Roy Bahat, a well-regarded startup investor, writes about his observations that the skills of company founders don’t line up with the skills of great students.
I love his post and this topic. But it goes so much deeper than just startups.
An executive coach once told me: “The work world is split into two groups, mostly children and a few adults.”
This coach was making the same point as Bahat, only with a more direct approach—nobody at work wants to be called a child.
However, he followed this statement with an explanation of how deeply we’ve all been conditioned to be good children. A good child does what they’re told, does their chores, and does their homework. That “good child” mindset is exactly what’s expected from you at your first job, too. Do what you’re told and get your work done.
So the default mode of all workers is to be a child—but the big mystery is how someone becomes an adult at work. An adult takes responsibility for outcomes. They do work without being asked. They go beyond their job description. Mostly the word we use for adults at work is leadership. But technically, anyone at any level could (and should) have these characteristics.
Why don’t they? The first challenge is that there’s very little expectation setting that a big change is coming. There’s no concept of work adulthood. Many people experience adulthood at work as a sort of epiphany triggered by the failings of their boss. If your boss messes up, a child is going to complain and hope some other person above them comes in and fixes things. That’s the ingrained hierarchy of childhood.
But some small set of people will instead have a realization: Maybe I could do the work that my boss is incapable of. Maybe I could do more than what I’m told to do. Maybe I could talk with my boss and help them see that we should try something different.
Think about becoming an adult in life. For 22 years, your family told you to get good grades, to get into college, to get a good job so that you can afford to pay rent and live on your own. That moment when you’re living on your own is adulthood. That’s a transition that you’ve seen coming.
But nobody does this at work. Nobody tells you that there will be a point in your career where you’ll have to switch from black and white to grey, where you’ll have to take responsibility regardless of the rules, that even in taking responsibility you might fail. Because the path to work adulthood is so vague, the people who get there first tend to be “unicorns.”
So, here are three things you can do tomorrow to start becoming the adult on your team:
- Be the most prepared. If you’re going into a meeting with a concern or suggestion, then do the work that’s required to sell it. Collect data, consider trade-offs, estimate the cost, opportunity cost, and value of what you’re proposing.
- Just go solve the problem. Not every problem needs a committee or approval before it gets solved. Every company is filled with small opportunities that don’t make it on to official project plans.
- Volunteer. Larger problems linger for months and sometimes years because nobody knows how to fix them. Your boss thinks they need to come up with a plan before they can assign a team. Instead, you should tell your boss that you think you can come up with a solution and solve the problem yourself.
It’s a question worth examining for yourself, and for the people you work with.
By Tony Stubblebine | The Muse