One-on-one meetings. It’s critical to meet with team members individually as well. I meet 1:1 with everyone once per month to check in on how they’re doing, if they have concerns and to coach them in addressing issues. This helps me build strong connections with every individual and provides the forum for both active listening and real-time feedback. I also get to deliver company updates in a personal setting, nurturing a spirit of shared success.
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 Susan Dwyer.
As Co-CEO at Hendy, Susan Dwyer oversees the day-to-day business operations and fiercely leads the company to meet long-term goals. As well as providing firm leadership, she oversees full-service interior architecture from space planning and programming to design and installation in Hendy’s Corporate Studio. A licensed architect in 6 states and with more than 20 years of real-world and industry experience, she has made an indelible mark on the communities she has touched and has a portfolio comprised of wellness initiatives, integrated technology, innovating open-office layouts, and collaborative workspaces.
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 story that jumps to mind is from when I was about 8 years old. As a Gen-Xer, I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors. One afternoon while sitting in a tree, I saw a man walk by who looked out of place and something compelled me to investigate. I climbed down and followed him on my bike. Soon, he walked up my neighbor’s driveway and proceeded to pry open their garage door about 18 inches and roll under it. I remember thinking that it was a peculiar way to enter the house; he should have gone to the front door. Then it hit me that he was a burglar…and I was watching him rob their house! I probably should have told an adult and called the police, but in the moment, my instinctive response was to confront the burglar and scare him away. Eight-year-old me screamed at him with all my might. He ended up crawling right back out, walked past me and left the scene. Over time I’ve come to realize from experiences like this and others, that during critical fight or flight situations, I’m wired to jump into action.
What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?
When I started college at USC, I was an architecture major with dreams of designing buildings from the ground up. It was the ideal creative medium to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. But an internship at an interior architecture firm my junior year changed everything. Here, I met my true calling.
I came to discover the profound impact that interior architecture has on people’s day-to-day lives. Exterior architecture is beautiful, but you only experience the exterior of a building as you walk in, walk out, walk past or drive by. We work and live inside our spaces many more hours than that. The idea of creating workspaces that enable people to be their most productive selves for lengthy periods of time really excited me. Also, the fast-paced nature of the interior architecture world fit my personality much better. Working on one project for years is standard for exterior architects. I thrive best in a fast-paced, high-energy environment juggling multiple projects; always growing and being challenged to stay innovative.
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?
The key is being mindful enough to even realize that adapting is needed. So, it starts with a keen sense of situational awareness. If you lead with high emotional intelligence, this likely comes naturally and is a signature trait… same as active listening. When you enter into a conversation with the intent to learn and understand, and with an awareness of a person’s body language and facial expressions, you can proactively adapt your communication style to meet them where they’re at. You’re controlling the tone and tenor of the situation versus reacting to external forces. This creates space for constructive discussions and positive outcomes.
The setting also plays a huge role in how we adapt our communication styles. If I’m speaking on stage at a conference, I will be rehearsed, succinct and deliberate with my thoughts. If I’m talking to you one-on-one, I’ll be very present and personalized. If I’m in front of the staff, I’ll react to the energy in the room and ensure my communication style is empathetic and connected to them, since we are all one team.
Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?
I completely agree that clarity is crucial and so are live conversations, whether by phone, video conference or in-person. Direct and clear communication can feel intimidating to many because it causes discomfort, and it’s our nature to avoid feeling like that. But, direct and clear communication can be very valuable when delivered thoughtfully. Experience has proven time and again that the fastest way to course-correct a situation is to deliver direct, fact-based, real-time feedback, respectfully. This approach not only maximizes teachable moments with the team, it nips issues in the bud before they have time to grow and escalate and before time blurs memory of the facts.
When working with a distributed team, it’s even more critical to operate with clear, direct, respectful, real-time feedback because the margin of error for miscommunication grows substantively when you’re only engaging on a screen. Sarcasm is easily misunderstood in text. Thoughts expressed in fragments on Slack don’t provide the same context as a quick conversation. The potential for misunderstandings abounds.
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.
Early in my career, I was having an issue with a senior designer on my team. Instead of talking to her directly, I took the issue to my director hoping he’d resolve it. Of course, he immediately got the three of us in a room and held me accountable for talking it through with the designer. I didn’t just get the luxury of venting. That was a very memorable teaching moment because I felt mad at myself for not just resolving the issue directly. To this day, I’ve not repeated that mistake.
When I have a problem, I work it out directly with the person in a spirit of mutual resolution. I preach what I practice here too, and try to pass this lesson onto others. Some embrace it, some don’t. I realize not everyone feels comfortable being this candid and they really do benefit from having a moderator. However, as a general rule of thumb, I believe direct communication is the best way to resolve conflict. These interoffice experiences also help prepare the team for constructively navigating difficult conversations with clients.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are struggling to have their messages heard and actioned?
Approach with intention. What behaviors or actions are you trying to change with your messaging? Once clear on your communications objectives, develop your messages with purpose. Express your thoughts succinctly and simply. If you want action, be pointed about what you want, how you want it done and by when. Once your messaging is in order, then create your communications plan. Determine what channels you’ll use to communicate and how often you’ll engage. The right communication cadence is critical — too much and it becomes white noise; too little and it doesn’t break through. Know your people well enough to know what they need. In order to do this, leaders need to be curious and ask how their people feel and what they think as part of the cultural promise. That behavior builds trust and trust gives employees confidence that they can answer truthfully. The honest responses ensure leadership knows their people well. It’s a full circle.
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:
- Consistency in meetings. It’s mission-critical to meet and communicate on a regular schedule when working virtually. Communication helps the team feel bonded and understand the shared goals for the group. Mine is the most distributed team in the office with over half working in different states. We meet twice per week. Our first meeting is structured for productivity and we discuss project strategy and staffing. Our second meeting is to unpack the week and discuss key learnings, training needed, etc. We also catch up on each other’s lives. Check in on families, pets, thoughts on current events, etc. You don’t have the same “water cooler” interactions as in-person teams when you’re virtual, so this helps to offset that. This regular communication helps the team feel bonded and understand the shared goals for the group.
- One-on-one meetings. It’s critical to meet with team members individually as well. I meet 1:1 with everyone once per month to check in on how they’re doing, if they have concerns and to coach them in addressing issues. This helps me build strong connections with every individual and provides the forum for both active listening and real-time feedback. I also get to deliver company updates in a personal setting, nurturing a spirit of shared success.
- Have a clear process for communication. With a distributed workforce, it’s critical to create communication protocols or standards for the team, like rules of engagement to which everyone adheres. Now that I’m dividing my time between leading Hendy as the co-CEO and still directing the Corporate Studio, I can’t be a bottleneck in the team’s workflow. To ensure this doesn’t happen, we needed to create a communications methodology indicating if needs are high, medium or low. When they’re high, the team knows to text me and I know to create time to respond immediately.
- Camera on! Communication is much more than just words. Often, body language and facial expressions speak louder. While nothing can replicate the energy of an in-person meeting, the camera provides insights into these critical visual cues. We once saw a concerned expression from a teammate during an all-hands meeting and we followed-up right after to check-in. She was grateful for our outreach and was quick to express her concerns. We talked everything through and I was able to clarify some misunderstandings, alleviate some worries and devise a plan forward with her. We immediately neutralized a problem. If her camera had been off, I don’t believe we’d have discovered this deeper issue.
- Follow up in writing. Any meeting where you’ve taken time to outline goals, expectations and a path forward requires a written recap. Not only does that correspondence punctuate the point, but the documentation is now there for employees to reference moving forward. It also prevents any misunderstandings among the team. Hendy recently restructured into an ESOP organization and we held an all-team meeting to celebrate and explain the new structure, its rules and requirements. It was a high volume of information, so we followed-up in writing to recap, and included a robust FAQ to help answer the most common questions.
What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competing for attention?
Be clear, concise and personalized.
What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?
Emotional intelligence is the most important attribute among great communicators.. Leaders with high EQs bring active listening skills and are self-aware enough to adapt their communication styles to best serve the needs of the moment.
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.
I believe that if you do things for the right reasons, everything falls into place as it should. In college, I made a profound discovery. One semester, I decided to let go of grades and focus only on the gifts I’d gain from learning the material. That attitude adjustment relieved me of all self-imposed stress and pressure. And that liberation caused me to forget about grades entirely. I even forgot to check my grades at the end of the semester. Turns out I’d earned a 4.0 and had no idea! That was the day I learned that if you do things for the right reason, everything works out for the best. I believe the same is true in business. If you treat employees well, make sure they have access to training and embrace the core values of the company, then they’ll adopt those behaviors. This will delight both clients and teammates, so it’s a win-win for the business all around.
How can our readers stay connected with you?
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.