Saturday, 25 March 2017

Jack of all trades

In any profession you have to do a range of different things.  Is it better to be good at all of these things, or to be world-class in a few of them and adequate in the rest?

I'm asking because I've recently been giving this a lot of thought, prompted by at first watching Dr Jon Griffiths' TEDx talk on Specialists vs Generalists.  Now, Dr Griffiths has worked for some time at my GP surgery and is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect - he's advised and treated myself and my family for a long time.  But I watched his TEDx talk with interest, because he is advocating the primacy of the Generalist (eg a GP) over Specialists (eg a Heart Surgeon, Paediatrician or other such medical specialist) and saying its better to be a "jack of all trades, master of none" than to be master of just one.

So this made me think quite a bit and I've tried to relate it to both the HR world and the sporting world, which after all are the two main professional worlds I inhabit.

One of my sporting heroes when growing up was Daley Thompson, the Olympic gold-medal winning Decathlete and arguably one of the greatest British sportspeople of all time.  I admired him because his success was based on being awesome at no less than 10 different sports.

In essence, the ultimate generalist.

Or was he?

Years later I heard Frank Dick, who was Thompsons' coach, deliver a motivational speech.  He pointed out that whilst Thompsons' success was based on him being better all-round than anyone else, he wasn't the best in his field in all ten sports.  And he was right - Thompson was truly world class as a sprinter and jumper, but no more than average at things like the discus, javelin and pole-vault.

Thompson himself was quoted as saying "Sometimes you have to resist working on your strengths in favour of your weaknesses. The decathlon requires a wide range of skills." - but tellingly, Frank Dick said different when I listened to him.

He said that he knew Thompson would NEVER be a world class javelin (etc) performer, that his physique and skills could never be improved beyond average level.  So he didn't bother trying to get him to do well in those disciplines, as aside from anything else, Thompson simply didn't have the motivation to do it.  However, he knew (and so did Thompson) that Thompson was beyond world class as a sprinter and long jumper, and in fact could have won Olympic Gold in both those events had he entered them.  And Dick focused on making the gap between Thompson and his nearest rivals bigger in these events, to compensate for and overcome any perceived weaknesses in other events.

So I reflected on this in light of Griffiths' talk also.  The two are slightly conflicting - Daley Thompson appears at first glance to be a jack of all trades, master of none - but in fact he's not.  He's master of several, and adequate in others.  Working on his specialist skills was the key to his success.

And this is at the heart of the strengths-based coaching model which I'm very interested in and which I've discussed at length with Ian Pettigrew in this podcast.

But what does it mean for HR professionals, who are often sub divided into specialists and generalists?

In my HR career, I've been both.  I started out as a pure L&D specialist before picking up some OD work/skills and then moving sideways into generalist HR, and my last three roles have encompassed all possible aspects of HR (including L&D).

But does having a specialist skillset mean you cannot be a good generalist?

I don't think so.  Its definitely possible to be a good all-rounder, like Griffiths says.

But, can you be world-class as an all-rounder?  I'm not sure.  I think you can be world-class at several disciplines within a generalist role, and no more than adequate at others.

What I'm saying is that HR generalists are a bit like Daley Thompson.

Focusing on one or two specialist disciplines doesn't mean you're rubbish at the others though.  You HAVE to be at least adequate otherwise you wouldn't survive in the role.  But in terms of development and performance focus, I subscribe to the Frank Dick/Daley Thompson school of thinking:

- Focus on being world class, and constantly improving, on the things you're already good at and enjoy - make the gap between you and your peers as big as you can
- Don't ignore the things you don't enjoy, ensure you perform adequately at them, but accept that you might never be world class at some things and so don't waste time trying

And this links us nicely back to Griffiths' TEDx talk.  He advocates being a jack of all trades, master of none.

I disagree.  I think be master of some trades, and good enough at others.

And yet this can lead to some organisational problems.  I've seen people (including some good friends) managed out of organisations because even though they are very good at some aspects of their role, they are not sufficiently good enough at other aspects and its those aspects that the organisation REALLY wanted them to focus on.

But that says more about fit within the organisation.  It doesn't mean that those people aren't good at their job, it just means the organisation needed different things.  In essence, they were asking Daley Thompson to win Gold on purely his javelin skills, but weren't interested in the fact he could set world records at the long jump.

So, performance-wise, what really matters?  What are you ultimately judged on?

If you're a generalist HR professional and considered world-class at, say, employment law, but only adequate at talent management - does the world-class employment law knowledge outweigh the adequate talent management skills?  Which matters more?  Is the overall performance picture affected more by the higher end of the skillset or the lower end?  Will the professional get better by focusing on their higher end or lower end skills?

And, ultimately, if the organisation wants Daley Thompson to be really good at javelin and doesn't care how good he is at the long jump, do they consider themselves to have an awesome decathlete (based on the overall picture) on their hands and celebrate that, or do they consider themselves to have an average javelin thrower and take appropriate action?


Till next time...


PS in other news, my summer sports are starting to get going again now and the world seems a lot brighter - and busier - as a result.  I'll be spending a lot more time outdoors until early October...

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Man (Utd) Flu

I support Manchester United, and watched the game vs Chelsea this week. United had striker problems, and it was reported we were short because Rooney and Martial were injured, Ibrahimovic was suspended and Rashford was ill. 

But then Rashford made some kind of recovery during the day, made it from Manchester to London, and played (and played OK too). So was he ill in the first place or was it mind games from Jose Mourinho? Let's assume he WAS ill and let's explore the implications of this. 

So he's ill and notifies his employer that he can't come to work that day. One of two things has then happened. Either a) during the day he has recovered sufficiently to come into work later on or b) his employer has got back in touch, explained how desperate they are, and asked him to come in despite being ill. 

If the former happened, then this shows great flexibility on the part of both employer and employee. 

Or does it?

You'd have to question whether Rashford was, initially, really as ill as he reported if later on he could feel better enough to work. Did he overreact initially? Was this a case of the Man Flu? Or Man Utd Flu?

But also, just as illness can come on one suddenly, it can also lift suddenly, and both sides can be applauded for having the flexibility to review the original "off sick today" decision. This is something I think all employers should do. 

My own approach, based on a total of zero sick days across my entire working life, is that there shouldn't be an approach of all or nothing when a person is ill. If someone is not going to be able to do 100% of their duties, then it's preferable, in my view, if they do even 10% as that's better than 0%. 

Of course there are complications in that some illnesses are best kept out of the workplace for fear of spreading to healthy workers, but assuming the individual can work remotely or across a different timespan then this kind of flexibility should be encouraged. So if an individual like Rashford has been ill over the weekend and needs a few extra hours to sleep it off before coming into work, but is willing to work later on and do less than 100% of his normal duties, then I say that's a good thing and better than him taking the whole day off sick and doing 0%. 

Recently someone I know was quite ill and could potentially have worked from home but would have had to go into the office to collect something first, and didn't want to do that because of how it would have looked. That says there's something about a culture of presenteeism that still needs to be tackled. The same person also felt that they COULD work in between bouts of being ill and confined to the bathroom, but felt that this sporadic approach to working was not helpful to the organisation and chose to take the entire day off sick as a result. Again, this says something about individual and organisational approaches to work that only working 7-8 hours/day in one go is considered "work". 

Here's the thing. It's not the only way. 

And what if the latter scenario about Rashford is true, in that he was pressured by his employer to come in because they were desperate?

If the employer did ask Rashford to reconsider his "off sick" stance, which he obviously did, then this may be considered bullying and potentially something that could contribute to a deterioration in Rashford's health in that he was asked to come in and perform at a very high level despite feeling ill which could have made him much worse. 

But, possibly, it also says something about employee engagement and openness in the workplace in that the employer and employee could have adult-adult conversations about choices and flexibility, and the employee felt passionate enough and connected enough to his organisations goals that he could be persuaded to come in despite feeling ill. 

Perhaps we will never know the full story. 

I do think that organisations should be able to have grown up conversations with their staff without that being considered undue pressure or bullying, but also that both sides should build in enough flexibility and understanding in their relationship that occasional illnesses, and different ideas on what constitutes work under "normal" and "unusual" circumstances. 

Ultimately, Rashford reconsidered his decision, played, but United lost, so perhaps all this is for naught if the organisation doesn't achieve its specific goals from asking the employee to reconsider…

Something to think about. 

Oh and another thing. If you are ill, talk about it in grown up terms. You are not "an ickle bit poorly".  Small children get "an ickle bit poorly". Adults do not. Adults get ill. Sorry to rant but one manager I used to work with would regularly use this phrase to describe themselves and their team when unwell. 

Till next time…


Ps in other news, my PT course is going well. I passed the L2 Gym Instructing course and am halfway through the L3 Personal Trainer element now. It is really brilliant and I'm learning loads about nutrition, anatomy and physiology and how to structure a training programme. I've got great people who've volunteered to help me throughout and I'm able to apply my learning on both their and my own training. Watch this space for further developments.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Special One

This is the third in a series of blogs discussing the concept of motivation and what its sources might be. Its prompted by a conversation I had with Bee Heller, from The Pioneers. Bee asserts that there are seven different sources of motivation, and is writing about each of them on The Pioneers website. 

We decided I'd write a commentary piece about each one on my own blog, and look at what's happened in organisations I've worked in and with - whether the source of motivation Bee's blog discussed has been used to good effect or been neglected; what's worked well in terms of creating an environment that enhances that motivation; and what's not worked so well or undermined that motivation for people? 

Here's Bee's blog on the subject of standing out from the crowd, quite the opposite from her previous blog about fitting in.  In it, she points to research that says: 

1. People who don’t conform can be perceived as higher status and more competent. 
2. Going against the crowd gives people confidence  
3. Being able to express themselves authentically makes people more engaged and committed to their organisations.  

Bee then argues that people’s motivation to belong and fit in has a stronger influence on their behaviour than their desire to feel significant or special, because people worry about being different in case they’ll feel like the odd one out. For this reason, Bee says, managers need to put extra effort in to encouraging nonconformity, making it ok for people to be themselves and be different; they need to help people identify the unique ways they can contribute to the group; and they need to celebrate the diversity and variety of strengths within their team.

These are interesting points and I would agree with the points made by Bee's research, in that being made to feel special, and somehow unique or different, can be a strong motivator. I would, however, disagree with Bee's assertion that this motivating factor is secondary to the need to fit in or belong.  In fact in all the workplace examples I can think of, including the ones I'll talk about below, being recognised as special or unique has been an exceptionally strong motivator.

I'm including just two here but I do have others.

Firstly an example supporting Bee's research.  An Executive Director I once worked with really stood out as being quite different to anyone else in the organisation.  He was creative, inventive, innovative and other such words.  He thought constantly about the future, but as a consequence not about the present.  He was awesome at initiating new things and bringing new ideas into the organisation, a real blue sky thinker, but unfortunately not at seeing them through to fruition or (often) thinking about the practicalities of implementing his ideas.  He was the only such person in the organisation and yet, irrespective of his position of authority, he was perceived as having a higher status and being more competent than others in the organisation, including other people at the same level as him.  He also was very vocal about his ideas and enjoyed being isolated and having to argue his position - he gained confidence from this and always came across as supremely confident.  And because the organisation gave him time, space and freedom to develop his ideas and express them in very public ways, backing him, he became very committed to the organisation and its causes, a true organisational champion and defender.

He was also one of the most annoying people I've ever worked with, but also someone who despite all that was a good friend too.

So in this example, I'm supportive of Bee's research points.

But I do disagree that the desire to fit in outweighs the desire to be seen as special.  In this I distinguish special from different.

In my other example, an ex colleague has had a torrid time at work.  He's recently joined a new organisation, leaving somewhere where he had built up a great reputation for professionalism over many years and where he was respected for what he brought to the organisation.  He's a very senior finance manager and was the most senior finance professional in his last place, and in theory he is too in his new place, judging by job title and what he tells me is on his job description.

But he's not. Others higher up in the organisation he now works for have done his new job previously and hold similar qualifications, even if they're doing different stuff now.  And it means the professional recognition he got from being the "number one" isn't there any more, and this is made worse by his new peers going to the mentioned higher-ups for financial advice and guidance rather than him, as his job title would befit. He's lost the status that came with being the most senior finance professional.  He no longer feels special or unique, and these were things that motivated him massively.  It looks like he's being sidelined, treated as one of the crowd, and its visibly getting him down - he's lost a lot of confidence, professionally, because he's not respected for his professional opinion.

He also tells me he's also quite different from the new organisational culture. He is used to a command and control style of culture, where manager make decisions in isolation without consulting much and certainly with little communication.  As the senior finance lead he's used to purely managing finance, without interference from other managers, and without having to get involved in other stuff.  His new organisation is the opposite - it has a very open style of communication, expects a very consultative and engaging approach from its manager and as senior finance lead he's expected to get other disciplines involved in his projects and to work with others on their projects too.  His attempts to blaze his own path and do what he's used to have led to some light ridicule within the organisation, and a lot of peer pressure to fit in and do what everyone else does.  He's reacted badly to that, and wants out.  He's demotivated and depressed as a result.  

He also says that when he does try to express his own ideas, and to do things he instinctively knows are right and will work, he is regularly challenged and questioned and his motives doubted, as if he's working against the organisation and is treated very much as an outsider for being even in the slightest bit critical of his new organisation.  He has stopped doing these things now, not because he is motivated to fit in, but because the organisation has drained him of all confidence.  Knowing him well, I know he wants nothing more than to be respected for his professional knowledge, be able to operate as a leader in the way he wants to, and to be able to express his ideas and opinions openly.

He doesn't get that in his new organisation, and after just a few months he's looking to leave.

So in this example the desire to fit in is not outweighing the desire to be seen as special (or even as different). My ex colleagues motivators are purely about being seen as special and to be respected for that.  If he were motivated by the desire to fit in, he'd fit in, and he wouldn't be unhappy or looking to leave.

But Bee also points out that managers need to recognise when people ARE different or unique, and to lead teams in a way that encourages that diversity.

This I do agree with. In my previous organisation we recognised the uniqueness of the Executive Director, and encouraged him.  And that worked.  In my ex colleagues previous organisation, that also seemed to happen from what I know.  In his new organisation, conformity is the rule and those who are different are singled out for ridicule and other subtle attempts to undermine confidence.

And sadly I've got other examples where this happens too.

So my view is also that organisations need to recognise diversity, difference and respect those who bring new ideas or different ways of working to the organisation, no matter what they are.

In terms of my ex colleague, he'll leave soon anyway.  I wish him all the best in his quest to once again become "The Special One".

What do you think? Does the desire to fit in outweigh the desire to be recognised for being special and unique?

Till next time…


PS in other news, I've been at my own organisation now for a whole year - its been the quickest year of my life!