Your skillset is not what will make a difference to your level of success, it's your "mindset". That's the central message in this book from Jo Owen, a UK-based entrepreneur and consultant whose blurb states that he has worked for more than 100 of the best "and one of two of the worst" organisations on the planet.
Skills are rapidly becoming a commodity. Even the once-prized MBA is no longer the golden ticket it used to be. The US is producing 125,000 MBAs annually, a 74 per cent increase in 10 years and there are now more than 1 million of these qualifications granted each year.
Skills and qualifications alone are not a good indicator of performance, Owen maintains. These are normally abundant whereas the right mindset is a rare commodity that is greatly valued. As he quotes one chief executive saying: “I hire most people for their skills and fire most for their values.”
In general, most of us are not ambitious enough and do not dare to dream. This leads to ruts and burnout. Part of the problem is that we get bogged down on operational detail and living in the present. Sure, we have to fire-fight but we also need to look beyond the day-to-day and invest in our own futures.
Good managers seek to improve things and that’s not easy, he acknowledges because the baseline of performance in an organisation is not level, it is decline. Things do not stay as they are: good staff leave, competitors attack, customers want more and random fate intervenes to mess up the best-laid plans.
This involves taking risks and not being afraid to fail. All too often, however, managers become cynical and complacent, happy to accept mediocre performance. Sights need to be set higher.
Owen advises readers to tune in to the opportunities that they come across in everyday life and to respond proactively. Don’t see these as opportunities for others to exploit, go after them yourself. The temptation is to hold back and find excuses. Instead you should act first, think later.
Resilience is hugely important and Owen extends his focus well beyond the workplace to find inspiring examples. There's a nice tale of American POWs in Vietnam, confined to solitary cells and starved of interaction, who develop their own ingenious code of letters of the alphabet so they tell jokes to each other by tapping patiently on the bars of their cells.
That’s tempered by the cautionary note about the balance between optimism and realism. The optimists in the POW camp didn’t thrive in the longer term. They expected that they would be out by Christmas, then Easter. As their hopes were dashed, despair set in. Too much candy-coated optimism is not a good thing and hope is not a method, is the lesson here.
Seizing control, using humour and building a good support network are vital tools of resilience.
Notwithstanding the observations about over-optimism, a positive outlook is important, especially for sales people. Research on sales executives in a study quoted here showed that the most optimistic 10 per cent outsold the most pessimistic 10 per cent by a staggering 88 per cent.
Further studies have shown that across industries optimistic sales people outsold pessimists by anywhere between 20-40 per cent.
Owen has lots of observations about human nature and motivation too. Academics, he notes, look down their noses at money as a source of motivation until they hit the jackpot of a successful book and television series. Typically, they claim that money is a hygiene factor: getting it wrong demotivates people, getting it right helps them. The truth is more subtle. Money buys status and people crave status.
He cites a case in which he was involved in reorganising a compensation scheme for life insurance salespeople which was encountering huge resistance. The tweak that got ‘buy-in’ from the salesforce was a modest upgrade in their company cars. Visible signs of success are important.
Owens has produced a well-written and interesting book here in the motivation and performance improvement genre.