With the totemic Eric Schmidt announcing his departure from the executive chair role at Google’s parent firm Alphabet, business journals have taken the opportunity to reflect upon his achievements over a busy, pioneering career. One of them is Fast Company, which has pulled out of its archive an interview it ran with Schmidt back in 1999, in which the tech guru – then at Novell – outlined his strategy for communicating with the firm’s most treasured commodity: its software engineers. Or, as Schmidt calls them, ‘geeks’.
Schmidt notes: “One of the main characteristics of geeks is that they are very truthful … They are taught to think logically. If you ask engineers a precise question, they will give you a precisely truthful answer. That also tends to mean that they’ll only answer the question that you asked them. If you don’t ask them exactly the right question, sometimes they’ll evade you – not because they’re lying, but because they’re being so scrupulously truthful.”
He adds: “When you talk with them, your real goal should be to engage them in a dialogue about what you and they are trying to do. If you can get your engineering team to agree with what you’re trying to accomplish, then you’ll see them self-organise to achieve that outcome.” The next thing you need to remember, he points out, “is that you can tell them what to do, but you can’t tell them how to do it”.
Is it always beneficial for a leader to address staff in different ways depending on the business area they work in – distinguishing between, say, tech, sales, marketing, HR and the finance team? Or would it be more helpful for every worker in the organisation to hear the same voice, pitched in the same tone?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “If you are speaking to these incredibly logical people who – by virtue of their training and the work they do – are predisposed to give truthful answers, that makes it all the more important to think about the questions you ask. And that need not apply solely to ‘geeks’. Whoever you are talking to, in whichever part of the business, think really carefully about the questions you put to them, listen to their answers and then ask supplementary questions based on that feedback.”
Cooper explains: “It’s not so much a matter of addressing employees in different business functions in different ways. What’s really important is asking the right questions. It’s about understanding the people you’re talking to; being able to pick up cues; checking that they’ve understood what you’ve asked them; making them feel at ease with telling you things they think you may not want to hear – and the thrill of receiving either an answer you didn’t expect, or a challenging response that opens up your own thought processes to new ideas.”
She adds: “That type of restless and engaged curiosity will encourage your people to be open and transparent with you, which will only benefit the organisation in the long term. Finding out that employees have been deliberately hiding something from you is one of the worst discoveries that a leader could ever make.”
For further thoughts on how to build trust in your organisation, check out these learning resources from the Institute