Operating in the Genius Zone

I’m an avid podcast listener. One of these podcasts is Focused, hosted by David Sparks and Mike Schmitz. In the most recent episode they invited Ernie Svenson, a former lawyer turned entrepreneur. The entire episode was full of wisdom and I enjoyed listening to it. In one of the exchanges talking about why he left the legal profession, Svenson mentioned that one of the reasons he left was because he wanted to stay in his Genius Zone. As a lawyer he operated outside it, and that hurt. He had the courage to create the environment to get closer to his Genius Zone. He defines the Genius Zone as the zone where your productivity is the highest because you are doing the things you are best at. He exhalted about how turning entrepreneur and business owner allowed him to operate in his Genius Zone more than he was able before, when he worked for a large corporate. And he has a point.

In corporate environments, we hire collaborators to do a specific job, which we describe in a function profile which lists roles and responsibilities. A function profile tends to describe the most ideal person for the job, not a person of flesh and blood. This makes sense in a corporate environment: when we eventually convince the CFO and get the budget to hire a person, that person needs to respond to all our needs. This is our shot at the hiring roulette table, better make it count. We stack roles and responsibilities up to a point that the likelihood of finding someone who will be able operate in the Genius Zone Svenson described, becomes remote. HR people will likely shake their heads and say “yes, but we will train them for the areas they can grow in.” I am sure you could, and I am sure you intend to. But is that the best possible solution? I think there is a bigger underlying problem here.

Rather than recruiting for roles and responsibilities and seeking the person to closely match that ideal profile, we could and should approach this from the other way round. Why not let the function match the person, to allow them to operate in their Genius Zone. The challenge today is in finding good profiles that match the organisational culture, not writing a job description or adapt your processes. Adapting processes happens all the time. The better approach is to recruit the people that match the culture and make sure they can operate in their Genius Zone as much as possible.

But what about the other roles and responsibilities? The ones not covered in the Genius Zone of this new hire? We consider roles and responsibilities to be static. People can be trained. But should you train people in responsibilities they are not optimally suited for, when you can adapt the roles and responsibilities? Should you force the square peg in the round hole, or should you get out your tools and make the round hole into a square one? When you start matching people to their Genius Zone instead of forcing them to be someone they are not, it will become apparent that you have more capabilities within your organisation than you initially thought.

Corporate environments tend to overstate the advantages of standardisation. We tend to think of our collaborators as replaceable resources. It is interesting to know that what person A does in activity B is about the same as person C does in activity D. This will allow you to replace A with C if that need would ever arise. But how likely is it you will be forced to do that? And even if you would, is it enough to ignore the enormous added value that person C could have if she or he would be allowed to operate and grow within her or his Genius Zone?

There are consequences. Every choice has them. It means letting go of the high degree of functional standardisation that you as a corporate environment may have invested in. It means that the challenge of HR and business management becomes bigger, because it is now about continuously adapting your organisational structure to match the profiles that you have available to you.

There is an upside to this. If you have people operating in their Genius Zone, you will likely have them operating at peak capability and peak capacity. Effortlessly. Because they are doing what they were made to do. Think of it as a Formula 1 car … during development, the initial focus is on the engine, which needs to be as effective and efficient as possible. Then the entire car is constructed around that engine. Your collaborators are the engines of your organisation. Have you optimised your organisation to take full advantage of what you could achieve with them?