Appearing in In The Black magazine, November 2019
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
By David Epstein
Tiger Woods’ story is well-known: living and breathing golf since he could walk, putting in untold hours of practice, laser-like focus on building the skills. But this model is deceptive, according to Epstein, a sports writer who has crossed into business analysis. He provides plenty of examples of very successful people – Roger Federer is one, but there also mathematicians, musicians and inventors – who started fairly late, after a lengthy period of sampling other things. A better method for doing well, rather than the practice-practice-practice pattern, is having a generalist base with a specialisation on top. Epstein calls this “interleaving”, an approach that develops inductive reasoning and abstract thinking, and which applies to both physical and mental skills.
Along the way, Epstein draws on studies by cognitive psychologists and brain researchers. He has an eye for a telling example, such as the point that most successful start-ups are established not by twenty-somethings but by people in their fifties. Highly-developed skills can easily be degraded by a shift in technology or social patterns but an innovative mind never goes out of fashion.
This is a fascinating, briskly-written book. Epstein does not dismiss the achievements of hyper-specialists but there are, he says, other paths to success.
Career Conversations: How to Get the Best from Your Talent Pool
By Greg Smith
When it comes to career development, getting the best from employees – and giving the best to them – is no longer a matter of promotion interviews and performance reviews, according to HR specialist Smith. Rather, it is about coaching them towards the career path they really want, and aligning their personal goals with the goals of the organisation.
Many people will move through several careers in their working life. The stages are exploration, engagement, advancement, growth, maintenance and disengagement. Smith provides good advice on the conversations to have with employees at each stage, looking at the structure of coaching interactions. He believes a narrative approach of helping employees recognise key transition points is usually the best path. He readily acknowledges that this sort of coaching is not easy, and he provides a useful chapter to help leaders evaluate their own competencies in the area, emphasising the role of active listening.
A crucial aspect of the book is the tests and checklists provided. There is a particularly useful template to help the employee and the coach write down the career development plan. A written plan helps to crystallise ideas and options and, says Smith, turns vague notions into a long-term, actionable strategy.
Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets
By Michael Roberto
For a long time, the prevailing wisdom was that only certain people had a talent of creativity. Not so, says academic Roberto. He cites a number of highly successful companies that operate on the assumption that most people have a creative streak, and that a central activity for a leader is to bring it out.
Many large companies, especially those with a long history, have inadvertently constructed barriers against novel approaches. This explains why employees often say that their ideas go nowhere even while the CEO is talking about the need for innovation. Some of the barriers are structural, with managerial layers stopping ideas flowing upwards. But most of them are cultural. Benchmarking can prevent people looking broadly, and there can be too much focus on the next quarter’s results. A common problem is that people are simply not given the time to ponder, consider, and try new things.
Roberto is better at identifying problems than presenting solutions but his view that leaders should see themselves more as teachers than executives, including providing positive feedback, is moving in the right direction. The book does not answer all the questions it raises but it offers a wealth of interesting things to think about.