I’ve been working on a document for the last twenty years, consolidating my notes from presentations that I thought were especially good or bad into a set of advice on presenting well. This has become my own approach to making presentations, and it works well for me. I’m making the document available publicly here, in case it can help anyone with an idea or two to improve their own presentation skills.
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At my last few employers I used to blog regularly and encourage other executives to blog. I will be reproducing slightly modified versions of some of those blog posts here. This one, on the subject of when and how to expand skills and knowledge, was first published in early 2019.
Depth vs Breadth?
In this article I would like to share some thoughts about professional development, especially whether and when one should focus on increasing one’s depth of knowledge or breadth of knowledge.
Disclaimer: This is not anyone’s official policy. It’s a set of personal opinions that have guided me in my career, and that I’ve given as advice to people I’ve mentored from time to time. Consider it just that: advice from a mentor, for your consideration. Take it or leave it as you wish.
I’ve written that I think mentoring others is an important responsibility of senior managers; and, indeed, of everyone. In a mentoring role, I often end up discussing career paths and personal development plans with people – often technical people, but not always.
One common topic is the kind of training or continuing education to take, or the kind of on-the-job learning to seek in job assignments. Should I work to deepen (or update) my skills in a given specialty, or put effort into learning a new one?
First, you should certainly do one or both of those things. The worst choice would be to do neither – to just stagnate, neither getting better at what you do nor learning something new. Don’t do that.
We need skilled experts, and whatever your field of expertise, you need to remain up to date. And when you are at the beginning of a career, you probably need to get better at your field before you start worrying about learning something new.
Nevertheless, I still feel that people tend to under-value breadth. We need specialists. But we don’t need everyone to be one.
To an Olympic Silver athlete, getting to Gold probably seems like the most important thing in life. I, on the other hand, would hire anyone who made the Olympic team to coach me in that sport in a heartbeat. They’re already so much better than me that I don’t need to hire a medalist, little less the Gold – and probably can’t afford them. In fact they’re probably too good to coach me – they may be out of touch with how bad someone can be at something, or they may find it frustrating to lower themselves to my level.
Outside elite sports, if you’re among the best in the world at doing something, for many purposes that’s probably good enough. With your remaining learning time, moving higher among the best is probably not worthwhile.
On the other hand, one problem we face all the time is change: something will happen that means the thing we’re good at is suddenly less relevant, and something else is suddenly important. For example, I’m an expert in a number of computer programming languages that haven’t been used for decades. Becoming even more expert in those would be a waste of time and energy.
(This reminds me of a time I was recruiting at a university campus for software development jobs. I asked on applicant, “which programming languages are you familiar with?” and they responded, rather indignantly, “both of them!” I didn’t ask what they thought the two programming languages in the world were, and we didn’t go much farther.)
Suppose you’re an expert in some field, and you can routinely score 97% on a skills evaluation. Further suppose that you have a training budget and some time to take training. Should you use that training budget and time to study more in your field, to move from scoring 97% to 98%? Or should you use that training time to learn something entirely new?
I think generally the latter. Be 97% in something and 70% (and rising) in another thing – that’s much more valuable (to society, to your employer, and to you) than being 98% in one thing.
We need experts in many fields. But in a world where change is so rapid and continuous, we need people with a wide range of skills. We need, even more, people who can learn new things quickly, and quickly become quite good at them.
In my mind, this is the real value of formal education: not just what you learned, but that you developed the skill of learning. Whatever you learned might well become obsolete – in the technology field it will definitely become obsolete. But the ability to learn new things will always be valuable.
Being really good at only one thing is:
Not only a waste – missing all the other things you could be good at;
It can also be an actual problem. If you’re only good at one thing, you might resist change, because change is a threat. I watched people who were really good at ATM networking protocol resist the move to IP, which was a threat, not being their field of expertise. Their expertise became obsolete, rather quickly. Those who adapted are now successful in a new field. Those who resisted to the end are not.
What’s in a name?
Gartner Consulting, a few years ago, offered a label for this concept that I found interesting. They suggested not using the word “generalist”, because that has come to mean (according to them) a person who can do many different things, but is not an expert in any of them. Instead, they coined the term “Versatilist”, defining this as “someone who is a specialist in a particular discipline, but can change to another role and become an expert there with ease” – someone who is, or can be, an expert in many fields, and can adopt to change. I think I like that concept.
Quotes that inspired me
I had this philosophy about professional development – about breadth vs depth – for many years before I even realized that it was a philosophy at all.
Then various quotes from literature caught my attention. Here are two: one short one long.
From Miyamoto Musashi: one of the greatest Samurai – who were, in turn, among the greatest warriors in history:
A Samurai should cultivate a wide interest in the arts. Become acquainted with every art.
From Lazarus Long, a fictional hero in Time Enough for Love, by Robert Heinlein:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
Maybe that is a little harsh, but Heinlein was famously a very prickly character,
Career path for a typical specialty worker
What’s this mean in practice? This is what I think is a pretty good career path for a typical worker with a specialty skill:
Start by being good at your field. Become skilled enough to be more than qualified at entry-level, and then spend time increasing your depth.
Get better than “good enough”, get really good.
But then switch strategies.
Dedicate some effort to maintaining your current skill; and
Dedicate some effort to developing a new skill, quite different.
Not learning version 2 of a product where you’re already an expert in version 1.
Pick a new field, then develop depth again.
Repeat. Discover new capabilities and interests.
Most important: learn something, frequently. If it has been more than a couple of years since you took a challenging course or read a new manual or otherwise learned something new, you probably have a problem that should concern you.
This develops valuable breadth while retaining your expertise, and it hones your ability to handle world-shaking paradigm changes. Some of the things you know will be useful no matter what happens; and, more important, you are keeping alive your skills as a learner.
As an employer, I know I can hand you a new problem and you will figure it out. You’ll even enjoy it.
At my last few employers I used to blog regularly and encourage other executives to blog. I will be reproducing slightly modified versions of some of those blog posts here. This one, on the subject of Mentoring, was first published in 2014 and re-published in 2018.
Original post follows
I thought I’d share some thoughts on a topic that has been the subject of several conversations recently: Mentors.
Most people would benefit from having a mentor, and many people would benefit from being one.
What follows are my thoughts on what I think is an important part of management, not specifically on the department’s mentoring program.
… which makes me think it’s worth taking a moment to define what I mean by the term mentor, because I don’t mean just specific processes that may exist for formally having a mentor as part of a professional development program, although those programs are an important part of mentoring.
When I use the term “Mentor”, I mean any process of establishing a trusted confidant relationship with someone with whom you can discuss career and life issues and from whom you can receive feedback or advice. The mentor is usually assumed to be senior to you (in age, rank, or experience) but that’s not at all necessary – all that’s necessary is that they have some experience, skill, knowledge, or perspective that you lack, and that they’ re willing to discuss it. I do think, however, that it’s best that your mentor not be in the chain-of-command above you, otherwise the line between giving advice and giving direction gets blurred and confusing.
I sometimes encounter people with the concern that, “so-and-so would be a great mentor except for this one aspect of their personality that I dislike.”
This is one of the key things about making good use of a mentor: realizing that it is not about copying the person in question, and most certainly not about copying everything about them. Learn their perspective or habits on things, then take what you like and ignore what you don’t.
It reminds me of the theme of a classic set of old Jokes, which go along the lines of
“go meet so-and-so, find out what they would do, and then don’t do that.”
Those are good jokes but probably not useful advice because not doing something is not an action (or not a usefully specific one), and not doing a thing is no guarantee that you will avoid an outcome that happened to someone who did that thing. So, plan to use your mentor to help you work out what you’re going to do, not what you’re going to not do.
Since I’m emphasizing that the relationship doesn’t have to be formalized and bureaucratic, maybe I’m using the wrong word. Maybe I mean muse or role model or inspiration.
In fact, they don’t even have to know they’re your role model – you can observe and learn from someone without their knowledge. That, I think, would be outside any reasonable definition of “mentor”. Maybe the word “mentor” should at least be restricted to the cases where the coach is a knowing and willing participant in the relationship. Anyway, mentor will do.
Use Mentors Well
Of course, just having a mentor won’t actually do much for you. You need to use the mentor. Some thoughts on using your mentor well:
Build a Relationship: Ask the person in question if they’re willing to be your mentor. They’ll probably be flattered, they’ll probably say yes, and they’ll probably help set some expectations about how available they can be and what they may or may not be willing to discuss. As part of this conversation, be prepared to explain “why them?” What are you hoping they can do for you?
Expect confidentiality, and give it in return: It goes without saying that you’re expecting your conversations with your mentor to be confidential – but that means you need to do the same, and not share with others things they share with you unless that’s clearly OK.
Someone being your mentor doesn’t make your career development their problem. Don’t sit back and wait for them to call you with advice – you need to take the initiative to book meetings, bring up topics, and ask for help and advice. (As an exception, they may have agreed to watch for certain types of opportunities for you, but you initiated that and it needs to be clearly understood.)
Have regular meetings and give them advance warning, if possible, of what you’d like to discuss so they have time to prepare thoughts. But expect schedule pressure – frequent rescheduling, etc. Mentoring you is competing with operational pressures for the use of their time. A person with few demands on their time, who is readily available, and whose schedule never changes is probably not the one you want as a mentor.
Don’t necessarily expect advice. Sometimes just having an intelligent person listen attentively, and perhaps ask some clarifying questions, while you describe a situation you’re struggling with is all you need.
Be a Mentor
On the other side of the coin, I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to be a mentor when you can
Managers: it’s your job.
Non -managers who are experts at something: it’s your responsibility.
And everyone: it’s good for you Ask anyone who teaches or coaches, especially if they teach adults, and they’ll tell you they learn as much or more from the relationships as their students.
Senior and experienced people are probably already mentors and good at it. For people who are new to being a mentor, I offer some thoughts on this role:
Establish ground rules. What can your mentee (is that a word?) expect from you? Promise confidentiality but not concealment – if you learn something that you must deal with, you don’t want to have promised that you won’t.
What you’re initially offering is availability not advice. Your mentee may not need anything more than an audience or a sounding board.
Listen actively. Ask clarifying questions, and ask questions that may lead the mentee to think of their situation in different ways.
Offer advice if asked. If not asked, ask for permission first.
Make it personal. They came to you for a reason. What has happened to you that is relevant, what have you done, what might you do in this situation?
Don’t mess up the chain of command. Don’t let mentoring meetings become out-of-band channels for business decisions. You are offering advice and guidance for employee development, not influence peddling for business decisions. This is why I generally discourage mentors from being in the reporting line above their mentees – it’s too easy for advice to be taken as overriding an intermediate manager’s direction.
Things I’ve Learned from Mentors
I’ve had some good mentors who have made a big difference to my life, more to follow.