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What are you good at?

January 8, 2015 Mark Hannum

Early in my career I got to be the chauffeur and tour guide during the company president’s annual visit to our branch office. As we got to know each other during the course of his visit, he asked me what I was best at. I didn’t really have a great answer. So he volunteered that he was great at conceptual thinking and handling really difficult concepts. He thought that I was pretty good at that as well. But he was even better, he said, at organizing people.

He then asked whether I had ever had the chance to manage a large number of people. I had. In a previous role I had over 170 people reporting to me in a challenging position that required 24/7 coverage. He asked how I organized them. I told him about the structure and process I had created. After several deep-dive questions, he assessed what I had done with a very simple, “So, you went for a very traditional military organization. What other alternatives did you explore? What did you learn from that effort? If you had to do that again, would you organize people differently?”

In all honesty, I had not thought of any other “organizational alternatives.” I hadn’t thought about learning anything from that experience, and hadn’t really thought about how I would do it differently. The president wasn’t disappointed with my answers, but he took the opportunity to draw out the diversity of perspectives that exist in the world of organizing people—all the assumptions, patterns, truths and non-truths, consequences, etc.

Lesson number one: Being trapped in a car with a kind, wise spirit is a great thing. I was like a kid in a candy store listening and talking with him for the next two days.

Lesson number two: There are lots of ways to organize people. It’s both an art and a science. It’s something you need to study, experience, and reflect on to get good at.

When I look at most organizations and how they’re organized, I still see the old military model. And even when I see a leadership team organized in a newer, more modern model, it only takes a little investigating before I again find the old military model of organizing people.

Interestingly enough, I’ve asked hundreds of CEOs, presidents, and executive team members what they’re good at and I’ve never heard one of them say, “organizing people” or “designing my organization.” Is it any wonder that a commonly cited statistic is that 67% of reorganizations fail to achieve their intended outcome?

At the end of that car ride, the president asked me to join him when I got back to my regular job in exploring the world of organizational structure. He was particularly interested in how to understand whether or not a given structure was working or not. I asked him if there was a class for that, and he told me finding that out would be my first challenge!

What are you good at? Would you say, or even think to say, “organizing people” or “designing an organization”? Do you have the requisite variety of skills and knowledge to organize people, assess an organization’s design, and pursue a better design? If you’re an HR business partner, you should.

We can help.

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