I laced up my new skates. It wasn’t the first time I had ever been on them. I had shuffled and wobbled around my local skating rink a few times, and I had been on roller blades for about two years. But this was different. These were quad skates. And this was the gritty sports track of a derby floor.
I stood up gingerly, pushed off, and encountered the first major challenge of my derby life. Taped neatly to the floor was the rope that defined the derby arena, and I needed to skate over it. Gently, carefully, I judged my speed. I shuffle-stepped up to the rope, lifted one foot, and promptly fell on my butt.
Fast forward less than a year later. It’s a warm, humid day in Boston, and I’ve taken my skates with me on a business trip, because that’s how I roll. I left from my hotel and skated to Harvard Square on unknown roads. Urban skating had become one of my favorite things to do. I loved the challenge, the thrill, the uneven ground. I loved the risk of falling, though I rarely ever did.
How did I go from Bambi on Ice to Mad Max? There is no secret here. I got training. I practiced. I screwed up. I got coached. I practiced. I lost my motivation. Coaches found ways of motivating me. I was propelled by desire. I practiced.
And then, not all at once but eventually, I put my skates on outside and just flew.
We have an amazing capacity to learn anything. I’ve learned to skate, ride a bike, juggle, and do algebra. I have a working understanding of a car engine and can tell you more than a little bit about Newtonian Mechanics. None of that came preloaded.
And you have your own portfolio. Things you learned, odd bits of trivia. That weird dance move only you can do. Your passable Spanish that you learned back in high school.
Why am I going on about something obvious? Because people keep telling me, “You can’t train that.” Yes, you can. You can train everything, or at least so much that the exclusions don’t matter. Anything you know, you learned. Sure, you might have a predisposition to like or be good at something, but you still have to learn it.
Leadership is a skill until it becomes an art. Customer service is a skill. The skills can be taught to and learned by anyone. You don’t get to write anyone off. In a world where employees act as free agents and have the power to move from job to job, you simply cannot afford the luxury of waiting for just the right ones. You’ll pay for it in time, you’ll pay for it in salary, you’ll pay for it in opportunity.
Another way of thinking about it as a leader: our people are the agency by which we get work done. It’s a poor craftsman who blames their tools for defects in the results.
Of course, have good hiring practices. Look for the best-qualified candidates. Use unbiased and inclusive processes to increase your hiring pool. But be objective about the level of skill and skill sets you can acquire in your market for your budget, and prepare to train what you need but can’t get on Day One.
Leadership isn’t merely finding great people and setting your ship on autopilot, it’s continually investing in your opportunities to get bigger payoffs. Your biggest opportunities are always your people.
That rope boundary on the derby track? It’s not an obstacle for me anymore.
Train and coach your people, and the insurmountable obstacles of Day One will become afterthoughts.