The Mastery Shift: How to Create a Future Working Life of Value

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Lynda Gratton

Editor's note: Today's knowledge workers must take responsibility for their development. Self-development is an important component of managing oneself. You start the managing oneself process by finding out your strengths... by placing yourself where your strengths can produce results... and by making sure you acquire the needed competencies for continuous performance.

Training and continuous learning by themselves are not substitutes for performance. They are simply tools of development.

Over the last eighty years the role of mastery and deep craft knowledge development, through the process of apprentice and masters, has eroded. It was replaced, outside of the old professions, by the rise of shallow generalism. This saw the rise of the non-specialist, ‘the general manager,’ and also huge number of workers with limited specialist skills.

The general management role was one of the cornerstones of the traditional corporate life. These were managers who stayed within a single company, or an industrial sector, for the majority of their careers. They became the classic ‘corporate men.' They understood the company well and could speak for it in any part of the world. They also had the contacts with the head office that allowed them to understand the corporate ethos and culture, and to make decisions on the part of the owners of the company. The deal for these general managers was that, in return for developing competencies and knowledge that were non-transferable (it would be difficult, for example to move in a senior position from Ford to Cadbury’s because so much of their knowledge and networks were specific to the context of Ford), they had the guarantee of a lifetime of employment.

From the 1920s onwards, the majority of large corporations stuck to the traditional general manager deal. They created ‘fast track’ development practices that whisked the most talented youngsters to the top, and built what was to be called ‘bench strength’ of possible internal candidates for the top jobs. For this cohort of managers, it might be that their skills and networks were too specific to the company they worked with, and too general to bring real value outside the company. But that did not matter, because the company guaranteed that they could always work with them.

The challenge for generalists now is that the traditional contract of a job for life has been well and truly broken – leaving them in a job market which does not place a great deal of value on their general knowledge about one company.

So, if generalist, shallow skills could lead to a cul de sac, on what basis can valuable serial mastery be created? Ask yourself these questions to decide how best to create a future working life of value and meaning:

  • First, you will need to build a deep understanding of why some competencies are more valuable than others – this insight will become an important pathfinder in the coming years.
  • Then, to be as smart as possible about predicting what will be valued in the future. Of course you cannot know exactly what will be crucial – but given your knowledge of demographic and globalization trends you should be able to make an educated guess.
  • However, keeping these skills and competencies in mind – go with what you love.
  • Then go really, really deep to gain mastery of the area
  • Finally, be prepared to slide and morph into other areas of mastery.

But that’s not the only group that got caught out by developing wide and shallow skills and knowledge. There was another group who while they had never reached the top, had made a living supervising others, or worked on projects finding information, writing reports, and making recommendations.

The challenge with being a ‘jack of all trades,’ of developing shallow knowledge across a range of topics is that your main competitor is not the person sitting next to you, it’s not even the person sitting in Mumbai. Your main competitor is Wikipedia, or Google Analytics, or the myriad of technical applications that will replace shallow knowledge. And you think the networks that you have invested so much time in developing are really valuable – well guess what? LinkedIn and Facebook applications are making every person with access to the Internet a world-class networker.

In part, this argument against generalist skills and shallow knowledge is a swing back of the pendulum from mechanized work to nineteenth-century craftwork. With the rise of the factory, both skilled craftsmen and unskilled rural workers left the countryside to work in the factories that had been built across England and later in North America. The metaphor for the way of working that accompanied this shift was the 'wheel and the cog.' The wheel was the company that ran these factories, the cog the people engaged in production. The mechanization of work witnessed the breaking down of work into its smallest component tasks, which could then be performed by people with limited, shallow skills and to all intents and purposes acting as automations. In the textile mills for example, what was needed in these corporate hierarchies was hours of labour – not innovation, not creativity and certainly not the ‘whole person.’

Before the nineteenth century, master craftsmen were often able to specialise because they worked alone. Artisans made a chair, a piece of clothing or a cart from start to finish with little assistance from others. But this was simple work. The division of labor made possible much more complex tasks – like building a car. The challenge now is to develop a deep knowledge of a particular area but also to create networks that tap into others deep knowledge since tasks and jobs are a great deal more complicated than they were in the nineteenth century. We need the knowledge and depth of the eighteenth-century artisan, with at the same time the networks that enabled the division of labour to be formed in the late nineteenth century.

That’s not to say of course that all jobs in the nineteenth century simply needed shallow generalist skills. During that period of time, the professionals – such as lawyers, physicians, engineers and architects made enormous efforts to build their expertise, and to ring fence their professions against others. It was during this century that professional bodies were created that regulated the entry into the professions, that kept a tight hold on who could be selected, and regulated the fee structure of the professional while upholding what became known as ‘professional standards.' Over the coming decades these ancient professions where joined by other job groups that attempted to do the same.

However, with the mechanization of labor it was often left to the professionals to develop deep skills that were difficult for others outside the profession to imitate.

To summarize the case against shallow knowledge and skills – broad general management skills, while valuable at a point in time, are in fact too specific to one company to be easily transferable, and in a world of limited contract life, can lead to a cul-de-sac. At the same time, shallow skills in knowledge work are rapidly being replaced by knowledge repositories such as Wikipedia, and amalgamation devices such as Google Analytics.

So, in order to flourish in the future, you will need to develop deep knowledge and skills. However, to do so you will also have to decide which skills and knowledge are likely to be valuable in the future; and to ensure that you develop depth in more than one area – in other words, to develop serial mastery.