interviews often include active two-way exchanges and dialogues.
  9. Say “thank you.”Write a brief note which restates your appreciation for this person’s time.  State how the interview helped you move forward in your research or career development.

Finally, when planning informational interviews, consider talking to a range of individuals. Interesting and insightful information often comes from salesmen, administrative staff and customer service technicians. They have direct customer and product contact and may know where businesses struggle. And direct communication with those on the inside gives us insight and a feel for the real issues in a business or industry.