SE Soft Skills and Culture Building

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During the third week on the job I was flying around the country meeting team members and someone was kind enough to mention:

  • Him: “I almost forgot, in 3 weeks you need to host an SE Summit with about 40 people in person for 2 days of training.”
  • I: “Cool – who is organizing it and hosting it?”
  • Him: “Well, you are …. I think”

Luckily I have experience hosting large events on short notice.   First at Cisco via our SE Bootcamps and most recently at GoodData for our Sales Rallies (Ghost Written Blog). Unlucky for me, at those companies I knew how to navigate the groups and get stuff done.  Lucky for me, I have a great team here.


One thing that has always frustrated me with SE training events are that they exclusively focus on how much technical content can we cram into an overloaded agenda.  We invariably rat hole on topics, go over on time, never get a chance for hallway conversations, finish late, and finally rush to a restaurant where we all sit at long tables mentally exhausted and talk to the four people sitting around you (who are typically your four friends).  Maybe, if you are at a progressive company you attend a corporate forced fun event like Dave and Buster’s or go-carts (whirlyball excluded).

I-m-the-BossI always hear that at startups you get to build something the way you always wanted it to be built.  Last time I checked my job title is something to the effect of ‘Boss of SE for Americas’.    So its my party and I am going to try to do things a bit different.  Rather than focus on technical content, I wanted to mix it up with the following principles:

  • Do 3 evening social events for 2 days training
    • 1 focused on interacting with HQ
    • 1 focused on team building
    • 1 focused on celebration & relaxation
  • Change content from 100% technical to
    • 50% technical
    • 25% cross functional visibility
    • 25% team and culture building
  • Incorporate breaks and have the lunch hour free to mingle and not a ‘working lunch’
  • Focus on the team – let them build it, own it, run it.

Beyond the agenda and content of the technical sessions we organized every free minute to focus on SE soft skills via real world ‘labs’.  An SE must be more than a technical expert. They must work cross functionally, use influence, strive for continual improvement of the company, find creative solutions, be resourceful, leverage the team, and be accountable for results.  Below are the various ‘labs’ we held and the outcomes they produced.  Hopefully you can leverage some of these techniques with your own teams.  All but one of the below I ‘borrowed’ from other great leaders.

Cross Functional Trust – SE Tasting Event Happy Hour

First thing we had to decide was where to host the SE Summit – the choices were Las Vegas or HQ in Milpitas CA.  I figured Vegas would have been a slam dunk, but the team expressed a desire to be at HQ and meet more of the company.  However, last time they did a summit they were ‘sequestered’ at the Marriott and never had free time to go over and mingle.  Therefore we wanted to kick off the summit with a reason for the SE team to meet HQ team members in an informal manner and build some sort of familiarity or trust.

We created the concept of the SE team hosting a Beer, Wine, Liquor, and Snack tasting happy hour.  I committed to the team that if they each gave me 2 options of their favorite and hard to find beverage or snack I would do my best to source it from around the world.  The team delivered and we soon had a list of items including Pliny the Elder, Tokaji, Barolo, Premier Grand Cru from Burgundy, BaconOst, Green Tea Flavored Kit Kats, Dr. Pepper from a special factory in Texas, Greek Liquor, home made short bread cookies and more!  Thank god for the internet and family connections.

For the event we set up tables in the corporate HQ cafe just like a wine tasting event.  On each table we put the SE’s name, their beverage/snack, and a small bio with fun and interesting facts on it.  At 5 o’clock we invited the entire company down to sample each item and strike up a conversation with the SE.  We had visitors from development, finance, ops, and more.  As we were wrapping up a few SEs and I roamed the halls and delivered cookies and wine to anyone who was unable to attend.

You build trust cross functionally by getting to know other and realizing co-workers aren’t machines but normal people trying to do a job.


Keeping on Schedule – Soap and a Rat

One of the biggest challenges for these events are keeping on time.  The way I look at it, we schedule a set amount of time for each topic based on our perceived importance of that topic.  Why should we deviate from it?  If you are able to keep you lunch hour and breaks free, use that hallway time for extending beyond the allotted time. At 7am on the first day I asked one of our team members:

 “Hey can you run next door to Target and try to find a large stuffed rat and a box of soap?  It has to be a box too, nothing else will work”

After a quizzical look he humored me and came back with both.  Rather than having management try to keep on time and fail our goal was to empower the team to self police.  If someone was ‘rat holing’ on a topic a team member could take the stuffed rat and throw it at them.  If anyone was wasting time by getting up on their soap box then they could walk not throw the soap box over and hand it to them.  At the end of the summit we even awarded a Rat Hole and Soap Box Award.  To my surprise the team even created a new award called the MVP “Most Valuable Plumber” and gave me a nice toilet plunger with a big bow on it.


Get to Know Your Peer – The Morning Jog

When you spend a day inside a hotel conference room with no windows it can be exhausting and you forget you are a real living being.  Therefore at 6am we had optional outings for runs and jogs.  About 7 out of 40 people showed up early each morning and we had a great opportunity to learn more about our peers (and also find out that there is a boardwalk, trails, and snow only 0.5 miles away from HQ).

Empowerment + Accountability + Teamwork – Cooking Class

On night two I wanted to try and create an environment that mimicked how I hoped our team would operate in the future.  I learned at Cisco that managers and leaders can change often but the highest performing teams were those that almost ran themselves.  My leadership style in a nutshell is:

  • Clearly define the desired outcome
  • Set a vision for what success or failure looks like
  • Create an environment that has (most of) the right tools
  • Encourage collaboration and coordination between the local teams
  • Empower the team to adapt and make local decisions
  • Manage by walking around and knowing what is working and what is not
  • Cajole, encourage, push, teams to perform if falling behind
  • Get your hands dirty and dive in deep where needed

To create an environment to showcase this we created a cooking event where we purchased all of the food as raw ingredients and had only a limited set of cooking utensils that could be found in the HQ Cafe. One of the team members asked ahead of time if we would have a professional chef orchestrating us.  “Nope, just us”.

Rather than dictating a firm set of action owners, roles, and specific recipe instructions we nominated team leads and assigned team members who the leads had never worked with from across Product, Customer Advocacy, Europe, Asia.  The leads had to collaborate on the timing for all of the dishes, ingredients, tools, etc.  I delegated to them and then floated around as needed to nudge them to hurry up or I rolled up my sleeves and helped with a task.  If we don’t succeed we don’t eat.  The model worked beautifully.  Not only did we eat like kings but we had unexpected surprises like Joe’s gorgonzola grilled garlic bread, butter’shrooms, and more.  Empowerment, teamwork, accountability at its best.

Mapping back to the leadership approach:

  • Clearly define the desired outcome
    • A multi course meal with appetizer, salad, bread, side dish, main course of meat and vegetarian, dessert, beverages.
  • Set a vision for what success or failure looks like
    • If we don’t succeed we don’t eat.
  • Create an environment that has (most of) the right tools
    • A patio with 2 gas grills and a cafe with a fridge but no stove.
  • Encourage collaboration and coordination between the local teams
    • Leads were clearly identified.  They were told to lead.
  • Empower the team to adapt and make local decisions
    • While I did give loose recipe instructions I did not hand out any written recipes. They were open to being creative within their defined item (salad, meat, etc.)
  • Manage by walking around and knowing what is working and what is not
    • I would run around and see how everything was going (aka sneaking bites to eat).
  • Cajole, encourage, push, teams to perform if falling behind
    • When I saw a team falling behind I would stop and see why, what needed to be done, etc.  I let them know how other teams were doing and whether they should speed up or slow down.  If a team wasn’t paying attention or working together I would ‘encourage’ them to focus.  However, at various points most teams split up to visit and interact with each other – I didn’t micromanage this as long as things were trending in the right direction.
  • Get your hands dirty and dive in deep where needed
    • A few times there were do or die moments, like having to quickly grill the ‘meat candy’ appetizer in order to free up the grills for the dinner.  So I jumped in and grilled them up myself.

This was the best team event I have ever done.  We had to be creative on making up for missing tools like cutting boards and then by the end we all sat around a table on the patio and 8 of us smoked cigars and placed wagers on which theater – Americas or Europe would have the largest Q4 ACV deal.  Product Management is holding the wager for us.

Celebrate Each Other (and don’t set fire to HQ)

Sometimes you need to pause from your hard work and recognize that your team members are people outside of work and celebrate that.  Greg, our mid market SE Leader, pulled me aside and let me know it was Brijita’s birthday.  Midway through the Cooking Event we coordinated a ‘flashmob’ to celebrate Brijitas birthday.  3…2…1… NOW!  Every one stopped their dinner prep, turned around, and started singing.  Lesson learned, if you don’t have candles don’t make a torch out of wax covered paper plates indoors – video below.

Thank You’s Matter

There image1is no way we would have been able to pull the event off without help.  We had great support from our travel manager, people ops, and exec admin team.  They organized all the flights, helped pick up food at Costco and Whole Foods, and setup our final dinner at Levi Stadium.  So when we kicked off the SE Summit we had the 40 people in attendance all send a thank you text message all at once to Sandra, Piara, and Gina!  Ding.. ding.. ding…  #phoneblewup.  Later when our Support team presented one of our SE’s stopped the room to stand up and clap and thank them.  Next thing you know the entire audience stood and gave them a nice looooong STANDING OVATION.  Service leadership defined!





Wrapping Up

There were additional strategies we employed that were more operational than cultural and I will endeavor to write more on those next week including:

  • Give Gets: when asking cross functional teams for things, what do you offer in return?
  • Victim Mentality & Initiatives: it is easy to feel like a victim and things are outside of your control as an SE.  How do you put them back into your control?
  • Roses and Thorns: even when things are going well – what can you learn and improve?
  • Live Feedback: rather than surveys, how to poll the team live via paper and pen
  • Actionable Parking Lot: the ‘parking lot’ … where actions go to die.  How to make sure that doesn’t happen.

See you next week!

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