What’s Your Headline?

Last month I got invited to a feedback meeting with a colleague who works for one of my peers. As I popped into the conference room I smiled across the table and asked the man, “What feedback do you have for me?”

He paused for a moment and I could tell he was a bit uncertain how to proceed. He quickly recovered and shared that he had scheduled a series of meetings with me and my peers to create better relationships and to open the door to feedback on his team’s performance. In short, he didn’t have feedback for me; he was looking for my feedback on him.

I adjusted my expectation for the meeting and shared what I could based on our brief interactions. I noted that I respected his thought leadership and that our leadership team would benefit from him to sharing it more actively in our large group sessions. I suggested that he set a goal to identify and lead a topic this year and I offered to help him. We don’t work together much so I ran out of ideas quickly. I was ready to head to my next commitment when he signaled, hesitantly, that he would appreciate guidance on the best way to approach one of my peers for a similar discussion.

I’m always surprised when people are nervous about asking the “what makes her tick” question. One of the first things I tell my direct reports is that I fully expect them to talk about me. I know that getting the best out of my capabilities means understanding my strengths and weaknesses. I want them to share best practices for effectively “managing up” so that we can deliver the best results as a team. I feel the same way about understanding my peers and subordinates; knowing who they are and what is important to them allows me to adapt my approach.

There is one significant problem with this concept. Getting to know the people you work with deeply is hard and keeping the instruction manual of every one of them in your head can be challenging. If you aren’t careful, it can feel less like an results-based strategy and more like a Machiavellian plot. Over my career I’ve been pretty good at modifying my approach (a strength that Strengths Finder calls “individualization“) but even I am finding it hard to keep up as my teams and networks get bigger. So recently I crafted a new technique: writing a headline for each person with whom I collaborate.

A headline is simplified statement that reflects the uniqueness of the person, often attached to both opportunities and challenges. My headline is “Only one setting, turned to max.” It’s true of my relationships, my energy level, my desire for achievement and my volume. On the rare occasions when my setting is low, I get a lot of questions about what is wrong. Usually, I’m sick.

I shared my headline with a colleague and he laughed. He compared me to having only one volume on a tv set — high. For a big sports game when the energy is flowing and everyone is in the moment you want it to be loud. It creates the kind of shared experience that lifts everyone up and brings them into the action. But then there is the awkward moment when it cuts to a commercial for tax services and everyone is stunned by the grating noise. There is a mad scramble for the remote to turn it down. High volume can be awesome or awful, but the fact that my knob doesn’t turn down is just a part of me, the headline that I carry.

So, I had something to offer the man sitting across from me as he sought guidance on the most effective way to approach my colleague. I shared that he was a great partner, committed to the company and doing right by both our team and our customers. I briefly outlined the idea of headlines and then noted that the headline I had given my colleague  was “Always in motion.” He is rapid-fire, he walks with purpose, has a never ending list of ideas, and has a huge bias toward action. He is often double and triple-booked, multi-tasking, and communicating on the run. I find that reflective listening is important to make sure that I have caught his ideas and that I understand the intent. I offered that an email which may appear curt or frustrated on the surface should be seen through this lens and was likely just rushed. I suggested that if he felt a disconnect he should force a pause and seek to clarify. If he kept the headline in mind he would get valuable and important feedback.

Soon after that meeting, I met with that peer. I shared the idea and the “Always in motion” headline I had attributed to him. I worried a bit; his first response was to  focus on the down-side, noting that it was something he knew he needed to work on. I re-oriented him and reminded him about the upside of his headline, how we benefited from his energized nature and his willingness to drive progress and offer new ideas. He pushes us all to action in a way that might not happen without him. I assured him that his headline was appreciated and that I wouldn’t give it up.

Maybe the concept is too simple. After all, people are complicated and we can’t reduce them down to a witty line any more than you can take a thoughtful New York Times article and reduce it to a single headline and expect the same result. But, for me it is important to have a quick filter for my experiences so that I don’t overreact to a moment of confusion, so I can adjust quickly while assuming positive intent. Thinking about a person’s headline provides a helpful starting point when crafting a challenging email, approaching a hard conversation or thinking through an unexpected response. Like a real headline it’s doesn’t tell the whole story, but when well-written it provides a great start.