An ex-Googler shares her top 5 career mistakes

Photo: David Paul Morris/ Getty Images.

First of all, I must admit the process of delving into my life and narrowing down my top five mistakes was difficult. It was even harder when I was invited to share these mistakes at a graduation ceremony at the University of Sydney.

I wanted to give these graduates something tangible that would make a real difference in their work life.

Hiam Sakakini. Photo: Supplied

If I were to give them words of encouragement to take those steps forward, it only made sense to venture backwards. I will share them with you but first, let me give you a snapshot of what life was like at Google for me.

Seemingly boundless opportunity

I was always incredibly intentional about my career there with a keen eagerness to experience as much as I could. I held four very different roles at Google where I was heavily involved with the business side and inner workings of the People & Culture scene.

I was able to travel internationally, moving my whole family from Ireland to Australia. I participated in leadership programs where I was stretched out of my comfort zone, numerous times. When I felt like I couldn’t do something, I was proven wrong with the right manager and team.

With the right support, I could literally accomplish anything.

I met and made lifelong friends and even started my current business, ThinkChangeGrow with one of them.

It was a vastly great period of my life and I don’t hold many regrets. However, I definitely made some mistakes that have become crucial life lessons.

Here are the top five, in reverse order.

5. Not managing my time properly

They say that time is one of our most precious resources. My mistake was that I gave it away too easily.

Collaboration is what makes Google a great place to work. People are encouraged to work across teams and find projects that can break down silos and develop bonds laterally across the company and even across geographical divides.

And if you’re anything like me, you are the type of person who loves to be needed and to be asked to be part of what was always a worthy project.

My big mistake was never putting enough time between the big ask and my giving of a measured response.

“Let me take some time to think about this. When do you need to know?” These were the things that I should have said.

The irony here is that taking time to make proper decisions will impact upon your overall time. I used to find it frustrating seeing people do this, not understanding why they didn’t just say yes straight away. The reality was that they were safeguarding the quality of current projects.

At Google, the catchphrase, “I just don’t have the bandwidth right now” was adopted by some. A fancy way of saying no straight away with no thought and real decision-making.

The trouble with its constant usage was that eventually, people would stop asking you to be part of potentially interesting and worthwhile projects.

If you say yes to everything then you risk being overwhelmed, working crazy hours, and becoming very stressed.

So what is the best option?

Take the time between being asked and giving your answer to really assess what you have on your plate and what this new project could mean for you.

Ask yourself: Is it aligned with your current goals? Is it something that you truly have time for? Do you see yourself genuinely learning from the project team leader? What would need to happen to set you up for success in taking this on?

Whatever your answer is if you have taken the time to think about these questions, the person on the receiving end will be appreciative.

4. Not following my gut

Photo: TPG/Getty Images

I am a very logical person. I like objective truths and numbers, facts, figures. If something is illogical, it can really irritate me.

However, there have been times both in my personal and professional life, whether it was something for my kids or family or myself where I would have an indescribable nagging feeling that something was wrong and I ignored it.

Every time that I have chosen to ignore my gut instinct or those warning signs, it has not worked out well.

3. Fuelling my eventual burnout

I started my career in Google when smartphones were non-existent.

You did most of your work at your desk. Your team was pretty much all local – sitting all around you, in the same timezone and easy to talk to whenever something came up.

When I left Google, things had changed significantly. The company had grown dramatically, opening hundreds of offices around the world and employing tens of thousands of people.

Googlers became fully mobile through the power of smartphones which had become dramatically more affordable.

Teams were spread across the globe – in different timezones and cultural norms. There was a constant background of chatter as we connected through ‘Google for Work,’ a Google suite of apps such as Hangout and Gmail where we messaged and ‘pinged’ each other constantly.

It was a gradual phenomenon that nearly turned me into a boiled frog.

The boiled frog is a renowned 19th century experiment that is analogous to how stress in the workplace can sneakily take over our lives without us realising. The hypothesis was that if a frog was suddenly placed in boiling water, it would immediately jump out. If the frog was to put in lukewarm water that was gradually brought to boil, it would not sense the danger thus eventually being cooked to death.

I was that frog. I never allowed my brain to switch off. Ironically, I would allow my devices to switch off and reboot with updates but I wouldn’t do the same for my brain.

It became apparent that my brain was suffering a little burnout.

I started to forget things which wasn’t like me at all. I operated in a fog. I would wake up in the middle of the night, making endless lists.

It was clear that I was suffering from stress.

The worst part was that I was missing wonderful things because I was never taking in what was actually happening around me – whether it was at work or at home.

I was missing magical moments and looking back, it is the moments I missed with my family (while actually being with them) that I regret the most.

2. Not intentionally investing in my learning

Learning is a process that never stops. It is something that is difficult yet rewarding. My lack of intentional investment in learning was a great misstep.

After graduating, I really wanted to just experience the world by travelling and start my career in PR. I had just landed a great job in the heart of Times Square, New York. Oh boy, did I experience life!

From Dublin to New York was a big leap and learning about PR was even bigger. I went from a 3-month internship to getting a short working visa that we kept extending for a year.

Fast forward five years and I found myself applying and eventually getting into Google back home in Ireland (that was a major learning experience in itself).

I found myself learning so much on the job and through exciting leadership programs, I pretty much allowed my learning path to be run by my employer with no real plan, intention and thought.

And that was a mistake.

Education and continuous learning will be the biggest key to differentiating yourself in the future.

13 hours of learning per week will be required for people entering the jobs market in the future, equating to 80 days a year – according to the latest report by The Foundation of Young Australians.

We are entering times of huge change and uncertainty – continuous learning is the antidote to this ambiguity. I wished I’d prioritised and invested more in myself and my education in an intentional way.

This was why I decided to complete a post-grad diploma of Change Management at the University of Sydney towards the tail end of my career at Google to solidify so much of what I had learned on the job.

1. The biggest of all: Not having a Plan B

Photo: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images.

And now, we have come to my number one mistake.

I really only recognise it in retrospect. I really did not see this while I was in my bubble of warmth at Google.

I will also tell you that since leaving, I have noticed that women are more prone to making this mistake than men – this is a pure observation – but again, worth taking note of.

Although I was very much a planner, I never spent more than two years in one role at Google. I always knew once I got into a role where I wanted to head to next and started laying down concrete steps to getting there.

However, I never ventured outside Google’s four walls.

Why would I?

I had found myself in one of the best places to work in the world, with endless opportunities.

However, with some learning, I now understand that was not a very smart thing to do.

Younger generations, especially under 35’s, also known as Millennials are experts at constantly looking around for new opportunities, at networking, at experimenting with startup ideas. They have always got at least two pots on the boil at the same time.

Apparently, the typical millennial will have four jobs in their first decade.

This is smart. This is a good thing. This equates to options, a big network, valuable experience, seeding alternatives early and opportunities for collaboration.

Because at some point, whether by your own design or your employer’s, your career will come to an end. That is the wrong time to start making new connections, to start experimenting with a startup idea, to start a masters degree and so forth.

Mistakes are the key to our successes

It is a cliche told time after time again. But there is a reason why cliches are cliches. It is because they hold truths that are universally felt and understood.

So I urge you: if you are the type of person that hasn’t updated their Linkedin profile in years — now’s the time.

Go have a coffee with that person on Linkedin whose career you’ve admired and get to know how they got there. Be curious.

Look for opportunities to network — something that I was terrible at.

I’m a raging extrovert so you would think I would be great at this, right?

Wrong. With all I had on at work, I really didn’t want to spend my spare time networking. I wanted to spend that time with my family, and of course, I did.

But in fairness, I could have been more intentional about weaving networking time into my work schedule.

And this is where I feel men are better than women.

We see more men creating opportunities to network over golf or tennis — neither are my thing but I should have come up with some alternatives and I also should have been more forthcoming, making connections for other women.

I always find men are better at asking for connections and also to be fair, making connections for me. Always looking for where there could be mutual benefit. And following up. Women (with all the best of intentions) say they would like to connect you with someone and more often than not, they forget.

So, be intentional about your Plan B. Have some pots on the boil (just not with frogs in them).

One way you can do this is through learning — signing up for a course will also guarantee that you will meet people, you would have never met otherwise.

Another way you can do this is by volunteering your time at a charity. Help them solve some big problems using your corporate skills. Again, you will meet amazing people who you wouldn’t otherwise have met.

Since leaving Google, I have taken the knowledge accumulated on what makes great leaders, problem solvers and how to build effective teams and rolled that into a leadership course with a twist where we do that by solving real board-level problems for charity organisations.

This is just one of many options but ultimately, it comes from your own vocation.

Hiam Sakakini is an expert navigator of change who built stellar leadership teams during her 14+ years of working for Fortune 500 companies and most recently, during her 10 years at Google. This is where she built internal business units and later, shifted into the heart of the People & Culture strategy team.

Taking that experience, Hiam has co-founded a People & Culture consulting practice, ThinkChangeGrow and regularly speaks and writes on topics around Women in Business, How to Motivate Millennials and The Future of Work.