I Have No Special Talents!

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.

I cannot take credit for the line above, which is attributed to Albert Einstein. But I do endorse the sentiment. Curiosity is the sign of a mind that wants to learn. That wants to change. That wants to grow.

Implicit in this is:

  1. an acknowledgement that there are things that one doesn’t know, and
  2. a desire to acquire or uncover additional knowledge.

In my corporate experience these two qualities are often in short supply. Individuals and organisations frequently assume more knowledge than they actually possess, whether in relation to the marketplace in which they operate, competitors’ strategies, or even employee motivation. The more they already ‘know’, the lower the perceived need to learn new facts. Being less curious they ask fewer questions and/or seek answers only from those who they feel will reinforce their own preconceived ideas.

From an historical perspective, there is arguably no individual that better embodies these ideals than Socrates (picture below).

Socrates

Recall that Socrates was pronounced by the Oracle at Delhpi as the wisest of all the Greeks. When he learned of this pronouncement, Socrates responded not by boasting or celebrating, but by attempting to prove the Oracle wrong. To achieve this he set about trying to find out if anyone in Athens knew what was truly worthwhile in life. Anyone who knew that would surely be wiser than him.

After questioning everybody that he could find, Socrates was disappointed to discover that nobody in the city could provide a satisfactory answer. Rather, they were all pretending to know something that they did not. As a consequence he was forced to face the realisation that perhaps the Oracle was correct after all. Of all the men in Athens he was indeed the wisest, because he alone was prepared to admit his own ignorance. This meant that he knew one more thing than everyone else, as they preferred to pretend to know something that they clearly did not.

The message here is that self doubt is not a weakness. Rather, it is those individuals that presume to be without doubt (or who feel compelled to pretend, lest they reveal their ignorance) that are most dangerous. Corporately this attitude can lead to:

  • failed strategy
  • missed opportunities
  • disaffected staff (where motivation is assumed)

Now, as you may be aware, Socrates’ approach of questioning others in the hope of uncovering truth – revealing their ignorance in the process – did not end well for him. He was sentenced to death for being “an evil-doer who busies himself with investigating things beneath the earth and in the sky, and who makes the worse appear the better reason, and who teaches others these same things” and forced to drink the hemlock which claimed his life.

Hopefully your company will not react in such extreme fashion.

So, ask questions of everyone, starting with yourself!

I have no special talents 2

Growth & Leadership

Do you look up to the people in leadership roles at your workplace? Do they set an example for you to strive for? Do they create an environment in which you can grow and develop?

In recent times I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of new people and discussing the general topic of leadership. This, in turn, has led me to reflect on my own experiences, specifically in the context of this blog (i.e. seeking growth opportunities). As a result of this reflection I had the realisation that one of the key factors in my decision to leave previous roles was a loss of confidence in the ability of my leaders to challenge convention, to see things differently and strike out in new directions.

Which way now?

I’m not sure that I was even conscious of this aspect at the time. Rather, this loss of confidence manifested itself as a general frustration or job dissatisfaction. I was ‘comfortable’ and/or sensed that my leaders were comfortable, which made me….uncomfortable! Craving growth and change I found myself turning elsewhere to satisfy this need. Once this threshold was breached it was only a matter of time before physical departure followed.

I appreciate that there is a delicate balance that leaders need to strike and that doing so often requires them to discount a natural confidence in their own knowledge, accumulated over years of experience. What do I mean by this? In most circumstances it is normal for organisations to award leadership positions commensurate with an individual’s level of experience. That’s ok, but I think that it is important to acknowledge that years of professional experience and career success carries with it a kind of psychological baggage; namely the confidence that causes a person to believe that they ‘know’ what to do or how to act in a given situation.

I am not advocating that leadership roles should be given to inexperienced staff (although career planning and ‘fast-tracking’ is essential for any organisation wanting to retain top talent). Instead, it is my contention that confidence bred of experience needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of ‘self-scepticism’. It is this scepticism that will enable a leader to balance their natural propensity to produce answers, based on their experience, with the ability to retain an open mind, continually ask new or different questions and be receptive to fresh ideas.

I am interested to hear the thoughts of others on this subject. What is your experience as an employee? Are you currently a CEO, Managing Director or senior executive who has grappled with this issue?

In closing I am reminded of an old joke:

Q: What do you call a leader with no followers?

A: Just somebody taking a walk.

I should be going now…it’s time for my walk.

A leader of one

6 Phases Of A Project

It’s a bit off topic, but I felt that some weekend frivolity was in order.

What are the six phases of a project? We’ve all been here:

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search for the guilty
  5. Punishment of the innocent
  6. Praise and honours for the nonparticipants

Have a great weekend.

Next Steps

Next Steps

What do people say about us when we are not in the room?

By this I don’t mean just idle gossip. Rather, what words do your friends and colleagues use when describing you to other people? Over the past two months I have had the good fortune to receive such feedback. It was indirect and unplanned, but also invaluable as it provided insight into how others see me.

Firstly, the feedback was all positive. Secondly, it tended to emphasise those aspects of my personality that I most take for granted; i.e. those bits of me that are so ‘me’ that I no longer see them. We can all benefit from greater awareness in this area.

In a professional context, 180 degree peer reviews can be utilised. However, over 15 years spent in professional and corporate environments I have never seen this done well. The process is often compromised by either a lack of clarity around purpose, or a lack of trust amongst participants that feedback will be given honestly and received openly.

Understandably, it can be uncomfortable having such conversations. Individuals who would choose the comfort of the familiar over the discomfort of the unknown will resist or withhold pertinent information. For those of us intent on growth they can serve as a catalyst for exciting changes.

I have recently had cause to reflect on the significant people in my life and realised that all too often there is too much that goes unsaid. If I have enjoyed the benefit of indirectly learning what others say about me when I am not around, perhaps they could as well?

What do you say about people when they are not in the room? How do you describe your closest and most trusted friends or colleagues to others in your circle?

Why don’t you just say it to them?

First Steps

Walking footprints

What is this first blog post about?

The short answer?:   I don’t know.

The long answer?:    I really don’t know.

I guess that it’s a beginning. Both personally and professionally I have always sought out people / environments / places that will challenge my existing limitations. This is the only way that we grow. It is this spirit that led me to take up rowing in my late 20’s, cycle across the Himalayas and turn my back on a successful corporate career with little more than an inkling of what to tackle next. Indeed, it is the same spirit that got me out of bed at 3am this morning to set-up this blog.

Now of course not all growth opportunities have to be sought out. Some find us.

I have recently learned that a significant person in my life, that I knew was struggling, is in far more pain than I ever imagined. This insight has caused me to visit places and contemplate outcomes that I could not have anticipated even a week ago. I am well and truly outside of my comfort zone. As always, I find this to be both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. It is a situation that will require me to test and break new limits.

With all such opportunities there is a challenge to be met, the precise nature of which will evolve over time. It is early days, but already I sense the potential for their darkest hour to be my finest.

I may not write about this current challenge again, but I will endeavour to regularly update this blog with other tales, observations and material that I think fits into the general theme.

“Growth and comfort cannot coexist”