Yesterday, my dad shared this sweet tribute to retiring New Jersey farmer, Bill Maxwell. (Yes, I do get content tips from sources other than my parents.) The short of it is that Mr. Maxwell kinda happened into this farming business, got hooked, then let his passion and commitment take him to superstardom (within the context of small farmers). He was a herbs and beans supplier to the early "farm to table" restaurants in NY back in the 80s. Chefs and home cooks he met at his Greenmarket stall came back time and again for his high-quality produce and in-depth knowledge. He was completely trusted by his customers and beloved for the time and energy invested in making the best possible product. He will be missed.
There are some obvious lessons we might glean from Farmer Bill-- do work you're passionate about, create a quality product you can personally stand behind, invest the time to get to know your customers and their needs, etc.
There are perhaps some less obvious points for managers in federal contracting and finding, recruiting, encouraging, and growing comparable talent.
So many of us are living Plan B. We didn't aspire to consulting since childhood. Like Farmer Bill, we happened into this business and, for many of us, we like it enough to call it more than just a job. Even with broad commitment, federal consulting doesn't often see the same level of dedication to knowing everything there is to know about a given issue and generously sharing that knowledge for the greater good. Not only is gaining in-depth knowledge not really encouraged, it is often seen as a career derailer.
Of course, we can all think of a couple consultants who survive and thrive as true gurus but there aren't many and fewer in leadership positions. Instead, most of us are conditioned to be generalists-- both in terms of the issues we care about and the methodologies applied.
Conventional thinking is that a team of people a mile wide and an inch deep can be deployed to many different types of assignments. Their fungibility (commonly used big company term, not mine) makes them easier to keep busy. They're also trained to have a multiplying effect by working collaboratively with the one expert, taking her advice, and running with it. We also see a widely held belief that guru status correlates strongly with years on the planet. No one with less than 25 years of experience need apply (the notable exception here, of course, is software development.)
So, all that might be true to an extent but there is a balance to be struck. Too many generalists challenge the firm's credibility and make winning strategic assignments difficult. Too few make for a bumpy revenue ride. So, here's the opportunity to do something differently...
Many of us meet and mentor staff fresh out of school or a couple years into their careers. Part of the trick is building balance back into the business equation described above by cultivating expertise within your current team. How? Encourage not just a few but all of your staff to pick a specific, client-relevant topic then ask them to dedicate the time between now and their next assessment to really digging in and getting to know the issue, the future challenges, the trends, they key players, the relevant conferences, etc. What we can do as managers is help establish sideboards that keep the focus sufficiently narrow to make it do-able. Gathering knowledge is easier than ever by setting search parameters on google.com/alerts.
My key take away from Farmer Bill-- aside from admiring a well-executed career-- is that passion and commitment can be cultivated. There are so many fascinating issues that become more colorful and interesting the more that you know. Bringing this expertise to clients will always be in demand-- and, with a little focus, it's easier to come by then you think.