Fixing Conflict Through Communication

David Subar

Chief Product Officer / Chief Technology Officer at Interna



"I was working as a consultant with a professional services company, coaching their VP of Engineering. The VP of Engineering, who reported to the company's COO, had to support hundreds of people and build software to support 600 people. There were a large number of systems that needed to be built, such as onboarding, evaluation of candidates, evaluation of staff, and client happiness evaluations, and the COO was disappointed by both the fit and the quality of the systems that the VP of Engineering's team was building. The COO's experience with the VP of Engineering made him question whether the VP was qualified or not for his job and whether the VP of Engineering should be mentored or fired."

Actions taken

"The VP of Engineering had a fundamentally different perspective. He was trying to solve a huge variety of problems simultaneously and didn't feel like he had enough resources or good enough integration with people in other parts of the company to get everything done. The COO and the VP of Engineering were clashing. Somebody wasn't going to survive unless something fundamentally changed. It was true that the VP of Engineering had a lot of things to do and it was also true that the quality of his team's work wasn't very good. However, the fundamental problem was one of scope and communication. The scope was too big for the resources the VP of Engineering had and the time their team had. In addition, the COO's communication had been poor in terms of what outcomes they expected. Given the VP of Engineering was not and perhaps could not be successful with the scope of work that was being requested the best way to address the issue was to first reduce the scope to a reasonable amount that the Engineering team could be effective in addressing. Over time it would be ok to expand the scope but only when there were appropriate resources and internal processes and culture that could support the increased scope. We also had to evaluate the VP of Engineering's performance and determine what he was doing well and what he should do differently. I did not expect that all problems were related solely to the scope of the work that was being undertaken. I, with the COO and the VP of Engineering, evaluated all the work the VP of Engineering had undertaken, determined which were most critical, and of the things that were most critical we identified which of the tasks had clear expectations. For those, we looked at what the VP did, where he succeeded and where his performance could be improved. Likewise, we looked at the COO's interactions with the VP of Engineering, where those were successful and where those could be improved. For instance, the VP of Engineering had to learn how to speak the language of the business. He was trying to solve all of the problems put on his plate but had been overwhelmed. It was important to give the VP of Engineering a language he could use so he could address the problems the company and COO had, as opposed to just those engineering had. For the COO the conversation was about how to understand delivery and what to expect from it. The VP of Engineering also needed to learn to demonstrate a bunch of small successes in order to increase the confidence of the COO and he needed coaching on how to accomplish this. Only by showing success could the VP of Engineering gain the confidence of the COO and be successful when asking for more resources in the future."

Lessons learned

"While there was initially dissatisfaction, as the company still needed all of the tasks to be completed. It meant that the COO had to suspend disbelief for a while, as opposed to the other option for the COO - to change out the VP of Engineering. The question of which to choose came down to which one would cost less to do, and whether he was willing to take a bet on the VP of Engineering. The switching costs of changing an executive are high and with early intervention, aggressive changes, skill and willingness of all parties, often the best situation can be achieved with the personnel in place, as it was in this situation. We were lucky here. People wanted the situation to succeed and the relationship between the VP of Engineering and the COO was not too far gone. It could have turned out differently."

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David Subar

Chief Product Officer / Chief Technology Officer at Interna

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership Training

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