Episode 4

Clear Blue Sky: Communication is the Key

Andrew Blotky believes the strong cultures at the core of all great, high-performing organizations, are built by confident, inclusive leadership and open, clear, authentic communications. Andrew’s book “Honestly Speaking” is the foundation of our conversation about communication, culture, and connection.

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Even if you are an introverted person, people--we humans--crave and thrive on connection. I mean, there's been all sorts of studies that have been done long before this crisis about people who live alone, who are more lonely, isolated, whatever. The people who are generally connected to others through friends, family, get out of the house--they're less prone to depression. Their health is overall better, their life expectancy is longer. Andrew Blotky, Founder Azure Leadership Group


CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:04] Good afternoon and welcome to the ONEder podcast. This is CCB, your host from One Workplace. And this afternoon, I am chatting with Andrew Blotky. He is an author and executive coach and a consultant at this moment in time. But he's got a really colorful past that we're going to explore. So, I'd like to say welcome, Andrew.

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): [00:00:26] I'm grateful to be here.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:28] That's fantastic. So, let's start with... actually, I want to start with your book, and I'm going to put it into the context of something that we've been talking about at One Workplace, we've been talking about design for connection. And that idea of connection is the broadest definition of connection. So, we can be connected to family and friends. We can be connected to nature. We can be connected to place. But behind all of what happens in connection probably is communications. So how about if you spend a little bit of time and tell us about your new book?

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): [00:01:02] Yeah. Well, thank you. So, the book is called "Honestly Speaking: How the Way We Communicate Transforms Leadership, Love and Life." And it speaks to exactly this concept of connection, which is, if you think about the very root of the word communication, and if you actually think about what it means to communicate, and if you think about what sort of separates humans from other species in terms of our ability to create connection or to communicate, it really is all about connection.

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): And so often when people struggle with something around communication, whether it's giving a presentation that they're a little bit scared of or whether maybe it's having a hard conversation with a manager or even with your spouse, often what people think of is the communication being a pushing out or getting something off of your chest, sharing something and pushing it out into the world. And what I'm trying to do is help people reframe the way they think about communication as more of a connection, more of a joining together: communicare (Latin), commune, join. And so really what we're talking about is trying to find and build a relationship and find some common ground. Because if anything is worth communicating, it's because you want the other person to know or to feel or to do something. And so, there's a lot of different ways that we can do that, but it only works so well if the other person is receiving what you're saying--so you're in some kind of a relationship.

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): So the book talks a lot about some tools and some frameworks to think about that, but particularly for this moment that we're in where we're all far more disconnected physically than we are, the irony is that it's the very thing that keeps us separate, which is what's bringing us together. We're all in this together. We're doing this the same. We're all isolating for a greater good. And so, it just tweaks--it changes the way that we need to think about communicating, whether it's the tools that we use. Or maybe being a little more careful about the words that we use or the frequency--whatever it is. But really, it's about, you know, communication is really at its root about finding common ground and creating connection.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:03:04] It's so interesting that you talk about understanding we're all in this together. I was listening to a webinar this morning that was talking about resilience and the nature of where we are today. And it was encouraging leaders to understand that what is happening right now is this bleeding between life and work and the context of today. And so, all of our emotions are so caught up in everything that we're living in--living through--at this moment in time. So, you can see things coming out in work conversations that perhaps you didn't see before. And you can see things happening in life conversations that maybe formerly had been a little bit more contained in the work environment. So, the whole communication thing, I think, is so critical in this connection conversation. And I also appreciated in your book all of those tips that you had in suggestions of ways to think about communicating, which introduced a lot of mindfulness. I'd love you to spend a little bit of time talking about that.

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): [00:04:20] Yeah. I think, you know, one of the main takeaways from the book is how you communicate at work fundamentally shouldn't be any different than how you communicate in your personal life. And it shouldn't be actually that different than how you communicate online versus in person, too. And so, this idea that we sort of have a separate work persona and a separate personal life persona has really been abandoned in a lot of ways. And I think that in the last month, with people working from home much more, we've seen that accelerate and we've seen that change a lot. And so, one of the things that's happened in the last month is sort of all of these older ideas that we had about how you have to act or be or be perceived in a workplace is very different. Just like we're re-examining questions around how often do you have to be in an office? What does it mean to co-work or work virtually? A lot of those older ideas are rooted in bias and change, and you sort of keeping your authentic self only, you know, cordoned off to one area of your life.

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): And so one of the things that I talk about in the book--you could call it mindfulness, you could call it self-reflection, self-awareness--is a lot of times if you're having a hard time communicating about something or if something feels emotionally challenging, it is generally hard because of your own emotional self and your own emotional work. So, for example, if you and I are having a conversation and I have to give you some feedback, that might be a little bit constructive or hard to hear, I'm having a hard time sharing it with you because I'm having to manage my own emotional reaction to how I might make you feel. So, it isn't necessarily just that the news is bad or that the news might be constructive or hard, but I'm trying to... I need to go almost get out of my own way about how I might be feeling about making you feel, if that makes sense. So, a lot of times we'll again focus on the other person.

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): But one of the powers of self-reflection, basic self-reflection--and there's a bunch of exercises in the book that are super easy to do--is meant to help carve new grooves in the gears of how your brain works, so that you just get more comfortable and it becomes more habituated to just kind of notice, OK, this is hard. Why is this hard? This is kind of coming up for me. I'm feeling this angsty emotional feeling. I'm feeling a little tense here. Where do I feel that in my body? What am I feeling? Why am I doing it that way? And what how might I react in a different way? So, the self-reflection is a nice thing to do just because in the immediate it calms your nervous system and that's great. But in the longer term, it's really important because it helps you create more connection, more understanding, more empathy. And I will tell you that that is the top thing that all leaders are really focused on right now.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:07:04] I am so glad that you interjected that "leader" word because I was going to ask, relative to your executive coaching, it feels like this is a time that there are a lot of people that are going to need coaching--need a support in reframing their relationships because of this virtual-versus-physical kind of shift. And, the responsibility of the leader to present the calm and the consistent messaging. So, can you talk about that a little bit, and share if there's any wisdom that you have?

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): [00:07:48] The coaching work that I do, I love to do, and I work with people at all different levels of organizations. It isn't just like CEOs. I work with organizations and teams across industries. So, I see this now across for-profit, nonprofit. And I think that the one thing that really stands out is, you know, I think we're all seeing far more than maybe we understood before, how much we constantly are in a world of change. And one of the things that leaders do, regardless of what their level is, maybe you're a first-time new manager, is that you have to be adaptable and able to sort of manage change and manage in systems and in situations that are changing. And so, thinking about working with the clients that I work with, it's really about how do we partner together to create some future that is where they feel a little more confident, where they maybe get to a better outcome? So it's not remedial. It's not like fixing a problem. It's not like a doom and gloom negative thing. It's about, what's the future that we want to create together and how do we get there?

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): And I'm thinking a lot recently about how this moment is definitely hard for a lot of people. There are a lot of families that have been physically, you know, health wise, affected by this. Certainly businesses, small businesses, even like mine, are definitely taking a hit financially right now. But one of the things that is really important to keep our eye on is that out of moments like this come great opportunities. Some of the greatest, most successful companies that you can think of were created out of the last economic downturn. And so, the leaders that are able to sort of keep calm, keep focused, be open, really open to different ideas, empathetic, connecting, keeping care of people, all that kind of stuff. Those are the ones that are going to allow the headspace and the heart space to come up with new great ideas, whether it's pivoting your existing business to be really successful or whether it's to maybe come up with some new idea and make some change.

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): So that's what I've been thinking a lot about, is how do we use a hard opportunity to self-reflect: What am I learning? What do I want to kind of maybe discard and let go of that wasn't really serving me? And we're sort of, in a sense, being offered this opportunity, whether it was one that we wanted or even asked for to sort of look: OK, what's working, what's not, what do I want to keep and where might I go? And in every conversation I've had in the last month or so, all of it comes back to basics of relationship, family, colleagues, and people.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:10:22] So I was thinking while you were just talking about that responsibility that leaders have as stewards of culture. And they demonstrate or model certain behaviors because behavior over time actually becomes culture in a funny way. So, the idea of modeling behavior virtually, in our current situation, what do you think the impact might be on culture when there's such... almost an expanded burden put on that modeling requirement?

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): [00:11:11] Well, you know, this is a really interesting question. I think so many businesses are really being faced with this because, you know, humans are social creatures. Even if you are an introverted person, people--we humans--crave and thrive on connection. I mean, there's been all sorts of studies that have been done long before this crisis about people who live alone, who are more lonely, isolated, whatever. The people who are generally connected to others through friends, family, get out of the house--they're less prone to depression. Their health is overall better, their life expectancy is longer. So, I think that we start from that point. And, you know, one of the things... We met years ago at the Culture Conference: this whole conference of people really focused on this exact issue. And it was really about how do you bring people together in new and interesting ways. And what I've seen is a couple of things. One is people are really trying to find new and creative ways of bringing people together, even if it's virtually, less for a particular business purpose and solving a particular problem in the immediate--which is often what we think of as Zoom teleconference meetings, as usually to reach a particular outcome and check off a box off of your list to do--and more an opportunity to bring people together.

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): So one of the things I've been playing with a little bit is offering these resilience coaching retreats. And they're literally like done virtually for 30 to 45 minutes for existing cohorts of teams. And the whole purpose is for people to come together, to connect, to be together, to just share what their experiences are, to keep as much of that human connection without a particular agenda. And then we sort of share what's working, what are some resilience tips that we can share, what are some themes that emerge? Maybe there's a thought, you know, that people could journal or a poem that gets shared, but really, it's an opportunity to share and then to reflect back what are the themes. And there's just a fair amount of benefit that comes in those connections. So, I think that there is no substitute for in-person connection. I think that's something that many of us are missing and craving, even if you're somewhat introverted like I am. This is hard. I mean, part of what I do on the side is teach yoga. And I'm now teaching all my classes virtually. I don't have students in front of me that I can see and respond to. And so, we're trying to build community and bring people together as much as we can. People are just having to get really creative. On the culture side specifically, though, to your question. I do think that this is really why it's so important that companies, organizations, whatever, have clearly articulated values and mission statements. Because if you rely on the values that you have articulated, it's something that everyone can find in common. And it generally drives some sense of behavior around what you want. And a lot of those behaviors should be done differently depending on the context, but they're still the same. So it's even more important for leaders to really lean into that and to really make sure that people are reminded: how is this Zoom teleconference that all 50 of us are on different than it would be at a different company? What are the sorts of ways that we use the Zoom technology to do a little thing like check-ins or things that we're grateful for? And the last thing I'll just say on this, it is so important for managers and leaders, especially right now, to be doing positive recognition, looking for opportunities to call out positive wins. Everybody needs them. We all need everything that we can to make sure that we feel like we're part of a team.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:14:44] I was going to give you a little plug for some of the consulting that you did with us around helping to make our values more explicit because we as an organization had spent years saying them out loud, knowing that we live them. But with so many new people joining the organization, it became so much more critical to really have those flagstones, those called-out values so that everyone could look at them and understand. And the way that we describe them, they were action oriented as opposed to just a word. So we looked like it was behavioral. We celebrate these types of activities and the next step in that was creating awards. So quarterly we give out the Bravo Awards, which for each of the six values there is an award given to an employee who has demonstrated it. And the story about how they demonstrated this value--all those stories are just heartwarming and totally support in our entire staff's minds what it is that we're moving toward. So that's extremely helpful. I completely agree.

CCB (One Workplace): So, another question about culture and communications. And I know from another one of your past lives, when you were with a very large tech organization that you may or may not name, you did lots and lots of internal communications. And how about if you speak to the need for--you just started addressing it with that level of constancy that is required today--but what other tips might you have for communicating internally within organizations right now?

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): [00:16:36] Yeah. This is so important. In fact, I just wrote an article on this because I was sort of noticing how many people that I'm talking to and organizations are focused on this right now. So, it used to be that internal communications were often an afterthought, both in terms of the work and in terms of hiring people to support it. And when you think about it done really well, I think it's like the thing that now every communications professional or every senior executive is focused on more than ever, because it's really all about how do you make sure that the employees at the company and the organization have the information that they need to be able to do their jobs, particularly during times of change? How do they feel like they're part of the organization and the culture? So right now, and there's a great sense of insecurity and instability, people need to hear more than they did before that they are cared for, that they are meant to be here, that their contributions matter. And being very clear about what information do we have. How are we making decisions? A lot of organizations are having to lay people off and make different decisions around deploying teams on different, you know, priorities. A lot of priorities are shifting. Being as explicit as possible about what do we know, what do we not know, how are we making decisions? And providing opportunities for people to be heard is really important. So, again, it goes back to what we first started talking about, which is communication is not a one-way pushing out of information. It needs to be a conversation. And the reality is, the world that we are in now--and this has changed even in the last five to 10 years with social media, with everything in the way that we all just communicate in our daily lives. People as employees have an expectation that it is far more of a dialogue than a one-way conversation. And so, they need to be made to feel heard and acknowledged and that they have opportunities to engage with people. And so, this might be as simple as, you know, sharing information in an announcement and then immediately giving people a listening forum or an opportunity to share feedback, to ask questions and the like. But, you know, internal communications is a combination for me of really good messages and channels and the like, but also real leaders who champion this and who make it a real thing that they prioritize.

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): As you know, I worked at the tech company you mentioned--I worked at Facebook. And at Facebook, as well as every other organization I've worked in, the leaders of Facebook really did prioritize this, and they made it a priority. They spent a lot of time on it. And so that's one of the things that I love working with leaders now on through the coaching and stuff that you mentioned. It's like helping leaders to really be the best that they can be. Communicate the most effectively that they can. So, it just doesn't feel like corporate speak. So, you know, I've seen this a lot recently with the really good examples. But I'll tell you, it's like internal comms is like having its renaissance moment now. And a lot of people are really focusing on it as a real strategic priority.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:19:36] I would say that, yes, our marketing and communications team is busier than we have ever been before. We're grateful for the opportunity, but it also is definitely asking an awful lot to keep as many people engaged as we possibly can. Okay. So I don't really have any more burning questions, but I would I always like to hear, is there something that that you're really puzzling over right now, that you're wondering about that you would like to share?

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): [00:20:14] Well, you know, I mean this is just stuff that I love. And I tend to be a pretty optimistic person. So, this is hard. This is unprecedented. And it is very difficult for many people. But one of the things that I think will be really interesting to see is how people have been able to come out of this situation, whatever it is, whether it's a month, six months, or a year from now. And what really are the changes that people will have made in the ways that they just show up in the world? So, all of us have an opportunity at this moment to really think about how we've been showing up. What's been working for us? How do we engage with strangers when we see them walking on the street and they're wearing masks and we want to avoid them? Is that avoidant behavior going to continue? When people are talking far more about traveling less, spending less time commuting, having far more time at home, maybe spending more time with their family, with their friends, reaching out to friends that maybe they hadn't talked to for a long time. But now they've got time and they're doing it. What are the things that are going to change that people want to keep and how might that change the way that we show up at work? And the last thing I think is it's going to be a really interesting conversation around just the modern workplace generally. Right? So, the idea of face time, I mean, a lot of companies I see are still doing quite well and quite productive, even though there aren't people working in an office. And for some people, that may be great. For a lot of people, they really love and thrive on being in a physical place together and need that. And so, I think it's just going to be a really interesting question for leaders and managers about how do we allow flexibility? Do we want to allow flexibility? And because now people have seen that remote work is, it's like it has to be done. Otherwise the businesses aren't going to be around.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:22:12] That's fantastic and it dovetails with a lot of what we've been thinking about. And I would say that there are a couple of general principles of human behavior like propinquity and proximity that need to be nourished and people are craving. And, you know, that's what people are saying: You know, I didn't think I would miss my colleagues as much as I did. I might like to see them in real life as opposed to on a tile on a screen. So I know that balance is something that everyone is dealing with right now in trying to figure out what's the most effective for the people as well as the business operation, because clearly there is, there's a business aspect to it as well. Anyway, I would like to say thank you very much, Andrew. This has been a fascinating conversation, which every one is with you.

Andrew Blotky (Azure Leadership Group): [00:23:07] I'm so grateful. It's so nice to be a part of this. And thank you for having me. It's great to see you.