I was once invited to a great event in Mountain View, California, dedicated to the successful launch of a really cool web service. Mountain View was at one time a small town; a carriage stop for travelers en route to San Francisco, and a vast expanse of stone fruit orchards extending all the way to the foot of the Santa Cruz mountains. Today it is home to some of the world’s largest tech companies, with all of its beautiful nature adding electricity and energy to the air around it. Combined with the buzz of the launch event, the atmosphere was utterly vibrant; a whole day of happiness capped off with a wonderful gala dinner awaiting us the following night, starring a speech from our captain, the famous super-charismatic vice president we all admired.
Out the window on my left, the sun was gradually growing deeper red as it prepared to dip down behind the mountains to the west, and in an exuberant mood that teetered on explosive excitement, I poked the elevator button. The doors opened and there stood our vice president, alone with beaming energy and a charismatic smile.
Instead of returning a smile, a handshake and a smooth-polished elevator speech on the project that my team and I had labored on for countless hours, instead of offering to tell him more over coffee and instead of making another huge unscheduled leap in my career, I could only manage an unceremonious mumble, “First floor, please.”
After stepping into that elevator six years ago I decided that a great metamorphosis in my career was necessary. We must always be prepared for such serendipitous and synchronistic meetings. To be alert and ready, prepared for those elevator pitches. It is important to sharpen the saw of our soft skills and build our personal brand, to be human alongside being great and well-known within our roles. Even a world-class specialist is destined to remain only a specialist without soft skills. To make the next leap in your career, you absolutely need the human element of soft skills.
Amidst a sea of definitions, we can define soft skills as basic human attributes, those subtle ways of being amazing to work with, amazing to talk with. We could define it as charisma, but it’s far simpler than that. Feeling comfortable in professional situations, being easy to talk to, being able to listen to and respond thoughtfully to others. Soft skills are a flavor of brand-building skills. This may sound simple, and yet in practice it’s often uncommon. We’re simply too busy to remember to be human.
Each of us should also feel comfortable gaining visibility. Some of us may feel humble or shy when it comes to trumpeting from the rooftops the details of our latest launch or achievement. Yet it is highly necessary to be known within an industry. Social networks are one of your best friends here and a great platform for personal brand building. Advertise yourself. Share important events from your professional life. Write articles.
To efficiently manage your brand, I recommend creating a personal public relations plan for a year, broken down into actionable strategies for each month and week. Your year plan could include goals such as nabbing ten job interview invites, 200 likes to your posts on professional topics and 300 new followers, but broken down into actionable tasks for the month or week. Include short-term goals, such as doling out a certain number of weekly posts or updates, or making contacts with people and companies you like and respect.
Without refined communication skills, the effort to create a great personal brand will end up on the rocks. To build a strong brand, we must know how to communicate well with those we work with. A meeting or conversation that flows easily, where goals on both sides are achieved — seemingly without effort — feels amazing.
For some, communication comes without effort, while for others it may be hard to communi-
cate without preparation. So prepare! It is always a great idea to check in advance whom you will be meeting with and what their needs may be. Being prepared will make you an efficient communicator and will help you leave a lasting good impression.
About ten years ago I was interpreting for the head of one of the world’s largest telecommunication companies. We hadn’t met prior to that meeting. Imagine my surprise when he entered the room, shook my hand energetically and said, “Hi, Max! Great to meet you. I’ve heard you’re a great translator, and I will do my best to be a great speaker.” First, he knew my name. Never underestimate the power of knowing a person’s name, and using it when you speak to them. Second, he checked information about me and my reputation. Lastly, he offered his help to accommodate my needs. Although he was the customer, he treated me like a partner. He took a human approach. This is great communication and relationship building. Needless to say, I happily went above and beyond that day to help him. Be prepared for communication and it will play to your brand.
It is also important to say a few words about written communication. This includes skills in email writing and creating presentations. The shorter your email or slide is, the better. Action is often directly tied to the length of written communication.
Consider the goal of your communication. Do you wish to get an answer to an important question? Do you need buy-in? Be sure that your communication is not only concise, but that the purpose is clear. Use bold font headers in longer emails, and be sure any questions or calls to action are clear and easily stand out. If your call to action or question is buried in long text blocks, you may not get an answer to your question or meet your goals. We are all busy in today’s work environment.
Consider also that negotiation and gaining buy-in is best done in person, according to Stuart Diamond, negotiation guru and University of Pennsylvania Wharton School Emeritus Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics and author of Getting More: How You Can Negotiate to Succeed in Work and Life.
We can’t stop, however, at merely creating good written content. The delivery is equally important. Here again, step into your audience’s shoes to consider how they would like to receive your presentation. This will help to make sure your information is correctly received, and any goals of the presentation are met. Is your audience relaxed and casual? Would your audience like more or less data or graphs? If not, would they like an appendix with links to more information? Would they prefer only major points on slides, while you animatedly speak the bulk of the information? Ask a trusted teammate to review your slides and presentation, and ask for feedback and incorporate it.
Coaching, giving and receiving feedback
Whatever your actual title may be, you wear many hats. For example, I may be a project or program manager, a language specialist or a director, but each day I wear hats across different functions, such as leader, analyst, idea generator, manager, mediator, executor and so on. It is important to perform well in each functional area that is necessary within your role, whether as a leader and idea generator, mediator or giver of feedback.
There are bound to be critics and those who disagree with us from time to time. To disagree is human, as we all perceive information through different filters based on our backgrounds, culture, history, education and so on. Welcome those who disagree, but be prepared to speak to them in a calm and relaxed manner. When disagreements or side topics and conversations wander too far off topic and time is constrained, ask others to set up spin-off meetings or create follow-up action items as needed.
Learn how to give valuable feedback. The result of giving feedback is a new correct course of action. In the end, those you give feedback to will be grateful. This skill needs to be constantly polished.
Hand in hand with giving feedback is coaching. This is different from teaching or directing. Instead of telling people what to do, guide them so they themselves make the right conclusions and decisions.
It is also necessary to receive feedback actively and to be grateful for it. Listen carefully. Don’t interrupt and don’t defend. Listening is passive. Ask for examples and suggestions on how to improve.
All of these skills will come in handy when you work on your own. However, they are even more useful for managing and leading others.
A few tenets of great leadership
But first you need to build your team. And here it is vital to mention the importance of interviewing skills. The interview helps you to perceive the person you’re considering hiring, the fit of this person within the larger team, and their potential value-add to the company. Interviewing is pure communication, so keep it human. Keep it conversational. In addition, an interview is a great opportunity to tell a promising candidate about yourself, your team and the company. The interviewee is simultaneously interviewing you (even if they do not ask questions), so it is imperative to pique their interest.
It is especially challenging to be a leader in large global companies, where people have not only different views and mentalities — norms shaped over millennia across culture, custom and history — but the added dimensions of geography and time.
Any such manager should be familiar with Geert Hofstede’s writing on culture, and books such as Terri Morrison’s Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands may also help you navigate cultural variations across borders. I’ve always loved the colorful ads HSBC used where they state they are “The World’s Local Bank” — the type you see if you’ve ever sleepily trotted through airline gangways in London’s Gatwick or Heathrow, or thumbed through magazines.
These ads somewhat succinctly sum up Hofstede’s writing on cultural nuances. We all think and act differently, and terms like standard and normal are relative. The great news is that you can develop a great leadership style by assimilating cross-cultural awareness and appreciation.
A good leader will use this awareness and appreciation in unison with all of the skills discussed here. Read about leader charisma and how you can build it. One of the leader’s primary tasks is to present the team in front of higher level management and company leadership. The better your team is, the better the perception of your own leadership brand is and vice versa. A leader is not only the heart of the team, but also its beautiful shining face. It is a leader who is associated with all the successes and failures of the team. That’s why it is so important to know how to create visibility and represent your team in the best possible way.
Another important skill for a manager is the ability to motivate. It is a well-known fact that under-motivated employees are less efficient and do not meet the goals set for them. Although money is often a great motivator, a true leader can motivate without it. A motivated team is a reliable support for a manager. Any task can be easily delegated to a motivated employee or vendor. This means that delegation is also an important skill. There are many delegation techniques, but one of my favorites, which I find extremely useful, is the Eisenhower Matrix. The Eisenhower Matrix recommends delegating urgent but not important tasks, freeing up time for strategic work.
Energy is quite likely the most important managerial skill. Here I don’t mean energy born from coffee or the myriad of energy potions, but instead the ability to remain balanced in life in a way that allows you to sustain high performance and switch on charismatic energy at just the right time. Energetic people are always wonderful to work with. It’s like the lights are on inside them. They smile. They’re eager to help. They listen. They have fresh ideas and they don’t impose them on others. They develop and lead. The secret of energy is that it materializes when a manager possesses all of the skills mentioned above and other soft skills, while remaining balanced in life.
If you’re willing to practice every day, all of this is possible. We have access to thousands of books and trainings dedicated to these topics. After my 30 seconds of shame in the elevator with our charismatic vice president, I decided to focus on these same skills I’d witnessed in him and other great managers. That was six years ago. The next time I land in the proverbial elevator with him, it might just go a little differently.
“Hi Frank!” I exclaim, full of calm exuberance as I step into the elevator.
“Hey, how are you?” Frank replies.
“Really great! My name is Max Lobanov. I’m very happy to meet you. I’m glad I bumped into you, because I’d wanted to tell you that it was honor to work on your team for this awesome launch. In the last few weeks my team has been working day and night to make sure we launch the new service in 100 languages around the globe. I was personally responsible for the localization quality in Russia and the Ukraine! I assure you, our users will be happy.”
“Wow! Thanks for your contribution, Max! It was awesome work.”
“You’re welcome! If you would like to learn more or have any questions around localization quality, I’d love to chat.” I’m feeling really good now, as I reach my hand out to him. “Here is my business card.”
“Great! Actually, I do have questions about localization. I will contact you — we should grab coffee on Friday.”
“Cool, that sounds perfect. Have a great evening!”“Thanks, Max! You as well!” Frank shakes my hand, and we part ways.