Adding Value by Being Self-ish

April 23 and 30, 2013

(This is an article written for Daryl Conner, one of the true experts in organizational change. It follows a series of posts that he did on character and presence. You will find a link to his posts below this article. The article is in two parts, both of which are here.)

Daryl, in his very clear and eloquent way, has expressed the most important part of being a masterful practitioner. This two-part series is about being selfish and self-ish. I’ll discuss how you and your client both benefit when you are selfishly enjoying yourself as you do great work. It also includes some practical tips, based on my experience, to increase value for you and your clients. As you know, if this seems obvious, it means I’ve done my work well. So I hope you find this a flash of the blindingly predictable.

You’ll see that my Character/Presentation model differs from Daryl’s in a significant way. I start one step before character, with the potential for what we can do. So this gives us three steps:

Step 1
» Our potential is limited in the moment by our decisions and current understanding.

Step 2
» Our character is our current understanding of our potential for growth. It is the very best of us today—it is today’s acorn. Our character can and will get better. Right now, it’s ideal.

Step 3
» Our presentation is what we show our family, friends, and clients. When we are done here, you might just have more fun from showing what you are at your best: Your character.

Why Should We Explore Our Character?

Daryl clearly points out that what we are at our core is greater than who we present as. Character is not presentation. Instead, we choose what to present from our character. Why does it matter? One reason is that we want to give more value to the client. Since character is greater than presentation we can supply greater value when we work from character.

But wait, there’s more! We want more satisfaction in our experience. We want to have more fun in the projects we do. For many of us, we truly want to do the best work of which we are capable. That is why we would want to invest our time and energy into mastery. We give ourselves joy by growing into our potential, and then by growing our potential even further. Growth and satisfaction and joy are part of the nature and activity of our character, our essence. They feel good, as they should.

We are, in essence, selfish. We want the most satisfaction we can get. We want to grow, and to gain the satisfaction of helping others grow and change as we do.

We are also, in essence, self-ish. Our strongest asset, best tool, and most important contribution to our work comes from our character. It comes from our self.

Now, what good is it to us in our work?

Infinite Acorns

Daryl offers a great metaphor in the Cultivating Character series. He talks about us as oak trees, starting with an acorn and then growing into seedling and sapling stages on our way to a mature but still-growing oak. One of the attributes of an acorn is that it represents infinity. Another is that the tree ceaselessly reaches for more growth. It does this in every direction.

Growth and infinity are very useful to our work, but let’s begin with the acorn.

We start there, but we don’t originate just once. We generate again, and then again. This is Continuous Improvement, and, at our best, starting fresh is a continuous process for us. It’s part of our nature, and for almost all of us it is a defining part of our character.

Why do I refer to “infinity”? The acorn’s character is its potential. It can generate a tree. One oak can spawn literally tens of thousands more acorns. Some of the next generations of acorns will sprout. Each following tree can originate many more tens of thousands of acorns. One acorn, like one good idea, generates what is, in practice, an infinite number of trees. One acorn presents infinite potential and growth. As we use this acorn idea, as we start anew, we each represent limitless growth. I won’t speak for you, but I’ll say that I find growth to be very satisfying.

Our oak tree grows in almost every conceivable direction. It reaches for light, for space, for soil. It develops in all dimensions. As long as it’s alive, it reaches to grow more. For the tree, there is always potential for more expression. Every living tree strives in its own way to reach out for that potential. That describes us, doesn’t it?

Acting from our cause or character, we each do the same. Our self, our essence, characterizes infinity. Our desire to grow then characterizes our infinite potential. Like Daryl’s oak tree example, we automatically reach for that potential. It is part of mastery.

In the hands-on experience of our daily life and our practice, will we ever reach infinity? No, we will not. Will we achieve perfection? No. The better question is, “Will we perfect?” The answer is always “Yes.” Growth is an activity; it is about perfecting, not about reaching an end. Perfecting and growing are the enjoyable compensation for our best work. They are the highest reward for mastery.

What are the practical limits of our ability to grow ourselves? I think that there are no practical limits. It is as Henry Ford is quoted as saying: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't—you're right.” A more thorough discussion of growth versus limited perspectives is in Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck. A key finding of our research is that our mindset is an individual choice. You can choose to live a life of growth, or you can choose to live a life defined by rigid limits. Which of these is the presentation that you want to take into your work of engendering change?

The good news and the bad news is that none of the tools that we gain in traditional training help with any of this. Knowing how to use a Gantt chart or facilitate a meeting does not equip any of us to grow. They are tools with which we do our growing. We need good tools, but more—to perfect we need to know how to grow. It is where knowing where to invest our time and energy that gives the best possible rewards. This is for self, and to focus on your character is to be very appropriately self-ish.

Next: A three-step process for self-direction and growth

Last week Peter wrote about why it makes sense to focus on ourselves as what our clients want to buy, as an important source of value. He suggested being self-ish. He likened us to the acorns in Daryl's metaphor, and suggested that we see our potential for growth as effectively infinite. This week he lays out a three-step process for self-direction and growth.

This is part 2 of a guest series by Peter Meyer: Adding Value by Being Self-ish

Clients Like It When We Grow

Growth is good for us and for our clients. The good news is that our customers usually recognize our bias towards growth. Some clients are scared of it. Some embrace it. The ones who embrace and value growth are the people we usually enjoy the most. It makes sense for us to appeal to and sell to those customers.

When I say “sell,” you know that I’m not talking about money. To be effective as a practitioner, you need people to buy your ideas, your questions, and your challenges. They need to invest enthusiasm and time. How can you increase the chance of clients investing? You can increase your odds by being more attractive as a product. Your character—your self—is attractive to the best clients.

These are the clients you want. They value moving forward, they honor learning in themselves and in others. They value and respect you even more for what you are than how you present yourself to be. They will invest time, people, and money when they see more of your character than of your safe layers.

This does not mean to act crazy or wear bright clothes. It means you should express growth so that your clients see it. This starts with learning how you grow, and how you can present it. When you choose your next development course, focus on how to understand your own ability to grow.

Discuss your desire to grow with your client. Smart clients want people who can and will grow. Then discuss how the client can take advantage of your growth to enhance his or her own progress as well as the desired results. Your next course should be centered on you, not on tools. You can help make your client happy by being self-ish and selfish.

Exposing your desire to grow may seem risky. In some organizations, growth is not valued, and in those, you will no longer be an appropriate fit. This focus on growth and character will attract some clients, and it may also cost you work that you don’t want. Take that risk! You will reward yourself. You will get satisfaction, fun, and growth when you act self-ish.

Three Steps to Get and Share More Satisfaction, Fun, and Growth

If you hold satisfaction, growing, and fun to be important, then you are self-ish and selfish in the right way. You have the groundwork for mastery today. Once you know what, how, and why you grow, you are ready to grow exponentially. What do you do? You don’t work at self, you work from it.

One way to accomplish this is to follow a three-step process for self-direction or growth. To summarize it:

Step 1
» The first step would be to desire to grow or change. That is solely individual, solely personal. You have it, or you don’t. But realistically, if you are reading Daryl and reading this, you probably have the desire.

Step 2
» The second step is to look, with total candor, at your current state. It is pretty, it is ugly, it is admirable, and it is sometimes what you would rather have already outgrown. It is unblinking self-ish examination of how your character presents now. Not how others would have you be, but how you are in this moment.

Step 3
» The third step is to look, with total candor, at your practically limitless potential.

This third step is hard, because in many cultural models we are asked to feel limited. I am going to argue that you are not. Is there a question that you can ask for which you cannot find the answer? The accurate reply is that there is no such question. The implication? Your growth potential is practically limitless. In terms of your career as a change practitioner or an executive, you are, for all intents and purposes, looking at limitless growth potential. This limitlessness is the essence of our character. Step 3 is to look at yourself as without limits.

Your nature is to grow. That is limitless. It is the point from which we each initiate every effort.

When you look at your present state, and then your character, as practically infinite growth potential, you have the option to run away or to try and close some of that gap in potential. An oak tree automatically grows towards potential. So do we. When we have the desire to improve, we will grow towards what we see in Step 3.

Is it scary? It can be. What is in it for us? First, satisfaction. Second, fun. Third, success. And best of all, more growth.

Presentation is measured by what you have done, character by what you can do. Bring them both to every interaction. Be selfish and self-ish, work on your character before you talk to your clients. Work on it constantly, and make more oak happen. That is you growing.

Why should you do this? The overriding principle is easy: Don't put off until tomorrow what you can enjoy doing twice today. Focus on your own self-ish growth, fun, and satisfaction. Your client will benefit, and you will be on a road to mastery.

For several of the best ideas here, I am beholden, not only to Daryl, but to Bruce Smith and William W. Walter as well. They have my gratitude.

You can learn more about Peter and his work from his website, . Peter invites your questions and comments. His email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The link to Daryl's blog on Character and Presence is: