Everyone needs a skill.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about skills. It must the resumes I’m sending out, the career search process in general, but I find myself thinking about the often blurry concept of “job skills” and what it means to be know how to do something. If this post has a practical use–and I’m not claiming it does–it’s as advice for small business owners, hoping to hire outstanding people who can actually improve a company.
I can remember sitting through an excruciating hermeneutics graduate course many years ago, watching some guys pouring concrete for a new sidewalk outside. After we’d wasted an hour dissecting sentences word by word, painfully trying to comprehend ridiculously cryptic ideas in a book that’s very subject was how we communicate, the professor adjourned the class with the pronouncement, “We did good work today.” A friend of mine and fellow writer of fiction (there were mostly philosophy students in this class, but some of the MFA writers–myself included–had ended up there because we needed the credits) announced matter-of-factly, “We didn’t do good work today.” Everyone turned to look at him, and he clarified: “We didn’t do any work today. They did work today,” he said, gesturing to the work crew outside the window. “What we did wasn’t work.” He was right.
When I went on to put in time as an English professor myself, the lesson I took with me from that class was to always be relevant, always keep the discussion of even the most obscure subjects rooted in the every day experiences of my students. This wasn’t a challenge, because I’d always thought of books as a necessary tool to get through life–a kind of multi-tool that included everything from a life jacket to hand grenades. You learn to read books and think critically about complicated subjects so that you can form your own opinions about things and make good decisions. I regarded those skills as being every bit as crucial and necessary to the average person as a level and nails are to a carpenter.
That particularly bad grad course I’d sat through didn’t have any meaning to me because there was no regard for a product: we weren’t even trying to create anything. To my thinking, the further you drifted away from concrete, tangible productivity–making something–the less relevant any of your gibberish became. Writers were, at least, still driven to create something.
This weekend, Bill Maher pointed out the difference between this photo of Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital
and photos of other famous wealthy people, including Henry Ford standing beside his Model T, Woz and Steve Jobs sitting there with their first computer, and Walt Disney at his desk, drawing a cartoon.
The distinction Maher’s photos made was a powerful one. Seems like too often these days, real money doesn’t come from making anything (except more money). Those gifted at living without creating anything tend to make money from money, and, as we’ve seen, they usually manage to do this by using loopholes, bad faith, and one hell of a disregard for others. Financial services companies can use the term “product” to describe things like Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) and Credit Default Swaps (CDSs), but that’s like saying you’re a rock star because you got drunk and crashed your car. Whoever created those must surely be proud, but I have to believe it’s a different kind of pride than what an engineer or an artist might have in creating something.
With all of this in mind, it occurred to me that the best people I’ve known, those who demonstrate what I consider to be strong moral character, are always people who can make things. I’ve known devoutly religious people, people held in high esteem by their local communities, whom I’d not let anywhere near my kids. This isn’t to say every diesel mechanic is a saint, but, if you think about your business like a child, I’d much rather have doers on board than talkers. Probably the thing that shocked me so much as I moved around my part of the business world–including everything from C-level managers, to business software developers, to mergers and acquisitions specialists–was just little anyone could actually do.
To my mind the world is already too full of people so absolutely incapable of successfully performing even the most basic of tasks that they end up in upper management positions. Sadly, what that can do to a company is pretty gruesome in and of itself. Here are a few e-commerce business rules I’ve learned the hard way.
- Upper management that’s never engaged directly with the end user is useless. If you’re a consumer-facing retailer or e-commerce store, look for management and operations people who’ve spoken to customers, one way or another, somewhere in their past. Preferably within the past year. Unless you’re Proctor and Gamble, the days of the ivory tower CEO and COO in the retail space are over.
- Mergers and acquisitions guys have to understand technology. Without the ability to understand how Company A is making their donuts–or at least be able to comprehend the analysis of someone who does–how can anyone making business development decisions put a real price tag on merging it with Company B. There are cases where even two relatively strong companies, brought together by a weak M and A team, become much less than the sum of their parts due to incompatible technology.
- Marketing people should have some experience in sales and customer service. This matters not just because they need to understand the consumer’s point of view, but because they need to understand the process of their own salespeople.
- All managers are part-time chief technology officers, especially CFOs. The basic costs associated with something like an e-commerce site can vary enormously and most companies would do well to have a watchdog along every checkpoint. If you’re paying $25,000 a month for web hosting, and don’t know enough to realize you could be paying less than $1,000, don’t assume the IT department is going to take the time to set you straight. They’re still busy trying to get the reconditioned phone system you bought on sale to work properly.
The list could really go on all day, but the basic idea stays the same. All those job ads that include phrases like “creative thinker” might not be going far enough. In order to be a creative thinker, you need to have an arsenal of skills from which to generate ideas. You need to know how to make stuff and do stuff. I’d like to think that America in particular can reverse the current trend toward generating wealth without actually producing anything useful. Maybe Mitt Romney’s a nice guy, though I doubt it, and there’d have to be documented video proof of Mitt eating a live baby for him to scare me more than Newt Gingrich, but I think there’s something inherently wrong when separating value from reward. That image of the Bain Capital guys in suits stuffed with money is the America you end up with when the people making the most money have the least to offer.