How to network without being phony

    You arrive late and sidle into the room. Avoid eye contact with the people standing around in groups of twos and threes, and pretend to look for someone by gazing pensively into the middle distance. After lining up for a drink, walk around a bit nibbling on pretzels, then pause to pick up a brochure and feign interest. Loiter at the buffet, then take out your phone to check your email and Twitter feed. Stare thoughtfully at the screen, as if receiving important news. Notice someone standing alone, consider approaching but instead get another drink. Repeat these steps, then retire to the corner to hang out with that affable-looking potted palm. Sound familiar? The idea of ‘working a room’ isn’t too appealing for most of us. The fear of awkward interactions, boring conversations, or worse, languishing alone in a corner, can trigger a full-on a junior high school flashback. I attend a lot of conferences and corporate events, both as participant and speaker. Now I’m an extrovert, and I enjoy public speaking, but I confess that I sometimes find myself planning an escape through the hotel kitchen to avoid the dreaded ‘networking break’. You may be thinking, “isn’t this why social media was invented”? Despite the hit of dopamine we get when someone likes our post, nobody’s heart is warmed by the glow of a LinkedIn message as it is by the smile of a live person. People talking to people has always been the way business gets done. A few ideas on how to network more effectively and take the pain out of that ‘meet ‘n...

Checking out will make you stronger.

  Aaah, summer. A time to slow down. To step away from it all. Get off the grid. If only. Every year I anticipate escaping the city to our family cottage on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. But this summer, after a stressful winter and a hectic and busy spring, stepping away from Toronto’s fast-paced life is proving harder than usual. I’d like to blame technology. But the problem goes deeper. My vacation began with a lecture to my kids on the merits of putting screens aside. I regaled them with childhood stories of summers spent reading, playing with cousins and exploring the ‘great outdoors.’ My city boys were, to say the least, underwhelmed. But after negotiating some parameters for screen time, I – pleased with myself – headed back to my book and newspaper. On my laptop. As a small business owner, there’s always a lot to manage. Projects and clients, marketing and writing, and endless admin. Sometimes I feel like if I stop, everything will; stepping away from work isn’t easy. This year I made a bargain with myself: I’d take a longer break than usual, but would work a little every day to justify the extra vacation time. And with cottage wifi; this is a snap. Oh, and despite my vacation auto response, I’m really still available to my clients if they need me. My phone is always nearby (must film the kids swimming!) And since it’s on me anyway, I’ll just quickly check my email. And while I’m there, social media… So, as we enter our second week of vacation, I am wondering if it’s...

Bouncing back

      I was invited to speak at a conference in Toronto last month on the subject of workplace stress and developing resilience. For me, the event felt timely. My stress meter has been tipping to the high end this spring. Lots of pressure: some self-inflicted and some of it, well, less so. Last month I spoke at three conferences, brought on two new clients, oversaw three ongoing communication training programs, organized a team for a Colitis and Crohn’s disease fundraiser, and, oh yeah, hosted a weekend family event for 150 guests, five of whom were bunking down in my home. On top of this, I learned of some significant health issues for several of my nearest and dearest. Stress? Just a bit.   People often think of resilience as something you have or you don’t. But I’m in the camp of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who, in her new book Option B, writes that resilience can be developed: “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it.”   As a former actor, I built my resilience chops in the trenches of audition rooms. For any actor, dealing with rejection comes with the territory. You can’t always control the factors: being too short/tall, hair that’s too curly/straight, or a nose that’s too big (but never too small!) It could get a gal down. Bouncing back from disappointment was a job requirement.   And now in my work as a communication consultant and coach, I have seen at all levels of business (from...

How to keep your chill under pressure

It’s 10 am and you’re already running fifteen minutes behind. Someone cut you off in traffic on the way to work, and the elevator was out of service when you got there. You’ve been rushing from meeting to meeting, trying to remember your to-do list in between. You’re reading an email from an irate client, while mentally reviewing the presentation you’re giving this afternoon. A colleague intercepts you in the hallway to ask when you can send over the agenda for the next meeting. Which you’ve already sent. Feeling ready to blow? Time to take a breath. You know that. But how? A few weeks ago, I came across this photograph of Saffiyah Khan, a young English woman who stepped in to defend a woman wearing a hijab who was being surrounded by right wing English Defence League protesters in Birmingham. What struck me about the photo was her seeming calm, smiling bemusedly at the incensed protester glaring at her. She seems in the moment, composed, and ready for anything. She is present. The photo went viral, the world applauding her for, as a friend described it, “remaining chill”. And don’t we all want to be a little more chill under pressure? At work and in life, the first step to leadership presence is this quality of being “in the moment”, of finding stillness, even in the midst of a storm – or in the face of an angry mob. Last week I spoke on leadership presence at the MCWESTT conference in Winnipeg to a group of women in engineering, science, trades and technology. For these women, working in...

Happy Persistence Day!

  Originally called International Working Women’s Day, the history of this celebration goes all the way back to 1908, and rose out of the movement for women’s equal rights in the workplace. While the official theme of the event this year is Be Bold for Change, this year’s rallying cry could well have been “she was warned, she was given an explanation, nevertheless, she persisted”. The rebuking and silencing of US senator Elizabeth Warren, by her colleagues, is a reminder to us all of the many ways that women feel invisible and silenced in their workplaces and in their lives. And yet, so many are looking for ways to be bold, to be heard, and to elevate and empower others. In the face of both systemic and individual bias, conscious and unconscious, women are persisting, refusing to give up, seeking new ways to be seen and heard, and to be influential. As individuals, women are taking control of their own career paths, through training and development, through seeking meaningful mentors and sponsors. We are mentoring and amplifying the voices of other women. We are building, sustaining and promoting meaningful employee resource groups. We are speaking up and leaning in. We are asking for raises and promotions. We are persisting. What does persistence mean to you this year? I’d love to hear from you how you’ve been celebrating in your workplaces, and often supported by your organizations. Be bold. Be seen. Be heard....

Do great minds think alike?

    Let’s face it. While we may see the value of difference, and hold fast the principles of inclusion in our societies and workplaces, we are drawn to sameness. We want to come together with the like-minded. It bolsters us. It makes us feel stronger. Last week I participated in a salon at Toronto’s Koffler Gallery. The event, called Pushing Back, gathered together a panel of women who attended the Women’s March on Washington in January to discuss how this experience was influencing our work. The panel guests included academics, actors, a playwright, a visual artist, a comedy writer and myself. While I have a background in the theatre, my work now is focused on workplace communication and women’s leadership. We had many different reasons why we attended the march, and our lingering responses ranged from dismay to elation. But what struck me most was how many women talked about the strength they drew from coming together – the solidarity – with other like-minded men and women, and how this shared experience provided fuel to their desire to make change; in their workplaces, in their communities and in the world. Oxford dictionary defines solidarity as: “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group”. I’ve been reflecting how this need for solidarity is something that I see often in the employee resources groups (ERGs) that I speak to; groups of people are coming together in the workplace with common interests and goals to share ideas, wrestle with problems, gain new skills and draw strength from each other. It’s...

What an overnight bus has to do with women and power

                      It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me, but not because I haven’t thought of writing.  I could say it’s been a busy fall, and it has. But the truth is over the last few months, I just haven’t been able to muster words that feel meaningful. As someone who helps organizations to be more inclusive, and individuals to make more powerful connections through meaningful communication, I believe in the power of dialogue. I work to help women communicate with power, authority and authenticity so that they can be fully seen and heard at work. I work with organizations who want to bridge differences of culture, gender and generation.  Inclusion is at the heart of my work. So the outcome of the American election and the deep divisions that it has exposed have been disheartening, to say the least. It seems simplistic to talk about inclusive communication when the gaps between so many seem suddenly so impossibly wide. With so much to say, but unsure where to begin, I’ve felt silenced. This weekend, I’m hopping on a charter bus to join the Women’s March on Washington. Why would I give a much-needed weekend at home to spend two (likely sleepless) nights on a bus? For days, I’ve been asking myself. This question was put to me by the Ottawa Citizen earlier this week. And in the op ed I wrote for them, I found my answer, and my voice. Read it here. Have a look, and  let me know your thoughts here… Have a great weekend, all. Sarah...

Trump’s Terrifying Communication Effectiveness

                          As professional communicators who advise others on how to improve their ability to connect with audiences, peers and clients, my colleague Shari Graydon and I have watched the astonishing ascension of political neophyte and insult-machine Donald Trump with dropped jaws. Here’s our conversation about the lessons to be learned from his fearless communication style, originally published on Huffington Post. SARAH: When — and yes, this is a fervent wish — Donald Trump loses the US federal election, I’d consider hiring him as a communication coach. Don’t get me wrong. I find his ignorance, racism and sexism repugnant. But he is a salesman to the core and boy, can he sell. Yes, I wish he’d use his powers for good rather than evil. But it’s hard not to be in awe of a real estate promoter with no political experience who’s made it this close to the Oval Office. And it’s his communication skills that have gotten him there. SHARI: I agree that he is compellingly watchable, in a train wreck kind of a way. Despite – or perhaps because of! – his breathtaking lack of knowledge, integrity and basic human decency, he’s a master at crafting and delivering messages that resonate – at least with some people. The trouble is most clients in the market for communications advice aren’t uneducated white men who feel disenfranchised by what’s happening in the world today! And I suspect his ability to adapt his tools to a broader audience are profoundly limited. SARAH: That’s true. But you have to give him credit...

Sex at Work. What’s the problem?

What’s the place for sex at work? I guess the answer depends a lot on where you’re employed, no? In most places though, the answer is, emphatically: nowhere. Accompanied by a quizzical, suspicious look.   But at work, sex is often, ahem, a fact of life. Sexual tensions can and do arise, and employees are more aware than ever of the importance of respectful, professional conduct– especially in cross-sex work relationships. But sexual harassment has been much in the news of late. It’s a problem for women, clearly. But it’s no picnic for anyone and creates some tricky issues for men.   Last week, I had a piece in the Globe and Mail outlining how power structures at work can create ideal conditions for workplace harassment to thrive – witness the recent chapter of the Jian Ghomeshi saga. Perpetrators are often protected by their status – and by perceptions that they add so much value, that they’re above the rules.   But high profile scandals like this one, help to perpetuate another problem, more subtle, but equally insidious. Fear of perceived harassment can prevent men from sponsoring women.   A sponsor is someone in a position of power relative to yours. They’re situated to advocate for you, by recommending you for a big project or putting your name on the table for a promotion. A sponsor is your champion and your ally, your voice at the table, and their influence can go a long way. And the more senior they are, the more influence your sponsor can have in your career.   The trouble is that with only 33%...

“Growing” Women Leaders

I have what you might call a black thumb.  While I love the idea of a house full of green, shiny, oxygen-giving foliage, my houseplants usually end as sad, wilting, brownish wisps. This year I tried succulents, after learning that they require very little care. They also require lots of sunlight, a detail that I overlooked.  In a dark corner on my brand new shelving unit, alas, they turned to brownish wisps, as usual.  I had to admit that if I wanted them to grow, I’d have to give them the right conditions. I was reminded of my gardening failures recently, while doing some research into the conditions that allow women to grow into leadership positions. The statistics on the imbalance of women in senior management teams are as troubling as ever.  While many industries now see gender parity in the labour pool (S&P 500 companies report 45% women), the percentage shrinks with each rung up the corporate ladder, with women making up only 4.6% of CEO’s. Why is this percentage so low, when study after study shows that companies with gender balance at the top are more profitable?  And even more importantly, what can women in HR and management do about it? What’s keeping women from “thriving”? It’s worth a closer look at the workplace conditions that might be getting in the way. “Environmental bias” Given the historical dominance of men in the workplace, many organizations still have structures and work behaviours that have evolved to match men’s styles and preferences.  These biases – often referred to as “second-generation bias” – play out in policies and informal expectations that favour men and...