Human Skills 009 - Multilayered Communication
with Bradford Fults
Bradford Fults is one of the most thoughtful leaders I know. I had the privilege of working with him almost 15 years ago when he was still an IC, and he struck me then as being incredibly devoted to improving his craft.
Since then he has gone on to lead everything from small teams to entire engineering organizations, but that dedication to quality and craft has remained.
This was one of those interviews where I felt like I was pulling out every single clip and highlighting it. I could have picked several different themes to summarize here - we talked about scale and how your role as a manager changes as you travel up the hierarchy. We talked about how time frames and the impacts of what you say go up exponentially during that journey. We talked about the failure modes of making organizational changes too quickly.
But the thing that stood out to me the most was how incredibly thoughtful Bradford is about how he handles communication and meetings. He described an incredibly rich way of thinking about communication, both transmitting and receiving on multiple layers, that will allow you to dramatically increase your impact as a leader. And so those are the quotes I've pulled out below for you. But if you have the time, really go and listen to the whole thing; I can already tell this is one I'll be going back to again and again learning more each time.
How does communication change as your organizational scope changes?
Communication, probably one of the most misunderstood fundamental concepts of being a human. The thing about communication that I think is most important that everybody accept into their hearts is that it is a two way process. Part of communication is what you're saying, and how you say it. But an entire half of communication is what is heard and what is understood and what people take away.
And I think without that fundamental understanding of how you pursue communication is really 50% of the job, you'll always miss out on something if you don't have that. So that's the first thing.
The second thing, though, is I think it's a lesson in when to be specific and when to generalize. And so when I think about communicating as a higher level leader... as a first line manager, you're in the details with your team. You're talking about what's the future of this project, what's the next thing we're going to work on, why is it exciting, what are our struggles. It's all day to day. It's all in the moment. And thus, as a first line manager, you have full context on everything that the team is tackling. And that's great. And it's very good for your job.
That evaporates very quickly as you take on more scope and you get removed by these levels. And the other thing that happens is that your communication, what you say, becomes amplified. And I haven't thought much about this one, but it might also be an exponential curve of increase in the amplification.
And there's a classic mistake, of startup CEOs, they've got 10 people in a room and they're super excited about the next release coming out... And so they go look over an engineer's shoulder and they say, "wait, why are you doing it that way? Why don't we do it this other way?" And then all of a sudden the entire team is off on a new track, right? Because the CEO said it, so it must be what we should do.
And that basically applies at every level. You really need to be careful what you talk about because an offhanded comment on something specific can basically be interpreted as an edict, right? Getting back to our previous "why we don't do edicts."
And you can unknowingly incur all those relationship penalties and be in this position where you have accidentally shot yourself in the foot. So when I communicate with my teams, it's usually in two main modes. I'll say strategic and vision.
So hopefully everybody kind of knows tactical is the day to day. That's the first line manager. Everybody has shared context. I avoid the tactical as much as possible. I'm a manager of manager of managers. And when I say something, I know that it can have an effect. Regardless of how thoughtful I've been about it. And so I have to be very careful. So I stick to those two modes.
Strategic is really about major initiatives. So I have 13 teams and we're taking on who knows how many projects. One major initiative, maybe for a quarter, for half of a year: what are our high level goals? What are we trying to accomplish? Ensuring clarity.
So I'll use my voice to repeat things a lot. And I think you'll hear this from other leaders. You can never say the goals or the mission or the vision enough. If you don't feel like you're repeating yourself, you're not saying it enough. So I'll use that just to reinforce, to make sure that everybody's hearing the same goals. And in that case, I'm actually taking advantage of my amplified voice to sort of cut through if there's been any confusion. So if they've... thought there were different goals, or they thought it was subtly different, I will try to state it very clearly and say, "hey, do you understand that these are the goals?" And if there's any lack of alignment, then I'm also providing an opportunity for people to speak up. And so that's where I'm really using amplification to find those gaps so that we can correct, versus if I were saying, "hey, let's all change this policy without me asking you," I'm creating gaps. without caring about what happens, right, which is not a great practice. So that's the first one.
And then the second one is what I call vision communication. I don't really have a better.. I don't like visionary. I feel like in English, that has a different connotation. But communicating about a vision is really trying to paint a picture of the future. Which is fundamentally difficult, as we all know. And I think what I've learned to do is sort of embrace my personal fallibility as a leader.
I can and will be wrong a lot in order to allow the team to embrace failure as an option as they evolve. And I think that's something that has become really important, in like agile thinking in general. This idea that you need to fail to learn, you need to fail towards success. I think in most cases that's absolutely true. And so what I'll do is I'll paint a picture of the future, but how you do that is very important. And this is another lesson I was just talking to a teammate about the other day. I call it the fidelity of the communication of the vision.
I'll give you an example, which is go back to that startup, 10 people in a room, right? What you don't want to do when you're telling the CEO, "hey, we could build this new feature that could do this great stuff for our customers," is have the designer go spend three weeks on a pixel perfect design, maybe even a prototype in Figma or whatever that's clickable and it's amazing.
And then you show that to the CEO and they're like, "Wow, it's done. Like you did it. So it's shipping on Monday, right?"
This is the classic - the engineering team is just like, "what? No, like we haven't even had a chance to weigh in on it. Like this is still a concept. "
And in my opinion, that is a failure of communication on the team's part. That's actually not up to the CEO. The CEO is doing lots of things. What the CEO needs to understand, that second part of communication, is what is the fidelity of this idea? How deeply have we thought about it? How close are we to realizing it?
And so what I like to do is I match the fidelity of my group communications, my vision communications, with the depth of thought and degree of confidence that we have in them becoming the actual future.
So we'll talk about, "hey, what could be possible?" Or "here's three different things that could happen in this area." But when we're pretty sure, I'll say, "it's going to look like this. And it's going to enable this." And they're very high-level concepts. This is stuff you'd put in a slide deck with bullet points usually. But it's enough to give everybody a shared mental model or at least the beginnings of a sketch where they know how their piece is going to affect the future.
What tactics do you use or teach to help with presence and nonverbal communication?
One of the tactics that I use, which I think is almost now more important than ever with a mostly remote workforce or majority remote, is resetting mentally before you enter a new context.
And so usually for everybody that's jumping Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting all day, I try to be incredibly intentional before I hit the join button, where I will literally take a count of three and breathe and think back to what's the last thing I knew about this thread.
I'll pull up any notes, I'll look for were there outstanding questions, I will look at the list of attendees. and think about what each of those people needs from that meeting, and then I join.
And I think that teaching that as a reset practice, as some of it is just presence, right? Being fully present. But I think a lot of it also orients you socially, because obviously in a meeting, you're in a social environment and you're trying to... hopefully achieve some outcome in that environment.
And so orienting yourself first before you get into it, I think is an important thing to do, to have before you arrive. I'd say that's one thing. Another one is I definitely teach how to approach people based on what they need.
This is especially true, there's an entire category of executive communication skills, I think that's one way to talk about it. And executives are certainly one target. I find it's really just human communication skills though, in understanding what those people need and what they want and what data and tools they have at their disposal to take actions is incredibly important to having a successful communication with them.
So I have definitely taught many people on how do you even start to think about that, right? Who is your audience? What do you mean tools that they have? What do you mean levers they have to pull? What data do they swim in all day? Who do they talk to? And what does success look like for them?
Because that could be different in the same meeting if you have a designer and a product manager and a QA person and a vice president. Every single one of them wants a different thing, often, out of that communication and the decision making that happens, which is a whole other chapter.
And so finding a way, and I won't say I'm perfect at this by any means, but it's a continual process of trying to basically "win" in that meeting by getting people what they need to move forward.
And understanding that that may be six to eight to 10 different things. And that can be challenging, especially when, again, you're not dictating an agenda, you're not dictating a dialogue or a monologue with these people. You're having a conversation. It's very messy. It's very human.
How do you figure out what each person needs from you?
The short answer is relationship building. And the longer answer is relationship building and pattern matching.
There's really no substitute to learning what people need and do in their jobs. Actually having a conversation with a product manager and learning, "how did you get into this? Why do you do this profession? What motivates you? What are some of your biggest successes? What are some of your biggest failures? Who's your favorite person you've ever worked with?"
I do casual interviewing, basically, of people to try to understand what works for them and what doesn't and why. And what I'm doing there is really trying to assemble an overall picture, so that I can empathize fully or as close to fully as possible with their position.
And so often what I'll do is when I'm thinking of projects or things that we're working together on or engaging on is I will stop being me for a second and I will try to be them. And I will think about, "okay, I'm a product manager in this situation. What am I concerned with? What am I worried about? Somebody just said something that sounded like a timeline stretch. That sounds scary."
Like, what are the things that I'm really seeking to gain confidence in the outcomes? And I think that you just need to build that over time. And that comes to the second piece, which is pattern matching. As much as I hate to do it, humans are not all unique snowflakes in the large. There's absolutely patterns. And finding those can be a great asset to being effective at communicating, at true success. And I think that's like an important piece.
What I'm not trying to do is create a playbook for manipulation of different types of people. I think that sort of, again turns it into more of a mechanistic approach where you would have definitive levers of a machine, which is just not true. You're in a human environment.
And so I find it's very important to act with integrity and to understand what people want and earnestly try to achieve that. But if you understand what type of person and what type of job they have, you can often get them what they need much more quickly.
And I would say, if you could distill executive communication down to one sentence, it might be that, which is truly understanding what do they need to do their job.
I'll give you a brief diversion on types of people. It has a lot to do with their backgrounds. What were they skilled in? What were they trained in? How did they come to your profession?
This is sort of easiest to look at at the executive level because you get a big variety. You'll get engineering CEOs or engineering executives, people who used to build the thing, and now they run the company that builds the thing. And so what they need is often quite different from if you have a customer-focused CEO. So say they used to do marketing. And so they used to be all about communication to the customer. And so they're really focused on that customer relationship. They're thinking about how do I build the company's ability to communicate with that person, that population long-term. They're going to have something different that they need from the internal part of the company.
Versus an executive who came up through finance, they're going to have an internal view of the company, but one that's based on quite different metrics from an engineering approach. And so understanding that fundamental background, I think just gives you a ton of resources to draw from when you communicate with them and when you need to know what they need to know. It helps you get it to them.
How do you teach people to think about multilayered communication?
One of the things that I've done with success in the past is mock meetings, which I actually like a lot. And I've had good feedback on, which is if you're about to go into a high stakes meeting with several stakeholders from different positions, you can actually do a dry run of that meeting. You can do it on your own.
And the way that you do that is you write it down. You can just say, "OK, chief product officer is in this meeting, wants: What do they want? Data: What data did they understand and know and have readily accessible to them?" Future concerns, Already raised objections, anything like that. You can sort of play it out and you just do that for everybody in the meeting.
And I will say, whenever I do that, I almost invariably learn something new, because when you spell it out, it's like, "Oh, there's something else. There's more context that was there that I already had that I didn't bring to the floor." So I do that. I teach that. Mock meetings, modeling, thinking about how people are going to react. I think that's one.
Another though is sometimes I will ask, certainly managers who report to me or managers who report to them, only about one aspect about what their team is thinking about. So instead of saying like, "How do you think the big initiative is going?" I will say something like, "What's the loudest complaint that you've heard on your team this week?" Really, to just cut down to a feeling. Or I'll say, "Who has been the most active in your team meetings for the last two months? Who's been the quietest?"
And I'm not even really looking for an answer. I'm just looking to create the process. I'm looking to cause the introspection. And so I'll often use those well-placed questions to encourage this way of basically seeing multi-dimensional communication.
I think it's much harder to teach it in real time. I think everybody has their own response to it. But I think highlighting, "hey, you should be getting signal on this dimension," whether it's emotional, or team close-knitness, or positive energy, or there's lots of dimensions you could break it into. Are you seeing that signal from your team? Did you even know to look for it? I think that's usually how I do that.
How do you make meetings more effective?
Part of what I talked about was looking at the list of attendees and really trying to put myself in their shoes quickly before the meeting to understand, hey, what are they trying to get out of this. I also do that during the meeting. It's a learned skill, certainly. People I think may have more or less sensitivity to it. I have a very high sensitivity to social perception and understanding sort of what are people feeling in the moment.
It is actually it's a super interesting job and it's something that I didn't know a lot about but producers of shows - producers of especially tv shows and radio shows ,movies to a lesser extent but but really more of that like active assembled live or near live media. That's what the producer is doing. They are empathizing with the audience and they're saying, "how is this landing?" And that informs everything from how long they spend on segments, how quickly they transition, what types of topics they bring up, how they do follow ons. There's a whole lot that goes into thinking about the experience of the media. And I think about meetings that way.
So every meeting, hopefully if I'm awake enough and I'm not worn out, which is another reason you should have limits on how much you engage with, is I'm thinking about that impact on every person in that meeting. And if it's a 250 person meeting, you just have to scale up and you have to think, okay, and categories of people, right? What does this mean for inexperienced engineers? They've been here for two months. How's it landing for them? Versus super experienced engineers who've been here for 10 years, how's it landing on them? Versus product managers versus whoever.
So I think in archetypes, and it's nice when that resolves to a single person because then you can ask them afterward to verify. But I will think about that and I will use that to push the meeting along, to redirect topics, to ask for things to be broken out into a separate meeting. And I really sort of provide that hand where it sort of feels like the meeting is being moved along. It's not happening at the slow pace of real time, of just whenever somebody realizes they should speak up. So I really think of meetings as more being something you conduct, than something you experience.
And the really nice thing about that is once you've worked with a team for a while, everybody can take on that role. Everybody can actually participate in conducting the meeting and you'll establish a flow. You'll establish an understanding of who should speak up when and who could push what forward and that is almost the best thing about working with a team is when you find that level of flow together.
And I find that it, well, now especially, it definitely shows up in meetings. So I certainly do that. And then I would say the other thing is, every sort of meeting hack, productivity podcast ever would say, make sure you have clean followups for your meetings. Know what your action items are. And I think that's true. I think though the approach to how you follow up is very important, or it's important to me, because again, every interaction with somebody on your team or especially somebody on another team that you don't work with often, that's an opportunity to build more trust. That's an opportunity to display a behavior that they might be looking to model. That's an opportunity to build a relationship that you too can later draw from.
And so, I've always appreciated especially program managers, who often really take the brunt of coordination in these very unwieldy large initiatives and they have to find followups. If they can find a way to follow up with each person on a level that makes sense to them... Bridge the human connection, try to communicate with empathy and have a conversation about it.
I'm not a big fan of like, "here's the email summary. All of the follow-up items are on a bulleted list." I find that to be very robotic and it's a missed opportunity, I think. So something I try to do, even if it's just a Slack message or something, is follow up personally and verify understanding, try to understand if they agreed with the follow-up, with the outcome that implied their action item. And then to even get a mini update on how they're feeling about the overall initiative. It's these micro interactions just all day long that I think give you feedback loops, but also power to influence. And then if you do that long enough over time, it also gives those people the power to read feedback loops and to influence themselves. And I think that's, to me, that's the sign of a truly high functioning team.
Bradford’s management favorites:
An Elegant Puzzle, by Will Larson
The Manager’s Path, by Camille Fornier
Death By Meeting, by Patrick Lencioni
Quick Links to Bradford
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