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Are You Book Smart or Street Smart? Maybe Neither!

Back in 2011, I was getting to know my new team on a project.  I’m not exactly sure how the conversation started, but the question came up if we thought we were book smart or street smart?  So rather than make up my rationale for one or the other, I thought the best answer would come from asking a friend.

I called Derrick, one of my best friends from high-school and after warning him that he was on the speaker phone with my colleagues, I asked “Hey, am I book smart or street smart?”  Without hesitation and with confidence, he replied, “Ohh… You are definitely neither!”  The room chuckled and I thanked him (while thinking this might be the end to his free help desk support every time he had a computer problem). But then Derrick said, “You’re people smart, you have a knack for bringing people together to get stuff done.” (and he totally redeemed himself!)

My career as a management consultant is centered on working closely with people on projects to achieve a desired outcome.   I frequently look back on this feedback, especially when I am feeling stuck and need to get back to leveraging my strengths.  So I thought that I would dedicate this blog to providing advice to my fellow “Neithers” out there with the 5 tips below:

 1.  You’re Not the Smartest Person in the Room, So Don’t Try and Be

We work with so many amazing people on a daily basis.  The best collaboration takes place when egos are left at the door (including your own) and different perspectives are brought together.   True collaboration is harder than it sounds, and many times, each individual is focused on driving their vision and ideas forward.  Active listening is not always easy, especially for the leader, and it can be difficult stopping yourself from being the a meeting monopolizer and knowing when you should just sit on your hands (I know, kind of a weird trick).

For me, it all clicked when a client executive complimented me for sitting back and letting the team do its thing, and then wrapping it all together and ensuring alignment on next steps.   I honestly didn’t recognize it, but his right words at the right time helped me see that the designated lead does not always have to be in the driver’s seat, and that is OK.   It also showed the importance of letting creativity flow among the most qualified and passionate with different perspectives.   Most importantly, the need to stay focused on the big picture and overall outcome.

2.  Break Down Barriers

During the Great Recession in 2008, I was on a large post-merger program integrating the new organization, processes and systems.  I was definitely in a stretch role, with the largest team that I’ve ever had to manage and totally unfamiliar with the new system.   I was extremely overwhelmed.   After a few tough weeks, I felt that I didn’t have the competence for the role, and tried to get myself rolled off the project and thought I was at risk of being fired.

Instead, I received some of the best advice and support of my career.  The engagement lead said something like, “we have lots of team members that know the system, the client likes working with you, so we need you to use your skills to break down barriers for the team”.   It triggered an immediate paradigm shift in my mindset from worrying about my book smarts, to making it my purpose to enable the team, navigate the organization, and remove the obstacles in our way.  My job was not to be the expert, but to connect people and create an environment that the subject matter experts could collaborate, make decisions, and hit the milestones.

3.  Be the Glue

One of the most street smart characters that comes to mind for me is ‘Red’, in the movie Shawshank Redemption, played by Morgan Freeman.  He was “the guy that could get you things” and his survival in prison was based on the value of his relationships.   So my version of being street smart is what one of my clients described as being the ‘glue’.  Just about every role in my career has been working on large cross-functional projects that require various groups to get the project done.  Sometimes it amazes me how little the various functional teams interact with each other and just focus on their area of responsibility.

There is great value by bringing the teams together, sharing how they operate, and putting together an integrated solution.  Sometimes you are met with resistance and misalignment of goals.  To get through this, you have to be authentic, relationship focused, and establish trust.   Once you have done that, you will gain advocates and can focus on capturing and demonstrating the shared value.

4.  Just Ship It (and Iterate)

In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin, describes the importance of ‘shipping’ and battling through the resistance that we put up that prevents our ‘art’ from getting out the door.    Things like procrastination, self-doubt, and fear make up the resistance that many of us face on a daily bases.  Creating something from scratch can be difficult and overwhelming for a lot of us, but we are excellent at making things better.    Agile methodologies are not only for software development and can be applied to everything we create.

It’s not about creating something perfect, it’s about creating something effective.   Once you get momentum, the amount of effort required to get to the next level of maturity is a much smaller step.   We went through a phase when everything we did was a one-pager.  This forced us to keep our messages simple, direct, and easy to understand.   Our pieces were never perfect and we would iterate to make them better each time.  Most importantly, we got them out the door and into our client’s hands.

5.  Establish an Approach and Implement it

It was my older brother that had the most influence on forming my study habits when I entered college.   I’ve never been book smart (as Derrick established later in life) and reading comprehension and retention has always been a challenge for me.   My brother’s tip was to take notes in outline format during the lecture, transition it to note cards, and use those note cards when studying for exams.    This became my approach for my course work, no matter what the subject and it worked so well that I ended up graduating Cum Laude.

I later learned from taking StrengthsFinder 2.0, that ‘Arranger’ is one of my top strengths and have since become a serial arranger.   As consultants, prior to starting a large program or project,  we take the time to map out the approach in what we call a POV (point of view).   It ensures everyone is on the same page and is aligned on how we are going to execute the program.  I very seldom start a project, no matter the size, without outlining and sharing the approach with key stakeholders.

Coming Full Circle

So the other day, I mentioned to Derrick that I was going to write this Blog and thanked him for his insight 7 years ago.   He thought it was funny and we chatted about some other things going on in our lives.    However, before getting off the phone, he said, “oh yeah… you are still neither!”

There are so many personality/skill evaluations out there, but sometimes it’s best to just ask a friend or look at how you interact with family as wrote about in the blog, 7 Ways My 3 Year Old Improves My Relationships at Work.

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