Walk a Mile in My Shoes (to build effective relationships)

“Before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.”

From the song, Walk A Mile In My Shoes (1970), by Joe South.
Joe (1940-2012) was an American singer-songwriter and guitarist.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes 2014-01-21

I’ve always liked the song, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes”, and have found its title (inspired by an American Indian proverb) to be an apt metaphor for finding success as a Manager.  You’ll see why as you read on.

I spent the first 15 years of my career in engineering, working on the product development and processing of subcomponents for a fast-paced computer peripherals company. My duties included ongoing interactions with Program Managers (PMs), who served as our interface with the multiple end-product divisions, which were not co-located with us.

The PMs largely saw their role as passing on the “customer” (end-product divisions) demands, and there was always tremendous pressure to “go faster”.  One PM in particular marked every single voice-mail sent to Engineering Managers as “urgent”.   ‘Dilbert’ would empathize with me the day I asked the Director of Program Managers just which of the many projects was the number 1 priority and was flippantly told, “They’re all number 1!”

Technical teams often lacked respect for PMs for inadequate understanding of the technology and its challenges.  They were frustrated that PMs didn’t coordinate with each other to establish priorities among their individual product development efforts, which made it unclear what the best allocation of engineering resources was for the overall corporation.   Boundaries between functional engineering departments added to the difficulties.

Conversely, the PMs were often frustrated by the technical teams questioning their requests and at times falling short to the demanded expectations.  Unsurprisingly, between PMs (and their end-product counterparts) and our Engineering teams, the relationships were often more contentious than collaborative.

Reflection

  • How often does your customer-facing team(s) and technologies team(s) encounter similar disagreements?
  • What resulted from the standoff between the opposing teams?
  • What purpose does the cross-functional team serve? In what form does it exist in your organization?
  • Which key aspects did Brian and his PMs sought to understand about (and build with) their stakeholders? Why were these aspects important to the improvements and end-result?

Owing to the flawed relations, opportunities to optimize end-products were missed, issues-resolution was cumbersome, and timelines were often unrealistic.

From diamond in the rough to bright cross-functional team

Eventually, improvements were introduced to the subcomponent development process via implementing “Core Teams”. This concept broke up the ‘boundaries/silos’ by bringing together representatives of the main development functions (Mechanical, Electrical, Design, Quality, etc.). The end-product teams also initiated their own Core Teams.  Still, many technical managers did not buy-into such concepts. Decision-making remained unclear or contested, and communications between our subcomponent teams and the end-product teams still lacked effectiveness.

Shortly after the implementation of Core Teams, I became a Director in Program Management, much to puzzlement of some of my peers. Though I found my roles reversed, I carried with me the lessons I had learned during my years in Engineering. For Core Teams to be effective, my fellow PMs and I knew we needed to first give respect in order to earn respect and build credibility with all the stakeholders.  We took time to meet with those who worked in the organizations that supplied us input, those that utilized our output, and those that provided services. Together, we strove to understand and appreciate each other’s roles, systems and challenges.  The stakeholders felt appreciated and became supportive of the Core Teams.

Pay-offs extended beyond achieving good working relationships between teams.  Having a sound understanding of each organization’s resources, systems, constraints and goals led to much improved alignment of priorities, management of resources, early identification of constraints, and importantly, jointly agreed-to realistic timelines.

Core Team members and their managers were encouraged and empowered to travel and build direct relationships with their counterparts at the end-product sites.  Most trips were truly ‘hands on’, not just managers meeting other managers. We noted that a great deal of progress was derived from spontaneous ‘hallway conversations’ that would otherwise occur more slowly under the constraints of emails and teleconferences.

Additionally, Core Team members worked together to define their roles and responsibilities in “chartering sessions“, which clarified decision-making ownership. Weekly meetings were initiated, attended by Executive Management, where both PMs and Technical managers shared statuses and issues. The goal was to get organization-wide alignment on priorities, resources and timelines.

All these efforts shortened product development timelines and aligned our resources to do what was best for the overall corporation.

So, take the time to “walk a mile” in the shoes of co-workers, suppliers, and project stakeholders. I’ve learned from experience that people will go the extra mile for you when they know you respect and value their efforts.

Oh, and give a listen to “Walk a Mile In My Shoes”, by Joe South.  Its message still rings true today.

 

ACTION

To improve relationships between teams:

  • Rotate staff members between departments that have strong interactions.
  • Try “team chartering” with your group, and include representatives from the organizations with whom you interact with most.
  • Tour with your staff the organizations that are ‘upstream’ (supply you input) and ‘downstream’ (use your output) to learn how they function.

Image: DOG VS CAT free wallpaper

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Brian D Strayer

Brian D Strayer

Former Senior Director in Wafer Operations: Strategic Projects at Seagate Technology
Brian is an accomplished manager and technologist with nearly 30 years of progressive experience, increasing span of responsibility, and success in engineering and management of cross-functional teams. Brian's specialties include Project Management, Technology Development and International Transfer, Product Launch, Cross-Functional Team Management, Customer and Supplier Engagement, and Process Engineering.

Connect With Brian:
@LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/briandstrayer
Brian D Strayer

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