Still Learning at Google: The Endless Art of Communication

Originally published on LinkedIn

17 Years of Lessons Learned – Part 2

Following up on my first post, this article will be focused on feedback I received in my early Google career to improve my communication skills. Why start there? Multiple reasons:

  1. It’s a building block. Are you understandable? Do people like to listen to you? Are you compelling? These things drive whether your ideas and skills will be recognized by your management and peers.
  2. And also a blocker. If I hadn’t improved here, I probably would not have become a people manager or at least be a good one. That’s how important/valuable this is as a career enabler. I’ve seen poor communicators become managers, and it’s not pretty.
  3. Improving communication never ends. I received feedback over multiple years about how I can improve in this area. I am still a work in progress, still trying to improve; that’s a compelling area for us to start.

“Advance that agenda”

Over the years, I’ve seen that someone’s strength can also be their Achilles’ heel. I was a great example of this in my early career. At Google I quickly became an expert in how to create, implement, and maintain policies for ads and our other products. It was a fascinating area developing as the Internet did, and I worked cross-functionally with engineers, lawyers, PR, and sales people on a daily basis. I was complimented for knowing my stuff, and I took pride in the mental library of knowledge I had amassed.

On the downside, I would regurgitate ALL the information in my head when you asked me a question:

“At times, Alana could improve her communication in meetings by making sure that she states things succinctly. Given the trust everyone has in her policy judgment, it is rarely necessary for her to go into the details of an issue and doing so can sidetrack a conversation. Alana can improve on this by asking herself what key decisions needs to be made in a meeting and making sure that all of her comments help advance that agenda.”

Oops. So you don’t all love policy as much as I do? Noted. You just want a simple answer? Sigh. That’s much harder.

“If I had more time I would have written less.” – Mark Twain

Why is it harder to say or write less? To be succinct?

First off, I had a lot in my head, and I thought others really cared about it. Secondly, my brain works pretty fast, and I was trying to avoid questions I thought would come up — thus going into the details. Thirdly, I remember feeling like I had to educate my audience on the details. As a senior person now, I realize this is common among junior folks presenting to me. They know I don’t know and want me to know so I don’t do something stupid like make a decision they don’t like. How the tables have turned!

So there I was, talking too much. What did I do? I started trying different things and these 3 stuck:

  1. Curate the content.Instead of saying everything, I needed to choose what was most important to share. What information was most critical to the message? At first I would write long emails and then painstakingly delete what was unnecessary. I’d plan similarly for presentations. It’s second nature to me now to skip straight to short summaries, but it took practice.
  2. Be okay with questions. At first I was irritated when people would then ask follow-up questions because I felt like I’d done something wrong if they had to ask. I had to change my perspective and pay attention to the type of question I received. Questions were great if they showed they’d understood the content, were curious, or ready to move on to next point. I needed to improve my summary if the questions stemmed from confusion though.
  3. Take the time. The most dreaded of all things. I had to prioritize and practice this skill over and over again. I booked time on my calendar to write important emails or work on succinct presentations. It took energy to be briefer too; I still ramble when I’m tired so I need a good night’s rest before big meetings.

But did it all pay off?

The Good News

By the next year, I had shown improvement with all this practice.

“Alana has strong communication skills. She is able to communicate complicated policy issues to large numbers of people and in both written and oral form. Her written communications have always been strong and she has worked hard at honing her ability to deliver concise messages orally…I would trust her to present to any group of people.”

Boom! Make me an executive!

And I was still the library of knowledge and people knew it; I just wasn’t reciting every book to them. “Alana is able to keep track of a vast, even frightening, number of details. She is constantly juggling dozens of projects and issues and she knows everything about all of them, right down to the nitty gritty. It is another reason that she is so trusted by so many.”

Is that it?

Nope, that was the first hurdle. Now that I was trusted with senior audiences, it opened up the door to improving communication-based skills like negotiating or communicating with my direct reports.

And that’s why this is a series. Stay tuned!

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