What got you here, won’t get you there…
Professional Hedgehogs are not necessarily Philosophical Hedgehogs. The two can be mutually exclusive. Professional Hedgehogs are specialists. They know one thing and they know it very well. They have dedicated most of their life to building up a specialty or expertise. Their “hedgehog ability” is not their philosophy, but their trade. They know one topic or one skill set very, very well and thus always fall back on that specific skill or body of knowledge.
Professional Foxes are Generalists. They are managers. Jacks of all trades, masters of none. They have often worked in many different industries and in different types of positions. They are fast learners and often pick up different skills or industry knowledge through their lifetime. A Professional Fox’s specialties are usually soft skills. Skills that deemed to be important for any managerial position but that are hard to prove or represent on paper.
The two are not always mutually exclusive. Foxes can start out as Professional Hedgehogs and then pivot into a new industry or career. I, for example spent the first eight years of my professional life as a US Navy pilot. For the first five of those years I had to be a Hedgehog – focused on being a pilot, because of the incredibly demanding nature of the job. The hard skills I learned from being a Navy pilot – like the inner workings or a gas turbine engine or the details of retreating blade stall, don’t necessarily help me as an entrepreneur today. But…the soft skills I learned – the ability to understand complex systems, multi-tasking and the discipline needed to become an Aircraft Commander and a Tactics Instructor are all extremely valuable.
Professional Hedgehogs are incredibly important to society. Just like we need Navy pilots, we also need cardiac surgeons, oncologists, dentists and molecular biologists. We need people who are passionate about one single subject, especially in science and medicine.
Traditionally we have been taught to aspire to be a Professional Hedgehog. What do you do? I’m a lawyer. I’m a doctor. These are easy answers and easily defined careers with clear career paths. Hedgehog Careers. Normally, it is easier to be successful, if you only pursue one discipline. In fact, in many cases you cannot be successful unless you are a Hedgehog. An olympic Gold medalist is almost never a multi-sport athlete. A top swimmer doesn’t also play basketball. It’s hard to reach the 10,000 hours needed to be an expert unless you are focused on a single passion. And in the traditional corporate environment, Hedgehog resumes are more attractive to HR personnel because they are straightforward and easier to understand.
While extremely important, Professional Hedgehogs are also the source of some of the biggest problems in organizations, often when they are moved outside their particular area of expertise and comfort zone and are unable to switch to adapt.
Professional Hedgehogs generally cause two types of problems in organizations:
(1) The Hedgehog Obstacle
If you have worked in a large organization, you have probably encountered a Hedgehog obstacle.
The environment is changing. The organization needs to change, either by adopting new practices, adopting new technology or changing the business model. All of these changes…in fact any change…is a threat to the Professional Hedgehog. Hedgehogs don’t embrace new opportunities, they disparage them. They say things like, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” and “don’t change for change’s sake.“….as the ship is slowly sinking around them.
When I was in the military and working at a large strategic command, I witnessed arguments against change that quickly delved into the absurd. One long-time and very experienced analyst argued against technological change by using the light bulb analogy, he said “The light bulb has gone unchanged since the time of Edison and it has worked just fine. There is no reason to change technology that works so well.” (Paraphrased)….he’s probably not to happy about the regulations phasing out incandescent light bulbs in 2014.
Hedgehogs are threatened by change, any change, because change threatens their bread and butter. Professional Hedgehogs have spent years building up an expertise or body of knowledge based around certain technologies or business models and change threatens their very existence, so they fight it. Often they spend the majority of their time fighting change and their entire work day and life becomes focused on attacking change initiatives. Change managers need to identify the Hedgehogs in an organization early on and develop strategies for engaging and on-boadring them, or otherwise the change initiative will be destined to fail.
If these Hedgehogs are not managed properly in a change initiative, they will be sure to sink it, giving them more ammunition for rejecting further change initiatives. Hedgehogs will be quick to bring up previous failed change initiatives in order to sink new change initiatives at the outset, even if or especially if, they played an integral part in sinking the previous failed initiative.
Change managers need to identify the Hedgehogs in an organization early on and develop strategies for engaging and on-boadring them, or otherwise the change initiative will be destined to fail.
Every change manager or turn-around leader has encountered Hedgehog Obstacles in organizations. They are the IT team that doesn’t want to move to the cloud. They are the HR personnel that don’t want to let managers have a say in hiring their own people. They are the regional managers that will not let old missions or sales regions die. They are the line managers and vice presidents that worry that any strategy shift will make them obsolete.
Every change initiative or change manager must identify and plan for Hedgehog Obstacles early and often. They are likely the most common cause of change initiatives failing.
(2) The Hedgehog Peter Principle
The Peter Principle states that: “the members of an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. The principle is commonly phrased, ‘ Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.’ ”
Professional Hedgehogs are exceptionally susceptible to the Peter Principle because they often excel in their fields based on a certain skill and expertise and are then rewarded by being made a manager. The managerial promotion then often puts Hedgehogs in a position where their Hedgehog Skills are not valuable, relevant or scalable and being Professional Hedgehogs their entire lives, they are unable or unwilling to learn new skills or adapt to their new position.
The Hedgehog Peter Principle in action can be toxic for an organization, even if they are managing other Hedgehogs in the same field of expertise. A manager’s goal should be to enable her team, teach them and give them the direction and resources needed to succeed. A Professional Hedgehog often has trouble make this change. Professional Hedgehogs often micromanage their teams, hoard information, have low patience or tolerance for beginners and are quick to dismiss and rebuke vice coach their juniors.
These disaster situations spiral out of control when the newly minted Professional Hedgehog manager start to feel afraid that they might fail as they are faced with new challenges that are unfamiliar, so they do what Hedgehogs do….fall back on the skills they know very well, but do so more fervently. A team leader who advanced to a division level because she was exceptionally organized might try micromanaging her new subordinate team leaders, causing her to fall further behind her own work and demoralize her team leaders, creating a downward cycle of failure.
This Hedgehog Peter Principle disaster often happens in medicine, engineering, the military, programming and other fields where a professional’s career advances based on a certain skill in a certain discipline but in no way prepares them for a managerial position.
I am not saying that Professional Hedgehogs should never be promoted to management. Professional Hedgehogs can be great managers, especially when they are leading teams in their field of expertise.
But to be successful, Professional Hedgehogs must adapt. They must acknowledge their weaknesses and learn new skills and styles. They must realize that being a coach is much different than being the MVP. You cannot get out there and take all the shots for your team anymore. You must sit back, enable and trust in your team.
Generalists fail as leaders too and often putting a generalist in charge of a team of specialists can and does cause disasters. But while Professional Foxes tend to be Generalists, not all Generalists are Professional Foxes. First and foremost a Professional Fox adapts. So if a Professional Fox is put into a new position where they lack the knowledge or skills to succeed, they will first identify and acknowledge their weaknesses and secondly figure out the best way possible to rectify that situation, whether it be learning a new skill or bringing on a deputy or co-founder who can make up for those weaknesses.