Thursday, September 25, 2008

Using Your Smarts

As many industry titans like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and AIG have either bitten the dust or been forced into shotgun weddings with other firms, the judgment of CEOs has come under the scrutiny of investors, financial news analysts, think tanks, and business management schools. How timely, then, is Smarts: Are We Hard Wired for Success? authored by Chuck Martin, Peg Dawson, and Richard Guare. As noted in the “Top Shelf “column in the Summer 2007 issue of the American Management Association’s journal MWorld, the book reflects on 12 indispensable skills that define executives. Of those, 3 have become common refrains in my writing classes more than ever: self-restraint, task initiation, and observation.

In writing, a lack of self-restraint leads to all sorts of tone problems, especially in the gun-slinging, high-flying world of e-mail and text messaging. Being too hotheaded about someone or something can cause long lasting problems. Remember the Sonny Corleone character in The Godfather? His gut-response expression of interest in a deal with drug lord Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo not only embarrassed his father and the Family, but ultimately led to a five-family war and to his own death.

As for task initiation, think about a time that you might have sat on something far too long, your self-restraint going to the extreme point of paralysis. That thank-you note you wrote but did not send would have kept you in the client’s memory long enough for him to invite you in the door one more time. Or that proposal you didn’t muster the courage to write to your boss eventually landed on her desk anyway, but it was penned by a teammate who was rewarded with a promotion. An over-the-top example of waiting too long pops up in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, when the fickle Estella and ambitious Pip squander their youth on glamorous yet shallow and separate lives without the enduring love they could have given each other.

Observation: What hasn’t been said about this talent? Being able to step outside oneself and at first look at the situation for what it is and not for what you think it should be is so important to actually changing it when it’s bad and to maintaining it when it’s good. Have you read troubleshooting reports that missed key details of transpired events or policy directives that in true dictatorial fashion do not give the rationale for the procedural change? Before calling these omissions a sign of indifference or arrogance, be sure the writer has not simply forgotten or never learned to include those points. I recall the episode “To Serve Man” from the 1960s TV sci-fi hit The Outer Limits. The Kanamits were aliens arriving on Earth “to serve man”; little did we delighted humans know that the Kanamits left out one important detail: They did not want to be our servants but to serve us on a plate as their supper. So much for our power of observation!

Our self-restraint, initiative, and observation indeed go a long way toward keeping us at the top of our writing game. Smarts would make for a quick and easy read as we relate the 12 cited executive skills to our developmental needs as writers.