Shared meaning

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When asked to write about the best business advice I ever received, I had a second of hesitation and then it came through loud and clear.

My first reaction to this thought however, was—wow it needs to be scientific …maybe I should do some research…think back to all the advice I ever received, before I decided on one.

So I paid attention to thoughts, quotes, blogs and Twitter over the next several days. I thought about past and current mentors. Some good ones emerged:

  • “Be grateful.”–Grandma Howard
  • “Remember who brought you to the dance.”–Loren Mortenson

I even saw one on Twitter from William Barnett, Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy, and Organizations at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, that captures a mantra on focus:

“Better to work at setting one thing right forever, than to set many things right temporarily.”

Hmm. But I wasn’t sure these were “it.” So I asked some people I respect a great deal— our 3 VPs at United Way of Dane County: Deedra Atkinson, Renee Moe, and Rick Spiel. They each provided several pieces of wisdom:

  • “Under promise and over deliver” –Tom Zimbrick
  • “A ‘b’plan with ‘a’ execution yields better results than an ‘a’ plan with ‘b’ execution. –unknown
  • “Pay people you like well.” –Betty Franklin Hammonds

These are all great-but not the best business advice I ever received. The best business advice, actually, the best advice of any kind was, and still is:

Never assume because something has been said, that it has been understood.

The best strategy, plans, best talent, best bottom line, best vision, best preparation will go nowhere if the players aren’t communicating to the point of shared meaning.

Consider this very simple example. You go to the mall with several family members before the holidays. Everyone is excited, bustling, shopping and looking forward to meeting for lunch after you split up to do some individual shopping. You all agree to meet at a time and place following your solo shopping spree—and what happens? Several end up in different places at different times—each certain where and when they are, is perfectly correct.

Now think about how simple that is compared to the complexity and variety of communication that takes place at the office. Particularly if you are going through a change process (and who isn’t?) when emotions, egos, and resources are at stake.

If you want to test this hypothesis, the next time you have your staff leaders in your office for a challenging problem solving meeting, when the meeting is over ask everyone to jot down their main take away from your discussion, then share. You will be amazed—not just at the difference in priority and focus of the take-away, but the number of times people will interpret things completely differently regarding conclusions, next steps, decisions etc.

When this happens (it happens every day) remember that meaning is in the person, not in the words. It’s about honing your reflective listening skills and helping others with theirs. When you put the time and effort into skillful communication you can find the shared meaning in your everyday activities that allows you to achieve and execute the strategies of your mission, vision and values. Ultimately ending up at the right place at the right time—together.

Leslie would like to give credit to Jerry Hiegel, former president and CEO of Oscar Mayer for this important insight, shared with her during her first year as CEO of United Way of Dane County.

About Leslie Ann Howard

A native Pennsylvanian, Leslie was born in Easton and attended Lafayette College there. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology in 1976 and went on to earn her master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 1979. She has been a resident of Madison ever since. An advocate for collaboration and change in the health and human service delivery system, Leslie has spent a lifetime working and volunteering in the nonprofit sector. Her focus includes issues related to education, safety and health. Leslie has been president and chief executive officer of United Way of Dane County since 1989. The organization has grown from a campaign of $5.5 million in 1989 to over $20 million in 2013.

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