The Challenge of Our Choices by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Magazine May 2004
When I was just a few months shy of eighteen years of age, I made a choice that would both haunt and help me for the remainder of my life. At the time that I made that choice, I did not have much perspective on the consequences of making it. After all, I was only an eighteen year old boy who had grown in up in a rural, low tech environment. What was that important, high impact choice? I decided to obtain an Industrial Engineering degree at the University of Arkansas.
If we fully consider the potential career and life impact of such a decision, we might consider it unfair to expect a person of ‘only' eighteen years of age to make such a choice. Yes, it is true that these young people often have the advice and input of their parents and educators to help them make the ‘right' choice, but as my life has progressed, it has been my observation that these people probably did not realize the true impact of such a choice either, even though they were older and wiser.
When we choose a certain degree path, we are giving ourselves a label for life. I can recall several occasions in my life to-date where the fact that I was an engineer either helped me take advantage of an opportunity or prevented me from doing something that I really wanted, and was able, to do. I have sat in job interviews where I was told that I could not pursue a certain line of work because I was more of a ‘numbers person' instead of a ‘people person'. I have watched conflict emerge in business-education partnership meetings because the ‘business people just could not think like educators.' The labels for life that we had been given were overriding the more fundamental fact that we were people trying to help make a system, or collection of systems, more effective.
While the titles of my first three jobs were essentially the same, the type of work I did for each employer was very different, as were the learnings I took away from those experiences. Ten years into my career, I was ‘still' an Industrial Engineer on paper (albeit a senior one), but in my mind and heart, I was discovering that who I was and what I was capable of accomplishing extended far beyond that two word label. That said, I still did not fully appreciate the true impact of the career choices I had made to-date, just as I was unable to anticipate the future challenges that those choices would create as my career progressed.
As the years went on, I continued to make choices that added more labels to my person. As a society, we began to rely more and more on such labels to help us quickly evaluate a person's potential worth, whether we were assessing these labels to assess someone for a job opening, a position on our team, or a political office. Now, as we struggle to manage the information overload that exists, we are using these labels to help us quickly triage the mountain of information in front of us. Hopefully the choices we are making are wise ones. I suspect however that we may be deeply discounting the potential long term impact a given individual could have on our organizations in an effort to save our time and sanity in the short term.
For example, let's look at how the hiring process has evolved with the introduction of the Internet. I have stated in previous articles that the healthiness of this process is one of the most critical predicators of future organizational success and sustainability. I struggle at this point in time however to say that technology has helped us improve this critical process. It is true that technology is allowing us to reach and become aware of potential talent to a greater degree, but it is also providing us with a sea of potential applicants that we must somehow sort through. For the sake of time, I feel that we are relying more and more on labels, such as job titles, certifications, and geographic location, to make important choices about whom to consider further in the hiring process.
Labels have a useful place in the hiring process, just as they are helpful in making a variety of important choices, but it is dangerous to depend primarily on them to make help us make all of the right choices. For example, if we are trying to hire a person for a highly technical job, titles held, degrees earned, and certifications gained can play a very central role in the decision making process. On the other hand, if we are trying to fill a job that requires a high degree of interaction with people, such as a manager, supervisor, or team facilitator, the labels are often more of a curse than a benefit to both the organization and the applicant.
In this day and age, it is much more difficult to remove someone from a position than it is to hire them for it. I think that we all understand this conceptually, but I wonder if we are really understanding how our personal thought processes, in addition to the formal hiring process itself, are functioning as we move from the resume to the hire offer. We may have reached a point where the ability to attract a high number of potential applicants is diminishing the effectiveness of the hiring process itself – as the number of applicants increases, the effectiveness of the hiring process decreases. The same can be said for filling any open team position, such as a board member or senate seat.
I believe that the potential peril of the labels that result from our choices is particularly great for industrial engineers. I say this both because the profession itself is largely misunderstood or unknown, and because IEs are process improvement specialists, capable of crossing boundaries that labels may erect in front of them. For example, I think that industrial engineers could do wonders for the processes used by the public education and health care systems in this country, but how many IEs do you know of that are employed by public education or health care? Why are there so few IEs working in schools or hospitals? The answer is simple - these people are perceived to be engineers, not educators or health care providers.
Individually, we have two types of responsibility to consider as we make important choices such as these in our lives. From a personal perspective, we need to be more cognizant of the impact that choosing a certain degree path or job title will have on our lives many years into the future. From a leadership perspective, we need to be much more aware of the impact that labels are having on our personal and team decision making processes, especially when the decision involves assessing skills that are difficult to accurately reflect in a two or three word title. We need to find that balance point between saving personal time and saving the future of our team or organization.
I don't know about you, but I did not have part of my brain removed when I chose to be an engineer as a teenager, and I don't think educators or doctors did either. We are people first, and labels second. When we begin to rely too heavily on the labels, we are unfortunately discounting the person, and in turn, compromising the future performance of our teams and organizations. Fortunately, we are not locked into assessing people in this manner as we go forward in time – we can chose to evaluate potential talent differently, and we can gain greater self awareness into the challenge of our choices.
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