Context Over Skills





At Talentism we often reference the idea that context, rather than a static slate of strengths, is what you’re good at. This is in opposition to general wisdom, which posits that skills are the things you’re good at. In this latter framework, people are a blank slate. They go to school and get training at various jobs, they pick up and improve skills; people are hired for skills that they have, then are trained on new ones. Skills can be learned, so we’re told, and if you don’t learn them then you’re bad, stupid or lazy. All of that is wrong. Skills driving success is foundational to the current system – a system that limits human potential. 

A lot of the current thinking about people and work originates from the Industrial Revolution. We employed technology to build factories, where humans were a part of an assembly line and did replicable tasks. Understandable, then, that there was a focus on how to get those tasks done faster, and that those tasks were skills. Work as a collection of skills made sense, and out of necessity, those skills were employed as fast as possible. But technology marches on, and we no longer focus on using it to make human labor faster. We use technology to extend our minds, and the fact is that we aren’t employing skills. We employ judgment, perspective, intuition – innately human traits to achieve a goal or outcomes that are valuable to stakeholders.

We’re still living in a system built around humans deploying skills even though, increasingly, that’s not what our world looks like anymore. When trying to produce value in a way that is uniquely human, it’s no longer about skills. It’s about context. What’s happening around you, and within you. When you’re good at something, and are then put in an environment that is unfamiliar, you may be unable to produce the same outcome. It’s not because your skills are any different. It’s because your context changed.

As an example, big organizations and startups are both companies. Both produce goods or services, both focus on growth and sometimes, P&L. But they are incredibly different contexts. As many readers of the Sensemaker know, at startups you have to be able to do things while you’re building things. You’re time and resource constrained, so you must deliver on process and commitments as you build the thing for the future, faster. In a large company with more resources and time, where you’re generally trying to defend rather than gain turf, things tend to move slower. You can have some people focus on run vs. build activities, and processes can be much more robust. 

We often see people who come from big companies, top performers with a lot of skills, come into a startup environment and fail spectacularly. The skills that they have are still important, but they are being applied in a very different environment (for more on this, read The Myth of A-Players). What this comes down to is a lack of sensitivity to what is required to produce great outcomes. A track record of skills is simply not a good indication of whether someone can replicate a great outcome in a different context.

When you identify which context you’ve been successful in, how do you change your lane? We believe that unleashing potential is all about experimenting. If you’re thinking about going from a big to a small company, how do you understand what things are like there – not just in moving from the context of the work, but also the people you’ve worked for. If you’ve worked your entire life inside of a large company, for slow-moving and predictable managers, then going to work for a small company, for a founder who is constantly changing focus and projects, is not just about changing roles. It’s about changing who you’re working for, the people who control your destiny. Consider what might be different, investigate, explore and practice. Look for data across three areas:

1. Responsibilities: What do you own? A salesperson who produces $3M worth of sales may hold responsibility for all sales in all regions. When that person goes to a different company and expects to replicate those results, are they taking into account that they have an assigned, much smaller territory? Without being specific about responsibilities, they are likely to fail.

2. Culture: What are the outcomes and behaviors that you will be rewarded or punished for? These beliefs constitute a company’s culture, and are the operating system we all have about how we will be accepted and succeed, and it’s deeply innate to human beings as a social species. Those cues and clues are about how we behave, and what we produce. When you get comfortable with a culture, that means you’ve been subconsciously picking up data about what’s happening around you. Culture is the lens and filter for how you’re taking this data in and predicting what to expect from the people around you. When you go somewhere else and don’t get those same signals, or the signals are very different, you remain perpetually confused about what people are doing around you and why. You’ll need practice, support and guidance to succeed.

3. Manager: How does your manager manage? As a social species we are oriented to power structures, and managers are the people with the power to promote, demote or fire you. They control your status, and over time your mind pattern matches and makes sense of your manager’s behaviors. When you go to a new company, and your manager operates in a very different way, you’ll be confused and likely threatened. How managers react to problems, give feedback, work with their teams to figure things out – that will look drastically different depending on context. 

What does it take to recognize and shift contexts?  Unleashing potential is about finding your lane, where the best of your talents are summoned, you’re rewarded in a way that makes fundamental sense to you, and you’re in a place that makes sense for who you are. Being able to pop into different places and be “good enough” isn’t what makes us excellent. We want to pursue a context where we can tap into the thing within ourselves that is unique, foundational, and rewarded.

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