A Surgeon Can Be a Janitor, but a Janitor Can’t Be a Surgeon: Delegating Within a Zone of Genius

We hear the phrase “zone of genius” often, whether in self-help articles about unlocking your potential or figuring out how to maximize your potential at work. Sometimes you might hear one say “I’m in my zone!” as a synonymous phrase. Essentially, being in the “zone,” so to speak, is merely the mash up of your top talent and your purpose.

The article title says “a surgeon can be a janitor but a janitor can’t be a surgeon.” Think about that for a minute. In breaking this down as a preface for the rest of this conversation, let’s consider each position (a janitor and surgeon) in terms of one’s top talent and purpose. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that each person in the position, the janitor and surgeon, absolutely LOVE what they do.

If you are a janitor, your talents may lie within keeping the premises of a building/facility in tip-top shape though knowing the best chemicals to use, application and have a process in which you go about your job. The purpose is to do just that, to keep facilities clean. No doubt it is laborious work and a great, and much appreciated, trade. One might expect a modest wage from this trade. On the bright side, because college and all that jazz isn’t for everyone, you don’t have to spend years and mega $$$ to do it. If you have drive, and are willing to put in some elbow grease, you can be great in your field.

A surgeon on the other hand has talent in a steady hand and highly specialized medical knowledge. These talents are obtained through years of very specialized, and very costly education, and a specialized board certification. Their purpose is to conduct surgeries in order to help heal people, often with very serious or life threatening problems. While also laborious, and highly stressful, one can expect to be paid a much higher wage because of that specialty.

Can a surgeon be a janitor? Sure, if that person wanted to do facility maintenance no doubt they could pick up a mop or broom, roll their sleeves up, and get to work. At the same time, the surgeon would not be operating within their “zone.” Okay, now let’s reverse that. Can a janitor be a surgeon? Generally speaking, no, they cannot. That is because they haven’t had all of that specialized training and certifications, right? Also, the janitor wouldn’t be working within his/her “zone” either.

Let me give you a hypothetical: Imagine being at the hospital preparing for your heart surgery, the nurse walks in and says: Sorry, Tim (or whatever your name is) your cardiac surgeon, Dr. Miller, won’t be conducting your surgery today because he’s out with the flu. However, Ron, our most amazing janitor who was steady with a blade in taking gum off the floor last week, is going to stand in for him.

Consider another hypothetical: Imagine a busy ER, lots of trauma patients are rolling in from a serious multi-car traffic accident who all are going to need surgery. Dr. Miller is the only surgeon on staff and has to operate on all of these patients within the next 24-48 hours. Because of the number of patients who have been coming in, the hospital facility is in need of some cleaning, but janitor Ron is out on vacation for the next two days. Now imagine that the hospital president came down from his/her office to ask Dr. Miller to stop seeing patients and to mop up some floors and take out the trash.

Okay, clearly these are totally ridiculous stories and arguably would never happen. After all, would it ever really make sense to ask a janitor to be a surgeon, or for a high paid surgeon to do a janitor’s job? From a practical, and business standpoint, no, it would not. I suspect you’d agree that in a crowd of people you might more easily find people who could take on the task of being a janitor rather than one that would be qualified to be a surgeon, right? Interestingly, while it absolutely makes sense to see why a janitor can’t be a surgeon, and why a surgeon shouldn’t be asked to be a janitor…we still see this exact situation playing out…just with other fields.

Think about your own past work history. How many times have you, or someone you know, been educated/trained to do one particular job and then, from left field, management asks one to do something totally outside of the “zone.” I’m not talking like out of your comfort zone…but rather actually out of your “zone of genius” type of zone? If you are like me, you’ve been there, done that, and have a t-shirt to commemorate the frustration your felt from it.

A Note to Managers:

Hopefully you would agree that it doesn’t make sense to pay a surgeon to do janitors work. Similarly, it doesn’t make sense to have your accountant drafting your legal documents, or to have your general business lawyer trying to tackle your technology projects. Different trades require different skill sets. Of course, I’m not saying you can’t ask for occasional help with side projects here and there (especially if you are a start-up company and are lean on resources) but if you’re constantly going to the surgeon asking them to do janitor’s work – perhaps it’s time you considered engaging a janitor.

When you hire, or delegate out tasks, focus on delegating tasks within your employee’s “zone of genius.” Not only will it increase productivity (which ultimately helps the bottom line) but will also help keep moral higher and therefore reduce costly turnover. After all, no surgeon puts in all of the time, effort, and other resources that it takes to become a surgeon because they want to take over the janitor’s mopping.

Until next time friends…

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