Managing meetings

An article on managing meetings recently crossed my desk, or rather I should say popped into my inbox from a friend.

It got me thinking.

What is the most important thing to you when you walk away from a meeting? For me, it is having a result. For me, this means clear actions and the feeling that my time wasn’t wasted.

I really don’t care how this is achieved.

I would say that it is important for the person calling the meeting to take charge, know what needs to be done, prepare and make sure the right people are in the room.

How a meeting plays out is largely dependant on the people. Some people need to feel relaxed in order to share their thoughts. A coffee, a couch and a private chat works well. Others need to feel like they are on the go and busy. Here I agree with Jerome Luepkes who suggests having standing meetings. My additional suggestion would be to choose a space with a high table if notes need to be taken.

My biggest tip to the chair of the meeting is to be firm with time management but also flexible with the room dynamics. Be ready to identify when people need to go away and discuss something at another date. One of my previous colleagues used to say ‘let’s take it off line’. While I object to such corporate speak, I have to admit that it was useful to have a key phrase to keep things focused on the agenda and give permission for extra discussion to be held ‘off line’. She was (and probably still is) the queen of meetings.

I was also a big fan of her closed door policy. She would close the door five minutes after the meeting start time. Embarrassment was ensured for anyone who dared enter late.

Decide what works for you and your colleagues. Mix it up a bit.

More information

Read Jerome’s article Meet your objective by objecting to normal meetings

Download Kevin Wolf’s free manual on meeting management (no I don’t know Kevin)

Just a little respect

There is nothing more demotivating to an employee than to be ignored.

I read a recent report that spoke about the importance of the line manager in internal comms, and how as practitioners we need to refresh our communications to keep employees engaged and motivated. Perhaps I just read it all wrong or perhaps it was just ‘so yesterday’.

Quite often employees are communicating. They are identifying problems and letting their managers know about it. When nothing gets done, the noise often gets louder and more widely spread. If nothing gets done, or no one stops and acknowledges what is being said, then employees become demotivated. Worse still is when they are asked for their feedback in, say, a staff survey, and reams of gratitude are showered down upon them for ‘sharing’. And then nothing happens.

No one likes to be ignored.

If you truly want to engage your employees you need to follow the whole process and be engaged with them. It is a dynamic process and most definitely not one that is ‘two way communication’ or, heaven forbid, one way top down communication. These models are old fashioned.

If the company decides not to follow employee feedback, then at least be clear with them on why. Set realistic expectations at the start – what is likely to change due to feedback and if it won’t, then why ‘engage’? Why ask for feedback if you aren’t going to do anything with it?

No one likes to feel like they have no impact.

I have worked with organisations where even the most elementary person can make themselves look busy while actively seeking to achieve nothing. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your employees haven’t worked out how to have a sleep at work unnoticed. Finally, strategies such as calling your employee when they are away from their desk to find out where they are (the toilet actually) or banning people from work at home days, are just plain silly.

We are not children anymore. A little respect is all that anyone wants or needs.

Culture and communication in motion

An international perspective by Berlin based Monique Zytnik.

The most important skill to have, a diplomat recently told me, is to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – to be able to see things from other people’s perspectives.

This means more than just recognising the difference.

Most misunderstandings come from underling differences in values says cultural consultant, Andrea Mendieta from intercultures in Berlin,Germany. Andrea is from Guatemala and has lived in Austria and Germany.

“People can be quick to judge others if they see them behaving differently from what they are used to,” Andrea said. “Often we don’t stop and ask ourselves why or try to discover the underlying reasons for the differences.”

The Dutch are direct and some people take offence. My Dutch cousin, who is very friendly and sweet, explained to me that being ‘fluffy’ and ‘nice’ and not getting to the point wastes time. Being direct means that problems are fixed quickly and you can get on with the work. From their perspective, it is not about being offensive. It is about being helpful. And, yes they know they are being direct.

Germans are also direct (perhaps a little less). There is an exact word for almost everything and little meaning is left to the context. If they don’t like something, you will be told. You will also be asked blunt questions. Many people I’ve met in Germany have expressed their frustration with the English, Australian or American way of being indirect and polite as it is seen as confusing. Phrases such as ‘Would it be possible if…’ and ‘If you have time could you…’ are sometimes found conceptually challenging, just as the concept of small talk is. Enthusiasm without following through to seal the deal is also strongly disliked. This is seen mainly as an American trait but I am sure we have all been guilty of it.

Be careful of relying on literal translations for meaning. Recently some of my clients in Germany burst out laughing when they heard the phrase ‘I was wondering…’ as literally translated into German it means I was asking myself about what I was thinking. When I explained that it was just a polite phrase, there was first a look of disbelief, which was followed by accusations of trying to joke with them… something along the lines of the Vegemite and drop bear stories. Language and its use can give a great insight into a culture.

A contrast to Germany’s low context culture is China. A friend regularly does business in China and Hong Kong, where building relationships, establishing trust and using subtly is essential.

This is similar in Guatemala, another high context culture, Andrea reports. “It is really important to establish the relationship when doing business as there is more that matters to a Guatemalan than the qualifications or hard facts,” she said. “If there is no relationship, there won’t be any trust and a deal might not go ahead.”

As a result, Guatemalans can find it irritating when someone launches straight into business, she says. So start an email with a bit of friendly chit chat and then move onto business, and when you meet someone face to face, spend at least ten minutes talking about family or the weekend.

Laughing, Andrea said that foreigners are sometimes taken back by how intimate people from Guatemala can seem, where touching someone on the arm or shoulder shows enthusiasm for what they are saying (very different from China). And, don’t worry too much about turning up five to ten minutes late as it isn’t considered rude. The reason for this is because time is seen as flexible and fluid – the Guatemalan culture focuses more on relationships rather than holding onto schedules.

Contrast this to Germany where punctuality is a sign of respect in business. Local public transport systems broadcast profuse apologies over loud speakers if a train is running more than seven minutes late. I think I once patiently waited two hours for a bus in Cuba because the driver had stopped for a long lunch.

Communication is about people. The sender/ receiver model of communication is old fashioned.  It implies separate stand points with the ‘communication’ going back and forwards directly between them. Technology and globalisation have made communication dynamic and interactive. The focus is now on engaging with others. Communication is perpetually in motion.

Good communication is only possible when people respect and value each other – this is the mantra of communication 2.0, for both internal and external communication, says organisational communication expert, Alejandro Formanchuk from Buenos Aires.

“When we work, we focus on people and not on tools. Our goals are to give long-lasting messages, to do believable actions, to have trusting conversations, to have welfare and to find professional and personal fulfilment,” wrote Alejandro. “We are still people who communicate with people.”

So, stay open minded, prepare yourself the best you can, try to understand your underlying values and those from others, and celebrate differences. Move. Step into someone else’s shoes. Cultural perspectives are just another element of communication in motion.

Further reading

Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner developed a respected cross cultural communication model with dichotomies in a similar style to Myers Briggs (used for monoculture analysis). Books include Building Cross-Cultural Competence and 21 Leaders for the 21st Century.

Geert Hofstede developed a country based Power Distance Index and Edward Hall was the originator of the high and low context model related to communications.

Social media dilemmas

Gone are the old days of a simple business card slotted into your alphabetic Rolodex that sat on your desk next to your computer or the address book with tabs propped next to your landline (with a cord) at home.

As we do when we network, we meet people. Business cards are exchanged and then there is the dilemma… Where do you start? Do you just go the FB and presume we are all adults now and capable of sharing work and personal friends in the same space, or do you start with LinkedIn?

Once you’ve added someone, do you track them down and connect through all social media avenues? I don’t know about you, but it certainly makes me feel like a stalker. I always imagine the four emails sitting in their personal email box asking if they’d like to ‘connect’.

Don’t let me forget about Google+ and Twitter.

Another option, and I don’t know if this is even creepier, is to gradually space out your ‘connect’ requests. LinkedIn one week, the next and after a coffee, go the FB.

Once I tried connecting with people on the one social media network. Just the one… and then lost track of who I had connected to where. I had to resort to a Google to find them in the end.

Many people use an additional social media program to simultaneously update all of their social media profiles or even schedule their Tweets. So now I have social media programs to manage my social media. It seems a bit silly? If you’re not onto this little trick yet, just check out Mashable’s article on social media updates… but does this make us spammers? Repetition. It really is no better than the random emails Hotmail tries to block from popping into your inbox.

What do you do? For a light intrusion do you ‘follow’ on Twitter. Up it a notch to FB after the coffee or just randomly introduce yourself on Xing?

I see people with +3000 contacts now and wonder how anyone could possibly stay in touch. Are we now just making our little black book and our Rolodex public?

Berlin and Melbourne – a tale of two cities

Internal communications in Berlin is different to Melbourne, not because of language barriers or cultural ones, but more because of the uniqueness of Germany’s capital city, Berlin.

The main underlying reasons are:

  • Berlin has a rich history, a unique target audience and a passion for print. There are posters, newspapers and fliers everywhere. Berlin has five local daily newspapers to Melbourne’s two local city papers, servicing approximately the same number of people. This affects how people communicate en masse.
  • Another key point is that Berlin is a political centre, not a financial one. Public affairs is the flavour here in the same way that Canberra, Australia’s political hub, is the centre for lobbying. Canberra for that matter is very different from Melbourne or Sydney.
  • Small businesses thrive in Berlin, but this means there is usually no room for an internal communications specialist. Nearly all of the large companies are based in other German cities such as Frankfurt. The Berlin branch is just another satellite office, often without internal communications support.

Industry professionals in Germany say the profession is still relatively new here and this is reflected in the maturity of the profession in Berlin. For more background, read Mike Klein’s article Establishing the internal communication function in Germany or Felix Escribano’s article What? Why? How? – Enigma Enterprise 2.0.

How do your leaders view your role?
We all want to position ourselves as the trusted adviser to the senior leadership team. Berlin’s Harald Dudel, Manager of Akakom, best described this to me as the role of the jester – outside of the hierarchy with access to management and the privilege of tactfully being able to say what you think.

In some organisations internal communications is respected and has proved its value. The best model I have worked in was where an internal communications professional was paired with a HR professional. We would consult together on team restructures and major changes that affected staff. We were also there to advise senior leaders on communications and manage content. Our team of 12 internal communications people serviced a division of just over 5,000 employees.

In other companies internal communications is still a developing role. For example, in one Melbourne organisation we had three dedicated professionals and a few part roles servicing over 13,000 employees spread across a state two thirds the size of Germany. The internal communication function was limited to priority projects and managing key channels such as intranet news articles, key staff events and all staff emails.

The role of the internal communications professional in an organisation depends on whether or not senior managers understand the importance of engaged, happy employees who respect their leaders, and the internal communications professional being able to show how they can add value to help the organisation achieve this.

My colleagues in Berlin have told me that although the internal communications profession here is developing towards a strategic function, it does not yet, for example, usually play a role in positioning leaders within the organisation (internal branding of leaders).

Does your company have a print publication?
Too often the focus rests on our tools of communication – producing content for internal print publications, intranets, all staff emails and managing internal events.

In Melbourne, employee surveys generally show a low readership of print publications. Most companies have moved away from a flagship publication in favour of spending resources on a company intranet that can be remotely accessed by employees.

In contrast, print publications in Berlin are impressive. Take for example Deutsche Bahn’s (German rail provider) internal print publication. It looks and feels like a newspaper. Given the city’s taste for print, it is likely to be well received by its 179,000 employees. One of Berlin’s internal communications strategists, Ulrike Führmann from Führmann Kommunikations explained to me the history behind internal print publications here. She said that internal publications have traditionally been a part of employee benefits and therefore there is often a fight for the preservation of the printed employee magazine or newspaper.

Not all Berlin companies have print publications. For example, Ilka Holzinger, the Manager of Internal Communications at Springer Science+Business Media, said their internal publication was emailed monthly as a PDF document to all staff. Staff members who prefer to read a printed publication print it, while others can read it online (same approach as many companies in Australia).

But what about employees who do not work in an office? Ulrike also told me that Germany faces the same challenge as Australia with remote workers. Not all employees can be reached via the intranet. Employees, for example, Deutsche Bahn staff who work in the depot or drive trains, or nurses who visit clients in their own home, do not always have access to a computer and the internet.

There are many ways that companies can actively tackle this issue, from daily podcasts that employees can download and listen to in their car, social media platforms to SMS notification systems. An emerging trend is to produce intranet content in a smart phone readable format with social media links to encourage feedback. The most important thing, of course, is to understand how your employees want to be communicated with and to make sure they are comfortable with new technology solutions.

Be a facilitator of discussion, not the loud speaker. The concept of social media, collective intelligence and the evolution of the internet has not yet reached all organisations. I believe the internal communications professional should only be the editor of intranet stories, not just the producer of content. If your employees understand the value of having their project or success promoted on the intranet, with a little encouragement, budding writers emerge, forming a network of engaged employees. It then the internal communications role as the editor to ensure the content supports company values and encourages communication and collaboration. Positive feedback to both your senior leaders and contributors, such as the number of hits on the article or anecdotal feedback, keeps the process alive. An organisation with the right guidelines and processes in place can take this to the next level and enable employees to self create and publish content. Does your organisation talk ‘at’ its employees or facilitate open discussion? Are staff profiles used to share information about what different business units are doing?

Spend time looking to the future
Long term, training and involving employees in the communication process leaves more time for the internal communications professional to focus on strategic work and developing the function within the organisation to bring it technologically into the next century. Facilitating change and planning for the future is an important part of the role. Some ideas include:

  • Online questionnaires with real time feedback – employees can see what others think and write their own comments to facilitate change from the grassroots level.
  • Taking time to coach leaders in effective communication skills.
  • Creating engaging staff meetings by encouraging two business units to work together and take responsibility for the outcome.
  • Investigating cost effective mobile technology to communicate with remote employees…. the list goes on.

I see the internal communications profession as a work in progress, both in Berlin and Melbourne. As the labour market improves and there is yet another global fight for talent, internal communications professionals once again have the opportunity to show how they can contribute to keeping employees engaged, productive and focused on the future.

What do you think? Comment on our Zytnik Consulting Facebook page. You can also connect on XingLinkedIn or Twitter.