By Yvonne Milosevic
Not everyone’s career trajectory follows a straight path upward. “A lot of career choices are like a game of Chutes and Ladders. You don’t always get to just walk up the ladder,” noted Apple VP Kate Bergeron.
Speaking at MIT’s Innovative Leadership Series in March, the 18-year Apple veteran reflected on good bosses, great teams, and saying yes even when you’re not ready. Here are the six tips Bergeron shared that can help you chart your course for career success.
Think less ‘career path’ and more ‘Chutes and Ladders’
Bergeron is now a vice president of hardware engineering at Apple. Over the years, she worked on some of the brand’s most iconic products. But at times, her moves within the company were lateral. “Sometimes, you have to move horizontally or even go down a little to an opportunity that eventually will lead you to the next ladder,” Bergeron said.
You can fit kids into the picture
Like many professionals, Bergeron had to get creative to juggle family life with work. She became pregnant with her first child and took maternity leave six months into the job. She and her husband Mike Gull pulled off joint childcare by alternating their schedules. He worked in the mornings, and Bergeron headed to the office for the afternoon and evening shift.
Later, a second child came into the picture. With that, the couple had to make further adjustments when she decided to do an EMBA at MIT Sloan.
“It was a lot to accomplish — 20 months through an MBA program while working full time with two kids in elementary school,” Bergeron recalled. “Only by making those sorts of holistic family changes were we able to pull it off.”
Trust your managers and mentors
Many of us wait for perfect conditions before making a big move. But life rarely lines up opportunities so tidily. Early in her career at Apple, Bergeron said she felt the need to take a step back and regroup. But her manager knew she could take on the challenge of leading the team developing the G4 iBooks. Not convinced, Bergeron turned down the job three times. After much cajoling, her manager convinced her could tackle this critical new role at Apple.
Five years later, Bergeron again reached a crossroads and began to wonder if going back to an engineering position would have a more manageable, 9-to-5 schedule. It was time to address those concerns with her manager.
“I sat down and really talked with him about these tradeoffs and aspirations. And he turned out to be both a great sponsor and a mentor who really coached me over that hurdle, which could have been a huge change in direction for my career,” Bergeron said.
Build your team (then get out of the way)
Bergeron realized how solid her team was when she took 12 weeks of maternity leave and delegated all the essential decision-making tasks. “How do you figure out how to parse work out to people? It was a great growing experience for the team and for the managers who were able to step up while I was out,” said Bergeron.
Likewise, the executive noted that having confidence in the team she established working on Mac products allowed her to make the leap to accessories. “I had to trust that this next generation of leaders that I had grown would be successful, that they had the tools they needed to do their job so I could make a [career] choice for myself.”
“The only way you can grow to the next level is to figure out how to grow leaders,” Bergeron said. “You have to have a leadership team underneath you. You have to train them, and you have to learn how to trust them.”
Have a management mindset
Bergeron said she could have made a stable career as an engineer. But she came to realize that managing people was her real strength. She tells aspiring managers at Apple that they must give up personal ownership on projects.
“If it’s all about you, stay an engineer. You solved a hard problem. You can take that personal level of satisfaction when the product ships,” she advised. When you’re a manager, you need to draw your satisfaction from the success of others.
“If the team succeeds, I feel great on their behalf,” Bergeron said. “If they’re super-stoked, then I go home happy. You definitely have to be on that side of the coin.”
Push for diversity
Women are still woefully underrepresented in the tech industry. For that reason, Bergeron said she’s working on platforms to highlight the contributions of women in engineering.
“I spend not a small amount of my time poking and prodding at the system to make sure that both for women and underrepresented minorities, we’re trying to get them a bigger foothold in tech, that they have that opportunity.”
“We have to make tech overall a more inclusive environment,” Bergeron said, “and we have to do that every single day.”