Communicating from our Strengths

Communicating from our Strengths

The Binder Story

We all have instincts – good instincts we should trust. But sometimes, those instincts need a gut check. Who is your gut check? For me, that’s my husband, who supports me unconditionally but also isn’t afraid to push back when he sees me straying from myself.

The example that most often comes to mind isn’t necessarily flattering for me – but my brand of coaching embraces the hiccups because I know amplifying them is the greatest lesson of all.

Early in my executive risk-management career, I noticed my boss frequently asked for numbers. In that field, one’s choice of statistics and data is almost endless, from actuarial statistics, claim statistics, point-in-time, cumulative stats, data about insurance placements, rates and premiums, information about the captive, the temperature of a cup of coffee at rest in two trains moving in opposite directions.

Still with me? Exactly. I’m not someone who holds numbers in my head – after all, they’re constantly changing. But I always knew what was happening within my programs and what was trending favorably and unfavorably. I understood the underlying drivers and could talk about ways to improve outcomes. I developed strategies to overcome issues. But I almost never knew a specific number when asked – but this colleague always asked! It was stressing me out. Something had to change.

As an innate problem solver, I quickly devised a plan. I would trot down to Staples and buy myself a big, huge binder. Every week, I would gather all new statistics, update my binder and carry it with me everywhere I went. I imagined the crowning moment when I would have at my very fingertips whatever number my executive inquired about. No whimsical inquiry would be too specific! I smiled at the vision. This was going to work.

At the time, I was dating my now-husband, Roy. We had entered that lovely phase of a new relationship where he usually agreed with me and was enthusiastic about my ideas.

Well. Bindergeddon changed everything.

During previous conversations with Roy, I’d already expressed my frustration about not having the exact number at the ready when asked, so I was excited to share my solution. We were on the phone when my big reveal was met with silence that endured so long, I thought we’d lost our connection.

“Roy? Are you there? What do you think?”

I heard a deep sigh. Oh good, the call hadn’t dropped. I eagerly awaited his effusive applause.

Roy spoke. He spoke softly, but plaintively.

“Do. Not. Buy. A Binder,” he said.

I was dumbfounded, yet hopeful and curious. This smart man had an even smarter idea! Maybe he was thinking an Excel spreadsheet would do the trick? Multiple tabs?

“Val,” he continued. “It’s not going to work. You’re never going to have all the numbers. It’s going to be impossible to keep that binder up-to-date and maintained.”

I was speechless, which was helpful because he wasn’t finished.

“Even if you could compile every stat about every angle of the business, it’s going to take you forever to find anything.”

Hmpfh. He wasn’t wrong. And he still wasn’t done.

“I have this mental image of your plan evolving to the point where you travel everywhere pulling a Red Flyer wagon behind you stacked with mountains of binders to keep up with all of your numbers.

“It won’t work.”

That last sentence was definitive, and now I too imagined a mountain of binders. Admittedly, I also envisioned some cut biceps as a result but… right. He was right.

In addition to balking at the idea of a traveling binder show, I knew I had to figure out a strategy that maintained my credibility while also illustrating the knowledge, expertise and counsel I brought to the table.

Why was I in the job to begin with? I needed to think about my strengths and lean into them. After all, I excelled at understanding each data point’s context. I knew the general trends industry wide and company specific. Without knowing the exact number, I knew what it meant and where it would take us.

Instead of trying to respond with specific data points, I needed to structure the conversation around the context of my colleague’s question: “What’s making you curious about that statistic today?” I would ask. Once I understood the relevance, I could talk about directionality, drivers and trends. From there, I could provide background and updates on programs we were developing. Once I returned to my desk, I could obtain exact numbers if the conversation warranted that.

Guess what? Ensuing conversations almost never required an after-meeting dive into data. I realized while his strength was knowing where to look for triggers and catalysts, I knew how those smaller points culminated in overall activity and trends.

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