“Football is two things. It’s blocking and tackling. I don’t care about formations or new offenses or tricks on defense. You block and tackle better than the team you’re playing, you win.” – Vince Lombardi
Just like in football, there is a perception that blocking and tackling has no glamor and it is beneath us to focus on those activities if we were to be successful. Not a month passes without me getting an SOS ping from someone with “Save me from this madness – I don’t want to be stuck in creating decks, business cases, managing utilization and creating pricing sheets. I want to be in the strategic stuff”. I have some empathy – I have made such calls too when I had their roles in the past. And one such call today is the reason I started typing this post
The main reason to hate the blocking and tackling work is because we generally don’t know why we do these “boring” tasks at all when we start out.
My favorite way of getting people (usually my younger colleagues) to see the WHY aspect is to bring them with me to a meeting where their work is used. A few years ago, a young senior manager came to me for some advice and told me how much she hated the mindless work around pricing deals. So I asked her boss to have this senior manager present the deal on his behalf for the deal review next time.
Our CFO asked her “Why should we make this investment instead of putting the money in an index fund”. She did not have a good answer, but her boss did. He walked us through the fundamentals of the analysis she had come up with and showed why it is a better deal than alternate ideas we had suggested. She knew the mechanics of pricing very well – she just did not know the context of how her work was used by others for their decisions. Now she is masterful in how she crafts business propositions and is well set for an amazing career. To her credit – she now explains the WHY aspects of the work to the people in her team when she assigns them such work.
People who grow up learning to block and tackle well will have some advantages in business that are hard to learn later in life. I learned this from the head of manufacturing of a car company some twenty years ago when I was a young consultant collecting business requirements for an SAP implementation project.
He used to let me sit in his Tuesday morning staff meetings and for every problem that came up – he would ask “Should we make this problem go away, or should we solve it?”. That was a test to see who knew WHY the problem exists and hence can explain how to make it go away by making upstream changes. Over the course of several such meetings, I realized that people who passed the test were the ones that got better roles and more money and so on. It was counter intuitive for me on why he thought less of the people who just thought about ways of putting in a solution for the problem without questioning why the problem came up in the first place. Those were the people who got a lot of extra coaching and formal training. The irony was that often the solutions proposed by this second set of people were the “requirements” I captured for the ERP implementation
I am a big fan of delegation and have written about my thoughts on how to do so effectively a few times already. As I look back at my own career, a good part of my success over the years happened because my bosses felt comfortable delegating more and more to me. And the reason they had that confidence in delegating to me was because they knew I had a good command over the blocking and tackling aspects of the job, and they were positive I can make “some problems go away for good” because I have a first principles understanding of the issue. Now – the honest truth is that I did not always have that understanding . There is a little halo effect that you earn for yourself when you are good at blocking and tackling – and that buys you a bit of extra time and room for mistakes to make the problems go away.
Blocking and tackling are less boring when you understand the WHY aspects . But that does not mean that boredom and grief will not return if all you do is block and tackle. When you are really good at blocking and tackling – you become good at solving problems the RIGHT way . The next logical step up from there is solving the RIGHT problems.
The people who have the most fulfilling time at work are the ones who can do both – identify the right problems to solve, and then solve it the right way. The reality is that majority of leaders become good at only one of these two things, and hence companies need multiple leaders working in tandem to bring both these much needed skills together . Personally, I prefer leaders who are awesome at execution to the ones who are hailed as strategic thinkers. To be more precise – I believe it is a step in the wrong direction to separate execution from strategy. There is no such thing, in my opinion, as a great strategy, poorly executed. Strategy that does not take into account the ability to execute is at best called marketing/PR/advertising. At worst it is just called a MISTAKE.
(Cross-posted @ Vijay's thoughts on all things big and small)