Miserable at Work?

Recently, while reviewing some landmark research on what motivates human beings (Deci, 2000), I was surprised with one of the points that the researchers discovered: We don’t naturally pursue the things that are best for us. Basically, humans have some basic psychological needs that are just part of who we are, and when our environment supports those basic needs, it promotes psychological well-being. And when our environment doesn’t support those basic needs (and it must be all 3), then it promotes just the opposite: psychological ill-health. So you would think that when our environment isn’t supporting our well-being, we would naturally change the environment or go somewhere else in order to meet our needs. But what we’ve found out is that we don’t usually do that. Continue reading

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What is ‘Technical Leadership’?

It’s funny, as I look at the functions and places I have worked in my career, and I look at some very successful people I know, the importance of being good on your business feet, communicating well and leading the work efforts of others become the common, recurring skills that seem to sustain an individuals career progression in organizations.  I’ll call these the “People Skills”. Yet most of these people who have stood out, at least the one’s that I know, spent their formal educations on technical subjects, not the people subjects.

I had a great lunchtime conversation with 4 visiting faculty members from MIT.  There is something about being engaged in energetic dialogue with passionate individuals who are also at the top of their field, and in that regard, these guys didn’t let me down at all.

As the conversation progressed, the term “Technical Leadership” emerged as the essence for what their current academic program is striving to prepare graduates for. The good news is, that when they used the term, they were not referring to technical prowess or ability as much as the orientation towards working and growing in organizations of a technical nature and shaping them (or starting them from scratch) while still contributing an engineering skill set.

Given the tendency for universities to focus on theory and leave the application up to the students, I find it interesting that an engineering program from a top school is actually considering the notion that engineers can prepare themselves for a career of being more than an individual contributor.  But it shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, when you consider the number of leaders out there with technical educations.

Firms like Spencer Stuart, that track the demographics of S&P 500 CEOs, have discovered that a large portion of the pool of top corporate executives have undergraduate educations in engineering.  But we all know how linearly, and how literally, engineers think.  How could they come to serve and skillfully manage the needs of the one thing that gets in the way of brilliant engineering projects: People?

Well, for one, the stereotype that all engineers tape their glasses and can’t hold a normal conversation isn’t necessarily that accurate, especially with the four, creative and systems-oriented scholar-practitioners that I was able to learn from today.  The reality is that we all go through an often transformative process of earning a living and the natural development that accompanies career progression.  It turns out that those engineering-founded, super executives actually spent little time in their degree field and still rose to business and management success (which should give most of us a sigh of relief).

Like any degree, engineering was simply a jumping-off point or entry into business which quickly led into other operational fields, the most notable of which are marketing, sales and, of course, finance.  When you look at the stories these careers tell, I think the folks at MIT are on the right track: Technical leadership is both the development of leading technologies and the leadership of technology organizations – both of which are required to produce results that develop the world we inhabit.

The lesson? Even individual contributors, often those brilliant souls who slave individually over a crazy notion that turns out to be pure genius (think post-it notes or waffle irons… hey, I love waffle irons) need to develop the “interpersonal engineering” skills that facilitate the production, application and adoption of their contributions. Check out this pdf from Novations (specifically note the question on slide 2).

What this means to you: Map out both the areas of your technical expertise and the areas of your people expertise and measure each one. Depending on the stage of your career, determine an appropriate balance between the two and then go to work filling in the gaps.  Early in your career, your technical expertise better be high – that’s the entryway into organizations.  Your people skills need to be constantly developed in the areas of interpersonal and team communication and leadership. Mid-career, you need to really sharpen your people skills and begin focusing on the bigger picture of how all the people around you contribute to the success of the organization.  Advanced careers will need to keep their people skills razor-sharp and move their technical expertise to areas of strategic planning and organizational leadership.

What this means to your organization: No matter how well the lab rats are running in their wheels, give them the resources, time and most importantly, encouragement to stretch their project management, project leadership, and people skills. I know, I know… I have met many coders who will go to the grave with the words “just let me code, man!” on their lips. No matter their claims, they are human beings with the stock human development needs that we all come with, and sooner or later, the organization will either benefit from their increased development or stand indicted upon their exit.

Technically leading organizations that maintain sustainable results over time have technically people-proficient and business-savvy leaders.

Be More Successful -> More ‘Professional’

Over the past twenty years, there has been an occasion where I have been accused of not being professional (usually when someone is suffering deep emotional problems). Worse, I have myself thrown the term out to describe someone else’s behavior (I have always been mentally stable). I don’t even know what “professional” means. I do get paid – isn’t that professional? Let’s put it this way: In the good old days, I wouldn’t have been able to go to the business olympics – only amateurs were allowed (and while my performance may be amateur, I have been paid on numerous occasions for my athletic acts of business which is a clear violation of both old-school olympic and current NCAA standards. Though I don’t have enough tattoos to make any NCAA team nowadays, even women’s soccer.).

Let’s face it: appearance matters. And while I do mean the way you look, I don’t just mean the way you dress and do your hair. The way you appear to others makes a difference. (oh yeah, I finally found a description for ‘professional’).

Back in the tumultuous aftershock of 9/11, I was stuck trying to save my own business and looking for work at the same time. I got pretty good at interviewing (either for a new client or a new job), and learned a valuable lesson: It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it. In other words, my verbal appearance made a huge difference when interviewing. Time after time I was able to win positions or contracts (before they were frozen due to the economic hit) by my ability to answer questions freely, non-chalantly, and completely. It was my ability to communicate that made others think, “This guy is sharp, we should seriously consider him” (suckers).

Now obviously, you have to be able to produce good work for your charade to be fruitful in the long run. If you’re interviewing, you need to have the right resume in the first place to get very far, but in the end, I believe its one’s ability to communicate effectively that determines, to a large extent, where their career goes.

Communicate with words. Communicate with physical appearance. Communicate with personal style and with business results.

Photo by S. Diddy

A Voicemail I’ll Never Forget

Sometimes I get into a work mode where I am completely focused on churning out email responses to my workgroup, and it's usually late at night and I am just ripping through all the email that I received during the day:  read, decide on action, respond. read, decide on action, respond.  Thats when I usually send something sensitive to the wrong person (like when I hit reply instead of forward and sent it back to a key vendor, basically insulting them) or like last night, when I did one of those typos that actually works and changes the meaning of the entire message and sends one of my direct reports into a 15 minute panic state. The solution, for me as well as all of us, is to slow down, be intentional about our communication and not just haphazard, especially when we are using computer-mediated communication without all the voice tones, inflection, facial expressions and body language that help get our messages across the way we intend them.

But sometimes, even when we say the right thing, technology messes it up for us.  Like this past Thanksgiving, for instance.

You know that new technology that takes a voicemail and converts it into text in an email and sends it to your phone?  Well, my mother-in-law left a message for her son about Thanksgiving dinner, saying, "Dinner is at five, come over before whenever you want, we're going to play games and have snacks."   What ended up on his phone was, "Dinner is at five, come over before when ever you want, were going to play games and have sex."

Either way, it was a Thanksgiving to remember.