We were once limited by our existing skill set. We were locked into our speciality. If you were trained in preparing budget reports, you prepared budget reports. If you were really good at writing copy, you wrote copy. If you were a project manager, you managed projects.
There was very little room to move outside of our sphere of knowledge and skill. We were like cogs in a machine and that’s all that organisations expected of us.
But, things have changed. Organisations now need and expect people to be flexible and have a broader range of skills. Those who are able to contribute in diverse ways to important projects are valued more than anyone else.
This is great news for you and I because we now have more opportunities to make a meaningful contribution that helps our organisation grow, helps us get ahead and allows us to do interesting work outside of our existing skill set.
So how do we become the type of person who can do almost anything when in reality, we are in fact limited in many ways by our existing skill set? Answering that question could be the topic of an entire book, but just quickly, here’s one strategy.
Almost anything you need to know can be learned quickly online and Google is your secret weapon. You can learn the basics of almost anything with a Google search and some time spent reading, studying diagrams, listening to audio and watching video.
This is not to pay any disrespect to people who are actually experts. It’s just to say that a lack of access to specialised skills need no longer hold back a project in the short term; and that thanks to technology and the plethora of free resources online, we now have the opportunity to contribute in bigger and more exciting ways than before.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say your boss asks you to develop a draft communications plan for a project you’re working on, but you’ve never done one before. Maybe you’ve never even seen a communications plan.
No problem. You don’t have to be an exert to put together a good quality communications plan. You just need to Google it.
Search terms: communications plan; how to develop a communications plan; communications plan template.
Spend a couple of hours reading articles, looking at images, listening to audio and watching YouTube videos and then download and adapt the best template you can find. Now you know enough to get started and have the tools to develop a draft communications plan.
You can take this approach with almost anything: project plan, risk assessment, staff engagement survey, consumer insight research, lead indicators for an impact framework – these are all examples of tasks I’ve been asked to do at different times in my career that I had no idea how to do in the moment, but instead of saying “no, I don’t know how”, I said “sure, let me look into it”.
Finally, and this is really important, don’t pretend you’re an expert. Be confident in your ability to figure things out, but don’t say yes to things that are clearly way above your head and don’t submit something that is of poor quality. Poor quality work is a career killer.
I’ve always felt like I could take on any task, but I would always ensure my boss knew that whatever I was handing them was my first attempt and that it should be treated as a starting point. Managing expectations is key.
If she thought it was good work, great! If she thought it needed more work or required a specialist to take it further, great! Either way I contributed, solved a problem for my boss in the short term, got the ball rolling and showed the people I work with that I am someone who is talented and can be trusted to get shit done. At the end of the day, this is what managers really want: people who can get shit done!
You and I are no longer held back by our existing skill set, and the more we dive in and do the work despite our limitations, the more valuable we are to almost any project in almost any organisation.
Management has experienced a strong shift in recent decades toward empowering individuals and teams to lead and problem solve. Like any important change, there’s a danger of going too far.
Don’t get me wrong. As a manager I do all I can to empower my people to lead and problem solve. But, there also comes a time when as managers, we need to make a decision, make a call, develop the plan, and at times, even go against the collective wisdom of the team.
The new management paradigm can be used as an excuse by indecisive managers to rely too heavily on their team, and even blame them when things don’t turn out as planned.
Please, empower your teams. Trust your individual leaders. But don’t think that’s all there is to management and leadership. It’s also your job to protect your team and make decisions that are in everyone’s best interests.
The days of ‘cog-in-the-machine’ employment is coming to an end. As the information economy grows and develops, people who can do more than shift a lever or press a button on a production line are more important than ever.
But, what is it exactly that we need people, in this new era of work, to do? And, how can we create a culture and environment that facilitates and supports their work and produces the results today’s businesses need?
I won’t bore you with a long winded, wanky, geo-politico-eco-historical exploration of the needs of modern businesses. If you’re reading this I’m sure you already have some ideas.
I will instead state, quite simply, this:
We need leaders who can work collaboratively and creatively to solve complex problems.
I’ll say that again. Today’s organisations need leaders who can work collaboratively and creatively to solve complex problems. And, herein lies our dilemma.
The way we run organisations and the way we manage people does not support or create the right environment for this type of person, let alone a whole team of them, to operate with the autonomy or freedom required to be effective.
So what can you do? How can you become the type of person we need to work and manage in a modern organisation?
Universities and colleges offer more degrees than at any other time. Online courses are easily accessible and many are free or cheap. There’s no reason to settle for a career doing something boring or that you feel indifferent about.
There are also more opportunities than at any time in our history to start your own business and be successful. Don’t limit yourself to the rat race. A credit card with a few hundred dollors and a good idea is all you need to start an independent business with a good chance of being successful if you do it right.
If you’re a manager: hire the right people with the right skills, set the goals and the strategy, support them, give them the time and materials they need and then, get out of the way.
* * *
Today’s organisations need leaders who can work collaboratively and creatively to solve complex problems. Be that person. Be that type of leader. Don’t settle for a generic, uninspired career. You’ll be happier and more successful for it.
Leadership means something different to everyone. Leadership is fluid. Leadership is a social construct. Leadership is what it needs to be at the time. Leadership is the execution of a set of values. Leadership has lots of different moving parts.
Though I’ve tried, I can’t find a way to define leadership. It’s too big. It’s too grey. But, I think it’s an important thing to do because if there’s one thing the world needs it’s more leaders and how do we develop leaders if we can’t define what leadership is.
A few years ago I learned a couple of neat little tricks for defining the seemingly undefinable from one of my mentors. First, he said, and I’m paraphrasing years of teaching and discussion here, that describing what something looks like can be more valuable than defining it.
Second, he said that when defining a thing is too difficult, try defining what that thing is not and what it is becomes clearer.
In this post, I’ll attempt to do both of those two things as a way of trying to define leadership.
Leadership is not…
Leadership is not being a boss.
Leadership is not being a manager.
Leadership is not being in charge.
Leadership is not being an authority.
Leadership is not a title or a position.
Leadership is not what most people think it is.
So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work. — Peter Drucker
Using this logic, I suppose we could also try to define a leader by what they don’t do.
A leader doesn’t…
A leader doesn’t panic.
A leader doesn’t yell.
A leader doesn’t get angry.
A leader doesn’t act out of spite.
A leader doesn’t act in self interest.
A leader doesn’t hide information.
A leader doesn’t give orders.
A leader doesn’t motivate.
A leader doesn’t rely on old ways.
A leader doesn’t settle.
He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander. — Aristotle
Now that we know what a leader is not, and what a leader does not do, we can describe what a leader is and what a leader does do ie. what leadership looks like.
Leaders are compassionate.
Leaders are tough.
Leaders overcome fear for the greater good.
Leaders understand people and psychology.
Leaders understand human relationships and group dynamics.
Leaders have high levels of energy.
Leaders have humility.
Leaders have integrity.
Leaders are accountable.
Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. — Publilius Syrus
Leaders are respectful.
Leaders value diversity.
Leaders obsess over mastery.
Leaders are honest.
Leaders are collaborative.
Leaders are people focussed.
No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it. — Andrew Carnegie
A leader supports and guides people.
A leader sees the big picture.
A leader get’s their hands dirty.
A leader communicates effectively.
A leader is creative.
A leader shares power.
A leader uses logic and gut instinct at the same time.
A leader focusses on solutions.
A leader is always learning.
A leader solves problems.
A leader makes other people better.
As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others. — Bill Gates
A leader thinks laterally.
A leader listens more than they talk.
A leader gives frank and fearless advice.
A leader is approachable.
A leader asks for forgiveness, not permission.
A leader eliminates the need for small decisions.
A leader makes the big decisions.
A leader takes risks.
A leader takes the bull by the horns.
A leader adapts and overcomes.
A leader finds new and better ways.
A leader strives for excellence, always.
A leader is a good follower.
A leader sets priorities.
A leader connects the dots.
A leader is consistent.
A leader values results rather than process.
A leader uses data, research and best practice.
A leader challenges data, research and best practice.
A leader takes criticism.
A leader creates a vision.
A leader admits when they are wrong.
A leader mentors.
A leader performs at a high level.
A leader performs consistently at a high level.
A leader builds teams.
A leader builds culture.
A leader creates change.
A leader inspires action.
A good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit. — John Maxwell
Finally and critically, I believe a leader produces two very important outcomes.
A leader creates impact.
A leader creates more leaders.
A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent. — Douglas MacArthur
Leadership is hard to pin down. Leadership means something different to everyone. Leadership is fluid. Leadership is a social construct. Leadership is what it needs to be at the time. Leadership is the execution of a set of values. Leadership has lots of different moving parts.
Leadership is hard to define, but it’s not impossible to describe what it looks like.
A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. — Lao Tzu
When you move on from your current job, what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? It’s a tough question to answer, likely because you’ve never really thought about it before. You should though. And, here’s why.
So many of us make the mistake of letting our careers happen to us, rather than being proactive and making it happen for us. We look around at the successful people in our office and wrongly assume that they’re successful by chance, or that success comes with just putting in the time.
Whether you’re dedicated to a life-long career in the same company, moving from organisation to organisation trying to make a difference in something you care about or creating your own path solving problems as an entrepreneur, nothing comes easy and you’ll never reach your potential without a decent amount of forethought and effort.
So what can you do to give yourself the best chance of reaching your potential and being successful? Think about this.
In his book “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?”, Seth Godin makes the observation that bosses lie about what they want in an employee. They say they want someone who will be on time. Who will follow instruction. Someone who comes in and does their job and doesn’t make any trouble.
So, why is it that the people who follow these rules aren’t getting the promotions? Or more poignantly, why is it that the people getting promoted, the big stars of the show, aren’t the ones following these rules?
“The world no longer fairly compensates people who are cogs in a giant machine” – Seth Godin
It’s because what she really wants is someone who can think for them-self. Who sees possibilities and makes them happen. Who creates. Who connects the dots. Who sets the shit on fire (what ever that means).
She wants someone remarkable – who is worth remarking about. Someone who is exceptional – who is the exception. Someone who disrupts, creates, collaborates, leads et cetera. Being even one of these things would leave a great legacy.
So, how do you become more remarkable? Exceptional? How do you become indispensable?
First, follow these two steps:
Answer this question: If your organisation wanted to replace you with someone far better at your job than you, what would they look for?
Become the answer. Read, learn, work hard and become the person who is far better at your job than you currently are.
Then, do all of these things:
Become a connector. Make a habit out of introducing people who will get value from each other both inside and outside your organisation.
Pick one new person every week and buy them a coffee. Sit with them. Drink coffee together. Don’t talk about work. Ask lots of questions. Listen.
Write something inspiring for your company blog and submit it to be published. It will likely draw the attention of your superiors, so make sure it’s good.
Think of one new, properly thought-out idea every month, that solves a real problem faced by your organisation and tell your boss about it. Be ready to produce a brief outline and project plan and make sure your idea has the potential to make a real impact, like increase productivity or save money. It’s not that hard, it’s only twelve ideas a year.
Grab with both hands and all your strength every learning opportunity you find.