Have you ever started cutting up vegetables and finally realized that it was taking longer than expected? Maybe you’ve gone outside to trim your hedges only to find the job harder than you anticipated. Or in a burst of energy, you picked up your ax to chop wood and were left quickly out of breath as you realized how much effort was required.
Then it finally occurred to you that if you simply stopped to hone the edge of your tool, whether a knife, trimmer or ax, the job would be much easier. The sharper your implement, the more you can accomplish, very quickly.
There’s a corollary here to other types of work that we perform. Some professionals have more opportunities for different roles now, driven by increased demand and shifting needs in organizations. The traditional career progression they were expected to follow has been shelved as people who are younger in their careers are being promoted to positions typically held by colleagues with greater experience and responsibility. They have the potential to perform well in the role, but a longer reach to actually perform well. And while one could debate whether it’s truly necessary to sit in a variety of roles, it’s helpful to understand the value that each brings and to determine how to gain that experience.
The process of sharpening a tool requires pressure applied by another equally sharp implement to grind it down. This pressure, often considered a negative, is really a positive force, as it results in a more effective device that’s able to get more done.
Sitting in a variety of challenging roles similarly applies pressure that results in professional growth. It manifests in dealing with difficult people, striving for seemingly impossible goals, taking on a challenging assignment, or managing environmental uncertainty and ambiguity. Some people crack or splinter under the pressure. Others sharpen their capabilities even if they’re not 100 percent successful. It becomes their springboard for growth. They build a catalog of experiences where they succeeded against the odds and developed the confidence to do it again.
Consider the assignments you think you don’t want
Some of these experiences obviously come from assignments that none of us would want to accept. They seem to be out of the sweet spot of our interests, on the fringes of our expertise, and not the ideal environment we’ve been looking for. The risk of failure is very real. But pause and think for a moment about what you might learn.
- More about your weaknesses—I didn’t sugarcoat this by saying “development needs.” Some areas where we could improve will always be weaknesses because we lack the interest, attentiveness and basic skills. It doesn’t mean it’s not important. It just means that’s not where we’re gifted.
- More about your strengths—You may learn how to hone your strengths to offset your weaknesses. You may confirm your areas of interest. And you may find where your true passions lie.
- Gaining perspective—A new and difficult assignment may add insights on an area of your business, industry, functional expertise or colleagues that benefits your future leadership decisions. This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in it, simply that you understand the issues and nuances better.
- Building a winning team—No leader is an expert at everything, and difficult assignments provide an opportunity to partner with and build trust with others who bring capabilities you need but don’t sufficiently possess.
The hard assignments that sharpen us
Effective leaders generally benefit from a succession of challenging roles. Positions that are a bit of a stretch become a source of motivation to accomplish results. They can be energizing with just the right amount of “useful” stress. Compare that to positions that are not challenging, that don’t compel our attention and don’t pull the best out of us. And at some point, we’re ready to walk away from them.
When considering a change of assignment, whether inside or outside your current company, it’s important to recognize that what it looks like from a distance, won’t necessarily be what it is. First, you simply won’t know enough about it until you step into the role. And second, factors outside your control can quickly shift the requirements for the role.
My personal experience
I’ve had a variety of these assignments throughout my career.
One such position was frankly less challenging than my previous role. I wasn’t excited about it, but for a variety of reasons, I decided to move forward. From the time I accepted it to my first day on the job, the responsibilities shifted into overdrive. It became a highly visible and critical role in the organization with a lasting impact on our people and skill sets.
Another assignment came as a springboard from a role that I frankly hated, but it built my confidence and I developed greater organizational agility. That learning provided me with a foundation for this new role. I had been sharpened and honed! And I had fresh experiences to know how I could succeed under difficult circumstances. They were two radically different environments requiring similar levels of emotional intelligence.
The growth process
Building a mental repertoire of how to succeed in difficult situations, overcoming obstacles and standing up to challenges is part of the growth process. Instead of resisting the hard assignments, lean into them and discover what you will learn.
- Find a coach who will help you become more self-aware of your constructive or ineffective behaviors.
- Get a mentor who will help you better understand the organizational nuances.
- Leverage professional development podcasts, books and classes.
- Connect with other professionals in similar roles to share strategies.
- Focus on growing your emotional intelligence to build productive relationships with stakeholders.
It’s the sharpening and honing that improves your capabilities and prepares you for what comes next. How will you improve your competence and capabilities?
For more strategies on how you can become more productive, read Time Swapping: 3 Ways to Find More Time for the Things You Enjoy.