What is “Job Satisfaction” Anyway?

By Susan de la Vergne


Let’s start with three scenarios where bad situations got worse:

Scenario 1) Mark, a software engineer in Silicon Valley, disliked his boss. “If only I worked for Ekan instead of Sean. Sean argues with me all the time. It’s like he doesn’t think I know what I’m doing.” So Mark manages to get transferred to Ekan, who has a reputation as a hands-off, high energy manager. But after Mark makes the move, he finds out Ekan has a short fuse, gets furious and comes unglued when a sev 1 problem hits the team, as it often does.

Mark went from working for a micro-manager to working for a hair-on-fire manager. At first, he was happy to move to Ekan’s team, expecting to be left alone, but now he dreads coming in.

Scenario 2) For two years, Kim worked for Danielle, an I.T. director who, in a male-dominated industry, is always making sure she lets men know she won’t be shortchanged. The men make fun of her behind her back. Kim was worried they were making fun of her, too, because of her association with Danielle, so she applied for a job on a different team. She’s delighted when she gets the job.

Then she discovers her new boss has his own issues. He’s very political, always trying to manipulate things in his favor, employing questionable ethics. He’s now advising Kim to do the same. She wonders which was worse, her old boss or her new one.

Scenario 3) Roger was the product manager for the same product for five years. Frankly, he was sick of it, and was hoping for new challenge. Fortunately, senior management asked Roger to take over as product manager for a product he knew very little about. He said “yes,” eager to make a move, and then—along the lines of “be careful what you wish for”—discovered he’d inherited a product development team that had been gutted of expertise during last year’s layoffs. Those on the team now are new to the company and the product. The previous manager knew the product inside and out and was educating the team. But he quit. Now Roger’s got it, and although he expected to be happy about the new challenge, instead he’s miserable.

Tough breaks, all of them, but not all that unusual. Just like the people in these scenarios, we’re always trying to make things at work go our way—better manager, better opportunity, more challenging, more realistic, more independent, better money, shorter commute…more, better something! Yet even when we succeed—when we get that new manager, that new team, or that new challenge—our satisfaction is always short-lived. We get a raise, we’ve already spent it. We get a new challenge, we have more headaches. We move to a new team, and the manager is a problem. It’s always something.

Which begs the question: Why do we continue seeking job satisfaction this way? Why do we continually rearrange our professional lives hoping this time it’ll work thinking this time, I’ll be happy. This time, I’ll find the job fulfilling. This time, I’ll enjoy my manager. This time, it’ll work, once I just make this change, then I’ll finally get to experience real job satisfaction!

It doesn’t work because satisfaction is a state of mind. When we try to improve it simply by arranging circumstances—bosses, commutes, work assignments, etc.—we’re not getting at the root cause. We’re simply trying to make things more pleasant so we’ll be less dissatisfied. We’re trying to manipulate our state of mind, rather than manage our state of mind.

Instead, we need a new way to think about the problems we face.

The Nature of Problems

All problems have two parts: an external part and an internal one. The terrible new boss is an external problem. Our state of mind—resisting the new boss—is an internal problem. We work on the external problem hoping that will fix the internal problem, but it never does for long.

Let’s look at another example. Let’s say I’m being transferred to another department in a different part of town. I don’t want to work in that part of town. For one thing, it’s a long drive, and for another, I see the move as a demotion. The external problem is I’m being transferred. The internal problem is I hate the prospect of the commute, and I resent the idea that people will think it’s a demotion. I’m seriously distraught about it. I consider quitting, complaining to HR, pretending to my colleagues it’s an honor to be transferred, or moving closer to the new job. Anything to make it less unpleasant!

There is nothing I can do about the transfer. There is something I can do about my distress. Instead of being distressed, I can be patient. Impatience gets me nowhere. Being resentful doesn’t either. I can manage my state of mind, my distress, by learning to recognize negative states of mind early and then intercepting them before they take hold. If I know that being frustrated, angry, and distraught won’t improve my situation, I’ll be motivated to manage my state of mind so I don’t “go there.”

I can be patient. I might as well. My impatience is damaging only me and is not changing the circumstances at all. I’m still being transferred.

I’m not suggesting I wouldn’t attempt to effect change. I can still quit, or start a job search, or see if I can talk the boss out of transferring me. I’m not going to become a doormat. I’m just managing my state of mind so I’m not upset while I’m taking next steps.

Training in Patience

It’s not easy to be patient. It’s easy to be angry. Frustration is easy, too. Neither takes any planning, or for that matter any courage, and we have plenty of practice at both. They’re habits of mind.

It takes time—and training—to develop patience. Training in things like mindfulness and controlling our thoughts makes it so that we manage the mind rather than let habitual knee-jerk reactions dominate the moment.

So, to answer the original question–“What is job satisfaction, anyway?”–job satisfaction is a state of mind, not a state of perfectly arranged external circumstances. Getting to real job satisfaction requires managing one’s state of mind, and that calls on emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence

In the last couple of decades, researchers have validated the idea that we human beings have several kind of intelligence, not just cognitive intelligence. One that has proven to make a big difference on the job, in particular, is emotional intelligence (EI)—and the centerpiece of EI is the ability to recognize emotions and manage one’s own state of mind.

Understanding and managing emotions, or states of mind, is an essential ingredient for success on the job. There’s a lot written about emotional intelligence and “leadership,” but it’s hardly just for leaders. Everyone, without exception, would like to be happier. The way to get there isn’t by managing and rearranging the external circumstances until they seem pleasant enough. The way to get there is by managing one’s state of mind, all the time, starting with a simple mindfulness practice.

More about how–and why–to develop mindfulness next time. Meanwhile –

Learn more about Emotional Intelligence for Technical Leaders (2-day workshop).

Resources for this article:
Working With Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
Search Inside Yourself by Chade Meng Tan
How to Solve Our Human Problems by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

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Are We Just Grouchy People?

By Susan de la Vergne


Have you ever noticed how often we’re dissatisfied about how things are going or about what other people are doing? People are stupid / wrong / mean / impossible. Systems are slow. Traffic is a nightmare. Management doesn’t get it.

When we look around us at work, we find a lot to complain about—poorly run meetings, unimaginative colleagues, incompetent project managers, tight budgets, unrealistic schedules. We complain about time wasted, about being misunderstood or disagreed with.

Why is it we find so much to be dissatisfied about? Are we just grouchy people?

We find much to be dissatisfied about because—believe it or not—we usually expect things to go well. So we’re surprised when they don’t. For example, we expect systems and technology to be fast and accurate, and when they aren’t, we’re dissatisfied. Ever yelled at your laptop? You expect it to be fast and ready and devoted to you, but it isn’t always. We expect things to go well.

Ever been surprised to find out someone doesn’t like you? We expect people to like us. After all, we’re trying to be the best we can be. Why wouldn’t everyone like us? But they don’t. Yet we’re surprised by that. We expect things to go well.

We expect that hard work and good work are rewarded. Yet they often aren’t. We’re disappointed when that happens, even angry about it sometimes. We didn’t expect it to go that way. Why? Because we expect things to go well.

We expect good, fair, open managers at work—which is why we complain often about management. If we expected managers to be dismissive, unreasonable, or closed-minded, or if we at least expected them to be uneven, we wouldn’t complain about them.

I’m not suggesting we should go around expecting the worst so we’re not disappointed. I’m suggesting instead we could simply accept how things are—that laptops are slow and traffic is inevitable and people do misunderstand us—without becoming dissatisfied. Systems are sometimes slow. Managers are uneven. Hard work is overlooked and unrewarded, not all the time, but often enough. Accept it. I’m not saying agree with it. I’m saying accept it. Not reluctantly, not angrily, just accept it.

If we more peacefully accepted those circumstances, we’d save our energy for better things than grousing—like perhaps working towards improving whatever it is. Just because we accept those circumstances calmly doesn’t mean we don’t work to change them. Systems are slow, and we can make them perform better.

But griping about slow systems isn’t a pre-requisite to making them better; in fact, it’s irrelevant. Pointing out that hard work went unnoticed doesn’t have to be done angrily. It’s better if it isn’t.

When we’re dissatisfied, we’re spending our time focused on the negative. This is terrible. That’s worse. And sometimes we extend that to the people around us—they’re wrong, misguided, deserving of criticism.

Here’s an easy antidote to grousing and negativity: be grateful.

It’s actually easy to find things to be grateful for. Once you do, people appear less annoying, less deserving of criticism, more like an asset and less like a liability.

Suggestion: start by noticing how even the most troublesome co-worker has a sense of humor, always holds the door to the elevator, or never comes late to a meeting. Notice that even the manager who cancelled your project abruptly is always an outgoing, proactive communicator.

In other words, instead of fixating on the narrow and the negative, broaden the view.

And don’t forget all those people you never notice, people you consider strangers. Chances are, they also contribute to your well-being in some way. Do they volunteer to take minutes at meetings when no one wants to? Do they prepare your made-to-order sandwich reliably? Do they publish up-to-date project status reports? We take all that for granted, but we don’t have to.

If we want to shift away from “nothing is ever good enough,” then starting with practical, realistic gratitude is an easy first step.

Of course, I’d be overlooking the obvious if I didn’t add that it’s Thanksgiving in a few days, a good time of year to start enjoying the benefits of gratitude.


Susan de la Vergne teaches Emotional Intelligence for Technical Leaders.

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Why Active Listening Stinks

By Chris Sheesley


“What I hear you saying is … stop parroting what I’m saying!”

Anyone motivated to read this article already knows active listening skills through exposure to it in training and books. Yet, if you’re like most people, you find it strangely distasteful to be either the giver or receiver of active listening technique. Nine out of 12 times it registers as insincere, patronizing or like the person using it is an insufferable undergraduate at Active Listening University.

What’s worse is the preceding clumsiness only emerges if you can remember your lessons from Active Listening 101. When the conversation becomes fiery, your brain tends to bypass the synapses capable of constructing flawless “I statements” and arrives instead at an ancient, reptilian place where self-preservation and blamelessness reign. No wonder active listening smells funny.

So, what’s a well-meaning communicator like you supposed to do when you find yourself in the fray? As a conflict facilitator who’s witnessed thousands of tense, face-to-face conflict conversations, my advice revolves around one insight: Just be curious. At some point in the conversation—preferably earlier than later—ask yourself why your opponent sees the situation as he or she does. What does this disagreement look like from his or her foothold in the universe? To clarify, I’m not talking about the “Why the heck does she think that?!” brand of curiosity, but the “Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know why she sees it so differently” type. Happily, this mindset is both plausible and actionable because you actually already are curious; you’re just clever at masking it.

Once you tap into curiosity, step two is to demonstrate and quench your curiosity any way you choose. Technique becomes subordinate to real inquisitiveness. If your interest inspires you to summarize, clarify and validate emotions, then those formerly stilted techniques are transformed into meaningful queries and genuine dialogue. My clients who find it in themselves to ask real questions and strive to ensure they actually understand the other always have an easier time navigating out of discord. In the end, it’s not active listening that stinks but our collective failure while in the cauldron of conflict to infuse it with real wonderment.


Chris Sheesley puts derailed workplace relationships back on track. Senior managers and HR professionals hire Chris when they recognize the need for an experienced, objective facilitator to transform high-stakes or seemingly impossible internal disputes into cooperation and employee efficiency. With 22 years of full time experience, a client roster of hundreds of notable organizations and a track record of over 1,500 cases, Chris is among the most seasoned conflict management professionals in the Northwest. He has amassed over 5,000 hours of experience teaching dispute resolution and related skills grounded in his real-world experience. More about Chris Sheesley’s services http://inaccordnw.com/

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“My Idea is Way Better Than Yours!” Egos in Action

By Gary Hinkle


A leading electronics company suffered a setback when a systems engineer was pushing his own ideas hard, all the while belittling the ideas of others. It was clear to everyone he thought highly of his own ideas and expertise and not much of everyone else’s. The irony is that his approach for developing an important new product was actually great but ended up rejected because he alienated the rest of the team.

The approach they chose instead didn’t end up working, and eventually the self-impressed engineer’s original design was implemented. Had this engineer controlled his ego and been a team player, the company would have proceeded with the better idea first—saving both time and money.

Every week as I work with customers, I hear about and see engineers, managers and executives who are killing motivation and morale because they’re putting themselves at centerstage, making sure they’re noticed / admired / listened-to, usually at the expense of others. They, themselves, are not listening to and supporting others for the benefit of their business.

Sure, we all let our self-serving interests get in the way of progress at times, but when it’s out of control, it becomes a serious business problem.

Why does anyone in a group of well-educated, proficient professionals feel the need to prove they’re superior, that they’re more intelligent and capable than others?

One driver of this behavior is that technical professionals are usually subject matter experts. In fact, subject matter expertise is highly prized, a value shared by everyone in the profession. So demonstrating expertise is natural. Keeping up with technological advancements, learning new technical skills, and putting that skill into practice drive innovation. Exceptional proficiency leads to career advancement.

Taken to an extreme, though, demonstrating subject matter expertise can get out of hand. When co-workers get a whiff of technical superiority—for example when they hear things from a coworker that suggest “I’m better than you,” “I’m smarter than you,” or “my idea is better than yours,” it’s a turn-off. They stop listening.

Competition at Work

Another reason people feel the need to prove they really know their stuff is that American business encourages competition between coworkers. Management rewards people for individual performance, not how well the team thinks together. This creates an environment that’s more competitive than collaborative. Not standing out as superior can limit one’s opportunities for advancement and financial reward.

Self-centered actions are somewhat inevitable given the pressures of a competitive environment. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to others, and some of us think it’s important that we out-do everyone else. This inhibits the performance of a work group—even when teamwork is great—because the reward system, based on individual performance, is a destructive underlying force.

Managing Self-Importance

We can catch ourselves being overly focused on how we, ourselves, are doing and whether anyone is noticing how smart, great, or right we are. When we do catch that starting to come up, something we can do is switch gears and substitute empathy for self-importance. Shift the attitude from “listen to me,” and instead pay attention to what others are saying. Seek to understand their point of view, and offer support. An interesting thing happens: people become supportive when they feel they are being supported.

Turn-offs have the opposite effect. When someone says, “my idea is the best and we should do it my way,” that idea is likely to meet with resistance.

When Someone Else is the Problem

Controlling our own behavior is easier than dealing with anyone who has an inflated ego because we can’t control them. We can, however, influence their behavior. Try these methods in situations when someone is inappropriately pushing their idea or agenda because it’s theirs.

Acknowledge  – When someone’s ego has kicked into gear, he is looking for attention and affirmation. So give it to him. If you let him know what he’s communicating is valuable, he won’t need to seek attention. You’re not feeding his ego. You’re paying attention to what he is saying. Even if you find it annoying, don’t focus on that. Instead, acknowledge the value of his viewpoint.

Challenge – After acknowledging his point of view, ask if he has considered another idea that you would like him to think about. Don’t position it as your idea, just another idea. Point out the benefits of the other idea. Then listen to what he has to say. If it’s negative, stay focused on the benefits of the other idea while discussing the pros and cons of both.

Emphasize “Us” – Try to eliminate “me” and “you” from conversation and make it about “us.” Use language like “we could benefit from…” rather than “I think…” When you make the conversation about your organization rather than your ideas, others will follow.

Patience and Persistence – It may take time for someone to tone down self-centered actions, and they may never do so. Just keep listening, acknowledging, and challenging. Don’t ignore the situation if it’s truly problematic, but take a break from it if you find you’re getting frustrated. Then resume after cooling off.

These methods can work with anyone—even an intimidating manager or executive. When challenging someone to consider an alternate view, just be careful not to imply that their idea is bad. I know it’s tempting to do so when that person has been telling others their ideas stink!

Lead by example.

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Engineering Leadership Lessons from Japan

By Gary Hinkle


Toyota’s ongoing success is often attributed to their legendary quality and manufacturing systems. Another important element that doesn’t get as much attention is the role of Toyota’s Chief Engineers.

I recently read The Toyota Product Development System (by James M. Morgan and Jeffrey Liker) where I learned that each Toyota product has a Chief Engineer who is responsible for the design, manufacturability and sales of that product. Yes, even sales, because Toyota’s philosophy is that the vehicle’s design has to be attractive to consumers, and if they don’t get design and manufacturability right, sales suffer.

That’s one of many things we can learn from Toyota’s Chief Engineer model.

What Chief Engineers Do

Much like the typical project leader in the U.S., Toyota’s Chief Engineer has no direct reports. (Some have a few support staff reporting to them directly.) The Chief Engineer leads a cross-functional team that includes all functions involved in design, production and support. Just like matrix management in the U.S., Toyota workers in each function report directly to their functional managers. But unlike the U.S., Toyota’s Chief Engineer leads all the work performed throughout the entire project—not just a specific engineering function for a specific portion of the project, such as mechanical or software, as U.S. leads do. The Chief Engineer leads the work—all of it across all functions—and oversees the entire project.

In the U.S., we expect project managers to manage across all functions—sort of. The responsibility of project managers varies from company to company, and their level of accountability for the finished product varies as well. Some companies contract project managers, releasing them after implementation, or they rotate PMs from project to project. Who’s accountable then for the finished product? When it’s neither clearly the engineering lead nor the project manager, does accountability lie with a general manager or the CEO? That’s often the way it turns out, but as executive managers they’re not close enough to the product and processes to be the first line of accountability.

At Toyota it’s clear. The Chief Engineer is responsible and accountable. It’s a highly esteemed role, which is the way it should be.

Developing Chief Engineers

In order to be ready for that level of responsibility, Toyota prepares their Chief Engineer prospects for 15-20 years. In the U.S., we don’t have that much patience, and engineers rarely stay at one company that long. Still, we can learn and apply some lessons learned from Toyota’s Chief Engineers so that we can cultivate stronger engineering leaders ourselves.

Besides being an exceptional engineer, a Chief Engineer at Toyota must also be:

  • Knowledgeable and focused about what the customer wants
  • A patient listener and exceptional communicator
  • Intuitive and innovative, yet skeptical of unproven technology
  • A practical, visionary leader
  • Hard-driving, with a no-compromise attitude to achieving breakthrough targets
  • A teacher, motivator, and disciplinarian

A Chief Engineer at Toyota balances technical competency, communication skills, leadership ability and business skills—which are precisely the skills and abilities we cover in our Top Tier Engineer program. Any engineer can develop this broad skill-set. (Our program can get you there.)

Developing Rapport, Knowing Your Customer

Where to start? Communication skills. Engineers who speak, listen and write well can build rapport with customers and stakeholders—and of course you can’t be successful if you’re not credible with, and tuned into, your customers.

Again and again, managers tell me they won’t let their engineers talk to customers because they are afraid they’ll overwhelm the customer with technical detail or share project information the customer can’t relate to. Or managers fear engineers won’t be able to see and talk about the product from the customer’s viewpoint. That will leave the customer with the impression that the engineer doesn’t understand them and isn’t relating well to the product in a context they care about.

The solution to this problem is for engineers to develop communication skills, which enables them to build rapport. That leads to improving customer knowledge and developing leadership ability. Toyota’s Chief Engineers are prepared with communication skills, so they learn to listen and tune into others, which is not only necessary to becoming knowledgeable about what the customer wants, but is also an essential leadership ingredient.

Toyota’s Chief Engineer model is a global best practice. But it doesn’t make sense to try to implement it here because we have different corporate cultures, and what makes Toyota’s model work there (longevity in the job and employee/employer loyalty) doesn’t exist here. That doesn’t mean we can’t adapt the model so our engineers develop a similar skill-set. This Japanese powerhouse has it right in many ways we can adapt and use right here, right now.


Here are Auxilium course offerings that can help you prepare yourself with communication skills and leadership ability.

Technical Presentations Workshop

Communication Skills for Engineers

Top-Tier Engineer

Leadership for Engineers

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“Listen to Me!” (How Influential Are You?)

By Susan de la Vergne


Scenario #1

The pressure is on to solve a problem. Richard has been sitting in a meeting for the last hour listening to ideas about how to solve it. He thinks they’re all wrong, and he’s sure he’s got a solution that’s quick, easy, and accurate. Everyone around him seems to be trying to make this too complicated, but he doesn’t really know them very well, and tensions are running high. He tries a few times to speak up, but he’s interrupted, and the discussion goes straight back to all those over-complicated ideas.

Frustrated, Richard leaves the meeting before it’s over. I get it, he thinks, but I can never get anyone to listen to me. Why not?

Scenario #2

Project Manager Rachel has complained for a long time at her company about how long it takes to close out a project.

“It’s ridiculous,” she has said repeatedly to anyone who will listen. “First, we have two post implementation reviews, then two follow-on process improvement meetings, a scorecard review, and then a collective debrief with all the PMs!”

But her complaints haven’t resulted in any changes to the project close-out process.

This is so stupid, she thinks. Why don’t they listen to me?

Richard and Rachel have expertise. They also have ideas. They’re probably even right. But they’re not influential. People aren’t listening. Processes aren’t changing.

How can they get their ideas across? How can they become more influential? Here are a few suggestions.

Influence Rule #1: Take initiative.

Rachel’s problem is that she whines about the problem yet never does anything to effect improvements. Who better than a project manager to lay out a new project close process and demonstrate how it will make life better for PM’s and for the company? But she never takes that step. She doesn’t get down to the details and recommend improvements. She stops at complaining, instead of taking the initiative to detail an improved process.

Influence Rule #2: Make friends.

Influential people aren’t loners. They have friends at work. They partner with others. They have relationships they’ve developed and, then when they’re ready to say something, those people listen.

Richard, in scenario #1, doesn’t know anyone in that meeting room very well. When he tries to speak, he’s interrupted. Yet imagine how different it would be if he had relationships with others in there, if they knew him well enough to know he has ideas worth listening to—before he even opens his mouth. The meeting would have played out differently. His friends, who trust his knowledge, would have given him the floor. He wouldn’t have left in frustration, taking his ideas with him.

Influence Rule #3: Ask questions.

One of the things that make engineers good at the work they do is that they’re subject matter experts. Their expertise is what makes them relentless problem-solvers, always ready to tackle the next challenge. But it can also make them readier with answers than with questions. Developing influence depends on soliciting others’ ideas, and integrating them into the discussion to forge a stronger outcome.

The best thing about asking questions is you invite someone else to contribute their expertise to the issue at hand. How do you feel when someone asks for your input? That’s how they’ll feel: valued, useful, and involved.

And who knows? You may get a better idea than the one you had.

Influence Rule #4: Don’t argue.

When was the last time you got into an argument with someone and, as a result of the argument, you changed your mind? I bet the answer is “never.” That’s because arguments are usually adversarial and emotional. They’re rarely objective, detached, fact-based conversations. When we argue, we’re doing battle, defending our position and our reputation. It’s much harder to put facts first when the goal is to win the war.

Once an argument gets going, you can forget about a positive, productive outcome. If an argument erupts, stop talking.

Who’s Influential?

How influential you become depends on other personal characteristics. You can’t, for example, be influential if you’re distrusted, undependable, or a naysayer.

Think for a moment of someone you know whom you think of as influential. I’m not talking about someone who’s manipulative. Not someone who’s a fast-talker with a snappy vocabulary who can bamboozle others into confusion. I’m talking about someone who’s genuinely influential, who does the right things for the right reasons and gets others on board.

Do you have that person in mind? Now think about other characteristics of that same person. Is he or she honest? Straightforward? Trusted? Yes. Does he or she have alliances and relationships with other people at work? Yes, of course.

How long did it take you to learn that this influential person you’re thinking of is honest, dependable and likable? I’m guessing it didn’t happen in a week or a month. It took time for you to discover those things. Just as it will take time for others to develop the same level of confidence in you.

Becoming influential takes time. There’s no add-water-and-stir solution here. If it’s something you’d like to be better at, prepare to invest the time and energy—developing relationships, involving others, taking initiative, and asking questions.

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What Keeps Engineers from Advancing in Their Careers?

By Gary Hinkle


Chris is an engineer at a leading scientific instrument company, and his career is stuck. He hasn’t been promoted in years. He’s an Engineer III, but he thinks he should be at least a IV (out of six levels altogether). He has more than ten years of experience, and he knows he’s made several significant technical contributions to the company’s products.

Chris is a solid engineer. Everyone thinks so. He’s technically proficient and a good problem solver, but his performance review ratings are “average,” and while he expects to hear positive feedback about his accomplishments, he rarely does. He doesn’t understand why management is holding him back. In his private thoughts, he blames them for stalling his career.

Instead, he should be trying harder to understand what’s really in his way. What’s missing? What keeps Chris from advancing?

Here’s how management sees Chris: he shows up for work every day and follows direction, but he doesn’t go beyond that. He never tries to help the business reach the next level.

Some engineers think going “beyond” means making ingenious technical contributions, but few of us operate at genius level. There’s something else an engineering business needs on a day-to-day basis that doesn’t require exceptional, genius-level contribution and that is business acumen—being attuned to customer needs and stakeholder perspective, aligning technical progress with business strategy, and understanding financial operations.

“Business acumen” calls on many different skills and characteristics, but here’s how I see it. Beyond the soft skills (communication, teamwork, and leadership), business acumen is about striving to help the business succeed based on understanding what the business really needs. Not just design expertise, a parts inventory, or an understanding of technical architecture and project requirements—the usual concerns of most engineers—engineers who have business acumen consider themselves business people, much the same as an entrepreneur or an executive is a business person.

Does having business expertise mean having the same level of understanding as the CEO? No. To demonstrate and use business acumen, you have to be able to do these four things:

Know your customers. Understanding who they are and why doing business with your organization is important to them. Understanding why they prefer to work with your organization rather than your competitors. Also, understanding that they have choices—maybe not today—but in the near future, a more attractive alternative could be available to them. See things from the customer perspective, and then build strong relationships with at least three or four of these important individuals.

Know your stakeholders. This can be much more difficult than knowing your customers, who are a subset of your stakeholders. The broad definition of a stakeholder is everyone who is affected by your work in any way, or who affects your work in any way. Think about that, and you’ll start to realize the impact you are having on the world. It’s probably much bigger than you realize if you haven’t thought about stakeholders this way. You can’t have relationships with that many people, so at least build rapport with three or four of your most important stakeholders who aren’t customers.

Master basic financials. Know how much it costs to employ you. Your burdened cost of labor is your salary plus the cost (to the company) of your benefits, plus the overhead cost for your workspace, equipment, etc. You can’t easily gauge your value to your business without knowing how much you cost them. Also, know the cost of delay on your projects. This is usually many thousands of dollars per day. (MBA not required.)

Understand processes. Continuously improving business processes is a never-ending challenge because we’re always finding opportunities for improvement. Understanding process means (1) following process and then (2) looking for high-value opportunities to suggest actual improvements—tactical, measurable changes to implement, not just ideas.

Understanding stakeholders (including customers), financials and processes is the foundation for being able to contribute to setting direction and for addressing business concerns.

There is no shortage of technical ideas in engineering organizations. There is a shortage of ideas that integrate technical advancements with business priorities, and the more an engineer can expand his or her expertise to include a knowledge of business operations, the more valuable that engineer will be to the company.

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Write Better. I Dare You.

By Susan de la Vergne


You’re in the airport, about to board a five-hour flight across country. You stop at the paperback stand, looking for something to read.

“I’d like to find something kinda boring, something formulaic, written using a template,” you say to yourself. “I’m looking for something that’s very predictable, no surprises, and the writer should use a lot of boilerplate language. And he should use the kinds of same-old-same-old words we say over and over again. And clichés, too. Lots of those.”

Is that what you look for at the paperback stand in the airport? I didn’t think so. No, you’re looking for something to hold your interest, to surprise you, to wake you up, something that makes you want to turn the page.

“Predictable, lackluster, template-driven” describes most business writing. You would never in a million years choose to read something that’s predictable, lackluster, and template-driven. But that’s what business writing is–the opposite of good writing. Business writing is predictable. It uses tired, worn out, over-used words, and it is much more like forms-fill-out (that is, templates) than actual writing. It’s controlled, passive, overly cautious, and unoriginal.

No wonder no one reads it.

Want to freshen up your writing? Try catching your reader off guard. Don’t say “…the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Say “…the greatest thing since sliced baloney.” Don’t “open the kimono” or put on “thinking caps.” Instead, open the mayonnaise jar and put on your cowboy hat. Anything! Just surprise me.

Why does this matter? Haven’t we been limping along with bad business writing for as long as anyone can remember? Why change? Because not reading business writing—project plans, requirements, meeting notes,  proposals, contracts, statements of work—wastes valuable expense dollars. There’s a hard dollar return on investment for better business writing, and it is this: people actually read it. They don’t have as many questions. They’re prepared to take action. They read faster. They read and they get it.

Write better. Work faster. Save money.

(Find a downside to this proposal. I dare you.)

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Are You a Manager or an Engineer?

By Gary Hinkle


Jeff’s venture into engineering management isn’t quite what he expected. He manages a group of seven engineers at a semiconductor company, but he continues to work as a hands-on engineer. He’s highly regarded for his technical expertise, which is why he was offered the management position five years ago.

Recently senior management’s been pressuring him to step up his game and become a better manager. This pressure from management leaves Jeff confused. On one hand, management praises his technical proficiency and hands-on contributions, but at the same time they are telling him that he’s not performing well as a manager. They tell him to be more influential with decision makers, to focus more on developing relationships with customers, and to do a better job attending to business concerns.

But they’re not telling him how to do that—how to build relationships, become more influential, and attend to business. They aren’t offering any useful guidance about his professional development. Jeff now wonders if he should go back to being a hands-on engineer and forget management. But he also knows he enjoys the variety of challenges he finds as a manager, and his staff tells him that they like having him as their manager.

What bothers Jeff most about his dilemma is that he can’t see how he’ll be able to spend more time with customers and develop new skills, while fulfilling his technical contributions and serving the needs of his team. There aren’t enough hours in the week!

As I see it, the problem is that management continues to expect Jeff to perform technically as well as to manage his team. An overly proficient technologist in an engineering management role often has a hard time developing the skill set needed to be an excellent manager. When an engineering manager is expected to – or chooses to – be a primary technologist in an organization, this situation describes a full-time job without even considering management duties.

It takes time to keep up with technological advances and stay involved in technical details. That’s what engineers should do. It’s not what managers should do.

Three Essential Management Skills

So what do managers do? What do managers have to be good at? These three things are critical: communication, influence, and understanding business operations.

Engineering managers must provide clear direction to their teams and serve as a communications hub, passing information to and from the team. They must be clear, concise, and efficient in promoting progress.

Developing great communication skills is a lifelong endeavor for most of us, one which requires deliberate focus and actions. Great managers who aren’t natural communicators need to devote time and energy to learning to present to groups, lead meetings, write well, and (very important!) become better listeners.

Another big part of a manager’s job is to influence others—convincing other managers to reach decisions, negotiating with other team members, talking through alternatives until the best decision emerges. And managers should be getting buy-in from their team members rather than dictating orders. The ability to influence others is a core attribute of a good leader.

“Hard” Skills

Some people are natural leaders, but most of us aren’t. Leadership is another area where lifelong learning and growth is in order. Like technology and communication, leadership is difficult. It’s funny that these non-technical skills are sometimes called “soft” skills. There’s nothing soft about them! They’re hard!

Jeff can’t stop there if he’s going to be a successful manager. He needs to learn more about customer needs, finances, planning, and managing the expectations of his stakeholders (including his bosses!). These essential business and management skills will require as much time and energy as the communication and leadership skills he also needs to develop.

The Crossroads

Once Jeff has a clear picture of what being an excellent manager looks like and what skills he needs, he can decide if continuing as a manager is what he wants to do. In Jeff’s case, he either needs to scale back his technical contributions or give up his management role. It’s not an easy choice. He enjoys being an engineer, and it took years to reach his level of technical proficiency. Should he give that up and change course? This is a dilemma engineering managers face.

If Jeff decides to continue as a manager, my advice would be to start by delegating and step back from the hands-on work. Leave the engineering work to the engineers. Jeff needs to focus on being a good manager, and he needs to develop a way of guiding the work to be done and reviewing progress, without performing the work himself.

One lingering risk here is that Jeff’s management continues to expect his hands-on contribution—along with everything else they expect. (It’s similar to when management wants projects completed really fast, inexpensively, with loads of features—an impossible scope given those constraints. Something’s got to give!) Jeff will have to use his influence to manage his managers’ expectations.

The best way to become a great manager is to delegate technical responsibility and focus on communication, leadership, management, and business skills. Managers who aren’t willing to do that should reconsider a future in management. It’s nearly impossible to be a great engineer and a great manager at the same time.

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No Budget for That!

By Gary Hinkle


There’s a TV commercial for oil filters where the mechanic warns the customer, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.” Of course what he means is maintain your car, or wait for an expensive breakdown and an engine overhaul.

Makes total sense, right?

So why is it that companies wait until things get bad, then bring in expensive consultants to fix things, rather than investing in developing their own leaders to handle challenges before they become a problem? Paying expensive consulting fees is like paying for an expensive engine overhaul that could have been avoided.

Here’s what I see: companies engage our consulting services because they are in trouble, yet their problems are always due to lack of leadership ability among their own employees.

Education is what’s needed to turn their business around before disaster strikes—and education is a lot less expensive than consulting services. It’s ironic. At companies that say “we have no budget for training,” we ask people we know there whether they have significant leadership, management or communication challenges. Usually they laugh out loud and go on at great length describing dysfunction—managers who never communicate, projects that run off the rails, botched re-orgs, and plenty of misunderstandings.

We all observe dysfunctions at work to some degree. They come about simply because we’re human and we miscommunicate, hesitate, disagree, etc. But this kind of significant dysfunction, combined with financial constraints that limit learning and growth, is a recipe for a marginally successful company. You can’t avoid trouble unless you know what you don’t know, and that requires looking beyond the familiar activities of day-to-day work and knowing what to look for. That’s where continuing education comes in.

Managers who don’t fund continuing education see it as an expense with no clear return on investment. Instead, executive decision-makers often rely on expensive consulting services in desperate situations, not realizing that it’s the lack of organizational leadership knowledge that’s the root cause. I’ve been aware of this for quite some time, but this observation hit me hard the other day while working with an especially desperate business. They’ve never invested in developing their employees—no leadership, communication, or management development at all—and are suffering dire consequences as a result.

A Common Costly Leadership Problem

Repeatedly late projects are a common problem that has several layers of complexity. To solve it means breaking it into pieces to find the root cause. Were the requirements clearly written and kept up-to-date? Did the project plan contain enough detail? Was it realistic? Were enough people assigned, and were money and equipment sufficiently allocated? Did the team follow the plan?

Examining the answers to these questions is a leadership practice, yet I’m continually surprised to learn how often late projects keep flailing before anyone actually drills into the problems.

Suppose that the culprit is an unrealistic plan. A leader, then, needs to step in and take a hard look at the plan. Which part of it wasn’t realistic? Did management dictate an impossible deadline? Were tasks underestimated by team members? Did the staffing plan consider support needed from team members outside the project?

When organizations don’t know to ask these questions, or don’t know what to do with the answers they get, they call in consultants to help. Expensive consultants. Expensive consultants they wouldn’t need if their own leaders were better prepared for these leadership assignments.

What happens next? Finger-pointing. Engineers say, “It’s management’s fault. They make commitments to customers we can’t meet.” Or managers say, “It’s late because the engineers don’t work efficiently.”

Finger-pointing isn’t constructive, but it happens all the time. It, too, is an organizational dysfunction. The way to stop it is to set a leadership example. When leaders don’t engage in finger-pointing themselves, when they actively discourage it, it stops. But many in leadership roles need to be made aware of the damaging, unproductive effects of finger-pointing. That also comes from education to increase awareness and knowledge.

The Challenge of Developing Leaders

Do you know how many times I’ve heard about leadership development initiatives that weren’t effective? More than I can count or remember. Leadership has so many elements, so it’s important to break it down and understand specific aspects of leadership that are problematic before investing in education.

It’s not easy, but it’s not rocket science either. This is where a consultant can be utilized inexpensively. A good consultant will objectively assess an organization, and break down the problem areas to find very specific opportunities to educate the staff. That can be done for a typical business unit in about a week.

Subsequent training and education that focuses in those very specific areas – the root causes of known business problems – will surely be worthwhile. It might seem expensive to spend part of a budget on consulting fees for an assessment, but it avoids wasting money on training that misses the mark because the learning objectives weren’t correct before the training was scheduled.

This goal is to make the most out of limited budgets. Investing in organizational knowledge is the way to avoid costly engine overhauls.

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