Sunday, November 8, 2009

Coaching Lessons: Your Superskills

A few days ago I proposed that we adopt Peter Drucker's notion of self-management as a concept for life coaching. Link here. Clearly, the post cries out for follow-up.

Today I want to offer a few notes on the topic of what I will call superskills, basing my analysis on Drucker's paper, "Managing Oneself." Link here.

It is both good and bad that Drucker is such a clear thinker. The good part is that he is easy to read. The bad part is that you might start wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, we have beenled to believe that the most important quality of a great thinker is that we lesser mortals cannot understand a word he is saying.

Drucker opens his essay with this statement: "History's great achievers-- a Napoleon, a da Vinci, a Mozart-- have always managed themselves. That, in large measure, is what makes them great achievers."

After noting that these people are exceptions, Drucker applies the same principle to the rest of us: "Now, most of us, even those of us with modest endowments, will have to learn how to manage ourselves. We will have to learn to develop ourselves. We will have to place ourselves where we can make the greatest contribution."

Where psychotherapy defines its goal as health, well-being, well-roundedness, and pleasure, Drucker emphasizes achievement. He wants us all to strive for greatness, not to settle for well-roundedness.

Of course, he knows that work is not the be-all and end-all of human existence. Yet, he does not construct a theory out of interpersonal or familial relationships. And he is not even making human existence a variation on the theme of true love. He begins with work. And ethic duties.

Super-achievers are born with great talents. For having received this endowment they have an ethical duty to develop their talents, to use them to contribute to the common good. Of course, their parents and teachers have a concomitant duty to facilitate this development.

Clearly, Drucker's emphasis on work and achievement escapes the soft narcissism of personal self-fulfillment. It also goes beyond the silly notion that we all have the same one talent, creativity, and that we must all develop that talent by expressing our feelings openly and chaotically, regardless of the consequences.

Psychotherapy tells us to follow our heart's desire, our one true passion, our ultimate bliss. And this presumes that we should do so regardless of whether we are any good at it.

In fact, therapy never really asks the question of whether you are any good at the activity that you have convinced yourself is your true passion.

Because of therapy, generations of creative self-actualizers have retired to the woods to throw pots or have persuaded themselves that their lives are empty because they are not writing lyric poetry.

These cultural attitudes are best dispensed with. When Drucker begins with a discussion of what we are good at, he is saying that he wants to teach us to manage something we have, not to create something we don't have.

Knowing what you are good it is not obvious. As Drucker explains: "Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. More often, people know what they are not good at-- and even then more people are wrong than right. And yet, a person can only perform from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone something one cannot do at all."

Fair enough. If you have no technical skills you probably should not want to be come an IT professional. If you have strong people skills you should direct yourself toward sales or HR.

But how do you discover what your superskills are? Drucker's answer is: feedback analysis. Which is not the same as introspection or rummaging through your psyche's basement or attic.

Feedback analysis means testing your skills by using an objective standard. You might have a burning desire to become an options trader, but that does not mean that you have the skill set required to succeed at it.

You can find out whether you do by examining the overall success or failure of your trades. If you are working hard at your trading and are losing money, then you don't have the required technical or psychological skills.

On the other hand, and more commonly, if you are working hard and succeeding at trading, but feel that your heart is not really in it, then perhaps you should start doubting your heart, not your track record.

Superskills involve aptitude. Your first task is to recognize what yours is. Famed investor Jim Rogers never fails to alert his audience to the fact that he has very poor trading skills. His talent lies in long-term investing.

If you want to find out whether you have the skills for an activity, try it out and draw your conclusions from the results you generate. That means that you should not base your decision on the encouragement of friends and family. They are rarely going to offer you an objective appraisal of your skills. Especially if they want to maintain good relations with you.

Once you have identified your strengths and weaknesses, Drucker recommends that you work harder at developing your strengths: "It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it does to improve from first-rate performance to excellence." And he might have added that it is far more satisfying.

Drucker also warns against a special form of arrogance that seems to arise when people have great superskills. This occurs when they start taking pride in their incompetence. If an engineer has inferior people skills, he should not make it a point of pride. If a human resources professional knows nothing about computers he should not be proud of the fact.

This does not involve identifying your superskills. It emphasizes the humility that should accompany your skills, humility that is often compromised by its inverse: taking pride in your incompetence.

Of course, superskills do not always lead to great success. Success can evade you because of bad habits or bad manners.

As Drucker explains, it is one thing to have a good idea or to make a great proposal. Implementation is something else. It is important to know whether an idea has failed because it is a bad idea, because the executive is in over his head, or because he does not know how to implement it.

A person who has great talent can also fail because he has bad manners. Especially when the success of his projects requires the cooperation of others.

As Drucker explains: "If analysis shows that someone's brilliant work fails again and again as soon as cooperation with others is required, it probably indicates a lack of courtesy-- that is, a lack of manners."

If you have superskills when it comes to music or basketball or real estate development, you should do everything in your power to develop them. And if you have no aptitude for chess or golf or medicine you should not be wasting your time on them.

The same does not seem to apply when it comes to habits and manners. You should work to develop these skills even if yours are, for the moment, weak.

The difference lies in the fact that choosing a career is voluntary. Good manners and good habits, the ethical components of your character, are not free choices. You might be able to live very well without being an exceptional golfer; you will have problems if you are rude and discourteous.

Without good character your superskills can easily become a curse rather than a blessing.

No comments: