“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” — Charles Darwin
A number of years ago, investor Mark Thompson spoke with then GE CEO, Jeff Immelt, about “How to Get Promoted (or Fired) Faster.” Immelt’s advice: “First go deep and then go wide.”
Immelt went on to explain that when you do a job you should focus on it as if you’ll be doing it all your life. If you’re a dishwasher, be the best dishwasher possible; if you’re a valet, be the best valet possible. He emphasized doing that was more impressive than always being focused on the next thing. Otherwise, you’ll never develop true expertise in what you’re doing.
True excellence is more notable than what you’re excellent at. You don’t have to like basketball to be impressed with LeBron James. And when you’re truly excellent at something, people will often be so captivated that they’ll wonder what else you can do, or they’ll wonder who else you know who’s excellent at what they do.
However, in an everchanging world, here is the trick. Along with being excellent at any one or even several things, you also need to have the flexibility and adaptability to turn on a dime.
That can be a real challenge because, in order to achieve true excellence, you need to sustain focus on what you’re doing in order to get there. Focus like that requires tuning other things out. The more specialized you are, the more you tune things out. The more you tune things out, the less adaptive you are.
Of course, if you’re too adaptive or jump from one thing to another too quickly, you will never develop sufficient expertise to have much credibility with regard to others or yourself.
Deepening Your Expertise
How do you develop a psyche/mindset that is able to focus and develop expertise while being able to adapt to a changing world?
My good friend and manager, Clark Vautier, has a saying which I’m not crazy about. He says, “We always guard our calendars.” By that he means, when we check our calendars that have various appointments or other things scheduled, we generally keep those as opposed to flaking out on them and running the risk of disappointing others or ourselves.
Therefore, every day make sure your calendar devotes at least two hours to deepening your expertise in a skill by either practicing it or learning to become better at it. Stephen Covey first explained that it takes 10,000 hours of practicing to become a true expert. To help keep that promise, fill in the blank, “At the end of two hours, I will feel I am making progress in being able to do x, if I am able to do y.” Then do what it takes to fill in x and y.
Adaptive means getting where others — your boss, your customers/clients and your colleagues in other departments — are coming from and what’s important for them to achieve.
Therefore, in addition to your calendar focused on becoming better at what you do, schedule at least one hour per day where you do a deep dive into understanding three things about everyone you interact with at work.
- What is their situation? (i.e. what are their position, role, and responsibilities)
- Where are they personally in that situation? (i.e. what near term results and outcomes are they tasked with achieving that directly impacts their compensation and promotability.)
- What are the most important (one year), critical (three months) and urgent (this week) results and outcomes they are focused on achieving and you can help them with?
After you answer the top three questions and identify where, when and how you can help them achieve what is most important, critical and urgent to them and adapt to doing that, your value to others will result in them appreciating you even more than your specific expertise. In other words, people are more focused on the problems you can solve for them (i.e. equals being adaptive) than on how you do it (your skillset).
A great resource to drill down into answering the above is to go to: ZipRecruiter’s Templates which has a vast array of job descriptions.
I learned the power of starting a presentation with getting to know where my audience was coming from when I spoke to 400+ managers from the Russian Federation in Moscow in October 2017. After studying what the role of a manager is, I led with asking my audience if I got where they were coming from and where they wanted to go by asking them the following:
- Their situation: “If you’re managers, you are judged on the results you get through other people, meaning you don’t do anything directly yourself, but instead get others to do things. Is that true?”
2. Them in their situation: “In trying to get better results you’re looking for a way to accomplish that other than being pushy or strong-arming people, because over time that is stressful to your people and you. Is that true?”
3. What they’re focused on achieving that are important, critical and urgent: “And if in our time together you could learn simple, ‘doable by you,’ tips, tools and tactics that you can use immediately, that you don’t have to be an expert psychologist type to do, where there is no upsell to a course you need to take, or even have to buy my book, would it be worth the time and money you spent to be here today?”
The more you understand where people are coming from, and where they most urgently want to go — without them having to tell you — the more impact you will have. And when they then discover that you happen to be excellent at what you do, the more influence and success you will have.
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Dr. Mark Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.
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