Possibly the best leadership book I’ve ever read (Part 1)

After I got into the writing of this post I realized that the whole thing was too long for 1 entry. As a result I’ve broken up the initial piece into multiples which I’ll be posting weekly until the series is done.

It’s funny, over the past year or so the OBS book club has been focusing almost exclusively on books focused on leadership and self-improvement (no, not “self-improvement”) and it has provided us with some pretty profound insights into what makes good and bad leaders as well as good and bad organizations. Thinking back to some of the books we ready like “Start with Why” or “Strategy and the Fat Smoker” and though the tone in each book is different many of the underlying messages are actually the same when it comes to what makes great organizations great. Sharing a workplace with like-minded people who have business goals that are aligned with your own should result in some measure of success. Granted, Sinek would chalk this alignment between employees and leadership up to trusting each other while Maister would say:

If an organization’s leaders want their people to believe that a new strategy is being followed, they must establish credibility by proving that they are prepared to change themselves: how they act, measure, and reward.

…but the idea is the same.

Both books are referencing the idea that you need to practice what you preach and stand by your word to earn credibility with the people that work both with, and for you. Another way to think about this is that both books are really speaking to a leader’s conviction to

Do the right thing…

Even when its hard or not immediately obvious…

Which results in eventual trust

It feels automatic that we’d agree with such an obvious statement, doesn’t it? Isn’t that EXACTLY what we want not only our leaders, but the people they mentor to be able to demonstrate? You can’t teach strength of character, but through modelling and strong leadership, the hope is that at least a few good habits get picked up by the next generation, or in this case, the next generation of leaders. The ideas around how we can lead such that we maximize the opportunity for our teams to grow is the subject of the book in question and hence why I’m writing to you all right now. Which (finally) brings me to the point of this post.

So what’s the big deal? Well I found it interesting to discover that this book (which I’ve gone through multiple times) was written over 20 years ago, it has no references to business / markets / strategies / corporations / etc. and is, in fact, about parenting. Think about it, what is parenting but the most important leadership job you could ever apply for. Counterintuitive to nearly everything we try and apply process against, this most important role comes with no on-boarding manual, no interview process, and no prerequisites with regards to qualifications or experience.

Alive 9 months ago? Check! … Aaaand you’re in!

Enter: Kids Are Worth It.

In my opinion this has the potential to be a huge addition your leadership toolkit (provided you’ll allow me to make a few small substitutions – more on that later)

Barbara Coloroso released the first edition of “Kids Are Worth It” back in 1994. Consider that for a second. 1994? That was before the internet. Before the dot-com bust. Before everyone and their dog had the ability to share their ideas immediately and be exposed (subjected?) to the scrutiny of the world wide web. It’s almost crazy to consider that so much of this book is still applicable in the workplace of today.
So what about this book really grabbed my attention? I enjoyed it’s simplicity, its directness, and quite frankly its lack of long drawn out references to research conducted so long ago that there is no way it could be considered even remotely relevant. How many times have you read a book (let’s say this year – for argument’s sake) and the author is quoting research performed 6 / 7 years ago? How often, then, do you also take a second to think:

Do I even believe that? Is this even still a thing?

Barbara doesn’t go into any of that. She provides anecdotes which quickly get to the point and immediately follows it up with resolutions and strategies to correct or support different behaviors. Now granted, many of the examples are related specifically to families and, not surprising, children, but for the purposes of this post lets do a quick swap of:

Parents <—-> Leaders

Children <—-> Team

Now before anyone throws their hands up and gets all enraged about comparing your team to children (despite how appropriate it may be), go back up and re-read what I’m actually saying here:

We’re not drawing a comparison, we’re swapping these labels to demonstrate how the concepts in this book translate from a family to your workplace (arguably a different kind of family).

The core concept of this book relies around three kinds of leaders (NB: we said we were substituting – stay with me):

  1. Jellyfish – No firm parts at all and reacts to every eddy and current that comes along. Structure is almost nonexistent; the need for it may not even be acknowledged or understood.
  2. Backbone – A living supple spine that gives form and movement to the whole body. Structure is present and firm and flexible and functional
  3. Brick wall – A nonliving thing designed to restrict to keep in, and to keep out. The structure is rigid and used for control and power both of which are in the hands of the leader

Coloroso immediately points out that the underlying difference between these leaders is:

… the kind of structure that holds them together. This structure affects all the relationships of the teamteam member to leader, leader to team member, leader to leader, and team member to team member …

We’ve probably all had an opportunity to work with one or more of these kinds of leaders or been part of teams matching one or more of these descriptions in the past. I found it fascinating how immediately transferable the concepts felt in terms of the teams I’ve seen operate at many different companies in many different industries. In addition to these team or leadership descriptions, the basic characteristics of each team type were provided along with a particularly interesting set of messages the Backbone leader specifically should be providing to their team on a daily basis (adjusted slightly for context):

I believe in you

I trust you

You can handle situations that arise

You are listened to

You are cared for

You are important

I feel that the best leaders with which I’ve had the opportunity to work have actually done a good job of communicating most, if not all, of these messages as frequently as possible. Actually, I feel like the best leaders do a good job of communicating these messages without the use of words. The 1000:1 ratio with words is well known, but best felt when you’re given a task slightly outside your comfort zone, put in a position to succeed and are provided with the tools and support you need without anyone expressly saying “I know you can do this, I believe in you” (though I still buy into that as well).

six leadership messages

It comes back to doing the things which may initially be challenging and potentially counter-intuitive in a “business environment” but result in increased cohesion among the team and ultimately increased trust… #simonsinekherewegoagain

… and really, isn’t that what we want to develop in all of the teams we have the opportunity to be a member of?

Don’t give them an answer, just tell them what you believe

For the past two weeks I’ve been preparing for a presentation I’ll be delivering to an out-of-province client. Doing so has brought back some old memories from a few years back when I was coaching someone for an interview they were really hoping to nail. I created this post to talk about something that ended up being a really powerful moment in my career and a real eye-opener in terms of taking advantage of certain opportunities to shine. It was the kind of thing you look back on, and only now can you understand the profound effects it’s going to have (or already has had) on your life. Before I start droning on about my delusions of grandeur, I’m probably getting away from myself a little bit here…

I’ll first explain a few things about the organizational structure here at Online. It’s generally flat with only a few managerial and executive positions. A handful of executives, couple of directors, throw in one or two administrative staff and that’s really it, not bad for a company of like 300ish people. The remainder of the positions are filled by the consultants.

In addition to the management roles described previously, we also have a number of senior individuals (from the consulting pool) who have been identified as ‘leaders’ and act as mentors for the less experienced consultants within the organization. The idea is that while we hire all kinds of great people, the people who are more experienced are assigned between one and six group members (mentees) to whom they can provide advice and guidance. The mentees have a clear and direct connection to some of our best people and have a real opportunity to become even greater. YES!

Get it? Good.
Don’t? Well it’s not super important you understand how this all works anyway.

Before anyone reads this and starts thinking:

Hey wait a minute… if you work for a good company you wouldn’t need just ONE person to act as a mentor for the group members … EVERYONE can contributing to everyone else in different ways / areas.”

You’re absolutely right.

At the same time, that’s also exactly how this works; while it’s true that everyone is assigned a mentor, you always have the option of talking to anyone within the org who you believe could provide value – you just get the added benefit of starting with someone dedicated to checking in on your well-being. The idea here is that if we’re falling back to Simon Sinek’s idea of the circle of trust, having someone immediately on day one that you can turn to and start establishing a closer relationship built on trust is just straight-up all upside.

Aaaaaaaaaaaanyway … Long story painful, as it turns out, I’m in one of those mentor roles.

We’re aware that with great power comes great responsibility, and while being a mentor is really worthwhile experience for me, it’s also a lot of work. As a result, there’s still some organizational processes around the selecting who should and shouldn’t be promoted to a mentorship role. It was during a conversation with of the members of my group that I had this really awesome experience. Ironically (like Alanis style, not Merriam Webster style), this discussion was regarding their interest in becoming a career mentor themselves.

The two of us sat down to go through some examples of questions he might be asked during the interview portion of the application (more on the process another time – and my not-so-humble opinion on the usage of interviews ((Me? Not so humble? Naaaaaah))). I posed a few questions to this particular mentee starting with:

“Why do you want to do this job?”

His response? He started telling me about how he likes working with people, his ability to connect and understand others, and his interest in growing the skills of his co-workers.

Well hell, that’s pretty damn good, no?

Sure it is, if you were going for a generic response better geared towards succeeding in interviews held on those little benches in the middle of a shopping mall. We weren’t talking about becoming a store clerk here, we were talking about succeeding to a mentorship role in this great company he works for. His eye contact was only so-so, body language was leaving him bent over in his chair, and generally I just didn’t buy in. So, I leaned forward and asked him to tell me a story about his son.

He started… and the difference in delivery was immediate…
2His eyes brightened, his posture improved, he smiled, it was like I was talking to a completely different person. It was incredible. I sat there smiling, let him finish. and then we broke down the differences between the two responses he gave. We discussed the difference between simply telling me what he thought I wanted to hear (his first answer), and what he truly felt and believed (the second). When he was communicating from somewhere deeper, something that mattered to him, something with which he had a real connection, suddenly there was some real power and conviction in the message he was sending out.

The issue was that at first he was concerned about saying the “right” thing to the “right” person in order for them to believe he was the obvious choice for the role. The key thing to understand is that if you are, in fact, the right person for the role then telling them what you believe will only confirm this to the person on the other side of the table. Conversely just giving the right answer could result in succeeding to a position, landing a contact, etc. that you only thought you wanted but in reality weren’t truly suited for.

It comes down to understanding yourself. Understanding what got you here. Understanding that the person you are is the result of the sum of your experiences (and the experiences of your parents/predecessors/etc.) and that is a valuable thing in and of itself. For those that sometimes struggle with trusting their own instincts, I often suggest turning to a (somewhat) well known piece written by Portia Nelson called Autobiography in Five Short Chapters (if you haven’t read it I literally can’t recommend it enough). It has been an amazing catalyst for change and clarity in a ton of situations that I’ve faced over the years. I think I also like it so much because it really highlights the difference between fault and responsibility so clearly (something else I’ll have to get on my soap box about one day).


As I go to back to prepare for this presentation, I have to reflect back on what got me here, why the client had selected our proposal for their short list, and how I’m going to absolutely rock their socks next week.

Why I still care about annual reviews

Call them what you will … Mix the words annual, performance, and review together in any combination and you end up with a phrase that can spark up a heated debate even among long time colleagues and friends. Some people love em, others swear that they’re completely useless and don’t provide any value. I sit on the positive side of the fence on this one and I’d like to take a minute (just sit right there) I’ll tell you about the performance review process and why I care…

But seriously, what’s up with the fear and angst surrounding annual reviews? Why all the hate? Should we split hairs about what we call them? Is performance even really measurable for most of us? Well you know what team… those are some damn good questions. Let’s take a few and examine some of the problems and some solutions too (because you know damn well we don’t talk about problems without at least bouncing around some solutions).

Let me be perfectly clear when I say the group of people I work with on a daily basis are A-MA-ZING. They really are. Collectively, there are still quite a few different views on this topic.

Differences of opinion are everywhere when it comes to annual reviews

I learn more from this group of developers and tech architects than I ever could attending courses or scraping every bit of information from the corners of the internet. Every single one of them brings a unique perspective and every single one contributes hugely to not only the projects we’re engaged in but also the culture of our company that makes it hands down one of the best places to work. Period. In our group there are some (few) number of us who still buy in to the concept of an annual review and a vast majority who could take it or leave it.

Talk to any of the naysayers for a few minutes and you’ll find there are a few common themes that start to present themselves. Conveniently, and sadly, those themes are some of the same themes that present themselves in many of the articles you can find online (some of which are linked at the bottom of this blog post – you can go check em out and come back when you’re done if you’d like).

Read through all these articles we can distill a few pretty common themes:
1) Your boss(es) don’t know anything about what you actually did last year
2) Performance is measured on arbitrary metrics
3) Employees generally have a fear of telling the truth to “power” as well as their colleagues

Well no wonder everyone is upset about the review process. I’d hate it if that’s all my review was about, specifically if I felt that my performance was measured on arbitrary metrics. Blech. Arbitrary almost-anything is terrible. If this is the way people feel, that’s a pretty big deal if you ask me. People feel frustrated about these types of problems long enough and they start to leave, finding opportunities at other companies with different, albeit still flawed, review processes.

Even people who manage the review process are frustrated with the manner in which the reviews are performed. Don’t believe me? Check Article 4 (below). In that article specifically, Ria calls out the difference between managers and Leaders.

Wait … wait … wait wait wait … wait a minute.
I’m sorry, did we just read that managers are doing annual reviews?

THIS. This, ladies and gents, this is our A-HA moment.

I have zero faith in any review that is performed by what essentially amounts to a bystander reading off metrics, or words that they have no investment in ensuring are correct, and who has no real investment in me as an individual.


A performance review is valued when the person who is delivering it truly cares about the development, progress, and well being of their team member. This care only comes as a by-product of a relationship built on trust. A relationship that isn’t built by holding a once a year meeting to let their team member know how they they’ve performed since the last meeting. This is relationship where feedback and mentoring is continually being provided (or offered at the least) over the course of the year.

With this relationship in place, there are no surprises when the annual review is held because any shortcomings were already discussed and achievements were applauded. This annual review is simply summarizing all the (worthwhile) feedback over the course of the year and really focusing on the future development of the team member. This is a meeting where the team member has the full attention of their Manager and there are no other distractions.  Enough time has been set aside, both during the meeting as well as in advance, that the team member feels valued and appreciated.

This annual review is not an introduction of issues, but truly a summary. The purpose, then, is to focus on future development and reinforce the relationship already built throughout the year. With a proper summary being compiled in a thoughtful manner (and far enough in advance… and comprised of properly written feedback) it allows adequate focus to be placed on the successes of the individual and provide enough support for them to feel secure in receiving the areas for growth without going on the defensive. The entire atmosphere of this type of annual review needs to revolve around a central idea of trust and how to :

  • Plan for next year’s growth through thoughtful and deliberate conversation (invest in growth)
  • Discover new ways to connect and grow – build more trust through meaningful discussion of goals / ambitions
  • Reinforce the relationship already established – by acknowledging and celebrating their successes this year (it is a “review” after all)


This process can then be summed by the following 6 words (the power-6):

Plan & Invest
Discover & Build
Acknowledge & Reinforce

This approach might not be enough to sway some serious hold outs, but I’ve seen and been involved with these exact types of reviews for years and I’m consistently on the receiving end of some pretty amazing feedback regarding the results. The hard-and-fast truth is that we should all be recognized when and where the good things are happening and when and where our areas for growth are showing themselves. However, consider removing the commercialism from holidays like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day and you’re left with expressing genuine interest and appreciation for someone who (should) mean a lot to you.

There’s no difference here (in the annual review process), and personally, I really do appreciate when someone I value, respect, and trust has taken the time to Acknowledge my strengths, Discover what’s making me tick (lately), and helps to Plan or suggest some of my stretch goals for next year. The key point here is that I already value and trust their opinion and want to improve (or demonstrate my improvement) to them as a bit of an homage to the investment they’ve made in me over the years (kind of similar to parenting when you think about it … )

To me, it’s the sign of true leadership and the output of a successful mentor program put into practice.

A few performance review articles (for reference sake)
Article 1
Article 2
Article 3
Article 4

Next Level Feedback – How-To

For Part 1 of this post Click Here

Alright, continuing on from last week…

We’re all on board with the fact that feedback is valuable, we all want better feedback, and we can probably do a better job of writing it than we have been, yeah? Good, then we’re on the right track!

Next up … the hard part … HOW!!

Lots of processes you read about online are great at identifying the reasons why you should do something but often don’t go into enough detail to really support the hypothesis or provide a clear way forward to assist in making any real change to the habits you currently have in place. You should KNOW this isn’t that kind of blog, right?

The fact is, upping your game from where you are to where you want to get to can be accomplished by focusing on the strategies mentioned in part 1 and following through the steps outlined below. Before we jump right into it, however, lets talk about why I think this particular process so great, and why I think it really unlocks your ability to up your game!

There are lots of books written on the ideas of managing people and businesses, or even specifically on providing valuable feedback. This list is a sample of some of the books I’ve read, most of which are pretty good with the exception of Crucial Conversations and (ironically) Thanks for the feedback. These books put a stronger emphasis on the people and practically disregard applying any one particular method over another. The idea that values and relationships come before process or rules is absolutely critical (check out Start With Why as a bonus read for a deeper look at this exact point – or watch this video for the “short short version“). The interesting thing, which may be obvious to some, is that when you look at some of the common themes presented throughout most of these books, you end up with a pretty short list:

Honesty, Trust, and Transparency


This feels a bit like: if people trust you, believe that you have their best interest at heart, have the capability to understand where you’re coming from, and you’re willing to put your name on those opinions (lending some additional credibility) in a forum that can be reviewed by both the receiver and their managers, then they’re more likely to take your observations and grow from them.

Hmmm … this suddenly feels a like one of those obvious information is obvious moments doesn’t it?

I subscribe to the ideas put forward in the Alan Fine and Dale Carnegie books as guides for how to engage with people and help them realize their own potential. Luckily, we can also derive a few strategies for facilitating the creation of the best possible feedback with ideas merged from those two books as well.

The first key to great feedback … is to avoid writing it at all

Wait, what?

I mean this in the most literal way possible. When you’re sitting down to write feedback don’t write anything down at first, someone else can (and probably should) do that for you.


One of the biggest breakthroughs I had in coaching people on this topic is when I realized just how powerful a facilitator can be. Acting as a record keeper and assistant during an initial brainstorming process. This is true brainstorming. Sit down with a facilitator you can trust (there’s that word again) and suddenly the words just start spilling out of your mouth probably faster than they can be recorded (make sure its all getting captured before moving on, however, your ideas are all gold!). It’s amazing how much of an improvement you’ll see in your own feedback when you advance from writing on your own to using a facilitator. It’s so easy to give yourself an “out” when you’re sitting there drumming your fingers on the keyboard or tapping a pen/pencil on your notepad. There is nothing stopping you from just throwing your hands up and saying “Bah I can’t think of anything!” and then finding yourself doing something else within a few minutes.

To start, we’re going to come up with a list of themes or concepts that can describe the person for whom you will be providing feedback. This is just a list words, don’t worry about the grammar, don’t worry about phrasing, don’t worry about antagonizing language, just get it all down. Pretend as though you were posed the following question:

Give me the first set of words that come to your mind when you think of … <Mr. Black>

Positive things, negative, it doesn’t matter. Just get all the descriptors you can think of out of your head and into the hands of your facilitator. The idea here is to get enough points down to be able to describe the person in 20 words or so.

For example, here’s a list:

  • Project Management Skills
  • Organization / Organized
  • Leader / Leadership
  • Task Completion
  • Communication
  • Time Management

These concepts aren’t associated to things they excel at or need to improve on. Are they a fantastic Project Manager, or do they need all the help they can get? Are their communication skill excellent, or lacking? We’re not worried about any context, stories, or extra words at this point. When the list is done, you can move on to step two.

Context is key

We talked about this a bunch in the last post. Without context, the receiver won’t have any clue what it is you’re talking about. We need to make sure that isn’t the case. Now we mentioned the first step was a good brain storming session with a facilitator, and one of the keys there is that the facilitator doesn’t provide any opinions on the results. Next up … context!

The faciliator’s job is to ensure the completeness of the information provided. This is a definitely a skill that requires practice, but asking questions that demand answers will definitely help to flesh out the categories noted in our previous step. Leading with questions like:

“How so”?

“In what way could they be [better / improved / more like ____ / etc.] (this counts for both areas for growth as well as strengths)

“Compared to the [best / worst] person in the same / similar role how do they compare at ____”?

Leading (or being led) through this exercise should result in a conversation where your feelings about the individual are put forward in a way that feels natural and un-hindered by the constraints of typing, sentence structure, or even tact. The idea here isn’t to write your masterpiece, its to make sure that when you do sit down to write it everything you need is already there.

Some of the most valuable things to focus on when providing this additional context are:

  • Why the category you’re discussing matters (to you).
  • Managing the perception people have as it relates to the category at hand
  • How you feel they could improve in the future
  • Frequency of their successes or failures (as a result of the trait)

Remember, the goal here is growth … you want to make sure you’re truly celebrating the individual’s successes as well as assisting them in overcoming their weaknesses (perceived or otherwise).

Give me an example

We have now created for ourselves a list of categories and provided an explanation as to why those categories are relevant (to you). You know what really pushes your feedback right to the peak?


Nothing says …

I care enough about your continued growth that I can literally cite moments, meetings, deliverables, or conversations in which you really [excelled/failed] while working with me

…like an example of when / why / where / how / with whom something happened.

It proves you were paying attention and valuing the contributions of the individual. Remember we’re being timely with our submissions here – so the success/failure (however small) recently happened. It also acts as an additional support to the contextually relevant stuff you provided in step two!

Clean up after yourself would ya?

When you’ve finished all the work leading up to now, you’re just about ready to put this thing out there. Last order of business is, at the same time, the easiest as well as the most important. Now is when you need to go through all the content you have, add in your own flavor, and start to massage the language (not the message) to up the likelihood that the receiver believes that you believe in their growth and will respond positively to your feedback.

It’s really crucial to practice, practice, practice till you get better at this last step. Forget what you know about the sandwich method, everyone who’s been on the receiving end of it knows that its not genuine anyway (especially if you can’t think of a good top or bottom “bun”). Forget about softening the blow; I’m not suggesting you behave rudely or degrading to anyone. In fact, quite the opposite. What we’re looking for here it a genuine, truthful, and honest write up that recognizes someone’s strengths, challenges their areas for growth, and proves to them that you care enough to spend some time thinking about their abilities and potential for even greater successes.4

I have been told that his approach is a complete game-changer when it comes to writing feedback. It’s been nothing but a huge success working with my clients and co-workers leveraging this method. It’s so incredible and empowering to see someone go from frustrated to immensely proud after working through a particularity challenging write up. Now, this isn’t to say that there isn’t some degree of difficulty in working with this. Following the steps is easy enough with a facilitator, learning to facilitate is a bit more challenging (but as I said above, hugely rewarding).

Shoot me an email if you get a chance to try this method in either role, or leave a comment if you’ve previously tried it and can vouch for its effectiveness!

Happy writing!

Next Level Feedback

In the software world we hear a lot about this idea of software craftsmanship, but really, taking pride in the work we do or the deliverables we provide is something we should all appreciate. With that in mind, lets think about something most of us do on a fairly regular basis: Provide Feedback / Reviews / etc. for our colleagues. With that in mind, lets also think about getting a whole lot better at doing it. In other words, lets stop just writing feedback and start crafting it.

First a little bit of context (more on that later) …

At Online, we have an annual review cycle in place where feedback can be submitted anytime but specifically gets compiled and reviewed annually with your career mentor. Everyone has a different opinion on reviews and review cycles, but for the most part this system works well (especially since you aren’t confined to the cycle – you can provide feedback at anytime). In addition to this review process, everyone also has a Career Mentor (CM), someone to help them navigate the consultant landscape as it were. Your CM reviews your submitted feedback and discussed ways to improve in the coming year in addition to compiling some thoughts around a plan to actually realize those improvements.

Now, back to the topic at hand…

Over the past few years, feedback (and I’m talking about good feedback – not to be confused with positive feedback) has been one of the things I’ve been passionate about. I had an epiphany a couple of years ago when I was working on putting together a review for one of my team members. Going over the feedback submissions he received over the past year, most of them were not very useful at all. One thing I did notice, however, was that a select few of the submissions were good. Very good. The key for me was seeing what exactly was different about those particular submissions and putting together not only the traits that made them amazing, but an approach anyone can use to create awesome feedback every… single … time.

First lets talk about those traits. Most of the feedback I was reading at the time was poor for one, or more, of the following reasons:

It is provided out of context from when it would be most useful

Something you can do to guarantee people respond poorly to your feedback, is to provide it completely out of context.

Pro-tip: if you’re not providing feedback in a timely fashion, or you’re brushing something off face-to-face and then slamming someone in a written report after the fact… you’re doing it wrong. Level yourself up and commit to providing feedback in a timely manner when its both positive or negative.

It lacks any context or rationale providing the recipient with the submitter’s point of view

So-and-so is absolutely TERRIBLE at writing documents.

Straight up … this isn’t feedback.
It’s a statement.


Writing feedback in this way allows a large degree of subjectivity to creep (or maybe dive-bomb is a better word) it’s way in, clouding what you actually meant. The problem with this statement is that it quite literally changes the feedback’s message from what the you think it means to how the recipient interprets it’s meaning.

Your 5-WHY’s (with a splash of don’t use absolutes) typically solve this problem in two shakes.

  1. When did this issue start happening?
  2. Where did it happen?
  3. Why was this happening?
  4. Who was involved?
  5. What actually happened?
  6. Avoid absolutes – don’t say “always” or “never”

With proper context, even if the receiver doesn’t necessarily agree with you, at least they’ll be able to remember what it was that was happening and you’ll have common ground from which you can start some discourse.

The spirit of the feedback focuses on criticism rather than growth

So-and-so really needs to up their game in client meetings.

The saying, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar definitely, rings true here. Focusing on growth helps you to focus on, and provide constructive points of view throughout the entire submission. Best part is, this works even if the write up is regarding something the individual already excels at. For example:

I’ve seen so-and-so manage our meetings expertly and pull together a team even in times of extreme turmoil. What I’d really like to see is a follow up email or plan regarding the next steps we discussed in those meetings.

This is when you should be thinking along the lines of:

you could be even better if…  rather than you didn’t do very well because…

either or

The real win here (for everyone) is that you get buy-in (a.k.a. Trust) from the recipient because they believe you have their best interest at heart. This concept of trust means the recipient will be more willing to not only accept the feedback but also act upon it. When you think about it realistically, this is obviously the only reason to give feedback in the first place (to promote growth through positive change). Feedback for feedback’s sake is total nonsense.

The feedback doesn’t enable the receiver to improve

So-and-so needs to manage their time better when working with multiple clients.

Providing not only the areas for improvement, but also the strategies required for improving, will give the recipient everything they need to be successful on future engagements or projects. A common thread among all feedback books / blogs / etc. is that smart people want better feedback. They want this, of course, because smart people also want to constantly improve themselves. If you tie this back to the third item in our list, the fact that you want growth, then you really should be explaining how to grow.

Focusing on improving these four things in your own feedback can ensure the recipient is:

Understanding (because of timeliness)

Accepting (because of rationale and context)

Trusting (because of your focus on your their growth) and

Acting (because you provided a way forward).

Bad Habits

Four Bad Email Habits We Need to Break

One of the benefits of working for Online is that every single Onliner is empowered and encouraged to generate ideas, and/or affect positive change in our organization wherever and whenever they feel inspired to do so. One of the things I’ve been trying to impact is around this whole [air quote]email[end air quote] thing. As a result, I’ve been doing this inbox zero training thing for a while now internally (and for clients), but it’s been an absolute rush to have the opportunity to also do it in a more public / recognized way.

Having eaten, breathed, and slept all kinds of email problems and questions for the last little while has given me a pretty decent perspective on some of the biggest problems plaguing most people. It’s also given me a decent perspective into some of the things we inflict upon ourselves as a result of our own bad habits! Writing my last post got me thinking  back over the years about some these habits that are really entrenched in the business / tech world. It’s funny, you’d think for as nerdy as most of us are these days you’d think we’d have a better grip on some of the tools we use with on a daily basis. When it comes to email, it feels even more ridiculous considering we use it as frequently as hourly or more. In order to do my (very small) part to assist in breaking some of our bad email habits, let’s talk about the few top contenders for worst email faux-pas!


To != CC

We all let ourselves slide now and again when it comes to email etiquette, but we gotta reel it back in when it comes to abusing the To and CC fields in our editor of choice.  How often do we all get emails that are directly asking us a question or requesting a response, but our names are squarely placed in the CC field? How many times have people emailed you back saying… “Hey, why didn’t you respond to my message?” when you weren’t included in the To line at all? Have you ever wondered who was supposed to take point on a particular action because all the recipients were put in the To field?We have to get back on the wagon when it comes to indicating who the message is TO, and who is simply being copied (CC’d – Carbon Copy’d).

Calendar Responses … Send ’em

Every time I’m booking a room or ordering food I have that moment where I think to myself:

Aaron, you’re ordering food, but can you really count on the number of people coming that responded to the invite?

After many instances of trial and error I’ve learned the answer is unequivocally “No, I can’t”, but I still hold on to the foolish belief that I should be able to! So lets all just agree that from now on we will all accept meetings and “send a response NOW” when prompted to do so from our mail client of choice. Accepting the meeting and failing to do so will result in the organizer receiving NO indication of whether or not you’re coming. If you’re using iCal or Outlook or anything else, take a second and make sure that replies are turned on right now… you might just save someone a headache or two down the road.

One at a Time … Please!

So often, there are times when I get a message from someone and they’ll say something like:

Aaron, can you please check problem a, b, or c?
Also, how was your weekend? Mine was great! I had a blast doing yadda yadda yadda

So when I send back my reply, do I include my weekend plans in the email first? Last? What happens when I go on and on about my amazing (or not so amazing) weekend and my response to the A, B, C question gets lost in the shuffle? Keep It Simple Stupid has never been more important than right here; when responding to messages like this put each of your answers in a separate email.

Save Your Questions for the End

We all work on projects of varying complexity. Sometimes we can describe the whole thing in a 1-pager. Sometimes we’re talking about multi-hundred-page documents containing use cases, business workflows, process diagrams, etc. Regardless of the problem at hand, leverage this technique to make sure your recipients are following your train of thought all the way through to the end (which really should be where your point resides, no?).

When you’re describing something, looking for information, requesting confirmation, or need some kind of validation, provide your context in the body of the email and then place all your questions at the bottom. There is nothing more challenging (to me) than having to sift through a (sometimes non-HTML / un-formatted) wall of text to try and extract the questions being asked of me by the sender. Placing your questions at the end lets the reader focus on what your saying until you’ve provided enough relevant context. Armed with a (presumably) better understanding of your situation, they can then read through your itemized set of questions or bullets and provide a clear response to each of them. This also keeps the Q&A in a tight little package at the bottom of your email that’s easier to extract at a later time if ever you think its necessary (for forwards, reports, documentation, etc.)

Final Thoughts

Focusing on changing any one of these is going to be a win for you in terms of keeping your communications clear, concise, and in some cases, respectful (I’m looking at you unsent Calendar Invites). David Allen’s team has a great article up here on their email best practices (I recommend checking it out). If you don’t know who David Allen is, he wrote this little ditty a while ago (a few people have read it … and when I say a few … I mean literally millions). Lastly, if you’re interested in reading more about email strategies in general, check out this Harvard Business Review article from last week (featuring IB0 – of course :)). Lastly, thanks to Elena from Cross Border Communications for sharing the link w/ me.

Let me know what email habits you have tried to break and can’t or which ones get you most heated in the comments below.

You tweetin’ at me?

So, anyone that spends more than a few days working or hanging out with me is eventually going to hear about Inbox Zero (IB0). It’s something that I talk a lot about, but this whole [massive double quote]IB0[end massive double quote] literally unlocked a ton of hidden potential (for me) so I can’t help it. Going from someone who had a lot of good intentions to someone who was able to tackle nearly any initiative thrown at him was not something that happened by accident. This transformation is the primary reason I’m so passionate about my current process and why I feel it solves so many different problems in one fell swoop.

When I say passionate what I actually mean is… I’m a little bit obsessed with it. 

Whether it’s organization, task management, scheduling, reminders, or any other number of business related tasks, you go from exerting a huge amount of mental energy on the minutia daily activity (or dealing with the never-ending barrage of emails) to automating those parts of your life and investing more time in doing the things you love.Or, as Merlin Mann initially described his process:

It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life.

That ‘zero’, It’s not how many messages are in your inbox, it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox, especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.

– Merlin Mann

Now I’ve never claimed to be an expert on anything social, so when I was pointed at a particular tweet from a user (@DerailleurAgile) who said: 

To those chasing “Inbox Zero” – y’all are aware you’re adapting your behaviours toward a piece of software, right?

or even

By being concerned with having a software interface show zero items in it. The very act of being concerned is an adapted behaviour

I felt compelled to point out how wrong … how thoroughly and deeply he misunderstood the whole POINT!!
– I’ve since been corrected that probably wasn’t the way to go.

Adapting to software? GASP!!
Concern over the quantity (instead of the location) of emails?!? SCOFF!!
Why, that’s the exact opposite of what we want to do!?

So with that quote as inspiration, lets talk a little about why IB0 doesn’t need special tools or software, why the specific set of folders I’ve been working with, and about understanding how a (very) small shift in behavior (towards a process not software, natch) can unlock your potential too:

Requires no tools or special software

Every time I’ve introduced someone to Inbox Zero I’ve opened with this fact. and I do that, because it’s true. I’ve worked in GMail, Spark, Inbox, Mailbox, Outlook, OWA, and a bajillion other IMAP clients and the best thing about my current approach is no special software required. You just:

  1. Setup some (good) folders
  2. Arm yourself with some knowledge
  3. Baseline your existing inbox
  4. Profit (or succeed)


I’ve gone on (and on, and on, and on …) about how the folders I’ve been working with are really the only ones you need due to a few main factors, one of them being just how damn good search is in nearly every client or service. With search being considered a solved problem (especially if you’re using a Google or Microsoft hosted email provider) You could technically have all your items in one folder and just look for stuff as you needed it. That might work for some, but it would completely annihilate another benefit … visibility.


Here’s a few things to think about: Not sure if you’ve got time to do one more thing today / this week? Wondering where that proposal Angie was supposed to get back to you is? Is it a good time to book some Vacation? If you can’t answer those questions within a second or two then straight up, you’re doing it wrong. Who the heck has time to worry about your own capacity planning, work load, future dated tasks, or even things other people are supposed to do for you? I definitely don’t, or at least I choose not to. By embracing IB0 I also don’t have to. I get an at-a-glace view of my tasks:

  • due today
  • due this week
  • due from other people (or due further out from me)

What more could I really want? Well ok … we can give you more, how about …


If you knew that something you were already doing 10 or more times a day could leapfrog your productivity to the next level, would you do it? Hellz yeah you would! Notice we aren’t talking about adjusting your behavior to software here, we’re talking about an existing behavior in whatever software you choose no matter the platform or client. *cough* Ok sorry.

Implementing a process-based IB0 strategy basically jacks you to in to your own internal scheduling and workflow data center connected over a hard line. It immediately integrates with your existing calendar or client and shows you a unified and straight forward view of what’s what no matter where you look at it.

Got your phone? Swipe between your folders!

Got your PC / Mac? No problem, just open your folder list in your mail client!

Working on someone else’s machine (i.e. you haven’t configured anything there)? No problem, log into your IMAP account and you’ve got the same unified view into your own workflow. Its incredibly freeing not needing to think about what’s on your plate or what you need to accomplish today / in the near future. It’s … it’s actually amazing that anyone does email any other way … isn’t it?

Alright, I’m getting off the soap box … I’ll throw a few basic mail strategies at you next time and then we’ll move on to something else.