Last week I had an opportunity to attend an event where the topic of discuss was focused around conflict resolution and crisis management in the workplace. The conversation was insightful while also delivering a simple message which is applicable to all walks of life – you’re always better off doing everything you can to avoid a conflict from happening rather than worrying about how to deal with it once it occurs.
Meaning, the time you invest in the beginning to avoid a major conflict from occurring is always far better than time you invest after the conflict has happened and now you’re trying to right the ship.
Every day brings about new challenges when it comes to working side by side with people and teams, especially if you’re in a leadership role. Regardless of a persons’ ability in the leadership arena, it takes guts to be a leader as it’s far easier to be part of the staff than step out and stand on your own. Leadership and its challenges come in a variety of forms and the method of leadership you choose when confronted with a challenge makes or breaks the outcome. That’s a lot of pressure for a leader, especially when you are faced with a difficult situation. Leadership is an evolving art form, incredibly difficult to master as it has a tendency to remind us often how hard leadership is based on the mistakes we make. One thing is for certain, leadership is synonymous with conflict.
If conflict (or conflict resolution for that matter) is a natural part of being a leader, why is it so many leaders have a difficult time dealing with it? For starters, few people enjoy conflict. Life isn’t enjoyable when you’re neck deep in conflict on the daily. It’s only natural that we have an innate tendency to steer clear of conflict, especially if it isn’t a life or death situation. Unfortunately, when we avoid conflict, especially in the workplace, it makes things worse as those conflicts have a tendency to fester, growing in size and impact. Rather than running from conflict, we should face it head on!
Another reason conflict is difficult to deal with is because we’re often dealing with people’s emotions, ideologies and perceptions. We might not agree with them, or understand it for that matter, but the mark of being a good leader is setting aside your personnel beliefs and listening to the other person, truly hearing them out. If we can’t listen and try to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person(s), coming to a resolution is nearly impossible as one party will often feel as if they weren’t heard or that they agreed to something they didn’t believe in in the first place.
Luckily if you step into conflict resolution with a strategy you’re far more likely to come out on the back end with a successful resolution. The five keys to successful conflict resolution are as follows:
Key #1 – Address Conflict Head On
Great leaders go into conflict willingly, not with the idea they’re going to change the world, but with the idea that they are going to listen and engage the people involved in an empathetic and caring manner. When we choose to face adversity we have a better chance of coming out on the other end with a successful resolution, happier colleagues and a better work environment.
Key #2 - Seek to Understand Before Being Understood
If you go into a difficult situation with your mind made up on ‘who did what’ it’s likely you’ll miss the bigger picture and leave your employees feeling like they weren’t heard, as if their side of the story doesn’t matter. Withholding your personnel feelings in these moments is tough, but a necessity. When we hear out everyone involved before coming to a conclusion we greatly increase our chance for making the right decision. I humbly thank my former boss and mentor who taught me this valuable lesson.
Key #3 – Group Discussion
I made a vital mistake early on in my leadership career by listening to each party involved in the conflict I was attempting to mediate then making a decision thereafter without bringing everyone into the same room to squash the ‘he said, she said’ back and forth that often comes up during conflict in the workplace. If you’re attempting to resolve a conflict between two parties and their stories are completely different from one another, or their account for their part in the situation differs from what’s being said on the other side, bring them both in for an open discussion. When people have to speak up in front of the other person the conflict exists with you may find that their tune changes as they can’t make accusations that don’t add up or may be exaggerated. As the old saying goes, “there are three sides to every story - her side, his side and the truth”. (this step may need to be excluded from your process if the conflict is of a serious nature having to do with sexual or discriminatory actions; if that is the case I strongly suggest you get a qualified HR representative or attorney involved immediately rather than trying to deal with the problem yourself)
Key #4 - Seek Advice
Let’s face it, no matter how good of a leader you are there will be times where obtaining advice from outsiders is beneficial. A leader who asks for help, advice, or perspective from others shows the courage and willingness to want to make good decisions. The key piece here is if you are going to seek advice on a sensitive situation it must be done from someone uninvolved, preferably outside the organization, this way you limit the blow back from internal gossip or side talk. Outside feedback is valuable as people who are uninvolved often provide clarity or perspective to tough situations that is difficult to see when you’re in the middle of the conflict.
Key #5 – Explain Your Decision & Ask for Feedback
When dealing with conflict resolution, once you come to the point where a decision is made it is vital to explain the WHY behind your decision to the people or parties involved. Once you have explained to everyone involved what your decision is you should then seek their feedback to better understand how your decision has landed with those involved. Be prepared! It’s possible not everyone will be thrilled with your decision but if you explain the process you took to come to that conclusion and stick to your guns thereafter you show that your ability to resolve conflict is one of process and care for each party involved.
Conflict resolution is a necessary part of being a leader. The more we willingly involve ourselves in conflict and the process it takes to navigate to a resolution the better you’ll be as a leader in dealing with conflict the next time around.
Key Take Away
The two best things you can do to help yourself be more comfortable in dealing with conflict resolution is to practice your listening skills and get yourself a mentor or advisor. The skill of listening is an incredibly important component to have when addressing conflict resolution. Listening helps us understand different perspectives while tempering our eagerness to jump to conclusions. Listening also allows us to pause and think, rather than react.
Mentors, I’ve said it a dozen times and I’ll say it again, this may be one of the top things you can do to help grow your career. Mentors, advisors and coaches help provide perspective, often times an unbiased perspective to help us see the bigger picture. This time of insight is invaluable, especially when dealing with high pressure situations.
Simply put – find yourself a mentor if you don’t already have one. Successfully addressing conflict resolution is an art best learned by people who have been there and done it before. No need to reinvent the wheel when you can learn from others who have been there and done it before. Their successes and failures are life learning lessons that are pure goal to people who seek knowledge and wisdom to improve their own careers. If you don’t have a mentor find one NOW! Ask someone you respect or go to micromentor.org.
This week I’ll have the opportunity to participate in an impactful event here in Irvine, CA covering women in medical device leadership. With this being the 3rd annual event the team putting it together was concerned primarily with how we would pull off the event and do so while keeping the content fresh and appealing. Needless to say when you’ve done something twice its really easy to have the 3rd end up on autopilot. Just ask Al Pacino, he’ll know exactly what you’re talking about as a result of Godfather III. (my first of many digressions in this article)
While we had a great topic to address, ‘Successfully Addressing Conflict Resolution & Crisis Management in the Workplace’, the team agreed we were missing something from the event. Missing something to make this 3rd event really special. It was during this time one of our strategic partners, Society of Women in Engineering, or SWE, suggested we offer a scholarship for female STEM students as a part of the event.
We loved the idea and since our organization, DeviceAlliance, had yet to do a scholarship program it was a great way to give back to the local community we serve while also providing a unique experience for the event attendees.
As we dove into the creation of this scholarship program, which would later be called ‘OC Exceptional Female STEM Student Scholarship Award’, we learned a lot of interesting stats having to do with our country’s STEM education programs. Some of those STEM stats were good yet many of them were disheartening to say the least.
While I knew what STEM education was I must admit I wasn’t familiar with the actual programs, how it operated and what the results were. As I began to dig for details to educate myself on this part of academia, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the information I was finding.
STEM education in the US is struggling.
I found this really hard to believe. How can such an amazing program have such mediocre to poor results. I learned things like:
These stats are frightening and only the beginning of the landslide of poor outcomes and frustrating data plaguing STEM education. One could easily deduce from this information our country’s efforts to produce a successful STEM education program for the up and coming generations is failing. Perhaps, failing miserably.
I wasn’t willing to accept that. Just because the stats may not be in our favor doesn’t mean STEM isn’t a good opportunity. In fact, I look at it the opposite way. Sure, STEM education reform would almost certainly help our country however in the wake of misfortune opportunity can always be found.
Fortunately, the future for STEM isn’t so doom and gloom, it’s all a matter of how we address the opportunity at hand. Let’s look at some other stats related to STEM:
Yes, the academic side of STEM may be struggling in the US. Yes, we’re pumping a lot of money into STEM and we’re still behind many 1st and even 2nd world countries in terms of our scoring and performance in STEM.
Yet there’s one thing for certain you just can’t argue – technology is only going to increase as time goes on. This means the demand for STEM educated students will continue to be both important and a key driver of our economy. Rather than focusing on the bad, I see it as a chance to focus on the good and the potential growth in STEM education in front of us here in the States.
So how do we address the issue of a struggling domestic STEM education program so that we can get more students through it and into the workforce?
The answer in my opinion is two-fold:
While those two answers may be wildly simple and perhaps naïve on a big scale it’s hard to argue one key fact: technology is here to stay; the jobs of the future will largely be focused and depend on emerging technology.
As technology continues to advance it brings us opportunity, how we and the generations to come choose to take advantage of that opportunity, well that’s still yet to be seen. It’s vital we act NOW to uplift our country’s STEM education programs while encouraging our youth to reach for those opportunities.
I’m proud to be a part of a non-profit team which recognizes the importance of STEM education and just as important is doing something in our local community to encourage and support those students who are chasing their dreams in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.
Key Take Away:
The US STEM education system is getting the pants beat off it by other countries which have placed a high priority in technology and science based education. While this seems bad on the surface it also reveals a lot of opportunity ahead of us, with plenty of employment opportunities with nice salaries and upward mobility. Industry and older generations (in particular parents) need to get involved earlier and more frequent to ensure the up and coming generations are able to take advantage of the opportunities at hand.
Think about how you land within these two areas: industry and adulting. If you don’t have kids how can you educate people younger than you about the opportunities STEM produces? If you do have kids introducing them at a young age to these possibilities is crucial, not just for their development but for our country as a whole. From an industry perspective, challenge yourself and your company to get further involved with the local colleges and universities in your area. Seek out STEM education programs to ingratiate them into your company, help to drive awareness, sponsor projects and competitions. The more we get involved the better of we and those to come after us will be.
For many Americans career progression is as important to them as the air they breathe. When we’re at a point in our careers where we’re looking for the next best thing or a new challenge often times it means taking into consideration a management role.
To be successful in management, or leadership for that matter, it requires a completely different set of skills which are typically very different than the skills which were needed to be successful in a staff level role. When we are a staff employee, meaning we don’t have any direct reports, our focus is to ensure we do the best individual job possible. Regardless if we’re a part of a team or not, when we’re a staff employee we really have one main concern – make sure our butts are protected by doing a great job.
Being in a management role is very different. While it’s important the manager does a good job, she is also responsible for a number of direct reports and therefore is responsible for their contributions as well. It can be a lot to shoulder if you aren’t prepared for it. Next week we’ll be talking about this in great detail at an Orange County, CA based medtech event where women will share their stories of leadership and how they got to where they are today. These stories are invaluable to understanding our own situation and potential career changes.
The transition to management can either be a dream come true or a living nightmare. Regardless of which camp you may be in it’s important to consider two things before you make the decision to throw your hat in the ring for the next management opportunity:
What the statistic above from HBR and Gallup tells us is that it’s incredibly tough to make a good decision on who will be successful in a leadership role. While the decision to hire or promote someone into a management role ultimate rests with the company, what happens thereafter is largely attributed to the individual in the role. Let’s make no mistake about it, a move from staff level to management can be an incredibly rewarding opportunity but to be successful in the new venture you need to know beforehand if you’ve got the foundation for what it takes to be successful leading others.
Before you consider a career in management think about how you deal with these five foundational leadership questions:
1.Do You Genuinely Care About Other People?
I’m going to take a hard stance here and simply say if you don’t care about others and aren’t willing to put others before yourself you’ll never be truly successful in leadership. I choose the word ‘never’ because you may see some success early on however in the long run a lack of genuine care for the people will always bring about challenges which are near impossible to overcome. The best leaders out there, regardless of their titles or the size of the company they work for, view leadership as an act of service and truly care about the wellbeing of their employees. “Leaders eat last.” – Simon Sinek
2.How will you handle ‘The Technician Syndrome’?
This is particularly important for people in a technical capacity to consider. The word ‘technician’ refers to a person who is in an individual contributor role focusing on hands-on work. When you make a transition into management you are stepping away from some or most of your daily technical hands on duties. There are some exceptions to this, for example if you work for a start-up or small company and are a ‘working executive’, however most of the time management roles focus their time and energy on their people and a strategy for getting work done. People who have technical backgrounds tend to struggle with this change as often times their original passion which has guided them to this point in their career was focused on being hands-on in their role, creating, building or testing things. (a Mechanical Engineer that designs new products)
3.Are You An Influencer or a Dictator?
What is your natural working style when you are in situations where you are working with others? Do you have a tendency to listen, support and coach or are you the type that would rather just tell people what to do? Successful leaders do more listening than they do talking. They understand the importance of giving their people an opportunity to contribute ideas, take risks, do things their own way, etc. Managers that don’t do this have a hard time motivating their employees as they view their employees as workers who are to be told what to do, when to do and how to do their work.
4.Can You Delegate?
Can you give someone else an opportunity to take on a project or work? Are you able to allow someone else the chance to take the spot light and recognition? Do you trust others to get the job done? These are all important questions which tie into delegation. Successful leaders delegate frequently because they know firsthand that it isn’t wise or feasible for them to do everything. Delegation also has a unique outcome which communicates trust and ownership to your employees whereas not delegating sends the exact opposite signal.
5.Are You Willing to be a Shrink?
It’s not the prettiest part of the job but a consideration nonetheless. A very real part of management is dealing with people problems, like a shrink would, and working constantly in conflict resolution. This aspect of the job often sends people screaming for the hills as dealing with people problems can be challenging and often viewed as a waste of time in the corporate world. Successful leaders view the people interaction part of the job as an opportunity for improving themselves and their employees while further developing a deeper relationship. They look forward to the moments to learn from, listen, coach and guide their employees. They do this because they genuinely care about the welfare of their employees both at work and home.
Key Take Away:
Successful leaders all have one thing in common – they genuinely care about others, especially the people who work for them. As a result, they utilize a servant leader mindset, operating side by side their teams leading through both words AND actions.
Perhaps you’re struggling to get in touch with how you feel about leadership and your own capabilities. If so, find 2-3 people and interview them. Ask them for their opinion and thoughts on how they think you would be as a leader. Would you be successful in their eyes? What blind spots or areas of improvement would you need to make in order to be successful leading others? Once you have an idea for how others perceive you and the areas you potentially are good at and or struggle at you’ll have a better appreciation for how you would show up in the role. From there it’s always good to read a couple leadership books to further understand if this career move is best for you. Try out ‘Go-Giver’ by Bob Burg and John Mann or ‘True North’ by Bill George and Peter Sims.
The gig economy is growing. Growing rapidly!
I recently stumbled upon a publication put out by MBO Partners on an annual basis which compares the state of our economy to the rise and decline of independent workers. It’s a fascinating read, especially with the growth of the gig economy rapidly changing the face of the employment landscape as we know it. MBO indicates 52% of the U.S. adult workforce within 5 years of 2019 will either be working or will have worked as an independent consultant or contractor.
That’s huge! Literally half of those employed in the US in one form or another operates as an independent ‘gig’. Furthermore, it’s estimated that 90% of the US workforce says they would be open to the idea of freelancing or consulting.
In one way or another that just about includes everyone in the workforce, or close to it.
If almost everyone you and I know are, or are interested in being, a gig [consultant] it will only lead to one inevitable outcome. The gig space is going to start to getting highly competitive.
Being a freelancer or consultant isn’t uncommon anymore. Long gone are the days where an individual branding themselves as such makes a unique statement which in turn gives that person a competitive advantage.
We may not be there yet however rest assure that in the coming years the consulting, gig and freelance field will become much more congested with new players trying to take a piece of the pie. As such, it will be paramount for gigs to learn how to brand themselves accordingly to ensure they remain at the top of the pecking order.
Branding is crucial!
It’s more than adding a tagline to your business card which creatively says in a couple words what you do. It’s more than building a LinkedIn profile hoping it does the work for you with a serene picture of a bamboo forest behind your mug shot.
Branding, a crucial part to any business, is indeed the next wave of importance for the consulting and gig community.
What does branding do?
Branding does a lot of things. For starters, it helps to build an identify, one people begin to learn over time is synonymous with you. Branding is all about strategic messaging to an audience about who you are, what you’re all about, and how you make a difference. When branding is done right, it can take on a life of its own, far beyond the company, product and original intent.
Take for example the Q-Tip. The handy little cotton based product invented in 1923 by Leo Gerstenzang allows us the delightful pleasure to clean the crap out of our ears, keeping them nice and tidy to prevent health related issues and even perhaps hear better. What’s fascinating about Leo’s Q-Tip is that the word itself, ‘Q-Tip’, is a brand specific to one product now made by Unilever Corporation. The branding for this product has been done so well over the years that we all refer to every cotton swab based product as a Q-Tip, regardless of the manufacturer. This my friends is called an eponym.
In fact, Unilever even has on their website “Q-TIPS® is a registered trademark of Unilever and is NOT a name for just any cotton swabs. The Q-TIPS® trademark can only be used to refer to the specific cotton swab products manufactured and sold by Unilever and should not be used to refer to cotton swab products of other companies or to cotton swabs generally.”
Even Unilever is aware of how well their branding has done in the marketplace, giving credence to their competitors similar products. There are plenty of other products that fall into this category like Kleenex, Post-It Notes and Xerox.
Branding creates buzz while giving recognition to a person, company or thing that people can recognize and associate with. It’s powerful stuff these marketing genius’ have dreamed up and we as consumers just love to eat it up.
So here’s the rub and what this means you for, my wonderful Mrs./ Mr. Gig. It means you need to learn how to brand yourself asap, before the girl or guy next to you beats you to the punch causing you to become second fiddle in your own back yard.
Don’t have experience marketing and or branding yourself? Want to learn? Here are the seven (7) steps to successfully brand yourself as a consultant (freelancer, gig, independent consultant, etc.) in no particular order:
1.Tell Your Story
People work with people they like. This has been proven time and time again and I’ve seen it myself many times over throughout career. People also naturally gravitate towards a good story, especially if that story gives them a reason to ‘act’. Spend the time to think through and write out your story. This is the ‘WHY’ you’re a consultant in the first place. WHY you do what you do. What propels you to be you, the inner workings. Once you learn what this is write it down and develop a narrative that shares a story about who you are and why you do what you do. Once you have that done the next step is to share it with the world.
2.Know What Problems You Solve
Customers don’t want benefits or values. They don’t want long winded sales presentations that promise them everything under the sun. Customers want solutions! Once you understand what your customers problems are, you can then create information which talks about your ‘WHY’, mentioned above, along with your ability to solve your customers problems. As you start to brand yourself via social media, print, publications, website, etc. make sure this is one of the first things your customers see. It’s all they care about – how you can solve their problems.
When you begin to brand yourself through the various avenues of social media, web, print, etc. it’s vital all of your information communicates the same message, look and feel. This consistency gets viewers accustom to your approach, look and feel. If every time you put something out in the world it looks completely different from one to the other you’ll never get people to connect to your product, service or company. They’re to busy being confused and lost in the process. Keep your message and content simple, yet highly directed to your intended audience.
Consistency also refers to the amount you brand yourself. If you only do it once a month you’ll never get anywhere building a brand, however if you do one post, one article or one activity every day the results you’ll see are dramatically different. Just remember, it takes time, so invest in branding yourself now.
4.Speak Like Your Customers
When you’re putting together content to put out in the world make sure you put yourself in your customers shoes. Think like them, act like them, be them. If you don’t know how to do that simply ask them. The more you communicate and speak like your customer the better chance you will have in getting their attention. If you’re trying to catch a whale, don’t pretend to be a shark. Instead, be plankton, that’s what whales eat. (I think)
5.Focus on the Solution
When branding yourself and or your consulting practice focus on what results you create, provide or give. The journey along the way is of course important however in the consulting/ gig world its all about execution. If you can’t execute and successfully complete a project it doesn’t matter what you may have done along the way. Results are all that matter, brand yourself accordingly.
6.Create a Website
I suppose this suggestion falls equally into the general marketing category however in this day and age if you want people to take you seriously having a website is a bare minimum. There are plenty of tools available to create cheap, or even free, template based websites that give any size business or person the ability to compete with the big girls and boys. Check out Weebly or Wiix. That said, keep the website simple and in line with your customers needs. Focus on your story and the problems you solve on behalf of your customers. Also, make sure you buy the online domain names of your consulting practice and any taglines you plan to use for branding purposes.
7.Create Visual Content
No one’s saying you need to turn into a graphic designer, but it would help greatly if you could quickly edit and adjust images with your logo and brand to reflect your consulting work. This can be easily accomplished via Microsoft PowerPoint and Paint programs. One can buy stock photos online from dozens of pre-approved imagery galleries and edit them to your hearts content. PowerPoint is a relatively easy to use program to do basic image editing with text, enough to at least get some content out to the masses that is custom and specific to your target audience. Paint is a dumbed down version of PowerPoint, yet effective for small projects.
Key Take Away:
Don’t wait until your field gets over saturated before you start thinking about branding yourself and or consulting practice. The best way to brand yourself is to start with you, your reason for being a consultant in the first place, and then the problems you solve on behalf of your customers. Your branding should reflect all of this and be consistent across any platform you put it on - your website, social media, print media, publications, etc.
Does this sound like a lot of work you aren’t interested in getting involved in? If so, don’t feel bad, branding yourself is no easy task. Find a local marketing and branding expert and get help. Ask them to work with you to develop your brand, your approach and customer facing appearance. The money you spend upfront for this help will be well worth it down the road. If you aren’t in a position to pay for help, set aside 3 hours a week to dedicate to your branding efforts. It won’t be much in the beginning but at least it will get you on the road to ingraining this practice in your weekly operating rhythm.
About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.