Thursday, 27 March 2014

Inside Lane or Outside Lane Thinking?

The Harvard Business Review Blog published some fascinating research this month, concerning senior executives and the notion of what it takes to get to the very top of your game. They found that “whereas technical expertise was previously paramount, these competencies [being sought today] are more about leadership skills than technical ones”.

This reminded me of a metaphor that I use a lot with professionals who are considering where next and what next for their career. It’s simply this: imagine that your career is like the lane of a motorway (or highway if you’re so inclined). What’s it like on the inside lane? Slower, more ponderous, occasionally frustrating as you’re diverted on to the hard shoulder and easy to get stuck behind a caravan doing 30 miles per hour. At times, you feel murderous and will almost certainly lose the will to live. What happens for those vehicles in the outside lane? They’re going further and faster. They tend to steer clear of obstacles, breeze on through and, with care, arrive at their destination on time.

Look – it’s a metaphor, so for all those of you now thinking about tail-gating, dangerous driving and crashing the car etc. Just stop. Work with me.

The point is this: professionals used to rely on technical competence to get where they wanted to go. Whether you were a finance person, a marketeer, a sales guy, an operations specialist. Whatever you were, as long as you were really, really good at your specialism, then you would succeed and get to the top of the tree – right? Wrong. And never more so than today. Focusing solely on your functional excellence is like being in the inside lane – you may get there, but it will be slower, longer, harder - and you might end up on the hard shoulder, having run out of gas.
Outside lane thinking encourages leaders to view their technical competence as a given. Performance is assumed (because if it’s not true, then you’re not in the game anyway). So what do you focus on? It’s about being able to attract, ignite and retain the very best talent in a constant of change and commercial challenge to deliver credible, sustainable results. And that’s not easy. It takes what I call ‘exquisite influence’ and that’s leadership. One of many tools that I use with my clients to encourage more ‘outside lane' thinking is PIE (Performance, Image - by that I mean your ‘Personal Brand’ and Exposure - who knows you.) PIE is a deliberately simple, but powerful tool to identify where, what, who and how to strategise to build your skills and connections so that you stand out, engage, connect and delight those around you. To be seen, heard and experienced as someone who is good technically, won’t cut it. You need to be seen, heard and experienced as a leader – which means a very different set of leadership capabilities. The Harvard Business Review Blog has great data to support a very simple premise. Successful leaders adopt ‘outside lane thinking’, and if you want to get on, get ahead and get to the very top, then so should you.

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