[00:00:12] Camille Morhardt: Hi, and welcome to the InTechnology Podcast where today we’re going to get to know the man behind the mic, my co-host, Tom Garrison. He’s actually a VP and Chief Strategy Officer within the Client Group at Intel where he works on strategy and partnership deals. He spent more than two decades in the tech industry where he’s worked on cybersecurity initiatives, supply chain assurance, product development, sales, and strategic planning.
He’s also a trained and certified leadership coach, which I did not know until very recently. And when I found out, I asked that he be on a podcast where we could talk about building effective technical teams as well as coaching, what it takes, what it is and what it isn’t. Welcome to the podcast, Tom.
[00:00:58] Tom Garrison: Well, thanks for having me as a guest. It’s weird being on this side of the microphone, but hey.
[00:01:05] Camille Morhardt: So first of all, do you remember your earliest experience building a team?
[00:01:10] Tom Garrison: It’s funny. I was hired into a group at Intel to do market research basically, and within only maybe a month or so of taking that role, there was a large reorganization that happened and I was vaulted into being a manager of that team. And then within just a couple of weeks, that same reorganization went through and I ended up going from being an individual contributor to being a second level manager almost overnight, and that was 25 years ago now.
[00:01:48] Camille Morhardt: How did it go?
[00:01:49] Tom Garrison: It’s probably the way you would expect. I always on the back of my mind thought I could be a good manager. What I realized was I wasn’t anywhere near as good at communication as I thought I was. And so when I would be either asking people to do certain tasks, I thought I was exquisitely clear what I asked them to do, they wouldn’t deliver what I wanted. Or if I was sharing what happened at the staff meeting as part of pass downs, they wouldn’t quite understand what I was talking about.
So when managing any team–technical teams, non-technical teams–communication is absolutely critical. And so it didn’t go well initially, but over time I had people that were very vocal, which were a pain in my side at the time, but they made me better. And over time I got better and better at communicating, and it was a good but painful lesson initially.
[00:02:55] Camille Morhardt: At this point, you’re recognized as a very good leader across Intel. And so I think that it’s interesting to hear that maybe it didn’t come out of the gate right away.
[00:03:06] Tom Garrison: Oh, no.
[00:03:07] Camille Morhardt: Natural talent, something that could be built in your opinion.
[00:03:11] Tom Garrison: For sure. And actually, that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been a very vocal proponent of leadership training because I am absolutely convinced, and by the way, the research says this, that leadership can be trained and that it’s not actually even that important how good you are as a leader, but more importantly, how often you demonstrate leadership traits. And the more and more you do it, the better you naturally get at it. But what employees need and demand and desire is to see those leadership traits over and over and over again on a regular basis.
[00:03:53] Camille Morhardt: Okay. So I want to ask you what they are, but before I do that, you had told me once that you took an amazing class that was transformative in terms of leadership and it was improv.
[00:04:06] Tom Garrison: Yeah, that’s true. Oh boy, you remember that. It’s crazy because the story about this improv class, I was studying electrical engineering at Portland State University, but I had this gap in my schedule. So I looked on the catalog and they offered this class called Improvisational Acting. So I signed up for the class as a total throwaway, and what it turned out for me was one of the most practical classes I ever took in engineering, and it was because it taught active listening. And to be able to always be in the moment on what’s happening in the improvisational acting case, it was what’s going on and how do you respond and move forward and keep the scene going.
But in the real life, it’s about listening and responding to what you’re seeing and what’s happening around you. And that’s not to say that acting like in the sense of you’re just faking it. That’s not what I’m talking about. It’s acting in the context of being really present with whomever it is that you are talking with and being able to listen to what they’re trying to say or maybe not saying, but then being able to respond appropriately.
[00:05:21] Camille Morhardt: That’s very cool, especially in the tech world. I don’t know if this is the case more broadly, but people get promoted into leadership roles or management roles based on their engineering skills or their technical skills. So a lot of times you end up with people who aren’t aspiring necessarily to be managing a group or building or leading a team, and they find themselves in that position because they’re very good technically, and that can be difficult for them and for the people who are working for them too.
I’d like to ask you, what are those traits that you say people would like to see over and over again? And then if this isn’t something you think that comes naturally to you, how do you remind yourself to exhibit those traits or create scenarios for yourself to do it?
[00:06:10] Tom Garrison: Well, the interesting thing, there’s courses and lots of PhD dissertations and whatnot that have been done on leadership. So I don’t have nearly enough time to go through the details, but there are four distinct traits when you ask people about admired leaders. So people that they themself look up to, whether it’s technical leaders, whether it’s political leaders, there are four distinct traits that are far and away more valuable than any other trait. The first one is honesty, pretty self-explanatory, competent, so they know what they’re talking about, forward-looking so that there is a vision, they have an idea of where they’re trying to go, and the fourth is inspiring.
And so we can all try to build the skills and our capabilities in these areas. And as I said before, and without going into too much detail, the point here is that you’re trying, the point is that you try to demonstrate behaviors that demonstrate these traits over and over and over again. And the more you do it, not the quality, but the frequency that you demonstrate those traits, and you will naturally get better at it, but you’ll also be recognized for it.
[00:07:22] Camille Morhardt: So I can see where communications comes into play because obviously you have to be communicating in order to be communicating honestly or communicating in order to be giving forward-looking projections or things like that. So how do you create the scenarios to communicate these ideas?
[00:07:41] Tom Garrison: Well, they’re all over. You can think about it in the context of just day-to-day work and you have the opportunity to share what you think is important or you can put your perspective on things that are happening on certain projects. Is that good? Is it bad? Why is it good or bad? Where is this going to lead us? So communication is not just verbal though. I actually started teaching a graduate level course at Portland State for technical engineers and whatnot, to describe the different audiences that we talk to and how to tailor communication for a technical audience or a business audience or a customer audience. And then what form of communication, because there are different forms of communication. There’s what we think about as a PowerPoint presentation, doing a very formal type presentation, but there’s also communication in the context of an informal verbal presentation, like an update at a staff meeting or a scrum meeting.
But there’s also formal writing, like a technical paper that you would write, but there’s also informal writing like emails. How do you tailor the communication to the audience and get to the most important points fast and clearly in a way that the audience can understand and value? And that’s, I think, a whole set of skills that are critical and really underserved within the technical community because we always think in the engineering schools and whatnot that it’s all about learning how circuits work, learning physics and calculus and whatever, and that’s all important. Not saying that’s not important, but it is not at all sufficient to be successful in industry. In order to be successful in industry, you can be brilliant, but if you can’t get your thoughts out and understood and appreciated, then you’re not nearly as valuable.
[00:09:42] Camille Morhardt: So let’s jump back and talk about building technical teams.
[00:09:46] Tom Garrison: Okay.
[00:09:46] Camille Morhardt: How do we even start to look at that? If you’re given an assignment or have an opportunity, you may be starting your own company or you may be building a team within a company. How do you even structure your focus for hiring and then how do you go about it?
[00:10:02] Tom Garrison: Yeah, so there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach as you would expect, but there are a few things to think about, and I like to use two different analogies here. The first one is a sports analogy. So sports analogy, I am a big basketball fan and I played basketball going through high school and whatnot. And if you look at a basketball team, the five players that are on the floor for any given team at a time, you have players that play different roles. You’ve got the center, you’ve got some forwards, you’ve got some guards, and you’ve got some people that are very good at dribbling the ball, very good at passing the ball.
Other people that are great at rebounding and defense and whatnot, and the best teams are ones where you have a diversity of these skills. If you put five people that are all great at one particular set of skills or maybe just a few skills, those teams almost always lose because the other team can exploit the deficiencies. Maybe they can’t rebound or maybe they can’t play defense or whatever. They’re great shooters, but the other team scores every time because they can’t play defense.
So the point there is that diversity matters, and I think when you’re building a team, it’s very easy to have the bias around, well, people that are like you. And that again, I think is more generally understood now. But that said, it’s uncomfortable to try to look for people that have vastly different skills than you do, and maybe even very obvious deficiencies in certain areas. But the idea here is that when you put all of these folks together, you need to be able to not only leverage their strengths, but also leverage other people’s strengths to account for individuals’ deficiencies. So that’s one way to think about it.
The other analogy that I like here is chess. The way that I talk about personal development is that when we all start out, we start out as pawns. We don’t really know much. Maybe we’re right out of school, we know the basics. We can do a few things relatively well and that’s basically it. We’re a pawn. And as we develop ourself over time, we grow our skills and we get promoted from being a pawn to being a rook and then to a knight and then to a bishop, and then eventually we’re all striving for our skills to make it to be a queen because they’re the most powerful position on the chessboard.
But what happens along the way is that we realize that that’s only one aspect of development, trying to get from a pawn to a queen. The other part of our own development is learning how to play chess. You have to be able to take the skills that are inherent to the people around you, whether they work directly for you or they’re just matrix team type folks, and how do you play chess with their skills and their attributes and deficiencies and whatnot and build them up and be able to execute? And I think that is so energizing for many people, not for everyone, but for many people. And those are the folks that you want to really focus on the leadership and driving that forward.
[00:13:21] Camille Morhardt: Do you literally have a whiteboard vision of this in your head and you see where all these pieces are going, or would you recommend somebody write it down, or is it more of a background kind of a scenario where you’re constantly thinking about it when you encounter people or listen to people?
[00:13:38] Tom Garrison: It depends on where you are in the team formation. If you’re early on in the formation, you’re really starting from a blank slate, then writing it down really does matter because you want to know roles and responsibilities. You want to understand what is this person or this team of people, what are they going to be accountable for? What are their deliverables? What are the kind of skills and traits we want to make sure we have represented in either that individual or that team? Now, it’s not that often that we have the ability to form a brand new team with a blank slate. Usually you’re given a whole team that already exists or you’re given a part of a team and you’re merging two parts of the team together. And there it matters that you have a vision for where it is that you’re trying to get to.
And then as you select and deselect people, as they come in and out of the team and organization, you’re always trying to augment, okay, where are we particularly overweighted in certain skills and characteristics and where are we underweighted? And so when you’re overweighted as a person leaves like that, then you bring in somebody that’s quite different with the areas that you’re deficient in. So these are all things that are important to at least be thinking about on a regular basis, not once a year. This is on multiple times a year, probably at least once a quarter. You should be thinking about organizationally, are we doing the right thing? Because the deliverables from your team inherently change, and so am I still well aligned with what the expectations are, or do I need to be looking at augmenting new skills and whatnot? So I think that’s all critical and that personal development, again, you have to have the belief that people can be developed.
And then there is an art, though it’s not a science, there is an art of sometimes it’s too far to go for a person that’s in a particular role with a particular set of skills, to move them as far and as fast as they need to go in order to be successful moving forward. And those are the folks that you need to de-select and you need to not necessarily fire them, but you need to find a different role for them so that they can develop in a way where they can be successful. And then you have the opportunity to bring in the right person at the right time.
[00:15:57] Camille Morhardt: How do you prevent, again, especially in a technical field, how do you prevent pigeonholing people? I think a lot of people who are trying to move up get concerned that they end up in one particular role and they’re always viewed that way, and they may be a star, do you worry about it or not?
[00:16:15] Tom Garrison: No, you definitely worry about it. If you’re not developing them, then their value over time is going to erode. And so it takes effort. I’ll say it that way. It takes effort on both parts, the individual’s part as well as the leader’s part. What I will say though is it all starts with open communication, open communication between the leader and the individual. What is it that they like doing? What is it that they want to do? Oftentimes when I talk to people, I do a lot of coaching, a lot of the times when I have the conversation with leaders, they don’t actually even know. They’re speculating what the people on their team actually want to do and to move toward. And I say, “Why are you speculating? Why don’t you just ask them?” And as part of these development one-on-ones or things that you should be doing regularly, folks, you should be having that very, very open conversation and ask them also, do they feel like they’re being challenged adequately enough?
And I like to think about people being in the flow. And in the flow is a good balance between the level of challenge you give a person and their skills and capabilities. And if there’s a good balance between the two, then the employee is what I call in the flow. When an employee they believe themself to be, or they actually are very, very highly skilled, but the challenge to them is very low because they’ve been doing the same job forever and ever, then that becomes an area where they could become bored, work for them becomes mundane. Or where the challenge is very high, but they don’t believe that they’re adequately skilled to do it. Now they’re super stressed out.
So this is where you need to check with employees over and over again regularly because things change so dynamically in these environments, technical environments, business environments, where are folks? And it starts with that clear communication. And then from there, it really boils down to, okay, what is it you need to be achieved? And then with a clear understanding of where their skills are and whatnot, then you can start mapping a plan forward.
[00:18:25] Camille Morhardt: Okay, so active listening, very important, open communication, honesty, constantly communicating, all very important things in leadership.
[00:18:37] Tom Garrison: Yes.
[00:18:38] Camille Morhardt: Putting together a team with a variety of players, with a variety of skills. Are there any other big things people should be constantly asking themselves?
[00:18:48] Tom Garrison: Yes, there is at least one. There’s probably more, but at least one. And that’s what I call the internal dialogue that’s happening in all of our heads. And sometimes that internal dialogue is a cheerleader. It’s telling you how great you are and what a good person you are and whatnot, how skilled you are. And oftentimes that voice that’s in your head is telling you negative things like you’re a fraud in the case of imposter syndrome, or you don’t really know what’s happening, or all kinds of negative things, I could list out a 100 of them, but I think we all understand that.
And the important part of that inner dialogue is to realize first and foremost that it’s happening. When you’re nervous or stressed in some way, shape or form, that voice inside your head gets louder and louder and louder. And it’s hard to set that aside and to say, “First of all, I don’t even know if that voice in my head is telling me the truth. Maybe it’s telling me that I’m a nice person, but when I’m driving in the parking lot and somebody walks in front of me and I lay on the horn, well, you know what? Maybe I’m not being a nice person. My voice says I am, and that person deserved it and whatever it is. But in the end, it’s all about your actions.” And sometimes you are that good and the confidence is well-grounded, and other times it’s misplaced. And likewise, there’s a lot of times where people think they’re terrible leaders or terrible communicators or whatever it happens to be, and it turns out no, people think they actually are. And so they’re just torturing themself with a self dialogue that isn’t grounded.
So what do you do about it? The only way to address this is to have a network of people that have your best interest in mind. Not your friends, not people that are just like you, but people at all levels of the organization, both in your teams, outside your teams that know you and care enough about you that they will tell you the truth. And for you to spend time not only building that network, but also maintaining it over time and having those conversations to say, “Okay, well, I just gave a presentation when you were in the room. Can you give me some feedback? What did you think I did well, not well?” And have the person just in some cases if you deserve it, to lay into you and say you weren’t prepared. You should have known the answer to those questions and you didn’t.
Those are the things that matter, that the inner voice, whatever it happens to be, can rationalize good or bad behavior. It can rationalize away bad results and just say, “Oh, well it wasn’t my fault,” or whatever it is. But that network of people, that is really the only source of what I call a mirror, to hold up a mirror to you and say, “This is who you really are,” not what you intended to be or what you tried to be or whatever, but really who is the person that you actually are, and that network can tell you that.
[00:22:08] Camille Morhardt: So we’ve talked a lot about leadership, but I’m actually interested in the difference, if there is one, between being a leader and being a coach because you’re trained in certified coach, in addition to having been a leader in a number of divisions across Intel, what makes coaching different?
[00:22:26] Tom Garrison: What I thought was coaching in the past really wasn’t because what people were coming to me and asking about was, “Hey, I have a certain problem. What would you do if you were in my shoes?” And so they were asking for advice. And while advice giving is a small aspect of coaching, what I learned through the whole coaching certification process is that coaching is more about the individual themself and trying to uncover and unblock ways of thinking, ways of approaching problems. So that my value as a coach is not trying to solve a problem because first of all, I’m not an expert usually in whatever it is they’re dealing with. I certainly don’t have all the background knowledge that has led them to the point they are right now. What I approach these folks with is assessment and diving into how are they approaching problem? And maybe unblocking some of their thought processes, maybe different lens on the situation that may be a different perspective, that may open up new opportunities.
And that for me is so exciting. It’s so rewarding when you have those aha moments with folks in coaching. That’s really what gets me going. And I have found over time that there’s more and more of these opportunities is people, they don’t need the answer. It’s like the old analogy, you fish for them, you feed them once, you teach them how to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. Well, that’s the same with coaching, is that even if I was able to give, “advice,” I’m only helping them in that one setting. Whereas if I can help them with how to approach the challenge that they have and their thought processes and whatnot, now I’m arming them for a career and that’s how I approach it.
[00:24:24] Camille Morhardt: I remember when I had a great… In this case, it was informal coaching because it was more of a mentor, but teach me how to do something that was just really required, basically decision making and how do you do that? And it really stood out. It was like, wow. But of course, that person knew how to do it already and was experienced at it. I know coaching goes all the way up through senior executives. I can’t imagine there’s people in the highest level executive staffs who don’t have a coach, really. How are they coached? How does a coach coach somebody who’s above them in a field?
[00:24:59] Tom Garrison: No, that’s exactly field exactly the point that I was just raising before, because a coach isn’t expected to have all the background. In fact, in many ways, a coach is taught not to get involved or engaged or try to even understand what the problem is that the individual is dealing with. The coach is trying to understand how is the person approaching the problem? What is it that their inherent belief systems or in terms of their overall engagement? In that regard, level of the organization is irrelevant. As long as you have somebody who’s very, very good at being able to dive in into the approach of a problem, that person can be at any level of the organization and they can be talking to a CEO or a board of directors person or anybody else.
The level doesn’t matter. It is a skill and an art, and it’s something that I didn’t appreciate at first, but as I got more into the training and understood really how it was different than advice giving, I realized that, oh my gosh, there’s so much more power. There’s so much more good that can come out of a good coaching engagement than there is out of old school advice giving session.
[00:26:24] Camille Morhardt: Do people tend to frame things similarly as they move through different, I guess, decision points or-
[00:26:33] Tom Garrison: Sure.
[00:26:34] Camille Morhardt: And I don’t even know, I’m trying to just think what it would be. This person approaches things pessimistically, assuming the other people are out to get them. And so the way that they structure a problem is always defensive around that or something, or vice versa?
[00:26:48] Tom Garrison: The way I would say it is that people tend to continue to do the things that got them to where they’re at. So they’ve been successful, and so they tend to rinse and repeat similar approaches. The problems that the senior leaders and executives, what they deal with are things like team dynamics. They’re frustrated, their team isn’t operating the way they need them to or want them to. Maybe there’s political strife. Everybody is still individually trying to develop themself. So what are some of the challenges they’re facing there? Engaging with customers or industry players in certain ways that aren’t going well, and they need to do that. And then there’s also the challenges of leaders that have gotten feedback from people that are in their organizations or whatnot, that they’re not a good leader, they’re not a good communicator, they’re not whatever. You pick whatever negative skill deficiency there is. So it really runs the gamut.
The one thing that I will say though is that the old school frame of thinking was that when somebody got a coach, it was to fix a problem. It was because they were causing issues or whatever. So they need a coach. And fortunately what has come now to be more broadly accepted is that there are so many benefits of coaching that people of all skill levels, the high performers, the high potential employees, they should have a coach. Why? So they can get even more out of those people and they can develop even faster. And yes, the people that have challenges in certain regards, they can also benefit from coaching. All people will benefit. And again, you tailor the coaching engagement to meet the needs of the individual where they’re at and where they’re trying to go. And that’s the art and the joy for me in coaching.
[00:28:45] Camille Morhardt: So Tom, you are Vice-President of Strategy in the Client Computing Group at Intel, and also a trained and certified coach, and also an instructor at a graduate school in the Portland area on technical communications. Thank you very much for sharing your wisdom today.
[00:29:04] Tom Garrison: Thanks for having me, Camille.