Align your messages with others’ priorities. Understand what keeps them up at night and find a win-win to support them and have their ear on how your priorities might merge with theirs.
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 Felicia Shakiba.
Felicia Shakiba, Founder and Global Sr. Executive People Strategy Consultant at CPO Playbook Consultancy, has lead HR teams across the globe and served as a Head of People for several of her clients in industries such as fintech, biotech, digital advertising, and more. She has over 16 years of experience in the field of HR consulting and talent management, with expertise in total rewards, DEI, succession planning, L&D, performance management, and people analytics.
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?
One of the most unforgettable moments in my life was meeting my husband for the first time. While seeking engineers to employ for my HR-tech startup in San Francisco, I agreed to go on a blind date. During our meet-up at the California Academy of Sciences Museum, my date brought along some friends, and we enjoyed observing the penguins in the warm evening. Although my date and I didn’t click, I was captivated by the insightful conversation with his friend. We talked the entire night, and as I traveled back to Mountain View on a train, I found myself thinking, “I hope I don’t fall in love with this guy. I’m too occupied with my startup.” However, as fate would have it, we eventually tied the knot!
What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?
Perhaps not entirely unforeseen, but it certainly took me by surprise — I had been serving as the Director of HR at a manufacturing company when I decided to explore HR technology further by attending the HR Tech Conference in Las Vegas. Despite speaking with industry experts and perusing the exhibition booths, nothing seemed to capture my attention visually. The user interfaces were outdated, the experiences overly complicated, and nothing catered to the then-emerging Generation Y workforce. And then it hit me — there was an opening in the market.
So I quit my job and set out to develop a mobile app for employee-facing people analytics. This app would enable Gen Y workers to track their careers within an organization while furnishing the organization with invaluable quantitative and qualitative data regarding employee skills and achievements. I taught myself fundraising, product development, and HR tech sales to cater to organizations of all sizes.
However, the unexpected twist came when my lead designer left to establish her own design firm. Consequently, I found myself in the role of app designer. With Sketch as the tool of choice back then, I had to learn how to design an app from wireframes to user experience in a mere 2–4 weeks to keep the project moving. It was a harrowing experience, but it taught me how to create impressive presentations in the boardroom.
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 adapt my communication style based on several factors to ensure effective communication with my team members. Firstly, I take into account the individual’s level in the company and tailor my language, tone, and level of detail accordingly. For instance, I use more technical language when speaking with a colleague, while using simpler language and providing a high-level overview when speaking with a senior executive.
Secondly, I consider the personality of the person I’m communicating with to adjust my approach accordingly. By understanding their communication preferences, such as whether they prefer direct and to-the-point communication or a more conversational style, I can make them feel more comfortable and engaged in the conversation.
I also consider the individual’s current focus to frame my message in a way that is more relevant and impactful to them. I’ll highlight how a project aligns with their current priorities to make it more meaningful and motivating for them.
And finally, I take into account an individual’s attention span and adjust my communication approach accordingly. I might break down information into smaller, more digestible pieces or incorporate visual aids to keep them engaged.
Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?
A significant portion of my work has a global focus, which means I often collaborate with individuals such as the CPO (Chief People Officer) of India or the Director of HR in Singapore. When we present ourselves to employees, we must appear as a unified front. Through these interactions, I have learned a valuable lesson: it is crucial to assume that we know nothing about the workforce outside our designated region. This implies that we must be open for feedback, relentless collaborators, and become patient listeners to give and receive clear communication.
For instance, as the former Head of Performance Management at WPP — one of the largest digital advertising agencies globally, with over 100,000 employees — it was essential to align numerous leaders on how performance training would be implemented. We had to consider all perspectives. When we created our first draft of the performance management training module, we requested feedback from all regions and business functions. Approximately 10–15 individuals provided comments and feedback in a single document, resulting in continuous modifications, queries, and suggestions. It was a marvelous experience — we collaborated across the world with experts in each part of the business’s culture. The moment of clarity came when we finalized all our edits and called for a final review of the training material. I was incredibly proud of the team.
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.
Effective communication with a CEO is essential for any organization to succeed. I recall an instance where I was part of a team that was working on a project for a CEO, and we had a miscommunication.
We had a meeting with the him to discuss the project’s progress, and we presented the work we had done so far. However, he had a couple concerns about the project’s direction. We were taken aback because we had believed we were making excellent progress and had followed the instructions to the letter.
After the meeting, we took some time to reflect on what went wrong and realized that we had not fully understood the CEO’s vision for the project. We had assumed that we knew what the he wanted, but we had never explicitly confirmed it. This led to us creating work that was not aligned with the his vision, which is why our presentation did not meet the desired results.
From this experience, we realized that it’s important to ask questions and seek clarification to ensure that we fully understand the vision for a project. We also learned that it’s critical to regularly update the CEO on the project’s progress and get feedback to ensure that we are still aligned with the vision. Finally, we understood that it is essential to take the time to reflect on feedback and adjust our work accordingly to ensure that we meet the desired results.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are struggling to have their messages heard and actioned?
I get this question more often than you think and I have three main tips.
First, build relationships. Take the time to build trust with your team members and stakeholders. People are more likely to listen and take action if they trust and respect you as a leader.
Second, listen. Communication is a two-way street, so make sure you’re actively listening to your team members and colleagues. Encourage feedback and questions, and show that you’re open to different perspectives and ideas.
Finally, align your messages with others’ priorities. Understand what keeps them up at night and find a win-win to support them and have their ear on how your priorities might merge with theirs.
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. Leaders should establish regular check-ins with their distributed team members to keep everyone aligned and informed. These check-ins can be in the form of daily or weekly virtual stand-ups, video calls, or instant messaging. The frequency and duration of these check-ins should be based on the team’s needs and should provide ample time for team members to ask questions and provide updates. Team members should come prepared to answer questions about their progress, where their blocked, and how their manager can help them. For example, when I was building my people analytics mobile app, my team of developers were working remotely. To ensure everyone was aligned, the we scheduled a daily virtual stand-up meeting. During the meeting, each developer shared their progress and any issues they had encountered. This practice not only keeps everyone updated but also encourages collaboration and idea sharing.
2. Creating a centralized communication hub for distributed team members to share information, updates, and feedback is absolutely essential. This hub can be in the form of a project management tool, instant messaging platform, or shared documents. Having a central hub allows team members to access information easily and reduces the likelihood of information silos. When I was the Director, Talent Management at Harman International (a Samsung company), I was rolling out programs to 20 HR Business Partners worldwide. In the first month, I established a shared hub where team members could add their work progress, feedback, and ideas. Documents could be accessed and updated by team members at any time. Shared folders served as a one-stop-shop for all the initiatives we were working on together throughout the year.
3. Defining the team’s goals and objectives, and communicating them regularly to their distributed team members is a must. This helps team members stay focused and motivated and provides a clear understanding of what they need to achieve. When I was working with the Sales team at Ad Colony, a mobile digital advertising agency, the CRO set monthly sales targets for his team and reviewed them in detail at the beginning of each month. This allowed the team to align their efforts and work towards achieving set targets.
4 Encourage having cameras turned on during team meetings, one-on-ones, and virtual collaborations. When cameras are on, face to face meetings provide a more personal touch to communication and helps team members feel more connected. When I was serving as Head of People for a fintech company based in Silicon Valley, team leaders scheduled weekly team meetings where team members could see each other via video. This practice not only encouraged collaboration but also helped team members build more personal relationships.
5. Finally, keep your one-on-ones, religiously. I know to some leaders who might say weekly one-on-ones are impossible. However, if you’re not meeting with each team member weekly, then you’re creating a bottleneck in their progress. Fast moving organizations keep their weekly one-on-one’s with their team members to give feedback, green-light next steps, and praise high performers. Leaders should provide timely feedback to their distributed team members to ensure they are on the right track and to encourage continuous improvement. A CEO I once coached was well admired in her field and everyone was excited to have her on board. However, weeks went by and most senior leaders were stalled because she was engulfed in her own agenda that she didn’t realize that many of her leaders were not making much progress without her feedback.
What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competing for attention?
At the organizational level, selecting the right performance management philosophy is imperative for everyone to “row the boat” in the same direction, at the same time. I’ve always been a supporter of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) — a framework that organizations use to set goals and measure progress towards achieving them. There are three main strategies baked in the OKR framework that can help everyone diminish distractions and stay focused: set goals at the team level, clarify objectives, and measure progress quarterly.
OKRs are always set at the team level, which helps to ensure that everyone is working towards the same objectives. This alignment can help the team stay focused on the big picture and avoid distractions that may arise when working in isolation. When everyone is working towards a shared goal, it is easier to stay focused and on task. SMART goals and KPIs are a great start, but they can create a competitive environment and colleagues are less likely to collaborate and work together to achieve a common objective.
The OKR framework provides a clear and concise approach to setting objectives. Once an objective is established, it is broken down into key results and assigned to team members with specific metrics and a quarterly deadline. Key results are typically measured either by a simple Yes or No or by a percentage or a numerical value. For example, if the objective is to launch a new on-boarding pilot among the next 50 new hires in the US, a key result might be “Deliver on-boarding program 2.0 to 50 new hires” with a measurement of 50. If only 40 new hires are onboarded, the measurement would be 40/50, which equals 0.8 or 80%. This approach ensures that the desired outcome is crystal clear from the beginning.
Thirdly, OKRs also help you to measure progress towards your goals. By tracking key metrics and identifying areas where you’re falling short, you can quickly adjust your approach and stay on track. As I mentioned, OKRs are quarterly goals because in a fast-paced environment, organizations need to be agile and shift course as the market shifts. Annual goals will not allow for this agility, but quarterly check-ins encourage you and your team to reflect and change course quickly, as needed.
Overall, adopting an OKR philosophy keeps you on your toes. Once you’re in the flow, you really don’t have time for distractions.
What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?
Embracing a servant leadership philosophy requires a set of behaviors and values that prioritize the needs of team members over the leader’s self-interest. The principles of servant leadership include active listening, empowering others, leading by example, creating a positive work environment, and focusing on the greater good of the organization.
Servant leaders listen actively to their team members, demonstrate humility and integrity, and encourage personal and professional growth. When team members realize these characteristics of a leader, they’re more likely to listen and ask for feedback regularly. This is an incredible advantage for any leader who is looking to improve communication with colleagues or team members. The leaders who implement these principles ultimately foster a culture of respect, trust, and open communication.
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.
Initially, I pursued a career in executive coaching and was making headway after completing my Master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and securing an internship at the prestigious Center for Creative Leadership, a top executive coaching firm. I firmly believed that transforming an organization necessitated transforming its leadership, and was committed to effecting change by working with CEOs and their teams. While I still hold this conviction, I have also come to appreciate the immense influence of compensation on behavior — not only for executives but for all employees.
Executive compensation packages can vary in numerous ways, but I am particularly interested in those that link compensation to employee engagement and DEI metrics. Although not foolproof, this linkage is incredibly potent, benefiting employees and the company’s success alike. Were I to launch a movement, I would encourage executives to tie bonus payouts to a percentage increase or high sustainability of employee engagement results, as I believe this would have the greatest positive impact on the largest number of people.
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Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.