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Peer Check
Peer Check

Episode 20 · 1 week ago

#19 - How to lead virtual engineering teams effectively

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Long before the pandemic caused a rise in remote work, Dr. Wanita Dixon was researching ways for virtual engineering teams to work together more effectively.

As the CEO and Founder of Technical Creative Consulting LLC, Wanita helps companies foster innovation through visual art teambuilding. And after 20+ years of progressive experience at industry heavyweights like Carrier, Alliance, Pratt & Whitney, and Lockheed Martin — it’s safe to say she knows a thing or two about effective engineering leadership.

On this episode of Peer Check, Wanita joins host Adam Keating to talk about leading globally-dispersed teams and how to get maximal contributions from everyone you manage.

Listen as Wanita and Adam chat about:

  • The LOVE framework for leading virtual teams effectively
  • Managing globally-dispersed engineering teams
  • Why emotional intelligence is an indispensable component of leadership
  • How to democratize product innovation and make sure everyone is heard   

More information about Wanita and today’s topics:

Welcome to Pierre check a Colab podcast. This is a show for engineering leaders who want to challenge the satas quo for how design teams work together. You're about to hear a conversation about the ways the engineering world is changing and how top teams are carving a new path forward. Let's do it. Welcome to Pierre check On your host Adam Keating, and today we're talking about how you can leverage love to lead engineers virtually and team virtually would be more effective. Today my guest is Dr wanting to Dixon Ak Dr Dobbs, who's an engineer and a virtual artist or visual artists. She's held engineering leadership roles a carrier alliance at Pratt and Whitney and today is taking all that talent back into the creative side, using that other side of her brain to think about, you know, her own business with Technical Creative Consulting LLC to help businesses with their services with visual artists creativity workshops and really move them forward. Dr us Welcome to the show. I Adam, thanks for having me so as of the first question, like that we were talking at the right and the left side of the braining with the engineering and the art side. How did you get in the engineering? We'll wrap it back up with the arts, but how did you get into the engineering side? Off the hop? Wow? I always have to shout out my parents. I'm from Oxford, North Carolina, a little small town, and my parents were of the opinion that artists wouldn't make money. I mean, spoiler alert, we can. Yeah. So I got into engineering because I was always taking things apart and my dad liked to work on cars as a mechanic, so it was kind of a natural progression. Nice And when you get into this, We're gonna talk a lot about this, this framework of love. And when I first saw it, I thought, you know, is this is this an acronym? Is this like a something tongue in cheek? And I think we talked about it before, and it's kind of it's kind of all these things, right, How did you get into your researching this? I tell me a bit about the research behind the framework, and then we'll dig into the framework from that,...

...all right. I've always considered myself a visionary and and a little bit of a futurist, and I graduated from Capella University with my doctorate in organization management and my topic at the time was virtual project team management of globally dispersed teams, and so that was you know, now, roughly ten years ago, I was approached while as a carrier to do a presentation for the Society of Women Engineers, and I needed a topic, and I started thinking about my leadership journey and leading engineers and leading technical professionals is definitely a lot different. So love is League of virtual Engineers. So I was being clever in terms of speaking about where these engineers are based, how to lead them before we get into the framework. I gotta ask you, virtual engineers not really much of a thing ten years ago, right, like most people in an office, how did your research? How did you focus your research there? Why? What was the compelling event that said, dr dubs, we needs you to look at this now. If you told why why then virtual I mean in using that term, I mean we've used a lot of different expressions. You know, in the academic research you'll talk about globally dispersed or et cetera. It's just simply saying we're not in the same place physically. At the same time, I was working for Pratt and Whitney at the time, and they had a division called rockod On. So yes, I am an actual former rocket scientist. And again with the leadership progression, I was asked to lead a team of engineers that were based in Florida, but headquarters was in California. So you're talking about two different coasts, two different time zones, two different company cultures. You see where I'm going. So it became pretty simple to me to say, why not use this as my dissertation topic because...

I'm living this experience. So that that was the pivotal moment for me. You were ahead of your time because I think if you think about it, like in twelve I worked also in oil and gas at the time, and they did have that like distributed center model. Now it's like distributed people everywhere kind of model. There's a whole other, you know, factor on top. But we were the same thing where part of our technical teams in Houston and we were we were in St. John's New flat and it was tricky. Now, we weren't super close. They were more like subject matter experts that you've got sometimes. But for your model, if you're on one side of the country and you know you're managing team elsewhere, you know that was that was probably a typical back then for most but it's good research that you did it because the whole world changed eight years later and very very critical now. So tell me a bit about the love framework itself. Like you made the comment that you know, it's a little bit tongue in cheek that you used the world love for this, just tell me a little bit about the framework and what it means to you before we dig in how it actually works and someone apply it. Okay, Well, what it means for me is it's from my leadership bandage point of caring about people and having that empathy and building the trust and rapport. That's not something that typically comes naturally to left bring more analytical thinkers. You can't just comment, you know, as engineers, you can't just comment us with oh yeah, you know, hi, happy to be here, especially in other cultures. So that's that's really what it means to me, is how do I peel back the layers and kind of get into that. And I would argue that it starts with getting to know that person, what motivates them, and that's getting into the customer research side of it. In the marketing, how did you think about that, Like, I think we talked about empathy beforehand, like really understand your teams that they trust you. How do you practice comically do that especially virtually?...

Like how do you really do because I think in person, you know, you rub elbows at the water cooler, you might have a meal or go out for a beer. Like there's things that happened that break down sort of the formalities of work. We can get to know someone on a deeper level and open up just schedule one on ones can sometimes be hard to pull out the organic stuff. How do you think about virtually getting that like empathetic feel I'm really in the know your team to be able to build that trust now, believe it or not, I actually went through this a carrier. I'm on board at all except two of the people on my team. Virtually it was hey, congratulations, were promoting you to director. Yeah this is awesome. Oh pandemic and out of the office, and it's like, okay, I had onboard at one guy virtually here locally, excuse me, um in person here locally, and then the second guy he calls me and he goes, are going to rescind the job offer? Just now we're gonna figure this out, but it's just yeah, wow, it's definitely a lot. Is there anything from those like onboards that you found work with their cadences that you used, or the introductions like how did you think about making those people successful? Especially during COVID, Right, that was a different level of stress. The virtual onboarding, like what was it that you found work for those technical people to kind of get them feeling heard really on I would say that the easiest way to break down the barriers, and back to your previous question like asking how to do that virtually? How to do that virtually is shared experiences. So in person, sure you can, you know, rowe elbows. It's very informal. I walk past your office, I see some objects, some found objects behind you, and we get a kinship. That way doing...

...it virtually. I did it through a shared experience. So I offered a workshop. Now this is my creative side again. There is a local artist and she works in fiber so fabrics, really cool stuff. I did a virtual workshop where even everyone on the team was learning how to make lumbar pillows and you're going engineers learning to sew right, but we were all awkward together and that was the fun part, but it was also exposing them to the arts and kind of unlocking that creativity. So I would say that that's how you do that. And for onboarding, Now to that question, what really worked well was scheduling virtual coffees instead of just pure one on ones. It's like I thought about it intentionally even before I hired the folks on the team. I had them interviewing with executive leaders that they would have to encounter so that they could both ask questions about culture, fit, about job expectations and that sort of a thing. Then, of course I had on global team meetings because I had people in the US and India, so tom zones always inconvenience myself before in commedience and the team in terms of selecting a time to meet cool. That's awesome. And when you talked about this presentation you gave back last year, I noticed that one of the first things you talked about was like the high EQ, Like how did you think about emotional intelligence? And like you know from your perspective, who who's whose responsibilities? That is it just you as the leader? Is that everyone on the team, Like how do you think about that when you're building your team's at especially in the virtual setting, because a lot of the stuff that are easier to pick up on the queues, they kind of go away when it's virtual. How did you think about emotional intelligence? It's like a key element to this love framework, the high e Q and and doing that virtually. There's different assessments that you can put people through. As a leader, I would say that my...

...ability to detect that is a little bit more refined, just because I've been through so many assessments myself. Just predictive index. There's Myers Briggs, Disks and engineers by and large, you know this is a generalization, but by and large we have certain key characteristics and just the way that we approach and kind of think about things is similar regardless of culture. I've traveled globally, work with teams in Germany, work with teams in China. It's still is that that engineering mansta. So when you're building your team, you're looking for that. When you thought about that mindset and what was common, you know what characteristics like really split out to you and those people. I'm curious, like I think when I think about it, sometimes you can put your finger on it, like like yes, it's this, but other times you're like, I can't describe to you exactly what it is, but I know this person gets it, and I'm curious if you found characteristics and things that I've worked to like really tell, Okay, this person truly gets it, and it's likely to be in a better position to be, you know, a manager for this team or to lead this project. What's like the secret sauce? Is there anything comes to mind? I don't know if it's a secret sauce, And so much as um, I really do and that's why I use the word league in the love of acronym. I really believe in that whole concept of what's your superpower and like what are you bringing to the team? But to start with that foundation, So everyone on my team had a mechanical engineering degree. I have a mechanical engineering degree, but I was picking people that had worked in different industries based upon the characteristics and the mindset that they were going to bring. So I had a gentleman that had worked in high speed electronics manufacturing, so characteristic for him analytical process oriented, very fat...

...asks but you know, reliable, right, repetitive, repeatable, predictable if you will, then you have me. I've worked in aerospace, refrigeration, h B A, C, right, fiber optics, all these different industries. So my ability to look at things differently, into pivot and be uncomfortable is a good leader because I'm gonna go running straight into that uncertainty, find out what the problem is, and try to shield my team from I mean, that's that's just two examples. That's the secret sauce. You've got to really think about how to architect it. It kind of is true though, if you think about it, because like a lot of times, the emotional intelligence piece is not like a blanket that just happens all the time. It's like in the moment, you can think about what's happening and perceive that the other persons responding to it. Like I think about presentations to a team as an example, when you're doing team meetings. The best leaders that I think have strong emotional intelligence can tell how people are responding to what they're saying, and they know when to stop, right Like if they're something's not landing well, they'll stop and they'll actually ask the question, if you know, hey, it looks like I missed the mark on X, what's on your mind versus others will just plow on through and you never figure out what the other person cares about, and then they leave that room confused, frustrated, feeling unheard. And I think one of the interesting parts in that too is like if you can really make people feel like they belong and they're heard, a lot of this stuff that are so open up. But I know, like the next part of that framework you talked about, it was like d E I and belonging you just talked about actually very interestingly like skill sets, But how did you think about that? Like culturally you talked about the different parts of the country. You've talked a work different teams, But how do you think about that from like a more diverse perspective than just engineering skill sets, whether it's race, age, different parts of the world, Like, how did you think of building teams there that really could feel inclusive and heard and do the exact same things that you know, it's not just the difference between...

...you know, analytical analytical skill fagineering, but maybe it's a whole different walk of life, a whole different thing. How do you think about bringing that into this process that people felt like they really belong virtually for them to belong virtually. I mean to me, it's no different than in person. It's it's still what makes people tick, kind of what's important to them now in North Carolinian. So I will make these these comments and people will laugh, But it's like you wouldn't ask a fish to climbatory. You've heard that expression, right, So if I know Adam, if I've taken if I've done my job as a leader, and I've taken the time to find out, Okay, how does Adam work best? Yeah, he's not necessarily an introvert, but he does need some quiet time to recharge and process things. So during a meeting, putting him on the spot and ask him, so, what do you think about this? Not the way that's not gonna play well? And meanwhile, you know you've got Jim sitting beside him, and Jim is like I have the best ideas ever and he's just going through and Adams like this. If I've taken the time to know that, then even when it's in a virtual setting, there's ways that I can work with Jim and coach him towards Hey, you kind of have to let the introverts have some oxygen sometimes because as an extreme extrovert, I'm conscious of that. I had to be coached on that right transparently. Yeah, I'm also an extreme extrovert, and I also will suck the oxygen out of the room at times, so I can appreciate that exact example quite well. I've never heard the fish up the tree. Yeah, you don't ask a fish to climb a tree. Totally totally makes sense when you say it out loud, because there's there's lots of other things like that too from a cultural perspective, even the thing you said earlier about the timing, like if you have a team that's in India and you're in America, trying to be considerate of when they're working or...

...doing these asynchronously or recording calls or things that allow that to be well done. Maybe it's not quite the Fishop tree example, but it's just considerate of the human on the other end of that, which and it goes back to that initial framing of love and thinking about like actually caring about someone on a a lot of things, and one interesting one that I heard recently, like our team, we just had our entire group from all over the place here in new from line. You got to share some of the experiences if what it's like to be here is kind of a interesting little place as far our Eastern Canada's you can go a lot of historical culture. I think that was really cool to be able to share. And something someone said to me is that almost everyone is proud of the food and culture that they have. There's something there. And they said to me, be able to share a meal with someone, or even sharing like how you created it is always interesting. And I thought it was, like, I've never not been excited by somebody to tell them to teach them of food or sharing something or a restaurant or it's a hard thing. You don't really offend someone, but it breaks you down. It breaks it down a little bit beyond just the work setting. And anyways, I said that at this conference, I was too, and I thought that's kind of brilliant. And I thought it our team, we've got four or five people from different places, and one gentleman from India came and he made his traditional meal myself and it was incredible, Like I still think about that all the time, right, but because of that, now I've got this different appreciation of him and what matters to him as well. So he did be a nice favor, but at the same time I understood, you know, you know, his life a little deeper. So I don't know. It's one that I heard was the sharing food. It's personal. It is, it's very personal. And the flip side of that though, like thinking about sort of like this framework you talked about radical candor and accountability. He actually gave a great example with like Jim and first and next to them, thinking about how do you do that? How how do you handle those personalities when you're in that moment and say Jim is topping a ton and kind of take the air out of it. But then you've got the...

...next person side by side who's not contributing or even potentionally taking energy from the room because and not contributingly. How do you manage those two different personality types to hold them both accountable without being a pain for for work. Yeah. Absolutely, the book Radical Candor for anyone who hasn't read it yet, I thought it was an amazing look and there was a story in there the author and her name escapes me right this second, but she was talking about how she handled the situation where she had to let someone go from the company. Will refer to it as as coaching someone out, and that sort of a thing back to the love framework, it's caring about that person enough to be candid with them. So in that situation, in the moment, again, if I've done my job as a leader, I know what to look for, so I know it before Jim decides he's gonna see whole Adam, And and I do it in a polite but a very direct way. It's like, Okay, Jim, that's that's incredible. You know, that's that's really amazing. Adam, what what was that you were telling me before the meeting about? And then I do what I call it, yes, And and Adam was like, well, well, yeah, you know, it's not putting you on the spot because we've had that conversation before the meeting. So I've done a little bit of pregaming. And then after the meeting, you know, because I'm not gonna embarrass him in public, because I don't believe in in that leadership style at all. Right, We're we're not kids. After the meeting, you know, I would just tell him you have incredible ideas. It's really amazing. I feel like we're not getting you know, complete contribution from the rest of the team. How about this in the next meeting, would you help me to co facilitate that. It's kind of like...

...past that we call it, like passing the marker, Like if I'm allowing him, if I'm delegating that, if I'm pulling Jim into it, it's giving him a chance to hone his leadership capabilities. And it's really hard. I mean, I can't do this. Maybe you can try this as a challenge. It's really hard to talk and think at the exact same time. So if he's facilitating and he's trying, his one job is to pull that information from his peers, he's not gonna have time to steam there. You kind of just like when you were talking that I've I've heard it from like a media training perspective about almost bridging, like bridging from one place in Max And I think what you said that yes and is important and I know you know there's there's someone an Our leadership team particularly does a good job of not putting people on the spot, but then including them in the conversation, like really making their voice heard or knowing I heard this before. When you're trying to pull that nugget into the conversation. I'm curious about the like initial example you started with, which was like from the book, and you're thinking about having to let someone go, Like what about in their harder situations, like maybe it's like a bigger performance problem, or it is a termination, or it's you know, it's just not working out. We're trying to move a different role, Like how do you do the You talked about being considerate but direct, Like, what would one of those conversations look like? I can imagine many managers and leaders put them off right their heart. No one likes them, I mean I don't like them. Like, what have you found worked to kind of have that like compassionate framework but still keep the radical candor when you're having the this isn't working conversation. I actually did encounter that, um with one of my direct reports. I won't tell the company to protect the Is that right for anyone listening to the podcast? Um, the situation...

...of how I handled that. You gotta take a step back. You can't have these radically candid conversations if you haven't done the work on the relationship first. And so the situation was that a gentleman on my team was not performing to expectations. The reason I was able, I mean, or should say what worked was that I, ahead of time understood how he likes to work and what he had been asked to do was to perform a duty by another executive right that we support on our team. That was our job, you know, And that particular executive was really happy because hey, I mean, who doesn't like it when someone says, yes, I'll help you with you know, this project or this task. But it was stretching him out of his comfort zone. It was not in scope of what our team does. The executive really shouldn't have asked him, But because I had that reputation and that relationship rather with the executive, I went back to him and said, um, you see it's hard to do this without naming names, right, But it's like I went back to that executive and said, hey, guy X on my team told me that you've you've asked for this project to be done and it's it's out of the scope of our team. Here's who I know in my network that it is in scope for and I'm happy to facilitate that conversation. When do you need the results that sort of a thing. So I was able to mend that relationship with that executive. Then I went back to the employee on my team and said, you know, this is a coachable moment. I'm not upset, You're not in trouble, right, this is not a quote firable offense. You know, I don't. I don't play that way. You know, it's not who Yeah, but I...

...do know that we we have to talk about this, We have to address this. Understand, you're new to the company and you don't want to tell anyone know or make any enemies. This is what I've done. You know, this is what has been said going forward. If it's something you know that's not in scope, respectfully let the person know. It's boundary setting really and standing up for yourself. Yeah. I love that you took the like step back approach on that because like a lot of times people, it becomes emotional, right, And I think the first thing, first thing you said there is most important, like step back and do the homework, because even if in that case there was nothing you could do and it really was an issue with the employee directly, you still want to have the candid conversation and think through that with them, right, because there's a human on the other side, even if it is difficult news to deliver, Being organic and candid about that is is key that I like that framing of it, and it's interesting. It's a lot of what you've been saying. We started off talking about like the engineer and the artists, the left and the right side of the brain. Talked about the emotional intelligence piece of all that thread even just in the way you've talked about a couple of examples here, Like there's an elegance and like how you think about the hole, liked what it really is. I wonder how much how much that comes from the art side of the brain. Like I think you think about art, there is an elegance to just the form and the shape and the creativity behind that. And I'd be curious because, like I feel like the people side, I've picked up lots of pieces. I'm a terrible artist, the worst. I'll never be able to help you in any which way. But I'm curious from your perspective, when you think about steam, which I know is an important part for you, you think about arts in your career today, you know what impact did that have? On how you've managed people like this creative muscle seems to have like bled into your work even long before you've gotten back into just being fully focused on it. Engineering is an art as well as a science. And...

...and I laughed when you said that you're not creative and you're not an artist. There there's exercises that I do that can unlock that, that can bring that out. And I would argue, everyone is creative. It's really just a flow. I guess that's how I would describe the way that I do it, in the way that I think about it, It's it's really a flow. It's it's tapping into what just comes naturally to you and then applying and bringing that out. You know, of others and bringing them along on that journeys is just deeply, deeply important to me. It's interesting because you're a second person. I think you actually said this to me now because we spoke at There's a talk I went to and they talked about business. It was put up by the Business and Arts Association here and new from miland I just naturally associating myself with the business side. And the whole point in their conversation was that, you know, being creative does make you an artist, It's not maybe the traditional mindset of what people paint. You know, no pun intended as as an artist. But they talked about this. You know, if you ask me directly do I think I'm creative? I would give you a different answer. What do you think an innovative or innovative? If if you're thinking about the things I could draw from you, Um, I remember, I remember my classes in junior high and I remember that being the one place really felt extremely out of my element. Maybe music as well. But it is interesting to say that because I do think there's a lot of very creative individuals in the engineering field. It's just it's just not your typical version of what people think about as an artist. But think about the beautiful vehicles people design, right like yeah oh yeah, and all the wearables and like the products we have at home, like industrial design, and even the people who think about the internals the guts of that. There's so many people...

...who are passionate about just like how are wiring wire harness is built? How are power boxes organized? How? Like? I don't know, it's an interesting flare on how do you redefine that? And it's cool, because I think that muscle helps with the first part, which is like, how do you lead these people passionately? Because a lot of times that creative muscles is pretty close to you know, understanding and wanting to learn and create, and curiosity and things that just make you. I think a leader that's easier to lead a group that is virtual or is even in person. I'm curious to kind of like just tied all back together, Like, what do you think is like in the next chapter. Now, started off doing a ton of incredible engineering work for massive companies, obviously a huge impact with your research and then sharing that you know ten years later with your colleagues, folks in the industry, how do you think about this next chapter? Now? What are you most excited about taking on? So I'm also a very spiritual person, and so behind me is my original work and it's entitled This is My Season. So I paint to gospel music and that's a gospel song. And I was doing the story of two sisters. I don't have a natural sister. I have sisters by choice and I have sisters in law, and so it's the story of two sisters. One is name no Weapon as in no weapon formed against Michelle Prosper and the other one's name is marvelous thing. What a marvelous thing he's done in my life. He died that I might love right. And so what I'm most excited about now is bringing all in that corporate experience, bringing that business development strategy, the creativity, the left and the right brain to help other artists. And when I say artists, I mean visual artists. So these are your painters, your sculptors, find art, commercial art, all things in between. How can I help them as a...

...member now of that community myself, How can I help them think about the business of art? And that's my tagline, the business of art, Applying for grants, developing proposals so that they can work with major corporations to do everything from logo design, concepting, think about interior decorating, commercial real estate, working with architects. You see where I'm going, on and on and on. There's so many ways to experience art, and that's what I'm excited about. That's super cool. I admire to like, take something you've done, leverage that to help the next part that you're super passionate about. I think even early in my career, like I thought I'd work in three or four different things before really realizing the starting colib was kind of what was most passionate for me. But each of those experiences honestly shape the reason why we started the company. So it's kind of that beautiful thing where you can tie it all kind of full circle. And I I know for sure that based on all the work we've done over the last number of years, that that's gonna bleed on through into how you build that business. So I wish you all the best of the business, and I really appreciate you being on the podcast as well. Definitely, And look, I think that colab is pretty exciting. I mean unsolicited shaming this plug right, And that was why I agreed to be on the podcast because I thought it was really interesting how your platform is bringing engineers together in a space that makes it not exactly like being in the room but real time. I call it democratization of innovation, giving access to all like a real time so I don't get all of the information. Because I happened to be Adam's favorite, it's no everybody sees it. At the same time, it's like super cool, it's an interesting one and something I think generally just passionate about because you look at how this works in other industries and you've seen it, even the transition from engineering and art,...

...there's differences and maturity and where people are too, and digitization or understanding people or whatever. When you look at software engineering, rightly, it's it's just way further ahead in terms of thinking about how information is shared, how people work together, how asynchronous things work. So back to the love of framework, Like, one of the things that I care about is I don't want engineers on the phone at one o'clock in the morning and they could have done this a synchronously in their own time, right That's that's like just such a small thing, but when you think about what it actually does for your culture, it goes right back to what you said in the very beginning, is that you're thinking about the person on your team first, which I think is is so important. But now I appreciate the appreciate the comments and support. We get a lot of fun stuff re building now. So I'll have to give you a little sneak peek. U re released the next year, so I'll love to keep in touch on that one. That sounds amazing awesome well, Dr Dubs, thank you so much for joining today. Thank you. Collab is on a mission to accelerate the case of engineering innovation by giving design teams a better way to work. As an engineering leader, you know it's crucial to empower your team to do their best work. Let Collab help you achieve your goals with our web based tool that makes it easy to share and review CAD files with anyone so you can focus on the work that batters without missing a beat or a bolt. Learn more at Collab software dot com. You've been listening to pure Check, a Collab podcast, keep connected with us by subscribing to the show in your favorite podcast player, and please leave a rating on the show that helps us keep delivering conversations about how the engineering world is changing and how you can challenge the status quo. Until next time,.

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