May 172012

You Can’t Teach a Cat How to Bark, But You Might be Able to Teach it How to Walk on its Hind Legs

You Can’t Teach a Cat How to Bark, But You Might be Able to Teach it How to Walk on its Hind Legs

My co-founder George and I have had this saying for a while.  Cats don’t bark.  They can’t.  Never will.  They also don’t usually walk on their hind legs in the wild, but some of them, after some training, could probably be taught to do so.

Working with people on career evolution sometimes follows that same path.  Lots of the time, an employee’s career evolution is natural and goes well.  They’re playing to their strengths, in their sweet spot, progressing along nicely.  But often that’s not the case.  And it goes both ways.  Some employees want something different.  The sales rep wants to be a sales manager.  The product manager wants to try marketing.  Sometimes the organization needs something different out of the person.  Be a stronger manager.  Be more collaborative.  Acquire more domain or functional expertise.

These transitions might or might not be difficult.  It completely depends on the person involved and the competencies required for the new role.  And that’s where the barking cat comes into play.  There’s more art than science here, but as a manager or as the employee, figuring out the gap between existing strengths/experience and the required competencies for the new job, and whether the missing elements *can* be taught or not is the exercise at hand.

I’m not sure there’s a useful rule of thumb here, either.  I had a boss once many years ago who said you can teach smart people how to do anything other than sales.  Another boss said you can teach anyone any fact, but you can’t teach anyone empathy.  Both of these feel too one-size-fits-all for me.  One thing we do at Return Path from time to time is encourage an employee facing some kind of stretch transition (for whatever reason) to participate in or run a short-term side project with a mentor that lets them flex some relevant new muscles.  Essentially we let them try it on for size.

  • Nick Mehta

    Good post, Matt. Something I thought about a lot as well. One observation from my end: I started trying to talk the person out of trying something new to see how badly s/hewanted it. I did it in an honest way, saying that the path straight up (e.g., staying in the same role but moving up) is much easier and more lucrative so why do they want to switch. I think in sales this is especially true. As a good sales rep, any move horizontally (e.g., to PM, marketing) is a big step back in comp.

    • Matt Blumberg

      True – and for good sales reps, even a move to being a sales manager can be a real stretch.

  • Cloughie2012

    Tech guys feeling that the only way to advance their career is to be a tech manager is something I've experienced a lot. As Nick said, it often comes down to being very candid with people and trying to explore further what is truly the best career path for them. Sometimes that can be upwards, horizontal – but it doesn't always have to be. Often taking on a completely fresh challenge or responsibility within their current title / area is a good way for them to make a bigger impact and to progress. That's what it all comes down to at the end of the day – the impact they can make on the business, while trying to juggle peoples professional development too.

    It can be the case too that the best way for someone to advance their career and to make the impact that they are passionate about is to do so at another company – it takes a great manager to be ok with that and let people go onto new challenges rather than selfishly try to hold onto them.

    • Matt Blumberg

      Both great points – especially the second one, which is so much better as a two-way dialog than one-way communication.Matt

  • Adam Menges

    While reading your post, The First 90 Days came to mind:

    • Matt Blumberg

      That's a good book, for sure. First impressions are key.Matt