My son is playing basketball this year (previously he played football and soccer), and recently we went shopping for new shoes. Each store had pictures of Michael Jordan. I used to love watching MJ play with the Chicago Bulls. He was the epitome of skill and professionalism. To this day he inspires me.
Some people are just naturally talented, but even they need to work hard to maximize their potential. Hard work is an important aspect of being the best of anything, but it takes more than that. It takes doing things in a manner that allows you to continuously improve, as well as a positive mindset and commitment to success. Once people reach that level of high performance their job begin to look easy, and they may even appear to be “naturals” – just like Mike.
Most of my career changes have been unplanned. Opportunities presented themselves, the job seemed interesting, and before I knew it I was fully immersed in something related but different. Many of these things have not come naturally to me. Each time I have focused on understanding the requirements for doing the job well, then look for examples of exceptional performance, and then create a systematic approach that allowed me to measure performance and identify areas of improvement.
Sales has been a large part of my consulting management jobs since the mid-1990’s, but it wasn’t until I owned my own company that this became a true priority. I ran across a good book, The Accidental Salesperson by Chris Lytle. Back then Chris Lytle had “MAX Training,” and a large part of their focus was increasing your “level” with regard to Prospect and Client relationships. The training was good, and was complementary to systems like Miller Heiman. What each of these systems do is help you prepare, plan, and then execute to the best of your ability. And like basketball, it takes practice to master (although you can get immediate value, so don’t wait until you have finished to begin trying).
Regardless of the system used, what is important no matter what you are trying to be the best at is to look at both positive and negative examples to see what you can learn from them. There are lessons to be learned everywhere! Understanding what makes it good or bad helps you improve as part of a continual process. Incorporating new tools and techniques into what has already been proven to work for you can improve your game. Going back to the sports analogy, this could be part of what made Michael Jordon so good. He would see something interesting, improve it, and then make it his own.
For example, I get a lot of really horrible sales calls and email. The people have obviously not done any preparation, do not know anything about me or the company I work for, and often remind me of why I stopped listening to them by referring to the number of times they have tried contacting me. On the other hand, there are some really talented sales professionals who have done their homework, understand their products and the competition, and have an idea about why what they are selling should matter to me. I speak with them and occasionally buy from them. And in either case I provide my team with real life examples of good and bad sales techniques.
So, think of the best example of whatever it is you do, and see what you can do to become more like them. This isn’t about imitation, but rather about uncovering the secrets of their success and learning from them. And, have some fun doing it!
During a very candid review years ago, my boss at the time made a surprising comment to me. He said, “Good ideas can be like diamonds – drop them once in a while and they have a lot of value. But, sprinkle the everywhere you go and they just become a bunch of shiny rocks.” This was not the type of feedback that I was expecting, but it turned out to be both insightful and very valuable.
For a long time I have held the belief that there are four types of people at any company: People who want to make things better; People who are interested in improvement, but only in a supporting role; People who are mainly interested in themselves (they can do great things, but often at the expense of others); and People that that are just there and don’t care much about anything. This opinion is based on a working and consultant and many companies for several decades.
A recent Gallup Poll states that Worldwide, only 13% of Employees are “engaged at work” (the rest are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”). This is a sad reflection of employees and work environments if it is true. Since it is a worldwide survey it is hopefully was highly skewed and not indicative of what is typical. So, not quite aligned with my thinking, but interesting nonetheless.
So, back to the story… I had come from running my own business for nearly a decade and being a consultant for 15 years to working in a larger company. I was used to taking the best practices learned from other companies and incorporating them into our own business practices to improve them (and later sharing those improved business practices with Clients). I tend to take a systemic view of business and see the importance of having all components of “the business machine” working in harmony, so improvements in one area ultimately make a positive impact in other areas.
While I was trying to be helpful, I was insensitive to the fact that my “friendly suggestions based on past success” were creating quite a bit of frustration to people who would prefer that I minded my own business. Suggestions and examples that were intended to be helpful had the opposite effect. Even worse, it was probably just as frustrating to me to be ignored as it was to others to have me infringe on their business. And, this was very noticeable to my boss.
Had I been an external consultant those same ideas (“diamonds”) may have been considered, but as part of the leadership team I was coming across as one of those people who were just interested in themselves (leaving “shiny rocks” laying around for people to ignore or possibly trip over). Perception is reality, and this was hurting me. Luckily, I received this honest and helpful feedback and was receptive to change.
What are the morals of this story?
First, people who are engaged have the most potential to make a difference. Part of being a manager is making sure that you have the best possible team, and are creating an environment that challenges and motivates your team. Disengaged employees or people unwilling or unable to work with others and collaborate might not be your best choices, no matter how talented they may be.
Second, doing what you believe to be the right thing isn’t necessarily the best or right way. You need to be sensitive of the big picture and test whether or your input is being viewed as constructive. If you are not being effective then consider that your execution could be flawed. Self-awareness is very important.
And third, use your own examples as stories to help others understand problems in a non-threatening way to help them become more effective (and then challenge them to do so). And, if someone else has good ideas, help support them and collaborate. In the end it should be more about growth and achievement than who gets the most credit.
While this seems like common sense to me now, my background and personal biases blinded me to that. The biggest lesson learned was about adaptation. There are many ways to be effective and make a difference. Understanding the situation so you can employ the best techniques is critical to success.