By Carl Carter, APR
Here in the South, we have an old saying that “You’ve gotta dance with the one who brung ya.” By that, we mean that over a lifetime, we develop skills and habits that get results, and it can be foolish to abandon an approach that has always worked.
There must be thousands of ways we’ve expressed this notion over the years. One of the most famous was the Peter Principle, cooked up by Laurence J. Peter. He suggested that when our old approach quits working, we’ve hit our “level of incompetence.”
It doesn’t have to end there. With a good dose of self awareness and some good advice, we can adapt to new challenges and work environments. Right now, we’re seeing our president’s painful struggle to discover that building a business and running the country are two different things. Habits and tactics that worked well enough in building a real estate business but translate poorly to international politics. Now he’s in a much more complex universe, where treaties, alliances and history come into play and the slightest faux pas can create an international kerfuffle.
The stakes are lower for most of us, but it still happens — personally and in business. I started my career as a reporter and found that my brashness (some might say smartassery), aggressive interviewing style and cynicism helped me get good stories. But when I moved into the stodgy and subtle culture of a telephone company, I found myself getting into scrapes left and right. My first boss there — also a former reporter — warned me of the danger my first day on the job. “You’ve been thinking in terms of how to get the next story. Now you have to learn to think about the next month, six months, year, and how to get people to help you get things done.”
He may as well have been speaking Swahili. I blustered through my days, bruising egos, cutting people out of decisions and creating a fair number interpersonal messes that my supervisors had to clean up. In time, with a lot of help, I figured out what skills translated into my current challenge — and more importantly, which ones were dead weight. But it didn’t happen without a few conversations that started with somebody saying, “Figure this out or your ass is outta here.”
Companies face similar challenges in times of transition. The phone company way of doing business was built for a monopoly world. Virtually overnight, they faced competition for their most profitable businesses, such as long distance service, Yellow Pages advertising and pay phones.
Notice something about those businesses? Yep, you got it. They’re all gone now. As we tried to hold onto the scraps, we found ourselves in such ludicrous situations as arguing (with a perfectly straight face) that third-party pay phones couldn’t be allowed because they might crash the phone network. (We didn’t get too far with that one.)
One of my current passions is working with political candidates who are seeking to run for office for the first time. Most have been successful in their fields. They have a wide range of skills — some of which can help them get elected. And nearly all have traits, assumptions and habits that will get in their way. The fun is in figuring out which are which.
As individuals and companies, we can go through most of our lives dancing with the partner who brung us. But when we face a new challenge, or it stops working, we have to ask if it’s time to make some big changes. Deciding to ditch the date is just the start. We have to find a new partner, so to speak. What skills, policy changes, messages and products do we need to move ahead? And unfortunately, we rarely have much time to accomplish all this.
Hey, nobody ever said this would be easy.