One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my relatively short career is that two people can do exactly the same task, and get equally amazing results – but for two completely different reasons.
We even see this at Motivii. While I build new analytics capabilities in Excel, our developers do the same thing, but build it into our platform.
The end-result is pretty similar. But I know we’re driven by two completely different things.
Our developers love building the platform by tackling granular computational riddles that work towards building a high-performing platform.
I’m the opposite. I am Diane Abbott-level bad at maths, but I love working with numbers because of what they tell me. For every improved engagement score, there’s a manager who has tried out some new ways of getting the best out of their team.
You could easily look at us both and think: Alan’s analytically-minded, let’s bring him closer to the development of the platform. That’s what our developers like, after all.
But that assumption would be totally wrong. I’m not interested in building: I’m more interested in how this changes our employees’ experience of the platform.
Which leads me to the first mistake that people make when they look at their team…
There’s a sci-fi book that I love called ‘The City and The City’.
In the story, two cities exist in exactly the same spot, but inhabitants of each city aren’t able to consciously recognise those from the other city, when they pass on the street. They just walk past one another without noticing, believing that there’s just one city, and they’re living in it.
It can be a bit like that when you expect your team to demonstrate a specific set of personality traits. Everything you see is interpreted through that lens, while all other differences become noise. You see what you expect to see because it takes less effort.
Try it. Look at your team from across your desk, and you’ll probably see a ‘type’.
Quietly intense developers, agreeable customer-success people. And let’s face it, there’s usually some truth behind these stereotypes, which serve as shortcuts to help us understand people without getting to know them.
But if you’re leading a team, you need to get to know them as individuals.
And just like there were two cities in the one spot, there are also two people there. The person you think you see… and the person who is actually there.
The person you see is the person they present: the capable operator, the dependable employee, the target-hitter. Meanwhile, the person that’s less obviously there is focused on their personal development and making their dreams happen.
As a manager, it’s your job to find this second person, and help them out. Whether they’d like to own a vineyard at age 60 or join the board of the company they’re working at, understanding that will help you know them better, guide them towards what they want to do, and prolong their time spent at your company.
My grandad worked at the Cooperative Bank. He worked in a branch, and later he was promoted to branch manager, then he was promoted to inspector which meant travelling all over the UK.
After a few months in the role, he realised that travelling between London and his home in Carlisle every weekend wasn’t for him.
So in 1962, he asked for his old job back, and he was given it. (A very Cooperative Bank.)
In that year he learned that there were limits to progression, and just because he was moving up, that didn’t mean that he was fulfilled. Instead, he was fed up. In fact, since retirement he vowed never to go on a train again.
Although my grandad’s progression within the bank – in the context of the 1960s – seemed like the obvious next step, it didn’t work out. What looked good on paper wasn’t great in practice.
It’s helpful to recognise that vertical progression isn’t the only way to move forward your direct reports’ careers forward. So instead of thinking of upward promotions as a master key to the next step in their careers, think about how you can give them more choice.
Career development has more in common with Pacman than a ladder. It’s good to move side-to-side, and like with my grandad, it’s sometimes good to move down.
If you’re really good at something, chances are you’ll enjoy doing it.
The company you’re working for will enjoy that you’re enjoying it too, because you’ll be off and away, getting results with little guidance or training.
Once you’re really good at something, your company will enjoy it more, but you might start to enjoy it less. You might want a new challenge. You only need to look at serial business owners (Martha Lane Fox), athletes (Bo Jackson), and actors (Jim Carrey) to know that’s true.
I’ve drawn an extremely scientific graph to show what this looks like:
But rather than putting all his efforts into learning the latest things you can do with the code, he’s focused on developing his people skills. Although his most obvious talent is writing code, he knows that working on his people skills will put him in a better place to one-day become a CTO or founder of his own company.
Even without a budget for development, having a good cushion of time to give people to work on what they want makes a huge difference.
As a manager, creating amazing and fulfilled workers should be your priority. Make work amazing and the results that come with it will fall into place naturally.
The obvious answer to this question is that you worked hard, you put your heart into what you do and you dedicated to continuously improving yourself.
You might have worked your way up the ladder, or battled it out as the founder of your own company. Either way, don’t expect everyone on your team to follow the same path. Whether they’re older, younger, more of x, less of y, a bit like you, nothing like you at all – it shouldn’t matter.
As long as they’re capable, engaged, and have a genuine will to improve – you should do everything you can to help them along.
The more overlooked – and better – answer to the question ‘how did you get to where you are today?’ would be the name of the manager that put themselves on the line to help you grow, the recruiter that helped you win a big role, or the distant family member you hassled for an internship.
You can be that enabler too. You just need to challenge your existing ideas about how people develop and help your team chart their own course.