Friday, March 29, 2019

Is there a secret sauce to leading non-linear careers?

Last week, i was speaking with Chris Fleck, VP and Technical Fellow at my organization. The conversation was around careers, how they evolve, what works and what doesn't.

If we divide careers into 2 halves- one being the early to mid-stage and second being post mid-life, it would be fair to say that comparatively, it is easier to succeed in the first half than the second. In the first half, armed with the shiny college degrees (that largely prepares us to become good to solve the problems individually), one tends to solve technical problems of reasonable difficulty and in it find satisfaction and growth. In the second, the metrics of success takes a dramatic shift and while individual brilliance is taken as a given, success is often driven by how we manage relationships and people, and how we embrace complexity- among other things.

That's why picking Chris's brains on this subject was enlightening for me as only a handful of people traverse through to the peak of technical ladder in the organization and are recognized as seasoned thought-leaders as Chris is.

Part of conversation led to Chris sharing that all things being equal, our career trajectories are defined by our abilities to find gaps in the organization and our subsequent actions to fill those gaps. He narrated that he has followed the similar approach to drive growth in his career.

Finding gaps and being seen as one who fulfills the shortcomings in the organization is a refreshing
way of looking at careers and the related planning. This is something i have followed (but i will reserve my case for a later blog). Understanding the why of this approach is not difficult given that gaps really represent something that's not working or where poor status quo is considered as a given.

What is more challenging is to comprehend how can one find organizational gaps ? These gaps are usually disguised as ugly situations, unpleasant conversations, long held problems, situations of despair, future opportunity areas, employee experience problems, repeated customer problems or an emerging unmet need. In short, gaps are hard to identify as they are often concealed or they don't sound obvious or they something appear as problems seemingly beyond our control.

In my career time when i was leading large teams, i often cited the story of Brian Fitzpatrick (Google) to my teams. This case appeared in HBR a few years ago but the nuances of it are still relevant. Gist of his story- Brian joined Google as a Senior Software Engineer. Based on his interests and inclination, he became the champion for various end-user focused on initiatives. In his quest to better the end-user needs, he identified strategic gap in the organization. Precisely that gap was- Google wasn't doing good enough job in giving users better control of their personal data. He teamed-up with amicable and aligned individuals and led the project that took shape as Google Takeout that allowed users to export the captured user data from various Google Services (like Gmail, Blogger, Calendar, Chrome, Photos etc.). So much was the impact of this project that the then CEO Eric Schmidt started highlighting Takeout to regulators and customers to build a strong case for Google's non-monopolistic practices and focus on user's privacy.

There was another story that caught my attention recently. Beau Jessup, a 16 year old, went along with her Dad to China (who was on a business trip). During the trip, they met Dad's business colleague who asked Beau to suggest an English name for her daughter. Beau took that request seriously since naming a child is an important event in one's life, something that stays for rest of their lives. She asked the family various characteristics they wanted their kid to have and suggested an apt name. Upon returning, Beau did some research to figure out that there wasn't any organized business (a gap!) that helped Chinese families name their kid in English language. She found an unmet need, while all Chinese babies were given traditional Chinese names at birth, there was a growing demand to name kids in English language too. So far, she has helped name 670,000 babies.

I find these stories relevant, interesting and to a large degree they just hit the nail right on the head as far as the context of this post is concerned. Let me share a few things these stories teach me:

1. Attend Employee All Hands, Listen intently to Exec's words: One of the things Brian Fitzpatrick did constantly was that he kept himself updated about organization's priorities and prevailing problems from the lens of CEO or high-flying execs. He apparently made note of what is being said in different public and internal forums and this helped shape his thinking around which "gaps" matter more. Every organizations have myriad of problems and we have limited time. It's only in our best interests that we use that time to solve the problems that matter to people who matter.
Most of the employees tend to give events like employee all-hands a pass but what they are really doing is depriving them of a chance to gain crucial insights that can lead to career defining initiatives.

2. Show Insatiable Curiosity: It's good to attend employee all-hands and such events where execs are present at a regular cadence but it is not enough. One can still gain a lot by passively listening to words of wisdom about business, problems that company is facing but the learning takes different dimensions when one engages execs in conversation. Good questions are an outcome of a curious, fearless mind, a mind that's gives priority to extract as much learning as possible in a given moment and situation.

3. Build internal networks: Citing Brian Fitzpatrick's case, he didn't achieve what he eventually did

alone. Lone geniuses exist only in fairy tales. He liasioned with like-minded individuals who were brought into his vision and helped him multiply the pace and quality of the outcome. More often, people let networking happen by chance and it need not be that way. Conscious efforts to reach out to people helps bridge gaps in knowledge and speed-up outcomes.  Sometimes a simple conversation with people in an informal setting like lunch-time leads to identifying gap areas.
Austin Kleon in his book "Show Your Work" argues that your connections are the natural out-growth of the things that you well. And he quotes record producer Steve Albini, "being good at things is the only thing that earns you clout or connections"

4. Be situationally aware: Gap opportunities often surface unannounced and people are able to take notice of these gaps are the ones who are most aware of context and the situations. Attending exec meetings is one way, other ways to be situationally aware is to dedicate time on your calendar to decipher what is happening in your organization, and in the industry. It helps to be intentional about listening and suspend judgement when hearing the problems. What i have experienced is that having a pen and paper improves listening. The mere act of writing something down tends to open our minds to opportunities that may otherwise seem out of reach.

5. When life gives you lemon, make lemonade: Beau's case represents a great point. She was able to smell a business opportunity by a single gap she stumbled upon by chance. One could say that she got lucky but it bears repeating that she did make an effort to prove her hypothesis about the gap in the market she saw. In most situations, where you feel that you have come closer to identifying a new idea, it is important to stay persistent still a reasonable amount of time till you are sure of it's potential. Giving up on an idea too soon without doing due diligence and asking next set of questions doesn't help.

6. Don't execute work in isolation, align to broader strategy: Alignment may sound like a very corporate-ish term but the fact of the mattter is that unless we prove alignment of ideas to overall strategy, we may still do the work but it would eventually be a throw-away. Brian used his understanding of organization's strategy as his compass that guided him through the next steps. For Beau, the alignment had a different meaning, that of aligning with a distinct culture.

7. Have your personal board of advisors: One can't over-state the value of having a mentor. Mentor asks you tough questions, convinces you to change course if you are headed south-wards. For all the value mentor brings, it's presence alone isn't enough. For the side projects to scale, one needs to have a buy-in from sponsors. In case of Brian, as project picked-up, it got a buy-in from the CEO. For Beau, it was a matter of convincing her sponsor who was investing in her idea. Having a personal board of advisors (much like company's board of directors) helps achieve unimaginable acceleration in the progress.

8. Think big, not small:  Once you are clear that your idea (gap proposal) would attract the people who matter, one shouldn't restrict the thinking to just build a PoC and wait endlessly. Rather one should think "if i have all the resources i would ever need, how would my plans/thinking change".
Thinking big is a skill that most B-School's don't teach but often turns out to be a key differentiator in defining the career trajectories.

Do these 8 points resonate with you ? Do you agree that the secret sauce to leading non-linear careers is building the muscle around identifying the organization's gap and plan next steps and actions ?

Do leave your thoughts in the comments.

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