CTO Studio: Jeff Miller on Relationships

7CTO founder Etienne de Bruin welcomes Jeff Miller back into the 7CTO Studio to discuss relationships. The last time Jeff was in the studio, Etienne and Jeff talked about curiosity as a mindset. Etienne decided to bring Jeff back to further break down curiosity, but this time, to discuss curiosity within relationships or partnerships.

How does Curiosity impact interpersonal relationships? Jeff explains it is a matter of “doing curiosity” versus “being curiosity.” Doing curiosity is checking the boxes and participating in surface-level questions and interactions. Being curiosity is when we come from an authentic and genuine place, asking original questions that cultivate connection and build relationship foundations. Being curious is when you fully immerse yourself into curiosity versus robotically going through the motions of curiosity.

From a coaching perspective, what are the crucial aspects of building healthy relationships? From Jeff’s expertise, it comes down to willingness. How willing are both parties to start and maintain a relationship, and at what level? Jeff believes it’s essential to get clear on how each person likes to receive information. Is it through email, voice text, phone calls, or meeting in person? It’s crucial to figure out how each person values receiving information to create a container where you can meet from which the relationship can flourish. 

Next, think about what both parties want this relationship to look like and create a roadmap for the future. Suppose both parties claim ownership and commitment to the relationship and maintain clarity, trust, healthy boundaries, and intention. In that case, the relationship will naturally grow and thrive in a positive and mutually fulfilling way. Jeff indicates the emphasis, however, should be placed on the clarity piece. We all have friends at different levels to fulfill other purposes. We have five minutes friends, five-hour friends, weekend friends, and long-term relationships, for example. Most of us would not want to go away on vacation with our five-minute friend as there is a different level of intimacy when comparing a lifelong friend to a five-minute friend that you see once a week. 

There can be difficulties in creating boundaries and clarifying how such relationships are supposed to look. Blurring the boundary between business and friendship can get messy in the professional world. Jeff emphasizes that clarity and healthy boundaries are essential for any relationship to grow and flourish.  When using the example of corporate happy hours, although they can open the door for more engagement, at the same time, they can also open the door for extra blurriness. It doesn’t mean this event needs avoidance altogether; however, it’s essential to have clear boundaries, keep it clean, avoid gossip, and stay autonomous.

When it comes to colleagues, direct reports, and departmental goals, there is a requirement to feel safe, and there needs to be a willingness to clarify the container and its boundaries. However, there also needs to be a recognition that we all have feelings as humans. The elephant in the room is that people will inevitably get triggered, upset, angry, and frustrated. It’s bound to happen. And how do we navigate this? 

If we have an ecosystem with transparency and meet people where they’re at, even if they aren’t super polished, we’ll see conflicts get resolved positively, build relationships, and strengthen existing relationships. Jeff’s coaching background reveals that when someone doesn’t feel safe enough to say something bothering them and instead buries it,  they will inevitably become resentful. This negativity will spread like a virus and penetrate other teams in a negative way. 

Jeff explains that the executive and leadership teams are coaches in their way. Leadership should take on the responsibility of employees not feeling safe, feeling stressed, or feeling unappreciated. When looking at relationship deconstruction, there needs to be a mutual willingness to connect and stay engaged. A great way to do this, according to Jeff, is participating in daily check-ins. The check-in is for both parties within the relationship. Before checking in on others, it’s essential to check in with oneself first. How am I in terms of relationship building? How am I showing up within this relationship? How am I showing up for myself and those around me that need me? 

So how does one navigate this correctly from a leadership standpoint? How can we check in with ourselves and check in on our willingness the best way possible? Jeff explains that if we are overly consumed with being perfect, how can we model the safe, vulnerable, clean-up culture that we are trying to cultivate? As a leader, if employees see you messing up but being vulnerable about it, they will sense that you are opening the door for more transparency and trust. 

Building relationships is not an exact science, and we aren’t building a machine. Etienne explains that this idea of perfection is the enemy of the technology industry.  Within the tech industry, everything is likened to machines. We are constantly barraged with the need to test efficiency, thus spilling into our relationships, almost machine-like and robotic-like. 

If the intention is to get work done and have positive relationships, how can we create this culture? Again, it goes back to willingness. If we are too busy, our willingness to engage is at an all-time low. We shouldn’t be surprised if situations don’t go as planned if we don’t have the willingness to give our time and energy to relationships and projects that need our attention and engagement.

There is simplicity and beauty in informative but straightforward check-ins. Using phrasing such as, “Hey, can I check in with you,” or “can I reflect something with you,” or “I’m in this with you, and this is what I am seeing,” are great examples of checking in often enough so that the relationship is authentic and genuine. And when crucial or difficult conversations arise, they will be more positive for everyone involved. 

So what happens when there is an employee who has work life and personal life and doesn’t integrate the two. Jeff explains that it’s a good life and a reasonable way to be, yet it is limiting. People who excel typically don’t want to be limited. If there is buy-in with limitedness organizationally, we will see a change in having limited innovation, little creativity, and limited impact. If we want to open the floodgates for unlimited creativity, innovation, and success, there needs to be buy-in and creative confidence. 

Jeff believes that there can be both options of working together and meeting company-wide goals while having the mindset of being on vacation. This is not a situational thing; it’s a being thing. We all have been on vacation and have let work stress seep into our minds when on vacation. So it’s taking the mindset of being on vacation, the relaxed, positive, appreciative, and overall more pleasant mindset, and operate from that mindset in all aspects of your life. 

But what happens if there’s a block with someone and they don’t have the willingness to show up this way. They are getting the work done but not participating in collaboration activities, and they aren’t putting effort into building interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Is this ground for termination or demotion? What do we do when the willingness is not reciprocated? Jeff advises to be genuinely curious about what’s going on with them that’s preventing or blocking them from their corporate functions but in doing this, be sure to keep in mind how you are being. How are you showing up for this conversation? Are you slacking them? Are you phoning in the relationship? If so, that’s not a relationship. The relationship can not only exist when convenient and necessary for you. 

Etienne analyzes the “employment relationship” and explains that it is very structured. There are “employee reviews, “exit interviews,”  “the onboarding experience,” and the structured “corporate culture.” For example, there is an assumed relationship as instructed in the handbook, but that type of relationship is a tiny piece of what we are analyzing. We are talking about authentic relationships versus corporate robotic relationships. For example, Jeff remembers when he owned and ran private tennis clubs, he would go to his main office every day to show support by bringing donuts and bagels to create relationships with the staff, not as a strategy, but because he genuinely wanted to. It came from a place of love for people and a passion for seeing people do well. This commitment to his staff made it easier to have crucial conversations because there was already a baseline of connection and positive, authentic relationship on both ends. 

Etienne explains that he is a CTO and a father, and as a dad, he has more sympathy for a fellow dad/employee. However, as a CTO who needs to have a critical deadline met, he may have less compassion and be more concerned with the project getting launched, even if that means requesting his employee to work on the weekend to meet that deadline. Jeff explains that these two worlds integrate by building trust. When people are validated and appreciated, they will work weekends for you and still make time to go to their child’s soccer tournament. They will manage both worlds because they feel appreciated and valued. 

There’s a balance that needs highlighting within building authentic relationships with others. It’s important to note that you don’t have access to do it for others if you don’t do it yourself. If you don’t make it a habit to check in on yourself, how can you check in with others? Anything that’s lacking within the relationship with oneself is typically the lack within a strained relationship. So we should all start there and own that. If someone isn’t checking in on you, the ownness should be on you for not being clear on what you need. 

Can we have intimacy in work relationships in a world of performance reviews, metrics, goals milestones, and OKRs, in a system that has to produce sustainable goals and revenue, and how will this look? When we show up as our most confident and authentic selves focusing on our needs and the needs of others, this can be achieved. If we don’t show up for ourselves or have the willingness and commitment to address our own needs, we can’t expect ourselves to do the same for others. 

Is building and maintaining relationships in the workplace the most talked-about aspect of company-wide success? Not particularly, but it should be. How can healthy and safe relationships flourish without a company culture that promotes safety, transparency, and authenticity? And how can authentic and genuine relationships exist without a secure container or environment to do so? One can’t live without the other. When we limit our company culture, values, and work relationships, we unintentionally limit all other aspects of the organization. We restrict ourselves and our true potential just like we limit the potential of our employees individually and within teams. If we want unlimited success, productivity, and innovation, we have to use this philosophy within all areas of the organization and its culture.