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Pete Devenyi: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Interview With David Liu

Listen actively, with the Intent to understand. Learning to listen to others effectively and actively, withholding judgment and responses until we fully understand, is one of the greatest skills we can develop. It is more difficult, yet even more important, when working remotely. Never forget that communication is two-way. It involves both listening and speaking, and the best communicators usually do it in that order.

We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Devenyi.

For over 30 years, Pete Devenyi led a storied career in technology, both globally and in Canada. He led enterprise software at RIM/BlackBerry for nine years and was Senior Vice President of Global Products and Solutions at Dematic, one of the largest warehouse automation providers in the world. He led large global teams across multiple countries and time zones. He is an accomplished speaker and is the author of the highly-acclaimed book Decoding Your STEM Career, written to help technologists achieve their full potential. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto and continues to consult actively in the fields of warehouse automation, software development and robotics. For more information, visit petedevenyi.com.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

When I graduated from high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I was good at math, so engineering sounded like a good idea. I was accepted into civil engineering at the University of Toronto, but quickly discovered that computers and electronics were more interesting to me than building bridges, so I switched to the electrical engineering program. That decision, 42 years ago, set the course for my career. After graduation, I joined a 700-person Canadian computer company called Geac, where I was bitten by the computer bug. I immersed myself into all aspects of computers, departing three years later, having risen to lead operating system development on one of their mainframe systems. I joined IBM in 1986, and stayed there for the next 10 years, improving my technical and managerial skills. In 1997, I came to the conclusion that I was unlikely to achieve my career aspirations at IBM and left to run engineering at the Descartes Systems Group in Waterloo, Ontario. In 2004, I joined Research in Motion to run BlackBerry Software. It turned out to be one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs of my career. I led a team of about 1000 people, with employees spread across the globe. In 2014, I made the final move of my career to join Dematic, the largest provider of warehouse automation technology and services in the world. I ran Software R&D for the company and eventually moved to run Global Products and Solutions. I retired in 2020 and now spend the bulk of my time consulting and speaking, and writing my second book. I have never felt happier or more fulfilled.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I write about this in my book, Decoding Your STEM Career. I was at Research in Motion (BlackBerry) during the height of the company’s success. We literally changed the way people work, redefining what mobile communication meant for businesses. The BlackBerry unchained executives and employees from their offices and their computers. It became the must-have device for business professionals and it needed to work flawlessly or we knew there would be hell to pay. Over 90% of Fortune 500 companies were reliant on technology for conducting their day-to-day businesses. Unfortunately, on October 10th, 2011, disaster struck. A major outage in the BlackBerry Relay spread like a virus. The initial signs of trouble surfaced on Monday morning, and 12 hours later, our company was dealing with a full-blown catastrophe. We became the lead story on every major news network. I found myself at the center of the storm as I was attending an executive meeting with the Global Operations team when signs of trouble first surfaced. I fielded angry phone calls from executives who were reaching out to us from all corners of the world, eager to unleash their frustration on anyone who would listen. Our CIO took much of the abuse and managed the nightmarish situation with honesty and transparency. She maintained her cool and worked hard to minimize the damage. Apple and Google were making inroads into the enterprise and our pain was their gain. It must have felt like Christmas to them. It took three days to fully restore the system and not before we sustained significant collateral damage to our reputation. This was the highest-pressure situation I ever found myself in. Unfortunately, it was also a negative turning point for RIM, which was never able to fully recover from the incident. Still, I gained a great deal from the experience, learning how to maintain my composure under intense pressure, how to listen empathetically to customers and how to offer my full support to developers who were working tirelessly to restore services, under very difficult conditions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have so many favorite quotes, several of which are included in my book. Perhaps the one that sticks out the most is from Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn.

“No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team”

This quote spoke to me, and I thought of it often, whenever I felt my team was not working well together, or when giving constructive criticism to employees who were more concerned about making themselves look good than to offer assistance to their peers.

Another is from Sheryl Sandberg.

“The ability to listen is as important as the ability to speak”

If you take it to heart, it will literally change the way you interact with people, both in your work life and in your personal life. It had a dramatic impact on me, as it helped me stay in the moment when conducting conversations, to learn what it really means to listen with the intent to understand, rather than with the intent to respond.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had many mentors throughout my career and I feel indebted in various ways to all of them. One of my earliest mentors was Peter Johnston, my manager when I took my first job at Geac. He taught me the importance of continuous technical learning, and how important it was in order to maintain the respect of your team. Not only did he possess outstanding leadership and communication skills, but there was rarely a technical question I could ask him that he didn’t know the answer to. I was so impressed. I always did what I could to emulate his leadership style. He didn’t push his knowledge on anyone, but everyone on our team knew where to go to when they were in need of guidance, be it technical or people related. I knew how lucky I was to work for a leader like that so early in my career.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

I always felt that work was one of the best places to cultivate lasting friendships. While it is where we conduct business, for me it was also about forming relationships. Those relationships help us build teams that work as effectively as possible together. When we work physically together, we tend to have more impromptu, one-on-one or group discussions, be it after a meeting adjourns, around the coffee maker, or when bumping into someone walking down the hallway. These meetings are often constructive and, in my experience, become the source of many of the best ideas.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

It’s important to find a way to recreate what might naturally be lost:

  1. Impromptu conversations: Find a way to ensure they happen virtually.
  2. Video matters: Many employees find excuses for keeping their video off during meetings. I believe it’s a mistake. Face to face communication matters. Employees must mentally prepare to go to work the same way they do when they go to the office, even if they are wearing pajama bottoms!
  3. Breakout sessions: When you attend a face-to-face meeting, coffee breaks are often used for quick one-on-one breakout sessions. This can be tougher to do remotely but the tools do exist. Find a way to make them happen.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ?

  1. Listen actively, with the Intent to understand. Learning to listen to others effectively and actively, withholding judgment and responses until we fully understand, is one of the greatest skills we can develop. It is more difficult, yet even more important, when working remotely. Never forget that communication is two-way. It involves both listening and speaking, and the best communicators usually do it in that order.
  2. Build a reputation for truth and integrity. Trust almost always needs to be earned. Doing so, without the ability to have frequent face-to-face conversations, is more challenging and it requires a more concerted effort. Always think about the words you use and choose them carefully. When you make a mistake, own up to it. When you have to make an unpopular decision, make sure everyone understands why you made it. Take the time to explain your rationale clearly.
  3. Replicate face-to face interactions. We are fortunate to have very strong virtual team collaboration tools at our disposal. Use them well and make (virtual) face-to-face collaboration a part of your corporate culture. Think about all the positive attributes of office-life, and find a virtual equivalent for each one. Schedule virtual coffee breaks, virtual breakout sessions, virtual mentoring sessions, etc. Whatever works in the office, think about the virtual equivalent and iterate on it until you get it right. Let’s not forget, we’re going to work so it’s important to be fully engaged and to turn your video camera on.
  4. Communication is multi-faceted, focus on them all. Perhaps this is one of the easiest. Team collaboration tools have been around for a while but they keep getting richer, and there has never been a greater need to use them effectively. Video and audio recordings of meetings are accessible, white board assets can be saved, presentations and minutes can be stored in a common location, action items can easily be tracked. All employees should be well trained on the tools. Most companies are supporting hybrid work environments, and the only way to insure that work is equally effective whether you’re at the office or at home, is to master the use of the tools.
  5. Social events are more important than ever. Every quarter or so, get everyone together for organized social time. Teams need to bond. Go bowling for a couple hours, play baseball, have a barbeque. It is well understood that teams that know each other well and have each other’s backs, perform better. With so many employees working remotely, the closeness tends to happen less naturally. Leaders have an extra responsibility to ensure that relationships within their teams don’t become too distant.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

It was working reasonably well before I retired from my role at Dematic, mid-way through the pandemic. We were just getting adjusted to our new reality. While the work was getting done, communications at larger meetings with local office team members was awkward. We were experiencing more prolonged periods of silence and I felt the strong sense of teamwork we had in the office slowly slipping away.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

Tools like Microsoft Teams have been invaluable, and they are getting better every day. It is critical to make sure everyone is fully aware of all the key features and that they are used. It’s not just about video conferencing, it’s about unifying all aspects of communications.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

I would like all non-confidential communications to be stored and searchable. We must conform with all privacy laws and private communications should never be persisted. We have an opportunity to turn work communications into a web of assets, not unlike the web itself.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

I believe we always had a need for strong unified communication tools, but the pandemic brought them into full view. In a remote work environment, with employees frequently working together across multiple time-zones, we should not think of meetings as discrete events but rather as extended sessions. While the initial discussion may only be scheduled for an hour, there is no reason a meeting can’t remain “live” for, say, 24 hours, to give everyone an opportunity to view the content and offer their insights before any final decisions are made.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

I look forward to the day when every meeting doesn’t start with “can you hear me?”. Tech needs to work with near 100% confidence and reliability. We need to get to the point where we stop questioning it. Maybe our computer screens aren’t the windows we require into this world in the long term. Hopefully one day we’ll all be able to wear lightweight virtual reality glasses and be immersed into a virtual meeting room, and the difference between meeting physically or virtually becomes almost irrelevant.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

No matter how much our technology advances, and it will continue to do so at a rapid pace, there is nothing that will ever fully replace true human to human interaction. While I am a huge proponent of workplace flexibility, and to make physical location less of a barrier when hiring employees, I do hope we don’t lose the notion of the physical office. If for no other reason, I believe many of the best, longest lasting friendships are born this way. I know mine were.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

In my case, most of it has moved to digital, but I also switched from corporate life to running a small consulting business, at the start of the pandemic. It has worked well and I have formed many new, excellent customer relationships. Have I formed any true, new friendships? If I am being honest, I would have to say that I have not.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

This is a topic I focused on heavily throughout my 30 years in management and I write about it extensively in my book. I have also written a blog on the topic which can be read on petedevenyi.com. In a nutshell, video must be turned on, the conversations should always be one-on-one, and you should start with the positives. Employees are far more likely to accept constructive criticism if you make them feel good about themselves first. Make them understand that your goal is to help them be the best they can be, so don’t make them feel like their jobs are in jeopardy.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

  1. Put an effort into scheduling fun meetings. We held one where the whole team took photos of their home office configurations and whoever guessed the most correct answers, won a prize.
  2. Use the virtual tools effectively. Don’t forget to schedule open coffee-maker virtual meetings. Pop in and out when you have a few minutes to build relationships with employees you don’t already know. This is especially important when you’re the leader of the team.
  3. Make a point of getting together for face-to-face social outings. Try even harder to make them fun and make them count!

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Be kind to others at work. Go out of your way to help your teammates succeed and put team achievements ahead of your personal achievements. In the course of a long career, these actions will help you achieve your maximum potential far more effectively than any actions you take which focus exclusively on your personal deliverables.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Your readers can follow me at petedevenyi.com and I also hope many of them benefit by reading my book, Decoding Your STEM Career, which is available through Amazon and most other online bookstores. I love hearing from readers, so they can reach out to me through my website. I always go out of my way to respond.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

Thank you for the opportunity.

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David Liu

David Liu

David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication