Saturday, October 11, 2014

Excerpt from "The Edge of Zero" - Communicating & Leadership

The following is an excerpt from "The Edge of Zero", which I co-wrote with my old friend Abhijit Athavale. A few paragraphs refer to earlier chapters of the book and thus might be a little harder to follow, but the essential meaning can still be extracted.

Communicating and Leadership


Speech is power: Speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Bill Clinton. Bill Gates. Marissa Mayer. Winston Churchill. Pope Francis.

All of the above individuals, despite their disparate professions and backgrounds, are recognized to varying degrees as skilled orators and eloquent communicators. Yet one of these public speakers is not like the others.

Oratory excellence is vigorously pursued and highly prized by most High Tech workers at both management and individual contributor levels in an organization. The capacity to discuss technical issues with all their uncertainties, convolutions and interdependencies is vital, both when clearly and succinctly discussing a course of action in order to sell others on the idea, as well as when obfuscating an issue with a torrent of technobabble in order to evade blame or avoid identification with a situation that has gone sour.

The object of oratory alone is not truth, but persuasion. - Thomas Babington Macaurlay

Those who are considered the strongest communicators in any High Tech enterprise are almost always within the ranks of executive management. 99% of these executives have a more or less identical style of oratory.

Their diction is flat and neutral, suppressing any regional accentuation, patois or timbre. Their vernacular is normally subdued, with everyday language and expressions only lightly peppered with erudition and kept vague on specifics. The tone is invariably calming and soothing in order to evince an aura of quiet competence and control, studiously avoiding  aggressive commitments or absolutes in favor of mildly suggestive phrases, admonishments, encouragements and platitudes. Gestures and mannerisms are used to reinforce this image of composure, with passion rejected in favor of the safety of quiet logic and tranquility. All in all, executives are selected and trained to reinforce a standard of behavior which emphasizes consistency, steadfastness and respect for hierarchy, regimentation & conformity.

Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men. - Plato

Given the last four decades of High Tech’s evolution in products and services, this deliberate and restrained approach to both management and communication was an understandable choice, as it fit well with Silicon Valley’s operational mode of stepwise innovation and incremental enhancement for product differentiation based on a few fundamental industry inventions. It was a ‘steady as she goes’ style of captaining a ship thru boisterous and sometimes tempestuous seas, with a firm hand on the tiller and the certainty of a strong current and a dependable breeze filling her sails and sending the ship ever onwards towards the horizon.

This pattern of behavior also helped Silicon Valley executives gain credence on Wall Street. They found themselves adopting the same characteristics of the public personas displayed by CEO’s and senior executives of the many other industries and sectors that did not share the dynamism and growth of High Tech – a deliberate demeanor that exuded an air of reassurance, order and serenity so very much like that of a presbyterian deacon or parish priest.

This approach has become the default for Silicon Valley regardless of the audience – whether speaking to a group of financiers on Sand Hill Road, a customer engineering team, or a quarterly review meeting with the company’s workforce. Though the interests, concerns and perspectives of these audiences differ, there has been enough commonality between the three that this single communication technique with its unchallenging and hypnotic banality has come to be accepted as both adequate and proper.

When Demosthenes was asked what was the first part of Oratory, he answered, "Action," and which was the second, he replied, "Action," and which was the third, he still answered "Action." - Plutarch

Yet as has become glaringly apparent through the preceding chapters of this text, the High Tech market has reached an inflection point that, going forward, will demand an intrinsic reformulation of nearly all of the methods, stratagems and operational constructs currently standardized in the Technology business. This includes communication, which will need to transcend its administrative and managerial foundation to become an instrument of leadership.

The future of High Tech lies in abandoning the safe, ordered and predictable path of innovation and embarking on a journey of experimentation, discovery and invention. New technologies will be needed to break open new and untapped markets. Complementing these material alterations are changes in the way the human side of the equation will need to be handled. The ability to motivate and inspire will become necessary traits that will trump other considerations, as managing becomes secondary to leading.

Though his tongue
Dropp'd manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest counsels. - John Milton, "Paradise Lost"

Of course, this does not mean that High Tech workers and managers should emulate snake oil salesmen or, worse, Wall Street execs. The successful High Tech enterprise offering market-making products based on disruptive inventions needs to earn the trust of customers in its target segments – a level of confidence that will be much more difficult to earn and keep in these Lean Times and trying economic circumstances. The company’s rank and file, already nervous about committing their energies and employment prospects to an unproven technology, will need reassurance and feedback upon which they can rely in order to commit themselves completely, efficiently and effectively to their tasks. Venture capitalists and financiers will also need to be more than just sold on a project based on an invention with no track record before financing the endeavor. A silken-tongued devil that can sell ice cubes to Eskimos will likely be able to fool a few people in each of these audiences for a brief time, but will in the long run spell a company’s doom in today’s unforgiving environment.

This also does not indicate that the previous bag of tricks learned to communicate in the High Tech world are now all obsolete. The capacity to bring order and chaos into accord, to redirect energies wasted in strife into productive endeavors and turn the friction of competing interests & intentions onto a path of sharing information and growing the company’s organizational memory will be more valuable than ever before.

These managerial imperatives will demand guidance and reinforcement by communicating them to the workforce and customer engineering teams with the same sobriety, deliberateness and gravitas to which High Tech workers are accustomed. But the communications techniques and skills used by managers will need to expand. High Tech marketers especially will be required to lead this change.

He spake, and into every heart his words
Carried new strength and courage. - Homer
, "The Iliad"

Source: wikipedia

This raises a series of inevitable questions: What is Leadership? What is it for? How is it different from Management?

The goal of leadership is to direct, inspire, guide and motivate the behavior of others towards a course of action – a direction that in the end they choose willingly, despite any potential risks and consequences. This is completely different from mere management, where an authority figure exerts formal command, issuing instructions to subordinates, exerting control over their actions and methods, driving them to complete tasks and punishing them for failures to achieve desired results or violating policies & protocols that circumscribe their job functions and duties.

It would be an error to characterize one as positive and the other as negative. They are both necessary and vital parts of running an organization, High Tech or not. But the impetus behind each is quite different:

-          Leadership pulls; management pushes.
-          Leadership instills self-motivation; management provides motivation.
-          Leadership seeks to inspire employees to stretch themselves beyond their perceived limits; management imposes control and limits.
-          Leadership encourages a personal commitment that overrides fear of hazard or pain; management drives conformance thru the threat of pain.

At the risk of making a gross oversimplification, one could frame the difference between leadership and management as the difference between the carrot and the stick. However, the carrot is not the same as mere financial or career incentives, such as the stock options, bonuses and promotions characteristic of Silicon Valley’s “steady as she goes” management practices which sought procedural control over the exploitation of growth markets thru incremental innovations on a foundational technology invention.

The fact is that leadership provokes reactions specific to individuals, whereas management exercises its influence broadly, without distinguishing between individuals. As a consequence, managers achieve consistent results, whereas leaders achieve extraordinary ones.

In this era where the change resulting from disruptive inventions is not only inevitable, but necessary, and where the old rules, techniques and methods no longer produce sufficient results, High Tech success demands genuine leaders. Managers will need to learn how to properly lead. Thus the inevitable question: what are the fundamental characteristics of leadership?

There are, in fact, four of them:
1.      Affinity – employees must have the sense that the manager/section head/team leader is “one of us”, having shared the same stresses, frustrations and difficulties, as well as being willing and able to do so in the future.
2.      Solution – the leader must be perceived as having the correct “recipe” for dealing with the problem at hand: “the man with the plan.” Naturally, those desirous of leadership need to know what they’re talking about. In the case of the High Tech marketer, it is here where all the extra effort to gain technical competency, understand the operational procedures of other departments and spending a minimum of 25% of his time with customer engineering teams starts to pay off most dramatically.
3.      Backing & Authority – whether control of the team is direct (the members report into the leader as part of the management hierarchy) or indirect (the members are colleagues who report into a different management chain), the leader must be publicly acknowledged as having executive approval and support for dealing with the issue for which the team has been formed. This requires an unequivocal affirmation and long term resolute posture from both the leader to his team and senior/executive management to that team leader. This is, in fact, where Silicon Valley management fails most frequently.
4.      Energy & Example – the leader must be more than a talker; he must be a doer. He must show that he is in the thick of things, not only driving and directing activity, but taking a productive part in it. The sheen of sweat must show on his brow and his total commitment must be plainly evident - always. And though the leader should be demanding, he should not be too hasty in assigning blame and punishment, but should first show that he is willing to take the lumps for any errors he makes, as well as accepting ultimate responsibility for the actions of his teammates.

The following case study provides a clear example of leadership and its effects.

Case Study: Alexander of Macedon

After Alexander of Macedon finished his easternmost conquests in the valley of the Indus, he determined that the army would return to Persia and Mesopotamia by marching across the southern desert province of Gedrosia, heretofore considered impassable and legendary for swallowing invading armies whole. It was a grueling trek, but Alexander managed to do it without losing any troopers, horses or draft animals.

Alexander was particularly unsuited for such an effort, as he had received a near-fatal injury in the final siege conducted by his army against a city holding out against his conquest of the Punjab. A well thrown spear had penetrated his armor and inflicted a sucking chest wound. His recovery was nearly miraculous and, as was inescapable in those days, only partial – such grievous injuries could not be fully treated by 5th century B.C. Greek medicine and were both permanently debilitating and chronically painful. Nevertheless, he sent the support fleet forward to sail ahead of the army, down the Indus and across the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf, while he marched overland thru Gedrosia with the infantry and cavalry forces.

During the march, some of his scouts returned from a patrol ahead of the army, seeking desert springs and ponds. They had been slightly successful and offered Alexander a helmet-full of water that they had managed to scrounge from a very meager source.

Alexander took the proffered helmet in hand. He looked up from the reservoir of precious liquid to see his army marching by, arrayed in column. His hot and thirsty troopers called out to him, imploring Alexander to be the one to drink from the helmet, since he was first among them, sharing all their trials and tribulations yet bringing them to glory and victory time and again.

Alexander stopped. He looked carefully over his marching hoplites. Then he straightened up, extended his arm, and poured out the helmet on the sandy ground in view of all.
His troopers cheered him with a berserk intensity.

Those soldiers followed him ten thousand miles, over rivers, deserts and mountains, thru rain and snow, sandstorms, baking heat and bone-aching cold, against a seemingly endless array of ferocious enemies. For ten years. On foot.

There are some key takeaways from the case study above and the leadership outline which preceded it. There is a fine but very distinct boundary between audacity and irresponsibility, eloquence and narcissism, passion and egomania.

In the pleading of cases nothing pleases so much as brevity. - Pliny the Younger

When speaking in public, whether the audience is small or large, the preference for using a common idiom, soothing tone, vague or otherwise unchallenging content and restrained body language is grossly overrated. Such an oratory style is a method of managing a group – but not leading it.

Unfortunately, there is a misconception common to High Tech workers and executives that since everyone is communicating in this style, it must be the right way to do it. Thus one encounters executives who practice assiduously to deliver oratories using a great many words to say very little, in a warm, resonant and reassuring tone. Unfortunately, though many Silicon Valley executive speeches could be marketed as cures for insomnia, they are woefully inadequate for inspiring a sense of commitment, purpose and direction.

One of the great inadequacies of such a speaking style is that in its attempt to avoid causing alarm, it comes across as evasive, guarded, sophistic, platitudinous and fundamentally dishonest – as if the speaker had something to hide. This impression worsens as the content increases in word count and blandness. One simply cannot communicate big ideas in this manner – the very nature of such a speaking style is distinctly oriented towards avoiding the possibility of being compelling.

This does not mean that the pendulum should swing to the opposite extreme, with speakers employing Shakespearean verse and thunderous histrionics while gesticulating like wild-eyed lunatics. Nevertheless, an audience that wants to see leadership will respect a speaker who is direct and who gets to the point.

An illustrative contrast is presented by two of the best orators on the American political stage in the latter half of the 20th century – Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Both were highly experienced statesmen, intelligent, talented public speakers, were liked and respected across the American political spectrum and took great pleasure in addressing audiences.

Yet their oratory styles were markedly dissimilar. Reagan presided over an era fraught with severe economic challenges during his first presidential term and was overshadowed throughout by the turbulent end game of the Cold War. His speeches were somewhat brief, reasonably but not excessively eloquent, and decidedly inspirational. They resounded with a cry of “Rally round the flag, boys, and follow me!”

Clinton, by contrast, presided over a post-Cold War period where there were no major national security problems and the economy could be best described as a “Roaring ‘90’s” era. His conciliatory, soothing ramblings had a serenely custodial tone, with a recurrent theme of “Not to worry, folks, I’ve got everything under control.”

A Clintonesque speaker would have found himself at home in Silicon Valley for its first four decades. But these new Lean Times require a more Reaganesque communicator.

You can speak well if your tongue can deliver the message of your heart. - John Ford

Some will squirm and scowl when reading this topic, protesting that communication is of value primarily to sales, marketing and executives, with finance, operations & engineering only needing to worry about data. Remember, however, that it is the Learning Organization that will triumph in this new era, and that for such an enterprise to function properly, information and ideas must flow freely across the firm at all levels and to all employees and departments, as well as between the factory, the field and the customer base. Data and concepts revolving around new disruptive inventions will be vetted, tested, debated, discarded, revamped, massaged, edited, washed, rinsed and hung out to dry – continuously. Thus, communicating properly for the times is part and parcel of what every employee must concern himself, regardless of job role, department or title.

Most importantly: it doesn’t take a Reagan or Clinton to communicate well. Anyone can do it. In fact, it is essential that everyone be prepared to do it as best he or she can, as it can very well be the key to victory or ignominy. What follows is a case study that illustrates this point – a very personal case study to Pete.

Case Study: Dave the experienced Engineer and neophyte Marketer


I was a green-around-the-gills junior marketing puke at a Silicon Valley company in the 90’s that had decided to develop a product line which, though highly complementary to the firm’s primary offerings, was different enough to cause anxiety across the enterprise. From the rank & file up thru executive staff, a shadow constantly hung over the division, posing a persistent question as to whether the effort to expand and diversify the company’s product portfolio was worth the short term damage to the balance sheet.

The struggle to gain market acceptance for the division’s product line had been savage. In the rush to release products, we made errors in both hardware and software aspects of the offering. Customer judgment was severe and the competition was merciless. After a ferocious effort, we managed to establish a distinct and incontestable advantage in performance and fix various hardware and software problems to transform our offering into an effective competitive solution (Abhijit’s software work was central to this.)

Along the way, the division gathered data which would allow the development of a new product line. The Director of Hardware Engineering at the time was a fellow that for the purposes of this case study we will call “Dave”. He was a very thoughtful and intelligent person, honest, quite humble, soft spoken, dedicated, demanding but empathetic with his employees and a very good fellow all around. He managed the definition and design of a new hardware offering that incorporated all the lessons learned from the previous product line, customer & field feedback on existing products and an assessment of competitor strengths, weaknesses and apparent technical direction for the future.

The design that he and his people defined and were in the process of developing had the appearance of being a clear winner – a high performance platform that was scalable, versatile and very robust. Yet arriving at that point would prove to be a severe struggle – entirely due to management.

Dave reported into the Vice President and General Manager of the division. This man was a highly orthodox practitioner of Silicon Valley management philosophy – drive your employees hard and without relief, crush the merest hint of dissent, accept no excuses and punish non-conformance (which was clearly his favorite part of the job, as he took to it with a rare gusto.) He was, to his credit, an extraordinarily gifted and eloquent public speaker. However, this was also the executive responsible for the notorious stance on truthfulness quoted verbatim in chapter 6.

The resulting combination of personal traits in this VP was a plutonium – laced cocktail of toxicity.  As Dave went thru review cycles within the division to present the status of the new product line during its definition and design phases, he frequently came under criticism from the GM. This criticism was invariably delivered in the form of red-faced, volcanic, high decibel tirades excoriating Dave for minor and even trivial issues – spelling mistakes, color choices on slides, the manner in which a diagram was detailed and so forth. Dave was also raked over the coals for implementing product details that had been rashly ordered by the GM on which he had subsequently experienced a change of heart – the fault on Dave’s part being, in these instances, that he was overly responsive to his boss’s instructions and wasn’t clairvoyant.

At the midway point during the development cycle, Dave was pushed aside as Director of Hardware Engineering but was given a Strategic Marketing position, with the specific assignment of gaining acceptance for the new product line with the field sales and field applications engineering groups. The testing ground for this acceptance would be the annual sales conference that was scheduled to occur within three months of Dave’s reassignment to a Strategic Marketing role.

Despite all of this, Dave persevered. He believed that he and his ex-team of designers had developed a winning solution and he wanted to see this thru to the end, whatever it might be. After everything was said and done, his heart was still in it.

Dave put together his presentation and had it approved by an executive review panel that was vetting all the presenters and their slide decks before the conference. The advice and encouragement he received from his GM (who was not a member of the review panel) was limited to “if you screw this up, you’re on the street.” This was actually not a surprise to me – I had observed this VP set up nearly a score of his senior managers to be fall guys for his own poorly conceived, ego-driven decisions. It looked like Dave was getting the same treatment.

The conference was a grueling affair. There were 14 different topics, each of which would be presented by a team of two or three experienced marketers. The only exception was Dave, who was all alone. The sales and field applications people were split up into 16 different groups based on geography and region, with each group having its own conference room. The presenters would rotate thru these rooms and give their 50-60 minute presentations over a four day period.

I found Dave waiting outside the first room where he was to present. He was understandably nervous – he’d never done anything like this before, and as a veteran engineer suddenly thrust into a strategic marketing role and giving a pitch to room after room of salesmen, he felt decidedly out of his element. He hadn’t received any coaching, let alone any support or encouragement, from his management chain.

I considered Dave a colleague and friend. He still had twenty minutes to cool his heels, so I pulled him aside.
“Hey Dave – I’ve been thru this circus before. I think I can give you a little bit of useful advice.”
Dave looked at me hopefully.
“First – are you feeling nervous and apprehensive, worried that in your first pitch, you’re going to forget some key points, not get the whole message across and blow it?”
A look of pain and resignation crossed Dave’s face; he nodded and quietly responded “Yeah.”
“Guess what, Dave? There’s another thirteen teams of presenters, and they’re all milling about, worried sick that they’re going to forget their lines and talking points and screw up the whole presentation – and unlike you, they’ve all done this before!”
Dave’s eyes popped open in shock.
“Here’s exactly what’s going to happen, Dave. You’re going to make this first presentation in a couple of minutes. Time will fly by while you’re presenting – it’ll be over before you know it. Along the way, you will indeed forget a couple of key points you wanted to make. And EVERY OTHER PRESENTER IS GOING TO DO THE SAME THING.”
Dave blinked hard and a smile started creeping up on his face.
“The second time you present, you’ll remember every one of your points, and the presentation will feel really good. You’ll be in your groove. And you know what’s going to happen just before you start your third pitch?”
Dave looked at me with a mildly bewildered expression.
“You’re going to say to yourself ‘I have to pitch this crap 13 more times???’”
Dave instantly understood. A smile burst out on his face followed by a hearty laugh.
“Look – you know this topic. You know it better than anyone. People are in the room to hear you talk about it – they’re interested in what you have to say. So don’t worry about yourself. Focus on your audience. As you speak to them, watch them. Watch how they react. If anyone looks puzzled or thoughtful, address them directly and ask them what’s on their mind. Draw your audience in and engage with them. They’ll appreciate it.”
Dave considered, and his entire demeanor changed. He became confident, calm, resolute. “OK, Pete. I understand. Hey – thanks for this.”

All the presenters were rated by their audiences and the results tallied at the end of the conference. The reaction to Dave was uniform. His audience found him a bit awkward, as if he’d never done anything like this before. However, he was extremely knowledgeable, responsive, engaging and highly enthusiastic. The audience, leary of anything that came out of this particular GM’s division (as his attitude towards truthfulness had become well known throughout the company at that point), found Dave’s technical acumen to be reassuring and his attitude to be very refreshing, as it was so clear that his heart was genuinely in it.
The product line began rolling out four months later. Highly anticipated by an eager sales force, it was warmly received by the field and by customers, becoming the most successful product launch of the division before or since.

This is the most important factor in being a leader. You have to genuinely believe in what you’re doing. The strength of that belief and your commitment to seeing the effort thru will resonate in every action you take and every word you speak. It is that torch, held steady and high, which others will follow.