The Happy Engineer Podcast

145: Secret Guide to Communicating with Business Teams with Chris Fenning | Award-Winning Author of The First Minute

What if I told you communication skills for engineers is actually not about a skill? And if communication is not a skill, then what is it? How can engineers learn to communicate with non-technical leaders better?

In this episode, former aerospace engineering leader Chris Fenning makes it easier for us to communicate at work.

His simple methods help experts like you talk to non-experts on cross functional teams like marketing and sales. We also discuss how engineering teams can improve communication to executives, and much more.

If you want to grow your career, this episode is mandatory learning. Your impact and promotability will be limited by your ability to influence outside engineering department walls. Communication is the key.

Chris’s consulting and practical approach is used in organizations ranging from Google to NATO, and because of their broad appeal for technical leadership, have appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

He is also the author of multiple award-winning books that have been translated into 15 languages, including my personal favorite, “The First Minute: How to start conversations that get results.”

So press play and let’s chat… about how to chat with anybody and get results!

Join us in a live workshop for deeper training, career coaching 1:1, and an amazing community!  HAPPY HOUR Workshop Live with Zach!


The Happy Engineer Podcast

WATCH EPISODE 145: Communication Skills for Engineers



LISTEN TO EPISODE 145: Secret Guide to Communicating with Business Teams with Chris Fenning | Award-Winning Author of The First Minute

Previous Episode 144: Why Not All Readers are Leaders | 3 Big Mistakes Engineers Make in the Habit of Reading Books


Secret Guide to Communicating with Business Teams

In this episode of The Happy Engineer Podcast, I had the privilege of welcoming Chris Fenning, a communication expert and author of The First Minute: How to Start Conversations That Get Results.

Here are three top insights… and really number 3 could have been numbers 1, 2, and 3!

1. Better Questions, Better Answers: Emphasizing the significance of asking better questions to lead to improved outcomes, both Chris and I underscore the importance of questioning in life and career.

2. Flexibility and Compromise: Chris shares valuable insights about considering what one is willing to compromise on when facing challenges, highlighting the importance of flexibility in decision-making.

3. Communication is Key: The episode dives deep into the pivotal role of clear and concise communication in engineering and beyond. Chris stresses the power of deliberate practice in communication and the impact of fundamental communication skills on career advancement.

To go deeper and build an action plan around these points and why all this matters, click the podcast link below and listen to the entire conversation.



Chris Fenning is the author of multiple books including the multi-award-winning “The First Minute”, a book about clear & concise communication at work. Chris Fenning is a communications advisor on a mission to improve alignment between business and IT teams.

He has helped individuals and teams around the world in organizations from start-ups to Fortune 50 and FTSE 100 companies. He has lived in the UK, USA and now lives in the Netherlands with his wife and daughter.



Please note the full transcript is 90-95% accuracy. Reference the podcast audio to confirm exact quotations.

[00:00:00] Zach White: All right, happy engineer. Welcome back for what is going to be an incredible treat today. I am pumped to have Chris Fenning with me today. Chris, welcome to the show, man. Thanks for making time to be here. Oh, thank 

[00:00:12] Chris Fenning: you, Zach, for having me. It’s, uh, I enjoy listening. I’m really pleased to be here. 

Expand to Read Full Transcript

[00:00:16] Zach White: This is going to be fun.

[00:00:18] And I want to start in an odd place. We’re going to begin with some potty talk, Chris. We’re going to begin with some potty talk and not the, not the usual definition of potty talks. If you have a kid in the car with you, happy engineer, don’t worry. There’s not going to be any swearing here, but Chris, when I was doing my research for today, there was this one random little note about you being trapped.

[00:00:40] In a toilet by a leopard, and I just absolutely could not let this conversation go by without asking what in the world is happening. So like, take me to that moment. Where are you? What’s going on? And why are you? Trapped in a toilet by a leopard. What’s, what’s that? 

[00:01:00] Chris Fenning: Well, this is the one story that Disneyland made me sign an NDA on.

[00:01:04] No, I’m just kidding. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not that. the scene was I was on safari in East Africa, and it was the middle of the night, and I had to go to the toilet. And the toilet was a hole in the ground with a little metal tin shed around it made out of balanced pieces of corrugated steel. And, uh, so I was in there.

[00:01:25] Uh, middle of the night, totally dark, and, very long story short, a leopard came to where I was and walked around and around the toilet. And I thought, there’s a camp guard, he’s gonna come and rescue me, he knew where I was, he’s got a gun, it’s gonna be totally fine. Now, I was in there for an hour and a half.

[00:01:44] And he and the leopard had gone away, but yeah, I got stuck in a toilet by a leopard in the middle of the night in 

[00:01:52] Zach White: Africa. Did you open the door to leave the toilet and see the leopard and like slam the door and freak out? Or how did you know that it was there? Well, 

[00:02:03] Chris Fenning: uh, I could see it because these pieces of metal weren’t contained.

[00:02:07] This wasn’t a solid building, it was a shack at best. And the reason I knew it was there was once I’d gone in to do my business, I was listening to the sounds of wildlife, loads of frogs, and then suddenly, up the river, because we were camped next to a river, I could hear baboons yammering in the trees.

[00:02:25] And having paid attention to the safari guide, I knew that baboons only yammered at night if there was a leopard. And I thought, oh, it’s far away, that’ll be fine. And then the yammering in the trees got closer and closer and closer, until I was totally surrounded by this absolutely horrendous noise. And then…

[00:02:44] Everything went silent. Wow. Even the frogs stopped. And, at that point, I thought, Well, that wasn’t a moment of, It’s gone away, And then I could see, because there was sort of one inch gaps Between these pieces of, uh, Organic steel, and I could see it. And in my head I had this image of a leopard sat there With a tin opener, just waiting To get in, because I was dinner.

[00:03:08] And it, It’s, are you aware of what a long drop is? 

[00:03:12] Zach White: A long drop? No. 

[00:03:14] Chris Fenning: It’s a toilet that’s a big hole in the ground with a wooden bench over the top of it. Okay. And once the hole is sort of half filled, they fill it in with soil and move somewhere else. Got it. I seriously considered climbing down into that hole rather than being eaten by a 

[00:03:28] Zach White: leopard.

[00:03:30] Chris, that’s pretty amazing. There, there is only one other… Guest I’ve had on the podcast who had a wildlife story that involved, you know, being near large wild cats. it’s, I forget the episode number. I’ll put it in the show notes, but I think you win a special prize for having the best, the best story.

[00:03:51] There were no toilets involved in the last one. So, uh, that is wild. And just out of curiosity, where were you in East Africa? Where was the safari? 

[00:04:01] Chris Fenning: It was in Kenya, uh, I, I, it might’ve been Mars a bit. There were, we went on to a number of different areas, but it was Northwest 

[00:04:07] Zach White: Kenya. There’s a place in, I believe it’s in South Africa called Londolosi that has tours to, to hike and see leopards and this really incredible safari experience there.

[00:04:19] That’s on my bucket list. So I’m, I may add this to Londolosi anytime soon, but. Okay. Wow. Well, enough potty talk for one episode, Chris. Let’s clean, let’s clean it up here. You come from the same cloth as so many of us in engineering. You’ve got an aerospace engineering degree, and you have that sense of technical acumen and all these things.

[00:04:42] But at the same time here today, you are a communications expert. You’re a consultant and a well known author in the space around communication skills, which is a big leap for most of us. Who come from the engineering world to end up in that space, it’s considered a weakness for many of us by our personality types and the way we’re trained and just not something we enjoy.

[00:05:03] where was the point in your career when you became aware that communication was a huge gap or a big challenge that needed solved? Within your personal career experience and for engineers and technical professionals as a whole, when did you first discover that this is a key problem to solve?


[00:05:26] Chris Fenning: got a bit lucky with this because I discovered it and it was pointed out right at the start of my career. I was doing a four year aerospace degree. And when I started work. I had a great opportunity to work at a defense engineering company, and they had a placement where you could move around every four to six months, and they, as an organization, and when my managers very quickly identified, I could speak technical and business.

[00:05:53] And the reason for that is I had the technical training, but I’d also had a bunch of my own very small startup y type side gigs throughout school and university. that gave me the foot in both camps. And it was pointed out to me, and it was a core tenant of my entire career, whatever job I was in, I was almost always a translator.

[00:06:12] Zach White: Okay. And so tell me for you, when you say pointed out to you, is it a mentor or a boss came alongside and said, Hey, Chris, you’re different. You have this skill. We don’t see in very many engineers. Or was it someone on the business side who came along and said, Wow, you’re the only engineer we can understand.

[00:06:29] Can we talk to you more? Like, how did you actually become aware? 

[00:06:32] Chris Fenning: It was the second one, a chap called Mick O’Connor. Who absolutely fantastic guy, one of the, best leaders that I had. And he put me in a position to test both my technical and my business skills, he said, you’re a graduate on this scheme.

[00:06:47] I’m going to work you you’re here as a resource for me, but I’m as here as a resource and development opportunity for you. And so he gave me four different projects to do in a six month period, two very technical, two very business interactive, and I excelled at the non technical ones. Partly because that’s what I loved.

[00:07:07] I couldn’t have done it without the technical. I enjoyed the technical, the business side was a different problem that was less, it was harder to solve. And so doing these projects, he, in our regular reviews, literally, as you just said, pointed out, you can speak business. This is a thing that we don’t see often.

[00:07:25] And then he asked me, what do I want to do with it? And I had no idea, absolutely no clue. 

[00:07:32] Zach White: What do you mean by that? 

[00:07:34] Chris Fenning: Well, yeah, it seemed in hindsight, it was this really profound moment. It could have been this profound moment of, you have this talent, what do you want to do with it? Like, I don’t know, go to the pub?

[00:07:45] I just didn’t have any kind of desire or strong passion to do anything with it. But fortunately, through conversation and repeated opportunities, I managed to continue using that as a strength. And as I mentioned before, it was a key part of almost every role I had from then on. Whether the role was very technical with a bit of business, or very business with a, uh, sort of a foot or a hand in the technical camp.

[00:08:12] Or whether I was a translator, whether that was in project management, business development, proposal development, all of those things meant I ended up sitting between purely business teams and purely technical teams. But Mick O’Connor was, was the catalyst. He gets 

[00:08:28] Zach White: the credit. This is a really interesting point, Chris, because I’ve coached hundreds of engineering leaders.

[00:08:33] And I think this moment of awareness that you have a certain skill, a certain strength, in this case, communication between Business speak and engineering speak, but there could be a lot of things where we’ve discover an area of genius, but we don’t have the answer of what do I want to do with that? And I literally just had a session with an amazing superstar talent engineering senior manager who’s fully aware of his key strengths and zone of genius.

[00:09:05] And has no clue what he wants to do with his career. Like, he doesn’t know who he wants to be when he grows up, so to speak. And I think it’s harder than it sounds to answer that question. I’ve done this with so many people and we get stuck in those points. So, I’m curious, maybe you can walk the journey a little bit for us.

[00:09:24] You, you got into this really unique opportunity where you could rotate between roles. Tell us about your career path and how did you make that decision? Those decisions of what do I want to do with the skills that are unveiling as I go. Give us your version of that story. 

[00:09:43] Chris Fenning: I’m smiling because I think I’m just going to reinforce the example you just gave.

[00:09:48] I did not know what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I only worked it out at the age of 37. So I spent a lot of time, it’s 

[00:09:57] Zach White: a good relief for everybody out there listening. It’s okay. If you don’t know who you want to be when you grow up, if you don’t figure it out till you’re 37, like that’s, oh yeah, it’s so, yeah, absolutely.

[00:10:08] Chris Fenning: It’s, but it was a worry for me. That was. Yeah. It was a constant, a small, it wasn’t a monumental pressure, but it was always there because advice that I was receiving for my career was you should choose where you’re going, and you should know what you’re going to do. And I had friends who were going down the chartered engineering path or becoming certified in particular areas, and I didn’t have that path.

[00:10:34] So to come back to the original question of walking through that career path, I drifted, fell, lucked out, reached for opportunities, and had an unusual career. I did two years in this defense company. And it was absolutely fantastic. I got to chase tanks around Canada in a helicopter, I worked in a group called Warfighting Experimentation, I got to work, bringing science shows to primary school kids on random islands, uh, which was sponsored by the defense company, like a whole random set of stuff.

[00:11:08] I was designing radar housings to go in the noses of fast jets. to replace aging technology with newer stuff. So I had this huge blend of super technical drafting in the design office through to going around a kid’s primary school science show in random out of the way islands. what I had as the core of that was a desire to excel.

[00:11:32] Whatever they put in front of me, I would do my absolute best. And it led to a series of rapid promotions, more opportunities, fantastic experiences, and more responsibility and authority. And actually I take that back, more responsibility, but without the authority. So I had to deliver, but I was at the mercy of things that were totally out of my control.

[00:11:57] Yeah. Okay. I had, I think, three promotions in a year, and was way out of my depth. I didn’t have the experience, the maturity, or the ability to cope with the level of stress. And I was doing about 60, 65 hours a week. plus 20 hours of travel every week. So I was hitting 80, 75, 80 hours a week, sometimes more.

[00:12:22] And that was tough by itself. Those kinds of hours are not fun or friendly. And I was like, Oh, this is, I’m young, I’m traveling, I’m getting to see all these things. And I got to go to Turkey to an arms expo and talked my way into a meeting with the head of the Turkish air force to.

[00:12:37] do a missile contract. It was a whole bunch of stuff that I just couldn’t believe was happening. And that’s not a hangover movie style random occurrence. It was all intentional, related to the work. Understood, understood. But that kind of pressure, I was 23 at the time and I didn’t cope with that very well.

[00:12:58] And I was trying to deliver programs of work with people who were far more experienced with me, had, very Reasonable reasons not to go along with the work that I was tasked with delivering and I couldn’t find a way to reconcile that between the real pressure of the work and the hours either not being ready or not feeling like I was ready because maybe I was ready, but I didn’t have the confidence within myself.

[00:13:24] Those things meant I really struggled and I just didn’t want to work and that tore against my, my natural compulsion to excel at everything that’s put in front of me and it ended up with me quitting and moving to another company in a very short period of time, mostly because I was offered twice the pay on half the hours.

[00:13:46] So that was like a no brainer at the time. And I changed from defense to telecoms. It was totally different. 

[00:13:52] Zach White: Totally different. So before we hit the second chapter, I just want to reiterate that arc that you experienced within how many total years are we talking, two years, three years of that? Two years 

[00:14:05] Chris Fenning: and one day.

[00:14:06] Okay. 

[00:14:07] Zach White: Two in a day. Very specific. What’s interesting, and it’s a theme that I see a lot. Is the hunger to excel so many engineers really do want to make a difference, make an impact, do great work, be at their best. They’re a player mindset, peak performance mindset, people. they start down that road, and it begins with this really exhilarating feeling of achieving things, being recognized for your contribution and being given more opportunity.

[00:14:39] And it’s addicting and it pulls away. Oh, really? And you’re like, yes, you know, this is working, et cetera. And then you hit that point where you are given so much that you’ve kind of outpaced. Your career growth beyond your personal growth. So now you have this situation where you’re lopsided and your capability to handle that pressure and stress versus what’s been given to you because of your hunger.

[00:15:06] And the point that I find is so painful for these engineering leaders that I work with who are in that upside down place is they have a core value of excellence and doing great work and making a difference, but they’re feeling that. That feeling you just described, I’m lost my motivation.

[00:15:25] I’ve lost my mojo. I don’t even want to go to work on Monday morning anymore because it’s gotten to this point where I feel burned out or I’m burning out and that’s not me. that place right there, I think is one of the most painful spots. It’s not like you’ve totally burned out and crashed and burned or quit or been fired or anything like that.

[00:15:45] You’re still in it, but now you want away from the very thing that your hunger created for you. And it’s like, who am I? How did I get here? Does that resonate for you? That place? Oh, absolutely. 

[00:15:57] Chris Fenning: Yes. And, and it comes with the only word I would add is a feeling of guilt. Yes. Am I failing myself? Have I got this?

[00:16:06] Have I misunderstood myself as a person? Am I failing the organization that I feel beholden to? Which I shouldn’t because as soon as I leave, they’ll replace me. People are expendable resources for companies. Totally. That, that guilt then meant I, I started beating myself up, which was exactly what I needed on top of all of the other physical exhaustion and, uh, mental pressures and everything else, just a little bit of self recrimination and, uh.

[00:16:37] Zach White: Chris, what would you give someone who’s in that place right now, if they just like, Ooh, you just described my life, you’ve come through it. You’ve had multiple challenges with burnout in your career. What would you offer that person in terms of encouragement or action to take if that’s where they’re currently at?

[00:16:55] Chris Fenning: If someone is listening to this and saying, this is my life, that right there is a critical moment to say, I recognize this is my life. Now that I can see it. What am I going to choose to do about it? And rather than just feeling like it’s, Oh, this is happening. Go that step further and say, Okay, this is happening.

[00:17:19] Why do I like it? Is this what I want? And if the answer is no, okay, what are the first steps to begin to change that? it’s about compromise and it might be compromise financially. I need to change to a different job. It might be compromise on career growth. I’m going to dial it back and be the middle of the road person.

[00:17:43] But you have to accept the compromise. Because if you go middle of the road on effort, like, I’m going to do my job, I’m going to do it well, but I’m not going to shoot for the moon every time. If you do that, you can’t still want and expect the exceeds expectations in every performance review, you can’t expect the continued career path.

[00:18:02] There has to be a compromise, and that’s hard. So talk to people, get help. Share your experience and don’t go it alone. 

[00:18:15] Zach White: I want to chase this rabbit trail a little bit further. I promise we’re going to come back to some extremely practical tips around communication that every engineer needs to know. But you’ve mentioned before we hit record today about a compromise and challenge that you faced in the backdrop of building your career around a passion and area of skill for you that was creating a conflict with what I Want to do next.

[00:18:43] And I’m wondering if you could tell us about your passion for rifles and shooting and how that played out to a point of compromise and decision in your own journey. Absolutely. 

[00:18:55] Chris Fenning: Yes. So people who know me now, many of them don’t know about this part of my life, but, by my mid to late twenties, I’d been shooting competitive target rifle shooting, the kind of thing that’s at the Olympics, lying down, making small holes and piece of paper.

[00:19:10] And I’ve been doing that for almost 20 years. And I’d got to a good level. I was shooting at a national level and to do that, it was taking practice four days a week, which was very difficult to fit in around the work travel. No kidding. And I was in various clubs and teams and I had a moment, I was probably stretched over about 18 months, where my coach, who was the England manager at the time, was helping me choose where I wanted to go.

[00:19:42] And if I could reach for a really good international level, I would have to train six days a week. And I had to choose whether that’s what I wanted. And I was torn between going for this opportunity to excel particular sport, and then basic things like going to barbecues with my friends on a Friday, or going surfing at the weekend, or climbing.

[00:20:04] I had a lot of hobbies. But I couldn’t go away for a weekend to go climbing because I had a one hour competition on a Sunday. I couldn’t have a beer on the barbecue on Friday because we have to watch what you eat because it affects how your eyes focus the next day. You can’t have super fatty foods because your eyes don’t focus as well.

[00:20:23] So there are things that I was passing up on. And so I had this choice. I was doing very well. And I made the choice to go middle of the road. I said, I’m not going to shoot for the moon, but I’m not going to give up the sport. I want to keep doing this. It’s a big part of who I am. I felt like it was connected to my identity.

[00:20:42] And this caused a real problem for me. Because when I started putting in middle of the road effort, and middle of the road isn’t bad. There’s a normal distribution for a reason. The average isn’t bad. Average is, average is literally in the middle. But that’s a different topic, of course, that word. But I put in an average effort and I started getting average results.

[00:21:03] And I hated it, because instead of getting 99 out of 100, I was getting 100, or I was getting 95 out of 100. I wasn’t getting the scores I knew I was capable of, but I wasn’t willing to put the effort in to get them. And I wrestled with this, I was trying to reconcile my desire for the achievement I knew I could, with my desire to not lose every waking minute that wasn’t spent at work.

[00:21:28] Yeah, yeah. And I couldn’t exist in that place. And so I, quit the sport. I recognized I couldn’t exist. I recognized I wouldn’t be happy with half measures. So within a week, I sold all my kit and I left, and I have never regretted that decision. 

[00:21:45] Zach White: Oof. Tell me more about that last statement. I think it’d be easy for someone I mean, my first reaction to it is, Wow, didn’t you miss it so much?

[00:21:54] And, and giving up 20 years of a hobby that, you know, you went to a national level, sounds like such a huge sacrifice. But then to hear you confidently say, I’ve never looked back. I don’t regret it. Tell me about that. How is that possible? It feels unlikely. Some 

[00:22:12] Chris Fenning: of this is hindsight, because this happened 13 years ago.

[00:22:17] So I’ve got slightly rose tinted hindsight glasses on. But I suddenly meant I had more money. Shooting is an expensive hobby. Totally. So that was great. I suddenly had time to do all the other things that shooting was getting in the way of. And the third part was, I’d just written and published a book about shooting.

[00:22:42] I was also a coach and an instructor, and I’d written and published a book about rifle shooting. And that felt like I’d peaked. That felt like my contribution to the sport. And rather than going and trying to win some big event, like, that’s my win. I’m good and I felt at peace and then I realized there was a whole lot of life out there to live.

[00:23:04] I could make other choices and start making other poor time decisions that would eat into my life. and the relief, just the relief, which I’ve experienced later in my life in a, in quitting a very difficult work situation in my mid thirties.

[00:23:21] The decision point to quit, and the floaty light feeling afterwards, told me it was the right thing. Oof. 

[00:23:29] Zach White: I think this is a really important challenge for everybody to face in their life when we talk about balance. And it’s normal to end up with multiple things competing for a huge percentage of your focus and energy.

[00:23:43] And there’s so much power in choosing which is most important. Yes. You know, that economic, bias of sunk cost, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve had all of this money invested and all this energy that I’ve put in, and I need to keep doing it. I just had a call last week with a woman who’s already invested in a course to develop an AI and machine learning skills that she wants to learn, but she’s realized I don’t actually need that for my career path.

[00:24:14] I just kind of signed up because I wanted to do something. But now I’m not going to do what I need to do for my career today because I’ve already committed to this year long AI course. I said, wow, you know what’s going on there? You know, you’ve made this commitment, but it’s not the right decision, but you feel.

[00:24:33] A duty to finish because you’ve already sunk, you know, thousands of dollars and three months of time into it. And I get that it’s really hard to walk away from those things, but I’m, I’m inspired by your, your story, just that courage to say, this is not the legacy for the next decade of my life. I’ve had this incredible chapter.

[00:24:54] I’m going to close it and, and refocus my energy into something new. And, you know, ultimately what brought us here today, a whole new area of genius that opened up for you. In taking that skill you’ve had since college and now bringing that to the world of engineering and technology for a lot of people who really, really need it.

[00:25:14] I’m inspired by that, Chris. I love it. Let’s shorten circuit then here we come back to your career path. I know there’s so much more we could explore, but I want to come to. mastery of communication. What is it that you’ve seen that that really separates a high level of skill, especially when we’re talking technical to non technical, this area of genius that you’ve really mastered.

[00:25:41] What is it that separates people who are average to come back to that term from people who truly Excel. And let’s start unpacking this, this body of knowledge that you’ve, you’ve come to know and love and work in today. What are those differences that we need to pay attention to?

[00:25:58] Chris Fenning: the largest single contributor is the ability.

[00:26:02] To concisely convey something in terms the other person will understand. So it’s sort of like squeeze two things into there. So being concise. That’s fair, I love it. And doing it in a way that uses languages. Making it relevant, relatable, simple, and jargon free. From the perspective of the audience, no matter who the audience is.

[00:26:25] Anyone who can do that. is already standing out considerably from their, their peers. And this is very much, uh, an area of opportunity for people in technical roles, but it’s not them versus us, technical versus business. This is true for lawyers, for people in finance, for marketing experts, being able to talk about your expertise.

[00:26:49] To a non expert, that is the defining characteristic, and in all the programs I’ve been in, I’ve been in multiple executive development programs, graduate schemes, both in them and helping supervise them, the standout people, the ones who really rose up on that stellar track, were the ones who could communicate in a way that other people understand.

[00:27:11] Mm hmm. They weren’t necessarily the most technically gifted, but they could communicate their expertise in a way someone else understands. 

[00:27:23] Zach White: I’m wondering if you could take us to a specific example, maybe from your career days when you were a director and senior director and in product management and project management, maybe it’s something into the as a consultant.

[00:27:33] Now, take us to a common example of where a technical professional goes wrong when it comes to concise and spoken in the language of the listener type of communication. Yeah, 

[00:27:49] Chris Fenning: there’s, there’s an example that. I use this often, so the scene is two senior individual contributor technical software developers in a room with the CIO and the head of, I think it was the head of information security, I forget the CIO and two individual contributor developers, 30 minute meeting, 25 minutes of presentation, five minutes of discussion.

[00:28:20] And the what was presented for 25 minutes was summarized by the CIO in 30 seconds at the end with here’s what I’m hearing from you. And if you’d said this at the beginning, we could have spent 25 minutes more trying to solve the problem. And what I’m not going to do is tell you the 25 minutes. What I’ll give you is the summary.

[00:28:42] What they were trying to explain was that. There were new data security requirements needed for the organization, new government guidelines for compliance for data security. The guidelines required a level five security system. Don’t need the details, but it needed a level five security system. The current system was only capable of going up to level four.

[00:29:04] So these guys wanted a bit of time and some people to try and come up with a solution and propose what a plan would be. And what they wanted from the CIO was approval to put together this team and a little bit of money and a little bit of time. But what they did was spend the time talking about what were the data requirements, how the current system was built, what may be needed to build up to level.

[00:29:27] It was all of the how and it was none of the impact and they couldn’t summarize it. They didn’t lead with a summary. And so these, the CIO and the, and the security head were trying to tease out this information through the presentation. Whereas if they led with a 30 second summary like I gave, then they could have had a conversation to get to the details.

[00:29:50] What were the new compliance? When did it come out? How long have we got? What, what do you need? But it would have been a discussion about solving the problem rather than 25 minutes of too much detail describing the problem. 

[00:30:04] Zach White: Such a good example. I’m guilty of this, Chris, when I first started as a mechanical engineer at Whirlpool Corporation.

[00:30:13] It’s fun to show off all of the great data you’ve collected, and all the things you know, and try to impress people with your depth of technical knowledge, and then there’s the engineer in you that wants to make sure you explain all your assumptions, and all of how you got to your conclusions, and blah, blah, blah.

[00:30:27] Oh yeah, and we have to prove it. It’s 

[00:30:29] Chris Fenning: how we’re taught. Show you’re working. Show the proof. Anyone, anyone who’s written a paper… to the scientific community, the academic community, here’s the methodology because you’re having to prove it in a way that other people can replicate it. But in the business side of things, who cares?

[00:30:46] Because it’s not that important. You are the person who are the expert in your technical thing. That’s great. I’ve hired you to do that technical job. I’m sure you’re good at it. Tell me how your message impacts me or impacts the things I care about. Yes, but get everything else if I have questions I will ask and still do this occasionally and I teach this stuff I we feel like we want to prove we have to prove no and not the show off Look how smart I am, but I want to give you enough evidence that you believe what I’m saying Whereas, actually, that’s a fallacy.

[00:31:21] Most often, the proof comes in, tell me what the consequences are. And that’s the burden of proof. It’s don’t tell me how big a problem it is. It’s show me that you know that there is a problem. Give me a high level description of the causes and then tell me what we can do about it to fix it. 

[00:31:38] Zach White: I like that distinction.

[00:31:41] The burden of proof. Is on your understanding of the future impact, be it positive or negative, and your ability to articulate that concisely, clearly, and in language that’s understood in a way that gives the confidence to the listener that you’re seeking to accomplish through 25 minutes of jargon and engineering.

[00:32:05] Yes, yes, really powerful.

[00:32:07] Chris Fenning: And the complete opposite effect because as a business leader and I ended up as a senior director in one of the u. s. ‘s largest companies big health insurance company and the impression when When any expert was overdoing the detail, the impression was this person doesn’t get it. This person doesn’t understand.

[00:32:30] This person doesn’t know what’s important for the business. And it damaged the credibility of that person. And these were some of the smartest technical folks. Give them a problem that would take a team a week and they’d fix it in four hours. But the communication damaged their reputation. So the point that I heard executives say this person doesn’t get it, this person doesn’t understand, they’re not intelligent, they don’t get it.

[00:32:57] And that’s so damaging. That is career limiting and it’s confidence crippling to the person hearing it as well. So good. Because they do get it. But it’s the wrong 

[00:33:08] Zach White: perspective. Yeah, exactly. Uh, what an, you know, counterintuitive for the engineer, but it’s a really key point. You think that you’re justifying or proving or showing a certain level of acumen, and in fact every incremental minute that you’re Barraging people with technical jargon.

[00:33:27] You’re actually diminishing your credibility to those senior leaders. So Chris, okay. The title of your book, the first minute, how to start conversations that get results. Tell me a little bit about where that first minute concept that you’re really well known for, how does that fit in with this, top of the Pareto chart of what we need to focus on in communication and skill?

[00:33:53] What are these other pieces that matter? I love how you’d say, you know, it’s not the usual stuff that we need to think. Everybody’s talking about body language and active listening and communication, soft skills, and you have a different take on it. So tell us more about how that… 

[00:34:08] Chris Fenning: I do. I do. So the body language is important.

[00:34:12] Active listening is important. Storytelling is important. If you can get to the point, if you can summarize, if you can make a message relevant and relatable and simple. If you can do those things, then your message will get across clearly. And so the first minute is based on, there was a lack of information explaining specifically how to be clear and concise.

[00:34:38] And it, it, it was born of frustration. I’d, I’d been on a number of courses teaching communication and it was sort of, on the executive program, you need to be a good communicator and to be a good communicator, you should be clear and concise. So I’d be the one sticking my hand up and going, okay, great. How?

[00:34:54] Tell me how. And there was never an answer. It was always brushed over or fluff. Or the most frustrating answer, which is well, it all depends. It’s a soft skill. And the engineer in me was screaming, like, give me the formula for it. There’s got to be a formula for it. So not finding it in the lessons I was having, I went out and found it in other ways and wrote it down.

[00:35:16] And that was the first minute. I love that. And the reason it’s so important is if you get the first minute wrong, your audience will start thinking, why are you telling me this? What are you talking about? What is your point? And those questions are all very strong, flashing light indicator. The conversation is failing and you’re damaging your credibility and you’re not getting the result that you need from that conversation.

[00:35:46] Zach White: There’s so many things I want to ask you about this. It’s hard to pick where to focus. First, but I’ll give you an example of why, why I’m so excited about what you’re sharing. I do these coaching calls one on one with engineering leaders all around the country, all around the world, every single week. And it’s not uncommon.

[00:36:08] In fact, I’d say 90 percent of the time, these leaders do not have the ability to answer the question I ask them directly. It’s always a long winding story. That we journey through to get to the final point. And so I’ll ask them something like, What is important that’s happening now in your career? That promotion is your priority.

[00:36:36] You know, you’re here today because you want to get a promotion. Why now? And rather than answering the question, why now? They’ll start telling me about their whole career path. Well, well, Zach, let me give you some context and, and they’ll back up. And, 

[00:36:50] Chris Fenning: and, and 

[00:36:51] Zach White: as soon as I hear that phrase, well, let me give you some context, half the time, I’ll actually interrupt them immediately and simply say, I know the context is interesting, but it’s not important.

[00:37:05] I only need to know why we’re talking today. Tell me that in one sentence, you know, challenge that. And, and a lot of times they’re not able to do it, right? They really don’t have that at the front of their mind because, and it’s not a judgment of anybody. I don’t, you know, for, I’m sure a lot of people listening to this, I’ve had this conversation with Bia.

[00:37:23] They’re probably like, Oh man, Zach thinks I’m feeling it. Like, not that it’s just, we haven’t been trained. We haven’t been taught, we don’t have that skill. So what I wanted to get to, the reason I share this with you is like, Chris, how do we develop that skill? You know, I go all the way back to you saying at the beginning of the interview that you had this skill pretty early on.

[00:37:42] You were identified as somebody who could do it. is it one of those you’re born with it kinds of things? Or if not, how can we develop and get better? What’s the pathway to this skill? 

[00:37:55] Chris Fenning: Well, the answer is simple, and it’s not one that many people like to hear. It takes time, effort, practice, deliberate practice.

[00:38:05] And recognizing that it’s going to be a long process to get to good. Or if you’re at good, it’s a long process to get from good to great. And to help people out, because that’s, that’s a general answer. It doesn’t really help individuals. To help people out, I want to break a fallacy that exists around communication skills.

[00:38:28] Communication is not a skill. And I’m going to say that in a few different ways. Communication is not a skill, and communication is not a skill. Communication is a situation, and we pull on different skill levels in different techniques and methods to succeed in that situation. And here’s an example to make it real.

[00:39:00] I was hiring for a job, and I said, I want someone with good communication skills. Very common, it’s in the top five skills of almost everything. Yep. If the person I was hiring for was going to mediate conflict in teams, that is different from someone who needs to be the closer on sales presentations, versus someone who is negotiating a new deal, versus someone who is teaching new starters.

[00:39:27] Every one of those situations requires good communication skills, but it requires a different set of tools and techniques and methods to be successful in that situation. let’s get to the practical advice now of what people can do. Once they recognize it’s going to take time, it’s going to take effort.

[00:39:45] Pick the situations that best match where you are and want to go in your career. If you want to go into an engineering leadership role, what are the kind of communication situations that engineering leaders need to be good at? Talking about crisis issues. It’s not negotiating sales. It’s not usually public speaking on a stage with 4, 000 people.

[00:40:11] It’s presenting to executives. It’s talking to non experts. It’s being able to summarize complex things quickly, focusing on the impact to other departments. It’s being able to translate technology into non technology audiences. Find out the skills, the techniques and tools that will help in those situations and focus on small, deliberate practice opportunities that make you better at those.

[00:40:38] And that kind of focus development over the course of… years, quite frankly, it’s years to get from I suck at this to I’m, I’m good 

[00:40:48] Zach White: at this. Really good. Yeah. Do that. Big shift. This is an important shift and it’s not something I’ve heard before, but I love it. Rather than focusing on what skill first, get clear on what situation you need to master to get to your next level and then ask in these situations, what’s the family of skills That I may need to begin deliberate practice on to get to that, that next level of acumen and capability, really good distinction.

[00:41:22] Chris Fenning: It’s like cooking. There are fundamental things you have to be able to do to be able to cook. You’ve got to be able to have knife skills, you’ve got to cut stuff up. You’ve got to understand how to use a frying pan and a saucepan and so on.

[00:41:34] That is fundamental skills, getting to the point, being clear and concise. Then you can start getting fancy and you pick a specialization. You don’t go into a restaurant and the pastry chef isn’t the same person who’s creating the, the sauces. You have two different specializations. And that’s the same for communications.

[00:41:54] And the reason that I’m absolutely confident saying this, is there are people like Mark Bowden, one of the best body language experts in the world. But he doesn’t teach negotiation skills. You’ve got Chris Voss for that. You’ve got people who teach active listening or, or speaking from a stage. But they are all making their entire livelihoods and businesses out of one particular section of this broad expanse of communicating in different situations.

[00:42:23] So if these individuals can make their entire careers on one niche area, don’t expect that you can or even have to master them all. Pick the things that will best suit your job. Just like if you were learning to cook, you’d pick the style of cooking that you wanted to learn. You wouldn’t try and master 

[00:42:41] Zach White: Super true.

[00:42:42] I was in a six month mastermind, Chris, with some of the best public speakers in the world, multiple hall of fame, public speakers, including the legendary Les Brown and Les can take any topic and motivate an audience of. Any people with no preparation at a drop of a hat, Les Brown can start moving you emotionally from the stage.

[00:43:06] But Les Brown is not an expert at concisely answering questions. I can tell you that he loves to, he loves to talk and bring you into it. And it’s always a story and he’s always got more to share and that’s not. Clear, concise executive communication. And so I think that’s, that’s super true. So then that said, I think it is safe to say for most engineering managers, especially who would want to move up in their career, or honestly, simply be more effective right where they’re at to create less confusion, to be able to work less hours and get things done quickly.

[00:43:42] This idea of concise and in the language of the listener that we’ve been talking about today. I think everybody can benefit from that. What would be one example of deliberate practice that we could give the happy engineer to take away if they want to sharpen their sword on that skill? How do we practice?

[00:44:02] Chris Fenning: Let’s go with concise, because that comes first. It doesn’t matter if you make it relevant, but it’s ten minutes long. You still need to be able to make it concise. Most of the things we talk about at work relate to achieving goals or solving problems. And we’re trying to achieve something, or we’re trying to solve a problem which helps us achieve something.

[00:44:24] When you’re talking to another person or group about, let’s get really specific. You want to talk to someone about a problem that’s happening and you need help, or you need something from them. A way they can deliberately practice is by saying in one sentence, one bullet point, What is the goal? We are trying to achieve this.

[00:44:43] This project, this task, this milestone, this thing. Second bullet point. The problem is this. This is what’s stopping us getting there. And the solution that I need your help with is this. Three bullet points. What is the goal? What is the problem? And what is the solution? It’s what I call the GPS summary. Uh, because it also provides you direction as you’re going through that summary.

[00:45:08] One sentence for each of the goal and the problem. Tell them where you’re trying to go. Tell them what’s making it difficult. And then say, and here’s what I want to do. For the solution. I need your help. I need your approval guidance Money people whatever it happens to be if they want more information They will ask and if you’re really nervous about that So I challenge you all to give three line summaries to give yourself a little bit more comfort you can finish the three line summary with What would you like to hear more about?

[00:45:42] And they might say nothing, and you can move on. Or they might say, oh, tell me more about the goal so I understand it. But let them take you deeper into the 

[00:45:50] Zach White: conversation. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. There’s a principle in coaching, Chris, that powerful questions… Are short questions there and they don’t have yes or no answers, right?

[00:46:02] They’re open ended and short. And as a rookie coach, I struggled with that when I first started coaching. This was still back in my engineering days. I was doing coach training when I was at Whirlpool as a asset to be a better manager and they’re going through this powerful coaching questions framework.

[00:46:20] And, they’re very short questions, a question like, what do you really want? Period. You know, like, stop talking, let the client answer. And there was a part of me that always wanted to really explain the questions more, or lead, or guide, and give lots of context, etc. But what shifted in me, and the reason I mention this here is, I realized that it was my own insecurity, or ego, or desire to prove something that I know to the client.

[00:46:51] To look impressive, to ask an impressive question. And that was coming from my own, fear, to be honest, rather than trusting that the client is intelligent, they’re smart, they’re capable, and if they don’t understand the question, they’ll come back and ask a clarifying question. And if they need more guidance, they’ll let me know as the coach that they need more guidance, but they also will take it in the direction that they need it to go.

[00:47:21] To get to the ultimate outcome in our coaching session. And that’s what makes it powerful is now we really get to the heart of the matter from your agenda rather than my agenda, and especially for an engineer managing up, it’s not about your agenda manager. It’s about that director or that VP or that CTO.

[00:47:40] Their agenda is the one that matters. And so when you take what you’re saying, Chris, it’s the same principle I see at play. It’s like that three bullet summary and that open ended, what do you need to know more about or where would you like to go deeper? It turns the control over to that senior leader or whoever.

[00:47:58] It doesn’t have to be moving, managing up. I, you could use this, I imagine in any context and you tell me if I’m wrong, but. Absolutely. Yes. Super good. 

[00:48:05] Chris Fenning: Up, down, sideways in the company, out of the company. 

[00:48:09] Zach White: Ah, pure gold. All right, Chris. I’ve got a thousand more questions, but we’re going to have to wrap it up because we need to just buy a copy of your book and work with you and get help.

[00:48:18] And, uh, that’s the next step. So tell me first, where can an engineer get synced up with your work, grab a copy of the book and get to know more of Chris and your genius. 

[00:48:29] Chris Fenning: my social hangout is LinkedIn, and everyone who connects with me on LinkedIn I reach out to and have a conversation with, so connect with me there.

[00:48:38] My website is chrisfenning. com, so it’s a fairly simple one, nothing obscure. And if anyone’s interested in any of my books, including The First Minute, You can order them wherever you like to buy books. Amazon’s the obvious one, but Apple, Barnes Noble, they’re available, in any, good, and probably some bad bookstores as 

[00:48:55] Zach White: well.

[00:48:57] Oh, yeah. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no bad bookstores, Chris. I love bookstores. And I will, uh, Happy Engineer, I’ll do you a solid as well. If you want a copy of the First Minute, How to Start Conversations That Get Results, the first three of you. Who emails Zach at Oasis of courage. com with the first minute in the subject line and your mailing address in the body.

[00:49:20] I will send you a copy of Chris’s book for free as a thank you for listening to this conversation. And frankly, because it’s going to help you get to the next level and want to be of service. it is fantastic. So please get the book. And if you want to get a free copy, shoot me an email, with the first minute in the subject, Zach at Oasis of courage.

[00:49:39] com. Chris. I love what you’re doing. Thank you so much for being here. And I want to end where we always end. I mean, you know, this as a consultant and coach and author now as an engineer in your history, questions, lead answers follow. And if we want better answers in our career and in our life, we need to ask better questions.

[00:50:01] So what would be the question that you would lead the happy engineer with today? Wherever you 

[00:50:07] Chris Fenning: are, whatever problem that you’re facing, ask yourself, what are you willing to compromise on? Because so often, we need to give up something and we can’t have it all. So what are you willing to compromise on? 

[00:50:25] Zach White: Woo!

[00:50:25] Not everybody wants to face the music to that question, Chris. What are you willing to compromise on? Really powerful. Thank you again for being here. Chris, we’re going to have to do it again sometime. There’s a lot more to dig into around your genius. it’s an absolute pleasure. Thank you, 

[00:50:41] Chris Fenning: Zach. I’ve really, really enjoyed being here,