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.

Like what you hear? Hear more episodes like this on the What’s Your Story podcast page!

Helping Tech to Talk Exec

You’ve seen this challenge. It’s in every meeting where strategy connects to implementation. It’s where vision meets tactics. And it’s one of the biggest communication challenges in most companies.

Here’s how it happens:

The leadership team wants to expand a product into a new vertical. They’ve seen the numbers to support market size and they know there’s a window of opportunity. They’ve also been told there’s a “little tweaking” that will need to be done in the product’s application to make it viable in the new vertical. So, the next meeting calls for the engineers to come in and explain what’s involved in “tweaking” or converting the product.

The leadership team is looking for a 15-minute explanation to quantify what needs to be done and how long it will take. Instead, they get the step-by-step details of how it will be done.

In an effort to get out of the details and move toward answers, the leaders jump in with questions and assumptions. It was meant to speed up the discussion, but instead it signals to an engineer that the leaders didn’t understand the information. So, the engineer provides more explanation.

The leaders want the bottom-line. The engineers communicate in process and details. And whether the disconnect goes on for several minutes or more than an hour, it’s frustrating to both the executive listeners and the technical communicator.

As a coach I’ve been asked many times: “Why is communicating to the executive level so hard for engineers and technical teams? After all, they are arguably the smartest people in the company!”

Both points are true. Engineers are some of the smartest people in a company, and communicating with executives is a common challenge. It always has been. But companies are noticing it more because technical input has become more critical as a point of influence and essential to making smart decisions.

So, why is “executive talk” hard?

I’ve coached on both of sides of the table for decades and solved for the challenge when I wrote Leading Executive Conversations. But I wrote the book for all audiences who want to solve for the executives’ perspective…and the tech group is a little unique.

Through the years, I’ve learned that it really comes down to how people think, because how they think impacts how they speak. And engineers think in details, steps and precision. And thank goodness they do! Would you want to drive an automobile that was built from a sketch instead of a blueprint? Can you imagine working on a computer that can do 20 things but can’t connect those things to each other?

Whether process-thinking is innate or developed over time, engineers add the greatest value by bringing precision and detail to vague concepts. It’s no wonder that they communicate in details. To tell a leader that they can build a new capability in eight weeks isn’t how they think. And in fact, they wouldn’t be comfortable with that answer unless someone took them through details of what was planned over those eight weeks. It’s how they think, it’s how they work, and that’s why it’s how they communicate. I describe it as communicating from the bottom up.

Yet most leaders think in the opposite manner. They let go of thinking through details of HOW some time ago. They need the What, and the Why. They start with the big concept and challenge whether the WHY has enough value to pursue. They listen to implementation just enough to buy-in. Most leaders think and communicate from the top-down.

And the disconnect comes when the leader feels impatient working through the HOW to get to WHY and the engineer feels the value isn’t justified unless you communicate detailed steps to prove out the HOW.

But it’s a disconnect that’s solvable because you’re dealing with some of the smartest people in the room! And once we figured out why the challenge exists, we developed a process for solving it. And we’ve found that technical teams can be some of the best students of communication.

To help Tech to talk Exec, we developed a process that is based on key insights and a formulaic outline. We’re prescriptive in defining the executive perspective and building specific examples that illustrate how the outline works against common technical topics.

It’s our storyline formula with two key components: a Message and a Framework. This gives an engineer a blueprint to follow that lifts the altitude of their conversation. The details don’t disappear entirely. But the flow of communication is organized with a top-down approach that starts with what executives value and then leads to the technical steps that can be reduced or expanded based on an executive’s interest.

It’s solving for one of the biggest communication challenges in companies today. And it’s helping technical teams become key influencers at a time when their expertise is essential to smart business decisions.

Do you need help coaching tech to talk exec?  We’d love to share our insights and some great success stories about strengthening the voice and the impact of technical teams.

We’re here when you need us!

Sally Williamson