How To Own Your Career, According To A Google Executive

Have you ever been told “you’re too much?” Perhaps someone accused you of being too sensitive, too loud, or said you asked too many questions. Jenny Wood, the founder of Google’s Own Your Career program, says there’s no such thing as being “too much.” In fact, she says, being “a bit much leads to much more” in your career.

She would know. Jenny is not only an executive running a large operations team at Google that helps drive tens of billions of advertising revenue a year, but she also grew the Own Your Career program into one of the largest career development programs in the company’s history. Now she’s made it her mission to help other professionals get what they want – unapologetically.

In this interview, Jenny shares the story of how she confidently stepped into her own skin as a leader, along with some of her favorite career growth and productivity strategies.

Melody Wilding: Tell us about your career journey. What sparked your interest in helping others thrive in their careers? Is there a personal story behind it?

Jenny Wood: This topic is deeply personal to me. My paternal grandparents survived the Holocaust, and my father later escaped communist Hungary by walking through a forest with a shopping bag and 10 coins sewn into his teddy bear. My family survived because of two things: their tenacity and the kindness of strangers helping them. I saw firsthand how tenacity translates to success, and how success becomes more fulfilling when you help others.

After three years as a Harvard Business School researcher, I started an entry-level position at Google. I was an ambitious person held back by anxiety; I’d lie awake at night and consumed with questions like, “Why don’t I speak up in meetings when I have something to say?” “Why am I intimidated to schedule time with my boss’s boss even though she’d value it, and it’s good for my career?” Mental roadblocks got in my own way.

Wilding: What changed? You are now an executive at Google. Was there a moment where your thinking shifted or was it a slow unfolding process?

wood: One subway ride changed everything. Flashback to 2011, I was single in Manhattan, sitting across from an attractive guy on the train. I was trying to work up the courage to talk to him… Then he got off the train. As the doors were closing, something took over me. I leapt from my seat, chased him, and gave him my number. Over a decade later, we’re married with two children.

That moment taught me something. When I sit idly by, I get nothing. But when I chase what I want, I create the life I want.

I adapted the same approach at work, and everything changed. I took on mentees who said they too laid awake at night, wondering why they didn’t speak up. They were nervous to ask senior leaders for help and didn’t know how to tastefully self-promote. Because I’d been there, I knew I could help. I started pushing them, and as I did, my own career grew.

Wilding: Is that how you came to start the Own Your Career program at Google? What have you learned through running it?

wood: I got to a point where it was impossible to have so many 30-minute individual coaching sessions; as an operations leader, I knew it was time to scale. Own Your Career was born in three forms:

  • Tip sheets covering topics like influencing, networking, personal branding, and stakeholder management
  • A quick-read bi-weekly newsletter with tricks and challenges
  • Live action-oriented keynote sessions with open Q&A

In the year since the program’s inception, we have tens of thousands of people across dozens of countries with 97% positive feedback. That makes me proud. It also makes me incredibly grateful to the small group who runs it – all of us volunteers.

You ask what I’ve gained leading it. What’s that classic line? You teach what you most need to learn? When I lead live sessions, I preach exuberantly, “Know your three superpowers and have them ready for any meeting!” “Reframe tasteful self-promotion as sharing, not bragging!” “Cut cut cut 60% of your emails to show you are structured and strategic! Don’t write in long clunky paragraphs!”

And then the session ends, and I go back to my inbox. I look at the e-mail I’m writing…and it’s long clunky paragraphs. Blarg! So I give myself grace, apply the same Own Your Career principles I teach, and I cut 60% of the text before I press send.

Wilding: What is your best advice to readers who want to “own their career?”

wood: Be bold. Be curious. Be you.

Be Bold: If you want to double your success rate, triple your failure rate. I keep a failure resume that I share with my team. It ranges from not getting into my dream school, to not getting certain Google jobs, to email blunders. (I accidentally sent an embarrassing email intended for a handful of people to 27,000. Whoops!) The short-term lessons you learn from boldly failing set you up for long-term success.

Be Curious: Ask questions. Lots of them. In your team’s quarterly connect, raise your hand and ask your VP what keeps her up at night. Ask your boss – or even your boss’s boss – for time in the weekly meeting to present your latest project. Send an email that thoughtfully asks why the team is still investing in green widgets when red widgets’ growth is skyrocketing. Questions help you understand priorities; when you understand your organization’s priorities, you can map your efforts to those priorities. That effort turns into impact, and high impact yields career growth.

Be You: Be authentic to who you are. If you are an introvert, embrace your introversion. All personality types can be successful in their careers. Fifty-seven percent of employees consider themselves introverts, but only 39% of senior leaders do, according to the Myers-Briggs Company. Rather than introverts changing to fit the corporate mold, managers need to tweak how they are include introverts – something I try to do mindfully.

Wilding: As an executive at Google, I can imagine you’re extremely busy. What are your favorite productivity strategies?

wood: First, whenever I’m offered a new project or opportunity, I filter with this phrase, “If it’s not a ‘heck yes,’ it’s a ‘heck no.’” This has helped me only commit to things I’m truly excited about. Second, each Monday I pick three meetings I can shorten from 30 minutes to 15 minutes. Third, I hike every day. That’s when I listen to podcasts and get smart ideas for the book I’m writing about achieving your goals unapologetically.

Careers and productivity are inextricably intertwined; from the thousands of data points collected in Own Your Career surveys, we learned the program saves them, on average, 1.6 hours per week.

Employees save time by writing a three-sentence email to a stakeholder rather than a three-paragraph one. They learn to watch recorded trainings at 1.5x speed to free up time for other strategic work. They’re better able to say yes to the big – leading the 2023 marketing strategy project – and no to the small – being the 18th person to reply all on Jimmy’s “Happy Birthday” thread; give him a high five next time you pass him in the hall. As Nisaragadatta Maharaj said, “To work is hard; to refrain from all unnecessary work is harder.”

Wilding: Anything else you want readers to know?

wood: Don’t underestimate the power of lateral moves. Careers are not always up and to the right; they can be sideways and take unexpected, exciting twists and turns. My lateral moves have been some of my favorites. They broadened my perspective, created new partnerships, and frankly, it was just fun to learn new things with new people. I’ve been at Google for over 16 years, and I’ve never been bored once. Not a single day. I build relationships that fulfill me, learn skills that challenge me, and seek opportunities that fuel me. I guess you could say I Own My Career.

Follow Jenny at her website here or on LinkedIn.

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