Maureen Tuthill

John Able BIF2015: Be the great explainer

Business in the 21st century looks different from a few decades ago, but it still requires mastery of the soft skills, according to John Abele, the founding chairman of Boston Scientific Corporation, a worldwide manufacturer and developer of innovative medical products.

“The ability to both understand and communicate ideas in a way that they are understood is extraordinarily valuable and incredibly difficult,” says Abele. “To communicate to a wide diversity of cultures and mindsets in a way that they all take away a common meaning, you need a great explainer in the group.” 

The great explainer articulates why the organization is doing what it’s doing. He or she establishes the mood of the dialogue and gives everyone a fair hearing, Abele says. Shy people are drawn out and the posers are reigned in.

Having built a major global enterprise from scratch, Abele has become a voice of authority on effective collaboration, which he says can only happen when a group of people know how to talk to each other.    

Collaborating is like driving on ice, he says. When you begin to skid, “you increment forward, and there are lots of little test things that you do without knowing it.”

At Boston Scientific, Abele made unprecedented strides in the field of interventional healthcare by bringing together talented physicians of diverse nationalities and making them not just consumers, but also developers, of path-breaking medical devices. 

“The biggest mistake in the world is thinking you can get brilliant people together and they will collaborate,” Abele says. We are too often trained to be “pseudo-collaborators,” who pretend to give away aspects of control while we are, in fact, defending our specialty. “You need to strengthen the culture so that there is a sense of trust and respect. People will collaborate if they feel they are not taken advantage of.” 

Enter the soft skills. Everyone meets on the same plane to listen, be heard, acknowledge one other and understand the purpose of the task at hand.  Abele notes that this type of cohesion doesn’t just happen.

“Moderation is absolutely everything,” Abele says. “There are an awful lot of people who talk to impress rather than to communicate.”  Set time limits to remind contributors that no one deserves to dominate the floor. Trump the demagogues by summarizing and articulating their positions before they can throw things off balance.

Abele explains, “By doing that, you are both managing that speaker and also helping the others, because you’re setting the standard by which you’d like to have the dialogue continue.”

People who can rise above, see the humor in a situation, and make accurate observations are the leaders, Abele says. He recommends constructing a social map of an organization to identify those individuals: “I tend to look for people who I think are likely to be helpful. I talk to them. I also look for leaders who aren’t yet leaders, but they’re going to be. I ask people who they would go to for information on x, y or z. Certain names keep popping up. You learn the ones they trust the most, those who seem the most competent.”

Some places block the productive rapport that enables peers to struggle and learn alongside each other. Abele says you can feel the “take-no-prisoners” energy of such an organization as soon as you walk into it. “It’s the way in which people talk — not the words, but the sound of their voices, the way they move, their facial expressions.” 

Abele has found that having fun and being sociable beyond the immediate project builds trust and reinforces the group ethos, allowing people to read each other better and build context for each other. 

“I’m fascinated about creative uses of technology, but I’m just as fascinated by understanding the psyche of groups,” he says. “By that, I mean collective intelligence and how you get amazing performance from people who are smart.”

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