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.