My First Gig as a Bus Driver

Wearing multiple hats in your professional career is common these days, whether you’re in a bootstrapping startup or a shareholder-value-maximizing large corporation. But when I put on a “bus driver” hat, I learned some important lessons about leadership.

This was the situation. For twelve years, I had spent time in engineering, product management, and market management roles, often with just one person reporting to me. When the opportunity arose to move back into a technical role, as the manager of our Application Engineering team, I knew it would be challenging. And the biggest challenge would be having five mostly “green” (new either to our industry or to our company) people reporting to me. But I had spent seven years as an Application Engineer myself, so I knew how to navigate this group from a “B Team” to an “A Team.” Or so I thought.

AE: “Application Engineer” or “Anything and Everything”

One of the first issues I tackled was that the Application Engineering team had become a dumping ground for virtually every type of inquiry, from all over the company. Everything came to them: requests for quotes, technical questions, manufacturing issues—really, just about everything that another department couldn’t answer. Application Engineering is a high-demand environment that requires knowledge of not only many products, but also many areas of the business.

The team used a shared Outlook mailbox to manage the inquiries, with each Application Engineer (AE) monitoring the mailbox and flagging the items they chose to work on. In theory, this is an excellent way to balance workload and provide a quick response. But in reality, our customers hated it.

The Black Hole

The AE Inbox was considered by customers to be a black hole, since it didn’t give them visibility into who they would be working with or when they would get a response. And more importantly, with no hard AE-to-customer link, there was a lack of continuity and in-depth knowledge regarding our largest customers and biggest projects. So a project that had tapered off a few weeks ago but was now being revived could be picked up by a different AE than the one who it began with, leading to a lot of wasted time and the opportunity for lost or miscommunicated info.

In my view, this was an easy fix. Scrap the AE Inbox “black hole”and give each AE an assigned territory and/or set of customers. This would allow the AE’s to gain more experience and in-depth knowledge of certain industries and applications, and it would give customers the single-point of contact that is so coveted in B2B interactions. (Think about how great it would be if this concept were proliferated in the B2C world. Imagine calling your cell phone provider or bank and always getting the same representative, who knew your account, past issues, and current status. What a great way to build customer loyalty.)

So off I went, outlining the plan for a territory-based group, analyzing each AE’s product strengths, past experience, and niche areas of expertise. Yep, we were going to be on the road to “Rock Star AE Group” in no time.

Driving an Empty Bus

When I presented the plan to the team, I felt like I was leading them on a journey with smoother roads to a more desirable destination. But their reactions fell into one of two categories: silence (never a good thing when you’re trying to implement change) or skepticism. The bus had pulled away from the station, but my passengers were all standing at the bus stop, arms folded, refusing to get on. They weren’t buying into the destination or the path I had planned.

Despite the urge to insist that my way was the right/better/only way and to simply force the new system on the team, I quickly regrouped and asked them what they thought would be the best way to improve our responsiveness and develop a single-point-of-contact system, or something very close to it. We recorded their initial ideas right there in the meeting which I had originally intended to be the kickoff for implementing “my” system. And more importantly, we each voiced our concerns about what might not work and why – getting all the negatives out on the table to acknowledge and address them. Over the next few days, the team discussed the ideas among themselves and with me, and we eventually came up with a solution that addressed the customers’ complaints, and which the group felt would be successful. Together, we had mapped out a new road to the desired destination.

All Aboard

Now we were beginning to make some progress and work together as a team. But it wasn’t easy. Even in a small group, there were conflicting opinions and different levels of acceptance. We agreed on a structure that gave each AE a territory and a set of major customers, but which still routed all inquiries to the AE Inbox. When an inquiry came in, the AE who was responsible for that territory or customer flagged it when they began working on it. (Each AE chose a flag color based on their university alma mater.) So a quick look at the inbox showed which inquiries hadn’t been addressed, which AE’s were working on the most items (not a perfect indicator of workload, but a useful approximation), and which items were taking longer than our target turnaround time to address. Most importantly, our major customers and our salespeople knew who they would be working with on their questions and applications.

Within three months, the group had made the journey from “B Team” to “A Team.” Instead of complaining to our management about response time and lack of continuity, customers began showering praise on the AE Team for their fast turn-around times and overall customer support.

So what did my first gig as a “bus driver”teach me about leadership? 


1. Don’t assume you know the best route. When initiating change, involve those who will be affected. And not just during the implementation phase, but through the entire process. Explain the reasons that change is needed and how the current situation is affecting them. In this situation, management didn’t give the AE’s opportunities to participate in projects outside of their core function, for fear that it would further increase response time and customer complaints.

2. But: Show passengers that you do know your way around. Since I’d been away from engineering for some time, most of the AE’s didn’t know me very well and couldn’t care less that I had been in their shoes five or more years ago. In my excitement to fix what I saw as a problem, I didn’t spend time earning their trust. If I had spent more time in the beginning talking to the team about what their current challenges were and sharing my experiences, they would have been less resistant to the change itself.

3. Listen to the backseat drivers. Some people naturally see opportunities to make things better and will run with them, and some people naturally see all the ways that something won’t work. In many cases, acknowledging the negatives diminishes their power. And talking about what might not work, and why, lets the team develop alternatives to these scenarios, in case they do happen.

4. Find a co-pilot. Preferably someone who has influence within the group. In our team, there was one person who was skeptical, but open to the possibility that maybe we weren’t doing things the best way. He helped gain consensus with the rest of the group and voiced opinions and concerns that the others weren’t comfortable expressing directly to their boss (me).

5. Trust the group’s navigational skills. Just before taking over the AE Manager position, I had convinced my boss that the AE Inbox was a core part of the problem and needed to be done away with. When the group came up with a solution that still incorporated the email box, I had to go back to my manager and now convince him that the inbox should be part of the solution. My credibility was on the line if the new plan didn’t lead to improvement, but I trusted that the team would embrace their new process and make it work. And they did.

6. Celebrate the journey and enjoy the destination. It’s an easy thing to overlook once the new normal sets in, but acknowledging the effort and dedication that it takes to make a change helps ensure the team will be open to doing it for other situations. In this case, one of the negative effects of the old way, the lack of opportunities to work on other projects, was turned into the reward for making the new way work. With the team meeting response time goals and customers praising the team’s performance, company management was willing to let them spend time on other projects that they wanted to work on.

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