How To Hack Your Brain – Part I: Trumping Cultural Triggers

In my recent “Hijack” blog we explored how an individual gets triggered and how your brain blocks performance. Now let’s look at how entire cultures get triggered—and how to recover plus prevent this scenario.

First, a word on culture. Over time a company evolves cultural norms—beliefs about how the world works and what is “normal.” The composite of these norms creates an identity. So if someone yelling or disrespecting another, gossiping, and public beheadings are considered “normal,” then you may be dealing with a Critter State, fear-driven company culture. If healthy conflict, respectful disagreement, and productive feedback are normal, you are well on your way to a SmartTribe culture.

If you are thinking, Uh-oh, there’s way too much fear in my culture, let me give you a few quick tips on how to turn that around in the moment. The first method is to teach yourself and your team a hand signal that serves the dual purpose of explaining the Critter State hijack phenomenon and also lets you signal to one another when it’s happening. We’re going to use your hand to represent your brain in this technique learned from the brilliant Dr. Daniel J. Siegel.[1]

Hold one of your hands up, palm out, and cross your thumb over it. Like this:

Image Credit: SmartTribes Institute, 2012

Image Credit: SmartTribes Institute, 2012

The base of your palm represents your brain stem, or your reptilian brain. Your palm represents your mammalian brain, with your thumb representing your limbic system. Now fold your fingers over your thumb and make a fist.

Image Credit: SmartTribes Institute, 2012

Image Credit: SmartTribes Institute, 2012

The back of your hand and fingers represent your neocortex, with your knuckles to fingertips representing your prefrontal cortex. Your closed fist represents full access to all parts of your brain, from your prefrontal cortex through your reptilian brain. This is your Smart State–where you have great choice, you’re creative, present, emotionally engaged, and ready to roll.

Now think of the last time you “flipped your lid”—you had a tough day, you got triggered, and you dove into your critter brain and were in fight/flight/freeze. This is where you were:

Image Credit: SmartTribes Institute, 2012

Image Credit: SmartTribes Institute, 2012

Your Smart State was hijacked and your Critter State was running the show. In this case your undesired (by your conscious decision making) safety patterns were in charge and you didn’t have access to resourceful states. Your frontal lobes were flapping in the breeze, using their time- and pattern-matching capabilities to trigger Critter State activity and access to “negative” states like anxiety. (We don’t really like to judge these states as positive or negative, because every state has a use in some context, but these states are undesirable when you don’t have access to the resources you need to solve a problem or move forward.)

Now once again close your fingers over your thumb—like the victory punch people throw in the air when they are successful. Like this:

Image Credit: SmartTribes Institute, 2012

Image Credit: SmartTribes Institute, 2012

As I mentioned above, this is going to symbolize full access to the resources in your frontal lobes through your reptilian brain. Remember, access to the frontal lobes’ resources allows you to plan, innovate, solve complex problems, think abstract thoughts, have visionary ideas, experience higher consciousness, all with full positive emotional range—in short, to be in your Smart State.

You may want to teach these hand signals to your team, as they are super helpful to use at work. When I am really stressed out, I’ll show the “flip your lid” signal above. When I’m in a meeting and want everyone to be in their “creative zone,” I’ll show the closed hand symbol.

The table below is a quick reference guide for some behaviors that send us into our Critter State versus our Smart State—do note that all of the Smart State behaviors are taught in my upcoming book, SmartTribe (download an excerpt here).

Behaviors That Send Us into Our Critter State and Smart State:

How to Hack Your Brain

Note that some roles with either high routine or high stress—such as those in data entry, assembly lines, and call centers—are more apt to see workers slide into their Critter State. This is where cultural rituals around recognition as well as a highly emotional mission, vision, and set of values help tremendously.

I hope that by now I’ve convinced you that the Smart State is better for business—especially a business where innovation and change are necessary for growth. It’s also the optimal state to lead people from, to sell from, to grow from, to live from. How do you get in and stay in your Smart State?

Christine Comaford is a global leader in human performance optimization. She coaches leaders to achieve remarkable results in performance and operational efficiency by combining neuroscience and business strategy.Follow her on Twitter (@comaford) and download an excerpt of her upcoming book SmartTribe: Creating a Culture That Outperforms, Outsells, Outinnovates the Competition at

The New Social Leadership: Move From Fear To Freedom

When driven by fear, human beings generally go to one of three places:

  1. They get stuck.
  2. They solve problems that don’t exist.
  3. They focus on the wrong problem—which is low leverage and doesn’t deliver the result they want.

In the Industrial Revolution, scientific management principles emerged to cope with the need to produce more, better, faster. And it worked.

But not anymore.

This “Old School” management style is synonymous with what many people think is leadership. This model operates on fear—the team member must perform or we’ll remove their ability to pay their mortgage, kids’ educational expenses, etc. Fear pushes people to take action.

In the Information Age, some of these principles and practices are still sound–hey, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater–but some feel as obsolete as the Ford Edsel they were designed to produce. I have noticed that leaders who are able to grow their organizations rapidly in the face of accelerating technological and societal change—the people who create and foster innovation—exhibit certain characteristics. I call these characteristics “SmartTribe Accelerators.”

SmartTribe Accelerators - Copyright 2011 Christine Comaford Assoc

SmartTribe Accelerators – Copyright 2011 Christine Comaford Assoc


The leaders who use these Accelerators are the ones who pull their companies to and through inflection points. Plus, SmartTribe Accelerators will help you get what you want when you want it.

Fear Pushes, Vision Pulls

These SmartTribe Accelerators—focus, clarity, accountability, influence, and sustainable results—foster emotional engagement. We know that leaders elevate and cultivate others, so they don’t have to resort to primeval methods of control and manipulation—which misses our desired outcome anyway. We also know that as a leader cultivates these Accelerators their experience of personal fulfillment at work increases—as does that of their team members too. True leadership inspires people with vision. Vision pulls people to not only take action, but to care about the outcome, to take personal ownership of it, and to bring their “A Game” every day.

How do you rate on these accelerators? Find out by taking our 5-7 minute assessment now. You’ll learn how you rate in these areas:

Focused – Be here now, not in the past or future. We chose what we want to focus on and what we want to ignore or defer. Being focused is about both being attentive and aware of issues, challenges and the real numbers and events that are taking place.

Clear – Be clear and explicit in your words, actions, visions, intentions and strategies. Otherwise misunderstandings, miscommunications and wasted resources will result. Clarity strengthens a team’s commitment and trust with others and their projects.

 – Make and keep commitments to yourself and others. Developing leaders give their accountability away to either other people or circumstances. The quality and speed of results are directly proportional to how much accountability one takes on about having those results.

Influential – How much influence do you have over outcomes and others? Developing leaders may think influence comes through domination. This is not sustainable, and results in a Crushed Culture. Influence occurs through our language, decision making, requests and promises, actions, intentions and ways of being.

Sustainable –  Sustainability is the ability to play the game with equal or greater resources next time. It is about designing win-win agreements and interactions. Being unsustainable leads to quick leadership breakdowns, burnout, teams dissolving and low quality results.  On the flipside, being sustainable creates the ability to continually grow and deliver consistent results.

To build and lead a SmartTribe, we need to make sure our people shift from their fear- and safety-driven Critter State to their innovation and possibility-driven Smart State. How? By ensuring their survival needs are met: that they know they are safe, they belong and they matter. That’s the first step in creating a SmartTribe.

Safety, belonging, and mattering are essential to your brain and your ability to perform at work, at home, and in your life overall. The greater the feeling of safety, both mental and physical; the greater the feeling of connection with others, or the feeling that we’re in this together and we belong together; the greater the feeling that we personally matter and make a difference and are contributing to the greater good; and the greater the success of the company, the relationship, the team, and the individual.

So let’s take stock of your company’s inflection point status below.

Are You Ready for Social Leadership?

Take our Inflection Point Assessment below to determine how ready you are to reach your next revenue inflection point. Social leadership will be key to get you there. Rate yourself on the following questions. Answer each with Yes or No, and total your answers at the end.

  1. Is your revenue growing as quickly as you want it to?
  2. Is your profit growing as quickly as you want it to?
  3. Do you have the right people in the right roles doing the right things?
  4. Are you retaining your superstar employees?
  5. Are you intentionally helping your executive team look into their blind spots, overcome challenging behaviors, and expand their vision and ability to elevate others?
  6. Have you identified your next generation of leaders?
  7. If so, are you following a specific, proven process to cultivate them?
  8. Would you like to get more accountability, communication, and execution from your team?
  9. Are you navigating rapid growth or turnaround where internal priorities are frequently shifting and the team is challenged to quickly adapt and stretch?
  10. Do you rarely have conflict/backstabbing/silos between departments and/or team members?
  11. Does your culture focus more on positive outcomes instead of negative outcomes?
  12. Do you know how to scale and allocate your human resources to get more done with fewer people?
  13. Are you keeping your finger on the pulse of the culture and implementing programs to increase emotional equity?

If you have five or more “No” answers, you’re at risk of getting stuck between inflection points.

Look at your score above. What are the key areas where you have the greatest opportunity for growth? Is it in cultivating your culture and team? Increasing or optimizing your revenue? Streamlining your operations?

What inflection point are you headed toward? See the chart in my previous blog . Do you have all of the “People”, “Money”, “Model” components from all previous inflection points, plus those for your targeted inflection point, in place?

In a future blog we’ll explore a common performance hijack—and how to move around it or worst case, through it!

Christine Comaford is a five-time CEO with 700% ROI on her company exits. She coaches executives to achieve remarkable results in performance and operational efficiency by combining neuroscience and business strategy.Follow her on Twitter (@comaford) and download an excerpt of her upcoming book SmartTribe: Creating a Culture That Outperforms, Outsells, Outinnovates the Competition at

Hijack! How Your Brain Blocks Performance

So there you are, when suddenly you hear that song that reminds you of that person. And you’re emotionally hijacked—just like that. Good or bad, the song interacts with your neural net and triggers the emotions you have associated with it. Emotional hijacks happen every day, often unconsciously, often with debilitating results.

An expression on a team member’s face subconsciously reminds you of Mom at her most critical, yet you have no idea why you dislike speaking with her. But the team member actually has chronic indigestion, her facial expression has nothing to do with you, and she wonders why you haven’t shown her the report…invited her to the meeting…told her what’s up…smiled on the way to the coffee machine.

And so it goes. Trigger—response. Trigger—response. Trigger—response. All day, every day. Human beings are meaning-making machines. The trouble is we often assign meaning where it doesn’t exist.

Now most of these internal programs—the neural connections and associations we make that give experience meaning—are programs we “wrote” between the ages of zero and six years old. Many of our programs were either provided for us by our parents, or were coded by our very young and inexperienced reaction to what we perceived as threatening people or situations. Even the most wonderful, well-intentioned parents are going to make a few coding errors. I know I have.

Now that we are adults, the question becomes, how can we rewrite our own programs to set the meaning and get the results we want? Further, as leaders, how can we assist others to get the results and experiences they would like? How can we use this knowledge to increase our own and our team’s performance, innovation, and engagement?

In my upcoming blogs you’re going to learn how to deactivate your own and your team members’ fear triggers, and to assign appropriate meaning. You’re going to learn exactly what to do to create a team that acts as a team, one that supports each other to outperform, outsell, and outinnovate the competition. A tribe whose culture you created. A SmartTribe of whom you are justifiably proud.

 The Reptile, The Mammal, The Executive

Our brains do an amazing and wonderful job, but they don’t usually like change very much. You may like the idea of change. Heck, parts of you may be very interested in change theory, talking about change, managing change—and especially describing how other people should change. However, actual change involving ourselves is scary to certain parts of our brain. The parts that exist to keep us safe have created elegant patterning based on one-trial learning.

Let’s take a closer look.

Basic Parts of the Brain - Copyright Christine Comaford Assoc 2012

Basic Parts of the Brain – Copyright Christine Comaford Assoc 2012

Your brain has three essential parts. The first part—the brain stem—sits at the base of your skull. This part is commonly called the reptilian brain. It’s the oldest and most primitive part of the brain, and it controls balance, temperature regulation, and breathing. It acts out of instinct and is primarily a stimulus-response machine with survival as its focus.

Layered on top of the brain stem is the mammalian brain. The mammalian brain controls and expresses emotion, short-term memory, and the body’s response to danger. The key player here is the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain where the fight/flight/freeze response is. Its primary focus is also survival, though it is also the seat of anger, frustration, happiness, and love.

Let’s combine the limbic system with the survival mechanism in the reptilian brain. This creates the powerful combo pack we’ll call the “critter brain,” as my mentor Carl Buchheit of NLP Marin terms it. Once our critter brain has equated a particular phenomenon with safety or with survival, it will continue to carry out that program. And it will do so as long as we are not dead, because it really doesn’t care about our quality of life—it cares about survival. And speaking of staying alive, one key component of staying alive is belonging, or being like the other critters in the environment.

The third part of the brain is the neocortex. This part of the brain is most evolved in human beings, and the area of it we are most concerned with is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex enables us to plan, to innovate, to solve complex problems, to think abstract thoughts, to have visionary ideas. It allows us to measure the quality of our experience, to compare it to an abstract ideal, and to yearn for change. The prefrontal cortex has enabled us to have a number of advanced behaviors, including social behavior, tool making, language, and higher-level consciousness.

For the purposes of simplicity we’ll distill the above down to two states: the Critter State, where we don’t have access to all parts of our brain and thus are reactive, in fight/flight/freeze, or are running safety programs; and the Smart State, where we have easy access to all of our resources and can respond from choice. (See Figures below.)

Figure 1. Critter State: Limited Access to Resources - Copyright Christine Comaford Assoc 2012

Figure 1. Critter State: Limited Access to Resources – Copyright Christine Comaford Assoc 2012


Figure 2. Smart State: Full Access to Resources - Copyright Christine Comaford Assoc 2012

Figure 2. Smart State: Full Access to Resources – Copyright Christine Comaford Assoc 2012

Today, innovation and growth through the next revenue inflection point depends on making sure the Smart State–not the Critter State–is driving management decisions and behavior in relationships. Management methods that rely on fear to enforce compliance keep people in their Critter State, or in old safety and survival patterns, and reduce innovation. This cultural practice of keeping people in their Critter State has grown increasingly obsolete.

In my next blog we’ll explore how to get and keep people in their Smart State.

Christine Comaford is a five-time CEO with 700% ROI on her company exits. She coaches CEOs to achieve remarkable results in performance and operational efficiency by combining neuroscience and business strategy. Follow her on Twitter (@comaford) and download an excerpt of her upcoming book SmartTribe: Creating a Culture That Outperforms, Outsells, Outinnovates the Competition at

The 3 Reasons Great Companies Stop Growing-And The Solution

What Happens At Inflection Points - Copyright Christine Comaford Assoc 2012

What Happens At Inflection Points – Copyright Christine Comaford Assoc 2012

Why do great companies stop growing? Is it a sales or product issue? Does a key market dematerialize? Nope. It’s much simpler than that.

Business leaders come to me because they want growth, which often involves finding and fixing problems. They want their salespeople to sell more, their engineers to innovate faster and with greater ingenuity, theirclient-care people to better service accounts, and on and on.

Hey, who wouldn’t want to solve all these problems? Yet these are not the real problems. They are merely symptoms of underlying structural problems, indications of people getting stuck in their Critter State—in fight, flight, or freeze. And leaders often put their teams exactly there–albeit unintentionally.

When companies grow, they come to certain places where the things that used to work, the things that created that level of success, don’t work anymore. We call these inflection points. And these crucial points are tied to revenue and company growth.

Here’s the trouble with inflection points: at each one you have a whole new company. At each inflection point, a company must reinvent itself in order to reach it and move through it. If it doesn’t, it will become stuck and ultimately decline into a parabolic upside-down curve, rather than an undulation back into growth mode. (See chart above.)

How do you navigate between inflection points? How do you maintain and increase your momentum to avoid organizational stuck spots—the spots of stasis usually found between inflection points where the company stops growing and swirls around at approximately the same level of annual revenue before sliding precipitously backward? How do you get into the Smart State–the place that will get you to the next inflection point, when the game reaches the next level?

To reach that next inflection point, you will need to intentionally map out a plan to get there, and then execute that plan like a banshee. Either you swirl around the stuck spot, barely maintaining the same revenue year after year, or you slide back down to the previous inflection point, or you move forward with tremendous intentionality. The world is full of “living dead” companies that reached an inflection point and couldn’t grow to the next one. Remember: you’re either moving forward or moving back. Stasis is not sustainable

What Happens At Inflection Points?

To continue to grow, to undulate upwards at an inflection point, a company needs to make changes in each of the following areas: people, money, andmodel.

How To Navigate Key Inflection Points - Copyright Christine Comaford Assoc 2012

How To Navigate Key Inflection Points – Copyright Christine Comaford Assoc 2012

People. Some of your team members may need to develop profound new skill sets, behaviors, capabilities, beliefs or identities. Regardless they’ll likely need to become more emotionally engaged and have their lights turned up to shine brighter. As the company passes the higher revenue inflection points, the CEO will need to step back more and more, empowering their executive team to take more responsibility, and in the extreme this can mean a large scale organizational and/or cultural overhaul.

The only way to break the endless cycles of an organizational stuck spot is to start treating the system instead of individual symptoms. But here’s the hitch: Organizations—systems—tend to be reflections of all of the people who work there—especially the leaders. And that means that in order for your organization to change, everyone has to be involved. Starting at the very top of the organization and working all the way down the organizational chart to the people on the front lines. It also means leaders must work on themselves—on their own beliefs and behaviors.

Money. At each inflection point you’ll want to ask a number of money-related questions. How is the business funded? Do you need expansion capital? How are departmental budgets created (or not)? How are costs accounted for and what is the discipline in reporting? Financial systems must be looked into and explicitly altered to fit the next inflection point.

You’ll want to look at how efficient your operations are, how streamlined your expenses are, how you track ROI on all projects—internal and external. Looking at sales will be essential too: does your process of creating and converting new business work well, are your incentive programs motivating, and are sales commissions tied to profit per sale.  What are your sales channels? Both your top and bottom lines must be aligned with your growth goal.

To grow to the next inflection point, your systems must be aligned and your funding model must be appropriate. Don’t forget strategic partners, industry influencers, and key alliances, as well as liquidity event planning. Outsourcing or sale of non-performing or low-margin business lines need to be considered here too.

Model. What’s your business model? How will the company grow– organically or via acquisition? As a company grows, core competencies shift, markets (customers, competitors, environment, distribution channels and technology) evolve, and some opportunities are more leverage-able than others. You’ll want to consider whether today’s product line will be the same as tomorrow’s, whether your product path is working and how you can scale your relationships with clients, strategic alliances and key influencers. Oh—and how effective is our marketing?

To grow to the next inflection point, we need a strategic plan. What is yours? Get started by downloading the first 3 chapters from my upcoming book, SmartTribe at

Christine Comaford is a five-time CEO with 700% ROI on her company exits. She coaches CEOs to achieve remarkable results in performance and operational efficiency by combining neuroscience and business strategy.

Follow her on Twitter (@comaford) and download an excerpt of her upcoming book SmartTribe: Creating a Culture That Outperforms, Outsells, Outinnovates the Competition at

Hold Your Team Accountable: Here’s How

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What keeps you up at night?

If you’re like 98% of the CEOs I work with your answer will be accountability: how to get it and increase it.

Want to double your revenue or net income this year? Get more passionate high performing teams? Get predictable revenue?

Raise the bar on accountability. Here’s how.

What Will Move The Needle For You?

What are the three results that will make the greatest difference for you this year? Maybe you want to: generate more sales leads, close more sales, train up your team to be self-managed.

A Needle Mover is a given result that will have a significant impact on the success of your business. Usually these are people, money, or business model-oriented. You’ll set a target (what you want), minimum (worst case scenario) and mind blower (what will rock your world) for each Needle Mover. Once you set your Needle Movers and follow a plan to achieve them you’ll see daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual results. Tangible results will increase your momentum.

You will have annual Needle Movers plus monthly and quarterly ones to help you achieve your annual ones. Ultimately all team members will have them too, and report on progress weekly. Let’s look at an example.

How to Rock Steve’s World

Steve has a consumer retail product that he sells directly from his web site, through hotels and gift shops. His revenue has been a steady $33mil per year, but last year it dipped down to $31mil. He wants to reach $35mil this year and then maintain 40% growth annually. To get this growth he’ll need to raise the bar on accountability.

Here are Steve’s annual needle movers:

1)    $35mil in revenue (Target: $35mil, Min: $32mil, MB: $40mil+)

2)    Weekends off (Target: 75% off, Min: 50% off, MB: ALL weekends off for the year)

3)    Cut costs by 20% (Target: 20%, Min: 15%, MB: 25%+)

Now he must drill down on how exactly he will achieve these Needle Movers. Otherwise he may as well just set goals—which often are simply vague, unaccountable desires.

Here are Steve’s drill downs on his annual Needle Movers:

1)    For $35mil in Revenue he’ll add 20+ new retail channels, increase online sales by 20%+, recruit 5 new pay for performance sales people, forge alliances with 10+ companies with complementary products for bi-directional web sales, add coverage in 15+ additional catalogs.

2)    For Weekends Off he’ll train up his team to be self-managed, delegate more to his office manager, determine what he can defer and ditch entirely. Needle Movers for each team member will help here.

3)    To Cut Costs by 20% he’ll work new terms with his existing or find new manufacturing sources, streamline internal processes and offering clients an online self-serve helpdesk, use SOPs across all departments.

Now that Steve understands some of how his annual Needle Movers will happen, he can dive into laying out monthly Needle Movers to track his progress. See how the process starts this way? First you determine what results will dramatically change your business and life. Then you list what some ideas are to achieve each result.

Drilling Down Into Details

As you start to drill down on your needle movers you start understanding how to distribute the work over the coming months, and across your various team members.

So let’s go a step further with Steve… because certain things need to happen for him to achieve his annual needle movers.

For $35mil in Revenue he may want to re-order what he wants to achieve when, since some results will depend on others. He may need to achieve them in this order:

In the first month he may want to: recruit 5 new pay for performance sales people so he can add 20+ new retail channels, then in the second month he can: forge alliances with 10+ companies with complementary products for bi-directional web sales and 15+ additional catalogs which will lead to his result of increasing online sales by 20%+ through the year. And yes—he needs to quantify what amount of revenue he wants from his various channels: online sales, alliances, direct/telephone sales.

For Weekends Off in the first month he’ll want to look at what he can delegate, defer until later, or ultimately ditch—decide to not do at all. Then in month 1 or 2 he can delegate more to his office manager (hopefully most of current weekend workload) and next he can tackle training up his team to be self-managed, which will take between 3 and 6 months, depending on how accountable and self-managed his team currently is.

To Cut Costs by 20% in the first month he could start with working on new terms with existing or find new manufacturing sources, Then/or in parallel if his office manager does this he could start to: use SOPs (standard operating procedures) across all departments which will lead to streamlining internal processes and offering clients an online self-serve helpdesk which will happen within 3 months or so. SOPS, standard operating procedures, take time to write, but as you explain and document what steps are necessary to process an order, put on an event, whatever your business does, you’ll find you operate far more efficiently and quality/consistency of work will increase.

See how key it is to have specific and measurable needle movers? And see how you can have annual, quarterly, monthly needle movers?

Bring it to Your Team

Once you have the company needle movers set you’ll want to enroll your department heads to lay out their needle movers to support the company’s.Next each individual will lay out their needle movers to support their department’s. We start at the annual needle movers, drill down to quarterly and then on to monthly.

As a result your team knows what to do, when, why. Everyone now knows how they contribute to the company overall, and gone is the feeling of being an inconsequential cog in the wheel.

And the best part? Now you can sleep at night—since you know what key results you are driving toward and how you’ll achieve them. Click here to download our Needle Mover Template from the Operational Efficiency section of our resource page.

What do you need to increase accountability at your company? I’d love to know.

Follow me on Twitter @comaford and visit my web site to become a better leader.

4 Steps to Fast, Effective Meetings

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How is your company’s communication?

Is it tight and efficient and aimed at driving results or increasing connection?

Or do team members talk a lot without saying anything meaningful?

Of the hundreds of companies I’ve worked with over the past 30 years, I repeatedly see only five types of communication…

  1. Info Sharing
  2. Sharing Oneself
  3. Debating, Decision Making, Point Proving
  4. Promises
  5. Requests

… and only two of them drive results.

What communication types are most prevalent in your culture?

Look at the chart above. Are your meetings dominated by lots of Info Sharing, lots of Sharing of Oneself, some Debating, Decision Making and Point Proving and regrettably few Requests and Promises?

You’re not alone.

We have meetings because we want to reach a conclusion of some sort. To make meetings matter you’ll want to:

1. Set the meeting’s intention in advance: what exactly do you want to accomplish?

If it’s simply to share info that is not highly sensitive (e.g. you’re fired), then send an email instead. If it’s to get everyone aligned and to allocate work, then set a tight agenda and wrap the meeting within 45 minutes (or take a break then, as people are maxing out in their attention span). The key is allow only enough Info Sharing to solicit Requests from parties who need something and Promises from those who will deliver.  If it’s a company meeting/update session for the team, keep it short with segments for summary result info, current obstacles and plans to overcome them, future goals, a short education session and celebration of people/recent accomplishments.

Is the meeting’s purpose to share your thoughts/feelings? Have a one-on-one huddle for 10-15 minutes instead.

Is it to debate or point prove? How necessary is that?

2. Invite the doers, decision makers, impacted parties only.

Often meetings are too crowded because too many unnecessary people are invited. The point of the meeting is to get stuff done as a group. Get the people in the room who will facilitate that or be affected by it.

3. Have a clear meeting leader and tight time-lined agenda.

The meeting leader’s task is to keep everyone on track and drive to results. Once each key point of the meeting is mapped out, keep the focus on achieving your intention. Other topics and side conversations will be handled off line later with the appropriate parties present. Also the goal isn’t to solve detailed problems in the meeting, it’s to assign responsibilities based on Requests and Promises made. The responsible individuals will follow through post-meeting.

4. Send a recap email of all responsibilities post-meeting.

The meeting leader will summarize the Requests, Promises and details of each. Remember a vague Request (can you get me info on our top advertisers?) versus a clear Request (can you get me a report of our top 50 advertisers in the USA with spending history for the current + past 5 years in a spreadsheet by 4pm this Friday?) will help the Promise maker to succeed. The meeting leader’s job is to ensure all participants are set up to succeed in executing their Promises.

The result of the above is meetings that are efficient, effective, and keep your team happy and executing with high accountability. Further, it’ll reduce B.S., frustration, and disengaged team members.

Do what our clients do: enlarge the graphic above, post it on your conference room wall and train your team to communicate to drive results.

How is communication within your company? Every CEO needs a sounding board. I’ll select 3 readers for a communication strategy call. Click here to throw your hat in the ring.

Bill Clinton, Barbara Walters, Stephen Hawking: What Handshakes of the Rich and Famous Say

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Have you ever noticed that handshakes speak their own secret language? If you pay attention you’ll hear them whisper, yell, fret, or fawn.

And handshakes of the rich and famous—they’re amplified.

I’m at a soirée in New York when I meet the handshake on the far end of the spectrum. The band plays “Getting to Know You” as I receive an obligatory up-down jerk from junk bond King Michael Milken. Avoiding eye contact, Michael looks over my shoulder, searching for someone with status. “Isn’t There Someone More Interesting Here?” his handshake grumbles.

Pleased To Meet You

My favorite is the I’m Sincerely Pleased to Meet You and I Mean It shake, a double grip sporting three up-down pumps, meaningful eye contact, and a personal comment. For a fleeting moment, the shake feels like the belle of the ball. If I’m ever a VIP, this is the shake I’ll master. My first encounter with the Sincere shake is at the White House, when I meet Hillary Clinton.

She’s all warmth and compliments, asking about my experience as a woman in the early days of Microsoft. There’s a smallish crowd here, so I figure she was briefed on the guests. Extensive background checks are required to get this close to the First Lady, the First Lady who memorized information on me. I am enthralled. Now she asks my opinion of contemporary poets.

I meet the Sincere shake again at a swanky Manhattan watering hole, where my friend Joel is celebrating his daughter’s debut at Carnegie Hall. I mingle with the glamorous crowd, feeling a little self-conscious as my jewels are not precious, my gown not couture. Barbara Walters is in the corner. She’s smaller than I’d expected—tiny, feisty, like an action figure. I introduce myself and she looks up smiling. I believe she is sincerely pleased to meet me and she means it.

“I love The View. It’s a wonderful show,” I gush. We are still holding hands.

“Thank you so much for saying that. Lately more people mention The View than 20-20. Why, do you think?”

“Because we want to drink coffee and chat with our girlfriends, like you do on the show—”

“And none of us have time to in our real lives—”


“We need to change that,” she says with a brisk nod.

And I want to, to have time for girlfriends, but I am too busy trying to become a player, and I want her to be my friend, and I want to call her “Babs” and have some girl talk right here, right in the middle of this fancy private dining room where everyone except Barbara looks like they don’t want to know me because I’m not red-carpet perfect so I clearly am not a player. But I don’t cozy up to Barbara, because it doesn’t feel right. It feels kinda kiss-ass.

Deja Vu All Over Again

The second time I shake with Hillary we’re in the garden of a private Los Altos home. Once more she chooses the Sincere shake and then, to my astonishment, continues our conversation from eight months ago.

“So nice to see you again,” Hillary smiles. “I’ve considered our last conversation, at the White House, on poetry, and—”

She remembers we discussed Maya Angelou and e. e. cummings? There’s gotta be a wire in her ear, with Secret Service on the other end reading cue cards. I tilt to the left, lean forward, look at her ear. Hillary notices, her raised eyebrows seeming to ask, “Is there bird poop in my hair?”

“Great earrings!” I offer.

I thought I’d sampled the complete range of shakes until encountering the I’m Hanging in There for the Long Haul shake. This one features a few dozen up-down pumps, a lengthy—like 15 minutes—handholding session coupled with extended, earnest conversation. Leaning against the creamy wall of the White House ballroom, I’m watching President Bill Clinton work the crowd.

“Have you noticed he doesn’t let go of the pretty young women?” a man approaches me, grinning beneath bushy gray brows.

“Oh, um, no, I hadn’t,” I lie.

“I’ve been to many White House gatherings, and I always observe this ritual. Amusing, no?” He introduces himself as a Nobel Laureate.

“Give it a try,” he gestures forward. “I’ll stay here and do field research,” he chuckles, nudges me to motion.

Crossing the room, I reach Bill moments after his last Long Haul shake ends. We smile, we grasp, and we’re off. Here I am, not sure whether we’re at midshake. It’s been 10 minutes and my arm is starting to ache. Women glare at me, like I’m hogging the President. I’m not. I wanted a simple shake ’n’ howdy and now I’m stuck. Do I have to wait until the president lets go?

I smile, chat, and tug, ever so gently, to release. Bill begins up-down pumping. Are we starting from scratch? And now, to complicate matters, I have to pee. Badly. I need an action item, an excuse to say, “I’ll get back to you on that, Mr. President. Tally ho!” Okay, “tally ho” isn’t appropriate, but my arm is throbbing and turning cold. It’s my right arm, my really important arm, my key-to-earning-my-livelihood arm. I press my legs together, as my bladder’s screaming has grown insistent. The four Secret Service agents behind the president stare at me, stony faced. They have seen it all before. Release me. Please. I mentally beg the CEO of America.

He doesn’t seem to notice, or if he does, he still wants to hold hands so I am out of luck. But he’s the president, and, well is this appropriate? This holding me hostage with his presidential power? He’s taller than me, and he holds my hand higher than is natural. It’s starting to look a bit bluish. It’s tingling from lack of blood, turning colder. I straighten up, beg into Bill’s sparkly eyes. “Mr. President, we need to encourage entrepreneurship in America.”

“How would y’ do that, Christine?”

“Oh . . . lots of ways.”

“Such ayas?”

“A . . . uh, proposal. Yes, I’ll write a proposal for you, enumerate my ideas . . . ”

“Ahlright, Ah’ll look forward to thayat.”

“Great meeting you, Mr. President. I’ll get to work right away.” I yank free my numb, leaden hand, smiling and bowing a little. I spin on my heel, eager to exit, but he dives in for an encore.

“Ahm lookin’ forward to your proposal,” He nods.

Okay, now I really, really have to go. Time to be a little rude. What would Michael Milken do?

“Oh! There’s Stephen Hawking! I’ve been searching for him all night,” I twist, pull free, beat a hasty retreat to the rest room.

As I return to the party a man plows into me. “Christine, Joe Bernsby, great to meet you!” A bull-like man thrusts a fleshy, sweating hand into my freshly washed one. “Loved your speech at the Department of Defense.”

“Thank you,” I say, wincing a little. Glancing over his shoulder, I think, Isn’t there someone more interesting here?

Later I seek refuge in the Red Room, remorse sweeping over me. A sincere man had expressed appreciation, and I’d dismissed him. Haven’t I learned anything? I apologize in my mind to the moist man, and recall the shake I want to master, the one that makes people feel special.

“Hi,” I say crouching before the seated man. He’s alone, slumped over the little desk attached to his wheelchair. “Your speech was terrific,” I tell him. “You make physics so . . . accessible. Thanks.” He smiles and shifts a little, preparing to type a reply into his speech synthesizer. Aware of the effort I say, “You needn’t respond.”

He looks up at me, into me, with deep dark eyes—no black holes here. His eyes embrace me in a down-duvet hug. And there it is: connection. I can feel his anguish, his giant, potent mind trapped in a tiny, twisted body. I no longer care that I’m not a player, that I lack real jewels and couture gowns, that I’ll probably never be all that important. Because my quest for success has been about being seen, about banishing the perpetual feeling of invisibility and inconsequence, about making sure I matter. And right now, I do. I feel seen all the way through.

And I realize that this . . . this is the moment that I’ll remember most—not attending a White House party, not shaking hands with the wealthy and well known, not breaking free from Bill Clinton—but this very real, better-than-a-handshake moment: the soulshake, the touchless shake, of Professor Stephen Hawking.


As a result of her handshake with Bill Clinton, Christine Comaford spent 2 years developing the Clinton Administration’s technology leadership strategy. Today she combines neuroscience and business strategy to help CEOs achieve rapid growth and create high performance teams. The complete version of her Handshakes story may be found in her NY Times bestseller “Rules for Renegades.”


Why We Do What We Do

Today let’s have a mini-primer on human behavior.

Human beings are fascinating in that we delete, distort, and generalize our world every day. We delete what we don’t want to see, hear, feel, deal with. Perhaps you have an aging parent and you’re deleting your concern for their future—you’ll deal with it later, on the day when you’re finally ready to. Right, and then you’ll plan their estate, where and how they’ll spend their final days. When will you, really?

We also distort, or blow out of proportion, consequences, fears, feelings, events. Anyone who has witnessed a teenager’s meltdown understands distortion. A teenage response to not being asked to the prom, or being stood up for a date, or suffering some social pain could be “It’s the END OF THE WORLD! I’ll never be able to face Bob/Sue/whomever again. I can’t go back to school! That’s it. My life is over.” Then they get up the next day and move on.

Last, we generalize. We put experiences, feelings, events, assumptions, ideas into tidy little boxes. We make them the same or we paint them with the stroke of a broad brush. I’m sure you’ve said “this always happens”, “they always act that way”, or any of a series of generalizations. I know I have. This makes us feel safe, helps us feel like we understand where we fit in the world and what it all means.

Except when you’re a leader.

Then you realize that you can’t really manage people. They are deleting, distorting, generalizing all around you. At best you can guide, or lead, them. Make sense? Ok, now you’re ready for the Leadership Effectiveness Pyramid…

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