Roy Bahat, a well-regarded startup investor, writes above about his observations that the skills of company founders don’t line up with the skills of great students.
I love his post and this topic. But it goes so much deeper than just startups.
An executive coach told me:
“The work world is split into two groups, mostly children and a few adults.”
This coach was making the same point as Roy, only with a more offensive approach — nobody at work wants to be called a child.
However, he followed this pointed statement with an explanation of how deeply we’ve all been conditioned to be good children.
A good child does what they’re told, does their chores and does their homework.
That “good child” mindset is exactly what’s expected from you at your first job too. Do what you’re told and get your work done.
So the default mode of all workers is to be a child. And we’re not talking fast food workers. This is true at Google and any other smart-person factory that hires based on having been a good student.
The big mystery is how someone becomes an adult at work.
An adult takes responsibility for outcomes. They do work without being asked. They go beyond their job description. Mostly the word we use for adults at work is leadership. But technically, anyone at any level could have these characteristics.
Why don’t they?
The first challenge is that there’s very little expectation setting that a big change is coming. There’s no concept of work adulthood.
Many people experience adulthood at work as a sort of epiphany triggered by the failings of their boss.
If your boss is screwing up, a child is going to complain and hope some other person above them comes in and fixes things. That’s the ingrained hierarchy of childhood.
But some small set of people will have an epiphany — maybe I could do the work that my boss seems incapable of. Maybe I could do more than what I’m told. Maybe I could argue with my boss and help them see that we should do something different.
Think about becoming and adult in life. For 22 years your family told you to get good grades to get into college to get a good job so that you can afford to pay rent and live on your own. That moment when you are living on your own is adulthood. That’s a transition that you’ve seen coming for 22 years.
But nobody does this at work. Nobody tells you that there will be a point in your career where you will have to switch from black and white to all grey, where you will have to take responsibility regardless of the rules, that even in taking responsibility you might fail.
Because the path to work adulthood is so vague, the people who get there first get there through some prior personality defect.
For example, being a jerk is a great way to become a work adult. You never cared about the rules and so you make up new ones. Your bosses, who aren’t exposed to your jerkdom on a daily basis, start to see you as the one person on their staff who takes initiative.
I think this lack of visible transition to adulthood is one of the main contributors to the HBR framing of leadership having a bias toward hubris over competence.
People have naturally started to associate hubris with leadership. They’re correlated in our current system.
But what would happen if everyone at work knew the basics of how to transition from being a child to being an adult? What if being a good student actually meant learning the things that would make you a responsible adult at work?
It’s a question worth examining for yourself and for the people you work with.