To Grow, Leave What You Know Behind

January 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last year, I was fortunate to moderate a fascinating panel discussion with Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership on the topic of “Next Generation Leadership.” One of the panelists, Rosalinde Torres, encouraged us to ask the following question: “What has made you successful in the past that you need to change to move forward as a leader?”

As we go through different phases in our personal and professional lives, we’re called upon to adapt, to marshal skills different than those we’ve used in the past. And in the modern world — where the pace of technological and social change is as fast as at any time in human history, those demands on our adaptability are greater. An exceptional grocery store cashier, for example, will need a different set of skills to be a store manager as her career evolves. And those in computer repair have had to learn and unlearn a myriad skills over the past 30 years to keep pace with the changes happening around them.

So what skills do you need to modify or leave behind to grow? For me, a few suggestions come to mind.

Stop seeking answers; start asking questions. In our 20+ years of education, we have been trained to get ahead by having the right answers — to tests, to class questions, to business problems. But the most difficult challenges require leaders who can identify and ask the right questions.

The world needs great problem-solvers, but it also needs people who can make sure their organizations focus on the right problems and miss nothing in the process. One of the more intellectually impressive senior executives I’ve worked with asked questions twice as often as he offered answers. As a result, the people who worked for him always took full responsibility for their work — because they knew they’d have to answer a stream of deep and thoughtful questions as soon as they entered the boardroom. This leader’s questions not only showed his thoughtfulness and helped drive deeper solutions, but they created ownership among the people who worked for him.

Focus on people, not problems. Junior businesspeople often work on heavily analytic, stand-alone problems. They’re asked to build models and plans — to find the “right” solution. But the most difficult problems can’t be solved and implemented by individuals alone. Good leaders can’t just get the right answer. They have to involve people — those who will ultimately implement their programs and those teammates who can help them solve the problem faster and better than they could on their own.

When an individual becomes too rigid about his or her “own” solution at the expense of working collaboratively with others, that individual often loses the momentum to generate change and misses the valuable insights of his or her peers in the process. A famous example of collaboration in the face of a difficult problem — no matter your thoughts on the project itself — is the Manhattan Project. The project, which ultimately led to the construction of the first atomic bomb, was led by General Leslie Groves. Knowing he couldn’t handle the project by himself (and neither could anyone else), he called upon as many great minds and competing perspectives as possible to come to the right solutions collaboratively and created an environment in which they could implement against that plan.

Stop working as a generalist. Many of us have lived life so far as generalists — “Jacks of all trades,” so to speak — focused broadly on a variety of skills, functions, or industries. Sure, we may have picked some topics on which to become knowledgeable, we’ve chosen professions, and we’ve completed “majors” or built specific skills. But by-and-large, we’ve cast our nets wide, learning broadly to gain context about the world around us. At some point, however, most of us will need to generate proficiency in a very specific topic, both because it makes us valuable sources of expert knowledge and teaches us the habits of mind to generate deep insight.

Take, for example, Steve Jobs’s early obsession with calligraphy. After dropping out of Reed College in 1972, Steve spent months immersed in calligraphy, which, at Reed, was an incredibly strong program. In his words, “I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture.” That experience not only helped Steve build the practical toolkit to create beautiful text and designs, but also improved and sharpened his mind, attention to detail, and his fascination with design.

You may be at a different stage in life — a great “people” manager who needs to work on her problem-solving or a specialist who needs to broaden his experience — but I’ve found that as my professional career evolves to include more collaboration, management, and implementation, the skills I’ve depended on, while helpful in their time, need to evolve for successful growth. These adjustments provide new areas of focus that may be common to a number of young leaders who are making the transition from individual contributor to manager as they advance in their careers.

What do you think? In your own work life, what are the traits that have made you successful in the past that you’ll need to leave behind to be successful in the future?

This post is part of a series of blog posts by and about the new generation of purpose-driven leaders. Originally posted at Harvard Business Review.

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