The tragedy of the artisan

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Had an interesting conversation with one of my team today – our lead software developer, Matt, with whom I’ve worked for the last six years, and who’s become a good friend during that time.

For reasons that will become apparent in due course, we were discussing Matt’s career and how he could expand his responsibilities from ‘just’ being a very talented coder to taking on a team leadership role. I don’t think it’s betraying any confidences to share Matt’s concern that he might be trading in a job that he loves for one which he enjoys less – all in the service of ‘progression’, and, of course, money.

The conversation reminded me how difficult it is for talented ‘artisans’ in organisations to move their careers forward without having to abandon the stuff they love doing. Of course, there are some people who become good at something they love – be it coding, gardening, interior design, teaching, whatever – and essentially just do that for their entire careers. But with the pressures of the modern world, in particular the need to earn more money, this can be a thankless route to take. I particularly identified with Matt’s dilemma because it’s the same one I’ve faced in my career.

In his book The E-myth Revisited, Michael Gerber relates how many artisans, sick of working for someone else, decide to become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses, only to discover that the day-to-day reality of running a business is about accounts, dealing with customers and suppliers, buying toilet roll, and all sorts of other stuff that the artisan hates doing. Plus they’re still at the heart of the business, so they have to do that stuff too. No surprise that many artisans who become entrepreneurs burn out within a year from over-work – they have to run the business and be the business too.

The only way out of the trap is for the artisan-entrepreneur to realise that they need to hire (and empower) others to do the very stuff they like the most, so that they can get on with running the business.

This may seem a bit tangential, but it highlights the problem that artisans face – plough the same furrow your entire life, perhaps building a bit more reputation over time and being able to charge a bit more for your time, or give up big chunks of the stuff you enjoy to progress. This idea is closely related to the concept of ‘leverage’ introduced (at least to me) by Robert Kiyosaki’s book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I must say I find Kiyosaki’s whole "money is everything" approach to life a little relentless, and he doesn’t exactly have a stainless reputation, but the idea of leverage is a useful one.

Kiyosaki argues that to become rich you need to leverage your own capabilities. If you’re the one doing the actual work (coding, baking, whatever), there’s a very finite limit to how much you can charge, because you can only put so many hours in. Over time you might pick up a great reputation for the work you do, and this might raise your hourly rate (an extreme example being Premiership footballers), but ultimately you are paid in proportion to the time you put in.

If, however, you can leverage other people to work on your behalf, or leverage your ideas to earn money on your behalf, you can earn a lot more. So if you start your own business, or create something that can be replicated for which you can charge a royalty (e.g. a book), you can get to the situation of earning money whilst you quite literally do nothing.

I think that, to an extent, you can apply some of the same principles inside a company. If you take on a managerial role, you can think of that as leveraging your skills and creativity – but you have to be prepared to let others do the actual work whilst you derive pleasure from seeing your vision executed. And for most artisan-types, it’s a gamble – particularly at first, the managerial role will be difficult and probably much less rewarding than doing the work themselves.

So what advice did I give to Matt? As with so many tests of my own managerial skills, I took the tried and tested tack of talking about myself, in the hope that Matt would see the parallels and be able to draw his own conclusions. It could hardly be said that I’ve got this management thing down pat myself.