Helping Tech to Talk Exec with Mac Smith

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From a distance, you could assume that product creation and innovation is easy because it seems to happen quickly. But you’d be wrong. It actually requires an army of technologists and engineers to keep innovation moving and to deliver products in a speedy fashion. And they aren’t alone. Long before a product reaches a build phase, there are multiple steps to analyze a market, identify a need and propose a product against a market opportunity.

Sometimes there can be a communication conflict between senior leaders and technical teams, and often, the outcome is a lack of understanding and buy-in. It’s why one of the key development needs amongst technology teams is learning to communicate with an executive audience.

On this episode of What’s Your Story, Sally is joined by Mac Smith, who leads Cross Portfolio Research for Search & Assistant, at Google. And he’s going to share his experience with why communication conflicts happen, and how they can be improved.

More about Mac Smith

Mac is the Head of Cross Portfolio Research for Search & Assistant at Google. He leads a 25 researcher organization on research programs that bridge Google Search & Assistant product lines. The team combines product support with cross portfolio programs and processes that increase the overall speed and quality of a 100 person research organization. Before this role, he was the Head of User Research for the Core Search Product, and has also previously led four other research teams for  companies such as Microsoft. 

Show Notes

  • Is there a struggle between executive teams and tech teams?
    • Much of the content struggles to connect at the right altitude to connect with the executive teams.
    • For tech teams who are thinking about how a particular product would work, much of the content in the area of comfort lies around their expertise:
      • The how
      • Data
      • Risks
      • Blockers – etc
  • Try starting with the main point instead of throwing details.
    • The experts struggle envisioning not having all the details to make a decision.
  • The challenge has always been there are repeats on different scales. What has changed as they increase scale is the amount of time the execs have, as well as the complexity they are dealing with has grown exponentially.
    • Perspective difference hasn’t changed – as the organizations have grown, the amount of time you have to make that decision has changed.
    • In smaller scale companies, you have more of an opportunity to work with those decision makers. As the company grows, it becomes more structured and you have fewer opportunities to make those connections.
    • Most of the leadership has spent a considerable amount of time as product engineers prior to becoming executives in tech.
    • It’s important to understand the complexity of systems that run your business so you can make decisions that bridge business, experience and technology.
  • The challenge is many of the engineers have never been in the executive position.
    • From the executive perspective: the aperture of their view, the connection, and the time have all changed – that is the biggest perspective.
    • Executive teams need to come in the door and think about what decision they will make that day.
    • Leaders connect dots. Looking at something a moment in time vs something over time.
  • For researchers there are two parts to the job:
    • 1. The craft of collecting information.
    • 2. The role of being an advisor and a steward of that information.
    • If you are advising or influencing a leader your job does not stop upon delivery of the information, you also need to help/guide that person (the executive) to make a decision.
  • The need for people to have effective communication in their roles has gotten greater.
    • Growth makes communication more challenging.
    • In the early stages of a company, you see more expert to expert conversation.
    • When the audience grows you are no longer having those expert-to-expert conversations. Growth requires you to evaluate how you communicate.
  • How does your expertise connect to the bigger picture, and can you understand the perspective of that executive to help them make that decision or fill in a gap for them?
    • What is the consequence of not being understood?
      • You don’t get what you want. You need to connect it to what the executive wants. If you give me this, you will get this.
  • What is the biggest consequence for not being an effective communicator?
    • Most executives see the company as one large team and they want that team to be successful.
    • If they don’t feel the idea is effectively being communicated, they will send people away and tell them to come back with more research.
    • The communicator must understand what is needed by the executive.
    • Time loss is the biggest challenge.
  • What are the common mistakes that happen over and over again?
    • Presenter starts the conversation from their perspective and misses context completely.
    • The takeaway is buried at the end of the conversation.
    • Presenter is not prepared for the drill down by the executives. Presenter must realize the executives want them to be successful and ask questions attempting to help. They are essentially asking the presenter to give them a reason to change or do something. In this scenario, tech experts miss an opportunity to connect with exec staff because they feel tested.
  • Most technologists want to be better communicators and the biggest challenge they face include being anxious or unsure about effective communication.
    • Tech groups are phenomenal learners, they work hard to make it fit and make it work.
  • How to improve skills as an effective communicator:
    • Start at the end, not from your perspective. Start with the end goal for the audience.
    • Encourage people to prototype their results that they need to get to and show to others. Modify based on their feedback to show the end that you’re going to hit.
  • Do stories have a place in technology?
    • Facts and data are not memorable – add a layer of storytelling to that data. It helps others to understand what you are trying to accomplish and connect to broader business perspective.
    • Set out the board context and framework – here is the what and how of this story, and then illustrate that with concrete stories. When you marry those two together- it takes a complex space with conflicting information and makes it very concrete and relatable.
  • If you learn to communicate well, the chances of you becoming one of the executives becomes significantly higher in terms of probability and speed at getting there.

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