When I started consulting an experienced consultant told me, “The best Consultants are experts at becoming Experts.” I started my consulting career with that goal in mind. After a few years realized that, “Good consults are people who can learn enough quickly to ask intelligent questions and connect the dots faster.” What you quickly learn in business is that this is a great skill for anyone to have.
It’s impossible to be an expert at everything. I believe that it is important to have great depth in a few areas (true expertise), and breadth of knowledge in many areas (enhancing context and insight). Both types of knowledge alone are valuable, but combined add a dimension that I believe allows a person to be more effective and potentially much more valuable. You develop the ability to pick-up on the dependencies and nuances that others miss.
Just think – How much more effective a salesperson is that understands technology and project management concepts when working to demonstrate fit and create a sense of urgency. Or, an Attorney that understands the complexity of service offerings and delivery – enhancing their ability to construct agreements that are highly protective yet not overly complex or onerous. Or, a programmer that thinks beyond the requirements and looks for ways to improve or simplify the process. Extra knowledge helps with the big picture understanding, and that often leads to providing more value. Additional knowledge and skills helps us become more effective, no matter what we may be doing.
Increased knowledge, combined with a desire to do amazing things, creates opportunities to make a huge impact. Sometimes it is because you are asking the questions that others may be thinking but cannot clearly and simply articulate. It helps you see the gaps and holes that others miss. And most importantly, it helps you “connect the dots” before others do (often many months before something obvious to you becomes obvious to others). A large consultancy once used the phrase “seeing around corners” as their attempt to make this concept tangible.
So, if you buy into the concept that knowledge is good, the next question is usually, “What is the best way to learn?” People learn in different ways so there really is no best way to learn. Understanding how you learn best helps you learn faster.
I’m a fan of reading. A good book may reinforce ideas you already know, introduce you to a few concepts or ideas that seem like they could help (giving you something to test), and often present many ideas that you know or feel just won’t work. Even bad books can have their value. Just don’t become one of those people who changes their beliefs and approach with every book they read.
I’m also a fan of hands-on learning. The experience of doing something the first time is important. Keeping detailed notes (what works, what doesn’t make sense and what you did to figure it out, work-arounds, etc.) enhances the value of that experience. It’s amazing what you can learn when you “get your hands dirty.”
What about formal education? I’ve never been a fan of the person who wants to get a degree in order to get a promotion. There are certainly some professions where education is critical to success (often through legitimacy as much as anything else). I believe that the best way to get ahead is to learn the position, innovate, optimize, and then deliver incredible results. You won’t “knock it out of the park” every time, but those “base hits” will help you score and ultimately win. My advice to people is to work towards a specific degree because it is important as a personal goal, and because it might help you get a different or better job in the future.
This is not to say that formal education is bad, because I don’t believe that at all. I was working on my MBA at the same time I was extending my consulting business from the US to the UK. I had a concentration in International Business, so I could apply many things I was learning right away. This lucky coincidence enhanced my learning experience and helped me make better decisions. I was actually working on that degree to raise the bar for my own kids, so to me this was just a bonus.
There are also other great ways to learn – ways that are only require an investment of time. There are many good free online courses. If there is something you want to learn about, or need to know more about, there is almost always a place to find free or inexpensive training. These are great investments in yourself and your future, and a chance to learn to connect those dots faster.
Below are links to a few of my personal favorite free learning websites. Do yourself a favor and check them out. And, if you know of others leave a comment and recommend them to others. Enjoy!
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.