Monkey Traps, Career Development, And Your Next Budget


Have you ever seen a monkey trap? It’s a simple device, just a container with a narrow opening. Typically, it’s a gourd or a hole in a tree with an opening just big enough for a monkey to squeeze his hand into; inside of your trap is something tasty (a piece of banana?) or something shiny.  When the monkey grabs the bait, his hand can no longer fit back out of the trap. Of course, if he just let go of the bait, he could take his hand out. But he won’t. Well, I saw a picture of a very unhappy monkey, with his hand caught in a trap and I thought, “Y’know, give him a shave and a pair of pants and he look just like my uncle Horace.” We’ve not that far removed from our hairy cousins, especially “little Horace.” It may take more than a bit of banana, but like little Horace we can all fall into our own monkey traps.

I think we fall into the biggest traps in our own careers.  Either through promotions or chance, as you gain seniority you often gain titles and responsibilities. Not just growth in
size, but an expansion in the types of responsibility. As the range of your responsibilities
expands, are you equally capable of performing each responsibility?  Don’t think in terms of doing “good enough,” think about what you do exceptionally well. Are there responsibilities that you hate performing? Chances are, the responsibilities that you hate are the ones you preform least well, or put the least time into. In today’s economy, there
is more transparency in the organization than ever before, and under performance…… even when you do very well in some areas… is becoming a top management issue. For your long-term career, it is better to do what you do best, and do it exceptionally well. Then how do managers get into this monkey trap? Because in the past, taking on ever more responsibilities meant that you could justify ever higher pay. Today, the outputs of your work are being scrutinized much more closely. Your desire to do is still vastly important, but your pay and your career are going to be based on your ability to accomplish. 

People have always complained about bias in the workplace.  People have always thought that promotions are based on who the boss likes or who is the best yes man. And “people” have been right. It’s not that every boss is so biased that he ignores hard data on performance; the problem was that bosses lacked the tools to assign the right objectives
and to measure if workers achieved them.  Lacking data (and even good measures) on
performance, the boss falls back on indirect indicators, like ambition, a “can-do”
attitude, and… personal loyalty.  Why is personal loyalty so important? Because if I’m wrong about what I think you can do, I’ll at least know that you’re trying to do what I asked! This just builds a monkey trap for your workers. Their desire to please you, and your desire to reward them by adding responsibilities, leads to the same problem of spreading their attention between the things they do very well and a lot of things where
their performance may be only mediocre. Because of fear.. that we won’t be promoted, that we’re not indispensable… we try to hold onto things that aren’t necessarily good for us.

If this is what we do individually, what’s going on in the groups we manage? In most cases we’re not only committing the same errors on a much larger scale, we’re also degrading the reputation of our groups and sending signals to larger firm that our services are problematic. It doesn’t really matter that you’ve volunteered to take on task that no one else wanted. When you take on a task, you must perform that task better than anyone else. If your group stepped in as a temporary solution, that’s fine. But, when are you going to hand it over to someone else? How many functions are you still performing, that have been under performing for years?   When will you begin to advocate that unsuccessful functions should be handled by someone else? I know. Right about now little Horace is screaming in your ear, “no. No. NO! That’s my banana… mine, Mine, MINE! DON’T LET GO!”

Twenty years ago, I might have agreed with little Horace. But today he metrics you use to manage your functions not only provides more transparency than ever before, they are also circulated more widely. When you know, or even suspect, that the functions you mange could be better managed by someone else… the regulators in your firm (the groups that measure firm-wide performance) are drawing the same conclusions.  If you’re not sure when you should bringing up this issue, the answer is, “Before the regulators bring it up!” If you have a solution that can improve a poorly working function, apply it. If some other group in your firm should perform a function, and is capable, you might want to talk to them. If some other option (hire a consultant, change the process, outsource the function) will work, then pursue that option. Never “drop” a function because it looks like trouble, or toss a “hot potato” problem to some other manager. But if you have tried to fix a function, work but just can’t make it work, someone else may be able to do better. We can each be little Horace and hang onto something even when it’s in nobody’s best
interest. Think about what’s on your plate, what you’re good at, what your group is good at, and if your judging success by how much everyone does or by how much they do well. And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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