How I Try To Influence, Without Control
Date: Friday , December 15, 2006
One year into my PhD at Rutgers, I dropped out thinking ‘what value does my invention of a problem, and its solution, have on the world?’ While there were already enough real life problems to solve, I wondered ‘what is that this engineer inside me was trying to achieve’? To me an Engineer is a tinker with an analytical mindset and a fiery intellectual curiosity. Be it tinkering with a new technology on an old platform or a new problem for a new product. Tinkering is what I call innovation and, eventually, lots of innovation leads to some invention. In Robert Metcalfe’s (founder of 3COM and inventor of Ethernet) words: “Innovation is weed, Invention is a flower.” Engineering is a process of getting loads of weeds (innovation/tinkering) before one comes across a flower (invention).
So, let me confess right at the outset: I’m an engineer at heart and a manager by my outfit. A combination in which, the manager in me mingles with the customers and the engineer with the techies. Now striking a balance, of understanding both the customers and the engineers’ needs, creates the leader I am at BEA, India. And the most important leadership quality is the hard act of influencing people around without having to control them.
As an R&D center head, my value is more associated with my knowledge about BEA, its organization and products, and knowledge of similar companies in the industry. Higher the knowledge, the better the influence I posses. However, leaders realize that their technical competency in a particular area can never outflank that of a practicing software engineer. He (software engineer) is a winner at the very first instance of comparison, but what keeps a leader ahead is his holistic understanding of the entire product. The software engineer does a component of the product. The knowledge of customer requirements, product architecture, internal design et al places the leader at a unique vantage point: How to orchestrate the development of a product in a holistic fashion.
To that end, every organization is one central mother pyramid that consists of many small teams of daughter pyramids. Pack of anchors sit at the top of each pyramid driving their team to perform better, bringing co-ordination and guidance to avoid the pitfalls. These anchors are no cookie-cutter engineers, but star performers who have had prior experience of innovating, inventing and delivering products—doing relevant work in similar or different contexts—but having learnt what mistakes to avoid. To take a leaf out of my life, my work experience in the U.S for 18 years with many product companies made me believe that I could facilitate the growth of a center myself. And my way of anchoring the organization was to hire or build a team of anchors who could in turn manage their teams effectively.
I’ve often experienced that finding senior people with the relevant technical skills is perhaps the simplest aspect of growing an organization. The technical skills of a team need to be balanced with the right attitude and energy levels of the team members. My role as a parent anchor demands me to always lead by example. My potent tool is communication; there is nary a better mode to express your requirements. It is important that communication is provided with elements of honesty and transparency every time. For example, at BEA’s R&D center, I tell my directs what is happening within the organization, why change is required and how it would affect us and what should be our priorities. That brings the right perspective and attitude within the team. And such rightly informed attitude creates a clean environment where work is fun and engineers play it out inside the organization.
For maintaining optimum energy levels across the organization, leaders need to be consciously active at work. The high-tech acronym of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) starts with leaders’ actions. In order to enhance peoples’ energy, a leader should tweak his or her to a high level first. At this intersection lies the importance of communication along with demonstration: I need to roll up my sleeves and get down to the trenches to teach them and in turn motivate them to perform well. I’ve followed the path of leading by example and frequently telling myself “actions speak better than words.”
But the perennial question in most companies remains the same: How to get the team motivated to perform all the time? This inevitably needs a two dimensional answer: One from the company’s standpoint and the other from the curator (Head of the company). To start with the company, it is necessary to understand what I call “employees vote by their feet.” Meaning: Coming into the office everyday with the right intentions of being productive. Now, what motivates employees to cast their vote year-after-year to the company? The quality of their work and quality of the other people that an employee works with. If these two aspects are taken care of, then the goal of making anchors out of the employees is easy to accomplish. These anchors pitching in to their parent anchor for cutting edge work culminates in victory.
Then comes the curator (call him Leader, Managing Director etc), a person responsible for combining all the functions in product development to give it a big picture—a state at which the motivation is at its best. When engineers know what they are making and how it helps the business and how it fits into the bigger picture, then the journey comes a full circle.
This software journey is what motivates me to start a new exciting day at work every morning. It is not a linear journey, but dotted one that needs mapping as I convince my team to conquer the next peak. Remember, there are two celestial experiences for every individual in the world. First is personal: Seeing your kids grow up as you age. And the professional - building teams from scratch and seeing them take off with flying colors. No matter which kid of yours grows to his/hers best, the pleasure is yours. So it is at the company, no matter which engineer wins, the success is with the team. In India, inside BEA’s culturally diversified hall of engineers, it doesn’t matter where you come from but it is about what you do—the productibility. And the language we all speak is software.