The world-praised Israeli startup culture relies heavily on disruptive execution. There are famous quotes in Hebrew on pushing the boundaries like “jump above your belly button and hope to survive” or “start from the hardest effort you can and keep increasing slowly”. The cut-to-the-chase communication style naturally comes as a part of the aggressive way of managing people and processes. You manifest, you do, you hit the jackpot (and win respect).
Well integrated with these values I came to Agoda in 2016 to take ownership of the booking engine team. During 3 sprints only, the long-awaited features were deployed to production, the dev team velocity increased by 32% (leaving the previous Product Owners’ in my wake), my ego felt saturated and I was sure that all the good news about us would glitter like a rainbow in the sky.
Instead, a bitter surprise came when my colleagues started to refer to communication problems describing how I do things. Being a talkative and empathetic person capable to lead and inspire people (the dev team smiles were getting shinier every daily stand-up), I subconsciously denied any issues with my communication style.
I’ve learned how easy it is to break the trust with numerous coworkers including senior management. I’ve done the homework on how not to cause that situation. These lessons became one of the best transformative professional experiences I have had in my life, allowing me to contribute as a Chief Product Officer at several startups consecutively.
Let’s start with a few points on the importance of plausible corporate communication:
- The larger the company is, the more crucial communication becomes for enabling ֿits operations. Talking right helps shape the things before they actually happen: the better you aim the sharper your shot.
- Product Owners typically operate in a matrix management environment, i.e. leading without authority, mostly being qualified by their personal attitude. To make things happen you need people to understand which results you want to achieve and how you want to do it.
- You need people to trust you. You should be perceived as an authority: a knowledgeable go-to guy and an exemplary problem solver.
- Your reputation is anchored on your external image, How you communicate and how you look matters.
You want to drive things forward, onboard allies, open new doors for professional growth, innovate, lead frontline projects in the company and be perceived as a valuable colleague by all your peers. Here’s my essential list of actionable dos and don’ts:
- Most likely, your first 1–2 weeks in the company will start with interviewing people you will be working with. Listen a lot, understand their pains and challenges then ask a few questions to the point. Use these meetings to “read” these people and to create the first positive impression about yourself. Bringing value a short time after (such as tackling an anticipated low-hanging fruit) will be a huge plus to your corporate karma score.
- Your colleagues (just like you) are likely to be overwhelmed with their daily tasks and quarterly KPIs. Their brains (just like yours) are booming with tons of things all the time, including when they come to your meeting. Ensure to set the right context from the very start, provide the background, and don’t forget to send an agenda ahead of the meeting time.
- Remember that your mission is to get things done. Define the meeting agenda, and stick to it! Ensure the alignment, agree on the outcome and progress to achieve it, narrowing the discussion to (a) who is doing what and (b) when it should happen. Extend the meeting scope if only and only if it’s absolutely necessary.
- Don’t confuse small talk with friendliness! Differentiate between acting friendly and being friends. This tip is particularly important for those less familiar with American culture. These typical icebreaker questions will only last a few minutes. Therefore, if asked “How’s the weather?” don’t start by sharing personal stories like how fun it was drunkenly riding your bike home through the rainy night. Leave these for the team-building events when your reputation is solidified.
- Words like “great” or “amazing” don’t mean a thing. Stay put and read between the lines (gestures, facial expressions etc). A simple question like “How can I help?” can mean “Why are things moving SO slowly?”. Learn to recognize which real questions are being asked.
- Another cultural tip: go far and beyond to prevent your colleagues from acting defensively. Some might call it hypocrisy, but sugarcoating when used the right way becomes a form of politeness and allows to smoothen the tougher conversations. Concentrate on the positive aspects. The more sensitive the subject is, the more calmly, respectfully and friendly you should be talking.
- Be mindful about the storytelling and how you present your points: top-down or bottom-up, starting from an example or a problem description. Come prepared with slides and relevant documents when you can. Finally, get inspiration and learn from the natural-born storytellers among your colleagues.
- Adjust your communication style and vocabulary to the department and the title you have a meeting with. Speak within a problem domain and bring the use cases relevant to the position of the meeting attendees.
- Keep your communication structured. Ahead of describing complicated details prepare a diagram or a presentation that shows the relevant concepts and their relationships. If not in a written form, maintain the logical structure in your head and periodically ensure alignment with other meeting attendees by asking guided questions.
- Ask proactively: “Do you want me to explain the subject in brief?”, “Did the meeting meet your expectations?”, “What could I do better?” Solicit feedback and act fast to resolve communication gaps. Be empathetic, “read” people and make allies.
- Keep all your stakeholders aligned. The best KPI you could set for yourself is a “WTF count”. Rolled out a breaking change to production? A feature has known issues that stayed in the shadows? Your sales department found 3 bugs 5 minutes after the feature was deployed? The impact of the metric is exponential as you are the true hub every product-related aspect goes through.
- Use the meeting time responsibly and communicate in actionable terms. Don’t just say things to show that you are kind of getting the direction in general. That should be implied.
- “M-hm!”: a light head nod is the most prominent way to show that you agree with someone. Echoing can rarely be productive. Avoid responding with long stories aimed to amplify your support of a point expressed earlier.
- Be laconic when expressing ideas. Elaborate only if you feel it’s necessary or when questions are being asked. That applies especially to communications with the executive management.
- At every meeting ensure that the other side feels that he received more than he contributed.
- When the meeting is finished, send the summary by email with well-defined action items, ownerships and timelines agreed upon. As my boss was always saying, the most important question is “when?” or “when will you know when?”.
- This one goes especially for non-native speakers (myself included): when sending an email, re-read as many times as you can the night before and the morning after ahead of sending it. Don’t dare to skip Grammarly. Master your business vocabulary for both oral and written communication. You aim to be a senior manager, so act like a senior manager!
To ☀️ it all up
- Focus on what you can do for people, rather than showing how cool, smart, friendly, informed or talkative you are.
- Corporate communication is a deep subject to explore that involves psychology, negotiation skills, presentation skills and many other aspects. Research extensively through the relevant articles, and books, even take a course or use a mentorship if you can.
- The guidelines above by no means should lead you to end up becoming a robot, there’s plenty of space for chiming in with your irresistible personal character. Leverage the opportunity to learn and apply as much as possible to develop your management and communication style.
Hope this article will help smoothen the learning curve and accelerate your professional realization. Let me know in the comments what could be improved and spread the word if you find my writing helpful.
Happy career-making! 👨💻