Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ask For What You Want

I was recently coaching a non-native English-speaking client who expressed disappointment that he did not receive the response he wanted from his manager. In his case, he wanted an invitation to present his data at a particular meeting. When I probed about the language he used in his request, he said, “I didn’t actually ask. I thought my manager would know I wanted to be there.”
Never assume people will read your mind

Managers and coworkers are busily focused on their projects and their issues. They don’t have time to speculate about what you want. Thus, the responsibility is on you to make a positive and clear request.

Some people, especially shy individuals or those from cultures where such a request might be interpreted as questioning authority, think such straightforward, positive communication is impolite. In reality, is the most respectful and beneficial way of relating to your workplace colleagues.

A clear request respects your manager, and it benefits you

·        You give your manager an opportunity to see the benefit to him/her and to the organization of considering your request.
·        You don’t waste energy by regretting your silence, or by bemoaning a missed opportunity.
·        You display a confident attitude that will earn you respect, even if your manager doesn’t agree with you.

How to make a request that is respectful and positive

Let’s use as an example my client’s situation: He is a chemical engineer who did considerable validation testing in order to provide critical and complex data about a new process that was being considered for adoption. 

He sent the data as a PowerPoint slide set in an email attachment to his manager (as requested). He simply wrote: “Here’s the data you requested for the meeting.” He knew he could give a thorough explanation of the data and answer detailed questions that were sure to arise at the meeting. He assumed his manager would want him there. However, the engineer did NOT specifically request in his email (or later when passing his manager in the hallway) that he attend the meeting. Thus, his manager went alone and presented the engineer’s data.

How my client could have more effectively communicated his request to his manager

·        Send the test results, along with an email that says:
o       “I would like to attend the meeting with you to present the data. I anticipate numerous questions about the complex test results, and I’d like to be there to help you field the questions.”
·        Offer in the email to go over the data with his manager in advance of the meeting: 
o       “I’d like to meet with you to go over the slides to be sure I’ve included all of the data that will be discussed at the meeting.”
·        Follow up in person with his manager – either by setting up a phone meeting if they are not in the same office, or by stopping by his manager’s desk.

Note that the engineer is professional and positive, and he shows why the request is valuable to his manager. Most likely his manager would welcome his attendance at the meeting, since his expertise and grasp of the issues would make the manager look good, and ensure a win a decision at the meeting.

A helpful template for communicating clearly what you want

Here are some tips for making a request that is clear and positive, and has a good chance of being accepted. Remember that even if you don’t get what you want, a clear request will likely elicit a clear response. That, too, is helpful in understanding your manager and your work environment.
1.      Be laser-focused on what it is that you want. For example:
a.      “I would like to call a follow-up meeting for next Monday.”
b.     “I am requesting a summer intern for 10 weeks.”
c.      “I would like to travel to Texas to meet face to face with our customer.”
2.      Immediately follow your request with a statement of WHY this request is important to you, your manager, and to the project/organization.
a.      “The follow-up meeting will enable me to personally walk the team through the additional test data they requested.”
b.     “An intern can run the test scenarios so that we stay on schedule.”
c.      “Our customer is nervous about the product spec changes, and I want to reassure them we’re meeting their needs and timeline.”
3.      Then listen to your manager.  Be prepared to justify your request with details. (specific meeting agenda, costs, etc.)

To summarize, ask for what you want, be clear about why your request makes sense for the organization, and be prepared to justify your request.  And always be positive!

I welcome your comments and questions.

Jolinda Osborne

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Turning Lemons into Lemonade: How to make the most of a low-visibility work project

Last week I suggested four ways to determine if you’re working on a “lame duck” project, and I offered six communication strategies to ensure that your project gets the attention and resources it deserves.

But what if those communication strategies don’t get you and the project more visibility or resources? What if your project is important but not flashy? Solid but not “sexy?” Work that must be done – and you’re the one assigned to do it?

Well, why not make lemonade from the lemons you were given? While lemons are a delicious ingredient in many cuisines, the idiomatic phrase means to make the best (sweet lemonade) of an undesirable or frustrating (sour lemons) situation.   

The Lemons

You may find yourself on a low-visibility, light-impact project for several very practical and understandable reasons:
1.      Your work supports customers or upgrades to a product already launched. The “buzz” has moved on.
2.      The project is an early stage where outcomes are inconclusive or not ready for public sharing, or else the work is so technical that few people really understand it.
3.      Your work is a critical but small piece of a more visible initiative or product/service, and the focus is always on that big deliverable.
4.      Your manager is under pressure to get the project done, you've been assigned to do it, and so that is reason enough.

The Lemonade

Okay, so your work is necessary and important to someone. Here are some communication strategies to turn each of the four bullets above to your advantage.
1.      Consciously track how your work has helped specific customers (internal or external), and let your manager know, through brief emails or hallway chats, about your satisfied customers. Pass on a customer’s positive comments. Unless there’s a complaint, we all tend to forget about what is working well.  Continue to communicate (not bragging but simply noting) the customer feedback.
2.       If you can’t “go public” with your work, take the initiative to set up a brown bag lunch or “chalkboard talk” with your team and other influential people connected to the project.  Invite your manager and your manager’s manager. Keep your project in their minds, and appropriately showcase how your work is progressing.
3.      Attend forums on the bigger business strategy, and contribute ideas in addition to your particular work. Be generous with your support, and be visibly engaged in the big initiative. Senior managers will notice.
4.      Help your manager solve a problem and you’ll be remembered for your hard work and your loyalty. Then the next time a more visible or interesting piece of work comes along, ask your manager about joining that project. You’ll likely get a positive response.

In my work with corporate clients, I’ve seen how quickly the hyped, “hot” project everyone is talking about can fade just as quickly as it begins. So keep in mind that a low-key but critical piece of work often wins the day, and provides you with accomplishments you can point to with pride.

Make this a lemonade summer
When I was in the third grade, my Mom set up a table on the sidewalk in front of our home on hot afternoon, and I sold glasses of lemonade to the neighbors. It’s a summer tradition across America – one where children earn a bit of spending money and learn early some sales and marketing skills. So this summer, help your own kids set up a one-day lemonade stand, or else quench your thirst by supporting the entrepreneurial spirit of other kids in your neighborhood.  

Please feel welcome to comment below on how you’ve made lemonade from a less than perfect work situation.

Jolinda Osborne

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Are You Working on a Lame Duck Project?

On public radio this week, I heard again the idiomatic expression, lame duck.  This phrase describes a political leader who has been voted out of office or who has lost the support of the citizens, but who still remains for  weeks or months in that office. Lame ducks are ineffective because everyone knows they won’t be around much longer, so there is no need to respect or fear them.

Lame duck can also describe an organization or business project that is not noticed, may not “fly*,”, or is low-priority and not vital to the company.   Might you be working hard on a lame duck project?

Why it’s important to identify a lame duck project

I tell employees I coach that it’s critical to assess the value and visibility of projects they’re working on. If you silently struggle on a low-value and under-resourced project, you may get frustrated and lose motivation.  

Ideally you want to be positioned on projects that are “hot,” ones that matter to the company’s strategic plan, projects that have legs.*  Below, I’ll share some tips for how to better position yourself.

Realistically, though, you can’t always choose your projects, so next week I’ll discuss how you can use good communication to make the most of the project you’ve been assigned.

Four ways to assess the value and visibility of your project

1.      Note the level of management engagement in your project. Do the decision-makers show up for your project’s meetings and prioritize your meetings over other conflicting meetings?
2.      Read senior management report-outs and “roll ups” of your larger group’s array of projects. If your project isn’t mentioned, or if it is always at the bottom of the list, it’s likely not getting the support it needs in order to thrive.
3.      Attend corporate forums where senior managers speak about the organization’s direction. Managers have limited time, and they focus on what is important to the company’s bottom line. Is your project on their radar*?
4.      Network. If you’ve got your head down in your cubicle, focused on the details of your project, you might miss the buzz* about how the project is viewed in the eyes of senior management and other teams.  

Six communication strategies to help ensure that your project “will fly”  
1.      Take an honest look at how well you have fought for your own project. Ask yourself:  “Did I communicate my project’s value and bottom-line* impact to the organization, so that my manager has the information to knowledgeably champion my project?”
2.      Set up a meeting with your manager. Communicate that you’ve noticed attention, resources, etc. have been focused on other projects.
3.      Immediately follow that statement by asking how your project can have more value, become higher on the priority list, or obtain further resources in order to have a bigger impact.
4.      Listen closely. Your manager attends higher-level meetings and will likely know what issues, concerns, or roadblocks exist.
5.      Respond with specifics about what you can provide to your manager: data, rationale, research, input from customers, etc.  If your manager agrees, make sure to follow up on your commitments.
6.      Be positive. No one likes a complainer. Always be positive with your observations and your suggestions.  (More blogs on positive communication strategies and techniques will be forthcoming.)

 * I will sprinkle idiomatic expressions throughout the blog posts. I am so committed to the value of understanding and using idiomatic expressions at work, that I’ve written three books in the series: Stories for Learning Useful Business Idioms. Check them out on my website.

Lame duck is an old idiom, whose origins are described at  This site explains the origin of many English language phrases.

Feel free to post a comment or suggest other topics you’d like to see covered in my blog.

Next weekTurning Lemons into Lemonade: Communication Strategies to make the most of a low-priority project

Jolinda Osborne 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Welcome to my new blog

The bilingual advantage

I recently read in the New York Times about research touting the benefits of bilingualism. The research showed that speaking regularly in two languages makes brains stronger, facilitates multi-tasking, and inhibits such diseases as Alzheimer’s.

Most of you reading this initial blog post are bilingual (or trilingual), so congratulations on your advantage!  To quote the researcher in the article, “You’re sitting on a potential gift.”

However, in the 25+ years I’ve been training and coaching non-native English speaking professionals, I often hear people focus on the disadvantages of not being fluent in English – a strong accent that is misunderstood, an inability to influence decisions or participate in meetings or present under pressure, and frustration at not fully grasping the idiomatic and cultural English that is integral to conversations and humor at work.

This blog aims to turn those perceived disadvantages on their head – with practical communication tools and tips for speaking clearly at work. Furthermore, the blog is a forum for sharing questions, suggestions, challenges and successes, all with the goal of developing more effective speaking skills in English.

What you’ll find on my blog

Over the course of the coming weeks and months, I’ll offer tips and information to help you speak clearly and confidently at work.
·      Stay current with American idioms and cultural expressions used at work and in the media – to help you grasp the subtle messages of what your colleagues are saying, and to expand your own spoken vocabulary.  
·      Polish your presentations and status reports with engaging openings and concise closings, winning organization, confident delivery, and behind-the-scenes strategies for succeeding in your particular high-pressured business environment.   
·      Learn simple tips and techniques for contributing to and leading meetings – those important venues where decisions are made, lasting impressions formed, and where your influencing skills are put to the test.
·      Improve your American English pronunciation through short audio and video clips of me as I demonstrate correct diction and intonation – so that you are always understood, the first time. 

Join a community of professionals

I invite you to add my blog to your RSS feed, and to follow me on Facebook Business, where I’ll announce new posts and other information related to Jolinda Osborne Intercultural Communications.  Or visit my website,, and sign up for my newsletter. Feel free to pass on the blog to colleagues and friends in other organizations.

Please leave your comments, questions or suggestions for blog topics, or feel free to email me.  What compelling communication topic do you want to hear about?

This week’s closing communication tip

Exercise your “bilingual advantage” by joining your English-speaking colleagues for lunch in your workplace cafeteria or at a nearby restaurant.

Yes, I know it’s much more relaxing to hang out with friends and speak your native language. Yes, I know you want to “unwind” after a morning of attending meetings in English.

However, if you stretch yourself, even once this week, by sharing lunch and casual conversation in English, you’ll pick up American idiomatic expressions, and you’ll also feed your “bilingual brain!”

Jolinda Osborne