Leadership, Motivation and Not Saying the Wrong Thing

Posted: July 8, 2011 in Management
Tags: , , ,

I was watching a TED Talk on leadership and it reminded me of a conversation with a good friend and how management often just “doesn’t get it” when it comes to motivating engineers. It is said that people will live up to or down to the expectations that are set for them. Management needs to be careful that they don’t set expectations that have their engineers living down to the expectations set by the company. My friend’s case is a good example. He works for a very large and very successful semiconductor company. He has been there through most of the company’s growth years and has been part of other successful startup companies. It seems his VP had come to give one of those inspirational talks VP’s are asked to give. I’ve been there so I am sympathetic with getting in front of a large group and needing to be motivational. It isn’t easy and I have messed up more than once. Still, as my friend relate his story, I was appalled at what was said. It seems this VP explained that my friend’s design group would never be allowed to venture very far afield from what they were doing. The VP further explained that if the company needed something done in a new area then the company would acquire a group working in that area. He explained that Wall Street looked more favorably on acquisitions than on internal investment. There is truth to what the VP was saying. I have seen this issue myself where a company did a poor acquisition at a cost of $20M and I was left thinking of all of the great projects not being done that could have gotten done for much less money. What surprised me was that the VP said this in public. The impact was immediate and horrible. The engineers left the meeting feeling that the company lacked faith in their capabilities and that they were destined to be second class citizens. To them the company’s vision of their engineers was one of widgets who were pigeonholed as to what they would and would not be allowed to do. Today my friend longs for those earlier days when the company he works for believed in their engineers and challenged them to change the way things are done and to invent a new world. The damage is now done. The VP missed an opportunity to talk about excellence, doing great things and how those engineers had changed the world. The sad thing is that my friend’s group has changed the world. Many readers of this will use the results of their efforts every day. Because of what they have done there is a billion dollar company around. Instead of challenging them to yet again take the company into the future, they were left feeling like yesterday’s news.

I said it was a TED Talk that reminded me of my friend. The topic of the talk is leadership and appealing to the emotional self. It focuses on companies as a whole but I think it says a lot about how we, as managers, should motivate and challenge. It isn’t a complex talk. The concept is simple but I do think it is important. In the engineering world it is all too easy to get lost in the details, datasheets, project targets and other explicit items. We like to think everything is rational. However, the vast majority of us are motivated more by our inner emotional self. Watch the video and let me know what YOU think.

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