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Career Path for the Generalist, Part 2: The Interpreter
Well, it looks like Part 1: Commando really resonated with folks as I got tremendous positive feedback and requests for the next part! I do this to be as helpful as possible in making sense of our world, so the feedback keeps me going. Back in:
Step 2: Interpreter
At some point if you are a successful enough commando operation, resources start pouring in. (Yes I am going to sidestep all of the rigors of sales and fundraising, that's for another time). Adults arrive with defined skills. Policies and procedures get written and for a few brief moments of relief, it looks like everything is going to be OK. And then, suddenly, the dreaded "silos" emerge. There are so many people in marketing that they all talk to each other and no one in Product. Or your Clinical team has plenty of time to commiserate and decide that Operations is incompetent. Us vs. Them creeps in and trust shatters. Progress grinds to a halt. Accountability disperses. Project counts tick upwards, status meetings abound and nothing gets done.
First, it's probably time for tools like Scrum and OKRs if you haven't already been using it, but really, it is a moment for you to grow up into an Interpreter. It is probably already happening if you pay close enough attention. Some job titles may come your way-- Product manager, project manager, special projects, chief of staff, cross-functional anything, etc. People from other teams come to you to get things done, regardless of your seniority. They ask for advice, or complain about a third function's unreasonable behavior. You realize you enjoy making things make sense, but unfortunately it isn't your "real work." Well, it should be--this is your moment to evolve past your Commando phase and become an Interpreter.
The key to Interpreter is to shift your focus from what you do to getting the organization to do. That's right, the very thing you pride yourself on, that the organization values you for-- getting stuff done--is exactly what you must transition away from. Or at least recruit into.
The reason for this is complexity. Where once you could spread across multiple functions, as success pours in you dig deeper into complexity. Mistakes you couldn't even see before now become all you talk about. It is time for your company to grow up and you have to help it. Your instinct will be to keep doing, dive in and become a specialist. You know, "learn to love the work." You won't, so don't.
You are set up as an Interpreter because as a Commando, you both know WHAT everyone is doing (and why) and just enough of HOW they are doing it to become dangerous. As an Interpreter, that knowledge converts from adequate substitution to a basis for an empathetic relationship. That empathy is the basis for the cross-functional work your organization needs. However, to best listen to others fully, you must suppress your own opinions. The very thing that powered your speed as a commando will now hinder you endlessly as an Interpreter.
Instead, leverage what people already want you to do-- start connecting the dots, the concepts, the people across the organization. When Engineering says they will only work on one thing at a time and Sales loses their mind, help them build empathy for one another. Be the bridge. You can see both sides, so help everyone else see all the sides, together.
What does this look like? Bringing together people that usually don’t talk and not letting them out until they see eye to eye. It means resolving disputes not by picking sides, but by seeing a new way through. Empathy, patience, trust building are all crucial in this phase and that is what makes the jump so challenging. It is a near 180, a complete reconstruction of your work persona from the commando phase.
This works just as well outside the organization as inside of it. Great generalist interpreters can represent their organization externally in sales, marketing and fundraising roles. The ability to encapsulate an entire organization and make it digestible for an outside customer, investor, acquirer or regulator audience is absolutely crucial to the success of an organization.
If you can convene others across domains, internally and externally, you might just be ready to move on to Stage 3: Integrator.