Early during my career I realised something that had a profound impact on my career. I had been a competitive golfer for many years, and I was used to practising pretty hard between tournaments. So as I entered working life, I could not help but notice how rare it was for people to practise, to work on their professional game. Instead, people would show up to play each day, but practically no one hit the practise grounds afterwards. And it was evident they weren’t getting a lot better.
Another thing I learned very early on was that in the large organisations I worked for, getting promoted to a significant position seemed to take a lifetime. As a restless and ambitious young man (as I am still today, restless, that is) I felt I risked getting trapped inside these organisations. When speaking to HR I was told getting the next job meant I had to do my current role for 2 years minimum. Then they did the career math, adding position after position like this, meaning that it would take me a minimum of 12 years to reach the role I wanted. This was the role of regional marketing director, not as impossible dream by any means. And this would only happen provided I was promoted every two years, so say realistically in 15 years. 15 years! Are you kidding me? Tell a 27-year old today to patiently wait for 15 years for having a shot at a what he/she wants and what do you think happens? The same that happened to me. I quit. My problem? The company treated all people equally.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am all for equality in terms of birthright, education, gender, race etc. Equality is great for democracies. But here’s the thing. Companies are not democracies. Companies compete for a living. Democracies are based on freedom, equality, justice etc. Businesses are based on pretty much whatever the owners want, as long as it is legal. That’s why it is fair to compare businesses to sports. Businesses are about growth, about performance. Winning. Like it or not.
As for me, I was devoting nearly all my spare time to improve myself in any way I could think of. I was working twice as hard as the next guy, but I was told we were both on the same career path, on exactly the same level. This was painstakingly frustrating to me. In sports, if you want to advance, you practise even harder and smarter. In corporations, we tell people to wait for their turn.
Would we treat sports teams like we treat people inside organisations? Would we let our best talent sit on the bench until the older ones retire or decide to move to another club? Of course not. But within companies, this is more or less what we are doing. We are letting people play who should either improve or move on. Regardless of how lazy or de-motivated they may be. Even our laws support this behaviour. This is ridiculous.
Growth is about self-fulfillment. It is innate, it is natural. Self-development is not only about providing service to the company. It is about providing the best possible service to yourself. The idea of using your spare time to work on your own abilities, your knowledge and skills, is not something most people are used to in the Nordics. It is quite strange when you think of it. After all, your own skills, your knowledge, your relationships and your reputation is really everything you have. The best job security you can get is working on yourself – improving your game. Yet very few people engage in it. Herein lies great opportunity. We are nowhere near the peak of our capacity.
So why do so few people practise the game of working?
Why do so few people want to become the best in their field? Why is good, not great, enough for most people? Why do so few want to become great at what they do?
It comes down to motivation. It comes down to the why. How well you do as a company comes down to your culture. Your collective skill and competitiveness is what matters. And to cultivate a culture of personal growth, to retain the best talent, I simply don’t believe treating employees equally is the best way to go. In sports, people have to think about getting better each and every day. But in most companies I have worked for, there are only a handful of ambitious people who think and act like this. The rest just show up each day. If all people within a company genuinely did this, i.e. made it their personal mission to practise, to learn and improve every day, how incredible would not the results be?
Just imagine the possibilities you have in this world where only a very small fraction of people give it their best shot. If you decided to give 10% more each day, how much would that be in a year? What would be the difference in five years? In twenty years? Think about it. It’s your life.