Career coach: Fake it and you won't make it

By Hugh G. Courtney
Monday, February 14, 2011

When my son started his first Spanish class this fall I was thrilled by his obvious enthusiasm for learning the language. It took me back to my own Spanish language training -- six full years in elementary school, followed by four in high school and a semester in college. I never had a chance to use my Spanish much, though, until I started traveling extensively during my career as a management consultant for McKinsey & Co.

While I had always thought of myself as near fluent in Spanish, these trips showed that I was really just faking it. The problem wasn't vocabulary or grammar, both of which I learned well during countless classroom drills. The problem was I had very limited ability to use that vocabulary and grammar to think and communicate real-time in the context of a real business situation. That sort of functional fluency requires extensive immersion and practice in a Spanish-speaking world, and the simulations, drills and conversations we had in the classroom just weren't adequate substitutes for the real thing.

When I travel on international business today, I always make it a point to learn a few key words and phrases so that I can greet people in their native language. But after these greetings, I invariably ask if we can continue the conversation in English (chances are, their English is much better than my Russian, Portuguese or Mandarin). I know that if I try to continue the conversation in their language, we won't be able to talk about anything important and I will expose myself as a "faker" and undermine my credibility.

Far too many seemingly well-trained business professionals I meet are closer to "faking it" than "fluent" when it comes to their level of understanding and application of business principles. We've all had those conversations littered with buzz words -- "synergy," "value creation," "segmentation" and "strategy" -- but when pushed to clarify what they really mean, the other person sounds more like the pointy-headed boss in "Dilbert" than Warren Buffett. And while they think they are impressing those around them with their jargon, the fact that they are obviously faking it may permanently undermine their credibility with bosses, co-workers and clients.

As with my own language training, the problem isn't one of vocabulary. Rather, it is the inability to use what you have learned to solve problems and identify new opportunities in real time and in the context of a real business situation.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Consider these three steps to developing fluency:

1. Focus. As you work to build new skills and knowledge, focus in and really shoot for fluency in a few areas rather than broad education and training. You can't be an expert in everything, but you can become fluent in a couple key areas.

2. Set and share your goals. Be very specific about what you hope to accomplish in training and professional development programs. Set measurable goals and a time line by which to meet those goals. Share these goals with your supervisor, direct reports and peers to ensure they are realistic and that you will feel accountable for following through.

3. Practice, practice, practice. When you acquire new skills and knowledge through educational programs, they won't actually sink in unless you apply them in real business situations. Commit to begin immediately applying your new ideas at work to develop a more sophisticated, useful skill set. Say, for example, you attend a workshop that identifies several new techniques for negotiating with and influencing others. Before leaving the workshop, identify at least three specific situations in the next two weeks in which you commit to trying out your new tools. Make sure you also put a reminder in your calendar two weeks out to codify what you have learned from these applications, and make another set of commitments for the next two weeks to hone your skills further.

Strive for nothing less than fluency as you tackle your professional skill and knowledge development goals. You won't get anywhere if you just fake it.

Hugh G. Courtney is vice dean and professor of the practice at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He oversees the school's undergraduate and graduate programs. He is a best-selling author and leading expert on business strategy and competitive dynamics, also heading up Smith's executive education programs..

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