Don’t mistake doing a “good job” with doing “great things.”
We spend a lot of time in strategic discussions talking about challenges and how to overcome them. Challenges exist in the market, in the organization, in product development, in sales, and in any number of other business strategy topics.
Then, the conversation turns to incentives, and it all gets muddled. It gets muddled because we often confuse the incentive to “overcome a challenge” with the incentive to “look like you are doing something.” And, that’s where this conversation gets very personal.
I know individuals who have worked their entire life 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 know individuals who have had tremendous financial incentives–amounting to multiples of their salaries–whose go-to move was to delay and defer decisions in the name of prolonging their reign.
That is easy.
The difficulty is knowing which person you are (a) led by and (b) modeling yourself after.
Those who know me know that I am not a fan of using “chess” as a metaphor for strategy. The game is too constrained. All the moves are mapped out and the board is obvious. Chess is tactics. I’ve written about that. Here’s the link. However, the world of chess has many very useful tools and ideas for strategy. One of those is the “Elo” rating system.
The Elo rating system was devised years ago to help provide a predictor of “strength” of players without having to have every player play a series of matches with every other player. I won’t go into detail on it, but here’s a link. 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 defeats a strong player, the strong player loses many points and the weak player gains many points. Accomplishment in the face of difficulty is rewarded highly, and flubbing the easy stuff is punished mightily, as it were.
This is your career in a nutshell. People are (or will be at some point) looking at the challenges you take on, and your relative performance on them. If you are great at accomplishing things that should be easy for you, then that’s magnificent. Now, stop patting yourself on the back and find the next challenge. There are few things less compelling than a person who talks about the great work they have done on low difficulty challenges.
But, if you want to be great, do hard things well. This is true of yourself as an individual, and it is true of your business.
If you lead a business in a sector whose table stakes include on-time product delivery, then you deserve minimal credit for getting on-time delivery right. That’s expected of you and your business. Don’t bother to make a big deal out of 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. Fight the next one now.
If you are a 5-year professional who does a magnificent job of keeping a filing system in order, you (again) deserve minimal credit for getting it right. That’s expected of an experienced person. Go find a more compelling challenge to solve.
And, one more thing…as I noted in my example of the executive seeking to extend his reign above, the chess world has struggled with the tendency of highly rated people avoiding competitive play in order to protect their ratings as well. If you read the wiki I linked above, you will see a quote on it.
“…the rating system can discourage game activity for players who wish to protect their rating…”
Knowing this is a fact, you want your reputation and rating to be fresh. So, you have to think about your “masterful” self or organization 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 handed out with grudging irregularity in today’s business world.
Oh, but here’s the real secret to all of this: Be sure you don’t flub the easy stuff while you are looking for that next big challenge. You have to do both. Losing on product delivery performance while you are “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.
Those are the kind of things that get people fired.
Keep in mind, the more experienced you are–the higher your Elo rating–the less you gain points for doing things that inexperienced people do too.
You want good things? Do hard things.