Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Monthly Archives: February 2014

You Are Not Special – It’s about what you do, not who you are

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As a younger person, my friends and I thought we were special, as most young people do. I remember, during our most narcissistic, “aren’t we the best in the world” post-college years, a friend of mine would answer his telephone, “Center of the universe!”. We believed it, too – we were special, the only ones like us in the world. The coolest, smartest, most interesting people known to man. It makes me sick to think about it now.

I don’t remember the exact moment of my comeuppance. But before long I realized there were lots of people like us. And anything that I had felt was unique and special about me was, well, not so unique or special. As a matter of fact, as David McCullouch Jr. said in his famous commencement speech, even if you are “one-in-a-million”, there are nearly 7,000 people exactly like you, worldwide. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. It just is. And at the end of the day, it’s really only about what you do, not who you are. It’s about behavior and action.

I say this now because there seem to be so many people who either haven’t learned this lesson, or have somehow re-built the feeling of specialness into their behaviors. They act as if their title, their background, their expertise, or their connections has made them entitled. Has given them the power to act a certain way. To expect preferential treatment. To treat people poorly. To phone in their work. To posture and pontificate. To control or micromanage. In a word, to act special.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s better to realize you aren’t special. Practice the below behaviors and you’ll earn your “specialness” the right way.

Firstly, recognize that luck is as much a cause of success as anything. People who feel special often falsely believe their achievements are solely due to their own excellence. But any fool knows that luck, context, and situation play at least as much of a role.

Be appreciative for what you have. For the above reason alone, you should be thankful for what you have achieved and what you have in life. As Oprah Winfrey said, “if you’re thankful for what you have, you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” However, that doesn’t mean you should ever be satisfied with it, or not continue to strive for more or better.

Forget about titles and hierarchy when dealing with people. Sure, we all wish to move up the corporate hierarchy, and we end up being peoples’ bosses. But that doesn’t make us special. And it doesn’t allow anyone to treat those direct reports as if they’re lesser.

You are not owed anything. Despite your background, your years at such-and-such company, your having worked for the CEO in the past, or your time plying this category or industry, you’re no better than the many others with different, interesting histories. You’ll have to earn what you think you deserve by your efforts, too.

No matter what you’ve done before, you still have to earn it every day. Getting to where you are does, of course, depend on what you’ve done in the past (and a lot of luck). But having done good work before only earns you the right to do good work again today. Nothing more.

Be humble. People who believe they are special also act that way. And they tend to be smug and arrogant. There is nothing worse than smugness. Literally. It’s the worst thing ever. Don’t be smug.

At the end of the day, everyone should be defined by what they do – not who they are, where they’ve been, or who they’re connected to. Or, as John F. Kennedy said, “we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” Isn’t that special?

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Expertise in Generalism – 6 reasons generalists are more important than specialists*

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More and more, the business world seems to be ruled by expertise. Subject matter experts. Vertical specialists. Domain authorities. Companies wage wars for sought-after technical mavens and so-called gurus. To advance in one’s career these days, one should naturally specialize. The days of the generalist are over, right?

Wrong. Because, as the world changes ever faster, and the challenge of connecting dozens of disparate pieces increases, it’s never been more important to be an amazing generalist. A connector, a hybrid, a cross-functional player.

So it’s time to sing the praises of the evolved generalist – the person who provides context, who facilitates and drives creativity, who raises everyone’s game, and is focused on the right outcomes.

A generalist understands CONTEXT, not just content
One way to think of a world of specialists, according to Vikram Mansharamani in an HBR post, is a world where everyone is studying bark. “Many have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration, and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest”. All the specialist content in the world is meaningless without putting it in the proper context – and that context tends to be provided by generalists. A great generalist’s breadth of knowledge helps link new breakthroughs and technologies to existing ideas, providing a view of the forest for everyone.

Similarly, specialists tend to focus on what they’re domain does. But in a hyper-specialized world, you need people to pull it all together to make sense of things. The generalist sees the whole playing field – what the business context is, where you want to get to, and what all the relevant marketing levers are. Again, this helps a team see the totality of a program, how it all works together, and how to course-correct as it plays out.

Connections across subjects can be more important than subject-matter expertise
It’s generally understood that new ideas and innovation are the result of associative thinking – connecting two known but unlike ideas to create something new. Unfortunately, specialists tend to focus on their own subject areas and their own known approaches. They also tend to spend less time collaborating with people who aren’t like themselves – and may actively avoid this “clashing” or combining of ideas. But for great generalists, associative thinking is table-stakes.

Breadth vs. depth leads to more creativity
There’s no doubt that business, in general, and advertising, specifically, needs innovation and creativity – to differentiate brands, to engage with hard-to-reach consumers, to drive saliency, and to achieve virality, among other things. And it’s well accepted that innovation and creativity are driven by diversity of thought and experience. A wide variety of knowledge leads to new ways of looking at problems. Specialists often stay within their narrow band and apply formulaic solutions.

Generalists raise everyone’s game
While the specialist spends his time focusing on how his vertical area can help solve a problem, the generalist is helping everyone else leverage their individual knowledge and experience for the greater good. His or her basic knowledge about each expert’s area can help them question assumptions, iterate and build, and make the work better. In a sense, the generalist is a great conductor – not playing his own instrument, but getting the ensemble to play beautiful music together.

Knowing what you don’t know is important, too
In addition, a generalist is comfortable knowing what they don’t know – and this helps in a number of ways. It leads them to ask for help and points them towards the right resources or expertise, as needed. It means they aren’t subject to dogma or industry beliefs, so are open to question things. And it also means that a generalist is more comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction. Research has shown that generalists are better at predicting future outcomes, because they are less ideologically reliant on a single perspective.

Generalists are focused on the right goalposts
A generalist will be focused on overall business goals vs. any vertical or personal agenda. And they won’t care what tools, what technologies or what resources are used most or get the most credit – he or she simply wants overall success.

Today’s complex marketing and business world needs experts who know more and more about emerging technologies and the evolving landscape. At the same time, the complexity and silo-fication of the world is raising the bar for a new generation of great generalists. As the author Carter Phipps said, “it’s becoming increasingly valuable to know ‘a little bit about a lot’”. What do you think?

This article originally ran in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily 2/20/14

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