I asked why he thought it was so hard for people to do things like networking that didn’t seem difficult and were clear paths to power. Conley said that for most people, networking, building social relationships with strangers at, for instance, events and functions, was seen as a task. That mindset held true for many of the other actions required to build power–they were tasks. Tasks, he said, are things like taking out the garbage. You don’t try to develop your “skill” at taking out the garbage, you don’t think much about it, you just do it and get it over with.
However, if you think of networking as a skill, then that mindset changes everything. Skills are things that can, and maybe even should, be developed. You think about how well you are performing skills, you work on getting better, you get feedback, you apply thought, you learn.
The implication of Conley’s insight: the difference between people who build effective networks and those that don’t, the difference between people who develop political skill and grow that skill over time and those that don’t, has much less to do with intelligence or charisma or charm and everything to do with how people see and define what they are doing–as skills or as tasks.
So here’s some practical advice: the next time you find yourself at some meeting or event, the next time you get what you think is a boring, trivial assignment, consider how your mindset affects your approach. Chip Conley is right–there is a big difference in what we do and what we learn depending on whether we define some activity as a task or a skill. As a consequence, our ability to build power and influence derives as much from how we think about our activities as from our abilities.