Communicating with your Virtual Team, Part 1

Here are a few of my best tips and practices for communicating across virtual teams: when to use email, phone, videoconference and precious face-time to maximize relationships, power and results.

Last week I was in New York co-facilitating a training session on communications in the context of teams, partnership and collaboration. One of our participants raised a familiar question: what do you do when your team is “virtual”?  In fact, either due to budget constraints or concern about their carbon footprint, non-profits are increasingly communicating remotely – and some tips and best practices are floating to the top. Here are just a few:

Face to face: This is still the gold standard of all communication. And, until we’re all sporting our own personalized holoprojectors, this isn’t likely to change. Research shows that more than half of all human communication is conveyed through body language; another third is conveyed through tone. The key for virtual teams is to carefully maximize precious face-time: make it count.  Choose face-to-face meetings for building relationships and  anything requiring creativity, synergy, complex decision-making, any sort of visual planning or strategizing and especially for ‘courageous conversations’ (a ‘courageous conversation’ is one where “opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong”).  For things like basic information-sharing, use well-crafted, pre-circulated briefing notes, webinars, written communication, conference calls – but save your costly face to face time for the high-octane, high priority work that can’t get done well through any other format.

Phone: I confess: when a conversation could get a bit complicated, sometimes my Inner Coward would rather hit the keyboard than risk the more intimate, two-way and possibly lengthier mode of communicating in real-time. Sadly, that ‘safety’ is an illusion. Courageous or complicated conversations often get messier – which gets MORE time-consuming and complicated, not less – due to the sheer limitations of text-only communications. So pick up the damned phone, already!

Better yet: use Skype video or Facetime.  At least then you can benefit from at least choppy and partly pixelated facial expressions to go along with the full range of vocal tone.  In fact, all of my current coaching clients live in other cities – so all of our sessions are by skype video or phone.  This honestly feels almost as impactful as face-to-face – as long as I use the following practices:

  • Make sure I’m in a comfortable, quiet place
  • Turn off all unnecessary devices and monitors. Let’s face it, most of us are completely ADHD now with our devices – so I chooseto get rid of the temptation altogether.
  • If I need my laptop for note-taking, I at least turn off all other programs and close all tabs – again, removing the temptation to get distracted by the endless flow of incoming messages
  • Minimize all visual stimulation (no TV in the background or staring out my window at the unfolding dramas of the street below…)
  • Stay present. Of course, this is really what it’s all about. I strive to practice using the ‘muscle of my attention’, over and over, to come back to the present moment and make the most of our time together as disembodied beings. It makes a MASSIVE difference.

Email: Email is the main way more people over 20 years old communicate. It’s super-efficient, easy to copy and forward to others, easy to include links to further information…  It’s also tricky,  especially for more complex or ‘difficult’ conversations. Did that exclamation mark convey happy tail-wagging enthusiasm – or is the writer shouting at me? Was that period at the end of the sentence a calm, gentle downtone – or an abrupt, sardonic hiss? For any complicated conversations, avoid email. It’s really a last resort, with the greatest potential to create misunderstandings and time-consuming messes that then have to be cleaned up.

For everyday email, please, here are a few basic practices to minimize digital clutter and spare your colleagues the torture of endless unnecessary email threads:

  1. Don’t squander the CC field. Make sure anyone who MUST be copied is – and not one person more
  2. Pause before blithely pounding on the “reply all” key: Really. Does EVERYONE need to know that yes, you liked the article or no, you can’t make the meeting?
  3. POP it: clarify your desired purpose and outcome in the subject line. Is your email for information only? Urgent action? Calendarizing? Feedback? Decision? Start doing this – and better yet, get your whole team to adopt the practice – and you will be an Email Efficiency hero, I promise. It’s smart, helps others focus on what’s important and yields faster results for everyone.
  4. Use “priority flags’ sparingly. Otherwise, you risk sounding endlessly hysterical. Just as bad, you’ll be seen as the kid who ‘cried wolf’ once too often, and everyone will start ignoring your flags anyways.

Paying your NGO staff enough?

Canada’s charitable sector has long been expected to undergo a massive turnover in Executive Directors and other senior staff over the next 5-10 years. In order for not-for-profits to successfully recruit and retain outstanding staff, it helps to  know what the ‘going rates’ are in the sector.  Charity Village recently published its first comprehensive survey of staff compensation in not-for-profits across Canada. At $97, it represents the first comprehensive Canadian survey of its kind that I’m aware of for several years, and could be gold to NGOs planning their long-term sustainability in terms of passionate, skilled staff. Click here to order the report.

Be a Racial Justice Hero

As Martin Luther King day just passed, the team at Colorlines.org posted a great little article on how to be a ‘racial justice superhero’ all year long… And check out their great infographic – a playful, but powerful checklist of sorts on doing the work.

As Martin Luther King day just passed, the team at Colorlines.org posted a great little article on how to be a ‘racial justice superhero’ all year long. Terry Keleher writes: “Racial Transformers don’t fixate on who’s a racist or whether someone intends animus. For they know that the deepest racism lies not just in the hearts and minds of individuals, but in the roles and rules of big institutions—like schools, courtrooms and corporations. That’s their primary focus of change—these familiar systems of power, churning out deep and deadly racial inequities by the day…. All it takes is a little drilling down into your daily routine—examining what’s going on and what you can do differently. Begin by thinking about the institutions you routinely interact with—stores, banks, media outlets, health facilities, schools, your workplace, community or religious organizations, city government and so on.” It’s a quick read full of terrific reminders of the kinds of individual practices and intentions that can add up to transformative change.

And check out their great infographic – a playful, but powerful checklist of sorts on doing the work:

Agenda design: Troubleshooting “heading rows repeat” in long agenda tables

OK, this is an unusual post for me, as it concerns a dorky little technical formatting problem that’s been ticking me off – and I’ve finally solved it. As a facilitator, I’m constantly working with fairly lengthy tables in Word. And sometimes they get all pissy on me and refuse to do what I want. Ugh! This happened just now: I’m preparing a detailed facilitator’s agenda for an upcoming training, in table format. It’s both for my eyes, and those of my client. I need the heading row to repeat on each of the 14 pages of this table, as it sets out the minutes needed for each agenda item, the time, the detailed activities and any visual tools (flipcharts, handouts, videos etc.) needed, so it’s really helpful to have it show at the top of each page. I’m working with Microsoft Office for Mac 2011, and of course had already selected the first header row, then chose “Table”, “Heading Row Repeat”. But suddenly, “Heading Rows Repeat” stopped working.  I hadn’t added any manual page breaks.  So, fellow facilitators, if you’re having trouble getting “heading rows repeat” to work in Word, here’s the solution:

Go to “Tables” in the menu bar; select “Table Properties”; click the “Table” tab; then make sure that the “Text Wrap” option near the bottom of the dialogue box is selected to “None”.

That’s it! Simple solution to a minor annoyance that’s plagued me for a couple of years. If that doesn’t work, then either you’re looking at the wrong view (repeated heading rows only show in Page Layout view) or your table may be corrupted (can’t help you with that).  Happy agenda-crafting!

This is the kind of agenda where Heading Rows Repeat is really helpful

The power of Testimonials

Testimonials are one of the most powerful tools in an organization or consultant’s promotional toolbox. Knowing this, I’ve gladly written many short endorsements for others over the years. Yet so many of us feel too shy, too busy or just never get around to ensuring we have a steady supply of these first-person endorsements of our own work…

When your organization is searching for consultant, where’s the first place you look? For most of us, we turn first to our trusted colleagues and peers for ‘inside’ stories and perspectives of people we may be considering. But what if a potential recruit doesn’t overlap with our professional networks? In addition to reviewing that recruit’s own CV and bio, many of us then turn to testimonials from past clients or employees who may have similar needs to our own.

That’s why testimonials are one of the most powerful tools in an organization or consultant’s promotional toolbox. Knowing this, I’ve gladly written many short endorsements for others over the years.  Yet so many of us feel too shy, too busy or just never get around to ensuring we have a steady supply of these first-person endorsements of our own work. And I was one of the worst offenders!  Finally, shamed into action when a close colleague recently pointed out that I have no client testimonials on either my website or my blog, I got into gear.  Over the course of a couple of weeks, I asked a number of past and current clients if they’d be willing to write a few sentences about their experience of my work. To my astonishment, every single person I asked readily agreed.  So, finally, I’ve taken the minimal step of posting those testimonials on a separate page on my blog, and put together a few tips for others to consider:

  1. Just ask.  Ask nicely, of course. Clarify that there’s “no pressure” and that you won’t be offended if they don’t respond, don’t have time or don’t feel comfortable – and be sure you mean it!
  2. Make it easy. I took the liberty of dashing a few short bullets to each client outlining the work I’ve done for them (I have a number of long term repeat clients, so it can be easy to lose track). Several used those points as a springboard to their own short paragraphs.
  3. Develop a system. Make it easy for yourself, as well, by ensuring that, once you’ve determined that a client is pleased with the work, you follow your final invoice and/or client evaluation with a request for a short testimonial – while it’s fresh on their minds and yours. Some consultants offer short on-line evaluation surveys, using tools like SurveyMonkey, and include a request for a short endorsement right in the survey.
  4. Share your testimonials! Make sure you publish and use them well. For now, I’ve simply added a single page with all the testimonials I’ve gathered so far in one place.  But the fact is, this is a bare minimum. It’s far more effective to ‘scatter’ your testimonials throughout your site, blog or through other promotional material so that prospective clients, donors or allies have ready access to the good things others have said about your work.

So gather up those testimonials, people!  And check this out: I just stumbled across another fantastic and far more thorough article on using testimonials for marketing, by John Sternal. It’s full of tips on how to gather and use testimonials for small businesses, but just as applicable for many not-for-profits and other organizations.

Four Solutions for striking the media “brand balance” in coalitions

Sharing media profile is one of the most challenging issues many coalitions face. Here are solutions coalitions I’ve worked with have used to strike the balance between maintaining a strong internal collaboration, and maximizing media profile for a shared issue.

For non-profit organizations working in coalition, picture this all-too-familiar scene: you’re sitting around the table hammering out the key messages of a major news release, carefully crafting the lead quote and framing the sound bytes, stats and background information into a snappy, compelling 1-pager. But then the tensions start to build: whose organizational representative gets the lead quote? Whose name or names and contact information get listed at the top of the page for reporters to follow up with (assuming you’re not going to make the mistake of listing 10 different spokesperson contacts on the release)? And it’s not just news releases: individual spokespeople and organizations get profile through the authorship of op-eds or letters to the editors, blog postings, and on their relative prominence as contacts in story pitching or briefing letters to the media or in media advisories.

Here’s the thing: in most cases, if one of your members has a gigantic brand profile (think: WWF or Greenpeace), they are most likely going to generate the MOST media interest and follow up, every time.  Which is the whole point of the release…right? But it’s not always so simple in practice.

In fact, coalitions are faced with balancing multiple goals. One is obviously to maximize the profile of a critical public or policy issue. Another may be more subtle, but of equal or even greater strategic importance: to maintain the internal strength of the coalition itself. Coalitions can strategically be worth more than the sum of their parts simply because they are coalitions. The particular mix of groups may represent unlikely allies working on (and therefore adding credibility and profile) to a joint issue; or it may show a surprisingly unified position across a sector; or it may simply represent strength in numbers. Keeping a coalition strong may be a major component of the overall strategy. And that means having open dialogue about issues of power, privilege, and the meaning of true collaboration.

I’ve worked with dozens of coalitions over the years, and have seen at least four solutions that real-life coalitions use to balance issue profile with the maintenance of trust and goodwill within the coalition itself. In each case, success relies on a clear agreement, set out in advance and often in writing, about which approach the group will use.  In brief, here they are:

  1. Rotate organizational brands: simply track and rotate which group representatives get the most prominence across a range of media initiatives. One approach is to rotate the lead for every initiative (“you get the lead for this release, and I’ll get the next”). Another variation is to rotate the leads over time; e.g., group X gets the lead for stories from March-June, group Y gets the summer and Fall, and so on.
  2. Focus on geographic relevance: highlight the member groups with the greatest regional relevance to a story. For example,  if a story particularly affects the East Coast, then the Atlantic groups will lead on it.  If it’s a national or international story, the coalition may first highlight one of the international members along with a regional group, but the active pitching and follow-up would be done by regional groups to their own regional media.
  3. Highlight expertise and/or legwork: highlight the member group or individual with the greatest expertise on the issue, and/or those who simply did the most work on this particular story or event.
  4. Highlight the group with the greatest media profile: finally, coalitions may decide to simply aim for the biggest bang for their bucks when it comes to the media profile side of their work, and consistently highlight the groups and individuals in which the media will be most interested, in order to maximize media coverage.

None of these options is mutually exclusive. Coalitions may choose to rotate smaller stories in principle, but for one or two major stories in a year, simply focus on gaining maximum coverage. Or, they may rotate the media profiles in their advance media planning (ie, as they set out the communications and media events they will proactively generate over the next year), but have a nimble sub-committee determine who leads on sudden “response-required” stories on a case-by-case basis (“nimble” being the key word; otherwise, this approach is risky!)

Agreement and true buy-in are key.  Given that collaboration itself is often the core strategy for any coalition, it only makes sense to invest early in frank and open dialogue about the brand profile options, and ensure the whole group is really aligned with the final agreement, well in advance of any media maelstroms.

Digital philanthropy: Study shows organizational websites trump social media & giving portals

A landmark U.S. study outlines the most effective approaches to digital philanthropy.

Almost all the charities I work with either have fully developed social media strategies, or plan to develop and implement them in the next year.  Many are wrestling with how to integrate fundraising into all of their outreach and communication efforts. Nowadays, that includes fundraising using social media, as well as using third party websites such as Canada Helps.

A landmark seven –year (2003-2009) U.S. study by the cause marketing organization Network for Good and U.S. fundraising leader True Sense offers some groundbreaking analysis about the most effective approaches to digital philanthropy.

Some of their main conclusions:

  • The majority (over 64%) of charitable on-line giving comes via non-profit websites
  • Donors who give to those non-profit websites give the most over time, and start at the highest level
  • Donors giving via third party giving portals and social networks like Facebook start at the lowest level and give less over time
  • Most giving happens during work hours, especially 9 – 5
  • A third of all giving happens in December; giving also spikes during disasters

The upshot:  solid fundraising strategies tend to be multi-pronged, and there’s no good reason to not use multiple approaches to connecting donor’s values and passions with your organization’s services.  But if your staff or volunteers are strapped for time or skills, clearly your organization’s own website donation portal should be your top focus.

To see the whole study, including easy-to-read charts, see http://www.onlinegivingstudy.org.

Leadership, conflict resolution & “Process Work”: Upcoming workshop

Interested in building your skills around conflict resolution, leadership and organizational effectiveness?  From January 14 – 16, 2011, veteran trainer and coach Dr. Stephen Schuitevoerder, President of Portland’s Process Work Institute, is coming up to Vancouver to  offer a unique seminar focused on leadership and a deeply compelling approach to group conflict called “Process Work”.  The workshop is called “Organizational Excellence: The Cultivation of Effective Leadership.” It promises to offer a highly experiential approach to skill development around leadership, organizational health and group conflict.

I’m particularly drawn to and curious about Process Work, or “World Work”,  because of it’s deep focus on the potential  for social transformation through conflict and group dysfunction, combined with its analysis of power and privilege.

My interest was particularly sparked this past Spring, when I received some startling confidential feedback on a confidential participant survey after I co-facilitated a 4-day leadership training. This one participant suggested that I am conflict averse. Me??!! Conflict averse?! I’m a skilled facilitator, dammit – I’m great with conflict!  I stood up, outraged, glaring at the computer. But after huffing indignantly for a few moments… well, I noticed that I’d been huffing indignantly for a few minutes.  That’s a sure sign that something hit home, right?

So, after calming down, and gently setting aside my Inner Xena for a few moments, I realized that indeed, there have been cases where I, as a facilitator, have squirmed uncomfortably when a group is in the throes of a heated conflict – especially when some of that heat is cast in my direction.  Those moments can be both terrifying AND present enormous opportunities for growth and learning (I’m not just saying that, I swear). And it got me thinking more deeply about how we may respond differently to different kinds and layers of  conflict – and how committed I am to continually building my ease and comfort with “sitting in the fire” of conflict, whether it’s about facilitating a challenging conversation about race and privilege, or getting our kids to pitch in more proactively around housework.  I do believe that conflict, held with skill and positive intent, is essential for social change. As James Surowiecki lays out so compellingly in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds,  mixed groups of people with different backgrounds, skills and points of view are vastly more intelligent, collectively , than homogenous groups of like-minded people.  The challenges we humans have created for ourselves are so complex and multi-layered that monolithic group-think is potentially disastrous. AND… diverse viewpoints in a group context often lead to conflict. Handled with skill, conflict can be immensely useful, healthy and productive. Handled poorly, it can lead to subtle and overt forms of violence and undermine key relationships in seconds.

Process or World Work may offer the kind of self-reflective training and analysis of social transformation, power and privilege I am presently hungry for in my own development as a facilitator and coach.  My first exploration began this past June, at a facilitator’s training workshop on Deep Democracy and Process Work offered by Julie Diamond and Gary Reiss, also of the Process Work Institute. This coming workshop in January promises to be similarly self-reflective and experiential.

If you want to read more about Process Work or World Work, here are a couple of books that were highly recommended to me:

To register for “Organizational Excellence: The Cultivation of Effective Leadership“, January 14-16, 2011 in Vancouver, contact pamschmidt1@gmail.com.

Beyond the message box: Facilitating an “oppositional role-play”

Whether developing a “message box” or dealing with internal strategy debates, social change advocates sometimes have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. There’s a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning. As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing. Here, I share a short case study of an ‘oppositional role-play’ I’ve used with a few groups to help go beyond entrenched viewpoints so that more meaningful listening and understanding – and sometimes surprising new solutions – can be achieved.

In last week’s post about developing a campaign message box, I described how often social change advocates have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. Without that understanding, it is hard to effectively inoculate against or counter the arguments of opponents.  But even more importantly, being so stubbornly entrenched in our own positions makes it difficult to move forward toward lasting, shared solutions. And of course, sometimes the ‘other side’ is us: opposing points of view exist within healthy, smart teams. This is a very good thing – otherwise we risk the dull homogeneity and conformity of ‘groupthink’, and all the blind spots and lack of creativity it engenders.  But there is a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning.  As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing.

Earlier this Spring I was facilitating a planning retreat with a coalition of non-profit leaders embroiled in a difficult strategy debate. It was after lunch; people were sleepy, those hideous fluorescent lights were flickering ever so slightly, the arguments were repetitive, and a couple of people were starting to emotionally check out. At this point, the group was ‘looping’: repeating the same arguments and counter-arguments, talking at (versus with) one another and not really getting anywhere.

As I watched, it became clear that one particularly passionate member – let’s call him Jim – wasn’t really listening or responding to the other side in the debate. So I asked if he’d be willing to do a brief role-play – in reverse. In other words, I asked Jim to suspend his own position for a few minutes to role-play the perspectives and messages of his ‘opponents’ within the group. Another volunteer – who disagreed with him pretty vehemently – gamely stepped in to represent Jim’s real arguments. Immediately, the group perked up (was there just the faintest touch of Gladiator in the room?!).

At first, it was painful to watch. Jim had a strong self-image as being a great listener, open to new ideas and largely free from ego-attachment to his positions. In fact, many of us feel that way about ourselves; yet when it comes to issues we care passionately about, virtually all of us could use a little work and support in the ‘deep listening’ department.  Mere seconds into the role-play, it became apparent that Jim wasn’t really getting the opposing arguments at all, despite having heard many of them for weeks.  He was barely able to articulate them. Even when he did, he could barely do so without sneering!

“Come on, Jim”, I urged him, “make us believe!! Convince us! Say it like you really mean it!!”   He chuckled sheepishly,  took a deep breath, and tried again. After a while – egged on with some friendly heckling from the sidelines – he began to really fill the shoes of the other side – to really start embodying (and therefore understanding more deeply) a perspective that was very different from his own.

As soon as each side relinquished their stubborn grasp on entrenched positions, things got interesting. The tenor in the room changed noticeably – and a longstanding ‘energetic’ (and intellectual) log-jam finally broke.  At this point, egos were set aside so that each party was truly listening to the other.

The concept of ‘deep listening’ to resolve conflicts isn’t new. As author Steven Covey urges,  “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  Only then is an authentic collaborative solution – or at the very least, a more thoughtful solution – truly possible. Role-plays offer a chance to really work this concept, forcing us to go beyond a surface understanding of very different positions so that we may fully embody and deeply understand them. At the very least, if we are still simply countering those positions, we will be far more convincing and effective. At the same time, deep understanding allows us to go beyond the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ framing of the message box to hold more complexity, and possibly discover new creative solutions to tired, rigid perspectives.

Authentic facilitation: Two upcoming trainings June 10-11 in Toronto

Anima Leadership is offering two 1-day facilitation trainings, June 10 and 11th, at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation.

Anima Leadership, one of Canada’s most insightful, intelligent and experienced transformational leadership teams, is offering two back-to-back facilitation trainings at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation. Authentic Facilitation 1: Learning to facilitate with presence of ease is on June 10th, followed by Authentic Facilitation 2: Learning to sit in the fire of conflict on June 11th. Check here for registration and details.

%d bloggers like this: