Smart People + Smart Leadership = Happy Customers? by Lucy Freedman

Interpersonal Intelligence for Technical Organizations

By Lucy Freedman, developer of the SYNTAX of Influence, co-author of Smart Work (the second edition of Smart Work: The Syntax Guide to Influence, is available at or Amazon. ).

Originally published at

When I first started my business, a mentor quizzed me about what it meant to have a business. Does coming up with a great idea make it a business? Clearly no. Does having a product make it a business? What about an office, employees, marketing? No, no, and no, he said. You have a business when you have a customer.  Aha.


In the world of technology, we can get so focused on the product or process that the relationship part of the business receives a minimal amount of mindshare. Sure, when we need to make a funding pitch, attract a key executive, or give a customer presentation, we put attention into those relationships. Even then, it’s typical of technologists to be mostly content-oriented and not so focused on tuning into the interests of their audience.  There’s room for growth.

While the ability to relate well with funders, talent, and customers is important for business success, the internal communication in a company is equally important. What customers and VC’s really want is for the product to work and meet their needs in a timely and cost-effective way.  For that to happen, managers and teams need to be able to get on the same page and come up with solutions and answers. Knowledge needs to be mobilized. Deadlines need to be met. Problems need to be solved. All this takes communication that is both focused and flexible.

The Challenge

The kinds of interpersonal intelligence that allow people and teams to collaborate well tend to be underdeveloped in engineering organizations for three main reasons.

  • Engineers are generally not drawn to learning “soft skills”
  • Engineering leadership is mostly made up of engineers
  • Most interpersonal skills training is oriented more toward personal growth than practical business interactions.

As a result, efficiency, accurate and relevant sharing of knowledge, and delivery to the customer are often hampered by turf battles, planning disconnects, and just plain miscommunication.

Is this just a depressing downer, condemning engineering organizations and their customers to clunky communication, relieved only by those special high-tech + high-touch individuals who can navigate well both technically and interpersonally? Although many are resigned to this state of affairs, there are lights flickering here and there.

Bright Lights and Good Books

In fact, at a past Silicon Valley Engineering Leadership Community meeting, Ron Lichty presented a “Crash Course” based on his new book with co-author Mickey W. Mantle, Managing the Unmanageable: Rules, Tools, and Insights for Managing Software People and Teams  (Addison-Wesley, ). They address important considerations for people who move up the technical ladder from writing code to managing people.

Another new and highly recommended book on this subject is Team Geek: A Software Developer’s Guide to Working Well with Others by Brian W. Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman (O’Reilly Media, 2012). It’s very entertaining reading and addresses expanding circles of influence, from your own team to the organization to the user community.

A few years back,  Michael Lopp wrote the insightful and humorous book, Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager (Apress, 2007). Michael gives practical advice for many of the situations that recur in software development. He names some of the types of people you’ll run across – such as Mr. Irrelevant, Laptop Larry, Curveball Kurt, the Snake, and Free Electrons. Cleverly written, full of useful homilies.

What all of these books have in common is the practical experience of the authors, who have lived what they are writing about.  They share illustrative stories that those who follow in their footsteps will easily relate to.

De-coding How People Work

As an outsider who can’t code my way out of a paper bag, I have been taking a different approach for the past few decades of working as a consultant, coach, and facilitator for high tech companies.  Programmers understand the structure, or syntax, that is required for code to work. I have studied the structure, or syntax, that is required for human communication to work.

What I have discovered is that the smart people who know how to code have an easier time learning interpersonal skills when they have access to the proper syntax for communicating. Hundreds of engineers have experienced and applied the SYNTAX model to their workplaces. People who considered themselves non-people-oriented have shown that with several relatively small changes in their communication, they can achieve great improvements in their working relationships.

This is not about sentence structure or grammar. If you consider that people are pretty systematic in how we organize our perceptions and our behavior, it makes sense that you can detect each person’s syntax, and hence, get more predictable results with them. There’s also a structure, a syntax derived from studying outstanding performers, that makes communication work better. Our model, SYNTAX, represents that architecture so that people can easily learn it.

It’s explained in detail in the book Smart Work, which I co-authored with Lisa Marshall. If you are interested in getting a look at it, or even writing a review, please contact me at and I will gladly share it with you.

Smart Leadership

When leaders in an organization start practicing SYNTAX principles, or some of the other excellent suggestions in the books listed above, they create a climate where it is much more natural for others to collaborate productively as well. It’s a matter of good design of human systems – whether writing effective, clean code for applications that will benefit people, or holding effective, clean meetings where work gets done and agreements are solid, it’s about designing intelligent human systems.

Whether through the stories and rules of the road derived from experience, or through applying a systematic, structured approach to interpersonal behavior, everyone benefits when a technical organization develops its conscious competence at communicating.

Engineering is about solving real-world problems and creating innovations that make a difference.  It takes smart people working well together to do this successfully. With smart people, smart leadership, and outstanding communication, you get happy customers. That, plus your satisfaction at meeting your own high standards, makes it worthwhile to master the softer skills.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lucy Freedman is Founder and CEO of Syntax for Change, working with change leaders in technology companies to spread collaborative leadership throughout their organizations and to their strategic partners. Lucy has trained and certified both internal and external facilitators who have implemented Syntax programs in companies such as Agilent, HP, Sun, Oracle, EDS, Tokyo Electron, Intel, National Semiconductor, and Cisco Systems. Visit for an explanatory video and to request a complimentary sample chapter of Smart Work: The Syntax Guide to Influence. Direct email is

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Leaders Make the Future by Sue Lebeck

images (2)(Originally posted at Sue Lebecks’s blog on, May 24, 2011)

Great title, yes?  It’s not mine!  This title and the inspiring book behind it belong to Bob Johansen, Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future.  The full title, published in 2009, is Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World Thought you’d read all the leadership books you’ll ever need?   Think again.

As Bob expresses in his opening lines:

We are entering a threshold decade…  [a VUCA world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.] Self-interest will not be enough: leaders will need to broaden their concept of self to include the larger systems of which they are a part… Traditional business leadership mandates won’t be enough.  Leaders must… embrace the shared assets and opportunities around them… This will be a very tough decade to be a leader, but it will also be a very exciting and meaningful time to lead, with the right set of skills and appropriate expectations.”

So, what are those new leadership skills for an uncertain world?

Today’s SMART innovation story, which is a visual revisit of the inspiring tale of Serious Materials (check out the just-completed video) includes evidence of several of these new essential leadership skills.  For example, the maker instinct is alive and well in Kevin Surace’s story.  Redirecting his Silicon Valley high tech experience and skills in the direction of clean tech, Kevin has gotten serious about becoming a Maker, developing products to help re-create the built environment.  The skill of clarity enabled him to see beyond the common and critical problems of fuels and transportation to focus on this much larger problem of buildings and materials.  An immersive learning ability has made him a quick study for the possibilities present, and an apparent adeptness for rapid prototyping and experimentation has enabled him and his team to realize many of those possibilities already.

In addition to these four potent skills, Bob’s book identifies the need for six other critical skills, and articulates them in fresh and clear language.   Key among these is dilemma flipping, the “ability to turn dilemmas — which, unlike problems, cannot be solved — into advantages and opportunities”.  The Institute for the Future’s Ten-Year Forecast (found on the inside cover of the book) reveals dilemmas everywhere.  Dilemmas lurk amidst competing social diasporas,  terrorism-redefined warfare, and the uber-expectations of baby-boomers (especially when juxtasuposed with the challenges posed by sustainability goals).   Dealing with these dilemmas will require the ability to “remake” a situation — “reimagining and making again.”

Close behind dilemma flipping, also fresh and important is the skill of bio-empathy —  the “ability to see things from nature’s point of view”.   “Bio-empathy is about seeing human activity as nested within envrionmental stability and vice versa.”  This necessary modern skill is applied, nurtured and propagated as a design and engineering lens through the further leadership of Janine Benyus and the Biomimicry Guild and Institute she has built.

Constructive depolarizing and quiet transparency round out a 21st century leader’s artfulness kit — moving minds and building trust along the way.  Finally, smart mob organizing and commons creating are among today’s power tools, helping leaders to engender their leadership principles at scale.

Leaders make the future indeed.  How are you a leader?  What is the future you are making?  We would love to hear your story.


Sue Lebeck is an innovation management specialist working to advance smart, sustainability-driven systems. A researcher, product management and development specialist and innovation manager, Sue brings her diverse background in software, psychology, media and collaboration to the work of sustainability innovation.

Through the GotSMART? suite of services, Sue offers internal research and communications services to her clients’ leadership and marketing functions; assists initiative leaders in mapping their sustainability-driven stakeholder needs to technology requirements; and facilitates the implementation process.  With GotSMART? smart leaders get the extra support they need.

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