2 Sides of Influence

Mark J. Komen, President

Kodyne, Inc.

Minneapolis, MN

Here are some words of wisdom from folks who positively influenced me during the course of my engineering and consulting careers.  This isn’t an all-inclusive list but ones easily called to mind.

Go back to school

I spent a summer as a technician working for a major consumer electronics manufacturing company.  I was on a break between my 2 senior years as I was completing my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and I was assigned to an engineer who’d been with the company for about 10 years.  He asked me what my plans were and I said, “After graduation, get a job.  I spent 3 years working for the telephone company so I figured I’d have a leg up on others who had no work experience.”  He told me, “Don’t do what I did:  Finish my bachelor of science degree, get a job, get married, have kids.  I always regretted not staying in school for a master’s degree and I’ll probably never get into management given my level of education.  I’m basically stuck.  Go to school while you can.” That scared me right into graduate school – a very fortunate and ultimately wise decision.

Make a manufacturable drawing

As a newly minted Master’s level engineer working for a major electronics manufacturer, I needed to have some metal parts made in our machine shop for a project design I was responsible for.  I drew up what I thought would show the machinist what I wanted and turned it in.  Shortly thereafter I got a call to come down to the shop.  A Polish machinist with a name too long to remember met me at the door and said, “Listen, kid.  If you want me to be able to make this part, here’s what I need to know and here’s how to make a drawing a machinist could follow.”  So, he showed me and I learned how.  And I also learned to make sure that no matter who I was communicating with, I needed to take the time to ensure I was communicating with language that others could understand and respond to, ditching the jargon, and connecting with them on their terms.

Don’t take politically motivated managers too seriously

With another major electronics manufacturer, I came to know a senior level engineer who was not only a brilliant mathematician but also a poet and student of human nature.  After I had a tussle with an empire-building and demeaning manager, he calmed me down by telling me that people like that will be gone from the department, division or even the company as soon as they have another chance to climb the ladder somewhere else.  The advice was, “wait them out.”  He was right.

Stand up for yourself and your client

I was invited to support another consultant on a project she had landed.  We were briefing a 40-person department on some important cultural data we’d collected on their behalf when the department head began to interrupt, challenge our credentials and derail our presentation.  The lead consultant stopped the meeting, pulled the COO (who was also in attendance) into the hall and told him to either rein in the department head or we were leaving.  The COO cornered the department head, told him to knock it off and we continued our session so that the department could understand our findings.  And it should be no surprise to anyone that the department head was a major source of the cultural problems in the organization.  The department head was let go shortly afterwards.  The lesson – confront negative behavior that detracts from organizational needs.

Now at risk of sounding snarky, here are some other lessons I learned along the way – also easily called to mind:

How to run an ineffective meeting

At one company, we had a VP of Engineering who had an old-time command-and-control view of the workplace.  He held a weekly mandatory meeting he called a “stand up meeting” as there were no chairs allowed in the room so we were forced to stand in front of our individual schedules as he paraded around from manager to manager like he was doing a military style inspection.  We were expected to report “Exceptions to the Schedule” (apparently success was assumed and not worth mentioning).  In other words, our conversations were around what things went wrong and what we were doing to fix them.  All conversation was directed to the VP and all questions had to do with – “why are you late, why did things fail and what are you doing about it?”  Putting people on the defensive was not a smart thing to do with this staff so people withheld information until he left the room.  The meeting only became useful on days he didn’t show up so we managers could actually talk with each other and share information, solve problems, make decisions and generally be encouraging.  A much better use of our time.  Oh, and that VP didn’t last long before being removed.

How to build an unhealthy culture

Start by adding one large dose of “Management by Intimidation,“ to an organization that encourages insulting presenters of technical data at meetings and promotes conflict.  Then add a heaping helping of dictatorial department heads who like to confront and denigrate staff and are rewarded for it by senior management.  And did I mention encouraging sales staff to sell products to customers that hadn’t been designed yet?  Think that might be a blue print for dysfunction?  Yup.  Think there might have been a lot of turnover at that company?  Sure was.  I lasted 2 years there before I couldn’t stand it anymore and when you have 25-year veterans leaving as well, you have to wonder whether anyone cared at all.

How to set up a company for failure

Thank you for this lesson Mr. Division President – Take a new, never-been-done-successfully before technology, sell it to customers while the design is still being developed on the bench and without any thought to large-scale manufacturing and include severe financial penalty clauses on the company for not delivering on time.  Then work people all hours of the day 7 days a week, don’t thoroughly vet out the design with its control software and minimally test it under conditions it will see in the field, then promise to pull in delivery dates.  Yes, the product made it out the door and was rolled out to multiple customers.  Yes, we lost our butts on it financially.  Yes, people quit and went to work elsewhere. Yes, the company is gone.

How to wreck a team

Assign a toxic individual to a team, allow said toxic individual (TI) to run rampant, saying bad things about teammates, not completing on tasks and not showing up at team meetings.  Turn the other way when the TI destroys other people’s test hardware and restricts access to the team’s computer software.  Take the TI’s side explaining to us that we have to understand he was going through some tough times.  Essentially deny there is an issue at all.  The result?  Much wasted time worrying about where the TI was, what he was going to do next, and protecting hardware and software from harm and a huge unnecessary distraction.  The team eventually got the job done but trust levels were irreparably damaged, particularly with management.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a pretty good education in terms of “what to do” and “what not to do” in the business world.  It’s amazing to me how much of these items are related to culture, effective management practices and how people’s egos can impact performance.  It’s also amazing to me that these situations were allowed to exist and were tolerated, if not encouraged.  Granted some of these experiences occurred a while ago.  My optimistic self wants to believe that organizations these days are more in tune with weeding out negative influences and holding staff to higher levels of performance (and behavior) than I’ve seen in the past.  My realistic self still believes it’s a work in process for now.


©2017.  Mark J. Komen.  All rights reserved world-wide.