Virtual Meetings: 10 Tips from a Virtual Team

Everyone is now working virtually. Introverts don’t mind so much; extraverts are praying daily for a return to normalcy (“there are no atheists in the foxholes or in quarantine…”) Our team has been virtual for over a decade. (Once we had an office, but I was the Maytag repairman. Millennials: Google it.)

Here’s what we’ve learned over that time. Meetings via Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, etc. must be far more organized than in person.

Guidelines include:

  1. Agenda circulated in advance (48 hours is recommended). It should include a purpose and the desired outcomes (specific takeaways). Also, who should participate and who will facilitate. It’s helpful to also designate additional roles so that participants don’t become “passengers.” (Typical response to conference calls: “Good, I can sort through emails…”)
  2. Require all participants to turn on their webcam. I know, harsh. Many participants are loathe to do this. Why insist? The temptation to multi-task—sort emails–is huge. Viewing one another creates accountability because participants must stay focused and engaged. It keeps you honest. And, of course, it helps with the human connection, more important now than ever.
  3. Protocol is necessary. Designate a facilitator. Their role is to manage the conversation and stick to the agenda. In our meetings, we raise our hands when we wish to speak. (I know, “seriously? You mean, like grade school?” Yes.) This practice allows people to finish their thought and eliminates new speakers from fighting for airtime. It helps if the facilitator says, “First, Sally, then John.” Also, ask the introverts—i.e. quiet ones—if they have a comment. Often, they do and just haven’t said it. Invite them in. (Remember the difference between extraverted analysts and introverted ones? The extraverts look at your shoes. The introverts look at their own shoes.)
  4. Remind participants up front to practice curiosity and respect, especially around touchy subjects. If two participants have clearly gotten defensive (FCG lingo: “below the line”), then the facilitator should intervene and say something like, “Let’s all take a second to get curious again. It feels to me like we’re starting to get defensive.” The facilitator may want to add, “I can see both of sides of this…” Or ask, “Does anyone else have a view on this subject?” Then watch for raised hands and call on a new person. (Importantly, facilitators must ignore the urge to simply say, “John, you’re being an A-hole, stop it.” Unless, of course, you know John well and he IS being an a-hole.)
  5. The facilitator should encourage “headline speaking.” This technique involves leading with the topic, then following up with details. Example: “I have a question about the budget. In the past, we’ve…” Not: “In the past, it’s been frustrating because a group of us would get together, usually in the afternoon when we’re all ready to quit for the day…” In the latter example, people are wondering, “Where is this going?” (Facilitators, resist the urge to say, “Does this train of thought have a destination?”) In the former, they hear the topic and can start to collect their thoughts about it. Headline speaking takes a bit of practice but is efficient and effective once mastered.
  6. Use a real-time voting tool like TurningPoint. (The services mentioned above have polling options included but are somewhat clunky.) The real-time voting allows participants to avoid conformity bias and deference (to the leader of facilitator). A polling question like, “Should we pursue this investment?” can be posed, and a quick poll will suggest an answer. Real-time polling has the benefit of anonymity, so candor is safer. (Note to leaders: for a small fee, FCG can show you how to circumvent the anonymity to see how people responded. Just kidding.)
  7. Use the messaging feature included in all the conference call services. It’s very useful because side conversations aren’t possible in a Zoom meeting. In an in-person meeting, you can quickly ask your neighbor, “Didn’t you write a report on this topic, with some important insights?” In a virtual meeting, you can do this by messaging the participant and asking the same question, without disturbing the meeting. You can also message the facilitator with a comment like, “I think we’re off topic.” (We discourage participants from using it to write private messages like, “If Frank mentions that point one more time, I will mail him anthrax.”)
  8. Use the screen share A picture IS worth a thousand words (well, often…). Put an important image on the shared screen to help the discussion. Caution: if someone is presenting a PowerPoint deck, do NOT let them run long. We suggest 3-5 slides max, with a limit of ten minutes. Participants will moan audibly if they must sit through thirty minutes of slides.
  9. At the close of the meeting, make sure you have next steps. We use the formula: who will do what by when? Clear agreements have always been crucial; working from home elevates them even more. (A clear agreement is not: “This has been good; somebody do something.”)
  10. Evaluate the meeting. Again, using anonymous real-time voting, have participants rate the usefulness of the meeting from 1 – 5. If some scores are low, then encourage participants to provide constructive suggestions for improvement. Messaging can be used for this feedback. Or, if anonymity is preferred, TurningPoint has a feature called, “Word Cloud” which allows participants to text in a short comment. These comments are then revealed simultaneously when the slide is advanced. (Provide useful feedback. “This sucks” is not helpful.)

These tips have helped our team at Focus Consulting significantly. Our meetings are useful, efficient, and wildly fun. Sorry, I got carried away. Seriously though, I do look forward to our virtual team meetings. And I’m an introvert!

Finally, during these challenging times we want to offer support. Many clients are working virtually or split/rotational schedule. Frequently, productivity suffers. We have prepared a video to help.  Listen here or directly from our website at www.focusCgroup.com under the VIDEOS tab.

Looking down at my own shoes while remaining curious,

JW

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Coaching tips for challenging times

Were you around for Black Monday, 1987? Or the attacks on 9/11?  If so, then the business challenges posed today by the coronavirus pandemic may feel familiar.  But if this is your first major market crash, welcome to the big kids’ table.  You’re going to learn a lot more about the markets, your team and yourself over the next few months than you may have learned over the past ten years…but only if you pay attention to what has your attention.

I learned this through first-hand experience.   In 1987, I ran shareholder communications for a large mutual fund organization. On Black Monday, October 19, when the market plunged more than 20%, we were faced with panicking shareholders, anxious team members, and a vast amount of uncertainty about the future of the markets, the business and our jobs.  The media began pouring out an endless stream of bad news. It felt like there was no escape.

In 2001, I headed up global marketing for a large asset management business.  We were in the middle of a client advisory board meeting on September 11 when the news broke about the first hijacked plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center.  We turned on the conference room TV and watched in stunned silence as a second plane hit the south tower.  In the aftermath of that unspeakable tragedy that claimed nearly 3000 lives, the market fell close to 700 points and once again, we were faced with panicking clients, anxious team members and a vast amount of uncertainty about the future of the markets, the business and our jobs.  The media again poured out a stream of bad news and again it felt like there was no escape.

These were both text-book examples of the fear response going viral. You know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s what many people are experiencing right now in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.  There’s no way to prevent fear contagion from kicking into gear – it’s automatic and unconscious, after all – but you can do something to mitigate it. The key lies in strengthening your emotional intelligence, or EQ.  Emotional intelligence is the ability to:

  • Understand your own emotions
  • Respond to your emotions with intention, rather than re-actively
  • Understand the emotions of other people
  • Manage relationships productively

With strong EQ skills, you can choose what you want to focus on, rather than being swept away by the fears of the crowds.  You learn how to separate what’s under your control from what’s not, and how to stay focused on the former.  A strong EQ helps you serve as a role model for your team mates, and helps you weather all kinds of storms. I found that building my emotional intelligence was crucial in guiding teams during those challenging times earlier in my career.  Now, as a coach, I help other investment professionals learn about and strengthen their own EQ, which is more important than ever given the current situation.

Building your EQ through coaching

Emotional intelligence is the single greatest determinant of success in business — even in the investment business, where critical thinking and objective analysis are highly valued.  A few leaders seem to have been born with the gift of a high EQ, but that’s the minority.  For most professionals, EQ is a skill that needs to be developed with focused attention and practice.  This is where executive coaching plays an important role.  Just as in professional sports, coaches can help investment professionals accelerate their mastery and reach their goals with customized programs that leverage their natural strengths and address their blind spots.  Think of an executive coach as a business partner who does the following:

  • Helps you understand your patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, and how those impact the way you see yourself and others, and the way others see you
  • Brings focus and clarity to the changes you want to make
  • Provides resources and strategies to help you achieve your desired changes
  • Provides unbiased feedback
  • Serves as an accountability partner to help you stay focused on your goals

A powerful EQ tool for coaching clients is the Enneagram, a personality and personal growth system that describes the nine preferred ways human beings operate in the world.  Each type has its own worldview, focus of attention and patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.  Each also has its own triggers and ways of responding to fear.  Some types are focused on control and have strong reactions when they feel they are losing control.  Others are more concerned about approval and react more negatively to feeling disapproved of or looking bad.  A third group is focused on security, wanting to be safe from threats.

By knowing your own Enneagram type, you gain insights into your automatic patterns.  You see where those responses are productive…but also where they backfire.  Understanding your type allows you to take a step back and assess any situation more objectively and make other choices.  Clearly, in times like these, that flexibility is more important than ever. (If you’re new to the Enneagram, we suggest you take a look at our recent book, “Type, Talent and Teams: Using the Enneagram for Investment Firm Success,” available on Amazon or as a free PDF here.)

Additional coaching pointers for dealing with uncertainty

While our coaching work is customized to each specific client, there are some general reminders that we believe everyone can benefit from when dealing with uncertainty.  Here are a few that we’ve been sharing.

  1. Pay attention to your words and make a conscious choice about how you label things. Neuroscience shows that when we say (or even think) negative words, our brains release dozens of stress-producing hormones that immediately interrupt the normal functioning of our brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication.  If we want to keep our minds operating at a high level, we are better off avoiding negative words and finding either neutral or positive alternatives to use.  For example, referring to the current coronavirus situation as a challenge, rather than a crisis, will keep us in better mental shape to deal with the situation.
  2. Move through fear to curiosity. Recognize when you are triggered and find reliable shift moves to get back into an open and curious frame of mind.  These can include taking three deep breaths, going for a walk or asking yourself “wonder” questions, like “What can I learn from this situation?  How else can I respond?”  These steps have the power to interrupt the chemical cascade in your nervous system and return you to your higher-level thinking.

 

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Whether you are a leader or a team member, communicating frequently will help lessen the group’s overall anxiety. For leaders, that goes double.  Maybe even triple.
  2. Use the “Power of Pause.” Now is not the time to make drastic decisions.  Pause, get counsel, give yourself time to think and reflect.
  3. Model appreciation…for yourself and others. Appreciation is a choice that you can make anytime you want.  It’s free, it’s energizing and best of all, it’s contagious – in a good way.  John Gottman, PhD, a leading expert on marriages, found that relationships with a 5:1 positive to negative communication ratio have an excellent probability of succeeding.  Those with only a 1:1 ratio of positive to negative are likely doomed to fail.  So, find reasons to appreciate yourself and your team members, and you’ll strengthen your team’s resilience to stress.

We hope you’ve found these coaching tips helpful. Reach out with any questions. Our type is easy to talk to. 😊

Jamie Ziegler, Consulting Partner, Focus Consulting Group

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