Choosing an appropriate bottle of wine for a business lunch is surprisingly complicated, as Jamie Hamelin discovered.
Then there's the matter of how to eat table bread – that is, by tearing it into small pieces and buttering each individually, rather than making a butter sandwich. But how do you even sit down at the table, he pondered. And how do you eat soup?
Mr. Hamelin is not some kind of feral dinner guest; rather, he's an engineer. The etiquette and sommelier-led wine selection lessons were part of a year-long mentorship program created by Mr. Hamelin's employer, Entuitive Corp., a Toronto-based engineering consulting firm.
He and eight of his fellow engineers were chosen as protégés after supervisors recognized their potential for leadership – but also recognized that their social and communication skills needed work.
Having worked at Entuitive since 2012, Mr. Hamelin, a 34-year-old structural engineer, wanted to move into business development and thought leadership. However, his academic training to delve deeply into nitty-gritty details had left him ill-equipped to deliver broader project overviews to clients, particularly when such meetings were often held in social settings like restaurants or at industry conferences.
"I think my speaking skills were okay from a technical perspective – being able to speak the engineering language. But you know what you're missing," Mr. Hamelin said.
To address the "what's missing" part, Sean Smith, Entuitive's director of people and culture, created the mentorship program. It's meant to teach employees how to speak more generally about their work to a non-technical audience, to schmooze, and how to flawlessly eat a five-course meal.
"It's a very tough transition. You're so good at what you do, and you're so busy doing it, that you don't have the time or the head space to move out of your comfort zone and focus on other areas in the company you might be good at," Mr. Smith said.
If engineers – as well as specialists in science and finance – are stereotyped as poor communicators, it's because they were trained to be that way.
In 1946, Pennsylvania College for Women English professor Robert Zetler wrote a journal article "The Inarticulate Engineer," pointing to engineering schools' failure to teach students communication skills. Seventy years later, it's often still the case in highly technical programs.
"By and large, scientists are actually trained to be bad communicators," said Donald Smith, a professor and plant scientist at McGill University in Montreal. "It's a problem."
An academic imperative to teach scientists to speak factually and unemotionally is a major contributor to that problem, Dr. Smith said.
It's a shame, because scientists have an obligation to share their work beyond academia, says Penny Park, executive director of Science Media Centre of Canada.
"I believe it was Voltaire who said, 'The secret of being a bore is to tell everything,'" Ms. Park said. "[But] when one has deep knowledge of a subject, it can be especially difficult to decide what is important to tell."
The good news is that charisma – or, at least, better social and communication skills – can be taught.
"Will everybody be [as charismatic as U.S. President Barack] Obama? No, of course not. But certainly everybody can improve," says Dr. Raina Brands, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at London Business School who studies charisma in leadership.
Dr. Brands says charismatic people are able to motivate others, both rationally and emotionally, to admire and relate to them. Body language, eye contact, descriptive language and an authentic delivery help make those connections, and are all elements of charisma that can be learned.
Understanding one's audience is also essential. McGill's Dr. Smith tries to impart to students, as well as fellow scientists in his biofuels research community, that there are two venues for every piece of data: The emotional and the technical. This advice rings even truer when science and the business world meet (which they do, with great frequency).
"You have to learn to tell the story about what it is, and why it works. At some point, you're going to have to explain this to investors, and if you come in with dry, technical stuff, you run a risk [of losing their interest]," Dr. Smith said.
There's no doubt that learning better social and communication skills can be invaluable to one's career. In the case of Mr. Hamelin, the structural engineer, he was promoted to an associate position at his firm after completing the year-long mentorship program. In his new position, he regularly meets with clients. He also meets with his mentor for continued support.
Beyond in-house mentorship programs like Entuitive's, there are academic and professional programs to help technical types hone their etiquette and interpersonal skills. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, runs an extracurricular Charm School.
In the realm of finance, the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management's Self-Development and Leadership Development labs help mould MBAs into well-rounded leaders, while the same school's executive programs exist to help people already in leadership positions advance their careers. Elsewhere, Financial Executives International Canada and Queen's University offer a joint leadership development course for current and future chief financial officers.
All of these programs, however, are optional. And even after all that work, you're really only as charismatic as the person you're talking to perceives you to be, said Dr. Brands of London Business School. "Charisma is very much in the eye of the beholder."
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