Self-Taught MBA: Jack of All Trades, Master of One
In an age of specialization, we tend to focus very narrowly on job qualifications. The better you are at one thing, the more likely you’ll land a good-paying job-whether as a drywall finisher, a residential electrician, or a finish carpenter. Gone are the days of the guys who dug footings, finished flatwork, framed houses, plastered walls, hung cabinets, painted interiors and exteriors, and installed wall-to-wall carpet. Yet that’s the generation I grew up in, back when we did it all. Admittedly, we didn’t do everything all that well, but it was good enough to get the whole house done.
So I’ve never been a great craftsman, but I am a competent jack-of-all-trades. Even when I studied management, I was not the best bookkeeper, marketer, or general manager. But with a broad range of experience from ditch digger to small-time CEO, I did become very good at one thing: general contracting. I can hold my own with every facet of a project and can talk knowledgeably with every expert, from the soils tech to the tile setter and even the accountant. It makes the job of coordinating and administering much easier when you know a little about a lot.
The importance of being there
Today’s builders often come with strong credentials in either structural framing, real-estate sales, or finance. These are three excellent backgrounds, but they are still lacking when it comes to implementing a tight and detailed trade schedule, or providing clients with accurate-enough information to make intelligent selections. I have even found schooled project managers lacking the command that comes with “being there,” even when they are highly trained and able to organize workflow on advanced software. It’s the practical framework that comes from “doing it” that makes the theoretical learning truly useful.
Practice-by which I mean hands-on experience-even applies to office work. I work with a finance manager, and lately I have found holes in his work that I realize come from a very specific hole in his resume: He never worked as a bookkeeper. He was always in charge of the bookkeepers and hence cannot appreciate the actual time and effort involved in keeping track of every transaction accurately. He does not see in his mind’s eye where each bookkeeping entry lands in the database of our powerful accounting software.
Having spent years doing the books, I can see in my mind’s eye the impact of each transaction on the financial reports and balances, almost the way Cypher could see computer code come alive in the Matrix movies. It’s the same with organizing work. When you can feel the effort in your muscles, you know when a particular siding will take longer to paint because the lap is thicker and will require back-brushing along the bottom edge, or when a bathroom floor will be harder to tile because the walls don’t sit at right angles. You take these things into account without even thinking about it when you’ve done it, and this yields better estimates and more accurate scheduling.
But just knowing about tile won’t help you organize the framing, and just knowing framing won’t help you balance the checkbook. You wouldn’t hire a head chef who only knew how to cook one dish, or an orchestra conductor who had only learned to play a single instrument. To be in charge of a complex undertaking such as a construction project requires building a bit of muscle memory in every phase of the building process. So if you want to become a master builder, start by becoming a jack-of-all-trades.