Managing core tasks is important but expected. Greatness lies in facing true challenge.
We spend ample time in strategic discussions talking about challenges and how to overcome them. Challenges exist within the market, organization, product development, sales, and myriad other business strategy topics. The conversation then turns to incentives, and it all gets muddled.
Things get murky because we often confuse the incentive to overcome a challenge with the incentive to “look like you’re doing something.” And that’s where this conversation gets very personal.
I know people who have worked their entire lives on straight salary (or even hourly wages) who will risk their jobs in the name of doing the right thing or simply taking on a new challenge. That is hard.
I’ve also known individuals who have had tremendous financial incentives—amounting to multiples of their salaries—whose go-to moves were delaying and deferring decisions for the sake of prolonging their reign. That is easy. The difficulty lies in knowing both which person you are (a) led by and (b) modeling yourself after.
Most who know me know that I detest using chess as a metaphor for strategy. The game is too constrained. All the moves are mapped out. The board is obvious. Chess is tactics, not strategy, as I’ve previously written. However, the world of chess holds many valuable tools and ideas for strategy. One of those is the Elo rating system.
The Elo rating system was devised years ago to help predict player strength without requiring every player to play a series of matches against one another. The key to the Elo rating system is how strength points are traded. When a strongly rated player beats a weak player, the strong player gains minimal points, and the weak player loses minimal points. But when a weak player beats a strong player, the strong player loses many points while the weak player gains many. Accomplishment in the face of difficulty is highly rewarded, whereas flubbing the easy stuff is mightily punished.
This is your career in a nutshell. People are (or eventually will be) looking at the challenges you face and your relative performance on them. If you’re great at accomplishing things that should be easy for you, that’s fine and good. Now stop patting yourself on the back and find your next true challenge.
Few things are less compelling than a person who talks about their great work on low-difficulty endeavors. If you want to be great, do hard things well. This is true for yourself as an individual, and it is true for your business.
If you lead a business in a sector where table stakes include on-time product delivery, you deserve minimal credit for achieving on-time delivery—it’s merely expected of you and your business. Don’t bother to tout your “great” performance. Go find a way to deliver on time and redesign the product for future customer needs. You are fighting last year’s war. Move on to the next one.
If you’re a five-year professional who does a magnificent job of keeping a filing system in order, you (again) deserve little credit for getting it right. That’s expected of an experienced person. Find a more compelling challenge to solve.
As I noted in my example of executives seeking to extend their reigns, the chess world has struggled with the trend of highly rated players avoiding competitive play in order to protect their ratings. According to the previously linked Wikipedia entry, “…the rating system can discourage game activity for players who wish to protect their rating…”.
Knowing this, you want your reputation and rating to be fresh, so you have to think about your “masterful” self or organizational performance as having a rating that is in constant deflation since the last time you set the bar. And you have to evaluate your people in the same way. “Emeritus” is a title that should be awarded with grudging irregularity in today’s business world.
But here’s the real key to all of this: Be sure you don’t flub the easy stuff while you’re seeking that next big challenge. You must do both. Losing on product-delivery performance while you’re transforming your company is a classic “executive” example. Failing at basic time management while trying to do a bigger job is a classic “individual” example. They’re the kinds of things that get people fired.
Keep in mind, the more experienced you are—the higher your Elo rating—the less points you gain for doing things that inexperienced people do, too.
You want good things? Do hard things.
What do you think?