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Managing the Capability-Experience Gap

The capability-experience gap creates a growth edge for individuals

It is exceedingly difficult for individuals to match their capability to perform a job or function exactly with their experience in that role. For the upwardly mobile, being promoted into a new challenging role means heading into something with the capability but minus the experience. And most of us know people who have occupied roles they are clearly not qualified for, in which case they have the experience but not the capability.

Regardless of whether the gap is on the capability or the experience side, the capability-experience gap creates a growth edge for individuals. Managing that growth edge is one of the keys to successfully navigating your career.

I was actually having this discussion with a colleague today. This is a gentleman who is blessed with all the talent in the world. He is a strategic thinker. He communicates easily, both in business terms and in extremely technical terms. He is a masterful pattern matcher with an uncanny ability to map lessons learned in unrelated areas to things he is working on. And he is extremely coachable, which means his potential is virtually limitless.

Having said that, he has had very little actual experience managing people. The way his career has grown, he has been a very important contributor to some very meaty projects, but he hasn’t had resources to directly manage. He is absolutely capable of managing a team, but he does not have the experience at this point.

Now I have had the good fortune to work with my colleague for years. I have watched him mature as an employee and grow as an individual. It is obvious to me that he will be a senior executive before too much longer. And as I watch his growth process, I can only think, “Please do not make the same mistakes I did.”

You see, my colleague’s capability-experience gap is on the experience side. He has learned a lot just by being exposed to different disciplines, but he has yet to put it together in a management role. And much to his chagrin, no matter the capability, he will not have mastered management until he actually manages.

This is perfectly acceptable by the way. Even the most skilled in their area of expertise (Tiger Woods, Beethoven, or Gallagher) must practice their craft and hone their skills before they reach any real objective level of success. Regardless of their innate talent, until they put their strengths to use, they cannot reach their full potential. So it is in the business world.

The question for my colleague is: how do you you go about gaining the experience to close the gap?

The most obvious answer is very Nike-esque: Just do it. The most simple approach to gaining experience is to just pick something up and try it.

While certainly a workable approach, the brute force method of learning is not really a deliberate growth path. When people get into the Just do it mindset, they tend to be more concerned with surviving than thriving. When you are tossed into the deep end of the pool, you certainly learn how to stay afloat. But if your objective is to become a world-class swimmer, merely keeping your head above water is hardly success.

Success in any discipline is about training, and training is practicing with purpose.

In a sports context, most people understand what training means. But what exactly does it mean in a leadership frame of reference?

First, you need to realize that leadership might be a soft skill but that does not make it any less of a skill than playing the guitar or rock climbing. If I told you that you needed to get better at playing guitar, you would probably take a lesson or watch YouTube videos. And then you would practice. If I told you that mastering guitar would make you a million dollars, you might practice a lot.

Leadership is the same way. But how do you practice?

I have read a lot of leadership books over the years. I don’t read the books because they are terribly interesting to me. Truth be told, I would rather go for a bike ride than read a book. But the books have been a part of my ongoing leadership training. Because I believe that it is important to practice, I take a different approach to reading than people who read for pure pleasure.

The first day after I finish a book, I begin looking for ways to put the content to use. There is a good book by Eliyahu Goldratt called The Goal. In it, Goldratt teaches the Theory of Constraints along with what he calls the Thinking Processes. The Thinking Processes are basically a flowchart-based way of structuring arguments and mapping out dependencies. For the 6 weeks after I finished the book, I intentionally worked these flowcharts into conversations at work.

If you talk to me today, chances are slim that I will grab a marker and break into a flowcharted discussion. In this case, having tried it out, I decided that the actual practice was not a fit for how I wanted to lead. But I couldn’t make that determination until I had actually given it a sincere effort. And, more importantly, having trained myself to use Goldratt’s reasoning tools, I was able to absorb and refine a lot of what he was teaching in his book. The result is that I have a very practical grasp of what he was teaching about constraint-based systems and dependency mapping.

Practicing is not limited to reading books and trying out their concepts. Chances are that there are everyday situations that can serve as practice as well. In my colleague’s case, he has been leading a project team. While the people on the team do not officially report to him, the project gives him the chance to train up his ability to connect with individuals. In essence, it provides a live-fire exercise that he can use to hone his management skills.

In similar situations, most people focus on the task. They don’t make the conscious effort to practice specific leadership techniques. They might feel too shy to practice things like active listening. Perhaps they feel that purpose-based approaches are too soft and fluffy to try out in real life. Maybe they are embarrassed to try something like drawing flowcharts for every conversation. Whatever the reason, when you subordinate your growth to the task, you are missing out on an opportunity to train.

Over time, if you dutifully embrace training (in leadership or Python or whatever discipline you are passionate about), you will ultimately narrow the capability-experience gap so that when you are promoted into a larger role, the gap is manageable. This is the difference between hitting every wall between you and your end goal and saving yourself a little pain. I learned my leadership skills by committing virtually every sin in the proverbial book, but if my colleague trains, he has a chance to sidestep a lot of the more difficult ones, which will allow him to succeed much faster and with much less pain than I ever did.

[Today’s fun fact: One in every four Americans has appeared on television. I have actually been on television several times, including when my friend won a huge prize on the Price is Right.]

The post Managing the capability-experience gap appeared first on Plexxi.

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More Stories By Michael Bushong

The best marketing efforts leverage deep technology understanding with a highly-approachable means of communicating. Plexxi's Vice President of Marketing Michael Bushong has acquired these skills having spent 12 years at Juniper Networks where he led product management, product strategy and product marketing organizations for Juniper's flagship operating system, Junos. Michael spent the last several years at Juniper leading their SDN efforts across both service provider and enterprise markets. Prior to Juniper, Michael spent time at database supplier Sybase, and ASIC design tool companies Synopsis and Magma Design Automation. Michael's undergraduate work at the University of California Berkeley in advanced fluid mechanics and heat transfer lend new meaning to the marketing phrase "This isn't rocket science."

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