Sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves that effective leadership really is all about people.
I occasionally look back through my archive of communication materials to remind myself of important ideas and interesting observations. I rediscovered this interview with Gary Smith, President and CEO of Ciena, next-gen software and telecomunications company from October 4, 2015 (New York Times).
Look for how he draws leadership inspiration from his personal life. Experts (like DLM Communications, as a totally random example) can share with you great techniques for effective leadership, but learning them through your personal experience is often the best way to drive them home, to make them meaningful to you.
In this interview, you can see Smith’s leadership approach evolve from analytical observation to personal connection.
Here is an edited version of that interview…
Tell me more about your parents. How have they influenced your leadership style?
My father was particularly influential. He never said a bad word about anybody, and I’ve taken some lessons from that. He was always very positive, and he did it naturally. He’s not confrontational at all and will do anything to avoid a confrontation.
My mother was a little more confrontational and very direct when she needed to be. I’ve taken a little bit of both of them, and part of the skill is to know when to pull on the different levers. It’s very situational.
What are some other leadership lessons you’ve learned over the years?
Early on in my career, I was told, “It’s all about people.” I got it intellectually, but it took me quite a while to really get it. It really is all about people, and if you get that right, the other stuff will get addressed. But you have to work at it all the time.
Culture takes an awful lot of time and effort, and it can be destroyed very quickly, because it’s built on trust and respect. You’re respecting the individual and what they do, and you’re trusting them, and they’re doing the same for you. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like personal relationships.
How do you hire?
I tend to focus more on whether the person is the right fit for the company. So I’ll ask questions like What do you truly enjoy doing? How can I tell if you’re having a bad day, and how does that manifest itself? What are the things that really irritate you, and what do you do about it? What’s it like to work for you? How do you interact with your peers? What do you do if you don’t agree with the direction of the company?
If you are a leader in a new role, or veteran manager, take a look at role models in your life – what you respect about them, how they deal with people, what they think of you. The lessons you need to elevate your approach to communication leadership are all around us.
Your environment affects how you think and feel. Do you have to squint or shield your eyes? Cup your hand behind your ear? Move away from a smell? This is known as "environmental context" and something you should keep in mind when choosing a location to deliver an important message, whether it's for a large audience, a board meeting or a one-on-one. It's simply more pleasant...to be in a pleasant place.
In fact, humans respond to their environment so much, there is a whole category of improv theater called “environment work,” or "object work." Playing broken furniture, making loud noises, miming heat or cold, or otherwise creating an air of environmental hijinks can have a huge impact on the direction of the scene. That’s because people can relate to being distracted, confused or simply unable to process the incoming stimuli. Therein lies the funny!
In this modern comedy gem watch Niles Crane, of the TV show "Frasier," get pushed, pulled and waylaid by his increasingly chaotic surroundings.
And of course, in the workplace any extreme or even mildly annoying environment can quickly lead to frustration, confusion or lack of productivity.
The idea that your surroundings affect your sense of calm is not new. Feng shui, the Chinese philosophy of “harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment” originated over 4000 years ago. A less spiritual westernized version became popular in the US in the early 2000's and with many people it continues to influence everything from the design of new buildings to backyard gardens.
Although there is little evidence to suggest there are lines of energy flowing through your living room, it’s easy to understand that the addition of a few plants can provide a more welcoming feel, or too many chairs might make you feel cramped. Feng shui translates literally to “wind-water,” both elements known to produce a calming, contemplative effect. That’s an excellent principle to adopt when trying to communicate effectively.
Environmental context is a fancy term for "pay attention to what’s around you." There may be a more conducive place to have a thoughtful conversation.
As we showed last month, ducks and Monty Python are a good illustration of how important psychological and relational context is to comedy – and communication! Another factor to consider is "situational" context.
This is psycho-social, as in, what is the larger meaning about where I am and how do I feel about it? (As opposed to "environmental" which is about external things, like lighting and temperature.) People propose marriage on a Ferris wheel because it's a romantic location. Someone who asks for a loan instead is kind of wasting the ambiance.
A good amount of comedy is based on this juxtaposition between location and content. One of Monty Python’s most memorable sketches capitalizes on this brilliantly.
The location of your conversation can have a huge impact on how your message is received. Remember that nauseous feeling you had when you reported to the principal’s office? I don’t, of course, I was the model student. But, for others, you wouldn’t get that feeling if you were sent to Build-a-Bear instead.
Some supervisors use location to demonstrate their approach to staff management. One CEO at a global financial company chose a standard office cube for her home base. Talking to the boss "down in the trenches” feels very different than in a corner office. This approach helps create a more relaxed mindset in her employees and makes her more approachable.
Similarly, I have a former supervisor who was hired at a health services organization to improve client care. He was so troubled by how the staff had been previously mistreated, he wanted them to retain as much dignity as possible. So, instead of making people move around to accommodate him, he set up shop in the only space that was not currently occupied: the boiler room in the basement.
Sometimes it can be a challenge to determine what location best sets the tone for the message you want to send. Many museums hire college-age employees and for some it can be the first job of their careers. It’s commonly required to remind them of basic workplace expectations like showing up on time or storing their coats and bags out sight. Often a simple conversation off to the side is appropriate. But when issues become critical, it’s often more effective to meet in the supervisor’s office. Talking about work performance in the boss’s domain gives the conversation a greater sense of urgency.
If every reminder took place in a formal location it would overstate the importance of each little infraction and become less meaningful. Likewise, meeting in an informal space, like the lobby, to discuss how current choices may impact their future is sending a very mixed message.
Managing the situational context by considering an appropriate location is within our control. The next step is to consider not just the social aspect, but how the environment itself affects the conversation.