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Communicating Effectively

Alignment
Internal Communication
Hiring

5 October, 2021

Sony Mohapatra
Sony Mohapatra

Senior Engineering Manager at Cruise

Sony Mohapatra, Engineering Manager at Cruise, believes that trouble can be avoided easily with the help of a solid foundation of communication that colleagues may share as they work.

Problem

Something that I love to talk about is effective communication.

I do a lot of hiring; I’ve conducted upwards of five hundred interviews throughout my career. Recently, I found myself working with this individual who was very competent technically. I am so inclined to hire this person, but they are not very good at communicating with others.

It breaks my heart. This person’s work is excellent and they bring a diverse perspective to the team. The decision to hire is a difficult one to make, though, because if I were the one working with this person, I do not think that it would work out.

Actions taken

My mentality is that when a person is put in a place where they are thriving, they will be successful. This person’s comfort zone, however, is very much in a silo.

Communication is the most important tool for a manager or an IC; this will be true of any role. This skill was never anything that came easy to me, so I could certainly relate. There are many factors that separate us from one another. Language is one possible obstacle; my mother tongue is not English. You will not always have the home-team advantage with another person, which is always something to consider.

I took many courses in communication in order to learn how to communicate more effectively. I learned many things, one of which is that brevity truly is wit. Rambling is not a good way to communicate. Being as succinct and as to-the-point as possible is key, and so is having enough data to back your opinion up.

In an interview setting, people will usually be asking you questions. You want to maximize the time that you spend with each candidate. I try to answer their questions as directly as possible so that we may move on to the next topic of contention quickly.

The potential hire mentioned previously is definitely one to ramble at times, which can be difficult to discourage gently. I gave this person some constructive feedback at the end of the interview. I suggested that they take some classes in communication in order to develop those skills.

Having some sense of alignment with the real-world needs of the org will naturally lead to more effective communication when it comes to your work. If a person is working on something, the context of where they fit into the rest of the picture will inform them as they produce. This, combined with the personal touches of empathy and compassion, really stands out to other people.

I have many colleagues who are one hundred percent business when they communicate. They go immediately to the point without wasting time; there is no fluff or anything else that may distract from the conversation. When brought to a maxim, this style of communication tends to fall flat more often than not, however. There needs to be some aspect of your humanity included in every interaction.

One of the most important aspects of good communication is knowing when to stop talking. Listening is a skill all its own. I, myself, love to talk. I actually started to record my own meetings in order to gain an understanding of how I was conducting them.

I learned that when I do all of the talking, I may be perceived as aggressive or unconcerned with the opinions of others. I never wanted to make the conversation a my-way-or-the-highway type of thing, so this insight was really big for me. Making space for every voice at the table means giving them room to make themselves heard. Self-awareness was the first battle to be won.

Lessons learned

  • When somebody is struggling to develop their skills as a communicator, I always suggest education as a solution. A person can have all of the technical talents in the world, but if they are not able to convey their ideas meaningfully to all other parties, the team will struggle to find common ground to build upon. I advise these types to speak simply and generically when there is a knowledge gap separating them from the person that they’re communicating with. 
  • Let’s say that, for example, I’m communicating with my team. A couple of things that I will talk about are how our work aligns with the rest of the org and how what we do provides for a need. This will include setting the right expectations for them, which are key for ICs to understand.
  • I, personally, am involved with a lot of cross-functional projects. For me, cross-functional communication is especially important. You interact with each person around you completely differently. EMs are more technically-minded, so I am able to communicate with them on a more technically granular level than I would while speaking with a PM or somebody else on the Product team. You will be context-switching between these deeper dives and the bird’s-eye view of a leader every single day. Versatility is everything.

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