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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

"What You Know" Can Still Get You Fired

There's a management saying that goes:

You get hired for what you know.
You get fired for who you are.

This saying captures something important about a job, particularly as we move into leadership positions. It's not the technical or even strategic capabilities that limit our success. It's the way that we "fit" into an organization's culture. When that fit is off by enough, someone decides we should be shown the door.

What does this mean in the functional approach? There may seem to be an obvious line between "who you are" and "what you know". It's easy to be a friendly, likable person and get along with everyone when we are doing our individual job, not trying to lead others. But the line gets very blurry when we decide that we want to accomplish something more, specifically when we need to convince others to take specific actions. Suddenly, "what you know" becomes "who you are".

So how do we use what we know to lead an organization to success? To accomplish this, we need to understand the connection between "know" and "are".

First, remember that organizational culture is the sum of all relationships, both interchange and emotion. These relationships are how work is performed. When these behavioral patterns are generalized into abstract ideas, they become values and norms: the traditional leadership description of organizational culture. People like it when others not only do what is nice but do what is expected. People like routines and consistency.

But leadership requires improving the organization's process of work, which means change. We might disagree with a pattern of interchanges, or because we want to create different emotion responses. We do this based on what we know: that something could be improved, that a certain way is likely to produce a better result, and that a method of introducing this new way is likely to work. (This might include technical changes, for example work processes, as well - the same resistance applies!) We know a better way, and how we implement that way shows others who we are.

If we try to make these changes in the wrong way - alienating or harming people, excluding ideas and participation, tearing down community and identity - then not only will our efforts fail, but "who we are" will be negative. This is the moment that gets leaders in trouble or even fired.

The take-away? When we're working as individuals, we can separate what we know from who we are. When we start to lead, this gets difficult. "Who we are" becomes part of "what we know", and therefore the way that we act is critical. We must use what we know to affect all three functions of leadership in a productive manner.

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