There is no professional growth without personal growth

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

Maybe the toughest part about being an organizational consultant for more than 30 years was having business owners or leaders recognize and accept that if there was a problem in their business they had some responsibility for it.

The second toughest part was having these same business owners or leaders realize that when I spoke about responsibility I wasn’t talking about blame or fault.

Responsibility defined in any way to indicate blame or fault becomes a wedge issue — frequently responded to as an accusation when in truth it should be offered as an invitation, a way to position oneself in relationship to whatever issue is at hand.

A question posed like, “Can you see where your actions or attitudes may have in some way contributed to this issue?”, is more likely to invoke curiosity and participation rather than defense. You own a business, you have a problem, you look for help and the helper says, “Hey, it’s your fault!” Honestly, not very welcome counsel.

Some businesses are started by what we might call business experts, but frankly most are started by technical experts.

Even a business person as well-known as Jeff Bezos began his career from a technical background, with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. This being the case, the business leader/owner is likely to view problems in the business from a technical perspective, meaning that if we identify the problem there should be technical solution, the laws of the physical universe can be applied and the problem should go away.

Wouldn’t that be great!

Now add people into the mix, and the theory that there is always a technical solution goes out the window quickly.

From the industrial economy, we inherited the mechanistic model of organizations, which in many ways contributed to this technological view of the world of work. Before the technology on which most businesses rely today, people were in fact a stand-in for software and served the purpose of much of today’s business infrastructure.

In that economy, businesses were designed to limit the contribution of people in many cases to simple repetitive actions. That is certainly not the case today. Whereas in prior times most people worked in close proximity to and in service of technology, today they work in close proximity with each other and use technology.

This change is profound and brings into focus an entire universe of types of problems, and imposes an entirely new set of expectations on everyone in the workplace. When people’s contribution to the work was highly interchangeable they were often treated as “parts.” The expectations set for workers involved a high degree of repetition and compliance. Even the administrative elements of businesses were set up around a production model.

My MBA students of today react in horror when I tell them about “steno pools” or payroll departments with rows of female workers operating 10 Key adding machines for eight hours a day.

These days, being a successful performer at work often means being able to adapt your behavior to accommodate the variety of perspectives, skills and ability of your co-workers. The workplace of today is rife with occasions where technical solutions do not easily apply and differences can lead to stalemates. This reality holds true for business owners and leaders as much as any other employee.

That familiar refrain heard so often today about how hard it is to find good people might be a reflection of a business owner’s perspective in need of adaptation.

Adaptability is easy to understand, much harder to master and even more difficult to recognize as needed, especially when it is your behavior or perspective that needs to do at least part of the adapting. Professional growth depends on mastering adaptability. Mastering adaptability requires personal growth, letting go of “the way things have always been done.”

For the business leader, this may mean putting more focus on the result to be produced rather than the way the work gets done or a particular job gets set up. That ability to alter behavior allows new solutions to take root.

As a business leader or owner, you do have the option to insist that things are done your way. But that raises a question: which is more important to you, having things get done or having them done your way?

A long time ago a wise manager of mine put it like this, “Mike, you have a choice, do you want to be right or do you want to be rich?”

Professional growth requires personal growth … darn it!

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at

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