Communication skills are the most difficult to master and key to success in personal and professional life. I am still on the borderline if it is an acquired or a native skill? I am fortunate to have some great communicators in my professional network and friend circle. They are great story tellers, suave talkers, and interesting conversationalists. I am always mesmerized by such people and look for their secrets to learn and improve myself. However, unlike mathematical equations and scientific facts, there is no one universal style that one adorns to be a great communicator. Everyone has a different way. I am a straight shooter and like to communicate the way it is. I always wondered if it was the right way! Then I read a life-changing book – “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott.
The core idea of the book is how most conversations in both business and personal lives are fake with participants avoiding to discuss the “undiscussable”. I found the idea of laying out the issue on the table in first sixty seconds and having a constructive dialog around it to be profound and a game changer. It is simple yet seldom followed conventional wisdom. The example of a tough feedback session generally starting with appreciation and “fake” praise leading to a queasy topic is common place at work. The recipient can sense the negative undertone in praise and wonder what is going to hit him next. Now turn it around and imagine if the same session starts with a candid feedback but with the intent to discuss it honestly and constructively to help the recipient.
I followed this principle in a recent meeting with a very difficult client. This client got into a habit of raising trivial issues to our senior management and complaining about everything. In our call to resolve a recent issue, I asked the client if there was more to this issue that we are not hearing. I told them how much we appreciate their business and want to make them a happy client but can’t achieve it without learning and addressing their real concern. At first the client was struck by my candidness but she quickly opened up to tell us how communication failures in the past led her to directly raise small issues to our senior management to grab our attention. Imagine how much time we saved with this insight! We now have a decent chance to make them a happy client by fixing this problem.
I haven’t yet found the magic potion to be a great communicator but by following some of the advice from the book I will certainly become a better communicator. Simple ideas such as avoid loaded statements – sugar-coated and irrelevant statements, replace “but” with “and”, and use silence in conversations are highly effective to make any conversation thoughtful, and worthwhile. Stop me when next time I try to take a long winded road to my point.
Wish you all fierce conversations!
Sales is the king! I used to hear this phrase all the time and ignored it as a conventional wisdom not applicable to the unconventional technology industry. Isn’t tech all about innovation and cool products? Don’t cool products sell by itself? Products that people line up to buy outside your stores or online. So engineers should be kings and not sales people. After a decade, I am proven wrong.
I am absolutely convinced that irrespective of the industry, sales is the lifeline of any business. Nobody cares how cool your product is if it doesn’t sell. A business is not a viable business if it doesn’t make money. We might consider Apple and Google as exceptions but really they are not. The fact that both are public companies and measured by their financial results speaks for itself. Google is widely known as an engineering centric company but the recent news of their head of engineering and head of sales making the most bonuses indicated the balance of power. We all know how much other software giants like Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP are driven by sales.
Ok, we know it’s all about sales, but what should we (non-sales) folks do? The lesson I learned is to align yourself with sales if you are not one of them. I am not suggesting being subservient to sales but having your actions help close the deals. It could be as simple as dropping a line about your competition or delivering a product demo, but make sure you are closely aligned with this function. There is a salesman inside all of us; unleash it to magnify your potential.
I spent the better part of my career in technology function, mostly developing software. It was exciting to write the most efficient program, design complex solutions, and manage large software projects. Even though I always thought of myself as more of a business person, I never paid much attention to the commercial side of technology. The techie inside had a simple business logic–customers will line up to buy the best software. Of course, I was entitled to be paid because I could write the best program irrespective of company’s performance. Then, I moved to presales and it changed everything!
Two years of selling complex software to fortune 1000 companies and working with sales and marketing was an eye-opening experience. The realization that it is not the best software but the best-positioned solution that sells was startling. Customers didn’t care much about algorithms in the software, but how would it solve their business problems and deliver value. Total cost of ownership, payback period and return on investment calculations didn’t factor in the most optimized program or complex design. While software features were important, it was relationships, sales presentations, product demos, and managing client expectations that were critical for a successful sale. Sales and marketing folks–often perceived as “more talk and less substance” were the front and center to close deals and bring money to keep the lights on.
I still believe that development is a very important function of a software business but now I also understand the importance of the commercial side. It doesn’t surprise me when a developer boasts of being the heart and soul of the business while thinking of sales and marketing as just the face. I was in the same boat a few years ago. It is easy for a techie to ignore the importance of sales and what it takes to acquire a client. Most software companies intentionally isolate R&D from business realities, thereby making it even more difficult for technologists to understand business realities. However, if you are a techie with entrepreneurial aspirations or an ambition to grow into senior management, then start learning about how your business sells and makes money. Your superior technical skills definitely make you indispensible for the company but your sales skills will grow you into top management ranks. A strong technical expertise coupled with great business skills is a potent combination. Remember, it is money that makes the world go and your career.
Thirty thousand feet in the air sitting in an airplane, I am thinking of politics and power struggle in workplace. Why? I was talking to a close friend about his situation at work before boarding the flight. He had a call with his CTO and the CEO. He didn’t know the agenda as this was a last minute call but was surprised to hear the CTO complaining about sharing sensitive information with clients in a presentation that morning. My friend was astounded because both of them together created that presentation? He fretted for a while before calling the CTO to ask why he didn’t bring it up while working on the presentation. The CTO explained that he was covering himself against things going off plan. I understood his CTO’s stance and appreciated his candor to bring it up with the CEO. However, my friend still thinks that CTO should have kept him in the loop. Is it politics?
Yes, it is. I learned in my “Power and Politics” class in MBA that wherever there is more than one person, there is politics. Our distinguished professor also taught us that politics is all about making friends but there are no permanent friends in politics, only permanent interests. Contrary to the common belief, I don’t consider politics as a bad thing. Everyone has an agenda and a right to further that agenda, especially in a work place. Don’t you have an ambition to rise through the corporate hierarchy or build your business against competition? So do others! I am not suggesting to unethically further your interests but to be conscious that there are always conflicting interests and only you are responsible for your own good. One of my “thinking” friends once said –“It doesn’t make sense to play politics once in a while. If you are in then you are in for good”. I think it makes lots of sense. Either people know you as a straight shooter or as a politically savvy person. You set the rules of engagement and play by them.
In my friend’s case, I realized that CTO was protecting his interests by not over promising while my friend was working on his interests by sharing more information with clients to satisfy them. The CTO did the right thing to work with my friend on his goals and at the same time raising it to the CEO highlighting that things can go wrong. One cannot rise to the top without mastering the political act because this path is full of conflict of interests and personalities. I understand the CTO’s response and respect him for his savvy political skills. At the same time, I wish my friend is clear on rules of engagement and ready to play by it. Are you?
A few weeks ago, my mentor and I were discussing the path to leadership over a great French wine. As a usual mentee looking for pearls of wisdom, I asked him how to overcome my lack of storytelling skills. He candidly answered, “Get a storyteller on your team!” His point was to build a strong team with complementary skills and play to my strengths. I was surprised by his simple yet profound response. I understand teams are important for business but can one really outsource ones weaknesses to others? By the way, my mentor is a great communicator who can handle tough situations with ease.
Since I was aware of the “team” thought, somehow everything at work and outside work started manifesting the importance of teamwork and complementary skills. Recently, I created a new pricing for some service packs. A finance person helped me put together the pricing model. While I struggled with formulas in excel, for him it was the way of thinking. Sales operations pointed out challenges of bringing this structure in our quoting tool while client services were happy to see standard low rate that clients always wanted. Marketing was thinking of how to communicate the benefits, while the CFO questioned the revenue loss due to price drop. No matter how good I am with numbers and business concepts, I can never think of all these aspects in a given time frame. But a team with complementary skills can cover all bases!
Fine, it makes sense to have a strong team for great execution. What about the teamwork? Can everyone work in a team? I used to manage a large team of developers and loved it. Now, I am in an independent but cross-functional role, and it is challenging. I always admired my CEO for his great communication and business skills. However, I realized that his greatest strength is working with a team. He is a really smart professional with great business acumen, but he hears everyone and respects their opinion. He brings the best in his team members – finance, marketing, sales and technology – uses his smarts to articulate a coherent strategy and delivers it to his audience in a simple yet interesting way. He is not expert at all business functions but functions like one with team power!
As always, it was enlightening to meet my mentor. I walked out high on a great wine and tip on team work!
Every once in a while we come across people at work, charity, sports or any sphere of life who infuse new energy to the group and take it to the next level. They challenge the status quo, and unleash imagination to let everyone see the unseen. They don’t just talk but put it into practice with their action to rally everyone behind the cause. Mostly they are not as flashy as a CEO of a fortune 500 company but very effective and inspiring in their conduct. Can you think of one such person?
I had an enlightening conversation with a close friend on train yesterday about how Steve Jobs transformed Apple in the last decade. A company he created, left and returned when it was at the brink of bankruptcy. Today it is the most valuable technology company in the world with more than $40B in cash! Most successful people are lucky to have one home run and very few get it twice in their lifetime. Steve Jobs did it four times – Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad! He created markets which smart people had considered dead or already taken. Smartphones were around when Apple launched iPhone. However, iPhone not only trumped the established players like Blackberry (RIM), Nokia and others but also redefined the concept of a smartphone through its breakthrough innovation in usability and design. Microsoft and HP tried to create tablet market from many years but failed. Technology pundits pronounced it a dead market with laptops and netbooks crowding the space. However, Steve (Apple) saw the unseen – a multi-billion dollar opportunity for a tablet like iPad! Once again Apple created a new space by raising the bar and delivering on it. Apple is expected to sell 36 million iPads in 2011 and 50 million in 2012. Huh, dead space! So what makes people like Steve?
I am no psychologist and haven’t done any extensive research on such people. However, following Steve’s life story and his way of thinking, and knowing a few such accomplished but less well known people, I think it’s their ability to think out of the box, challenge the status quo and follow it up with their actions that set them apart. Of course the intellectual firepower is a prerequisite but most people reading this blog have it. There are many who use their intellectual curiosity to challenge the customary but never follow up with actions. Mostly they are perceived as naggers by their peers. Therefore it is must to corroborate your thoughts with actions but it requires commitment, perseverance and tremendous hard- work. Nothing succeeds like success so it is easy to ignore the hard work that goes behind making a super star. Ask PGA golfers about their practice regime or better yet read New York Times best seller “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell where he talks about 10,000 hours rule for success. Thanks to my friend for an insightful conversation and making me think a little deeply about this topic.
Yes, you can be the next “Steve Jobs” – just raise the bar and deliver on it!
I had a great evening meeting a good friend at a local Italian restaurant to discuss thought leadership over a cup of espresso. My friend, one of the smartest people I know, has been leading a global effort in a fortune 100 bank to create a unified view of their clients. There are already three separate groups who consolidate this information today but the management still lacks a holistic picture. My friend proposed a process to foster collaboration among these groups to publish a holistic dashboard for the management. Is it thought leadership?
Yes, it is thought leadership. Anytime one thinks beyond the box it is thought leadership. Sounds simple, maybe not! The story of a modern employee is to douse daily fires which occur more often than expected. Most of us plan our day in the morning but end it after exhaustive long hours with an untouched to-do list. So where is the time to think beyond and take on more? Still there are folks who can successfully do it and become our role models. They have mastered the act of aligning their daily fires with strategic initiatives. It might be as simple as creating a template instead of a static excel sheet or writing an FAQ instead of answering in an email. Small steps many times over translate into a great journey. It is the crux of thought leadership. So next time when you are pulled into yet another unplanned but crucial meeting think how you can make the best of it and bring out the thought leader inside you.
The espresso was stimulating and so was our conversation. Thanks to my friend for an insightful discussion and of course for picking the tab. This blog post – my tiny step towards thought leadership!