Staying in the game is winning too

I was retrenched a few years ago (maybe 20) and one of the benefits I got was working with a coach who helped me work out what I wanted to do and also some “boring things” like writing resumes, going to interviews and other skills that I actually lacked.

Applying for a job was something I had just never given any attention to, but like everything, there is an art and a craft that you can work on to become excellent at it. A bit like learning to pass exams at school – a seemingly mundane part of life is actually something you can suck at or master and was a skill that carried me through many courses that I knew less about than some of my peers, who were bad at “exam technique”.

I never did master the art of applying for a job and I mostly rely on luck, hoping that someone I know will remember me just at the right time and then call me to say they need someone with my (broad rather than specialist) skills. Unfortunately I also suck at networking.

Maybe I should spend more time honing my survival skills to make sure I am resilient in tougher times, rather than just rolling along happily when times are good.

But then I don’t tend to change jobs that often so actually one thing I do focus on is trying to keep my skills up to data and remembering never to rest on my laurels. I learn new skills (current data analysis and then back to some cloud stuff); I review my “coaching contracts” to see if I made progress with teams or if I am just hanging out with them and I try to get involved in different things at work that force me to re-apply my skills in different contexts.

But there is one thing that my “get a new job” coach taught me, that has been with me ever since. I used to think that applying for a job was about winning. Just like watching a reality show where people win challenges to avoid getting voted off the island.

However what my coach taught me is that sometimes it is about staying in the game. The first evaluation a potential talent manager makes is to eliminate the candidates who are not even close to them mark. Then they pass through again and cull some more people. What this means is that they are not really looking for the awesome diamond candidate, they are looking for a reason to drop the candidate so they can focus more time on others.

This left me thinking – should I aspire to be mediocre, so I get through a round or two of culling, only to then compete with excellent candidates?

No – I want to be excellent (or lucky), but for some things it is about not dropping the ball, or being good enough to be OK. If I think I am good at interviews then I want to make sure that my Linkedin or resume is good enough to get me that far, but I do not need it to blow people away.

I rarely look at my resume, rarely network and I leave my LinkedIn profile looking pretty lame, but I do know that the time to work on them is when I don’t need them, so they are roughly ready.

I am pretty poor at applying that lesson, but one thing I believe that separates me from many coaches, product managers and decision makers is that I ask the question “what do we need to maintain in our teams to stay in the game?”

I think a lot of people ask “what should we excel at?” or “What feature will blow people away?” These are great questions, but I don’t think we should always be working on something amazing, while leaving other, more mundane, things to fall behind.

Many teams know the pain of letting their bugs get out of hand while they hit deadlines and then they “suddenly” find themselves in a crisis. So, I guess we should always be asking “What can we NOT drop the ball on here?” and “What is the standard we should maintain here?”. But that does not mean everything needs to be at an awesome standard (which would be nice) and it does not mean we can never drop the ball on anything. It means there are some things, that if they hit a boundary, we need to start bringing them back to “good enough” or “safe enough” to keep ourselves in the game.

Sometimes this means risk mitigation rather than new features and adventures. Sometimes this means spreading our skills through the team or reviewing our succession planning and internal opportunities so our good people don’t become stale or disgruntled people.

However sometimes it also means practicing the mundane and getting good enough to move something from “this sucks to do” all the way to “I don’t even notice we are doing it”. These things could include cleaning up our Jira backlogs, checking in that our whole team still knows what is going on or completing our release notes.

So one of the things I like to think I excel at is managing the mundane. Sometimes on Master Chef it is not about having the most amazing dish but it is about having a good enough dish to stay in the game. And sometimes at work it is not (just) about excelling at some important things or launching new products, it is about cleaning out bugs, closing the loop on customer requests, cleaning the noise from our team so they can focus on what they want to excel at.

Otherwise these mundane things will way on us, or inhibit us from being able to shine. Just as my competence in “exam technique” made many courses much easier for me and just as “knowing how to get a job” makes it easier to be employed, regardless of the economic environment, there are mundane sounding, but important things that we need to make visible and get good at, not because they are cool, but because they will constrain us or distract us from focusing on the real areas where we want to excel.

If being excellent is a goal for the team then paying attention to things that keep you in the game is also something we should all excel at. That is my focus for the next week at work – what should I be getting better at so that it becomes routine rather than a hinderance or stress-creator?


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