Making Things Simple Isn’t Always EASY

Making Things Simple Isn’t Always EASY

“Want to know something that it took me 10 years to figure out?”

He was graying – and by my standards then – ancient.

But he was one of the most decorated leaders in my company – and when he talked – people, even the highest ranking executives in our organization, seemed inclined to listen.

He was a first line leader – had been for at least 20 years and maybe longer. And he was always at or near the very top of production rankings nationally.

I, on the other hand, was a new District Manager – and my team was NOT at the top of any rankings.

My answer was brilliant.

“Yes sir, I believe I would.”

“How many days a week do you spend with your team – you know…out in the field?”

“Four days…sometimes more,” I answered.

“Do a lot of coaching, huh?”

I nodded.

“If you could handpick a new team – put together an All Star crew…one that you KNEW would beat my group, would you?”

Well, that seemed like a dumb question. “Yes….yes I would.”

“How many of your current team would you put on your new team?”

I paused. “A couple of them…I guess.”

“What if your career depended on it?”

OK, this is sort of weird territory, I thought to myself.

“I think I might… keep a few…” I stammered.

“End of lesson,” the old guy said and then he stood up from the table and ambled over in the direction of a bar that had been set up in the hospitality suite we were sitting in.

“Hey, wait. What WAS the lesson?”

He turned, smiled at me and said, “Son, I have news for you. Your career DOES depend on it.”

I waited. There had to be more here.

He continued. “I used to spend HOURS trying to help make average people better than average. I coached, I trained, I counseled, I cajoled, and I begged. And I also demanded, screamed, threatened, and coerced. Until one day I realized the one thing that seemed to matter.”


“PUT…GREAT…ATHLETES…ON…THE…FIELD,” he answered. “Put great athletes on the field and most of the time they will find a way.”

“Hire good people…you’re saying hire good people.”

“No, I’m saying hire GREAT people…not good people. Good is the enemy of great.”

Well, that made sense, I reasoned. “OK, got it. Is that it…is that what took 10 years for you to figure out?”

He smiled. “Everyday people like you focus all of your attention on making people better…it’s a lot simpler if you begin by finding better people.”

I waited and then he said, “But then again, simple’s not always easy, you know.”

Our conversation had come to a close. A group of old-timers had clustered around a pizza bar. Fresh pepperoni had just arrived. “Socrates” wedged his place in line.

I would see him again the next year – only from a distance as he strode to the stage to accept another national award…and to watch various members of his team win similar accolades.

“It’s not fair,” one of my peers groused later as we discussed the latest rankings and Socrates. “Everyone on his team is like….ALL-WORLD. You can’t compare that group with everyone else.”

No, you couldn’t.  But you did.

My career would take a number of twists and turns in the decades that followed – the advice of my old colleague traveled well.

A few years back I was seated in an impressive board room and a question was asked about our Core Leadership Competencies for the organization.

Someone asked, “What exactly are our competencies?”

There was a mad dash to find the document that articulated them – we each had our own interpretation of what they might be – some of us had actually helped build them. 

Eleven people in the room – not ONE of us could recite the competencies correctly.


I was suddenly reminded of “Socrates” – the lesson he had taught me so many years before – and the dichotomy that sometimes exists between simple and easy.

Today when I work with companies on the subject of leadership we begin with a very basic foundation.

Three Capabilities that distinguish exceptional leaders from the norm. 

Though we can, and often do, cloud the air with vague or long winded competency statements that may or may not support them – in the end, there are only three capabilities that matter.  

It took me the better part of 2 decades to really appreciate them.

Those capabilities should always inform the competencies – but seldom do. Which explains why so many executives have a better chance of reciting The Gettysburg Address than their own firm’s leadership competencies.

The first capability – the ability to Attract and Recruit Exceptional Talent. 

Most organizations have no way of really gauging the very few leaders who do it extraordinarily well – by looking at their selection skills – or the retention, performance, promotion, and long term profitability of the hires they make.

The default is to vacancy rates and “time to fill”.

Sort of like measuring your driving skills by how many times you stop at a gas station.

Competency models too often devolve into the business equivalent of the owner’s manual for your car. Built by engineers (or said another way – consultants) and stuffed away in your glove compartment. Never understood. Seldom used.

As regards my own leadership journey, I eventually put at least some of Socrates’ counsel into practice – trying to put world class athletes on the field whenever I could – and then to make sure and not manage them to death.

Those athletes made me look a lot better than I deserved. 

The competition for the very best grows ever stronger.

The best leaders will become the best ONLY if they assemble world class players to make it so.

They better – their career depends on it.

Simple? Maybe….but then again, no one said it would be easy.

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