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Communicate Like a Boss

Kathryn Koehler
Director of Engineering
Chan Zuckerberg Intiative

Learn several strategies to improve your communication skills when interacting with coworkers at all levels, in addition to friends and family!

Hey everybody, you can't cut off thunder struck before thunder. I was telling one of my coworkers the other day that I was walking up onto the stage to ACDC and he said, oh, I think my parents listened to that. So I fired him.

Yes. This is how you communicate like a boss. Okay. So down to the talk, you guys are going to get a lot of what's and why's around communication. But what I want to talk to you today is more the how and the, when, so when do you talk, when do you shut up? When do you just listen? What do you say when you're talking?

So we're going to dig into that. Hi, this is me. Best hair day of my life captured on film second best hair day. Thank you. Thank you, Claire. So I went to Stanford. I was a mechanical engineering major. I wanted to design race cars for a living and I worked at Snap-on tools writing engine diagnostics as a first gig out of school and realized that software was where my heart was.

And I didn't want to move to Michigan. So That being said, I have three professional software classes to my name and that is it. Everything else has been bootstrapped professionally, which is pretty cool. I moved into management about 16 years ago. I was a child bride if you're trying to do the math.

And I was coding up until about five years ago. And so one of the things I like to do in my spare time is mentor other managers, individually individual contributors. Product people, engineering people. It doesn't matter. I love mentoring. Let's see here. So this is, oh shit. Excuse me. May I say that?

Yeah, I can say that. Okay. Okay. I was one slide ahead on myself. Okay. So. These are the places I've worked. This is normal in Silicon valley. I know this looks like a laundry list most recently. So I've been working in entertainment. I work in philanthropy currently I've done everything everywhere, you know, race, car stuff, whatever gaming I've, I've been all over the map.

I'm currently at the Chan Zuckerberg initiative and there I'm the head of engineering for their meta team. And we work on democratization of biomedical research, which is a hell of an elevator pitch, and I get it wrong most of the time. So I'm really glad I got through that. So I'd love to talk to you guys about what that is afterward.

But just to give you some context so why am I talking to you today? Like why is this woman up here telling me about communication? I used to be the worst communicator, unbelievably bad that firing joke at the beginning was my style. I was very direct. I thought that truth was the only thing that mattered.

Cause I'm an engineer. It's like if a, then B it doesn't matter the delivery. Right. I hurt people's feelings. I made a woman cry on her birthday

and that wasn't a low point. That's the one I can share. So, you know, but, but delivery matters and the things that you say really matter. And so, you know, being able to communicate is actually something that has made me successful today. And it's something that I've been working on my entire career.

Okay. Here's a slide. I thought it was on before this motherfucking book is the bomb. Okay. This is the book that did it all for me. I had kids a long time ago. Again, I was child bride. That's actually not funny. Just edit that out. Okay. So because a long time ago, and I was a manager at the time, and I'm reading all these management books, you know, all this stuff that you guys have seen up on the slides before.

And I, because you know, I'm a voracious reader, I'm an engineer. I can solve any problem with the book. And I had kids and at the moment my kids started back chatting. I was like, God, I got to get something. To help. And I stumbled upon this book and I read this thing and it's mostly comic strips and little anecdotes, and it's all about toddlers.

And this light bulb went off in my head like, holy moly, this is management. Right. So, so how many of you have kids? I mean, you're a young group. Okay. Pretty good. Right. How many of you that do have kids think that management is a lot like parenting? Yes. Okay. And for those of you who don't have kids and our managers, who've decided not to have children.

Okay. Yes. Yeah. A few of you in the back. Amen to that, right? Holy hell. So one of the things that this book taught me that regardless of how big or small your audience's age wise, diapers doesn't matter empathy is really the core to good communication. All right. Here's my cute little slide. Empathy leads to effective problem solving effective delegation, effective feedback.

You know, you're going to hear these themes throughout the day, but I'm going to dive into some really amazing Jedi tricks. To let people think that you have a soul. All right, I'm kidding. I'm kidding. We all have souls. Okay. So speaking of souls, so people are at the heart yeah. Of everything that you do as a manager.

And so learning how to navigate people and the assortment of feelings that come along with them is really, what's going to dictate your effectiveness as a manager and as a human being, quite frankly. And the only way to really communicate is with empathy. And I'm gonna give you some examples. So here's some things that I've run into in my career.

You know, someone bitterly complaints to you about another team member, like someone someone emotionally confides into you about somebody or something happening outside of work. You know, you're going to run into all of this as a manager. Someone feels underpaid for their contributions. Anybody. Yeah.

Good. I hate that one anyway. So poor handling of these type of communication. Minefields can lead to. Ruinous ruinous ruinous disaster. So this is how we're wired. Empathy does not come naturally to a lot of us. Right. We were raised, I was raised, you know, decades ago and the style then was just dismissed, dismissed, deny, right.

Try to minimize the pain, take the pain away from that person and they'll feel better. This is well-intentioned, but it really sucks. It's not great behavior. So you'll hear things or you find yourself saying things like what's the big deal, right? Or at least this really bad. Other thing didn't happen to you or, well, when I was your age, you know, like we had it a lot rougher, so suck it up.

Or you'll be fine. So excuse me, try this kind of thing instead. This is, this is Matt people. So write this down. It is critical to accept people's feelings. Even if you don't agree with them. Right. So listen with your full attention, make eye contact, put your freaking phone away. I mean, studies show that if you have a phone, even on the table, you come off less empathetic.

Okay. Just put it away, acknowledge with a word. Hm. I see. Right. Sometimes that's all I'll say again entire one-on-one. That's all I'll say. Give the feelings a name, right? Wow. You seem really disappointed. You seem really angry or you seem upset and don't worry about being wrong because if you're wrong, they'll correct.

You and they've already identified it for themselves. No, I'm not upset. I'm just pissed off. Or, you know, like, you know what I mean? Or give their wishes and fantasy. So, you know, Hey, let's talk about what would happen if you move teams. You know, if you got away from this jerker or, you know, what, if this decision went your way, so you just go down that, that avenue with them.

So keep in mind, this is the best kind of thing to use when you're dealing with really negative emotions try not to deny or ignore or just brush over what the person is feeling. Acknowledge them. Like I said, even though you may not agree, right. You're giving space for their emotions and you don't have to fix their problem.

Quite honestly, if you use these techniques, they'll start to solve those problems for themselves. Okay. So I have a really funny story. We'll call this person. My mother,

all right, this, this, this means my parents can't watch this video. Okay. So my mom is quite literally the nicest person on the planet and she hates seeing anybody in pain ever, ever, ever, and she always tries to dismiss it or minimize it or take it away. And it's incredibly obnoxious behavior. So, you know, I'll come home like this is all throughout my childhood and even into my adult.

Years I'll come home. Something bad has happened, or I call her on the phone and she'll be like, that's nice. That's fine. You'll be fine. Right. And so finally I just had it. I'm like, mom, I tell you what, even if you don't get what I'm saying, just tell me that it sucks. All right. Like I'll give you a verbal cue.

Something like, right. That sucks. And so the next time I came home and I told her some bad news, she's like, that sucks,

but you know what. I felt a lot better. Like I knew like whatever was going on in her head, I knew that she cared. It was just, the wording was wrong. Right. So anyway you're giving the people the feeling that they get it, that you get it, you're giving them a feeling that you get it, even if you don't right.

I mean, but you're trying, and you're making a space for them. Okay. So moving on to problem solving. This is another really critical piece of your job as a new manager. And I'm talking about technical problems and otherwise, and you can use this technique for both. So from a place of empathy, you're in a much better place to sort of brainstorm and problem solve with your employee, right?

So it was the last time you heard something like this. Okay. I want to switch teams. Kevin's a jerk, or I want to be VP in three years. I got that from an intern.

I'm not going to make a millennial joke here, but I really want to. Okay. So, or architecture is crap. I'm redoing it. I mean, I get that one all the time and I legit had this other guy come to me and say Hey, guess what? I signed up for Spanish class from 11 to two every day. Wow. Okay. So. I've run into each of these and I've changed the names to protect the innocent, what you shouldn't do.

Right. You're in a position of authority. Now you're the boss, everything you're saying is probably your thinking is right. That might not be true, but also come on, like lean into these folks. Don't dismiss the issue altogether. Don't preach to them. Right. Well, you know, I can't take Spanish half the day because I have a job to do and all this a be like, no, just don't don't do it.

And don't Dole out unsolicited advice and don't harshly judge. Anything that they're coming to you with, right? This is well-intentioned, but again, don't respond this way. So engage, cooperation, right? Describe the problem. Oh yeah. Wow. Spanish. That's awesome. Here's the problem. I pay you to work,

you know, on the VP one name of the problem. Wow. That's really ambitious. And then dig in. Right. You can brainstorm together. Don't dismiss any ideas. I know you've all heard this before, but seriously don't dismiss anything. Sometimes they can come up with a better idea than you can share the impact of that behavior or issue.

Yeah. I'm trying to schedule meetings during the middle of the day and you're obligating a spaniel and another room somewhere else. Like this is not going to work out for me, or you can give their wishes and fantasy. This is another funny story. Like I go to a lot of leadership dinners and one of the things, when I'm telling people about this book, I'm like, yeah, you know, it's very similar children in architects are very similar.

So imagine, you know, your kid comes to you like mom, I don't know pony, right? Your first response is going to be no, there's no way we can't afford a pony. We're not getting a pony. That's stupid. Don't be ridiculous. And then the kid goes ripe, feeling terrible about themselves and thinking that you hate them.

Architect comes to you. I want to redo the whole thing. It doesn't scale. It's terrible. We gotta redo it. No, we're not redoing it. We don't have the money. We just can't, you know, we don't have the time. We don't have the people try this instead. So keep their wishes and fantasy, like kid comes to you. Oh my God.

Wow. We could get a pony. The pony would be incredible. We can name them sparkles. We could ride the pony together around the neighborhood and it would be amazing. But then do this. But how are we going to feed the pony? Huh? And to take care of the pony all day, ponies are expensive. Where can we get the money for that?

And you know what, by the end of that conversation, that kid feels like you got it. You engaged, you understood. And then they kind of problem solve for themselves to realize there's no way in hell. You're getting a horse. All right. You see where I'm going with this? Okay. Here's your architect. I got this great idea.

I mapped it all out. We're going to redo everything. Oh, wow. That would be fantastic. Can you imagine we'd have this fully scalable architecture, you know, you'd come in. You'd be dressing better. People be high-fiving down the hallway. Incredible. Great idea. Oh, you know what? Shoot. We've got this release coming up.

Huh? I wonder how we're going to do that with yeah, you're probably right. Oh. And then, you know, these people are, yeah. Okay. Yeah. I can see your point. That's a lot better than saying no. Right. Okay. Cool. Delegation. Another piece of the empathy puzzle, your role as a manager is to scale yourself, right? You can't do everything you need to have other people do this.

Surprisingly empathy plays a part in this too. So how we're wired command and control the boss, man, you're fired doing everything solo, right? Cause you're going to do it better. Micromanaging. Oh, that's the worst. Okay. Or minimizing the work. So saying things like, oh, this feature is easy. Like how does that make the other person feel?

Who's been struggling with it for three days. Or here's what you do. Like step aside, I'll do the coding for you or things like, Ugh, that's never going to work. Right. Not cool. So try this instead. Let your person choose right. Say things like sometimes it helps, you know, you give them an out, but you're letting them really make.

Decisions for themselves and trying things and potentially failing, but that's fine. Respect their truck, their struggle saying things like, wow, that must be hard, you know, with your mug and your hand, like looking over their computer, that must be hard. Then just walk away. That's brilliant. I know. No, honestly, like this is a lot better than saying you'll never be able to do that.

Let me do it myself. Right. You're respecting the struggle. Don't ask too many questions. This is really hard to do as an engineer. Well, what about this? What about this? What about this? What about this? You know, like interesting question. What do you think? And quietly walk away. I'm kidding. Don't walk away on that one.

Also don't rush to answer, right? Don't provide all the answers for your people. You want to grow them. You want to challenge them. And then don't take away hope. Wow. There's no freaking way. You're going to be able to do that, you know, instead. Yeah. Give it a shot, you know, create that space. I know we've gone over this in other talks and especially with lop feedback, we all have to do it.

Some Jedi tricks to do it the right way. Lamb praise. Oh, this is the worst elevating non-descriptive praise is the worst. Right? Somebody just did something. That was awesome. That was great. Oh, wow. Right. They're going to walk away from that experience thinking. Huh? What was it that they liked? What did I do?

How do they praise themselves? Praise worthy. Praise sincere timely. Accurate. And describe how, what happened made you feel, what was the impact you had? Right. Try this. Whoa, great talk. That thing about empathy really had me, you know, that story about your mom. It it's the same thing that happens to me at home.

The slides were on point. You were hilarious. People loved you. They couldn't tell that you were just painting. Right. I come away from that feeling like. Damn I did a good job. I know what I was talking about that really made an impact, right? So people are able to praise themselves when you give them that kind of price.

Now the fun part, negative feedback. What is the worst way you can deliver negative feedback? People, email, slack, sorry, rant, but whatever gossip, hearing it from another coworker, doing it in public. Yes, that's fantastic. Also getting feedback from somebody who's not in your reporting chain without them asking you.

Right. Hey, do you mind if I give you some feedback? Yeah, sure. Great. Perfect. How to do it the right way. Situational behavioral impact thing. When you guys heard of SBI feedback, hopefully if not look it up. It's fantastic. Describe what happened, where you were, what the behavior was that you really liked and what the impact of that behavior was.

You can use that for negative or for positive too, but it's really good with the negative face-to-face feedback. If you have something bad to say to somebody do it to their face. Okay. I flew three hours to deliver bad feedback back somebody. And that was my only meeting when I was there. And then I flew home.

I'm sorry. Carbon footprint is terrible. Be respectful, be direct. And you know what? Follow up in an email so that you can assure alignment with the person and also create a paper trail. Okay. I have a a guy that once. Flamed an employee, a fellow employee in an email on a Friday afternoon, like he waited right for her to go home.

And then he sent her an email and he be CC'd me because he thought I would agree with everything that he said. And I sent him a little email back. I waited 10 minutes. Cause my blood pressure was like here. I sent him an email back and I said, Monday morning, 9:00 AM. And I told him like, you, you just can't blame somebody like that.

Over an email. It's impersonal. It's cowardly. Right. You need to see their reaction. You need to be able to see their face and they need to be able to see your face. And to his credit, he got in a room with this woman and they hashed it out and they became fast friends and allies,

more avoidable disasters. Fake praise. Oh my God. Fake praise is the worst. I had a person on my team. Let's call her Janet. And Janet was a mediocre line manager. She was new to my group and she wasn't used to getting the full bore feedback, you know, that I'm capable of. And so we had our first review and she was doing okay, but she wasn't doing great.

And then I opened up a director role underneath me and my organization, and she said, I want to throw my hat in the ring for that. Like, oh God. How did I, how did I miss out on this feedback that she thinks that she's qualified for this role? So we had another session, we talked about the gaps. We talked about the roadmap and how we were going to get there in terms of her development.

And she was like, I don't believe you. I want to talk to somebody else. I'm like perfectly fine. I'll have you meet with my leadership team. Leadership team was totally on board. They knew what was going on. They knew that this person was underperforming. I had them all prepped before the meeting, and then we met together as a group.

And I'm sitting there. I said, you know what, Janet, you know my feedback. So I'm just gonna, I'm going to hang tight and I'll let the other two folks talk to you. And one VP said, God, Janet, you're such a great employee. You're doing such a great job. We love having you here. You're amazing. Fantastic. And then he hands it off to the other VP.

And that VP is like, I echo everything. He says, incredible job. Can't I mean, just knocking it out of the park, keep it up. We love people as passionate as you are. And then Janet looks at me like I am on fire ironically enough, a couple of months later because this person was underperforming. One of those VPs told me to fire Janet.

And I said, no, I'm sorry. Immediately. After that meeting, I called both of them together. And I said, the bus pulled up. I was under the bus. What's going on? Oh, well we didn't want her to leave.

How did you guys get to this position in your lives without being able to give honest feedback? Holy mother of okay. Whatever. Okay. So anyway, fake praise. No, no, that was great. Really? Don't do it. Okay. Serving up a shit sandwich. You guys are familiar with the shit sandwich. You look incredible. That thing you did not so good.

Wow. You're a rockstar. And the person leaves the meeting. Like what just happened? What happened? Do they like me and my sucking? What's going on asking why? Why did you do that? That implies motivation. And that implication is never good. Right? Don't do this with your kids. Don't do this with your employees.

Why did you do that? Why did you check that in instead what happened here? Right? You feel better already. You're not being accused. Labeling. You're an under-performer you're lazy don't label. You guys have heard this from kids stuff too. For those of you have kids, right? What she had did was bad, not your bad, right.

And funny story. My daughter read this book when she was about 10. She's like she's precocious. And I came home Monday and it was just like, she's like, mom, you're labeling me. Don't label me. You're making me feel like I'm a bad person. Tell me instead what I did was bad. And I'm like, oh, sweet God. Okay. Oh, okay.

Final thought guys. We're in the, we're in the home stretch. So. Hopefully, some of you have learned this, if not, I'll reinforce it with all things assume good intent, right? Even if the other person's being a raging asshole assume good intent. You come out smelling like roses, seem a little rose there. So this always ensures that you respond with the proper tone, right?

It turns to fact finding and not accusation and it deescalates tense situations. So how many of you have gotten a nasty email from somebody? How many of you have fired off an equally nasty email immediately afterward? Yes. I know. I'm like, I'll see your jerkish Snus and I'll raise you a total. I know don't okay.

Read it. Read that email, like, you know what he's being helpful. God love him. Right. And then respond with that tone and you'll come out much better for it. Okay. Okay. And I have more thoughts actually. Oops, shit. Sorry. Okay. So challenge to you guys pick one or more of these techniques and try them on your people even go with like the bat shit, crazy idea that you'll never do, that you would have immediately dismissed.

Right. Start going down that rabbit hole and then watch them start to problem solve for themselves and pull back out. And so with all of this, I guarantee you're going to have some more successful outcomes when you're communicating with your folks. Right. Kids, family, parents, CTO doesn't matter. You're going to get better.

The other funny thing is this takes a lot of practice and a crap ton of energy. Right? I'm doing it all day. And when I come home, I just start screaming at everybody. Anyway,

About Calibrate—

Founded in 2015, Calibrate is a yearly conference for new engineering managers hosted by seasoned engineering managers. The experience level of the speakers ranges from newcomers all the way through senior engineering leaders with over twenty years of experience in the field. Each speaker is greatly concerned about the craft of engineering management. Organized and hosted by Sharethrough, it was conducted yearly in September, from 2015-2019 in San Francisco, California.