Voicemail: How to be in when you're out

One of my friends has a very busy career and spends a lot of time travelling. She considers her workplace to be wherever she is doing her thing at any particular time, however she is not always free to answer the phone. To make up for that she is very diligent about her voicemail service. She doesn't simply note messages that have been left, she goes further than that. My friend manages to be in when she's out by updating her outgoing message frequently to share information on where she is at, what she is doing and when she is likely to return the call. She records that she checks her voicemail regularly and promises to get back to the caller quickly. And she does. She uses voicemail to maintain client relationships when she is elsewhere.
So here's a squeeze:
Many people hate "talking to a machine" and hang up without leaving a message. How can we reduce some of that annoyance and encourage callers to leave a message? One possible answer is to use some humour in the voicemail message to make things a little more personal? A way of being there, when you're not. A way of being in when you're out.
Depending on your business too much humour may come across as inappropriate and unprofessional so the trick is to sound personable and approachable.
My favourite message is one used mostly for internal calls although I sometimes use it on my mobile phone.
It runs: Hi this is the voice of N#### N##### , the rest of me isn't here at the moment so please leave your name, number and short message and I'll get back to you." ;-)
I have a way to go to reach my friend's voicemail practice and in the meantime, if I am out, I want all my callers to get a friendly greeting that encourages even the most ardent machine haters to leave that message. Common to both approaches is the professional courtesy in returning the call.
That's really how to be in when you're out.

Results Day: 18 August 2011

18 August 2011: A level results were issued today and brought with them delight in some quarters and disappointment in others. This morning I was travelling by bus and I could not help but overhear the disappointment of two family members, seated near me, who were concerned that one of their loved ones had not achieved his expected grades. Their shared disappointment was palpable and was coupled with anxiety over what future the young man now faced. Where would he find work? Would he go back to school? What were his options? It struck me that these family members had strong aspirations and education was a key element in their fulfilment. In reflecting on the student's performance both held to the view that he could have applied himself more. Applied. There's a word. In today's squeezed workplaces we often hear of attitude and aptitude. The adage goes "your aptitude gets you hired, your attitude gets you fired!" It seems to me that being able to apply oneself should make up a trilogy of skills. Have you ever noticed that some with less talent than others make up for the deficit by a steely determination to apply whatever talent they have to best effect? Wouldn't it be great if our workplaces combined more fully, aptitude, attitude and positive application? Leaving the bus, I walked past one of our most prestigious and highly selective schools. It was clear that many of the students gathered around the entrance had received the grades they had been hoping for. Happy and relaxed in their summer casuals, they showed no sign of any anxiety they may have had in the run up to results day. Their teachers too appeared to be relaxed and enjoying the occasion. Having worked in education for close on forty years I know that many teachers feel that they too are being "examined" and results day for them can also bring its ups and downs as they share in the pleasure or pain of their students. And what of our students? Some will now leave and start their third level education. What future for them? Tuition fees? Student loans? Employment prospects? The media report that many youngsters are foregoing a gap year due to concerns over the cost of student fees. By taking a place in university this year the overall cost of their degree course is likely to be lower than if they enrolled in 2012. What future for those who didn't make it this time? My hope is that we encourage them to realise their potential by applying what they already know and can do. Applying ourselves to make the most of our aptitudes is the attitude required.

Resilience in the workplace: spelling it out

Childplay in the workplace?

I heard a vexed and interesting account recently of how managers in one organisation have been closing down office conversations. They have ruled no talking at the water cooler and have gone as far as discouraging staff from showing around photographs of their holidays and children. There we go with that control mindset again.  It seems to  take the view that if a workplace encourages socialising then there mustn't be enough work being done. I guess social media in that environment would be a no go.
A while back, I was visiting an organisation in another city. There the office was open plan and the meeting with managers took place in a glass panelled room, along one side of the office.  Transparency.  During the meeting the senior executive present asked if we would mind taking a break for a few minutes. A comfort stop?  No. He had noticed that one of the staff had come into the office with her new baby and wanted to go over to wish her congratulations. The greeting and chat lasted only a few minutes during which he held the child. Pleasantries exchanged, we resumed our meeting and the staff their desks. This exec took the time to show interest in the staff member.  Guess what that does for the tone of the place?  The people I saw were relaxed and friendly.
Getting the work done?  You better believe it, the organisation is gaining market share and features among the top 100 to work for.
In tough times, which of those two organisations would you be more prepared to put yourself out for? Go the extra mile for?  Sure workplaces are squeezed at present and more is expected for less but we need the milk of human kindness.
Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Breaking through!

Doing the weeding of some computer files, I came across an old folder containing several eMindMaps.  They were created using a program of the same name that came as part of a cover disc for a computer magazine. Although I use mostly hand drawn maps I loved using the software which has now evolved into the famous MindManager brand.
Going through the old maps I came across one I had saved as Breaking through!  I think it is still useful for considering goals and objectives and so I post it here for readers to judge for themselves.  As you can see write-in spaces are provided to help the user focus on aspects of achieving an objective.
Breaking through! brings to mind the comment from Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  Using one of the social media platforms, he wrote:
"Every truly great breakthrough is a break-with an old way of thinking. What's your latest breakthrough?"
I suppose my rediscovered files map old ways of thinking or at least what I was thinking then. To break-with the pattern I think I'll draw in another branch. I'll probably call it break-withs.
What's your latest break-with?

What to do about Apathy in the workplace

Browsing the pages of Management Issues recently I came across an old but still relevant post from Max McKeown entitled, A is for Apathy. You can access it here. It's worth a read and it prompted the following thoughts:
Someone once defined the opposite of love, not as hate but as apathy or indifference.  Apathy is a "state". In my view many working practices create conditions in which apathy can take hold, sometimes contrary to the best intentions of those in charge. Think of those stories we hear more and more of where adults are  treated like children, told that they can't do this and that. The stories depict a world of control and creativity curtailed.  Come to think of it, why would we want such a world for our children either?

High control workplaces may be appropriate in some sectors but in others may have more to do with a culture of low trust. Low trust environments may mean people learn to leave their creative selves at home and switch off their ingenuity at work. Not what we need in today's world.

So what to do about it?
If you accept that apathy is a state then you can change state. Do what you can to brighten your thinking and your immediate environment.

How? Think about these.
What were the hopes and expectations you had when you first started working here?
In an ideal workplace what would you be thinking, saying and doing?
Could you be the change that you want to see in this workplace?
Maybe? Could you for example do that by seeking to build rapport among co-workers and senior managers?

How about?
Noticing your co-workers more; finding plusses to praise; welcoming their contributions; practising attentive listening; encouraging; relating? Simply connecting?

This isn't about avoiding the reality of a negative environment through a naive form of positive thinking but it is about positive, possibility thinking. It's about exerting a positive influence and you have to learn to care enough to make it happen. When you do, people will notice and you create an upward spiral.
Of course, things may have got so bad that some just want an exit strategy, a divorce from their workplace. In this economic climate that may not be a choice they are able to make. In that case, they might need to follow the old adage "Love what you do until you can do what you love!"
Love after all is the opposite of apathy.

What do you think causes apathy in the workplace?  What suggestions do you have to overcome it?

Gravitational pull

At a working lunch today, we discussed motivation and engagement. We also discussed the role of environment. In so many areas of life WHERE we do what we do exerts a strong influence. My fellow luncher referred to this as the gravitational pull of the organisation. It takes a great deal of energy to get free from its hold. Yet if the organisational gravity is positive and value-rich it can help nourish motivation and engagement. If the plant is nourished in that way then it should grow tall and strong - high engagement.
An over emphasis on control of performance produces a different kind of gravitational pull - One that is harder to break free from and less likely to encourage flourishing. A phrase of Steven Covey's comes to mind when he said that this is a bit like pulling up the plant to see how the roots are doing.
Although middlefocus is concerned to help people be resourceful in workplace squeeze situations, I am also mindful of the 100s of companies that are great places to work. There are many insights and practices worth sharing from these organisations and I'll be keen to explore their gravitational pull.


Today differs from most other Mondays I have had over these past 25 years. I've taken a severance package from work and enter the world of freelance, turning my hobby into something more enterprising. I'm taking a new direction.
Leaving work and especially my colleagues was an emotional transition. I had timed it to coincide with a significant birthday and I had wanted to leave with a message to people I had worked closely with over the years. Here's what I wrote:

Hi there! - You will have heard the saying that one door never shuts but another opens.
That happens for me today when after close on 25 years I leave our organisation, closing this book and opening another.
One of my favourite actors is Alan Alda. He played Hawkeye Pierce in the television series M*A*S*H* and said this about doorways:
“Deep in our hearts we know that the best things said come last.
People will talk for hours saying nothing much and then linger at the door with words that come with a rush from the heart. Doorways, it seems are where the truth is told.”
I know about doorways:
Having closed down and ready for home, it usually takes another 20 minutes to get out the door.
Holding the lift doors open to finish a conversation. If it was you pushing the buzzer - sorry about that.
And those conversations that take place outside the front door? Been there too!
So in case I don’t get to cross your door today, I just wanted to say goodbye and wish you
All the best - Chris
Oh and by the way……………one last thing:
This place has been such an important part of my life and it has been an absolute pleasure to have worked with you over the years. Friendships made here are solid and enduring. I hope we can keep in touch.
It would be nice to keep a foot in the door. C.

Carrick-a-Rede: Rock in the road

The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is a popular visitor attraction on our Causeway coastline. It is now open all year round as its steel ropes mean that it is much more secure than the previous temporary version. Nonetheless for some
 who make the journey across its planks it represents a personal victory. Those who, for example, are challenged by heights and choose to cross have two victories. The journey over leads to some fantastic views but with nowhere else to go there remains the journey back.
As the rope bridge sways gently with the crossing it brings to mind a list of balancing acts: Public - Private / Control - Trust / Relaxed - Restricted / In - Out / On - Off / For - Against.
Carrick-a-Rede can be translated from Gaelic as Rock in the Road. You know how it is with rocks in the road. If you stumble onto one you can easily lose your balance. The steel-roped bridge on the Causeway coast is an effective way of dealing with its Carrick-a-Rede.
What can we hold onto as we perform personal balancing acts over our rocks in the road?