Malcolm Gladwell’s third book, Outliers, focuses on the origins of success. Gladwell brings home lessons that should be remembered. Think about how these factors might apply to you or your company:
- There’s no substitute for hard work. Although much of the book teaches how circumstance and nurturing have a big impact on success, the one common denominator is willingness to put in the hard work. No athlete, businessperson, musician, or anyone else succeeds without hard work. One of my favorite sayings in the book is an ancient Chinese one, “No man who rises before dawn 365 days a year fails to make his family rich.” (I can honestly say that I do this at least 300 days per year, so I’m getting close!).
- The 10,000 Hour Rule. If you want to be great at something, or at least be known as an expert, you need to study this subject for at least 10,000 hours. This holds true whether in business, law, medicine, technology, sports, music, etc. One of the downsides associated with letting more experienced employees go is losing their store of wisdom and expertise. If you’re in a “no choice” situation, at least try to have the departing employees provide you as much of their stored wisdom in writing as possible.
- The importance of cultural norms. For example, many Asians are accomplished in math not because of their IQ – but due to their work ethic: how their numbering system works, the precision required to grow rice, and of course, willingness to attend school an extra 50 days a year. What is the work norm at your company? Punching the clock or making sure things get done?
- The need for opportunity and encouragement. Many successful people have been in the right place at the right time. Perhaps they were just born at the right time. Perhaps others saw their innate talents and helped to nurture them. The bottom line: no one succeeds alone. We all need encouragement and nurturing. This becomes a real challenge when companies are shutting down on communications and training.
- Once you’re smart enough — you’re smart enough. As Daniel Goleman wrote in his book about emotional intelligence, “It’s just not IQ that matters.” An individual’s ability to deal with emotions and have practical insight is just as, if not more, important than IQ. After a certain point (roughly 130 IQ), the additional IQ points don’t make folks any more successful. Same would hold true for skill testing. If they are a top 20% user, chances are that’s good enough to make a difference. The rest depends on personal drive, emotional skills, etc.
- Pedigree matters — to a degree. As with IQ, going to good schools matters. Going to top ten schools doesn’t matter nearly as much. Just as opportunity, encouragement, support, and other “external” factors impact on the propensity for success, we should not overlook these factors when assessing someone’s potential. Perhaps there is great potential right under your nose; they just haven’t had the right circumstances to show their true mettle. This is one reason that I stress the importance of character assessment, skill testing, and other tools to get past your initial “impressions” about someone’s potential.
- The importance of expressing yourself. This discussion first came up in a risk management context in which Korean airline pilots were causing crashes because subordinates were intimidated about contradicting their superiors – even in the face of a disaster. Based on my litigation experience, CEOs are the last ones to know the truth until they’re in the middle of a trial. Here’s the point: we must “invite” subordinates to bring us their ideas, to break past the Culture of Silence. At the same time, subordinates must have the courage to speak up when appropriate.
- Meaningful work. One of my favorite quotes from the Gladwell book is, “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it doesn’t have meaning.” I work hard, but I love the work that I do. It provides me the three factors that Gladwell says are to essential to our work: autonomy, complexity, and meaning.
- Autonomy gives us a sense of responsibility for the work that we do.
- Complexity allows us to grow and learn; and
- Meaning lets us realize the impact of our work.
The lack of opportunity for autonomy, complexity, and meaning will continue to deprive employers of excellent workers who find it more meaningful to work for themselves. To what degree are you allowing your employees autonomy, complexity, and meaning in their day-to-day activities? How can they get that from you greater than by working on their own or for someone else?
In conclusion, there’s no substitute for discovering the formula for success at your company!