Leaders should have regular one-on-one meetings with each of their team members. These one-on-one conversations really build trust and understanding. From there, when something goes sideways, and a hard discussion needs to occur, both parties will feel safe to come forward. We also need to remember that working remote can be isolating. These check-in meetings remind your team that they are valued and important.

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 Michelle Precourt of Mindful HR Services Inc.

Michelle Precourt, Founder and Principal Consultant at Mindful HR Services Inc. is an HR Consultant and Corporate Mindfulness Facilitator based in Squamish, British Columbia, Canada. Michelle draws on her background in corporate HR and operations along with her yoga and meditation training in the curation and delivery of client services. Her goal is to create sustainable workplace cultures strengthening employee communication, increasing engagement and retaining hard to find top talent. Learn more about Michelle and her work at https://www.mindfulhrservices.ca/

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?

My husband and I recently adopted a dog from South Korea in February of this year. When I first saw “Chickpea” (which is one of my favorite foods) it was love at first sight. She is the sweetest animal full of so much love to give. Simply said, she has brought so much joy to a home that was already thriving.

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

I quit a 6-figure job… without having anything else lined up. For most people this would be a scary place to be. It was for me too, but it was also a relief. I was suffering from burn-out and I was not confident that I had the skills to create personal boundaries at work, so I quit. I worked with really dedicated professionals who were trying their best to make a difference, but it wasn’t the right environment for me. It took me 10 years to figure that out, and I am proud that I did what I did as I put my wellbeing first. It was a huge leap for me to walk away from job security but from that Mindful HR Services was formed. I never, ever thought I would be in business for myself. It never crossed my mind until I had that experience where I felt out of control and had no work-life balance. I also want to say that the burn out I experienced was on me. I never once asked for help. When I think about communication, it flows both ways. Perhaps my career trajectory would have taken a different path if I shared that I was struggling. This ties in nicely with the theme of this article, which at its core is communication. It was a great learning experience for me in that I am now better able to communicate my needs. I also discovered the boundaries that I need to support my wellbeing and the wellbeing of my team. It is a great place to be!

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 can share a recent example. As a consultant, I commonly meet clients virtually. I feel it is important to be fully present and to do so, without distractions, I always have my camera on. I had an email exchange that led to a virtual meeting with someone who was interested in our services. As I always do, I opened the meeting with my camera on. Within seconds of being online, my guest said “Oh, we are a camera off culture. In fact, a phone call would have sufficed”. So, I quickly shut off my camera and we continued the conversation. I share this example as one that I suspect is quite relatable to leaders working with a distributed team. While I very much appreciate seeing those that I meet with online, there are times when cameras off might put folks at ease. When someone feels at ease or comfortable, they will be more ready to share. And for those who may be wondering, the call I had where I shut off my camera turned out to be a successful client engagement. So, it was win-win for everyone.

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

I’ve had my fair share of communication hiccups when what I was expecting following an exchange, was not the outcome. The lesson for me is, clarity comes through conversation, specifically by phone or face to face. I understand that getting face time can be difficult, but technology is our friend when dealing with teams in multiple locations. If I have an important message to share, typically I will pick up the phone or set up a virtual call. This technique ensures that I have clearly articulated the message and provides the opportunity for the receiver to ask questions and repeat back the expectations.

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.

During the pandemic I was co-facilitating an online program. My partner and I had developed the curriculum, knew our roles and were well prepared. This program was delivered over two days. On the morning of day two, I received a text message from my partner that she was uncomfortable delivering the opening segment of our program. I panicked and quickly went into problem solving mode. I told her OK, I would take care of it. I reviewed our agenda and made necessary adjustments, so she did not feel the pressure to deliver that piece of the program. I had expected that we would log on a few minutes early prior to our participants arriving to quickly discuss the changes I made prior, but this did not happen. I see this as another miss on my part. I took the lead and advised our participants that our agenda had shifted slightly, and they were none the wiser of the communication issues that were happening behind the scenes. While I was happy with how the materials flowed and we received very positive feedback, I was unhappy with the communication I had with my partner. I felt it was strained. My partner and I eventually connected, and she shared with me that she felt I had overreacted. Looking back, it was a fair assessment. What I learned from that was to ask more questions. Rather than just taking over, I should have reached out and discussed her discomfort and collaboratively determined next steps rather than just steam roiling ahead.

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

Another great question. I will leave you with two leadership strategies.

1 . Be Straight and Be Kind.

Communicate concisely and clearly. In other words, why are we here right now talking? Whether it is positive feedback like “Great work on Project Alpha Matt. I really appreciated how you navigated that difficult client on Tuesday. Your words settled their concerns and I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for that” OR if it is critical feedback “Thanks for meeting with me Matt. I wanted to talk to you about the client meeting we had on Tuesday. Would you be open to some feedback? Assuming the answer is yes, be clear on where your concerns are and what you are hoping to see going forward. If Matt says no, it is not a good time, ask when they would be ready to discuss this. This is the kind part, ensuring your audience is ready to hear what you have to say, especially if they have other competing demands.

2. Ask for Input

Getting folks involved in various situations at work will increase team cohesion and connections to the organization. If they feel connected, they will intuitively take action. Asking questions like “Would you be open to sharing? “What has been your experience with XYZ?” When you ask for this type of input from your employees, you’re not just looking for ideas, you’re also giving them the opportunity to feel heard and feel valued. This will make them more engaged and motivated to take action.

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. Listen with Intent

Listen with intent, then leverage the information you have to personalize the next conversation. For example, “Hi Sunita, nice to see you. Wasn’t it your Great-Grandfather’s birthday on the weekend? How did that go?” This isn’t a net-new communication strategy, but the small things are the big things when leading others. When someone notices that you remembered something personal, it becomes a big thing.

2. Stay Connected

A challenge with a distributed team is disconnect. If you want to make a connection, you must be intentional. The in-office watercooler talks don’t happen when working in various locations. Leaders need to create them. A colleague of mine who works with a distributed team, set up Thursday afternoon “Happy Hour” calls that were designed to talk about anything BUT work. There were three rules to the meeting. Number one, a beverage was required, it could be tea, water, or an adult beverage of sorts but you had to have something to drink so the team could raise their glass to each other. The second rule was no shop talk. If the conversation started down that road, there would be a redirect to something other than work. The third rule, everyone is welcome. Bring your dog, cat, kid, spouse, etc., you get the idea. I understand it was a great way to connect and learn about each other.

3. Check in Regularly

Leaders should have regular one-on-one meetings with each of their team members. These one-on-one conversations really build trust and understanding. From there, when something goes sideways, and a hard discussion needs to occur, both parties will feel safe to come forward. We also need to remember that working remote can be isolating. These check-in meetings remind your team that they are valued and important.

4. Identify What Works

Ask the question “What form of communication works best for you?”. Years back, my senior leader worked in Toronto, while I was based in Ottawa. Within the first couple of days on the job, she asked me what my preference was for meeting. I suggested we meet once a week via phone, to touch base. There were times when we needed to be flexible, but it was a really great framework that allowed us to discuss both personal and work related topics on a regular basis.

5. Consider all Viewpoints

Remember that the loudest voice isn’t the only voice. Leaders may have to reach out to those who don’t intuitively chime in on calls. Reach out and start a dialogue like this: “Dakota, I know that you have been working hard behind the scenes and I’d really like your input. Do you have some time for me this week where we can discuss your thoughts on Project Echo?”. We all have those team members that are not inclined to speak up on group calls but have a lot to share when you get them one-on-one. Be sure to tap into those silent team members.

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

  1. Dial down notifications. This can be difficult as a remote workforce as we count on our team to be responsive. That said, focused time is important. Look at this strategy from a balanced approach. Perhaps shutting off MS Teams all day is not appropriate but shutting off notifications while in a team meeting will ensure you are an active participant without distraction.
  2. Set team norms and follow them. A real example that a colleague of mine shared was their VP sent an email stating that in-house meetings would only happen between the hours of 10am-3pm to allow for focused time earlier and later in the day. Immediately following that email, that same VP sent a meeting invitation for 9am. It is not helpful when senior leaders set a standard and then don’t follow that standard.
  3. Set personal boundaries and be respectful of others. Say yes to yourself! Block your time and focus on the task at hand. While we are all important, if the business falls off the rails during that one hour that you did not respond to emails, text messages or in-office chat systems, there is a bigger problem at hand. Additionally, let’s also work at being more respectful of other’s focus time. For example, MS office has these great tools where we can see a colleague’s availability. If you see they are busy, don’t reach out. This also speaks to corporate culture. I speak regularly about positive leader role modeling and if we can set the tone from above, others will follow.

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

Be vulnerable. Reflecting on the example that I share earlier with the virtual program I co-facilitated, if I had opened up and shared my concerns with my partner, we may have mitigated the strain that had formed between us. I wasn’t being vulnerable. Professor Amy C. Edmondson, Harvard Business School describes vulnerability as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. While it can be a scary thing for some, vulnerability in leadership inspires others to speak up. It demonstrates that it is OK to not have all the answers. Not having all the answers stimulates problem solving and drives 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.

Well, I am biased but if I could inspire a movement, it would be around mindfulness in the workplace. People are quite stressed and with so many competing demands, I’d like to see greater focus on wellness in corporate environments. Mindfulness doesn’t always mean sitting in silence for lengthy periods of time, but I do strongly believe that we need to work in micro-breaks into our day. Something as simple as pausing for a few moments and taking a few deep breaths before jumping on the next call can bring focus to the next task at hand. I would encourage leaders to set the tone and start each day with a short mindfulness practice. Simply said, when we feel healthy, we will be more effective in our work. I’d love to see this cultural shift in the corporate world of work where wellness and business are not separate and distinct but instead, they go hand in hand.

How can our readers stay connected with you?

You can find me on LinkedIn — www.linkedin.com/in/michelleprecourt/, and my Instagram handle is @michelleprecourt. For those interested in mindful meditation, I have a few recordings on Insight Timer — insighttimer.com/mindful_michelle.

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