Tag Archives: IABC

having successful difficult conversations means taking the time to listen and to be vulnerable. And that's freaking scary.

The scary thing that makes a good workplace great

A little while back I wrote about the one thing that can make a good workplace great, the tolerance for taking risks and making mistakes.

If I were to pick another Big Scary Audacious Goal (which is a more unfortunate acronym than Big Hairy Audacious Goal..?), it would be the ability to have difficult conversations. Even more than tolerating mistakes, this is by far the most difficult skill I’ve had to work on in my career, and I’m not even close to perfection.

having successful difficult conversations means taking the time to listen and to be vulnerable. And that's freaking scary. Screwing up the courage to face a difficult situation head-on by having a tough conversation is something that could make any relationship go either way: it can lead to working better and becoming closer to the other person, or it could lead to a separation (if you’re lucky, a separation that leaves both people with positive feelings towards each other).

Having successful difficult conversations means taking the time to listen, and to be vulnerable.

And that’s freaking scary.

In fact, both these shifts that can change a workplace culture into a great one have that one thing in common: a willingness to show vulnerability.

I believe the more people talk about those difficult conversations they’ve had, the more acceptable it will be to have more of them. And I believe it’s the role of communication professionals to encourage more intentional, face-to-face communication skills among those we advise. The most useful professional development event I attended last spring was from IABC-BC — Speak Up: Important Conversations. All the speakers were amazing, but Tracey Wimperly’s talk really resonated with me:

“We do business with people, not entities…Conversation between people is where the magic happens … We are coaches and convenors of conscious interpersonal communications … Talking points are great for content, but do our leaders know how to really listen? Do they demonstrate empathy? The soft skills are really the hard stuff … Are our leaders comfortable with the soft skills?” – Tracey Wimperly

People, particularly those in leadership positions, need to signal loud and clear that they are open to having the difficult conversations, by their words and their actions. They need to be vulnerable in order to encourage their employees to feel supported enough to take risks and contribute the whole of their talents and skills.

I was reminded of that again when I listened to Brett Gajda’s podcast, Where There’s Smoke; the episode Be Seen (Vulnerability), with Bobby Umar. Brett practices what he preaches – my partner and I saw him speak at an event the other night, and I envy the people who get to work with him. In the Be Seen episode he gives an example that is so raw and compelling, I choked up thinking of similar examples from my own career.

Here’s one leader who also certainly fits the bill: Dan Pontrefact (you lucky Telus employees, having him on your leadership team!), who has embraced the Working Out Loud movement (Yay!) and wrote a pretty raw piece on why his next book is postponed.

In fact, if I’m ever asked again in an interview what I consider my biggest weakness, I’d probably have to be honest and say: “I find it extraordinarily stressful to have the difficult conversations that must sometimes happen in a professional situation. And I’m working hard on getting better at it, because if you can have difficult conversations where the other person feels valued and respected, even if you have to part ways in the end, you have a stronger relationship because of it.”

Here’s Tracey’s entire talk. It’s well worth eight minutes of your time, especially if you are, like me, a communications professional:

A big pile of binders

Three steps to self-taught communication measurement

I finally got rid of it before my last move: a three-inch, three-ring binder containing the be-all and end-all in Corporate Communications Measurement – well, at least as it was in the mid-1990s. I had been hauling that thing around with me for almost 20 years – during almost my entire career, even though I stopped referring to it about 5 years after it was published.

I was reminded of it last evening when I participated as a “Speed Mentor” event for communicators just graduating from their studies. I have been a mentor for IABC before, and I really enjoy it. Last night I got 15 minutes with three different “mentees” – in an event put on by my professional association: IABC-British Columbia.

This post is for Heidi, an up-and-comer who asked where I learned how to measure communications. I had to admit I’ve had little formal training in communications or marketing. I have a BA and MA in the social sciences, but no Journalism or Communications degrees, even though that’s where I started out, and it’s been my entire career. So how did I learn? A number of ways:

1. Translate existing formal education into career skills

My Master’s thesis was an original study that consisted of a literature review and a research project that combined quantitative and qualitative research methods. As such, I have been formally trained in the scientific method: how to construct a research survey that will measure an adequate-sized sample, define terms, and ask questions designed to get honest answers to the research question (not just the answers you expect to find), and analyze the data professionally.

I guess this doesn’t really fit the definition of “self-taught,” but the ability to construct survey questions, conduct statistical analysis, and parse survey data has been one of the most valuable skills I’ve used in my career. I’ve been asked a number of times to conduct surveys of stakeholders and target audiences, and have been able to confidently lend my expertise.

2. Tap the resources of colleagues and professional associations

A big pile of bindersThe gorilla-sized 3-ring binder mentioned above was an IABC publication. It cost hundreds of dollars to acquire, but I took advantage of the professional development budget allotted to me at my job to buy such publications, and to take a seminar or two. Through IABC internationally, in Saskatchewan, and in British Columbia, I’ve been able to take webinars, connect with others in similar jobs, share knowledge and resources, and get certified.

I am also a big believer in just calling up people (whether they’re in IABC or not) who do things that impress me and asking them how they did it and how it worked out for them. I’ll even ask them about budgeting and resources. You’d be surprised how forthcoming people are when you just ask, as long as there are no proprietary or trade secrets to keep.

3. The internet is a wonderful, vast Personal Learning Network

Since I’ve worked in post-secondary education I’ve learned about this thing called a PLN – Personal Learning Network. Which is just a formal name for something I’ve been doing all along as a self-motivated learner (see “calling people up and asking them how they did it” above). These days my PLN is mostly online: I have various lists in my Twitter feeds for my personal interests; I have my RSS feeds broken down in a similar fashion.

My PLN is pretty informal, but it can also be more formal, with a specific learning outcome (another education term that means “I have something specific I need to learn about”). For instance, when I learned how to do technical rock climbing, I didn’t take a formal course. I learned from friends who had been doing it for years, I took out books  and periodicals from the library, I joined the Alpine Club of Canada and went on organized climbing trips with them.

When it comes to communication measurement, in the years since the gorilla-sized binder, I have compiled an extensive list of blogs and feeds, and I tend to find out about a new way of measuring impact when I need it. For instance, Google has a great set of resources on how to use website analytics. I’ve learned how to use applications like QuarkXPress (formerly the industry standard publishing software, now supplanted by Adobe InDesign), Photoshop, Excel, Adobe Acrobat, and online tools like Campaign Monitor, WordPress, SurveyMonkey, and Hootsuite by asking people, looking it up online, and playing around with them myself.

Other online resources I have or still use/follow:

  • Ragan.com – some paid, and some free articles and webinars.
  • Lynda.com – learning new apps and skills online – subscription based. Ask your employer to subscribe if you can’t do it yourself.
  • Social Media Examiner
  • Beth Kanter’s Blog
  • Convince and Convert
  • Hootsuite blog 
  • Love your Life Online – Alexandra Samuel is everyone’s online mentor!
  • Time to Write – for the creative writing types
  • Grammar Girl – I listen to the podcast while on transit to work because it’s good, and because of an embarrassing incident in my career. I always thought I had a far superior grasp of the English language, until a Board member of an organization I worked for (who was and remains a University President – and a friend) pointed out that I had confused “complement” and “compliment” in a piece of print collateral. I was mortified and humbled. Lesson? Never, ever stop learning, and never be afraid to admit to needing a refresher, no matter what your perceived level of expertise.
  • Jeff Bulas – internet marketing
  • UnMarketing – I saw Scott Stratten speak at Social Media Camp one year, I like the cut of his marketing jib!

4. Bonus tip! sign up to give a presentation at a conference.

See one, do one, teach one. Convincing yourself (or yourself and a colleague) to put a proposal in for a conference (like Social Media Camp, or a TedX, or Interesting Vancouver, etc.) does several things:

  • It forces you to take stock of what you DO know (because you know more than you think you do, and everyone has something to share, and if you’re just starting out, you have a unique perspective that many have lost).
  • It forces you to think about WHY and HOW you know what you know.
  • You will probably get comp’d an entry fee to the conference, and you’ll be able to learn from the other presenters.


Photo: Communication the Work Way, by Dave Matos, used under a Creative Commons license.