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PART 2.  In this series of articles our Org Psych, Virginia Henningsen, takes you through real-life (anonymised of course) examples of personalities you are likely to encounter when recruiting for your startup/scaleup and the tips and approaches you can apply to bring out their best. Yes, there are also pitfalls to look out for and some people you might want to avoid at all costs!

So your new Head of Engineering ticks all the boxes but then they start, and you can’t quite get a handle on them, you can’t work them out, everything you do seems to be getting them offside and performance is slipping. What’s going on? Maybe they’re like Jake… 

Jake was recently appointed to the Head of Engineering role for a rapidly scaling Australian startup leading a sizeable onshore and offshore tech team. Jake’s technical experience and qualifications are exactly what this business needed and he had led globally disparate teams and delivered well in past roles.  As part of the selection process, Jake had completed a psych assessment.

Over to Virginia…

I assessed Jake and here is my ‘take on Jake’:

Jake’s assessment shows that he can be expected to provide a strong yet low key leadership style, slowly and carefully building relationships through demonstrating his own technical and expert skills, leading by example, setting high standards and ensuring compliance.  He will provide good clarity and goals to his team, and not over or micro-manage.  He is likely to be most comfortable positioning himself in the role of ‘subject matter expert’ and he will be willing to share his knowledge and expertise with others.

But underneath this outer professional and action-oriented individual, there are some key traits that can be helpful to understand about what’s going on below the surface. Understanding this may automatically change the way you interact with him.  Sometimes some of the suggestions may appear micro, however, they can be significant and highly motivating for the individual.

Confidence and Self Belief

Despite Jake’s clear strengths and capability, his profile showed he has just an average level of self-confidence and a tendency to be sensitive, which may not be noticeable to others due to his very high level of emotional and self-control. He takes criticism somewhat personally and cares about his role and performance very much. As such, he is likely to work most productively in a supportive and encouraging environment with open and honest communication.

Criticism of Jake and his teams’ output will not need to be laboured, and will be best delivered in a timely manner, focusing on behaviour and outcomes rather than personality characteristics. Because he feels it strongly, performance feedback to Jake should always be conducted in a private setting and delivered in a professional and objective manner. This approach will be very effective at motivating him to improve.

Social Confidence & Sensitivity

Jake presented with a low social profile suggesting that he is not quickly outgoing nor highly socially confident. However, these two factors are underlined by good levels of empathy and perceptiveness. Sensitive individuals with a low social style at times may feel too much and then they can shut down and under pressure and the social niceties may drop away. This may affect Jake’s listening skills and his warmth and perceptiveness about people, and he may be more instrumental and no-nonsense in his style. Are you seeing this in your Head of Engineering when the pressure is on?

Jake may need to continue to keep learning how to use his emotional intelligence to best effect in a senior leadership role, to inspire, motivate and build a feeling of connectedness in the team. He may need to be reminded of this tendency and to ensure he allocates time on his own to recharge so that he can dial up his warmth and tolerance when it is most needed. Jake may work well with a direct manager who can assist him in balancing his strong sensitive feelings with being objective and commercial. Simply directing Jake’s attention to critical, concrete and commercial objectives (while acknowledging that he may have some strong feelings) may be all that is needed to help balance his thinking when he is under pressure.

Need for Independence

A very high level of independence in Jake’s profile further reinforces his need to work autonomously on problem-solving rather than collaboratively. For Jake to be effective in situations requiring a high level of collaboration he will need to be in the position of an ”expert” with deep knowledge and expertise to draw from when communicating his views and opinions. He may also value frequent breaks, and not being asked to contribute impromptu.  This is going to take time for Jake to get up to speed to the point that he can be an expert in your business, so try to accelerate his learning by giving him as much information as possible during the induction period. Time spent with him initially will pay off down the track.  Further, at least initially always give him a ‘heads up” before he attends meetings, letting him know what his likely contribution may need to be, this way he can feel prepared, and make his best impression.

Ongoing professional development

Indeed, Jake may fail to get his ideas and suggestions across when asked to contribute impromptu, especially in a group or heavily social/people settings, and he may be less assertive and influential as a result. He will communicate and contribute best when he has had significant amounts of preparation and thinking time. Jake may need to work on bringing others along on the journey by communicating his problem-solving approach, and providing more insights to others and offering his opinions.   Ask him questions about how he reached his conclusion, or what other options he was considering and what information he took into account, and this may help him showcase his thought process to others.

Management Derailers

Jake’s motivation may be thwarted if he is too closely managed, feels too little autonomy, and has reduced levels of control over decisions and problem-solving. It may be important to clearly define the role, authority levels and boundaries for the Head of Engineering position, and to work with staff to ensure they direct their inquiries and issues to Jake, rather than bypassing him and continuing the direct relationship they had with their previous manager. This must be actioned on day 1, if not before. 

Induction Tips

During induction, it may be beneficial to introduce Jake to the key stakeholders of this role in a one-on-one meeting situation (rather than in a group) and provide him with sufficient information about each stakeholder beforehand, to enable him to feel prepared and to connect with others in this first meeting by being able to share some information and ideas in these initial stakeholder discussions.  And by stakeholder, I mean each and every person in the tech team, and key contacts for this role in other functions.

You may also find that Jake takes a little longer to get to know well, and he will lead and interact from an expert professional status, rather than being overly personal or friendly. He may be less likely to demonstrate warmth and empathy until he feels comfortable with those around him. So it will be important to help Jake build relationships at the start and set him up for success. Be ready to promote his success and achievements with key stakeholders that need to have trusting relationships with Jake and his team.

You can find Virginia Henningsen on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/virginia-henningsen-4b05232/ 

She’s like our very own Wendy Rhoades from the hit tv show Billions (but without the scandal).