My friend Alpetkin Aksan is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota. Al and I worked together when I became a board member and CEO of Minnepura Technologies, a green tech startup he cofounded. Al made a distinction between two groups involved in the venture. He referred to his colleagues on the technical side, all professors or postdocs, as “the eggheads.” Those of us with business backgrounds were “the grown-ups.” I am not sure that we deserved to be called grown-ups, but there was a big difference between the two parties, on how we looked at our world and the language that we used.
The eggheads employed the scientific method. They created theoretical models, and they sought empirical evidence to support or refute predicted outcomes. They were trying to figure out why things work. They would offer their hypotheses for peer review, to see if others could poke holes in their theory.
The rest of us embraced capitalism. We looked to exploit resources (capital, materials, knowledge, people) to address a need we observed. We weren’t concerned with why something worked; we wanted to know how to use it to our advantage. We would ask three questions: Does somebody want it? Can we make it? Can we make money on it?
At Executive Springboard, we’ve recently run into some situations where people have been hired into leadership positions because they were subject matter experts. Once in the role, they question whether their expertise is valued. One executive recently described his situation:
“I’m the VP of Clinical Research at a startup company building a software medical device. People rely on my work product, but they do not entirely understand the complexity, which has led to underfunding of my department. The dynamics are complicated, but I feel my work is under-appreciated, and I don’t feel set up for success. It is my first executive role and the first startup I’ve worked at.”
Our advice to this new VP: Trying to explain the complexity of your work is not a winning strategy. The people you seek to influence may not understand; and if they do understand, they probably view this as getting in the weeds. Instead, simplify your explanations. Provide solutions with costs. Your CEO is a serial entrepreneur in healthcare, pharma, eCommerce and SaaS, with several things on his plate besides your piece of this business. He wants efficiency, or in egghead parlance, elegance.
Another mentee cut her teeth as a marketer with P&G, so she is what you would call “classically trained.” That was a big change for the founder-owned company that hired her as its Chief Marketing Officer. She was used to working in a certain buttoned-up fashion. The entrepreneurial employer knew they could use her talents, but its culture rebelled against the over-produced. While she strove to be flawless, her organization took pride in its “Keystone Cops out of a clown car” persona.
The CMO did not change the standard of her work to fit the culture. But she learned to share only the headlines, and she kept the details in her back pocket, ready to pull out in case of a challenge.
I’ve worked with engineering executives who brought the processes that worked well for them in large companies into their new, much smaller, businesses. Those processes might be needed to get their new employer to scale up or become more efficient. Invariably, they faced resistance, not just because people feared change, but because they resented the new boss’s implication that they had not been effective before their arrival. Explaining the intended "improvements" was a lesson in condescension.
The problem of experts trying to deliver actionable advice has been evident in the COVID-19 response. As the New York Times put it, government health officials "speak the language of academia, without recognizing how it confuses people. Rather than clearly explaining the big picture, they emphasize small amounts of uncertainty that are important to scientific research but can be counterproductive during a global emergency. They are cautious to the point of hampering public health." The experts bemoan the public's lack of understanding, wondering if they should just repeat themselves louder or slower. They don't recognize that their own communication may require a translation to make it comprehensible to its intended audience.
Many of us have our self-worth wrapped up in a perception of our competence. We may try proving we are good at something to reinforce our value. We use the language of a functional expert, educating an audience on the “why,” That audience only really wants to know how you propose to exploit the thing we’re good at, how will that work here. We don’t get extra credit for showing our work. In fact, we show arrogance or insecurity in the process.
You may take a role in a company that needs the technical expertise you provide. Your ability to have an impact requires you to learn a new language, not the language spoken by an egghead but that spoken by the business.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.