Virtual communications have made it incredibly easy for things to get lost in translation. We can all remember a time when we sent a quick harmless text and the recipient got offended by their perception that the text was curt.

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 Bibigi Haile.

Bibigi Haile founded The Beauvoir Group to give women in leadership the license to be Unapologetically Visible, make bold moves, and stop apologizing for what they want from their career.

With a background in organizational development and strategic change management consulting, her career expands over several industries including finance and investment management.

When she isn’t on stage, she’s still speaking — her podcast Speaking with Women explores the experience of women and work including the mindset, knowledge and tools they need to be Unapologetically Visible.

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?

When I was starting to explore the work that I am doing now, I helped mothers coming back to the workforce with their interviewing skills, self-awareness, CVs etc.

One day a woman got in touch with me because she was up for an interview, and she really wanted the job. Her CV matched the job description perfectly and I believed this woman had nothing to worry about.

She came to my home for a practice interview, and we sat at my kitchen table. In the first five minutes she was in tears. What she said was: “I don’t know what is wrong with me”, “I don’t understand why I am not able to manage it”.

She hated her current job. She had to commute two hours each day, she had asked to work remotely (yes this was way before the pandemic) but her bosses would not allow it.

Her husband travelled a lot for work, so she was alone with two toddlers.

She felt guilty that she was leaving her kids at daycare too long (for the commute) and she felt guilty toward her co-workers because she had to leave early to get through the long commute and pick up her children.

She was exhausted.

Nothing about what she was doing was fulfilling and she felt like she was failing at everything: her kids, her co-workers, herself.

She was desperate for this new job that was 10 minutes from her house.

And, here she was, in my kitchen, with a CV that was tailor-made for this position, doubting herself, doubting her ability, doubting her competence.

It was all about how SHE was failing, yet she was NOT the problem.

She had so many roadblocks (the employer, the spouse, the commute). And all she could think about was what she was doing wrong.

Her story fueled sadness and anger in me and led me to launching The Beauvoir Group a few years later. Now, I get to work exclusively with women leaders helping them get what they want from their professional lives by becoming unapologetically visible.

What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?

In the fall of 2020, during the turbulent and scary times that where the early days of the pandemic, I decided to reach out on LinkedIn to women I did not know. I wanted connection but I also wanted to learn about the reality of women in the workplace directly from them.

I sent LinkedIn direct messages to women all over the world asking them if they would connect with me over zoom to answer three questions. To my great surprise and pleasure, so many women said yes! What were initially just conversations to give me insight and connection led to the birth of my biggest passion project: my podcast.

I discovered so many things about myself and about visibility from the process of asking. Here are four of the most important:

  • Having the courage to ask made possible one of the most profound and aligned professional experiences of my career.
  • Letting go of the results and focusing on the process made things so much easier. I expected to be told “no” or to be ignored and I did not take it personally when that happened.
  • Women’s experiences were similar all over the world (from Brussels to Lagos and from Boston to Toronto).
  • Podcasting was a source of immense joy for me, and I was very good at it (2 years later I have recorded over 50 episodes and going strong).

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?

I really resonate with the findings of this study. In fact, I believe there are 3 pillars to communicating powerfully and effectively: awareness of self and others, adapting to the context and to the communication style of your vis-à-vis, and last but not least, staying ahead of the curve and always being prepared for what might come up.

There are two strategies that have been instrumental in helping me to adapt my communication style:

  • I choose being effective over being good and,
  • I communicate from what “is” rather than what “should be”.

Here is what I mean by this. Being “good” is something that we self-evaluate and often with subjective criteria.

If you are a high-achiever or have perfectionist tendencies, there is a chance “good” is not part of your vocabulary. This makes it very hard, read impossible, to achieve making “good” an ideal tool for your critical inner voice.

Effective on the other hand is objective. I define an effective communication as a communication that accomplishes the job you assigned it. This makes an effective communication objectively measurable with two questions: “what do I want from this communication?”, “did I achieve it?”.

I have found that using this strategy allows me to leave my emotions at the door but more importantly to lead with empathy. Often, to achieve my communication objective, I must be able to see things from my audience’s perspective and adapt to them.

The second strategy I focus on is communicating from what “Is” rather than what “Should be”

A terrible trap we fall in when communicating is approaching things from our belief of “what should be” rather than an evaluation of what is.

This is also another way to think about effectiveness. When we approach anything through the lens of our belief systems, we run the risk of getting stuck in a battle of opinions with our vis-à-vis and not getting our message across in an effective way. Rather we want to understand the reality of our audience.

This means I focus on understanding the environment I am in and/or the communication style of my vis à vis:

  • Do they tend to interrupt?
  • Do they ask a lot of clarifying questions?
  • Do they need the big picture first?
  • Do they need illustrations to understand what you are talking about?

This strategy requires that I tap into my empathy to be able to see things from my vis-à-vis’ perspective even if I do not agree or understand their position.

Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?

I was a fan of podcasts before they were even a thing. 14 years ago, I listened to an episode on communications and management that had a lasting effect on me. The host was discussing the DISC communications framework and mentioned that to be effective he recommended communicating with the BLUF approach “Bottom Line Up Front”.

This was an eureka moment for me and has become my number one strategy for clarity: lead with the bottom-line up front.

While context is important when you communicate, it should never trump clarity.

We often use context to manage our own fear of being misunderstood. What BLUF changes is that context becomes optional and something our listener or audience gets to choose to engage with.

Try my strategy: The next time you write an email, before you send it check if you can add a summary sentence at the top with the ask or the main point of the email.

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.

I did a lot of virtual speaking during the pandemic. Those who follow me or have listened to my podcast know that I script things very tightly. Surprisingly enough the tighter my script, the more I can relax into being present with my audience.

What this looks like for a virtual keynote is that I have detailed speaker notes that I use while I share the presentation. One day, a minute before we were to admit the audience from the waiting room, there was a technical glitch, and I was no longer able to access my speaker notes. There was absolutely no time to troubleshoot and so I had to trust that I knew enough to lead a 75-minute presentation without a single note.

And I did. Masterfully.

I remember this experience fondly as the moment when I truly stepped into my expertise. This is critical because we spend a lot of time underestimating our level of expertise (especially as women) and this has important consequences on the way we show up and the way we communicate.

Today, when fear or imposter syndrome sets in, I mentally pull out that keynote as proof that I “know my stuff” and that I will be ok.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are struggling to have their messages heard and actioned?

Barring a toxic work environment, I believe that when my message is not heard or actioned it is usually not a “them” problem but a “me” problem. There is something I have yet to understand about being effective.

Sometimes it is understanding how a team member prefers to communicate. Sometimes it is understanding what non-verbal cues I am inadvertently sending.

What I have found useful to remedy this is becoming really humble, slowing down and turning on my detective skills. I start to observe what is happening when there is a breakdown in communication.

Try my strategy, ask yourself questions like:

  • When does my message get heard? What am I doing or saying when it does? How am I showing up when it does?
  • When do I feel like I am not being heard? What am I doing or saying? What emotions am I feeling when I am communicating?
  • How safe is the environment I have created? For whom? How do I know this?

The next step is to get courageous and ask feedback.

Chances are people know where the breakdown is happening and could give you valuable insights. Find a few trusted people and ask them these very same questions. Be careful to mind your triggers and be ready for the answers you might receive.

Finally, make sure you put in place a plan to action what you have found out and potentially communicate the plan to a few trusted colleagues as you get started.

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? Please share a story or example for each of you can.

  1. Acknowledge the different environments your team members are working in:

One of the seldom discussed facts about virtual backgrounds is that they allow us to look cool calm and collected even if there is complete chaos behind that background.

As a mother, I know first-hand what is happening behind those backgrounds. The kids home sick from school, the partner working at the same time, Amazon delivering a package, or the neighbor wanting to borrow some milk.

On my team, one of the members lives very close to a train track. We know and understand that she will be interrupted from time to time because of a train passing by. We do not leave it to her to manage a potential disruptive situation by having to hide what is happening in the background, putting herself on mute at random times or generally stressing out about the interruptions.

2. Focus on deliverables not availability.

If WFH has thought us one thing it is that we do not all operate at the same rhythm. This makes trust and a laser focus on results critical. If you have an expectation of presence from your team members rather than results, you do not get them at their best.

For instance, I do my best work in the morning and sometimes at night. Afternoons are a write-off. I would not be effective if I was supposed to show up during those hours to produce. I would probably spend a lot of time starring at the screen, unfocused and frustrated. Thankfully as an entrepreneur, I have learned to align my agenda to my natural rhythm.

3. Clear is kind. Don’t assume anything.

Virtual communications have made it incredibly easy for things to get lost in translation. We can all remember a time when we sent a quick harmless text and the recipient got offended by their perception that the text was curt.

The same thing happens at work all the time: we send an email and imagine our instructions were clear then realize that nothing got done and we wonder why; we think someone understands what we expect and soon find out they do not.

Taking the time to validate that your message has been understood, that people are well resourced and that they feel safe asking questions and clarifications is critical.

4. Leverage doubt and understand that it is #notaboutyou.

When we are communicating, we will often turn on our hypervigilance: “Why are they looking at their phone? They are texting our co-worker to tell them how ridiculous I sound”, “Why are they smiling? Are they laughing at me?”, “Are they rolling their eyes? I knew I should never have accepted to do this presentation”.

This can be intensified in a virtual setting when we have team members all over the world, with different ways of showing up, in different time zones, with different expectations of you.

The way to get around our hypervigilance is to insert space in between what we notice and our interpretation of it. We do this by inserting doubt. What if they are looking at their phone because they have a sick child and are waiting for a text from the school; what if they are smiling because they can’t believe how accurate what you are saying is and feel so seen; what if they are rolling their eyes because they just thought of someone who does not apply what you are saying and they now realise how detrimental that is.

5. Foster community between team members.

Foster community between team members by creating opportunities for them to get to know each other and have informal communication channels. This helps decenter yourself as a leader and embeds support structures within the team. It also creates moments of levity and fun.

One of our team members lives in her native country of Argentina. In December of 2022, in the middle of a huge, time-sensitive team deliverable we lost her to the World Cup victory of her country. For a couple of days, she was either absent or not very coherent when we managed to get her online. However, the team’s cohesiveness and our capacity to laugh together really removed the stress we might have felt in different circumstances. We were all able to have a good laugh about her World Cup experience.

What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competing for attention?

  1. Understand your natural rhythm and figure out when you are at your most focused.

The book “When” by Daniel Pink was a game changer. It allowed me to become aware of my natural rhythm and when I was operating at my best. By observing myself I was able to identify the best time to do focused, creative work (the early morning or late night), to take a nap (early afternoon) and for meetings (mid to late afternoon).

Understanding my own rhythm allowed me to be effective and productive rather than applying brute force when my brain was no longer cooperating.

2. Prioritise rest.

I learned this the hard way. During the Covid-19 pandemic I caught Covid very early and went through an 18-month bout of long Covid. At first, I tried to continue working at the same rhythm, but I was no longer able to. Little did I know this was a blessing in disguise. I learned to prioritise rest. I also realised that I am my most distracted self when I have not rested enough. This makes everything, including communications, harder and less effective.

3. Set boundaries on your agenda.

This is an incredibly effective strategy and yet it is met with so much internal resistance. We do not believe we have agency over our agenda. We default to the culture of our workplace and believe (before validating or testing) that there will be dire consequences if we set boundaries on our agendas.

I suggest starting to practice this strategy by picking 90 minutes in your week that no one has access to. It can’t be time before 9:00 am, after 5:00 pm or on the weekends. Block that time and communicate clearly to everyone that this is “you” time. As you get more comfortable with this, aim to increase this time and to use the first strategy (understanding your natural rhythm) to choose the most effective times for focused work.

What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?

The one skill I would advise every leader to invest in is understanding your triggers.

This is a specific aspect of a larger skill: self-awareness. Some people might also put it in the category of emotional intelligence (E.Q). Whatever you choose to call it, understanding your triggers is critical to communicating in a clear, effective, and impactful way.

It allows you to insert space between the trigger and your reaction, saving you from a lot of grief and unpleasantness. It allows you to insert doubt between what your mind is presenting as real and what you choose to believe (e.g.: are they looking at their phone because I am boring or because the daycare just texted, and they have to go pick up their child?)

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.

That movement would be the practice of doubt. We have reached a point in our collective history where we double down on our positions and speak from a place of deep conviction. However, if our vis-à-vis is showing up with the same conviction for an opposing narrative, well now we have a stand-off.

The practice of doubt is so powerful when we enter in relation and communication with the other.

  • Doubt that I am right.
  • Doubt that I know their story just because of some clues I am picking up.
  • Doubt that our realities are different.

Doubt. Suspending belief. These are all entry points for empathy.

How can our readers stay connected with you?

I am the ultimate LinkedIn nerd and probably spend way more time there than I should. I would love to connect; you can find me at Bibigi Haile

I also have a podcast called Speaking with Women where I talk about women’s visibility and professional trajectories. I also interview a lot of amazing women.

I would love for your readers to take a listen.

Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.