Chapter One: Competence

Chapter 1: Competence

Don’t Waste It by Thinking It’s Enough – Boaching Principle#43

Chapter One is a short chapter which starts by defining its main subject, the C in C(O)RE. Highly valuable tips are provided concerning how to grow C and how its nature changes over time. Words of warning will appear to those who stop learning because the think their C is high enough while understanding is offered to those who stop learning for less arrogant reasons. The chapter culminates with a semi-lengthy, semi-proof of the statement from the opening, which is that while highly effective in building your career, focussing on C alone is a risky proposition

The C in C(O)RE stands for Competence and has two main components: skill and knowledge. Knowledge is the cognitive stuff you can get from schools, books, seminars. Skill is putting this stuff into practice to create results. Knowledge without skill makes you an impractical academic doomed to ridicule in the business world. Skill without knowledge will give you the ability to make more right choices than bad ones but you will struggle when you encounters situations that are new and to which your experience does not provide an answer. True competence will only happen when you add knowledge – which is essentially the experience of other people – to your skill.

One of the key messages of this book – in case that was not explicit enough in the Introduction – is that high C is not enough to make you an executive, that you need to be more than good at what you do to go beyond middle management. Before we develop this and what lesson to draw from it, a few words on becoming high C in the first place.

What we can learn from George Clooney

Here is some good news: If You Are Low on C, Get More – BP#29. A multi-billion dollar industry is there to help you address this particular challenge. It is called Education and if so far you have managed to get by while largely ignoring its existence, I strongly advise you to check it out and watch it boost your C.

Your work is not done yet, however. C is not just about being good; it is also about staying good at what you do. You may be brilliant today, but that does not mean you necessarily will be tomorrow. Depending on your field, your skills and your knowledge need more or less constant care to stay relevant. In Up in the Air George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a very successful corporate downsizing expert who finds himself blindsided (ironically) by new technology threatening to make him obsolete. Could a similar thing happen to you? What if a new, merit-obsessed CEO came in and instituted a new scheme whereby you had to re-apply for your job every three years? And what if one of the questions in the process was: “what have you done to further hone your skills and to stay ahead of the developments in your field?”

And even assuming you are comfortable with your answer to this question – still you are not finished. In fact, while staying on top of the latest developments in your field is good and recommended, it is also the bare minimum of what you have to do. When smart, well-dressed, HR people say things like “snake path”, “one job away” or “horizontal development” what they are suggesting is that, sure, you may have some c, but for the big C you need to spread out.

Specialists don’t run businesses, generalists do. If you are in Sales, ask yourself how strong you are in Marketing. As Head of Supply Chain do you know the business at shop floor level? And how long ago was it that you took that course in “Finance for non-finance professionals”? Really high Cs are comfortable talking balance sheets as well as source codes, marketing budgets as well as sales trainings. In other (and fewer) words: Look Left and Right Instead of Always Only Up – BP#48


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Be smart about results

One of the top 3 paradoxes of business careers is that the skills that got you started won’t continue to help you.1
As Marshall Goldsmith puts it: “what got you here, won’t get you there.” The behaviours you show and activities you engage in at the beginning of your career and which help you move through the first career steps will stop being decisive after a certain point.

Our careers typically start with us in the
role of an individual contributor and our performance will be rated according to the speed and quality of our individual output. Let’s say the expected output from you is 1.0. Since you are obviously brilliant you manage 1.1. This is 10% above expectation and you will be duly rewarded with bonuses and promotions. As you acquire more skill and more experience you increase your input to 1.4, or 1.7. You are now coming close to being twice as “good” as the average individual contributor in your field. But how far can you take this? Can you take it all the way to 2.0? You would then essentially be creating output equal to that of two average contributors – but if you want impact beyond this you will need a new direction. More of the same will no longer be enough.

There are two ways to scale your individual competence beyond the 2.0. You can become a wizard at whatever technical skill is in excessive demand at the moment. This will make your output close to unique and it will take your market value through the roof. Disappointingly, however, as BP#15 tells us Becoming a Wizard Isn’t Easy. For the wizard option to work it takes an unlikely mix of brains, luck and time so that you hit precisely the skill that will be needed (and therefore wizard-making) by the time you have mastered it.

A more pedestrian way to increase your impact exponentially is to leave your specialist path and start contributing through the performance of others. When you do this, when you are put in charge of a team, the dimensions of your potential influence change.

This is how it works. Let’s say you have 7 team members, including yourself, and are expected as a team to deliver 7.0. You can now choose to work hard on your own contribution and deliver the solid 1.4 that was the reason you got the promotion in the first place. Hoping your team members stay on average the total team output will be 7.4, which is fine but is not going to turn Board heads in your direction.

The smarter choice, obviously, is to help everyone go up, say, 0.2 and so deliver a team output of 8.4. True, your own individual output suffers (you do 1.2 when you could have done 1.4) but here’s the thing: your own individual output simply matters less than it used to. Your supervisor is not looking at 1.2 or 1.4; she is looking at 7.4 or 8.4. Which do you think she likes better?

Executive positions do not demand more of the same but something quite different. It is a gradual change but fundamental nonetheless. As an individual contributor you perform through your personal output; as a manager you perform through the output of individual contributors, and as an executive you perform through the output of managers.2

The job of enabling others to perform is called Leadership and it should be an absolute learning focus unless you are a wizard or content with contributing individually. People managers are essentially no longer in “Logistics” or “Marketing” or “Purchasing”. Their field is called “Leadership” and as an aspiring executive you would do well to keep this in mind.

Learning is for the young?

While universally recognised as the main factor influencing careers, from a certain level on, increasing individual competence is also often curiously neglected. Young managers and talents (well, some of them) enthusiastically embrace the development opportunities and training courses their companies provide, but over time this passion tends to wane leaving executive education classrooms disproportionately populated by the below 50 year olds.

Maybe we should not be so surprised. Firstly, at senior executive level chances are that you have indeed closed the most pressing development gaps; what you may lack in terms of cutting edge knowledge you make up for with priceless experience. Secondly (this is kind of depressing; if you are having a bad day I suggest you jump ahead to where it says “thirdly” about three or four lines down) as a senior executive you have more life behind you than ahead and you are biologically disposed to think of output more than input. It hits us around the mid-life point that we are actually going to die and the desperate energy this realisation sets free typically directs us to action today rather than learning for tomorrow.

Thirdly, even if you do have development potential, there is no one there to tell you so or what it is; the higher you get in the hierarchy, the fewer people you will have around you who are willing/able/daring to give you feedback. All the more reason to have your self-reflection skills sharpened at this point so you can detect learning areas yourself.

Fourthly, the goal of executive education is sometimes mistakenly thought to be personality change (uphill struggle for most of us and pretty much unachievable in successful 50+ executives who have been told for years how great they are) rather than the much more pragmatic and eminently attainable behavioural change. To save you from this misconception you can either apply some common sense, or if that is too hard, listen to BP#28: Forget About Changing Your Personality. Fixing a Behaviour or Two Should Be Enough. You don’t go on a training course to become someone else. You go in order to learn to do something differently.

Why C is not enough

Honing your skills; deepening, widening and continually updating your knowledge; as well as your ability to produce results through others are all crucial for your career aspirations. And the way to scale your performance is to act through and with others, which means that learning to lead (better) should be a constant thing on your mind.

As mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, the world is not short on excellent options on how to address these and other C-development issues and I have no intention to compete with them (in fact – by all means, go and learn. Just remember BP#51: Learning Works Best (Though, Admittedly, not Only) if You Want It.) 3 The main C(O)RE point – which the rest of this chapter will try to show – is that crucial as it is, high C – even high Leadership C – has its limitations as a career driver.

If you want a great career, you have to go beyond high C. The reason is mathematical.

Let’s say that in your organisation there are 20,000 individual contributors, 2,500 team leaders, 350 account managers, 50 division managers, 12 division heads, three corporate vice presidents and one executive vice president who then reports to the parent corporation overseas.

Let’s now assume that every year 10% of the workforce is leaving. When you start out as an individual contributor with ambitions to move up this means that there are 2500*10%=250 positions to go for every year. Your promotion into team leader is almost a law of probability and if you stick around you are well placed to also make the cut for account management (350*10%=35 positions a year) without doing much more than displaying moderate C. High C will be needed for the next step. There are only 50 positions at division manager level and on average only five of these become vacant every year, but over time probability works in your favour and you finally get the coveted division manager position. The division head position, however, only becomes available about once a year and since it comes with a nice salary package, it is wanted by many other High Cs just like you. Probability and high C alone  do not help you anymore. You’ve hit the (c)eiling – the level pure C can give you.

Succeeding in spite of poor performance requires a combination of luck, friends and determination beyond most mortals, so in your quest to reach your career goals, high C remains the single most important factor and you would do well to make it a top priority to constantly strive to improve it: acquire new skills, adopt new knowledge, and let your experience advance your decision-making skills. 4 5
Summing up, there are two common fallacies when thinking about high C. Firstly, you may think of high C as a result and not a process. In other words, you may be tricked into thinking you have it and do not need to continue growing it. Depending on your personality the results fallacy leads to a detrimental mix of blindness, arrogance, delusion, and ignorance.

Alternatively, you may do your strong C the disservice of asking it to do everything. As the opening BP was trying to express – high C is best served by simultaneously considering the intertwined factors of O and R and E to which we turn in the following chapter.

1. The other two are: 1. The higher you rise the more freedom you loose. You may get a bigger car and more money but the higher you get, the more your time will be at the disposal of a small but increasingly demanding number of individuals who will call you whenever there are issues to be fixed. And 2: As your career progresses your job will increasing consist of providing what you do not yourself receive: direction, clarity and meaning.

2. This also means that learning how to delegate and manage performance effectively become essential for your executive survival. The accumulative effect of the people in your business unit performing below expectation will bring you down within two quarters – unless you compensate through your network (R), good luck ((O)) or determination (E) – (see following chapters).

3. Who am I kidding? Of course I have an opinion on this, too. Here are three books that will help your Leadership C. Read them tonight and sharpen your attitude, get more out of your team, and stop a bad leadership habit or two: Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive, Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and Marshal Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

4. It cannot be said more elegantly than Tilda Swinton’s raised eyebrow in „Dr Strange“ (Marvel Studios, 2016) when Benedict Cumberbatch implores her to tell him how „get from here to there“ (what he actually wants is to be told how open gateways to other worlds with swooshing hand movements, but that’s beside the point here) and she ask him how he became a surgeon and he says „study and practice.“ Ms Swinton’s non-verbal response takes the prize for most eloquent facial gesture of 2016 and speaks volumes about the value of precisely that: study and practice.

5. If you are looking for more substantial career advice, head over to where Mark Horstman has valuable things to say about just about every conceivable aspect of careers and management in general. Of interest here is his observation that „good decisions come from experience and experience comes from bad decisions“. I heard it here. The internet tells me that either Mark Twain or someone called Anonymous said it first.