woman on bicycle

People sometimes say that a difficult task is “Just like riding a bike”. The implication, of course, is that once you get the hang of it you’ll always know how to do it. What it doesn’t imply is that perhaps the hardest part of bike riding is the part where you try to stand up on two wheels for the first time and gain your balance, etc. Launching a business is kind of like that. You’re at your point of minimum competency. There’s a lot to concentrate on all at once. You’re thinking about how great it would be if you could propel yourself and make progress, but first you have to be able to steady and balance enough to not fall off and break something. At that point you’re not going anywhere: you’re stuck with a bike you can’t ride. A concept like “gear shifting” would make no sense to you, because you can’t even stay upright. But once you hit the point of minimum competency, you can ride a bike.

After a while, you start understanding the right questions to ask about how to position your body and the bike’s mechanics. You can start spotting other cyclists who seem to really know what they’re doing and you can learn from them. You’ve got the skill and knowledge required to hit the road and begin a long journey of growth.

At the level of minimum competency, you’ve still got a long ways to go before you can bomb around town, ride up hills, take sharp corners, and so on. You’ve got even further to go before you’re a master cyclist, taking on the Tour de France. But you have the minimum skills required to ride a bike, and you can get better and better from there.

That’s the goal with minimum competency in each area of your business. You’re trying to get to a level where you can take yourself forward and the company forward, steadily building toward further mastery.

Here’s another way you can think about it. Imagine that you’re looking at a white board, and we draw a vertical line with “zero” at the bottom and “100” at the top. “100” describes total mastery in your area of expertise: you’ve been at it for a decade or more, you have more than 10,000 hours of experience, you could test brilliantly in your knowledge, your skill is well practiced, and you understand the nuances of your particular field. You’re a true expert, a bonified master: that’s 100.

Zero means you know nothing.  

Somewhere around the middle is where we’d identify “minimum competency,” and the specific point of where that minimum competency is will change for every role. For instance, your accountant is going to need strong competency in the area of accounting to successfully carry out her job; on the spectrum, maybe she needs to come in with a competency level around 70 or 80. As her boss, you need a working knowledge of accounting so that you can effectively manage her, ask her the right questions, and ensure she’s working toward the company’s Vision. But you don’t need the same level of expertise that she does; your level of minimum competency might sit more around the 50 or 60 range.

In the range of minimum competency, you know enough to effectively carry out your job and pursue further growth. Your skills are good enough that you can ask the right questions and determine what you don’t know. You have the basic skills required to manage your employees, do your accounting, create a marketing plan, and so on.

woman on a laptop
Image from Unsplash

As you come to better understand the core areas of your business, you’ll also be in a better position to oversee others on your team and set clear goals for their growth in those areas. What knowledge is necessary for them as they begin? What do you hope they learn as they go? If you’re clueless about the work your employees do, you can’t evaluate or motivate them. However, when you have minimum competency, you’ll know enough to do both.

If you fall below that minimum, then you don’t have enough understanding to effectively run your business. You won’t have the basic skills required to manage your employees well. Even worse, you may not even know you have blind spots; too many people think they have minimum competency in an area when they don’t.  

As you develop as a professional business leader, you want to pursue steady improvement in each area. It’s fun to ride a bike in an empty parking lot, but it’s way better to have the skills to go on much longer rides, on more challenging terrain. Likewise, your business will have more flexibility, strength, and success as you continue to strengthen your skills, practice, knowledge, and experience. Determine which areas you most need to improve in, and seek out learning there first.

Many of us had minimum competency in enough areas that we were able to get our businesses started, but the business failure rate attests to the fact that many of us encountered knowledge gaps and challenges along the way. If we were to actually administer a test in the six areas of core competency, we’re guessing most business leaders would struggle to pass them all. When you have two-thirds of businesses failing within a decade, that’s a sure sign that business leaders need more help along the way.

Even the third of businesses that succeed would likely benefit from a boost. Most successful businesses benefited from a winning combination of having smart people who learned on the go, a lot of hustling, and luck. Quite frankly, those three characteristics describe the two of us: we hustled, we learned on the go (acquiring some painful lessons in the process), and we got lucky.

If a business doesn’t benefit from these posts to prop it up, it’s either going to collapse underneath you and you’ll end up in the basement, or you’re going to get so tired of the stress, you’ll give up. It has all taken too long and you have seen so little progress, and you’re too tired—so you shut it down.

And, when you do, you also shut down the dream you had when you started it all. You just knew that your work could change the world a bit, and maybe it has. Remember that every important thing ever accomplished had huge hills to climb and headwinds that made the going very difficult. They all had tight spots that required a lot of dedication and deep thought to get through. The ones that stay the course eventually break through into open territory where the impact and rewards are better. They experience a different level of success, one that sends ripples out far beyond what they can see with their own eyes.

So, keep riding. Keep learning. Don’t let discouragement rob you. The world really does need what you are doing. Make sure they have a chance to find it.