01 November 2007
How good are you at your job?
by John Whitley
I ran a seminar a while ago in which I asked the delegates to draw a straight line on a sheet of paper. With the left of the line representing zero and the right, ten, I asked them to mark how good they were at their jobs.
Everyone made a mark somewhere around 'seven'. The exercise served not to show that everyone had similar levels of ability – this was clearly not true – but that when confronted with having to present a picture of ourselves, we tend to head rapidly for neutral territory.
Being bold and putting nine or ten would seem arrogant. A low score would be too modest or too revealing, so everyone hedged their bets – which is exactly what 99% of us would do.
However, in real life our competency, or lack of it, is on public display every day. We don’t have an option as to where we draw the line and we often can’t choose which jobs we will or will not tackle.
Some we will be comfortable with, some will be stretching but manageable and sometimes we will be out of our depth and swimming against a rip-tide.
Somehow, though, we must retain our dignity and pride and keep the façade of complete competence intact.
Or must we?
Accepting that we are fallible, that we need help with certain tasks and that our colleagues are more likely to respect us for recognising when we need help rather than trying to cover up our ignorance, is an important starting point on the road to personal improvement. Creating personal goals and then striving to achieve them is the next critical step. We have to want to get better, and we need to be clear about what it is and why it is that we want to improve.
Few of us are lucky enough to have a clear vision of what we want to achieve with our lives.
When asked, most will provide a list of short or medium term goals. 'I want a better job' or 'I want a new car' or 'I would like my children to pass their exams' are typical.
None of these expresses any intrinsic sense of purpose. In the corporate environment we are sometimes provided with the vision. It can be broad but challenging, such as IBM's latter day 'think', or measurable and direct like the original Ford 'transport for the masses'. Then it is up to the skill of the leaders as to the degree to which this is adopted.
However, each individual will need to establish what it means for them, and whether they really care. When the vision is clear it begins to create a purpose for our endeavours, and a ladder along which we can climb.
In publishing we are blessed with a (mostly) worthy product. Many people entering publishing do so because of their love of books and a genuine desire to be involved in their production.
The challenge then is to sustain and develop that vision, though sometimes alas, it is a challenge to keep it alive in the face of cynicism and extreme pressure.
This is all very well, but why is it so important to have a vision?
View the vision as the destination, and the reality of today as the starting point, and we can begin to create a map. It is not a very good map yet, because the way from the start to the end is still unclear, but we know at least where we are heading. Without vision there is a real danger that we end up drifting, not really caring about where we end up or how we make progress. In this environment we are unlikely ever to produce anything like our best work.
The gap between start and destination creates a form of tension, a desire to cross the gap and fill in the lines on the map. It is this creative energy that we can harness in our drive for personal mastery.
The problem with tension, though, is that it pulls in both directions!
If I set myself the vision in life that I wanted to beat the world freestyle record for 100 metres, I would soon find myself becoming disillusioned! I could decide to slide my target a little, say to sixty seconds. That still sounds good, at least to me. But what if that proves too tough as well? Quite soon I could find that instead of filling in the lines on the map I have simply moved my destination.
Translating this into a business environment, imagine 'customer delight' was our pronounced corporate vision. Let's also say that this vision was being stretched, because we had underwritten so much business that our systems were creaking.
One way to ease our guilt at increasing complaint levels would be to redraw the targets. We start to hit our revised targets, but at what cost? Ultimately, moving the goalposts will not help us to achieve our maximum potential. It is not what the vision is that is important, but what it does.
What kinds of thing get in the way of our filling in the lines on the map and completing the journey? Most of us have an element of self-doubt about our ability to achieve. Sometimes this can be linked with a sense of unworthiness, that we are not really deserving of success. These feelings may hold us back or prevent us from trying to achieve our goals. Robert Fritz calls this 'structural conflict', our creative tension being held in check by our fears and self-doubts.
We create strategies for coping with this situation, most of which are inherently unsuccessful, until we come to rationalise and accept them. Being truthful about ourselves is an important skill in dealing with structural conflict. There is much more that can and should be said about the importance of personal mastery. For much of my guidance on the subject I need to thank Peter Senge, whose work has often guided me and thousands of others striving to do their jobs better.
My key point here is this – without a desire to learn and improve, throughout our working lives, we lose the spark that excites and inspires us. Life can seem very monotonous and boring, and the older we get, the more important it becomes to refocus and sharpen our vision, be it in our personal or corporate lives. Complacency becomes our enemy here, and we should guard against it at all costs.