It’s often who people are as much as what they have studied that determines in which career they end up. Donald Shandler first followed an academic path — a bachelor’s degree in speech communication and a master’s in dramatic arts, both from Montclair State University. Then after five years of teaching communication, dramatic arts, and debate to high school students in Madison he got his Ph.D. in theater from Ohio State University.
A logical next step was to become an associate professor at Boston College, where he designed, directed, and taught theater and communication courses. As an extrovert, he enjoyed it. But the rest of his Myers-Briggs personality inventory — he is an ESTJ (extrovert, thinking, sensing, judgmental) — contained a hint that other possibilities might be equally or more satisfying.
One day he was volunteered for an assignment that was to change his direction completely — to something that would enable him to use different aspects of his personality. The college asked him to work on a project with the New England Telephone Company involving 10 engineers and 10 marketers. “It fascinated me so much,” he says, “how different the two groups were.” The engineers, he says, started by re-creating in the conference room neat facsimiles of their work areas. The marketing people, on the other hand, opened by talking to him, “Hey, Don, we’re glad to be here. How can we help you?”
One thing led to another, he says, and he starting working with engineers and scientists. “Maybe it’s that opposites attract,” he suggests.
Whatever the reason, the attraction was strong. “I developed an interest in administration and management and jumped ship from being an assistant professor in theater, and became the director of continuing education at McKendree College, a Methodist school in Lebanon, Illinois.”
Shandler is still working with technical professionals, different from him on the introvert/extrovert scale, but otherwise identical to him according to Myers-Briggs categories.
Shandler, now the dean of graduate studies and continued learning at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, offers a seminar on “Transitioning into Technical Leadership: Helping Technical Professionals Become Effective Leaders,” on Wednesday and Thursday, June 7 and 8, at 9 a.m. each day at Mercer County Community College. Cost: $395. For more information or to register, call 609-586-9446.
Through years of teaching and consulting, Shandler has learned what makes technical professionals — engineers, database managers, physicians, and attorneys — tick. “Historically,” he says, “technical professionals have a really strong commitment to some type of discipline, and these disciplines encourage individuals to focus on their own individual achievement.” The plus of this technical training is that it “creates very autonomous people,” and the minus is the same. “They are educated to find an answer in a particular field,” he says. “There is little or nothing in their education that focuses on management, people skills, and communication.”
As these techies become whizzes at what they do, they get promoted into management, but are clueless about the skills they need: how to communicate, motivate, and delegate. Not only did they not study these areas during their training, but they may well have chosen their careers expressly because they didn’t have great people skills.
To make matters worse, unlike Germany and Japan, companies in the United States are not committed to training. “Many companies have dismantled their managerial and supervisory development programs,” says Shandler. “Unfortunately, in the United States, when budgets have to be cut, they cut human resources and training.” In the old days, it was different, and many large companies had a clear path for developing their people through education and training. “Now, for the most part,” he says, “that doesn’t exist.”
The seminar at Mercer County Community College focuses not only on developing new competencies via learning, practicing, and coaching, but also on changing the attitudes reflected in the following question, one that is typical of a technical professional: “Why should I delegate when I can do it better myself?” Clearly some “attitude adjustment” needs to precede the learning of new skills.
Yet knowledge-based organizations and technically-educated people face some unique challenges: They may need to vary their personal styles of communication to deal appropriately with different situations and individuals. They must be able to deal with the rapidly changing environments that result from mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, and process reengineering. Finally, they have to develop communication strategies that encourage other departments to buy into projects.
To illustrate in an extreme way how these technical professionals view the world when they walk into his seminars, Shandler shared a story. He was doing an exercise for a major corporation with the goal of showing that groups working together come up with better results than individuals on their own.
He divided the participants into four teams of five people each. Suddenly one technical guru got up and left the group to find an empty room where he could do the group exercise by himself. When Shandler called him on his decision to desert his teammates, the guy said — out loud in front of all the other participants, “Once the assignment was made, I looked at my teammates and saw that they didn’t come up to my intellectual capabilities. So I thought it would be more productive to do it by myself.”
Shandler usually works with technical professionals who are a little less “off the charts,” but still, the first thing he helps them with is developing situational communication strategies. First they use an assessment tool to identify their own personal styles — how they communicate under both favorable and stressful conditions. “Communication with others begins by understanding yourself,” he says.
Next Shandler examines four styles of interpersonal communication, when they are effective, and how to use them:
Telling. This is very direct. With a project that has to be out the door in a day and a half, telling is probably the way to go. “There’s not time for the Southern California experience,” observes Shandler.
First managers spell out the expectations, for example, “Quite frankly your work has to improve by the end of the month.” Yet they must be careful both to acknowledge what is going well and specify what is not. The next step is to communicate the advantages and importance of doing the project the way the manager wants it done. Finally, managers have to express clearly the consequences of noncompliance. (Although technical professionals are good at writing nasty E-mails, says Shandler, it is hard for them to say something negative face-to-face.)
Selling. This is useful when you are trying to get someone to consider a new idea. The first step is to thoroughly explain its benefits and key features, using compelling, vivid language. The manager must also anticipate objections and try to build agreement and get to “yes.”
Consulting. This approach, which encourages the sharing of ideas and data and involves summarizing, evaluating, and deciding, helps build a collaborative team. The first step is to check the other person’s understanding of the problem and then to clarify the roles of the each team member in arriving at a solution: “My role as team manager is…. Your role as team member is….” Then together you try to develop criteria for a good solution.
“Technically educated people thrive on collegial, collaborative effort,” observes Shandler. At the end of the process, you measure each person’s performance by industry standards — time, quality, keeping to the budget — that technical people use regularly.
Joining. This approach is very similar to consulting, but is more informal. Senior managers might stop by to shmooze with an employee and use the social situation as a context for communication. Employees, who think they are involved with informal chitchat, suddenly find themselves with a new work assignment.
“It’s fun for me as both a consultant and a manager to see how different people are consciously or unconsciously using this,” says Shandler. After checking on each person’s understanding of the problem and clarifying each person’s role, the entire group tries to develop criteria for a good solution. “This can be a hard process for technical people who rely on themselves,” he says.
“The fact that different situations require different techniques may seem matter of fact,” observes Shandler, “but for some folks you see a light bulb going off.”
Since he started working with doctors, engineers, scientists, and researchers in the mid-1970s, Shandler has learned a lot about them and about himself. “What I took for granted,” he said, “getting excited from working with others, loving intense one-on-one conversations — I had assumed everyone was like that.” But they weren’t.
Shandler grew up in East Orange and Glen Ridge. His dad, who came from Russia as child in the last boat before World War I, had only an eighth-grade education. He owned a general store, and both parents worked very hard. But learning and education were a strong value, and it’s something of a tribute to them that Shandler has come so far.
An educator, but also an entrepreneur, he “floated a loan to develop an organizational training and consulting firm” when he turned 45. But after 12 years he got a little tired of doing it all on his own and decided to re-enter academe, becoming director of continuing education for the graduate school of the United States Department of Agriculture and finally moving to his current position as dean of graduate studies and continued learning.
For the last six months he has begun to consult again, because it seems like such a perfect fit for him. Shandler loves giving seminars. “I have lots of experience with the public and private sectors,” he says, “and working with supervisors and managers, and can always come up with practical applications.”
The combination of experience in organizations, dramatic flair, and an extroverted personality lends an almost spiritual power to his workshops. When he tries to put his finger on what his seminars are like, he concludes that “they most resemble a Baptist revival meeting.”