About two years ago, my company, Axcess Worldwide, was preparing to broker a major agreement between two publicly traded companies that were the leaders in their respective industries. In the end, we succeeded. But going in, we didn’t know if the never-before-attempted concept we’d proposed would survive the hard negotiations on a definitive agreement. We just knew that it had the potential to be an important agreement for the two titans and a big deal for our company.
One of the fundamental strategic decisions we had to make was on personnel: Who was the best person from our company to sit at the table day after day for weeks on end, patiently helping the two sides work through issues huge and small? For a deal this important, it was either the company’s chairman and CEO, Kirk Posmatur, or me, its president. Kirk is older and more experienced; I interned with him when I was a Cornell undergrad, and he’s been my mentor and “adopted older brother” ever since. Kirk is also a creative genius at building relationships and connecting people and ideas. So, in some ways, he was the natural choice as our point person.
But, after some deep thought, Kirk concluded that I should be at the table, because the situation demanded things that didn’t play to his strengths: hours of close, detailed discussions; patience with a two-steps-forward, one-step-back pace; and a lot of word-smithing with lawyers. He was self aware enough to know that he didn’t have the skills to excel in that context, to get the deal done.
For Kirk to pretend otherwise would have been–or use a phrase coined by my friend and former professor Howard Stevenson, the iconic Harvard Business School professor–“cheating at solitaire.”
Cheating at solitaire can be a major hurdle in one’s career path, and it’s a situation discussed in detail in our recent book, Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work. The notion of cheating at solitaire derives from the common experience of not having the right sequence of cards to win a hand of Solitaire–and simply pulling a useful card from elsewhere in the pile to continue playing. Technically, you’re breaking the rules, but doing so doesn’t much matter; it’s just a game and there’s only you playing.
Too often, however, people do exactly the same thing in their careers, where it does matter–a lot. These people set ambitious professional goals and convince themselves that they’ve got what it takes to achieve them. Or, perhaps worse, they just don’t take the time to think through what it will really take to hit those goals and how they stack up against those criteria. Maybe they have almost everything it takes. But in a highly competitive situation where other talented people are striving for the same ambitious goal, missing one key skill among several can have significant, negative consequences.
I don’t have to cast my mind too far to offer a perfect illustration of “cheating at solitaire”–just back to the table where I helped create that major deal two years ago, where one of the negotiators was an up-and-coming executive who I’ll call Mitch. (I haven’t used the real name for reasons that will become apparent.) Mitch was remarkably smart and driven, had amazing stamina and a photographic memory. What he didn’t have, however, was good judgment about when to let things go and when to make a stand. To him, the point of the negotiation was to win every battle, claim victory on every point.
Whether it was an outgrowth of his training or a quirk of personality, Mitch couldn’t see the larger picture: that the two parties were in that room by choice, trying to build a 10-year relationship that would have outsized benefits for both sides. As the days of negotiation passed, this blind spot had the effect of undermining his credibility as a lead player for his team. It became clear to everyone in the room–especially his own colleagues–that his desire to win tactical points was risking the larger strategic value of the relationship.
Mitch honestly believed he had all the skills to lead the negotiation. And he was diligent and intelligent and experienced and lots of other good things. But I’d be surprised if he ever led another major deal-making process for his company. And I’d be willing to bet that his experience in our negotiation turned into a negative inflection point for his career–forcing him to do a major re-evaluation of professional goals and ambitions. Because, whether he knew it or not, he was cheating at solitaire.
Cheating at solitaire can be a problem at any point in one’s career. However, it’s a particularly easy pitfall for smart young professionals today. Having been raised in an “everyone in the soccer league gets a trophy” era, it’s easy for them to believe that their smarts and skills will enable them to accomplish anything they put their hand to. And, growing up in our high-tech, data-at-your-fingertips society, they too often confuse information with understanding, and equate understanding with actionable skill.
Have you found yourself in a similar situation? Have you, knowingly or not, set yourself up for major disappointment in setting an ambitious goal that you’re simply not equipped to achieve? These are not questions that any of us really wants to address, for fear that we’ll have to acknowledge an unpleasant reality: that we have a small number of areas where we truly excel, and many more where we do not.
But it’s far better to be intellectually and emotionally honest with oneself up front, and–as objectively as possible–answer both “Can I do the job well?” and “Can I do it better than my competition?”
So, by all means, set yourself ambitious goals and go for. But do it with eyes wide open–and an honest appraisal of the person in the mirror.