Be Narrow and Deep in your Specialized Skill Set

When I was a young man in track and field, many pounds and years ago, I was pretty darn good in many events. At the early round meets, I would win first place in the 100M, the 200M, the 400M, the long jump, the triple jump and both relays. Not bad for a small-town kid. The problem was, as we got closer to the big city meets, I would only place 3rd, 4th or 5th in those events. I was good enough to score points in all of the events, but not great enough to win in any of them. I fell short of my goal of being a champion.

I remember my coach telling me. “Ivan, you’re the jack of all trades, but the master of none.”

It was time for me to specialize and choose what I wanted to be great at. He encouraged me to let go of training for all of these events and focus on one. It was hard for me. I loved running the 100M. It was short and easy. I loved coming around the bend in the 200M. My favourite events were the jumping events—the feeling of flying in the air and making your mark in the sand. There was nothing better.

But I trusted my mentor, and steeled myself to take on the 400M--a mentally tough and rigorous race of an entire lap around the football field at full speed. Suddenly, my training changed. My day at the meet was transformed. Instead of chaos and constant arousal flitting from one check-in to another, I was often loose and resting.  Ultimately, my outcomes changed. I didn’t just start winning those races, I started smashing records and finishing first. I became known for the 400M. I felt like when I showed up to a meet, I had already won. I became a champion.

This simple principle can be stated in leadership as ‘Narrow and Deep.’

I took this approach of a narrow and deep focus to the way I build high performing teams and transform cultures.

Early in my career, I approached leadership as a generalist trying to be good at everything.  This mindset was rooted in the fact that I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I didn’t want to be exposed as under-prepared or under-qualified. And, if I am to be honest, It caused me to have a tendency to be controlling in a micro-managing sort of way. Because organizations are complex machines, this leads to a leader being broad and shallow—knowing a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing. I, instead, encourage you to approach leadership in a much more confident manner.

My leadership skills and my team’s performance took off when I narrowed my focus to concentrate on my strengths and trusted other experts to fill the gaps.

When we don’t have confidence in our ability, we have this tendency to make sure there are no gaps in our skills. We focus on our weaknesses or the areas we aren’t as strong in. All we end up doing with this approach is making our weaknesses closer to average. No one ever got recognized, promoted or praised for being average. I encourage you to think about approaching your leadership in a different manner. If you can accept and let go of the things that aren’t your strengths, and instead, focus on your areas of specialty, your strengths will become exceptional and you will become recognized for your unique skills set.

Dennis Rodman made a living of having one specific skill—rebounding that the champion Bulls depended on. There’s a reason David Beckham spurred the phrase, “Bend it like Beckham.” He became the best server of the ball. My particular specialty in leadership is building cohesive teams and recruiting talent. 

When I became a new VP, being in charge of a multi-million dollar budget was a daunting task. I remember trying to figure out that budget. Did the brackets mean you had money or you didn’t have money. What did all of these codes mean? FUNCODE? It was a foreign language to me.  I remember deciding, ‘I’m going to learn this. This is a skill set I need to master in order to be a great VP.’ I ended up spending hours pouring over budgets. In the end, I became, at best, a 4 or a 5 out of 10 at reading budgets. I realized I was spending all of this effort with very little significant return. I still had to go to the central budget office resource for assistance.

I was new to the job. I was embarrassed to tell people what I didn’t know. Come hell or high water, I wanted to show people that I could do it. 

I had to let go of the shame or embarrassment that was grounded in my own lack of confidence.  

I changed my approach. I brought in a retired CFO and delegated to him those responsibilities with clear directions. He attended certain meetings in my stead. He consolidated lengthy reports into digestible nuggets. I outlined his role as … ‘Keeping us in the positive, helping us make strategic decisions, and alerting me to potential problems as early as possible.’ By owning my strengths and trusting others to bolster me in other areas, this allowed me to focus my time and energy on the areas that are my strengths. As a result, the reputation of our department soared to the national level.

My goal as a leader is not to be average in many things. My goal is to be exceptional in one or two key areas that will put our department on the map.  If you find yourself feeling like you need to touch everything, you could be a generalist who will not rise to excellence. I challenge you to let go of this tendency and delegate—even important functions--to your qualified and capable team. 

Free yourself of the busyness that comes from being the person who is too plugged in. Get out of the weeds.

Allow yourself the space to get to the strategic thinking and reflection that helps you move towards your greatness.

 

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