Alan Alda on The Art & Science of Relating and Communicating

The Art and Science of Communication

Alan Alda needs no introduction. He played Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, appeared on ER, The West Wing, and he’s appeared in numerous films from Crimes and Misdemeanors to Bridge of Spies. For eleven years, he hosted the award-winning series Scientific American Frontiers, and he founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He has also won seven Emmy Awards and received three Tony nominations, is an inductee in the Television Hall of Fame, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Aviator.

For many years, he has been studying communication. His latest book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating will have you laughing and contemplating the art of communication. You’ll find his insights and tips immediately useful in both business and personal settings.

I recently spoke with him about his latest work.

 

“Real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking.” –Alan Alda

 

It’s a gross understatement to say that you see things differently. For instance, most people don’t go through a difficult surgery at the dentist, one messing up your smile, and end up with ideas about improving communication. I’m interested in two aspects of this experience.

 One, how did it inspire you?

The experience of a dentist’s poking in my mouth with a scalpel — without seeming to care if I understood his terse one-word description of the after-effects – was pretty much the essence of poor communication. All he said was, “Now, there will be some tethering.” What? Tethering? “Tethering. Tethering!” He just kept saying the same word over and over. Too cowed, I let him go ahead, and my smile after that was really suitable for playing villains.

He knew what he meant, but he didn’t notice that I wasn’t getting it. To the extent he did notice, it made him impatient. That story has come back to me many times, especially the more I see that it’s up to us who are trying to communicate something to be aware of what’s going on in the other person’s head.

 

“People are dying because we can’t communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another.” –Alan Alda

 

And two, have you always had a unique way of viewing the world or was this cultivated over time?

I don’t know if this is unique, but some of my earliest memories are of trying to figure out how things got that way, or why adults were behaving the way they were. My mother was schizophrenic and paranoid, and I always had to check her reality against real reality. I think that helped me question things and always check them out from another point of view.

 

 

The Importance of Relating

Your book starts off talking about the importance of relating. I’m struck by your humility. You’re always up front with your mistakes, what you should have done, what you didn’t know at the time. For example, you say:

My first blunder was assuming that I knew more than I did.”

I was paying more attention to my own assumptions than I was to him.”

I wasn’t listening.”

And then your story teaches us about relating, but also, we immediately relate to you because of your openness. Is this a relating tactic?

3 Ways to Get in the Champ’s Corner

boxing ring
This is a guest post by brand strategist Robin Fisher Roffer. Robin is the Founder & CEO of Big Fish Marketing, Inc. She has launched and evolved dozens of media brands all over the world from A&E, Animal Planet, to Lifetime, MTV, and TNT. Her book, Your No Fear Career and audiobook Make a Name for Yourself is now available.

 

Get in the Champ’s Corner

Being trusted and valued by a business champion means helping them fight competitors, round-after-round.  

While watching the McGregor vs. Mayweather fight, I found myself focused on the guys in each champion’s corner. On both sides, they mirrored the fighter’s personal style and brand. Mayweather’s big, imposing team wore all black and bling. They looked like they could be working the door at an exclusive Vegas club. McGregor’s fashionable posse resembled members of a boy band in black vests, pants, white shirts and ties.

The men in each corner were there to do more than psych up their champs, throw down strategy, give water and Vaseline faces—they were there to make Mayweather and McGregor feel and look like winners.

Professionals who finally make it to the C-Suite and business owners who have built their companies beyond their wildest dreams often find themselves no longer able to authentically count on the people around them. They look around and say, “Who can I really trust?  Who can I count on to tell me the truth?  Who’s really in my corner?”

 

Who’s In Your Corner?

It’s true that it’s lonely at the top. Who can you trust when you’ve made it? Who’s in your corner?

Years ago, when I was an executive at Turner Broadcasting, I would have lunch with the heads of each network on a monthly basis. Although they were presidents and I was just a director, they took the meetings because they felt I was in their corner– cheering on their vision, giving them winning strategies and making them feel like champs.

At one lunch, I asked CNN’s president, ‘‘What do you think your audience isn’t ‘getting’ about your network that they should know?’’ He answered, “That we break news first.” From there, I came up with a strategy to send 30-second “CNN Hot Spots” to affiliates when the network was first to cover a big story.

Today, I still zero in on what is uniquely important to my clients. During a recent branding workshop with a digital agency, I asked the executives, ‘‘What do we want the industry to say about us?” Asking questions like this means you’re in the ring with them, taking a keen interest in their agenda, product, and future.

 

Leadership Tip: Championing the leaders’ vision builds your executive presence.

 

Championing the vision of the company leader builds your executive presence and puts you inside the ring.

Many roads lead to career growth and vitality. I’ve found that being part of the leader’s posse and a champion of his or her vision is the quickest route. It’s not about brown nosing; it’s about being seen as integral to the company and its success.

Here are three ways you can get in the champ’s corner and help your leader beat the competition and deliver a knockout, just like Mayweather:

1. Tell the Truth

Find a Common Mission to Engage Employees

thread

Find a Common Mission, Vision and Purpose

Despite billions of dollars of investments, organizations around the globe see employee engagement stagnant at only 13%.

David Harder, author of The Workplace Engagement Solution: Find a Common Mission, Vision, and Purpose With All of Today’s Employees, believes that CEO’s can successfully awaken the culture, and that you can create an enthusiastic culture and loyal customers. David is the founder of Inspired Work. Over 42,000 participants have engaged in his program to change careers, become better leaders, and launch businesses.

I asked him about his engagement ideas.

 

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” -Socrates

 

What are some of the characteristics of a culture that it truly “engaged”?

An engaged culture promotes continuous learning so that employees are not only growing, they are staying ahead of change. Even better, they are bringing positive change into the organization.

An engaged CEO or business owner leads an engaged culture. If she or he is disengaged from the culture, the employee population will also be disengaged.

An engaged culture recognizes that everyone walks in the door with various sets of life skills. Therefore, the organization makes sure everyone has the necessary life skills to change and engage. These include sales, presentations skills, the ability to influence, and clarity in how to build a vitally effective support system.

Self-reflection is encouraged in a strongly engaged culture. At Cornerstone on Demand, executives routinely ask questions such as, “What’s your next move?” “Where are you going next?”  After seven years employees are given a sabbatical for self-reflection. The point is, we cannot have engagement without a connection to one’s own truth. We have proven this thousands of times in our programs, which are question driven.

 

“More than 80% of America’s workers don’t like what they do for a living.” –David Harder

 

I’ve featured many people on this site talking about the problem of engagement. The stats are remarkable. We didn’t have sophisticated surveys years ago. Do you think this is a new phenomenon?

In the scheme of things, surveys are a bit old-school. The problem with surveys is they don’t produce change. Unless there is a solid commitment to produce an engaged culture, they often create more harm than good.

My point in The Workplace Engagement Solution: Find a Common Mission, Vision, and Purpose With All of Today’s Employees is that the majority of workers are checked-out, to various degrees. Getting them back requires a visionary commitment from the leadership but it also requires that we teach people how to change and engage. Notice that I rarely use one work without the other. Right now, according to a recent New York Times study, 48% of Americans view themselves as “underemployed.”  This is also a staggering number and yet it is reflective of workers at odds with keeping up with change.

 

Gallup: Only 13% of the world’s workers are engaged.

 

The Importance of Mission

The Mythical Leader: 7 Myths of Leadership

mythical leader

Misunderstanding Leadership

My friend Ron Edmondson is a pastor, author, blogger, and consultant. After reading his leadership book The Mythical Leader: Seven Myths of Leadership, I followed up with him to discuss the many misunderstandings people have about leadership.

 

“Leadership is influence.” -John Maxwell

 

Avoid the Boss Mentality

I often say that leadership is personal, not positional. Myth number one hits this immediately. What are some of the problems with the “boss has ruled” mentality?

I so hate the word boss. Maybe because I’ve had one and, no, I never want to be seen as one. Frankly, from a purely practical standpoint, the “boss has ruled” mentality simply doesn’t work. It might get the job done for a while, but it will wear people out over time. We don’t get the best people have to offer because they will only do what has to be done to meet the “boss’s” expectation. But, I think there is a bigger reason. It’s wrong. At least from my Biblical perspective, we are all – regardless of title or position – ultimately to be servants of others.

 

“The culture the leader creates impacts the feedback a leader receives.” -Ron Edmondson

 

Myth number two says that if you’re not hearing complaints, everyone must be happy. Tell us a little more about this observation.

I’ve learned even in the best organizations and on the healthiest teams, the leader only knows what they know. And, people may be either hesitant to share what they are really feeling for fear, or retribution or they assume the leader already knows the problems. I go through seasons, as the leader, where I’m simply getting the required things done. I’m traveling a lot. I’ve got a lot of projects on my plate. If I’m not careful, I can assume silence means agreement. I must consistently be asking good questions to make sure I know the true pulse of the organization.

 

7 Myths of Leadership

Myth 1: A position will make me a leader.

Myth 2: If I am not hearing anyone complain, everyone must be happy.

Myth 3: I can lead everyone the same way.

Myth 4: Leadership and management are the same thing.

Myth 5: Being the leader makes me popular.

Myth 6: Leaders must have charisma and be extroverts.

Myth 7: Leaders accomplish by controlling others.

 

 

How to Lead Creatives

A Leader’s Role in Achieving Excellence in Execution

Leadership execution
This is a guest post by Robin Speculand, author of Excellence in Execution: How to Implement Your Strategy. Robin is the founder and CEO of Bridges Business Consultancy and creator of the Implementation Hub.

Don’t Lead by Example

To guide an organization through the execution of its strategy, leaders… don’t lead by example.

In strategy execution, leaders are responsible for driving the strategy forward and championing the direction the organization is heading. This involves, for example, reviewing progress, coaching people, resolving issues, and ensuring the right outcomes are being achieved. Leaders don’t lead by example as they don’t implement strategy; their employees do.

Before you even start your strategy execution, the odds are stacked against you as more fail than succeed. I have seen from my seventeen years consulting in this field that leaders are guilty of delegating the execution and not paying adequate attention to it. When leaders do this, their people also stop paying attention to it. McKinsey & Company stated that, “Half of all efforts to transform organization performance fail either because leaders don’t act as role models for change or because people in the organization defend the status quo.”

 

Show Confidence in the Strategy

If leaders perceive execution as an interruption to the business, they will not drive and champion it.

Anything short of embracing a new strategy and its execution by leaders can be seen by employees as a lack of confidence in the strategy itself. That feeling will spread throughout the organization.

  • If you only apply lip service to the execution without championing it, employees will sense the lack of commitment and not step up; the execution will fail.
  • If you don’t create the time to oversee the implementation journey, change the agenda and explain why the organization needs to transform, then employees will sense the lack of commitment and not step up; the execution will fail.
  • If you don’t set the strategy and create the budget to allocate required funding, employees will sense the lack of commitment and not step up; the execution will fail.

 

Booz and Co. Survey: 53% don’t believe their company’s strategy will lead to success.

 

A key question to consider is:What are you willing to do to execute your organization’s strategy?”

In contrast, strategy execution progresses when leaders support their comments with time and actions. Because only so much can go on a leader’s radar, he or she has to carefully select which actions will best drive the execution forward and where to invest their time.

Booz & Company surveyed executives from around the world on the results of their organizations’ strategic initiatives. Given more than 2,350 responses, the findings suggest a high degree of disillusionment, including:

  • Two-thirds (67%) say their company’s capabilities do not fully support the company’s own strategy and the way it creates value in the market.
  • Only one in five executives (21%) thinks the company has a “right to win” in all the markets it competes in.
  • Most of the respondents (53%) don’t believe their company’s strategy would lead to success.

If leaders don’t believe in the strategy, they will never be authentic and sincere in executing it.

 

PWC Survey: 55% of CEO’s state lack of trust is a major threat to growth.

 

Demonstrate Increased Commitment