Let’s face it, founders, a large part of your job is to influence others: investors, partners, advisors, and of course, your colleagues. But just how do you do it?
Manners may sound like something out of the dim musty past of the 19th century. Or something you can observe in those PBS costume dramas. And aside from learning not to put my elbows on the table and talk with my mouth full, I didn’t get much instruction beyond table manners. And judging from most of my friends – no offense – and the many people I had met in my multifarious careers as a sound engineer, librarian, and executive in a software company, manners were conspicuous only by their absence.
But the headline of the article in the New York Times: Think You Always Say Thank You? Oh, Please along with the very clever four-panel graphic, snagged my attention. But more importantly, it reminded me of how I learned manners and how effective they can be.
When I joined publisher Addison-Wesley, home of the many computer science books I admired, as General Manager of their Educational Software division, one of the first things I noted was how polite everyone was. Men holding doors open for other men, everyone saying please, thank you and you’re welcome. This certainly was a stark contrast to working as a soundman, where the stars were far from polite, in fact when they talked to you at all, and the bigger the star the rarer the incidence, it was to utter an imperious command, or more often voice a complaint, “I still can’t hear myself in the monitors! Come on Mr. Soundman, can’t you just turn me up?” And while software engineers weren’t nearly so imperious and demanding, they weren’t Mary Poppins either.
What struck me the hardest was how incredibly polite the A-W editors were with their writers. And I soon learned that manners were not simply a set of words or phrases like pardon me, and may I? but were the surface manifestation of a much deeper and more powerful social interaction modality: consideration. Editors were extremely considerate of their writers – who today we would call the talent. After carefully observing the culture of the company, I soon learned that Addison-Wesley was in fierce competition with other publishers to attract and retain talent. But being thoughtful and sensitive to their writers wasn’t just a very tiny way to possibly influence them to sign with Addison-Wesely. Good manners was a key skill of the book editors and their colleagues in the software division as well. And the higher up you went in the company the more mannerly people got, especially with the company’s writers.
Manners and it’s deeper manifestation of consideration were much more evident in the day-to-day work the editors did with their authors. Textbook and consumer book publishers didn’t simply sign an author, print the author’s manuscript, and publicize and sell the book. There were many steps in between, as the book needed to be developed for its market: what we call today product/market fit. In fact A-W had two distinct types of editors: acquisition editors, whose job it was to sign and manage the talented writers, and developmental editors, whose job it was to shape the manuscript to meet the needs of the customers. It was observing the developmental editors at work that I learned that manner were a tool to influence their writers. Writers of college textbooks in the education division and the consumer division both had very large egos, not dissimilar from the egos I of the musicians I worked with in the sound reinforcement business. (And the rule of thumb for both was the bigger the success, the bigger the ego – whether a writer or a musician.)
Editors needed changes in almost every manuscript and authors generally welcomed the work of proof readers and copy editors. But when it got to actually changing the content, structure, and flow of their books ego would raise it’s ugly head. While in theory editors could stick to the contracts and tell writers what changes needed to be made to improve their books, in reality telling them directly what to do didn’t work that well. Hackles would rise. But worse yet schedules would slip. Authors were masters of passive aggressiveness. I soon learned that the most effective developmental editors were those who not only were the most mannerly, but also showed the most consideration for their authors. And just like record producers working with musicians in the studio or movie directors working with actors, editors influenced their writers to make necessary changes. In fact the best of them were so skilled that they convinced their authors that the ideas for additions, deletions or changes to their manuscripts were their ideas, not the ideas of the editor.
Here’s a couple of simple examples. Rather than saying Delete the second paragraph on page 10, it’s obviously redundant an editor would say something like, “Let’s look at page 10 together. What do you think when you read the first paragraph, then then the second – and just stop there? The odds were good that simply pointing out places to improve the manuscript would be enough for the author to agree to changes, like cutting out the redundant paragraph. Many phrases were in common use, Would you please consider doing moving the last section of chapter one two the beginning chapter will improve the flow of the narrative and Have you looked at your leading competitor’s book? They seem to cover a spreadsheet’s built-in functions in a lot more depth than we do. What do you think about expanding our coverage of functions? While contractually A-W owned the final edit on books from their authors, much like movie studios reserved the right of final cut on their films, the best editors were highly persuasive. Part of their technique was to get the author to focus on the customer, to consider the reader’s needs. By acting extremely considerate of the author – making sure schedules took into account the author’s travel preferences, that they had a comfortable place to work while at A-W, and other actions that modeled consideration, the editor was able to get necessary changes made without the author getting defensive and setting off a tug of war over changes. I soon learned to use this technique with the software developers whose work we published. Putting myself in the developer’s place, to consider their needs, to preface the need for changes or additions very politely, all soon became habits, as they were reinforced by positive feedback. The programmer would agree that a particular feature had to be added or that a bug that they considered purely cosmetic but warranted fixing. Otherwise the bug was going to annoy users and generate customer support calls. Therefore it was in everyone’s best interests to be fix the bug, not just mine.
Good manners are the proverbial tip of the iceberg of consideration and empathy. Below the surface of manners lies consideration, a much more sophisticated and deeper mental state. And deeper still is empathy: the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own.
If you are a product manager as I had been, a position with high responsibility but low authority, you need to influence both product developers and marketers – as you are the emissary between the two. Start off with manners, if necessary bone up on etiquette. Once good etiquette becomes a habit, and you will know that, as you won’t have to keep catching yourself being impolite, dig deeper to understand the values and emotions of those you work with. Keep your goal in mind: engendering cooperation and collaboration from your colleagues, business partners, or even Board of Directors.
The results of good etiquette, deep consideration, and true empathy are empirical. You should see a reduction in conflict, faster decision making, and great cooperation from your teammates and improved collaboration with partners.
Etiquette is a high leverage technique. Very little effort on your part can result in very large behavioral and attitudinal changes in those you work with. Manners, consideration, and empathy are all social interaction skills, not mere linguistic expression.
And finally, do try this at home. Life with your significant other may just get smoother and better too!