By Dominic Irvine, founding partner of boutique leadership and development consultancy Epiphanies LLP
I remember it well, it was one of those casual throwaway comments “When I rowed the Atlantic….” The very enjoyable conversation with this self-deprecating chap suddenly became a whole lot more interesting. As we probed away, revelation upon revelation of a remarkable past emerged that left us speechless and dumbfounded. When I’d asked him what he did, he responded, “I’m a pilot”. Thankfully an innocent question opened up a whole lot more.
What do you do?
“What do you do?” is that innocuous question the answer to which allows us to classify the person in relation to what we do. It helps us know where we stand. In just the same way, a job title on a business card determines the amount of effort someone may choose to invest in establishing a relationship with us. A sense of what someone does helps us shortcut the social process. You might be tempted to think this is a bad thing but to the contrary, it’s very helpful. Think about the zany job titles like ‘Cherry Picker’ or ‘Chief Bottler’ used by two of the founders of Innocent. Fun though they are, you still have to ask the second question “...which means what?” as it turns out, they founded and run the business.
I am what you want me to be
Even if we don’t have a job title, those with whom we work will soon give us one. For years I had no job title on my card. I remember turning up to meetings in two different companies on the same day. In one I was introduced as the consultant “here to help us” and in the other, “you’ll be pleased to know we’ve not employed a consultant, instead we have someone who’s worked with lots of teams and really understands team performance.” The reality was I was doing the same type of work in both companies. Once you are seen in one role, it’s very difficult to be seen as capable of anything else.
The difficulty with job titles, or indeed any sort of label, is it is a fixed point of understanding in time. It provides little or no historical insight nor gives a sense of potential. We seem to forget that the MD wasn’t always an MD or the graduate entrant may one day be the next MD.
The myth of the Epiphany
I noticed the same phenomena in popular accounts of when the great and good had their eureka moments. History has latched onto a specific moment in time. Whether it was the apple falling on Newton’s head, or when Alexander Fleming saw the bacteria on a discarded dish being eaten by mould that led to the discovery of Penicillin. Sir Harold Evans, writing in HBR, called this focus on a specific moment in time as the point of discovery ‘The Eureka Myth’. It ignores all the hard work that went on before and the work that followed. It’s just one epiphany in many that led to the major discovery. It is an almost arbitrary moment in time. In just the same way a job title tells us nothing of what went before or what could follow.
The danger of roles
Whilst it’s often helpful to assign roles and attribute historical significance to specific moments in time, it can also be dangerous. As part of a piece of work I agreed to spend time with one of the company drivers. A stereotypical description of said individual followed. This mostly involved reading a red top newspaper and listening to the local popular music radio station. In fact the driver spent the first part of the morning listening to classical music on BBC Radio 3 before migrating onto spoken word programmes on BBC radio 4. It turns out that 10 years previously he had been running a small business that had failed. This job had met a short term need and he had ended up staying on far longer than he anticipated. Whilst capable of doing more in the business, the company had labelled him as a driver and there was no mechanism for drivers to gain promotion in the business.
Similarly, I have facilitated innovation sessions where people attended in the hope of a Eureka moment for a product that will dominate the market, despite the fact that almost all their existing products had emerged from a long period of research, trial and error and in many cases failure, before arriving at the product on the shelves today. In just the same way, the seeds of success for a person completing (or not finishing) a marathon are sewn over many months before that moment they cross the finishing line.
When you look beyond the here and now into the history it’s often a remarkable journey. Whether it was Nokia starting out life manufacturing wood pulp or Nintendo starting out in playing cards, the journeys both companies have made are fascinating insights into how businesses develop and change focus over time. Both companies have interesting futures ahead of them and both have experienced and survived tough times in the past. It’s the same for people. It’s well known Ronald Reagan was an actor before he became a politician. The musician Elvis Costello was at one time a computer operator.
One of the greatest joys in working with teams of people is tapping into their previous experiences and careers for the benefit of the team and helping people see the potential and possibility in each other. It starts by the very simple exercise of getting people to share what they have done in previous lives. And so, some things for you to think about:
• How well do you know your people?
• What hidden talents lie dormant?
How could these capabilities help you create a better future for your business?