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Lessons from the corporate world

“You need to have an opinion.”

It wasn’t the thing I wanted to hear, but there it was. My experienced colleague was explaining the subtleties of working in a big company and this came up as something you need to do if you have or want a leadership position. The thinking goes that the more “up” you go, people will look up to you and ask, “what to do”, “what do you think about this move”, or “how will this affect us”. You can always say “I don’t know” or just stay silent in a crowded meeting where other people will jump in. However, if you want to be seen as a leader, you have to have an informed opinion. People don’t follow individuals who don’t communicate where they’re heading.

Even though the tip is short and non-ambiguous, it got me thinking about other things in big companies that are different from small companies. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized the things are not really that much different, it’s just that they don’t come to prominence in a small company. If you’re working in a 20-person shop, everyone knows everyone else, there is usually one boss (the founder), and it’s not as complicated as in a 20,000-person corporation. However, the tips are relevant in both cases, so I decided to write down lessons learned coming from a world where 100 people is a lot to a world where 50,000 people is not the biggest player around.

Other lessons:

Presenting to senior leaders

Many people are passionate about their craft. They spend most of their working time in deep focus, fretting about perfection. At times they need to present their work to senior leaders who think more about long-term strategy. I’ve sat through many meetings and witnessed a complete mismatch between those two worlds. People of craft often dive into technical details because they want to show complexity or how they’ve elegantly solved a problem. However, those things are not relevant to senior leaders who usually get lost in those details.

I had stumbled in the same way, but I was fortunate to work with people who helped me adjust my message for a different audience. It’s not hard. You just have to ask yourself one question: what do senior leaders wonder?

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What are the expected benefits?
  • When is it happening?
  • What do you need from us (resources, dependency on other teams, and similar)?
  • Is there an impact on other projects or teams?
  • Is there an overlap with other teams?

If you follow these steps, you’ll nail the presentation every time.

Choose teams over projects

People often ask me, “How do you like working in a big company?” and I always answer, “I like working with my current team.” The look I get back reveals that people think I’m hiding something. I’m not. It’s just that I’m not comfortable projecting relationships and attitudes of my closest twenty colleagues to tens of thousands other employees across the world.

Very small companies usually have only one team—the company itself. As businesses grow, multiple teams have to form. Even though teams try to follow the culture of the whole company, each team has its own mini-culture and dynamics that are shaped by its leaders, members, environment, and goals. Two teams can sometimes be so different that it’s hard to imagine them being related in any way.

People far removed from a particular team, usually outside of a company, are sometimes quick to judge the whole company by actions or deliverables of that team. This is ungrounded. It’s like saying a whole class is excellent by observing the performance of only one student. The class might be excellent or it might be horrible, but you can’t tell from only one case.

I’ve always valued working with good people more than working on a good project. When switching projects or teams, I try to find out as much as possible about people with whom I’ll spend most of my waking time. Projects come and go; human relationships last much longer.

Write down everything

To be more specific, write down everything important. Early in my corporate career, I asked an experienced designer what had helped him make the transition from a small agency to a big company. He suggested that I should keep a permanent track of what’s happening for myself. Projects change and people come and go so it’s hard to keep everything in memory.

I took his advice to heart. I’ve started a journal for each project I’ve worked on and have been doing it since. Even though there is a small overhead to writing them, there are two huge benefits:

1. No ambiguity

“I’m really happy that we’re doing A.”
“Ermm … I thought we’re doing B. Isn’t that what we decided at the beginning of the year?”
“I’m pretty sure it was A. I’ve talked with Claire and Lucas about it.”
“But A is completely at odds with our goal. Are you sure it’s not B? Claire left the company in the meantime and Lucas is on a parental leave, so it’s going to be hard to check what you had discussed.”

This will happen. However, I want it to happen once a year, not every week. Recording decisions, reasons, and thoughts makes it easy to recall them later. To save time, I often copy email snippets or meeting notes. In the spirit of open collaboration, all my project journals are open to everyone. I can point people to specific sections, and they can review and comment.

2. Clear thoughts

When I can’t copy summaries, I have to write them myself. The act of writing forces me to think through the decision or activity once again, and it serves as an additional check.

What about project management tools?

I’ve seen project management tools work well in smaller companies. However, as the number of teams and diverse projects increases, the lowest common denominator for cross-team communication quickly becomes the holy trinity: emails, issue trackers, and documents. Additional hurdles to finding a common tool everyone uses are “not invented here syndrome” and security concerns.

If everyone in your team and all your collaborators use one tool to track progress and communicate, you’re in a good place. If not, make your own notes. You’ll thank yourself later.

Find your purpose

“My work matters,” you think to yourself. In a small studio, shop, or a startup, everything you do is significant. You can see your contributions pushing the business forward every day. You feel good about yourself.

If you’re 1 of 3 people in a company, you’re almost a superhero. If you’re 1 of 30, you might still feel you’re contributing. But if you’re 1 of 3000, can you recognize your impact on the whole business every day? If you leave for three months, you’ll find the company somehow survived without you. Shocking, right?

This realization can be demotivating so you might start saying to yourself, “Well, my contributions don’t matter much, so I’ll skimp on quality and quantity. Work of other people will hide my lack of enthusiasm for the job.” You’ve landed on a slippery slope, and you bet it’s downhill from here on. The problem is that other people, those that you hoped to rely on, might think the same thing. Suddenly, instead of making a lot of right decisions, thousands of people are making a lot of bad decisions—a sure path to a catastrophe.

Both your boss and you need to figure out how your work fits into a bigger picture. He or she needs to provide context and set a goal. It’s up to you to look around, see what other teams are doing, and watch where your industry is heading. You shouldn’t make your job your meaning of life—unless you want to—but you should know how your work contributes to the whole. Even if you have a job you don’t like and have to do to make ends meet, changing your perspective and finding out why that work is important will make it easier for you and better for the business.

Finding a purpose in your work is critical. You might be a cog in a machine, but you should be a cog that is enabling the machine to function properly.

There is no they

I vaguely recall the deluge of information and the excitement during my first days at Google, but I don’t remember any details. Except for one event—that one will be imprinted in my memory forever.

An older fellow had flown from the US to Zurich, and everyone was eager to talk to him. A flurry of meetings took place, and I quickly found out that he was the VP of Engineering of our organization. I was invited to one of the sessions, but it was somewhat odd—the VP was standing in front of a whiteboard, and everyone else in the room was new to Google or the organization. It was going to be a lecture.

The VP gave us an overview of the business, what we’re trying to achieve, and how our work fits into a bigger picture. Very helpful and kind of him to use his limited time in this way. He asked us about how we work and if there are any roadblocks. One engineer volunteered, “There is this team, and it’s difficult to work with them. They always do [X], and they don’t do [Y].”

It went for a while, and the VP eventually stepped in, “I hear you using they a lot. Who are they?”

The engineer paused, not expecting the question, and fumbled, “Well … you know, this other team.”

The VP was now speaking to the whole room, “There is no they, there are only individuals, and we’re all part of the same company. We have an internal directory, so you can always look up the person responsible for a particular project or effort. You can see the person’s name and photo, and you can reach out directly to try to resolve a problem.”

His statement is powerful because it addresses one of the fundamental human traits of dividing people into in-group and out-group members. Big distributed global companies are a perfect environment for creating silos and othering, and one needs to keep constant vigilance around relationships, collaboration, and communication.

For me, it was a lesson with life-long benefits, and I kept the habit to this day. Every time I talk to someone at the company and they use a pronoun for a person outside of my immediate group, I immediately ask for a name so I can look up that person. At that moment, the person becomes a real individual I can talk to or work with, not a part of the gray, inert, and scary they.

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