The Art of Talking Through Difficult Subjects: Q&A with Patria Lawton

Patria Lawton wears quite a few hats within the Technological Leadership Institute. She's the ST program Fellow and the James J Renier Chair for Security Technologies. She earned her doctorate in Education at Minnesota State University in Moorhead and is a member of the ST and MDI faculty. She's also an outspoken ambassador for the institute.

That last part comes pretty naturally to her -- her background, after all, is in communications. She teaches managerial communications to ST and MDI students, and she'll be welcoming Target VP of Cybersecurity Jodie Kautt to Thursday's Technically Speaking event. We spoke to her about difficult conversations and why they need to happen, what surprises students most in her classes, and how companies can prepare for the "bad things" that sometimes go embarrassingly public.

Q: What's the most important thing to remember about difficult conversations?

A: My philosophy around that is simply that you have to be human. Everyone comes in to work every day  as human beings. We don't know what they're facing at home. We don't know what things are like. Communicating assertively and communicating through things does not mean losing the human element.

Q: Give me some examples of things that people should talk through and not around.

A: It really runs the gamut. I can go back to my early days when I was new on my job, and the person next to me was a salesperson and had been there forever. And he would clip his nails at his desk, and it drove everyone crazy. It was so uncomfortable for everyone to hear this person do that, but no one wanted to say anything.

It goes all the way from those little personal annoyances to the biggest things. It's knowing when it's worth making the effort and when you need to give grace and let things go versus when we need to address something. Understanding your own emotional space before you start those conversations is really important too.

If you feel someone is a poor performer and you are their supervisor, how do you approach that? We've all been in workplace situations where if someone is performing poorly, it's a lot easier just to work around that person, but it doesn't solve the issue.

What does that do to everyone else when we don't confront the tough stuff? I think a lot of times we just start working around people, because it's easier to avoid conflict.

Q: Are we more conscious of people's feelings at work than in the past?

A: We’re more conscious of the fact that we’re dealing with people’s lives, which are complex. I think that's a critical piece of developing leaders. And that wasn't always the case when we were talking about developing corporate leaders.  The focus was strictly on the bottom line.  

If you look back to Jack Welch at G.E., for example, the bottom 10% of the company was gone every year. They just cut them out. That's not our reality anymore. For one thing, we have this incredible shortage of workers in many technical fields. We need to figure out how we retain people who are working, and we need to figure out how to maximize their potential.

Kirk [Froggett] always had this really great question:  how do you get people to move from “compliant” to “committed”? And I think the things that we're talking about are the way to do that. Recognizing the human side of people, recognizing that when we're seeing problems arise, that it's maybe not always the thing we think it is.

Maybe there's some history with that person that we don't understand. Maybe there's some hostility, because they always feel like they're being talked over in a meeting, or there's something else that creates a conflict. Good leaders are going to have the communication skills, and they're also going have the emotional intelligence to be able to understand what's really happening -- listening between the lines.

Q: Why has that become more important in recent years?

A: We see a difference in expectations of people who are coming into the workforce --  they want to have a holistic life where they're happy in their work and they're happy outside of their work, and with the pandemic, a lot of those lines between work and our personal lives were blurred. I think we also need to acknowledge that people are not staying in jobs for their whole career. If people aren't happy, they leave and it costs the company money. Being human does impact the bottom line, even if we have not traditionally thought of it that way. If you feel valued, you stay somewhere. But we've all been in situations where we want to stay in the job but ending up leaving our boss. The job is pretty cool, you like the things that are going on, but you don't have any connection with the person who's managing you. I think that that expectation from employees now. People want to be known as a human rather than just a number on a spreadsheet.

Q: What does TLI do in this space that other programs don’t?

When I look at other master's degree programs in these more technical areas, I see the hard skills and the technical know-how, which is critically important, of course. But what I'm hearing now from the leaders that are coming up is the emphasis on the leadership skill set.  I recently attended a women's panel at the Cybersecurity Summit. A number of people were saying, I don't really have that extensive a technical background, but what I do have is the leadership piece. For me, that was a big aha moment that ties back to the fundamental mission of TLI in a way. We recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of TLI, and the founding idea of the institute was a simple one: it’s so much easier to train engineers to be leaders than to train leaders to be engineers.

That was an unusual idea in 1987, but now it is permeating these Fortune 500 companies. They’re coming around to the idea that there are plenty of people who have great technical skills, but what they’re lacking is that leadership level piece. That is where TLI is really coming into its own right now. People are starting to realize that the leadership  and communication skills are what is going to set them apart.

It's not a common thing in these master's programs. If you get an M.S. in computer science, for example, how many leadership courses are you getting? Probably none. But you’re almost certainly going to be asked to manage a team sooner or later. Our graduates are coming out with a nice blend of both. They’re going to have the ability to think strategically, to problem-solve, to generate the best possible outcomes, to understand emerging technology and to be adaptable.

Effective communication skills – both written and verbal – are part of that leadership training. One of the things that we talk a lot about in my class is how do you, as a technical person, communicate and share ideas? Most people don't know how to do that effectively. One of the main focal points in my managerial comms class is taking a highly technical topic and distilling it down to what actually matters, so that you can broadcast it to a potentially non-technical audience.

Q: Why is communicating with non-technical people an important attribute for a technical leader?

A: Let’s say you’re going in to ask for money for a project. If you don't explain the importance of what you want to the likely non-technical people who control the purse strings, then you're not going to get what you want.

In my class we have the students practice doing that. They’ll take a really technical white paper or a technical report, and then they have to give us a two-minute presentation to distill it down to its core in layman's terms. That skill of being able to not just understand a concept, but also translate it to non-technical peers is new for a lot of my students. It’s taking into consideration what the audience cares about. Because we often communicate what we care about, and not what the audience cares about.

When you come up with a technical solution you tend to get in the weeds and it's very exciting for you. But if you put everyone in the conference room to sleep, you’re not going to get very far. How do you share that excitement – to get buy-in from people who might not care about the same things? You have to tailor and adapt your communication to what the audience cares about. For a lot of students, this is the first time they've really thought about that.

Q: What else do they learn in the class?

Effective technical writing. We do exercises where where students have to be precise with their writing – to cut out the fluff and stay on point. They complete exercises where they need to do a one-page memo or one page email making a proposal.  What we're really pushing in that class is that when people are reading emails, first of all, what do they care about? We always approach our communication with that in mind. How do we get our message across quickly and effectively in one page on an email? We always talk about the BLUF concept -- Bottom Line Up Front.  Then fill in the background. But as you do that, think about what does this person care about? And write it through that lens.

Q: And what's their experience with that? How do they react?

A: I think for many, it's revelatory. This has not even been on their radar as something to consider. At the beginning of the semester we have them do a little bit of a self-assessment. They tell us where they think they're strong in peer communication skills and where they think they need a little bit of work. Even that process of self -reflection is eye-opening for them, because they’ve never taken the time to do that. It’s challenging, but in a good way. It’s opening up their minds to think about how critically important communication is, even within a technical field. And I would argue even more so in a technical field, because that's going give you a competitive edge between you and your peers. For those who already possess some effective communication skills, this is a nice way to sharpen them up. But for the most part, it’s a good way to start thinking about why this really matters, what impact you can have, and how working on these skills can change your career trajectory.

Q: So tell us a little bit about having to communicate when bad things happen in a company.

A: When it comes to risk and crisis communication, we talk a lot about identifying the risks, and planning the whole cycle of communications around that. understanding the that whole cycle of identifying risks -- the pre-planning stages. We talk about risk communication, which is, “here's what we can do if the bad thing happens”. And then we talk about crisis communication, which is when the bad thing actually has happened. Now how do we react? We have them read about not only outside threats, which is a common concern in the cybersecurity world, but also insider threats, which is what we saw happen with the most recent leak of classified military documents about the war in Ukraine.

We talk about scenarios in which, whether it is an internal threat or an external one, the bad thing has happened now and the students must give an update at a mock press conference. It’s a good exercise in a lot of ways. Now, are these students going to be the ones to stand up and give the speech for an organization? Maybe not. But what it forces them to do is think it through: who are the stakeholders? What is the message we need to communicate? How do we get back to normal operations and regain people's trust?

An element of crisis communication is giving the audience self-efficacy steps. You get this all the time when there is a credit card breach, they advise you just keep an eye on your statements, or they might offer you a year of free credit monitoring, some concrete action that people can take. Otherwise we feel helpless. The pandemic was a living exercise of this kind of thing, we saw people giving those kinds of press conferences every day.

We also talk about how much information audiences can absorb in the time of a crisis, which it turns out isn’t much. In a crisis our brains can only take in information at about a third-grade level. And that's where you get all those very simple graphics, which we saw a lot during the pandemic where it was like, here's a little cartoon person washing their hands. Those simple graphics were effective because we felt completely overloaded

Q: As part of our Technically Speaking series, you'll be talking to Target's VP of Cybersecurity Jodie Kautt. Tell us how that conversation will intersect with the work that you've been doing with TLIs programs.

A:  I’m looking forward to it. She and I have known each other a bit over the years. I’m interested in learning more about her career path, particularly at Target. Someone clearly identified her early in her career and got her on those tracks to start moving up. What was it about her? I suspect it was primarily her leadership and communication skills.

What they typically do at Target is move you around into different divisions and give you some exposure in different places. I think that's an effective piece to understand a lot of the different parts of the business, and I’d like to hear more about that, and how she leveraged that learning to be a more successful leader in her current role.

And for the students in attendance, I'm interested in hearing the questions they come up with, but there are also lots of questions I’d like to ask on their behalf: what did her career path look like, what tips and tricks she has for someone just starting out in the field? What does she look for in people? What does she see as the best leadership qualities for leaders in cybersecurity?

And of course I’d like to ask a little bit about her work-life balance. She's got a couple kids, so how does she draw boundaries?  How does she include diversity and inclusion efforts in her team, and what that looks like? That's a big issue in a lot of companies today, including Target.

Patria Lawton will be hosting Thursday's Technically Speaking event featuring Target VP of Cybersecurity Jodie Kautt at 5:00 pm in the McNamara Alumni Center in Minneapolis. You can register for the event here.