The need for Professional Ambidexterity


I was working through some emails this morning watching my daughter out of the corner of my eye when I noticed something unusual.  She was drawing on some paper and would switch the marker or crayon from her right hand to her left depending on where she was on the page with no apparent loss in skill. 

Not quite museum ready but then pretty good for a lefty and a righty.

Not quite museum ready but then pretty good for a lefty and a righty.

You can see her spectacular drawings for yourself in this picture. I’m sure RISD will be holding open a slot for her in the class of 2028.  The heavy filled-in sections on the right side were with her right hand and the dots and lines were with her left hand.  I think she shows an intuitive use of her color palette with an exuberant use of dadaist expressionism combined with a little toddler-esque randomness.

       All jokes aside the ability to effortlessly switch from one of mode working to another is more useful than ever. One minute you have to be super-technical to understand the intricacies of a networking work-flow diagram and the logical implications of a critical  switch/ server/router/ service/personnel  failure and the next minute, with no warning whatsoever, you have to be very people oriented to manage your team and understand how to motivate them in a tough economy with serious business challenges. Unfortunately challenges in the work palce don’t come labled – “this is a technical problem” and “this is a people problem”. You have to be able to identify and determine the best way to handle all the challenges that come your way – no matter which hat you happen to be wearing when they arrive.

Of course I was reminded that ambidextrous has multiple meanings. The most common is the most well known being able to switch between using your right or left hand with no loss in skill. I have a decent degree of ambixdexterity on the soccer pitch in that I’m mediocre with both feet and on the basketball court I can dribble a basketball with either hand. My handwriting is a different story – it’s barely legible with my right hand most days but with my left hand it begins to resemble a 1st grader’s practice sheet. I only know this fact because during college I was forced to write with my left hand for two months due to an injury. If the same thing happened today I’d be using digital recorders and dictation software.

The less common meaning of ambidextrous is not a positive one. It can mean deceptive or hypocritical. Personally, this particular meaning is one I try not exemplify in my work. Especially when I’m meeting with potential clients and trying to close deals with them. Nothing comes back to haunt you, your company and your former clients quicker than duplicity in sales. I found a very simple rule of thumb was that I would never promise something to a client verbally that I would not be able to back up in writing – either in the contract or in an email. Which means that if I say it, it’s true and I didn’t mind who knows it and I am comfortable having my own words come back to me.

Typically how this scenario played out in a sales engagement with a potential client was when I was asked if we could do something. Ideally of course we could actually do it or we might have a reasonable chance of doing it and I could say, “sure, we can do that  no problem.” But if I knew that it just wasn’t something we would be able to do, I let the client know right away. I’d even recommend other companies who could accomplish what was needed.  This was almost always better in the long-term than over-promising and under-delivering. In fact simply saying no to a potential client usually set us apart from the other vendors competing for opportunities because CEOs, CFO and CIO rarely hear from vendors that they can’t do something. The honesty and openness built more trust with a simple sentence than weeks of hemming and hawing every could. Of course I am always striving to expand what can be accomplished but knowing what can be done well and what  can’t has served me well throughout my career.

I’ll  keep these two definitions of ambidextrous in my thoughts as I think about some of my upcoming professional engagements. What are your thoughts? Do you know any ambidextrous people – in either sense? -t

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