I’ve worked with hundreds of executives over the last two decades, helping them figure out how to grow and scale their businesses and build high-performance teams. And while I’m generally focusing on the overall business growth and success, I’ve learned that if we’re going to scale a business, we also need to scale the people running it. If we don’t, we’ll quickly hit limits and ceilings.
The challenge in many early-stage companies is that the executives running them often don’t have as much deep experience in critical areas needed for growth. Usually, the founding team is still learning and evolving their skills and depth of knowledge in the domain. This is good in the beginning when things are moving quickly, as you need flexible leaders who can quickly learn in new environments. But as you scale, you begin needing expertise and depth as well.
Here are three key questions I ask leaders facing the challenge of how to evolve and plan their professional development. These will not only help the business create the best leadership team; they will help keep people engaged and motivated throughout the growth process.
1. What drives engagement?
The first question to ask yourself is: What do you really enjoy doing that keeps you engaged and continuously challenges you? It’s more than just liking something. You need to really be compelled and driven to get better at it over time to be able to maintain your focus over the long term.
Write down all of the tasks and work that you do. Now think about when and how you engage in that work. Find the three to five things that you notice a high degree of engagement in. Look for periods where you lose track of time or tend to push off other tasks, or even things like eating, to spend more time doing. Find those activities where you’re totally engrossed in the work and forget about everything else.
If you can’t find any obvious activities, find the ones that you have the most curiosity about and start carving out a little more time and focus to get into them and notice what happens. Does your curiosity increase or do you get bored quickly and want to move on?
2. What are you really good at?
It’s not enough to just enjoy something. You need to be good at it too in order to create value. Something you love doing that you’re not proficient at is a hobby, not a profession. Look for things where you get lots of positive feedback and things that people ask you to do frequently. If you can, get more feedback from colleagues and bosses about what they see as valuable skills and contributions. You don’t need to be a world expert on something, but you want to be seen as having a high degree of skill and performance.
Focus on what other people think you’re really good at, not just your own assessment. Sometimes, we know too much and are too self-critical. You may feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing, or know that there is so much more to learn, but someone not educated in the field may see you as brilliant. It’s more about what others think, not just what you think.
3. What can nobody else do?
Finally, you need to look for the things that nobody else can do like you can. If everyone else is also going at something, there is little room for differentiation or to be seen as a unique resource. You want to find something that you enjoy, that you’re good at, AND that nobody else can do.
If you can’t find anything truly unique off-hand, start looking for ways you can add or combine skills and experiences to create a valuable and unique capability. Maybe you’re really good at contract law, minored in environmental studies in college, and are a hobbyist rock collector. Can you combine them to focus on contracts involving public land use for mining and forestry?
Developing a niche is an excellent way to become highly sought-after and highly compensated. Don’t be afraid to really carve out a unique domain; just make sure there are at least a handful of people and companies who really need that expertise.
Becoming a high-achieving executive is about creating unique and desirable value in your market. Focusing on these three questions will help you find something you’re not just passionate about, but something that you can create a real niche around. As they say, the riches are in the niches.