Shortly after raising a $14 million round of venture capital for BzzAgent in 2005, I realized I was completely, utterly, shamefully lost as CEO. After building the company steadily for 5 years, generating significant revenue and profits, I found myself sitting at my desk, wondering what I was supposed to do. My dirty secret: online backgammon, which I played for hours a day.
One might say I’d created my own downfall. By successfully investing in developing a top tier team, I’d worked myself out of the actual work I’d been doing for years. This was, of course, not a good thing (except for my backgammon game). After many months of feeling disoriented, I realized the truth: my skills had failed to evolve as the organization had matured.
My early career was defined by my aptitude with a number of hard skills. My Quickbook prowess allowed me to manage basic accounting, and I could massage Excel spreadsheets into hardcore pricing models. I optimized Salesforce to track and manage the sales team. Somewhere along the way I become relatively savvy with Filemaker, and delivered relational databases that simplified our inventory management.
Yet, as the organization grew, I’d focused intently on building my A-team of highly skilled employees. So honed were their own skills, that BzzAgent now had a team of specialized experts at the top of their game, each one better poised to tackle specific tasks than I was. Our head of finance had tied our pricing calculators directly into our accounting system and our head of sales revamped our Salesforce templates and automated reports. It was my job to let them do their job, but more importantly, I’d hired so well that I was outclassed.
The crisis was eventually solved through a desperate midnight call to Jeff Glass, a board member and fantastic leader in his own right. Jeff’s answer was simple: create a list of five things that only you can do for the company, and tape that list to your computer. If you find yourself doing something not on the list, delegate it. If you find someone else doing something on the list, take it from them. On my list were items like “Manage Company Culture” and “Manage the Leadership Team”, clearly the soft skills required of executives and leaders. Nowhere on my list were hard skills like Salesforce or Quicken (or playing Backgammon, for that matter).
As I mastered the evolution to the soft skills of leadership--motivating people to operate exceptionally as individuals and remarkably in teams--every hard skill I had so fanatically defined myself by went into decline. I now play Excel like a Neanderthal with drum mallets, and sales operation folks giggle about my ham hocked use of Salesforce. Does anyone even care about Filemaker anymore?
According to Burning Glass--an organization that studies the association of skills to jobs--the top three in-demand skills for individual contributors are Data Analysis, Photoshop and Illustrator. In contrast, the top skills required of leaders are Strategy, Management and Brand Identity. It’s infinitely clear that organizations recognize the need for hard skills through early career growth, and soft skills as an individual achieves leadership status. By the time someone becomes a C-level executive, you might as well toss their hard skills in the bucket labeled, “recyclables go here.”
For many, this transition is jarring. Swapping one set of skills for another--a feeling of loss and being lost as one transverses to the next phase of their career. For those of you sitting at your desk wondering why you are feeling at sea, this may very well be the reason.
One simple solution is being conscious of the change and accelerating it through active learning and seeking mentorship. And an acceptance of needing to let go of the hard skills, of course. Another is to gain a set of skills early in your career that will help you manage both your hard skills, and this transition to soft skills. These are “Elastic Skills.”
Elastic Skills maximize your flexibility across the organization and are defined by two components:
- Information, and it’s need to be accessed anywhere and;
- Communications, and the fact we now must operate in real time, with immediacy.
Evernote is an elastic skill, providing access to your documents across any device you own. Dropbox ensures distinct groups of employees can share central file access. Even Concur, an app that tracks and manages expenses--one of the most painful and procrastination-prone aspects of anyone’s job--is a critical elastic tool for currency exchange between employees and the company.
While the tactical skills that propel us through our careers often become less important in leadership roles, Elastic Skills never go away. As a matter of fact, they become ever more important in fostering effective communication, collaboration and alignment among teams. At Smarterer (where I’m now co-founder and CEO, post BzzAgent’s acquisition), certainly others are better at the hard skills of SPPS and Python, while I’ve become laser focused on the soft skills of deal negotiation and team structure. But a whole slew of Elastic Skills are what enable me to be the most productive. Google Drive is our go-to for cross-team document collaboration. Bluejeans and Appear.in allow us to connect 8 different offices via immediate spontaneous video dialogues.
Aaron Skonnard, CEO of Pluralsight (which acquired Smarterer), recently challenged the organization to give up email for a week. Communications would only occur through Slack, arguably the Elastic Skill that is powering a revolution in how organizations behave. After some griping--mainly for fearing change--the results were astounding--less time clearing out your inbox, a slew of cross-company new connections, reduced long-diatribe emails, rapid group decisions. Oddly enough, even the use of the /giphy function created a new fabric of endorsement and support across the organization. Nothing short of a communication revolution.
We’ve now entered an era where hard skills create the trajectory for career growth, soft skills define great leaders, and elastic skills are the glue that holds it all together.
Now if only I can find someone to approve my expense reports.