Workplace Reality #6: The new hire can replace you any day if your only strength is technology

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #6: “The new hire can replace you any day if your only strength is technology“. Of course, this is an exaggeration to catch your attention, but surprisingly close to the truth!

Employees become irreplaceable (or close to it) within an organization when they attain expertise in a much-needed competency. Take a look at a few examples of competencies:

  • Programming in a particular language
  • Negotiating and influencing others
  • Communication and public speaking
  • Selling to businesses
  • Leading a high-performance team

In case of some competencies like programming, you can become an expert if you put in lots of hours every day just programming. If you have spent 4-5 hours a day programming for last 2-3 years, a new hire who has been programming 14 hours a day in his college years can be a better expert. This is the reason you see so young and talent dancers, singers and musicians – they have put in lots of hard work at an early age.

There are 2 categories of competencies:

  • Skill-based Competency: Proficiency level attained in these competencies completely depends on skills you master on your own. Proficiency directly depends on the time spent in practicing the skill. For example, a great programmer will spend thousands of hours writing code at home or college and be highly proficient programmer on the first day of his work. The 10000-hour rule will be more applicable here.
  • Experience-based Competency: Proficiency level attained in these competencies partly depends on skills you master. It also depends on the environment you practice these skills in – people, manager, organization, culture, geography, etc. For example, you can improve your communication skills and become good at giving feedback. However, you need to also practice giving feedback to (and receiving feedback from) from different people around you, and in different org cultures and geographies, you can’t be highly proficient. Just putting number of hours is not enough in these competencies.

Technology strength is a skill-based competency and hence the reality statement above.

Building proficiency in an experience-based competency gives you sustained competitive advantage in a workplace and should always be preferred to a skill-based competency advantage which is a short-term advantage.

Some points are worth keeping in mind when choosing competencies to build your strength in:

  • Impact of competency definition: Some competencies may feel like skill-based but they may actually be experience-based at higher proficiency levels. For example, a good programmer has to be a good problem solver for the given business domain in order to be most effective. While programming and even problem-solving are skill-based, being an ‘effective problem solver in a given domain’ requires experiencing (and solving) real problems in the domain, which depends on the environment you have been operating in. So it is important to define them clearly and in an experience-based competency manner.
  • Impact of environment change: Experience-based competency may not remain a sustainable advantage if your environment changes. For example, someone who has spent 6 years in a structured, process-driven organization may become very skillful at achieve results using well-defined process (which is experience-based competency). If they then join a small company with little defined process, they may produce very little results because environment is now unstructured. So it is important to know what environment you need for your experience-based competency to work well.
  • Impact of enabling environments: Some environments can help you learn faster than others. For example, in a startup you can learn a lot about new product creation very quickly, while a big company may take years to teach you that (if ever). Number of years of experience can be a misleading indicator of expertise. A ‘less-experienced’ person can trump a ‘more-experienced’ one even in an experience-based competency if they had different environments to learn in. So it is important to seek enabling environments.

In the next post, we will discuss the Reality #7: “Organizations are full of leaders and managers who are incompetent and painful“. Stay tuned.

 

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