Can You Hear Me Now: Christine J Spadafor On Five Strategies Leaders Use to Diminish Distractions & Win in the Attention Economy
Be clear about the purpose of the meeting, what we wanted to accomplish, decisions to be made, etc.
We are all competing in an attention economy. From pings and dings to blinks and rings, companies and content constantly compete for our limited time and attention. How do great leaders turn down the noise and tune in to the messages that matter most? What does it take to be heard above the noise? And how do we create communication that cultivates community and connectedness in a distributed, distracted world? To address these questions, we started an interview series called “Can You Hear Me Now?: Top Five Strategies Leaders Use to Diminish Distractions & Win in the Attention Economy.” As a part of this interview series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Christine J. Spadafor.
Christine Spadafor is an experienced corporate, university, and non-profit board director, management consultant, attorney, CEO, public speaker, BBC commentator, and contributor to Fortune, Forbes, Inc., and other business journals. She has led large-scale transformation initiatives for Fortune 500 companies across a broad spectrum of industries, both domestic and global. Spadafor is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard School of Public Health, a co-author of a workplace health treatise published by Johns Hopkins University Press, a lecturer on strategic/agile leadership, gender equity, and board governance at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, Harvard Medical School, and other graduate programs, and a frequent speaker at seminars, meetings, and podcasts. She has been awarded two Doctor of Humane Letters degrees — received in recognition of her professional accomplishments and lifelong contributions to vulnerable and at-risk populations.
Thank you for making time to visit with us. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is one of your most memorable moments, and what made it memorable?
The single most memorable career moment is a conversation with my mentor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when I was in graduate school. That conversation changed the trajectory of my entire career.
My educational background was steeped in science and medicine, so medical school was the next step. I was in the process of applying to medical schools and asked him for a letter of recommendation. He, who knew my work best, refused….
“Don’t go to medical school, go to law school,” he advised. What!? I’d never given law school a thought. He explained his rationale: being a lawyer would give me the opportunity to be effective more broadly with my science than seeing patients 1:1 for the rest of my career.
Reluctantly, I agreed, and confessed I’d spent all available funds on medical school applications. He then removed his wallet from his back pocket, opened it, pulled out all the cash, and pushed it across the desk to me. “Apply to Harvard Law School. If you don’t get in, you‘re not out of anything. If you do, it’s the best money you’ve ever spent.”
I got in.
Indeed, the best money I ever spent.
What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?
When working as general counsel for a pediatric hospital, the government informed us a decades-long funded program for children with disabilities would be terminated — in 90 days. That funding comprised one-third of the hospital’s annual revenue. Overnight, we were in a turnaround situation. The hospital president assigned me a key role in the immediate restructuring — from the heartbreaking task of laying off dedicated, talented staff who managed the program for nearly 30 years to strategies to replace a third of our revenue in 90 days. The efforts of the board, executives and staff worked, and the hospital continues to thrive today.
What I discovered from this experience is that I like “fixing and building” things. From there, I forged my career as a management consultant, with domestic and international engagements focused primarily on corporate transitions and growth strategies — both organic growth and growth by acquisition.
According to a recent Harvard Business School study, the most essential communication skill for leaders is the ability to adapt their communication style. How do you adapt your communication style?
The first questions I ask in determining/adapting my communication style are:
Who is the audience?
- Identify all stakeholders, not only shareholders. Who has a need to know — both inside and outside the company — and when? In what priority sequence?
- All-staff town hall? Board of directors? Shareholders? Investors? Radio/TV? Community? Volunteers? Etc…
What is the communication mode/venue/distribution channel?
- In person? Email? Video? Digital? Seminar? Conference?
Answering these two questions provides my starting point to determine the communication style likely to be most effective for the situation.
Strategies I keep in mind when messaging to an identified audience in an identified venue:
- Know your audience. Respect them.
- Plan ahead and be clear about the message you want to convey: strategic initiatives, objectives, updates, new developments, etc. Have an outline or script.
- Provide context for your message so the audience has a foundation for listening to and processing your comments.
- Read the room to the extent possible, depending on the venue. Audiences want to connect and typically want to know you care about them. Are they engaged? Paying attention? Watch body language for clues.
- Adapt the tone, pacing, and language you believe will resonate best with the audience and the message.
- Use inclusive language, being sensitive to diverse audiences.
- Be proactive about sharing “bad” news. Run to it, not from it. Best they hear it first from you. The audience may not like the message or agree, but they will feel informed and respect you for sharing.
- Be as transparent as appropriate, depending on the audience and the message.
- If communicating a difficult message to a large employee group, which is likely to cause real or perceived workplace disruption for them (e.g., branch closing, being acquired, etc.), schedule regular, frequent, two-way, in-person communications that include consistent messages delivered by the visible leader at the top. In these situations, you cannot over communicate. Plan for predictable patterns of reactive behavior, including shock, denial, anger, resistance, depression and have strategies to support the employees.
- Visual aids may be helpful.
- Address any rumors. Rumors are always more interesting than the truth.
- Be an active listener. As appropriate, leave time for Q&A. Two-way communication is important for engagement. People want to be heard — and you might learn something new from the exchange.
- You are a communications role model for your team. Present as you want your team to.
Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?
One of my distributed teams taught me my best lesson about communicating with clarity.
As the advisor to the client’s executive team and lead of five large teams working simultaneously for a multi-billion-dollar client, it was necessary for me to be agile and “switch gears” at a moment’s notice. One team and I were doing a progress update when the team lead stopped me almost mid-sentence and said, “You are taking us from A to C but didn’t tell us what B is.” She was exactly right. I had “B” in my head but moved too fast.
I am grateful to her for that lesson and since then have requested of teams: “If I go from A to C and am not clear about B, please stop me immediately and ask.” Thank you, Kristina.
We often discover what works by experiencing what doesn’t. Tell us about a time when your communication didn’t lead to the desired results and what you learned from the experience.
Context: I met with a three-person board of directors to share disturbing findings about one of the company’s vendors with whom they had engaged. I expected defensiveness since he was their pick — but was not expecting what transpired.
I began by stating the goal of the communication: To share with them details about this vendor’s performance that were unknown to them and, in my opinion, and that of experts, placed the company at risk. I explained there was no intention to criticize the board but rather to inform and support the directors.
The defensiveness came immediately with the first data point shared. I emphasized again the goal of our discussion was to inform the directors of issues they as the board needed to know but did not know. Not to criticize. Then came personal attacks. Then expletives were directed at me. It was one of the most intense “shoot the messenger” situations I’ve encountered.
And I’d barely even started.
Fast forward: I worked to de-escalate the situation, which over time worked for two of the three directors. I realized, from foul language and body language, that the third was not going to come along… In the end, I was able to share all the information, the directors realized they did have a problem, and collectively we developed the next steps, on which they all agreed.
I went in knowing it was going to be a difficult conversation, but I did not expect the intensity of it. I have been delivering “bad news” to executives and boards for years but never encountered this.
What I learned… in this turbulent, uncertain, reactive business environment, is to expect heightened behaviors from some executives and boards when sharing not what they want to hear but what they NEED to hear. It is their responsibility to acknowledge, eliminate, and protect known risks to the organization.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde… telling the truth makes one unpopular at the club.
Leading a distributed team requires a different communication cadence and style from leading a team in person. What are five strategies any leader can deploy to improve communication and clarity when leading a distributed workforce?
The five (and then some) strategies below are all from the same experience: I led a transformational worldwide strategic communications/change management program for a Fortune 25 company, reaching nearly 3,000 stakeholders across more than 20 territories.
Effective communication strategies for distributed teams:
- Be clear about the purpose of the meeting, what we wanted to accomplish, decisions to be made, etc.
- Articulate priorities, expectations, goals, and deliverables.
- Make sure the technology connections work.
- As appropriate, send any written communications in advance so the audience is informed and prepared to ask questions. Follow-up written communication may also be necessary to summarize the discussion, agreements, decisions made, next steps, etc.
- Set standing meetings so the audience can mark their calendars in advance and avoid future scheduling conflicts.
- Confirm action steps to be taken, who is responsible for each, and due dates.
- Consider time zone differences between the presenter and audience when scheduling.
- Account for language barriers. Translators may be necessary.
- Be an active listener.
- Open the conversation for questions.
- Request feedback. Is the mode of communication effective? Are expectations clear? Are action items and due dates clear? Any suggestions to make the meetings more productive?
- Confirm the day and time of the next communication.
What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competing for attention?
As CEO, I set a “ground rule” for executive team meeting etiquette: “No toys at the table” unless necessary to address a topic on the agenda. No phones to check texts and emails, no laptops open with lids partially blocking colleagues. Not popular, but effective to keep the conversations focused.
Other strategies to diminish distractions:
- Identify three tasks you want to complete that day. Write them down — and enjoy the extreme satisfaction of scratching them off one-by-one as they are finished.
- Break down big tasks into subtasks and focus on only one at a time. No multitasking.
- Turn off all notifications on electronic devices.
What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?
There’s a constellation of skills for a leader to invest in to become a better communicator: Empathy, approachability, respect, transparency, observation, and showing gratitude.
Yet the one skill for investment I advise to be a better communicator is to be an active listener. Being an active listener involves “listening” with all the senses, as demonstrated in part by your body language and maintaining eye contact with the speaker. It communicates, “I see you… you have my attention, and what you are saying is important for me to hear.” It’s validation of the speaker and the message. It builds trust and demonstrates an openness to learn and understand. It is not formulating your response while the person is speaking.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Be kind and realize little gestures aren’t little.
My parents frequently talked about — and demonstrated — the importance of being kind to people we know and those we don’t.
We could all use a little more kindness these days — both in giving and receiving.
It’s easy to navigate in our individual bubble — struggling to manage daily stresses, drowning in non-stop social media, and dealing with anxiety, fears, and worries caused by too many factors to list.
Let’s shift our mindset from “individual” to “community.” A community where kindness, courtesy, manners, saying “please” and “thank you,” and civility still matter. Many days they feel in short supply in these seemingly constant turbulent times.
Hold the door open for the person walking in behind you. Let that car merge in front of yours. Thank the person at the grocery store for bagging your food.
Such small gestures are big. They cost us nothing. They’re easy to do.
All we need to do is look up from our phones.
How can our readers stay connected with you?
I invite readers to connect with me and stay current on what I am discovering:
- Website: christinespadafor.com
- LinkedIn: Linkedin.com/in/christinespadafor
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!
About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.