Those who don’t, stall out in the middle
I was standing at a whiteboard in a large conference room with Prabhakar Raghavan. If you’re not familiar with who he is, he’s currently a Senior Vice President at Google, where he is responsible for Google Search, Assistant, Geo, Ads, Commerce, and Payments products.
However, when I worked with him, he was the Chief Scientist running Yahoo! Labs and one of the smartest people I’d ever met. I was the Head of Consumer Products for Search and spending more time with the media and board than ever before. So, I was lucky enough to spend some time learning from him.
Here’s an excerpt from his Google Research page.
Prabhakar is one of the foremost authorities on Search and is the co-author of two widely-used graduate texts on algorithms and on search: Randomized Algorithms and Introduction to Information Retrieval. He has over 20 years of research spanning algorithms, web search and databases, published over 100 papers in various fields, and holds 20 issued patents, including several on link analysis for web search.
So, yeah, he’s a smart guy. We were preparing for a board meeting, and I was also going to be meeting with a new member to talk about our latest strategy for Yahoo! Search.
His advice for me? Keep it simple. Really, really simple.
Then, he quickly sketched a barebones wireframe of the Search Results page on the whiteboard with basic blocks to identify the algorithmic search results and the sponsored results (i.e., advertising).
Actually, that doesn’t really capture the essence of what he meant. He described how critical it was to avoid technical jargon, insider vernacular, and anything that would confuse the listener.
We lived in the Silicon Valley corporate world and spent our days discussing Search technology. The board members did not. Their world was very different than ours.
To earn a seat in the board meeting and a chance to present to them, you had to be a bridge between the complexity of our technical world and their business and operational world.
You had to explain things so that they could easily understand what we were doing and why it mattered. It was critical to bridge the gap between our expertise and their domain experience so that they could provide valuable insights, give us relevant feedback, and help all of us make better decisions.
If you could not explain things in a way that they could understand, or if you made someone feel stupid, you’d never be back in that room again. It was a career-limiting move.
The board loved Prabhakar. Tech journalists loved him too. He was smart, eloquent, and he could cut right to the heart of the matter with simple explanations that made people feel like they walked away with a better understanding than they had before.
Whenever I think of someone who could be the bridge between two worlds, I remember Prabhakar. If you look at his career journey, you can see that this ability is one of the things that helped him rise to the top. Check out this article if you don’t believe me:
THOUGH PRABHAKAR RAGHAVAN recoils at hearing himself described as “the CEO of Google,” the 60-year-old engineer turned executive is as close to being that person as one could be. He runs search, ads, commerce, maps, payments, and Google Assistant, businesses that bring in the lion’s share of the company’s revenue. And he’s paid like a CEO—last year the company paid him $55 million in salary and stock.
On the flip side, I can also think of people who stalled out in their careers. They climbed the ladder to a fairly senior point in their profession but couldn’t quite break through to the highest leadership or executive levels.
Now, I know that some people aren’t even interested in the management track. But, some of these individuals also weren’t able to get promoted to the most senior individual contributor levels either. When that happens, your earning potential stagnates.
That’s because excellence in your craft will only take you so far. Yes, doing your job well is definitely necessary to climb the early rungs of your career ladder. If you’re not great at what you do, you won’t progress very far at all.
However, even the most talented individual contributors hit a ceiling if they cannot communicate well with others. To climb to the highest levels, you have to communicate with people who don’t live in your world.
Sadly, too many people think that it makes them look smart to toss around big words, baffle people with the complexity of their craft, show off their intelligence, and try to prove how important they are. But it doesn’t work. In fact, the more someone refuses even to try to bridge a communication gap, the more they reveal their low emotional intelligence.
If you are interested in breaking through this career ladder ceiling, you should learn how to bridge the domain expertise gap between you and the people you work with across other organizations, companies, etc. The most successful people that I’ve watched over the course of my 20+ year career are those who do this exceedingly well.
But, how do you do that? Well, here are some steps you can take to learn how to become “a bridge.”
Understand their world
It begins with curiosity and empathy. Take the time to research who someone is, what they do, and what you think they are trying to accomplish.
Care enough to put yourself in their shoes. What is their world like? What matters to them? How might they be feeling?
When you talk with someone, show that you understand who they are and what they do. Connect your world to theirs. Use your conversational skills and ask questions to learn more.
I used to tell young designers to “learn enough to be dangerous.” I was referring to learning enough about the technology to communicate well with engineers, learning enough about product metrics to have better meetings with product managers, and learning enough about business goals to know how design could help achieve them.
But, it’s not really about being “dangerous.” You just want to learn enough to have intelligent conversations with others instead of living in your own world. Learn enough about someone else’s job, domain, and goals so that you can bridge the gaps between:
What they want and what you can provide
What you need and what is possible
How they describe their world and how you talk about yours
How do you contribute to higher-level goals? Not your goals. I’m talking about the overall goals of the company, organization, and team.
Too many people get caught up in their private world and forget where they fit into the big picture. They miss the forest for the trees.
I saw this problem all too often in design organizations. People falling in love with their designs. Design for design’s sake isn’t relevant in a company that must satisfy customers and remain profitable. And, when you’re not seen as relevant and clearly don’t understand the larger goals, you don’t move up the ladder.
Designers aren’t the only guilty parties. I’ve worked with engineers who would get caught up in the beauty of the architecture and purity of their code. They constantly tried to refactor and reduce technical debt while pushing out work that would help the product advance and make the business more money.
Unless you’re an independent artist, your work serves a higher purpose when you agree to be an employee. Be aware of what type of company employs you and make yourself relevant to its goals.
I’m not saying that you need to be a puppet dancing at the end of leadership’s strings. But, you do need to strike a balance between what you want to be doing and what they need. Be relevant and valuable if you want to keep climbing the ladder.
Don’t be rigid
People are too precious about their profession. At work, we used to call that an “Ivory Tower” issue. It’s related to the previous point of being relevant.
People with this impractical attitude often acted as if they were better than everyone else in other organizations. They weren’t interested in the mundane matters of other people or the urgent problems the company faced. They couldn’t be bothered to care.
Guess how that worked out for them? They enjoyed their little ivory towers for a few years, but they all came crashing down later. Most C-level executives and boards have little patience for spending money on teams that never deliver tangible results for the company. It has to pay off in some way eventually!
You should be proud of what you do. Be strong and confident enough to push for excellence. Nobody wants to do mediocre work in their craft just to please a leadership team.
But, don’t be so inflexible that you think it’s more important to win battles while losing the war. In the end, if the company fails, you lose your job, and all of your hard work fades away.
I watched that happen at a few of my past employers. We’ve all seen it happen across various industries. The purest and most perfect solutions don’t always win.
Finally, you have to bring it all together and become a great communicator. I’m sorry, but I don’t know of any way to skip this step.
However, if you don’t care about climbing to the very top of your career ladder, then don’t worry about it. But, if you want to expand your influence, be well-known and well-respected, people have to know that you exist, and they have to understand what you do.
You must be able to communicate clearly with people who don’t live in your world.
This starts with becoming a valuable translation layer between your team and others. I attribute much of my career success to investing in my public speaking skills and learning enough to communicate well with engineers, scientists, product managers, executives, etc. People used to say to me, “You don’t talk like a designer.”
Drop the vernacular. It’s so annoying to talk with someone who speaks in acronyms, uses obscure phrases, and acts like they’re a member of some secret society. It’s not impressive. It’s irritating and will hold you back.
Too many people use complexity to mask insecurity. They spout big words and the unique language of their profession to feel smart and special. Just stop it.
When someone is a great communicator who can make things clear and understandable, people want to spend more time with them. They get invited to increasingly important meetings. They are the ones who get promoted to higher levels of leadership and influence.
Be a bridge
Hey, if you don’t care about getting promoted and climbing to the upper levels of your professional career ladder, then ignore what I’m saying. Just keep focusing on your craft and be happy where you are.
It really is ok. Some people don’t want the stress and lurking impostor syndrome of moving up and up and up.
However, if you are interested in pursuing leadership and having greater influence, you must learn how to bridge the gaps between people. Be able to simply connect your world to the worlds of others. The best “bridges” can even help other people in completely different worlds understand each other. It’s awe-inspiring to watch.
⬆️ Scroll to the top if you want to listen to my more complete discussion and examples from my work experiences 🎧
Do you have any thoughts on this topic? Any advice to share? Or, do you just want to tell me how wrong I am? That’s ok too. 😉
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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who also hosts a mastermind community for solopreneurs and entrepreneurs who want more accountability and support. If you’re not interested in starting your own business someday (or accelerating an existing one), this community isn’t for you.
Larry lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice to help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.