Are you suffering from unshod bairns syndrome?

Jul 5, 2014

A version of this article appeared at Inc.com

There’s a saying in Scotland, “The cobbler’s bairns are the last shod”, which roughly translated means that whatever you’re good at professionally, you probably don’t do well personally.

Case in point: as a hangover from a previous life I’m a professionally trained CPA (actually the UK equivalent, a Chartered Accountant), so of course my personal financial records are a mess. My personal physician, a fine man who berates me over my weight at every annual physical, is himself grossly overweight. We probably all know someone similar – the relationship counselor with a string of failed relationships, the interior designer living in a hot mess, the…well, the cobbler with unshod bairns.

Here’s the thing: Our businesses can exhibit the exact same tendency – our core competence can often be the exact area where we most screw up. I’ve worked with customer service advisors whose customer service sucks; overcommitted productivity gurus; design mavens with dreadful web sites. In fact, when I’m first asked to help diagnose growth problems in an organization, it’s the first place I’ve learned to look. Tell me what you’re known for, and that’s the initial place I’ll go looking for dysfunction.

Before you think there’s any finger-pointing going on here, my own bairns are as unshod as anyone else’s. One of the most humbling experiences I undergo on a regular basis is to leave a workshop or a client engagement and have my COO point out that we are ourselves woefully deficient in some aspect of business growth we just forcibly espoused.

The real difficulty with unshod bairn syndrome is that it undercuts our credibility, not just with others when they find out about it, but much more importantly in our own psyche. The tension caused by selling one thing externally, and not doing it well personally, or screwing it up internally in your business, leads to a gnawing sense of inauthenticity, which, unless you’re devoid of conscience, in turn causes either a crisis of confidence or a waning of evangelistic vigor about what you do.

So, if you’re looking for a summer project, how about making the unshod bairns your Single Pre-eminent Goal for the next three to six months? Take that skill you’re renowned for, conduct a ruthless self-assessment (ask those who know you well for their insight, too), list the four to six things that will enable you to fix it, and set to.

(Note to those who like meta-narratives: This article was prompted by the latest elbow in the ribs from my COO – who also happens to be my bairn, sorry… son. Last week, as we left a workshop where I had taught the importance of the Single Pre-eminent Goal, he wryly pointed out that we currently lacked precisely that. So guess what my summer project is?)