by Greg Duerksen, President, Kincannon & Reed
Most of us spend more than half our waking hours working. Rarely, though, do we think about the components of work itself. If we did, it could transform our approach to work: how we structure our time; our choice of position or career path; how we manage and evaluate those who work for us; and how we select and recruit individuals for a new opportunity.
I find it useful to consider the four elements of work: do, think, sell, and lead. Some individuals may assume these elements are unique to certain positions and removed from others: that do work is reserved for manual laborers or clerical staff, for example, or lead work belongs only to those in high-level positions.
The reality is, all work—and every position—comprises varying degrees of each element. Let’s take a closer look.
Do work involves rote or repetitive activities that are already learned. Operating a machine, sorting files, and entering data come to mind. Even the highest level executives spend time processing email, scheduling meetings, and performing similar do tasks.
Think work includes left-brain problem solving, right-brain creativity, and the blending of the two. It encompasses research, engineering, design, analysis, strategic planning, organizational mapping, systems and process design, and much of marketing. The think element of work attracts bright and creative talent.
To sell means to persuade and convince others to give their agreement and support. Sell work involves using communication and empathy to gain acceptance of an idea or to convince an individual or organization to embrace new thinking or to exchange money for a product or service. Without selling, even the best ideas, plans, strategies, products, and services remain on the shelf.
To lead is to move beyond gaining acceptance. Leading involves inspiring and motivating others to take action and achieve results; working though individuals and teams; and removing obstacles to their success. Lead work is not about an individual, but rather is about empowering the organization to accomplish a common goal. Successful leading requires the think elements of analysis and creativity as we chart a path to success; the sell element of gaining acceptance for our ideas; and the do element of replicating success—turning it into a learned organizational behavior.
In most organizations, particularly businesses, the elements of work are arranged as a hierarchy, with lead work reserved for positions at the top of a pyramid-shaped org chart. Generally, people may be compensated and evaluated along this line as well. But, the four aspects of work should not be viewed as though they are inherently hierarchical.
Consider Your Organization’s Stage
To use the elements of work to our advantage, we can consider how they apply to the top leadership roles throughout the life cycle of an organization.
For example, the CEO of a startup may expect her primary role is to think to create the new product or business model, only to discover that she spends most of her time in do and sell modes. Meanwhile, the CEO of a mature company in a dynamic market immerses in the think element to reimagine the future direction of his or her business. Turnarounds often need a laser focus on do and lead because the think aspect of solving the business problem may have been the easy part. Leading a team of superior scientists or salespeople requires a very different skill set than being the best scientist or salesperson on the team. As you can see, there is no static formula for executive success because the needs and focus of every organization are unique.
We can also apply the elements of work to evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of a management team. How do our direct reports function relative to do, think, sell and lead? Are they all think but no sell? There may be a gap in the team’s ability to transform ideas into productive change. Are they more about do and less about think? The team may lack the direction needed to optimize productivity. Identifying and addressing these gaps can help our teams become more effective.
Recruit More Effectively
When seeking to fill an open position, it’s also helpful to think about how the position’s responsibilities fall into the four elements of work. This exercise will enable us to be more effective in recruiting and vetting candidates.
Using the Elements of Work to Our Advantage
Finally, we can each take the advice of the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy, “Stop a moment, cease your work, and look around you.” Take time to consider how, in your current role, your responsibilities shift among do, think, sell, and lead. Are you content with the split? Are you in a think position when you are most satisfied with sell work? Do you truly enjoy leading, managing, and working through others, or do you prefer thinking and doing? We are each uniquely wired, and identifying the element of work that most satisfies us as individuals may set some of us off on an entirely new and more fulfilling path.