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Why Mastery  
conditions for | mastery is enduring | importance | the barriers | what is your role | test
Importance for Organizations
Global competitiveness and leadership in any industry or organization require having masters in the core professions of the industry. The original founders of most organizations were seasoned in the core professions of their industry. Founders are frequently pioneers. However, success in an industry often breeds complacence. Look at the U.S. car industry. Until 2005, the primary energy source for cars has been gasoline. This has been true in spite of the oil embargo in the early 80’s. How could the U.S. lose leadership in the industry it invented? Because seeing the trends and new possibilities in each of the core technologies (design, fuel, efficiencies, manufacturing, etc.) was downplayed by leaders and Boards who were more interested in the short-term results and current stock prices than in continual research and innovation. Now that the U.S. has definitely lost the leadership position, the Hybrid car is on the market.

“American corporate managers by and large have joined the cult of the bottom line…They strive mightily to keep the profit curve angled upward, even if that means sacrificing research and development, long-term planning, patient product development, and plant investment.”…George Leonard

Masters or experts in a field see the trends. They are usually at the frontiers. Organizations, however, often want to replicate past successes. They get fixated on profitability and process reengineering rather than innovation. We need people with a high level of mastery who have the historical background to see the implications of seemingly subtle choices and the courage to lead the way. Masters in a field have the networks and respect from others that inspire confidence and action. We need to create strong partnerships between the masterful leaders in any organization and those chosen to “run” the organization.

A study of over seventeen hundred fast-growing start-up companies revealed that most of their CEOs had more than ten years’ experience in their industry. Depth in a field and passion gives great leaders that seemingly intuitive sense of what will and won’t work. They can “smell” opportunity and timing. They build organizations to embody their visions.

We’ve seen several pioneering organizations go out of business or become less competitive because they no longer had leaders who were masters in the core professions and trades required to enhance the organization. Look at Polaroid, Pan Am, Sears, Continental, and A&T. Why? Because the people running them were general managers, with little experience in the professions that originally made them great. Leadership is always in a field of endeavor and mastery-specific. Management is not. We can give someone a management position. Only they can earn the title of “leader” in the field.

Culture of Innovation
Masters in a profession are able to improvise, make new connections, test, experiment, and invent new strategies and approaches when the old ones don’t work. Masters have experienced so many variations of what works, what doesn’t’ or what can go wrong, that they are rarely baffled. They seem to know instinctively what to do, whom to call, where to look or how to handle a new problem or crisis. They have what we call “unconscious competence.” Their bodies know what to do before their minds react. When asked why they made a particular move or decision they can replay the situation and tell you. But, in the moment their biology takes over. Why? 10-17 years of practice.

As we’ve noted earlier, masters change the game in important ways and raise the bar of human achievement. An institution can give a degree or certificate. The title of master is bestowed only when others witness the competency in practice. Mastery connotes achievement, high standards, and recognition.

  • What would happen if your organization established an Advisory Board to search for, and honor the up-and-coming masters in the organization?
  • With stiff requirements, input from many in the organization, and agreement on the basic practices (not a list of disembodied competencies) that denote mastery in a given profession or trade?
  • How might this change our search for talent?
  • How might this change the way we think about multiple career paths?
  • How might this mastery impact our approach to compensation?
Barriers to Mastery
Separation of Knowledge from Practice
The natural learning process between mentors and protégés has been replaced by institutional learning. It’s possible to get an advanced degree and never practice in the area of study. Students frequently study with teachers’ assistants rather than the masters in their field. Learning is a physiological process. The mind connects instantly to the body only after years of drill and practice in an area of expertise. We refer to that as unconscious competence. Getting an MBA is worlds apart from practicing the art of management, finance, marketing, etc.

Why is it that an experienced lawyer or mediator can sense (they actually see or feel) conditions in the courtroom that suggest a change in their strategy, tone of voice, moving closer or farther from the jury? Because they have gained what we call unconscious competence. Their body responds before their mind. They’ve experienced the same or similar conditions so often that their body knows what to do. more...
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