Managers hear questions every day. Some serious; some trivial. “Are the merger rumors true?” “How much is our budget being cut?” “Can we extend our deadline a couple of days?” “Is our team going to have to work over the weekend?”
But the ONE question that you have to answer correctly every single time is this: “What are you working on?”
It’s particularly crucial that you give the answer right when responding to your own boss. But your reputation can also suffer when you blow that question with your colleagues.
What’s So Difficult About This?
For the most part, you and your team need to communicate details to operate your team project or department: For that, you need graphs, slides, charts, spreadsheets, meetings, presentations, data, proposals, metrics, or reports. You and your staff accomplish things with these tools, and the associated data and details make complete sense to you. The acronyms, abbreviations, illustrations, and other shortcuts save you time and ensure a common understanding.
So you have a tendency to try to communicate with those same tools and in that same manner to those outside your functional area.
But stop, think, don’t. That jargon, those communication tools, and that level of detail won’t make sense to people on the outside. They’ll likely conclude that you don’t know how to synthesize, summarize, and interpret how your work contributes to the big picture.
Habits, of course, are difficult to break. But they can hinder communication and halt your career growth.
So What Is the Appropriate Way Answer to That ONE Question?
Put aside your complicated tools and your jargon. Forget how much effort you’ve put into digging out those details. Time spent does not equal value created. Instead, focus on these few things to answer the big question:
Part 1: We’re working on solving Y problem(s).
Part 2: Here’s why it matters to the entire organization ….
Part 3: Here are the outcomes we’re working toward ….
Part 4: (Optional—depending on who has asked the question) This is how the work may affect the budget and timeline where you’re concerned….
How Do You Educate Those Outside Your Functional Area?
You don’t. If you do, you’ll be irrelevant.
While coaching sales teams on their presentations, I frequently hear comments like these, “We have to educate our customers on our product” or “Our customers really don’t understand how best to use our process and the services we provide, so our challenge is to educate them on exactly what we do.”
As I put it to salespeople: That’s like saying, “We need smarter customers.” Very few customers are going to agree with you on that.
Ditto with internal customers. They don’t want to be “educated” about what you’re doing. They want you to be educated about what they’re doing and then translate what you’re doing for them.
So What IS the REAL Job as a Manager?
Become a translator: “So what that means for you (for the organization, for our customers) is …”
That’s the key responsibility as a leader. Sift through the details, data, and metrics that you need for your functional role. Analyze it. Then draw some conclusions. But never pass on the raw details.
Your real job as a manager is to communicate clearly an answer to this ONE question: “What are you working on?” And make your listeners care.