Avoiding the word BUT

Certain words are like signposts, warning of an impending emotional and negative exchange.

Effective Communication is a pivotal skill. When we as leaders consider requests, there are often times when we must communicate “no.”

Many entry-level manager classes include this tidbit: non-verbal cues make up at least 55% of verbal communications.  The actual words themselves may convey as little as 7% of the message, with tone making up the rest. Part of the tone includes the grouping of words. Certain groups carry a positive tone (“Happy Birthday!”), and others are more negative (“This is the IRS.”)

More skillful communicators have grown sensitive to the nature of this tone. There are many times I’ve presented an idea, been flatly turned down, and have still gone away with a smile on my face. This was not because of the negative words themselves, but rather the skill of the other person in avoiding a negative emotional tone.

As receivers we have also grown sensitive to tone, often on a subconscious level. Certain words are like signposts, warning of an impending emotional and negative exchange. One such word is BUT. It is a qualifier that can shut people down immediately. Perhaps this sounds familiar:

“Your idea has merit for several reasons, BUT those reasons are not sufficient for me to accept your request.”

Which part do you focus on? Is it the praise for taking a risk (the first part), or rejection of the idea (the second part)? That tiny little word BUT changes the tenor of the statement in a very tangible way. It shuts down further dialog and hampers constructive development. Now consider this response:

“Your idea has merit for several reasons. Those reasons are not sufficient for me to accept your request.”

The second phrasing allows the communicator to continue the conversation, perhaps:

“If you present better evidence, I’m open to reconsider.” Now the receiver is likely to go away and actually do more work for you! Avoiding BUT keeps the options open. By using BUT, an emotionally charged word, you shut them up tight.

As a challenge to my fellow communicators, try avoiding the word BUT for one week. Can you do it? Can you adjust your habitual speech and writing patterns to steer clear of the emotionally charged BUT? If you make the effort, you will discover many other words and phrases that impact the tone of conversations. The real challenge is bending that tone to reinforce elements of your message, team cohesion, and political effectiveness.

Sometimes an emotionally charged word or phrase is necessary, even desirable. But adding them to conversation should be a conscious choice.

Please share your experience with my communications challenge in the comments. Besides BUT, what other words did you find with emotional impact, positive or negative?

What is your “Training Base Load?”


You wake up in the middle of the night, flip the light switch, and – miracle of miracles – the light comes on. The power company maintains a “base load” on the grid for just such occasions, and it is indeed a miracle. As the day begins a huge coordinated team starts bringing more electrical generation capacity on the line to brush your teeth, brew your coffee, and perhaps power your ride to work. But for the quiet overnight hours there is still a small power plant humming away, ready to take the load.

If your company has the luxury of a dedicated training department, they are your human capital power plant. They probably host a variety of courses throughout the year. They put a fine polish on technical or soft skills, help save minutes during the holiday rush, and develop people for the challenges of tomorrow. They also probably maintain the “training base load,” those compliance courses that absolutely must be taught if the company wants to stay in business.

As a training manager, it is helpful to know exactly how much of your time and budget must be dedicated to the base load. Across your catalog, where do you draw the line? Certainly, compliance training is on the list. What about on-boarding? Harder to know, especially if your hiring cycle is unpredictable. Technical training may make the cut, especially if there is a cyclic requirement, such as annual proficiency training. Finally, those “fun” courses, like conflict mitigation, communications, strategic planning, and meeting management, which can probably be cut (in the short term) without much fanfare.

Last week we audited your various rule books. This week, take some time to analyze your course catalog and define the impact.

  • Base load courses: compliance and any other training mandated by law. How many times do you convene each year? How many staff hours are spent preparing and delivering for each convening? What other materials must be purchased and prepared for each class? Calculate what percentage of your annual budget goes to maintain the “base load.”
  • Refresher and proficiency courses: same drill as above – who teaches what, when, and how much does it cost in time and materials. The resources spent here directly offset lost work and potential injury. It is good to know this number when the executives come calling.
  • New-hire training (both on boarding and technical skill): this can be the thorniest variable depending on your workforce. Some industries with high turnover spend a lot of time with this category.
  • Company-specific “mandatory” training: who teaches, what, and when – do the calcs. (Can some be eliminated? Outsourced? Streamlined? Converted to less expensive or distributed delivery?)
  • Elective training: all those nice-to-have courses. If you are “fat” in this are, can you justify the continued expense? If you are “lean”, can you justify additional support, balanced against the rest of your categories?

With your new course audit in hand, it will be easy to answer questions when the budget folks come looking for cuts. Solid numbers can make training look like a good bet. Perhaps more important, knowing which percentage of your catalog is non-negotiable can help keep those light on all year long.

Copyright © 2016 Expeditionaire and Edward K. Beale
Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lineman_changing_transformer.jpg

(My book West By Sea is 20% off in August with discount code. Enjoy!)

Training Minutes Really Do Matter

Finish Line

You work hard to keep the learning and development (L&D) wheel spinning. You know careful spending on L&D is a good bet.

And so here we are. You made the bet, took the plunge, and sent your people to training. You spent money on the program, had them off the job for a day or a week, and now with fingers crossed you honestly hope it was all worth it. Like you, I have made that bet many times. Here are some ideas that can help justify L&D for your team.

First, there are benefits for each employee. The links between L&D and employee loyalty, retention, engagement, and satisfaction are well researched. (Wranx has a good article based on various studies.) So, investing in L&D can make your people 12% more effective? Or save you one $50,000 hiring event in a year? Those may be reasons enough to justify a training budget.

Second, ask the employees themselves to estimate the impact.

“With what you learned, how many minutes will you save each day?”

Depending on the topic, each learner will probably save at least 5 minutes per day. If you sent 20 people to training, each making $25 per hour, those collective minutes just added over $10,000 in value for the team this year.* There are many ways to quantify productivity pre- and post-instruction. Pick something that works with your process. Saving 25-30 minutes per person each week is a real win any way you look at it.

Finally, some structured time away from “the grind” can focus everyone on a timely topic and yield real benefits. For example, “the holiday rush” is a good excuse to jumpstart the seasonal effort around a shared experience. A learning event gets everyone “on the same page” using common language and procedures. Standardized terminology and process alignment are both easy shortcuts to performance. Ask yourself,

“What is the cost of one mishandled order in December?”

If an hour spent in training can save a dozen mishandled orders, that hour was probably worth it. (Now, run the numbers and check!)

One last thought: it is better to move past “awareness” and towards L&D that is “hands on.” Real practice with real problems means better performance. Get those hands dirty, but in a controlled and safe environment. Your people will come back with better confidence and skill to tackle the real work. And at the end of the day, that’s really the goal.

As always, I would love to hear your “minutes matter” stories.

* (5 min x 20 people x 5 days) / 60 = 8.33 hours/week x 50 weeks = 417 hours x $25 = $10,425)

Copyright © 2016 Expeditionaire and Edward K. Beale
Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Horse_Race_Finish_Line_(11888565543).jpg

(My book West By Sea is 20% off in August with discount code. Enjoy!)


Follow The Rules At Work

Do Not Touch

This is how we do things around here.
Sincerely, Workplace Culture

Behavior at work is driven by the law, market forces, the local environment, and preferences of the workers. Each driver comes with a rule book. Some rules you can’t avoid. Other rules you can control, absolutely. And of course there are rules for everything in between.

Rank-ordered from “jail time” to “nobody cares”, I group these rule books like this:

  • Regulation: required by law. Failure to comply means you will be deprived of money, liberty, or status by an outside force (typically government and the law).
  • Policy: required by the parent organization. Failure to comply means you will be deprived of employment, company-specific benefits, or status by an organizational force; applies to the entire company.
  • Procedure: required by the nature of the work and the work environment. Failure to comply means you face injury or loss to your person or your team; may not apply to the overall company.
  • Norm: not required, but everyone does it this way. Failure to comply may impact those performing the work, and result in ridicule or loss of status. Work unit preference.
  • Technique: not required, but individuals do it this way. Often more efficient. Must be supported by norms, procedures, policies, and regulations. Personal preference.

How do these drivers impact your work every day? A Federal regulation that directs your TPS reports? A company policy that controls billable hours? A procedure for signing out equipment? An office norm allowing casual attire on Friday? A technique for setting up your desk every day?

Each level is important for success. But rules can get miscategorized, too.

Has your office norm (“best practice”) become so useful, it should really be a procedure? Does that tedious company policy really apply to your team, or is it just a collection of antiquated procedures? What techniques can you discover from your local experts that could be codified in procedure or even policy?

Sometimes a rule is not really a rule! Take a look at what you do every day, and reassess the rules of the game. Every rule book is shaping your corporate culture. Take some time to make them right.


Copyright © 2016 Expeditionaire and Edward K. Beale
Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PLEaSE_DO_NOT_TOUCH_(4366639799).jpg

(You may have different names for these rule book categories, so let me know what you call them in the comments.)

(My book West By Sea is 20% off in August with discount code. Enjoy!)

Make Training Look Like a Good Bet

Poker Chips

Make Training Look Like a Good Bet

My last post discussed why learning and development (L&D) should be a budget priority: it is easier to nudge a spinning wheel than to start from zero. In the end, headquarters agreed but still wanted cuts. So to match the 10% workforce reduction, I took a 10% reduction in student load, and absorbed the cuts across my various learning programs.

Still, I kept 90% of my annual budget under threat of deeper cuts. My argument started like this. For an organization with an annual budget of $10 billion US, my L&D team had a budget of $5 million US (with roughly $4 million of that sunk salary cost and $1 million operating cost).

“Would you be willing to bet that spending half of a tenth of one percent in developing the workforce will return at least that amount in productivity over the course of a year?”

Headquarters reluctantly agreed: it was probably a good bet. Looked at another way, my $5 million budget supported a 50,000-person workforce. I said,

“Do you think betting $100 per person on their L&D will return at least $100 as productivity (or just good will) per person?”

Of course – that’s less than nine dollars per month, or 30 cents per day!

When defending your L&D budget, I suggest a similar approach. Get the best numbers you can about organizational budget, the amount directed at L&D, and the size of your workforce. Then do the math, and if possible frame the results as a good bet.

And now, let me know what the answer looks like for your organization!

Image from: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gambling_chips.jpg

(My book West By Sea is 20% off in August with discount code. Enjoy!)


New Leaders Should Follow the STARS

Starry Night

This is an older HBR article by Michael D. Watkins, but it does not seem dated. When a leader is hired to replace someone at the Director level or above, Watkins asks the new leader to do a short analysis and adjust their strategy up front.

From the article:

“STARS” is an acronym for the five common situations leaders may find themselves moving into: start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success.

I was once handed a new supervisor who viewed every new role as a chance to “make his mark.” He had approached every job – almost a dozen – in this way for over 20 years. He was hard-wired to treat each new job as a turnaround. And my goodness, was he hard to work for. The work did NOT need to be turned around, decidedly not. The place was highly successful, and sustaining that success (or as I like to say “keeping the trains running on time”) should have been the main focus.

Instead, this new leader decided to “shake things up a bit” for almost a year. Half my time was spent convincing the new leader that his focus on rebranding, opening unfunded business lines, seeking growth in obscure markets; “doing more with less,” were not answers to any existing problems. The work suffered, the staff suffered, and in the end, the customers suffered so much that criticism rang out loudly in the surveys.

In 20 years as a tactician, this leader had never developed strategic skills, and floundered when those skills were needed most. If you are a leader new-to-a-role, or are working under someone who “just doesn’t get it,” this article may help.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_sky#/media/File:Starry_Night_at_La_Silla.jpg

(My book West By Sea is 20% off in August with discount code. Enjoy!)

Just Cut Training – Nobody Will Notice

Time to Cut Learning & Development? Think again

Time to Cut Learning & Development? Think again.

A few years ago, I got a frantic call from headquarters. It was late on a Friday, and the question was “How many classes can you cut from next year’s budget?” My answer: “If you want, I can cut all of them. They’re your classes. If you send me a full quota of students, I will teach them. If you send me no students at all, I will do something else with my time.” They didn’t sound happy. This was not the response they expected. What they really wanted was an excuse to cut my budget.

The conversation continued. We were in the middle of a workforce reduction. Headquarters really wanted to know the impact of teaching less. They had no link showing how money spent on learning and development (L&D) translated into outcomes. What I had just given them was a limit case, where the resources spent on L&D were cut to zero. What could happen? In truth, in the short-term, nothing much. People would still do what they did yesterday just as well tomorrow. Headquarters seemed happy to hear this. But with any process that involves humans, there is always a catch.

When you flip a bicycle over to check the wheels, they will spin forever with a light, regular push. Your on-staff L&D team provides the push to keep the workforce in motion. They lightly nudge the human performance wheel, to bring new people up to speed, make new procedures happen, and drive efficiency through smooth adoption of new technology.

Just like with a spinning wheel, if L&D stops pushing, the organization will keep spinning – for a while. But entropy always catches up: procedures change, new technologies replace the old, new people step in. All the equipment in the world will just sit there if nobody runs it. Your organization literally rides on the workforce: your people are the wheels that carry you forward.

As you balance the fate of the L&D team in the overall budget, remember each spinning wheel, and think how things might look without a careful and regular push.

Copyright © 2016 Expeditionaire and Edward K. Beale
Image from: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/Changing_an_inner_tube_-_Removing_the_tire.jpg

The Dawn of Paperless and the iPad Pro

iPad Pro Batman

Finally got to use the iPad Pro 9.7″ with Apple Pencil. THIS is how I am finally going to learn cartooning. My biggest hang-up with art instruction on paper is going through all the paper. I learned drafting, architectural drawing, and technical descriptive drawing in the mid-1980s. We went through so much paper, with the instructor circling inconsistencies with red pen and removing two points for each mark. Very infrequently would I get a “check”, which meant he could find nothing wrong with the picture. How we worked for those checks.

“Kids” nowadays will never know the pain and joy of toiling away with pencil, compass, white eraser, T-square, and triangles. No sweeping eraser crumbs into a little pile on the floor at the end of class. No sharpening wooden 2H and HB pencils, or clicking to refill a mechanical 0.7mm lead holder, or stacking drafting gear into a drawer with care each night. I think it is for the best.

Next, I expect Apple to release a tablet with some kind of high-density ePaper screen, and Apple Pencil v2. The only thing missing is the screen technology. Amazon’s Kindle Oasis is at 300ppi for a black & white screen. So it is only a matter of time before Apple adopts something similar. I can’t wait.

Apple and doing what matters

Apple has always loved being the underdog and the comeback kid. It’s hard to see the real Apple, but “I’ve seen through a different lens”.

In 2010 I attend the Disney Institute program in Anaheim, to go backstage for a look at the process behind the magic. Disney focuses on only two metrics: repeat business and intent to refer. Will you come back and bring your friends? EVERYTHING is driven by performance against these two metrics. When you know this understanding Apple’s approach becomes really simple.

Apple and Disney have very similar “DNA”, or execution strategy because they come from the same place: Creativity. Creativity is the byproduct of a restless mind. It comes from asking the question “what if?” and answering “let’s see…” It doesn’t take a Steve Jobs to ask that question, it just takes relentless application of the question to a few things that matter, and then building repeatable and supported systems to ruthlessly execute on just those things.

Apple wants a multi-decade hegemony, built across generations by rabidly loyal customers. Apple is very smart, and insanely tuned to perform for the customer. Right now Apple is back where they love to be: a hungry underdog that must stage a comeback after foolishly ignoring a key customer experience trend.

A hungry and foolish underdog comeback. Perfect.

Invest twenty three minutes listening to Steve Jobs. You’ll thank yourself for taking the time. Trust me.

Want progress? Put up a thermometer

thermometerWant progress? Put up a thermometer.

Execution is about three things: priorities, metrics, and rhythm. I have talked about this before, but today I want you to start in the middle.

You have a performance problem, it is dragging you down, and you really need to move forward. For some reason, your team is not focused, not executing, and not moving forward. Where should you start?

Pull out a big piece of paper, draw a thermometer on it (be sure to put the little lines), and before you do anything else, step back and look. (Hint: you could do this on a white board, but the idea is to make something physical, touchable, semi-permanent.)

You are going to put this up in a public place and update it every day. The scale on the side is easy enough – it takes you from where you are now to where you are “done”. But your empty thermometer needs labels.

This is the tricky part. You need to answer some questions:

  • What is it we trying to do, exactly? Write a simple outcome statement at the top of the thermometer, something like “Product X is shipped”.
  • When will “done” happen? Write a date at the top of the thermometer.
  • What will “done” look like? When the whole thermometer is red, how will you know? You need to see this in detail, because your team is doing detailed work right now, and will be doing detailed work every day. Each detail gets you to the top.
  • What actions trigger and fill the thermometer? If you get stuck on this one, imagine somebody on your team walking up to you with an accomplishment – will that get you to pull out your red marker?

This thermometer exercise is a life hack for work, or what I call a performance hack. It focuses your attention on a single goal, the actions needed to make (and measure) progress, and the little time-bound steps needed to achieve your big time-bound goal.

Until you make your goals physical, visible, and public, you are still talking to yourself. And your execution thermometer probably looks like this:


Give this tip a try, and let me know how it goes in the comments.