Tools Vs. Toolbox

Tools Vs. Toolbox by Dr. Robert Gerwig

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Pliers. Like most tools, pliers are good for something (even many things). You may have used pliers to open a bottle, pick up something hot, tighten a bolt, or one of a hundred other things, all of them handy. If you know me very well, you know that no one would call me handy. I have some tools. I know how to use them. But I’m not gifted at using them and I don’t really care to do things around the house. Know what I mean? I admire handy people (remember Tim the Tool Man?). My dad is handy. So was his dad, my grandfather (and my mom’s dad too). They could make things with their tools (by the way, their hands were part of their toolbox). They built houses and cars. Fixed tractors and lawnmowers. Built furniture and skateboards. In sum, they were handy. My dad is still good with his hands and his tools.

I’m not a complete tool failure. I built a chess-set in 8th grade. I build a couple award-winning Pine Box cars for the kids (oops, I mean I helped them build the cars; it was against the rules for the parents to build the cars, remember?). I built a tree house once. I even designed an award-winning boat for my daughter’s science project last year (oops, I mean HER science project). Yet, in the end, I’d rather pay someone to do the handy work around the house.

Some of you may be able to sew, but you’d rather buy your clothes. I know some great cooks who rarely cook. Many people have a skill at using a tool, but they don’t enjoy using it. They use it if they “have to”, but they don’t often “want to.” Does that describe you? Be honest. If so, it’s ok. Not everyone likes the same things. Some people like using a screwdriver, but not a hammer, while some people don’t like using tools at all (even if they have a degree of competence in their usage).

What got me thinking about tools was a conversation I had with a user of tools. In fact, he was considered by many as an expert user of a particular tool. For the sake of our discussion, let’s say he was an expert user of pliers. He used pliers on a regular basis and many argued he was an expert plier user (is plierman a word?; it is now). In fact, he was such a good plierman, that he was promoted to a general management position. Surely if he were such a good plierman, he would make a good tool shop owner (a general management role). Right?

Sad to say, the answer is “no.” At least in his case and up to this point in time. People can, and do, change. He can improve. He can become a good general manager. In fact, he might one day become a world-class general manager. But only if he stops overusing his pliers, takes inventory of the other tools in his toolbox and learns to use them appropriately. Or better, learns when they certain tools need to be used by others (those he leads). I hope he does become a world-class general manager. It was why we had the conversation. He was seeking advice and counsel. He recognizes he has a problem but couldn’t pinpoint the cause. I did. Pinpointing root-causes (and cutting through the chaff or crap) is a tool in which I’m an expert.

Being a general manager isn’t’ for everyone (the same as being a principal isn’t for every teacher, or a sales manager for every salesman). However, if you’re one of those called to be in general (or executive) management, take a moment to see if you still have your pliers in your hand instead of your toolbox. If you want to be an effective general manager, you must set the vision, develop goals, build the team, and reinforce appropriate behavior. You are, ultimately, the owner of the toolbox. You might even use one or more of the tools within from time to time, yet don’t overuse the pliers. Please! Don’t because overly dependent on one tool. Specialists have their place and their value, but not in general management (unless they can put aside their old ways and move on).

Are you an expert at something? Do you overuse that skill? That tool? If you’re in a position of general (or executive) management, are you carrying a toolbox full of tools or your favorite old tool from your days as an individual contributor, as a specialist?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

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