The Golden Tool

Originally published by Leaderonomics in The Star of Malaysia

Photo Courtesy of NYthroughlens
Photo Courtesy of NYthroughthelens.com

Inside an old dilapidated drawer on the top floor of an old brownstone in Clinton Hills, Brooklyn New York, you will find an old butter knife, The Proverbial “Golden Hammer” so bent and chipped out of shape that it is easy to surmise that it had a long and useful life, but we all have to move on… That was college when I cross-enrolled at Pratt which was haven once you get in, but a nightmare when you get out of its gates. The same goes with Fordham in the Bronx. This was after all New York City in the 90s.

Pratt
Pratt Institute in Fall

The worn butter knife has been used to open cans, fix bicycles, threaten partners and open doors that had keys locked in. It was simply indispensable. I remember having to go into a roommate’s room with the butterknife in hand ready to change the channel of an old Black and White TV that had one of the dials fallen off, leaving a slot to which the butterknife fits right in and ready to twist with the slotted peg. Unfortunately, we sometimes become too attached to the “Golden Hammer” that seems to be the tool for everything.


hammer-and-nailsSo goes the adage: “If all you have was a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. It is too often said that it was quoted anywhere from Mark Twain, Baruch, Kaplan and Maslow. The behaviour is all too common with the story attached. “That if you had given a boy a hammer, then you will find that everything he encounters needs pounding”. Kaplan describes the behaviour under the “Law of the Instrument” and to which everybody calls “The Golden Hammer”.

There are a lot of Golden Hammers in the office where masses of mid-managers hold on to them for dear life. The point is that people and especially managers tend to get attached to tools that have always worked for them. It could only be described as an over-attachment to something that they always use. The common impression among most maturing managers is that they seem to have a “template approach” to everything! The same goes for consultants that tend to marry a distinct set of analytical frameworks. It becomes too inbred, thereby limiting their usefulness. They seem to think their tools offer the solution to everything. Much to the peril of the organisation, being stuck on a particular mindset could lead to strategic blindspots that spell their demise.

Similarly, managers could also suffer from “doing their jobs really well.” It is here where we need to point out that: “Knowing your job is completely different from knowing the business”. Managers need to move from the functional domain, to the strategic domain. It pays to see the bigger picture, lest you retire to be the master of your cubicle.

The line that defines the difference between what makes a great manager and an awesome leader is that one knows what needs to get done as opposed to being stuck on “how we usually do it”. The old line that says: “Don’t fix it when it ain’t broke” usually does not apply in business. Competition is always looking for better ways to do things even if they are not broken. The “new-way” could be their next breakthrough.

The same goes with your career. You do not want to give an impression that you are that old dog that cannot be taught new tricks. When you’re not scoring points during an interview because you’re seen as knowing too much that you’ve become unyielding, then you can’t get that new job. Once your bosses see you as being too comfortable or too good at what you do, then chances are you might get passed over as well. If this sounds like your situation, then I strongly suggest that you find a mentor right now.

A mentor could give you the right perspective from the vantage point of someone who’s in place where you want to be. That perspective can make you see the bigger picture which isn’t often visible from where you are. Use this vantage point to map-out and strategise your career. A mentor teaches you more about the business rather than just letting you know how to do a job.

It often takes more than what you have to execute a successful strategy. Sometimes it takes more than the tools that you have to make things work. This is where strategic partnerships come to play. These partnerships could be found within and outside an industry, and they can also be found at functional levels across divisions and departments within your organisation as Cross Functional Teams (CFT).

A strategic leader recognises a need for a larger perspective to get all the angles of a situation. It often necessitates going beyond the realms of an organisation’s internal resources when greater collaboration is needed to deliver strategic results.

An ancient Proverb goes: “For by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counsellors there is victory.” It goes further in saying: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”

Surely, a “big picture” perspective can be used to gain an advantage over competition. The annals of warfare and business prove it over and over again. Perspective spells the difference between winning and losing. This applies to your career, your business or even the entire industry and beyond.

Just as much as I still reach for a butterknife when I can’t find the screwdriver, we must learn how to leave the dependence on the “Golden Hammer” behind. Do not succumb to the Law of The Instrument. Find the right tools for the right situations even when they are beyond your usual reach. Find a mentor, gain a perspective from others; See the bigger picture and create a strategy for yourself and your business. It’s a long way from here to Brooklyn but I wouldn’t have gone this far without asking for directions and picking up some tools for the journey.

Dancing with Angels

Dad

My father came from the “old-school” having witnessed the Second World War, the Japanese occupation, the American liberation, and the rise and fall of my grandfather’s cigarette factory. I came into his office when I was around nine years old in the early 80s where the place was just buzzing with busyness as men and women were walking by. Typewriters and telex machines were tapping away in the background as he opened a listing from a book called “The Top 1000 Corporations of the Philippines”. There his company was listed somewhere in the 700s as he pointed at it with his thick stubby index finger projecting from a cuff perfectly extending from his suit sleeve. He says: “Blood, sweat and tears! You need to work like a Devil to dance like an Angel”. He’s up there right now with the angels looking down with a high-brow probably saying; “Well, my son is still working at it!”

A bible verse goes: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Indeed the verse should ring louder for many executives as one would usually encounter a “Faustian Bargain” of sorts especially when they move higher up the corporate ladder. “Everything has a price” as my father would say. I have witnessed, (having been one) many executives who play the risk and bargain of moving up the ladder only to forfeit their health and eventually their quality of life. The wagers are often high! We tend to overlook the quality of our relationships with our loved ones and friends and unfortunately, we also neglect ourselves.

This is not to scold anyone; because I know how it is in the C-Suite when you’re just about to pack up for work at 6:30 PM, your boss peers his head into the office to say: “We have a dinner meeting at 8:00! I’ll meet you up front at 7:30!” There is a huge gap between doing your job really well and understanding and working the business. The latter takes a higher level of commitment which sometimes supersedes many other priorities. Business usually comes first.

There is also a career paradox that creeps into a lot of our decisions. Charles Handy in his book “The Age of Paradox” says that we usually work on our careers so that we earn a better quality of life. However, what happens is usually the reverse. We work so hard that we start neglecting our health. And once we do, our effectiveness at work starts to diminish as well. We work so hard just to appreciate that it takes more resources to guard your health through corrective measures. Sadly the most you get in the end is just a bunch of “stuff”.

In 2012, I had the best year “career-wise” when I often rode a private plane to and from work. I racked up at least 26 billable days per month. We were liquid. We had a lot of cash in the bank but along with it was my obvious gain in girth. While I tried to put in the hours as a “weekend warrior” biking my lungs out whenever I had the time, still the executive life caught up to me. Not to mention the loss of sleep and missing some important dates in my family’s life. Sure, work was good! But when January 2013 came around, I failed the stress-test on my APE (Annual Physical Exam)! After spending a thousand dollars on bike parts, I found that my body was the one in need of dire repair. I was put on a stricter diet and a regimen of Statins and Anti-Hypertension medication. Climbing high could also lead to a crash.

The paradox of career success and health is inversely structured. In your progression towards the top we slowly tip the work-life balance in favour of advancement. We focus on building our careers with the justification of seeking a higher quality of life. We do get to a sweet spot that gets stretched at some point, but somehow the allure of success and a skewed sense of purpose slowly tend to reel us into the career track. Every decision (even the smallest ones) that we make between work and everything else works along a zero-sum sort-of balance sheet that crediting hours to work takes away from either yourself, family, society, and fitness. In the end some of these accounts cannot afford to give anymore. At this point you need to re-align your priorities!

We have to realise that our bodies can only take so much. And just as you would demand for your mind and body to remain productive, it is subjected to physical principles and limitations. What I did learn from working with competitive athletes, of which some are successful entrepreneurs, is that we need to adapt a “physical performance mindset.” At the end of long days of conflict where you seem to be pulled apart in different directions, you will realise that you only have one body. Take care of it! Upgrade it! Enforce a renewal!

  • Time and Motion = Time and Energy. Always set aside the time to condition your body and mind for peak performance. Invest in fitness and you will find that you can push your energies a bit further every time it’s called for. You cannot be the dynamic leader you want to be, if your body is not willing.
  • Manage your Exercise like a task! Invest at least 2 hours a week in cardiovascular exercises. Set appointments with your workout tasks on your calendar. 2 hours can be broken down into four 30-minute sessions. Keeping this into a discipline you will soon realise that you are exercising most days of the week. That in itself is an accomplishment!
  • Find some exercise hacks! Make it convenient enough so that you don’t have an excuse.
    • Buy a pair of running shoes and pack them along whenever you travel. Running is a great way to see a new place.
    • Pack a ready gym bag in the car so you’re always ready to go when your schedule opens up a window to hit the company gym.
    • Learn the “7-Minute workout” so you can work out in your hotel room.
  • Acquire a health baseline. Visit your health professional and get an accurate assessment of your health and fitness. Finding the “need” to correct matters could start you off on the right path with the right priorities.

Investing in yourself yields enormous returns on actual work output and effectiveness. You will find that with exercise, you will have more energy for increasing demands across all areas of life. Being in touch with your body also means you have the ability to listen to what it is saying, whether or not it could push itself or ask you to slow down and recover. Time may be inflexible but with exercise, you can feel that energy could be elastic.

Looking fit and healthy can also give you a boost in your career. A leader who knows how to manage himself and his energy across a wide range of demands is “Fit to Lead”. If your outward appearance seems like it could take an extra assignment, so shall these opportunities open up to you. You will always be that person who looks fit for the job. In a study published by Frontiers in Neuroscience “New evidence suggests that healthy-looking individuals are perceived as better leaders, even over intelligent-looking people.” So if you are looking to increase your executive / leadership clout, you might as well start with yourself! “Be Fit to Lead!”

The familiar paradigms of the old-school need to be redefined in the modern age though they both point to the same thing: “Commitment”. As my dad would say, “You need to have your hands bleed practicing, in order for you to be exceptional”. But I would like to redefine blood sweat and tears along the following directions:

  • Blood: Commitment, Trust, Loyalty with the ones you lead and those who matter. Be willing to give yourself to them.
  • Sweat: Giving yourself 100% to every task, in everything that your do. Strive for excellence and exceptional results.
  • Tears: Connect with those that matter. Engage them even at an emotional level. Everything is personal. “Business is personal”.

My dad is up there saying: “See I told you so!” But dad! It’s more than just you saying it, experience and science say so as well!