Smart People + Smart Leadership = Happy Customers?
Interpersonal Intelligence for Technical Organizations
By Lucy Freedman, developer of the SYNTAX of Influence, co-author of Smart Work (second edition soon to be released).
When I first started my business, a mentor quizzed me about what it meant to have a business. Does coming up with a great idea make it a business? Clearly no. Does having a product make it a business? What about an office, employees, marketing? No, no, and no, he said. You have a business when you have a customer. Aha.
In the world of technology, we can get so focused on the product or process that the relationship part of the business receives a minimal amount of mindshare. Sure, when we need to make a funding pitch, attract a key executive, or give a customer presentation, we put attention into those relationships. Even then, it’s typical of technologists to be mostly content-oriented and not so focused on tuning into the interests of their audience. There’s room for growth.
While the ability to relate well with funders , talent, and customers is important for business success, the internal communication in a company is equally important. What customers and VC’s really want is for the product to work and meet their needs in a timely and cost-effective way. For that to happen, managers and teams need to be able to get on the same page and come up with solutions and answers. Knowledge needs to be mobilized. Deadlines need to be met. Problems need to be solved. All this takes communication that is both focused and flexible.
The kinds of interpersonal intelligence that allow people and teams to collaborate well tend to be underdeveloped in engineering organizations for three main reasons.
· Engineers are generally not drawn to learning “soft skills”
· Engineering leadership is mostly made up of engineers
· Most interpersonal skills training is oriented more toward personal growth than practical business interactions.
As a result, efficiency, accurate and relevant sharing of knowledge, and delivery to the customer are often hampered by turf battles, planning disconnects, and just plain miscommunication.
Is this just a depressing downer, condemning engineering organizations and their customers to clunky communication, relieved only by those special high-tech + high-touch individuals who can navigate well both technically and interpersonally? Although many are resigned to this state of affairs, there are lights flickering here and there.
Bright Lights and Good BooksIn fact, at the November ElSig meeting, Ron Lichty presented a “Crash Course” based on his new book with co-author Mickey W. Mantle, Managing the Unmanageable: Rules, Tools, and Insights for Managing Software People and Teams (Addison-Wesley, www.ManagingTheUnmanageable.net ). They address important considerations for people who move up the technical ladder from writing code to managing people.
Another new and highly recommended book on this subject is Team Geek: A Software Developer’s Guide to Working Well with Others by Brian W. Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman (O’Reilly Media, 2012). It’s very entertaining reading and addresses expanding circles of influence, from your own team to the organization to the user community.
A few years back, Michael Lopp wrote the insightful and humorous book, Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager (Apress, 2007). Michael gives practical advice for many of the situations that recur in software development. He names some of the types of people you’ll run across – such as Mr. Irrelevant, Laptop Larry, Curveball Kurt, the Snake, and Free Electrons. Cleverly written, full of useful homilies.
What all of these books have in common is the practical experience of the authors, who have lived what they are writing about. They share illustrative stories that those who follow in their footsteps will easily relate to.
De-coding How People Work
As an outsider who can’t code my way out of a paper bag, I have been taking a different approach for the past few decades of working as a consultant, coach, and facilitator for high tech companies. Programmers understand the structure, or syntax, that is required for code to work. I have studied the structure, or syntax, that is required for human communication to work.
What I have discovered is that the smart people who know how to code have an easier time learning interpersonal skills when they have access to the proper syntax for communicating. Hundreds of engineers have experienced and applied the SYNTAX model to their workplaces. People who considered themselves non-people-oriented have shown that with several relatively small changes in their communication, they can achieve great improvements in their working relationships.
This is not about sentence structure or grammar. If you consider that people are pretty systematic in how we organize our perceptions and our behavior, it makes sense that you can detect each person’s syntax, and hence, get more predictable results with them. There’s also a structure, a syntax derived from studying outstanding performers, that makes communication work better. Our model, SYNTAX, represents that architecture so that people can easily learn it.
It’s explained in detail in the book Smart Work, which I co-authored with Lisa Marshall.
The second edition will be coming out in a few months. I hope to share some of the most helpful aspects of SYNTAX at one of the upcoming ElSig meetings. In the meantime, if you are interested in getting an advance look at it, or even writing a review, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will gladly share it with you now.
When leaders in an organization start practicing SYNTAX principles, or some of the other excellent suggestions in the books listed above, they create a climate where it is much more natural for others to collaborate productively as well. It’s a matter of good design of human systems – whether writing effective, clean code for applications that will benefit people, or holding effective, clean meetings where work gets done and agreements are solid, it’s about designing intelligent human systems.
Whether through the stories and rules of the road derived from experience, or through applying a systematic, structured approach to interpersonal behavior, everyone benefits when a technical organization develops its conscious competence at communicating.
Engineering is about solving real-world problems and creating innovations that make a difference. It takes smart people working well together to do this successfully. With smart people, smart leadership, and outstanding communication, you get happy customers. That, plus your satisfaction at meeting your own high standards, makes it worthwhile to master the softer skills.
Lucy Freedman is the president of SYNTAX and works with technology companies so that their engineers are as good with people as they are with technology. She coaches leaders and teams and most enjoys helping to design practices and cultures where people exceed their own and others’ expectations. Lucy has trained and certified several dozen consultants who have implemented SYNTAX programs in companies such as Agilent, HP, Sun, Oracle, EDS, Adaptec, Tokyo Electron, Intel, National Semiconductor, and Cisco Systems. The second edition of her book, Smart Work: The SYNTAX Guide to Influence, has just gone to print. Contact email@example.com, or syntaxcommunication.com View explanatory videos and sign up there for the SYNTAX Messenger, which comes out twice a month with insights and helpful tips for positive influence in high tech organizations.