It's happened to every woman I know in the workplace. You're in the coffee queue, waiting for the elevator or on your way to a meeting when you're asked a simple question that you often dread:
"How are things?"
"Not too bad," you respond.
As an investment banking director, I had to answer a lot of tough questions: Are we pushing for the right products? What segments do we focus on our next quarter? Is our cross-regional expansion working, or should we persist locally? But for the vague "How are things?" there's no honest answer.
A client is stressing the hell out of me. I've gained four pounds and feel bloated. Ten more hours of swelling in these new heels. I need a nap.
Unless a good friend is asking you this, or you're having the most amazing day, you'll go with the Best of British "not too bad" answer, hoping to be left alone.
But here's the thing: If you're looking to get ahead in your career, the "not too bad" is not so good.
It doesn't matter if a junior analyst or a colleague from another division asked you the question. There's a human being that reached out and is opening a dialogue with you. If you really are the leader you were born to be, you need to care. There's power in being connected to all kinds of individuals at work. Rather than saving the best of you just for the few ones you want to impress, I've found that it's been helpful in my career to take this daily question as an opportunity to get to know people and network. You never know who they'll speak to or work with in the future.
I've found there are three different ways you can take this question as a chance that will most likely to lead to a meaningful conversation:
1. Mention two recent accomplishments. When you focus on positive things, you make yourself (and others) feel better. Instead of saying "Things are going well," elusively, talk about two concrete achievements. For instance: "Things are great. We just closed a deal with a Fortune 500 client which brought us a new lead from one of the parties."
But if you stop there, by highlighting just one, it may come off as trying to fish for a compliment. Name two successes instead, so the other person can choose which one to react to.
Why isn't three or four a good idea? Listening to a list of memorized accomplishments can make you sound annoying and full of yourself, leaving little room for a productive exchange.
2. Explain what has changed in the past months. This variation works best when you haven't seen this person for a while. Instead of talking about the deal you closed last week and your new lead, press your back pedal and think of your team's progress since you two last spoke.
For instance, "Things changed a lot for us. Months ago we were all over the place offering way too many services, but now we're more profitable by focusing on a premium product for large corporate clients." This way, you can change the perception this person had about you and show where you've evolved. It also works well if you suspect that you and your team were labelled into some kind of mould you want to shake off.
3. Open up about a challenge you're working on. If the other person is familiar with your accomplishments, an alternative approach is to talk about a problem you're trying to solve. For instance, "Things are good. We're trying to integrate the billing system with our CRM, so both front and back offices can see the same figures making the reconciliation process much easier."
Win extra points: Encourage the person to offer some suggestions. For example, "We're considering whether to integrate this at a much larger scale, including other divisions like yours. It'd be good to reach out to those teams at some point." This is an opening that gives the other person the opportunity to be helpful. Most people I know are usually happy to offer an introduction if they think it would be useful. Don't be quick to rule people out. Some of the least expected persons offered some of the greatest connections in my career.
What if your conversation partner is the right point of contact for this discussion? By being vague with your opening, you avoid putting anyone on the spot. You may even hear something like this: "Of course, drop me an email and let's sit down to discuss this." Then you would have created an opportunity for an extensive exchange of ideas that could be quite valuable.
Think twice! As you escape the "How are things?" with some elusive answer, you're limiting your career. Daniel Cable, Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School, explains that "Passive face time can affect employees' status, performance evaluations, raises, promotions and job security."
Beyond how active or not you're being perceived by others in the workplace, one of the best things you can do to get ahead in your career is to grow your network. Meaningful daily interactions will help you with just that.
Each time somebody serves you this opportunity on a plate, instead of giving an automatic response, take a step back. Think for a second how you can set the conversation in motion. Prepare a couple of good answers regularly so when you're being asked how things are going, you'll be ready and poised to guide a productive dialogue. Your network will expand in no time, and so will your chances of a successful career.
Conclusion: This is one of the business philosophies I live by and hopefully it'll help you get ahead professionally. My ties with all kinds of persons at work changed my life and actually made it a lot better.
So, what do you think about this? Next time you hear this everyday question, how will you answer it?