Traits You Can Change, and Traits You Can’t
In my experience some personal traits can be changed, and some cannot. Mistaking one case for the other causes two of the most common and costly talent retention mistakes:
Failing to believe in a rising star, because you thought that their weaknesses couldn’t be addressed. What it looks like: “I always knew they were talented but inexperienced, but I can’t believe how successful they’ve become.”
Investing too much in a lost cause, because you thought that their built-in weaknesses could be coached. What it looks like: “I thought I could coach them to do better, but in the end they just couldn’t figure it out.”
These problems are avoidable. People unfortunately can’t apprentice their way into being smarter, and trying leads to tragedy. On the other hand, presenting to executives is like learning how to ice skate – almost everyone looks ridiculous when they get started. Let’s discuss what to look for and what to do.
Traits You Can Change
Ability to Step Back and See the Big Picture
A common trap that skilled practitioners fall into is the tendency to fixate on solutions. For example, going way down a rabbit hole on all of the ways that you can save costs with your product, rather than figuring out a way to raise prices. Being able to take a step back and see broader goals from first principles takes wisdom and experience, and can be both learned naturally and trained.
One of the most important ways that some people can learn to take a step back is by learning to question their own assumptions or initial reactions. I’ve found that experience and active coaching are highly effective at getting relatively junior people to consider all of their options and approach problems from first principles.
Industry and Technical Knowledge
The vast majority of skills needed for technology companies are not much harder conceptually than AB Calculus – there are few if any SaaS skills that are analogous to throwing a 101mph fastball. Almost anyone can become an expert in most of the fundamental skills in 5-10 years, and a passable practitioner with a dedicated 6 to 24 months. There’s variability of course – for example engineering, design, and law can take longer. But generally, the skills and concepts are trainable.
A belief that industry or technical knowledge is unattainable can cause people to get themselves and others into ruts. “You’re not an engineer.” “I don’t know how marketing works.” One may never find the time to become an expert, but there are many incremental gains to be had and these fields are typically not entirely inaccessible.
This manifests most clearly in first-time founder CEOs. Being a CEO exposes you to dozens of different fields and I’ve been struck by how nearly all CEOs become passable experts at a variety of skills including sales, product, PR, and finance. This is true of both wildly successful and only moderately successful CEOs, indicating that it’s a sign of exposure rather than something innate. If they can all do it, so can others.
Confidence can be increased with time. People can grow to become confident leaders with repeated wins, particularly if they’re mastering their craft in a way that shows visible progress (and can therefore see that their progress isn’t luck). For example: An engineer or designer looking back at their old code or designs can see how much they’ve improved.
People can also become overconfident if things go really well for them over a long time. Helping people build confidence in such a way that they have the appropriate amount of swagger without becoming arrogant is an important long-term balancing act.
Confidence is also unfortunately malleable in both directions, and can be eroded over long periods of time – repeated setbacks can break down confidence in challenging ways if they become overwhelming.
Cultural Norms (within reason)
Every organization has norms - what’s rude vs direct, what’s expected when it comes to interrupting someone, whether you value speed or quality.
People can adjust to cultural norms. “ came from " isn't a valid reason to reject them as long as they understand that they may have to adjust their approach.
Poise (Working with Leadership)
I’m not sure if everyone can be trained to be perfectly poised when working with executives, but I don’t know anyone whose 30th email to an executive audience wasn’t noticeably better than their 3rd.
Traits You Can’t Change
On the other hand, some behaviors are very hard to change.
You can’t make someone smarter. You can give them better frameworks to work with, put them into roles where their skills can be maximally successful ie where raw IQ is less necessary, but actually making them smarter overall is impossible.
In addition, in my experience being really smart tends to be domain agnostic. The people who are the smartest at breaking down complex business problems are often also good at quantitative analysis, good at anticipating how others will respond to incentives, well-spoken and thoughtful, and more. This has a positive secondary side effect – if you have someone really smart on your team you can usually throw them at all sorts of other problems and they’ll succeed.
I’m not here to discuss the merits of emotion in the workplace. There are many environments in which showing emotion is seen as weak or irrational; there are others where not showing emotion is viewed as cold or aloof. No matter your viewpoint, suffice it to say that the amount that someone is driven by strong emotional reactions essentially can’t be changed by coaching.
Ways that you’ll observe this: People who lose their temper quickly. People who tend to react minimally to both good and bad news. People who are anxious all the time, vs people who are never anxious.
This also extends to various emotion-related traits such as anxiety, optimism / pessimism, ability to be inspirational, etc. What you see on day 1 is probably within 15% of what you’ll get on day 1000. The only mitigating factors are age and large life events - for example, a family tragedy can unfortunately be very unsettling for several months.
There’s a particular mix of motivation, creativity, relentlessness, and impatience that manifests as a higher typical top speed. Some people are sharks and some people are manatees and no matter how inspirational you are that manatee is never going to leap out of the water to catch a seal.
I’ve seen slow operators get faster when forced to by circumstances, or more typically their managers. I’ve seen fast people slow down, usually when they’re demotivated or having some health issue or something outside of work. But everyone tends to snap back to their natural pace over time, and that natural pace has a very wide variance.
If someone gets stuff done fast, they’ll tend to do so in a wide range of situations. They’ll produce docs, code, or emails faster. They’ll hire and fire faster. They’ll convince others faster. Everything gets done faster and they just won’t seem to run into blockers as much as others. Speed is one of the greatest virtues in most work environments, and if you find someone who works fast you can place them in a variety of situations and reap the benefits. And if you have someone who is more methodical, you typically can’t rely on them to run a faster-moving process over a long time period.
I find that a lot of people struggle with the idea that certain traits can be coached and some cannot. It feels bad to consider the fact that someone’s horsepower might be limited. And it feels scary to trust that someone unproven can rapidly evolve their skills and earn a more senior role given the right opportunities and coaching.
Many companies also dramatically overrate coachable traits when hiring. I try to never trade changeable traits like intelligence for changeable traits like industry knowledge.
Finally - inexperienced but sharp team members who have all of the raw skills that you can’t coach can make great leaders. Don’t let them leave your company.
– The SaaSy PM