May 24, 2008

Competence, Excellence, Mastery

Like just about everyone else in N/America - I've been swept up in Obama Mania and his whole concept of "Change we can believe in". However, the focus of this piece is inspired by a speech which Barack delivered in his Senior Year @ Harvard. The theme of the speech was Competence, Excellence & Mastery - referenced here - by Artur Davis.

"He said we faced three challenges. First: competence, which was expected. Second: excellence, which only some seek. Third: mastery, which very few ever tried for. It was a level of proficiency and skill so high it allowed you to do something better than anyone else. He urged us to seek that."

I spent some time thinking out these words in the context of my life and my career - I've formulated a view point which I hope will be useful to some World Changers out there.

My first real job was with a large Law Firm. I worked in the mail room, as a clerk - sorting and delivering mail to over 100 lawyers each day. Before then, I'd had part time jobs here and there but never really felt any sense of responsibility. Now, I was on someone's payroll and eager to do a good job. So - I sought to achieve competence. Years ago, it used to be that in order to do well and possibly get a promotion or a raise, one needed to exhibit a high level of competence - doesn't matter what job you're doing. If you're competent - people will notice and you may catch a break.

In the World we live in today, Competence barely gets you in the game. In fact, a lack of strong competence will often mean your job could be in jeopardy, especially in Corporate America. There are so many smart, hungry people out there, looking to take your spot - that you need to reach a high level of Competence as quickly as possible (imho within 90 - 120 days of starting a new job, you need to start dislaying Competence).
When you begin a new job, your boss will outline your key responsibilities and let you know what's expected of you. She may even proactively tell you what you need to do in order to be successful in role - if she doesn't, please ask. In my view, competence means - you're hitting all your goals, meeting all your deadlines and exceeding all expectations of your boss and the team as a whole. (That's your starting point, in today's ultra competitive environment)

Barack's speech seemed to indicate that only some seek excellence. Actually I suspect that at least 50% of reasonably driven individuals seek excellence - most simply don't know what it is or what it looks like. Others think they've hit it- because they show up when it counts or clinch the occasional mega deal - perhaps nail a key presentation, or execute a complicated strategy. Many of us think we're in the "Excellent" category - but are we really?

I have learn't that - "Excellence" can be subjective. If you're competing in individual sports - the criteria for excellence is pretty well defined, it's a win or lose scenario. In team sports - you could do really well, and your team could still lose. Could you claim to have been excellent - under such circumstances? So, Excellence can be defined in many different ways.

In the workforce however - "Excellence" is often defined by what your boss feels is important and more importantly - what your bosses, boss - feels is important. In my field of interest, it's extremely important to work on initiatives which have strong "Business Impact". That often means Sales, Revenue, Profit/Loss, Business Strategy and whatever else your orgs Senior Execs see as being crucial to the financial well being of the Organization. You could be working really hard, but if you're not paying attention to what's important to your Managers - you're not in the excellent category and you may very quickly find yourself outside the Competence field as well.

So, in striving for Excellence -make sure you understand what's important to your Managers - and always be at least 2 steps ahead of your Manager, in terms of what he's priorities are and how he thinks about success for your team. I'm not saying, agree with everything your boss says and spend all your time schmoozing up. Have periodic synch sessions with your manager, and quarterly sessions with your Managers, Manager. Make sure you understand their priorities and seek their feedback on what you're doing. Once you're clear on key priorities, you align your work items accordingly and strive to excel in your deliverables and find ways to add value - above and beyond your core responsibilities.

The difference between Strong Competence and Excellence is not as vast as one may think. My position is that each org may have a slightly different opinion of what excellence in a specific role, looks like. Your Manager may know, your Managers, Manager certainly will. That's why you have to strive to stay two steps ahead of your Manager's thought process at all times. Every now and again, it's important to reflect on the Orgs position from 50,000 ft. Don't be too wrapped up in the everyday grind -that you don't see the big picture. Use your insights to create value for your organization -In my opinion, that's what excellence - in role, looks like. In striving for excellence, it is important to have role models or Mentors - for inspiration and counsel. I'll delve into the subject of Mentorship and Professional development, sometime in future.

Now, here's a category that most people definitely don't strive for - for two reasons. I'd say 80% of individuals out there have no idea what the concept of mastery is about. 20% of us, have a good idea of what Mastery looks like - in our careers, or various fields of interest. But, only a very small percentage of that 20% actually aspire to that level - and fewer still get there. There are a few very good reasons for this trend.

Most successful individuals reside in the Excellence category - CEOs, Corporate Leaders, Presidents, Academics & and the vast majority of very successful individuals - get there by exhibiting Excellence at crucial periods of their Personal/Professional Development.

The majority of us understand that to be excellent at something, requires plenty of hard work, dedication and self-sacrifice - we intuitively feel that Mastery is out of reach, because it requires a special gift in addition to all the other stuff which excellent people do. Most of us know that we can be very successful in life and accomplish great things without ever coming close to becoming Masters in our fields of interest or our Career Paths.

Mastery - is defined as the superior command, grasp or control of a subject of study. It depicts thoughts of one who possesses consummate skills and power to dominate others. I believe that it takes someone who is extremely driven, focused and accomplished to even identify an individual who has a shot at Mastery, in a particular subject or field of endeavor.

Those who strive for Mastery need an extra something - which goes beyond talent, hard work and drive. It takes a self-belief and restlessness which defies logic to most of regular folks. So, I disagree with Barack - when he says we should all strive for Mastery. I think we should all strive for Excellence - and in doing so, we should make sure that we (and those we hold dear), are well aware of the personal sacrifices which must be made. We also need to be very clear about what we as individuals want to accomplish. On a personal note, I'd add that we must constantly remind ourselves that one’s happiness & Peace of mind is more important than any earthly endeavor.

Many have developed themselves to the point where they have achieved Mastery - if only for a brief period of time. I'm sure we can all reel off the names of great Masters in Business, Law, Medicine, Sports, the Arts, Biological Sciences, Politics and many more fields. All are World Changers and all have paid some significant price for their pursuit of Mastery. So, if you're reading this and you've resolved to seek Mastery in your field - by all means go for it, just be sure to begin with the end in mind.

World Changers - Rock On !!

1 comment:

WorldChanger said...

Kinwale -
My wife and I talk about this a lot and our beleive that when you do find your true calling and you dedicate yourself to it. To you it will be enjoyable and the cost seem insignificant but to the onlookers it will seem like mastery born out of hard work lots of sacrifice and a super human capability of some sort..