Oct 2 2008

Just Ask a 5-Year Old

Just Ask a 5-Year Old

I heard this short but potent story recently. I can’t for the life of me remember who told it to me, so please forgive me if I’m not attributing this properly to you!

A man walks into a kindergarten classroom and stands in front of the class. “How many of you know how to dance?” he asks the kids. They all raise their hands up high into the air.

“How many of you know how to sing?” he queries. Hands shoot up again with a lot of background chatter.

“And how many of you know how to paint?” 100% hands up for a third time.

The same man now walks into a room full of adults at a conference. “How many of you know how to dance?” he asks. A few hands go up reluctantly, all of them female.

“How many of you know how to sing?” Again, a few stray hands go up from different corners of the crowd. Five percent at best.

“And how many of you know how to paint?” This time, literally not one hand goes up in the air.

So there you go. What makes us get de-skilled or dumber as we get older? Nothing at all! It’s just our expectations of ourselves that grow. The bar goes up for what it takes to count yourself as knowing how to do something with every passing year. Why is that? When we were 5 years old, all of us were about the same in terms of our capabilities. Singing, painting, dancing, tying shoes. But as we age, we find ourselves with peers who are world class specialists in different areas, and all of a sudden, our perception of self changes. Sing? Me? Are you kidding? Who do I look like, Sting?

I see this same phenomenon in business all of the time. The better people get at one thing, the worse they think they are at other things. It’s the rare person who wants to excel at multiple disciplines, and more important, isn’t afraid to try them. But we’ve seen lots of success over the years at this at Return Path. The account manager who becomes a product manager. The tech support guy who becomes a software developer. The sales rep who becomes an account manager.

I love these stories! My anecdotal evidence suggests that people who do take this kind of plunge end up just as successful in their new discipline, if not more so, because they have a wider range of skills, knowledge, and perspectives on their job. Or it could just be that the kind of people who WANT to do multiple types of jobs are inherently stronger employees. Not sure which is the cause and which is the effect.

It’s even more rare that managers allow their people the freedom to try to be great at new things. It’s all too easy for managers to pigeonhole people into the thing they know how to do, the thing they’re doing now, the thing they first did when they started at the company. “Person X doesn’t have the skills to do that job,” we hear from time to time.

I don’t buy that. Sure, people need to be developed. They need to interview well to transition into a completely new role. But having the belief that the talent you have in one area of the company can be transferable to other areas, as long as it comes with the right desire and attitude, is a key success factor in running a business in today’s world. The opposite is an environment where you’re unable to change or challenge the organization, where you lose great people who want to do new things or feel like they are being held back, and where you feel compelled to hire in from the outside to “shore up weaknesses.” That works sometimes, but it’s basically saying you’d rather take an unknown person and try him or her out at a role than a known strong performer from another part of the organization.

And who really wants to send that message?