Balancing Deeper Expertise with Wider Life Context

The Googleization of the world has created this notion of hyper relevance: I can find the exact thing I want quickly and anywhere in the world and maybe for free. I grew up in a world where relevance was local. The village elder (of the K'anjobal Mayan Tribe in San Miguel Acatán, Huehuetenango, Guatemala) sat in the town square and he (always a he) imparted wisdom for life settings. The more interesting thing about that model, though, was the magic of how wisdom was gathered in the first place--because everyone came to him. We--and the village elder--learn more from questions than answers.

Google is just the new village elder, but he’s got a cell phone and a laptop. Google algorithms are built on the notion of self-learning. I search for a phrase, Google gives me options, and eventually most of us choose the most relevant link, and then Google serves you that constantly self-healing data. Essentially we’re all unpaid Google volunteers.

In that context, Google is only going to serve queries to you and your firm if you are hyper relevant to the query. All this has fed the specialization craze. Need a marketing firm that understands how best to do social media for credit unions? How to find transactional leads for life insurance products? How to reach young girls as they become women? If so, we have your answer and we know that niche better than anyone in the world. By the way, this deep specialization is also why the average F1000 company has dozens of agencies.

So we end up with all these very specialized firms (horizontal and vertical), which is a good thing, but how do they see the world in a larger context? How do they keep learning from the questions and not just the answers? Enter this notion of a “T-shaped” firm with deep expertise and broad context. You’ll never get discovered and followed unless you’re an expert, but you’ll never be a good expert unless you’re grounded.

The most boring people in the world can have an endless conversation about the same thing. Equally boring–in a different way–are the folks who have an opinion on everything but have never demonstrated success in their own life. Combining those two extremes is what makes people, and the agencies they run, interesting and valuable. (And let’s not define success with financial metrics alone.)

Here’s an illustration for you. I need to know that your firm should not spend more than 6% of their fee base on burdened facility costs: monthly lease, utilities, taxes, insurance, cleaning, repairs, and security. That’s deep expertise that comes from working with 800+ firms in an advisory setting. But I also need to know that the most introspective time for a principal is when she is at the boundary of signing another 10- or 15-year lease, because that’s the only long-term commitment she ever makes to the business. That’s broader context that comes from understanding risk and how people make decisions.

How are you going to pull off this crossbar of broader relevance and the deeper expertise that clients really want to pay for? The answer is to focus your business life on deep SME (subject matter expertise) while all the while having a varied, sponge-like, interesting personal life that puts that SME into context.

To help you define and promulgate the SME, I do a yearly two-day conference and provide consulting. It’s an artful science you’ve heard a lot about. But you have to define your own life outside work, and it will look different for each of you. Here are the elements of how I answer that question for myself, starting with the most important:

  1. Be a curious, observant human. Try to understand people by reading between the lines and grasping how change happens and how people are influenced. Primarily get inside your own head, though, and then safely assume that all of us are frighteningly similar.
  2. Travel as a world citizen. I want to be as comfortable in London and Hong Kong as I am in Bolivia and Cuba. Put all this into a historical context so that you see narrower movements within broader movements.
  3. Read widely in settings that will cancel the partisanship. The biggest danger to civilization at the moment is that we are shaping the voices we hear to include only the voices that reinforce our beliefs. If you want some help getting started, see the list of what I read at the close of this.

As you get the hang of this, you’ll discover your own version of the scientific process:

  1. Work Life: Specialize, which is merely deciding where you’re going to be smart. Note the patterns in this defined area and write them down so that you can do some initial testing with clients in a real world setting where embarrassment stings. Develop insight from the patterns and now you are on the path to an SME.
  2. Personal Life: Resurface, look around at the world, and see if your insight survives the larger context.
  3. Repeat until you die. Hopefully you mind lasts as long as your body.

There you go. You’ll gravitate to your own reading list eventually, but if you want some help getting started, here’s what I always read (plus other occasional things):

Best wishes to you on the journey to being a balanced expert.

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