Friday, October 10, 2008

The Subtle Path to Perfection

The past couple weeks I've been having many conversations with employees about career planning and their future growth. As I was thinking back and reflecting I noticed a recurring thing that was worth discussing.

Generally speaking, people tended to focus on the specific skills (or in this case technologies) as a means to differentiate and advance themselves. They pick an area of their behavior they want to work on and create a plan for how they might get better at such a thing. For instance, they might desire to work with a particular product, or in a particular industry. The more time they've spent and the more competent in their technical skills, they more they tend to look at the softer side. For instance, they might want to focus on leadership positions, or managing teams of a particular size. Regardless of their intent, they generally try to find a behavior or a skill that they can practice and demonstrate proficiency with. This is all well and good.

The slant I've been thinking about are those who are the more successful. Especially those of indeterminate specialty and generic capability. How do the mediocre continue to be successful and advance? How can they progress without ever refining specific behaviors and skills to a level superior of those around them? Simply put, they don't work on the skills, they work on their environment.

Inherently, the successful team leaders have demonstrated through their successes that it is less about personal ability, and more about the abilities of those they work with. By matching themselves with like-minded people, they increase their productivity, compensate for weaknesses, and enjoy more consistent performance. In the marketplace today, consistency is often worth more than risky potential regardless of promised returns.

To be clear, this isn't about delegation, or choosing team members or the usual obvious tripe. It is much less about how you manage downward and instead about how you manage your peers, customers, and those above you. Recognizing when an environment doesn't match your working style is certainly one part of a successful career path. Being aware when an organizational structural supports your ideals is another. The oldest tigers are the ones that don't just hunt well. They know how to avoid the traps as well as the over-populated areas of the jungle. They know how to back down from a fight, and when a territory no longer supports their needs.

None of us are perfect. But given a supportive organization structure, a means of interaction that supports our style, and responsibility that matches our accountability, even those with mediocre ability can be very successful.

Just look at McDonalds. Lowest skilled worker, a smooth organizational machine, and they deliver a consistent product.

So the next time you're thinking about which behavior of yours that you would like to perfect, spare a moment and look around at your environment. Consider if changing who you work for, or who you work with, might not unlock more of your potential and let the skills you do have, really shine.