It’s not about what it’s about
My old boss used to say that. A lot.
You would come out of a meeting and he would say that it was not about what it was about. And you would both despair and know exactly what he meant.
Everyone in the meeting would have been evading, skating over whatever stated topic we were there to cover, ducking and diving and not saying whatever they needed to say.
Things that were on their minds and, spoken of or not, they would loom large as we went about doing the work. Things that were true and knowing them would change how we understood the work.
Things that were not spoken of because of lack of the right language, or perhaps lack of courage, sound judgment, trust or awareness.
Things that often, of course, stood in the way of moving on with whatever the meeting was ostensibly about. And there we all were, unable to move on and unable to tell why other than it wasn’t about what it was about.
And what was it about?
Sometimes you would find out in due course and sometimes you wouldn’t, but the main thing you knew is it was not about the headline. It was not about the thing it was meant to be about.
Knowing that is always important as it helps you work out what to do next.
“And how do you know?” I asked said old boss once.
“How do you know when it’s genuinely about whatever it is we are saying it’s about and when it’s not?”
It was a genuine question.
I’ve been in some weird meetings in my time and they were about exactly the thing you thought they couldn’t possibly be about. So. As I said. It was a genuine question.
“You just know,” he said.
Thanks a bunch.
He was right.
You just do.
The problem with leadership training
I have been a banker for a long time, and that means I have been on every leadership course ever designed.
In two decades of dancing this merry dance, I have been on exactly two courses that were brilliant. They started with a reality check and gave you meaningful tools for doing useful things that are key for running big teams and big projects.
Mostly, however, they were time away from your office that you wouldn’t get back to use for work, rest or actual learning.
No. That’s right. I am not a fan.
Attending those things goes with the territory and try as you may, you can’t get an exemption.
It is, apparently, important for your development.
What I learned in those courses was the truth of the Mark Twain aphorism of ‘not letting your schooling interfere with your education’.
I learned that people who meant well but had never walked a mile in our shoes, had never done the thing they were ostensibly teaching, would happily serve us platitudes and generalities but rarely not much more.
I also learned that the training came with hope or conviction, delete as appropriate, that everything is teachable. That with the right book or formula, anyone can learn anything.
I like that.
I like that a lot.
And it is true. But a lot of other things need to also be true for this to hold water.
What I know to be true is quite different, and what I know to be true is this
The truth is not a floating orb. It is not absolute and it is not immutable.
How is that for a bit of Thursday philosophising?
The most important question I learned to ask as a manager is “What needs to be true for the thing you told me to come true?”
Start asking that.
You will be amazed how subjective you find reality to be if you ask the right questions. And learning to ask the right questions takes a bloody long time, what with things not being about what they are about most of the time, and leadership training never being about the art of asking the right questions. This is a skill you have to self-teach, by trial, error and observation.
I don’t know why we are not taught this at school, let alone workplace training.
The art of asking the right questions in the right moment and knowing when it’s not about what it’s about is how you deliver work, how you manage people, how you hire.
So given that layer of complexity, how do you hire? And what do you hire for? The thing that it’s about? Or the ability to know when it’s not about what it’s about?
This is where the thing I know to be true comes in.
Three things matter in life and the workplace. Of course, more than three matter, but if you have to keep it simple and help people navigate and pick who they will go on the journey with, you can do worse than three. And this is my three. If you’re picking friends, team members or partners for a journey, test for the following:
Do they know the stuff?
Whatever the stuff is.
It differs by job, geography, situation, moment in time and level. But there is always some stuff you need to know. Some basic competency you need to cover and test for. Especially if this is a professional situation.
Knowing the stuff is important.
But also, it’s not.
The stuff is teachable.
If the human is teachable – and let’s face it, that’s variable – the stuff is not the problem. It is fixable, it is important but it is fixable because all stuff is teachable. If you are.
How does the person you are looking at score for aptitude?
Do they know the stuff?
And are they teachable?
You’d be surprised how often the answer is yes they know the stuff, it seems, but no they don’t seem teachable in that they will resist the evidence of their own eyes perhaps, or the teachable moment that is a mishap. And isn’t that a problem?
Yes. Yes it’s a problem.
Because the next thing you test for is attitude.
That’s a hard thing to measure for in an interview and the easiest thing to measure for in a colleague. From teachability to helpfulness. From a cheery disposition to being the office Eeyore. From backstabbing and taking credit for others’ work (I see you Caroline and I have not forgotten) to creativity, generosity and kindness. The most important thing in what someone is actually like to work with or for is impossible to interview for. And impossible to change. Because they learn it on their mother’s knee.
What are you like as a person?
Do you have a sense of humour?
Are you considerate and mindful of others?
Are you kind?
Can I trust you?
Can I trust you to tell me the truth?
Can I trust you to keep my confidence where needed, when I choose to share with you what I know about what the thing is really about?
Can I trust you to be thoughtful to your colleagues, principled with your work, constructive with our clients?
Can I trust you to do the right thing?
Hell, can I trust you to know the right thing when you see it?
Yes I know I just made it harder.
If character wasn’t hard enough to filter for, here’s your third and hardest thing to test for.
I know a lot of people who are great at doing the thing you ask them to.
And I know a few people that are great at understanding the ‘so that’ and course correcting if needed.
We are doing x because we want to achieve y, you say, and they understand that they may need to adjust x in order to achieve the desired outcome. They will do the work but keep an eye on whether it’s taking us off course, on whether it’s become its own master, as is often the case inside organisations: a project designed to achieve something becomes a project that needs to be achieved in itself. A bit like most corporate sponsored leadership training.
But I digress.
There is a smaller group still.
A group that walk into a room prepared to do the work you asked them to and aware of what the reason behind the ask was. And come out of the room and say there’s a disturbance in the Force. That was not about what it was about. We need to think about this. Or they will say this entire piece of work isn’t adding anything. Or they will say do we really want to go down this route? It looks like a rabbit hole to me.
They are rare and precious these people.
Precious and rare.
Most of your work encounters will be with people that are not like this at all.
People who resemble those toy cars that you pull back and release and watch them speed across the table until they fall off the edge or across your floor until they hit an obstacle, and there they will remain, gently bumping against a discarded shoe or your mum’s skirting boards until they run out of charge in their spinning wheels.
These people know their stuff more often than not.
And they often have the right attitude. They are good colleagues. They are good humans. But knowing when to go around a thing, go over a thing, explode the thing to smithereens or change direction altogether isn’t about things you can learn or your general disposition in life. It’s about instincts. And the good news for leadership training providers the world over is that you can hone your instincts, you absolutely can. Experience is invaluable for that.
Affirmation and learning how to ask questions is invaluable for that.
But can you actually teach them?
I would hope so. Though by the time it comes to the leadership training it’s too late to start. All you can do by then is refine.
Start earlier with the training already.
And until then, when choosing colleagues, staffing teams, putting together expeditionary forces, check for skills. Check for teachability. Check for attitude and integrity and ask yourself:
Can I trust this person to know what to do?
Can I trust this person to do the right thing?
Can I trust this person to know the right thing?
Because, let’s face it, life in the office is a game of illusion and things are mostly not about what they are about, and knowing your team can do the right thing is important. Knowing they will choose to do the right thing is vital. But knowing that your team will know the right thing when they see it is essential in a world where a lot is not about what it’s about.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!