As I introduced in my first blog post, I have recently taken a secondment away from my General Counsel position to manage a team within our Go-to-Market function. The second post discussed the challenge I faced around leadership and building credibility from scratch.
Having now settled into the role a little more, I have had the opportunity to look back and realise some of the early mistakes I made (some being the operative word – I am sure there’s more I don’t even know yet that I would have done better!). In the next couple of posts, I am going to talk about how losing sight of some of my existing skills and knowledge made life harder than it needed to be, starting with the art of communication.
Are you speaking my language?
I have always enjoyed the art of written communication. I genuinely believe it’s an art. The ability to find the right language and tone to express your point – sometimes forcefully but without being blunt or rude, other times with the right degree of humour and irreverence. It is an absolute bedrock of how we get things done. People judge you, often before they’ve met you or spoken to you, just based on the way you have deployed these skills.
Naturally, therefore, I did not believe that one of my challenges would be how to get my point across in the right manner. Rightly or wrongly, I considered myself to be a relatively good communicator, taking pride in my written style and equally comfortable having a conversation one-to-one or in a group.
However, no matter how good a communicator you are – written or verbal – it does not help if you are not speaking the same language as your counterpart.
Lawyers (including me) tend to write, and talk, in prose. That’s perhaps a polite way of saying we’re verbose, but it’s inarguable that most prefer a well-crafted paragraph or three with which to fully explain their perspective over some snappy bullet points.
And herein lies the conflict. Prose is not necessarily the language that our business colleagues speak. Their language is one of numbers, data, graphs, statistics, and analysis. At first glance, this seems like a cold and unforgiving territory – after all, you cannot press Shift+F7 over a number in a spreadsheet to ask the thesaurus to find you a better way of expressing your shortfall in budget! But businesses run on data and I needed to adjust my delivery to match that.
Goodbye Word, Hello Excel and PowerPoint?
If prose is the language of lawyers, the delivery tool of choice is either Outlook or Word. While these are fantastic when it comes to setting out a memo or responding in detail to the latest question to land in your inbox, they are terrible in the context set out above.
I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with PowerPoint, partly borne out of watching too many presentations where people read exactly what’s on their slides (if you are reading this blog and you do this, please stop it before I cry!). That said, I have used it often enough and, despite spending far too long trying to get graphics to fly in from the right place at the right time with the right animation, I appreciate the value that a well put-together set of slides can add to a presentation.
Excel, though, is a different beast altogether. For a start, there are numbers. And very few words. And secondly, you just know it’s cleverer than you by far.
Word I can cope with, especially as formatting and various other things go wrong all the time – that makes me feel like we’re at least equals (after all, am I not doing it a favour by correcting the things it gets wrong?). The functionality in Excel, though, is beyond anything I can wrap my poor lawyer’s brain around: looking things up in tables; colour-coding based on value; adding rows and columns before you’ve even asked it to; and I’m just talking about the basics!
Out of the communication comfort zone
So, with this backdrop, it is perhaps understandable that my first few attempts at putting forward a business case in my traditional style were not as successful as I might have expected them to be.
The funny thing is that, when I was in Legal, I could get away with a multi-paragraph email or memo, setting out the background, summary, argument, and counter argument, and no-one seemed to raise an eyebrow. Not being plagued by self-doubt, I thought this was a result of the quality of my writing. On reflection, I think people were just humouring me or did not expect anything more from a lawyer.
Once I moved across to the business, those same tricks did not wash. Loquacious notes on the difficulties we are facing, the events that are happening, the various moving parts and interdependencies, and my carefully crafted request for something to be done about it probably would have left my audience bored and not minded to help (if they got to the end of it at all). What this approach certainly did was to invite short replies asking to see the data and evidence to back up my point. What do you know…
I have done my best to adjust my delivery and communication styles to fit this (and will discuss more in a future blog). I still can’t entirely escape who I am and what I do well, but I have tempered it with the addition of data or graphs to back up my points.
However, the interesting reflection is whether I could adapt this when/if I go back to a Legal role. With additional ways of communicating and putting across my point, to argue for resource or to justify a decision, surely speaking the language of my audience – and with the tools they used all the time – I stand a better chance to making headway.
In the next blog, I am going to talk about one of my first forays into using Excel, which exposed another lesson that I needed to learn around the degree to which being data-driven is useful and when you need to know that enough is enough. Watch this space…