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Five Traits of Difference Makers: Do Your Homework

Executive Resource
Difference makers with the trait of Homework extract the essential meaning and most important aspects of the knowledge they acquire from any task.
April 20, 2022

In our continuing series on Five Traits of Difference Makers, I would like to explore the tangible aspects of what are sometimes intangible traits. Let’s take a deep dive into the ability to learn.

Homework: the ability to understand and distill the details of any task

Homework in Action

Observable skills that contribute to Homework:

  • Volunteer: Not only do those with Homework prepare, but their hands go up when a new challenge needs to be attacked.
  • Solution-Ready: Doing the reading is a minimal expectation in the workforce. Who on your team delves into the issues and brings potential solutions? Even if those solutions are not the right answer, they help move the ball forward.
  • Best Practice: One of the keys to business process improvement is staying ahead of the industry curve. What are industry leaders and your competitors doing that you are not (and vice-versa)? How can those lessons be best applied? The Homework colleagues help answer these questions.
  • Writing: Remember the distill part. The Homework traits depends on communicating acquired knowledge. Homework colleagues communicate effectively in writing and provide context. Even a reader with no previous knowledge will grasp the meaning.

Modern restaurants face a new challenge: their customers are becoming better and better cooks. We are deluged by chefs on television and social media willing to reveal almost any kitchen secret the amateur needs. The farm-to-table movement has improved our ingredients. And then there’s the equipment. Need a professional-grade carbon steel pan? A table-top pizza oven that reaches nine hundred degrees? A precision sous vide that fits neatly in a kitchen cabinet? Proceed directly to the internet. Finally, even the world’s most exclusive restaurants (perhaps, especially the world’s most exclusive restaurants) publish their cookbooks. None of these resources will turn anyone into Thomas Keller. What’s the difference between a real cook and a kitchen dilettante who owns a bunch of stuff? The answer is homework.

Homework is the ability to understand and distill the details of any task. The concept applies directly to cooking, but homework is relevant to every professional field. Your team members with the Homework trait understand and distill. In other words, they extract the essential meaning and most important aspects of the knowledge they acquire. Not everyone can do this. Those that can are easy to identify.

Exploding Two Management Myths

Those with Homework upend two common lessons taught early in career development. In my opinion, these lessons make foundational sense…and are constantly misapplied.

Myth #1: There is no such thing as a stupid question.

False; people often ask stupid questions at work. There are no stupid questions in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where wide-eyed children are learning about the world for the first time. That doesn’t describe the modern business environment. People with Homework ask probing questions, pursue detailed follow ups and tease out context around the issues being addressed. But they do not waste time asking questions on fundamental matters that everyone on your team is expected to grasp. Only the unprepared do that.

Myth #2: If you do not know the answer, the best response is “I don’t know.”

That’s only true up to the point that it conflicts with your professional responsibility. If someone can credibly counter your “I don’t know,” with “Why don’t you know?” then you are in trouble. The rigors of homework continue after our formal educations. A diploma frees one from test anxiety, paper deadlines and the “Sunday Scaries.” But that freedom proves fleeting. Young professionals, regardless of field, learn how to work. Those with Homework embrace the challenge; others make it up as they go along. Homework separates the two populations. As an aside, the people I know who exhibit Homework usually spend part of Sunday preparing for the week ahead (just like in college!).

Homework and the Emotional Intelligence Connection: Self-Regulation and Motivation

Self-regulation and motivation are the EQ “discipline twins.” Self-regulation contributes to a calm workstyle. Those who self-regulate rarely have emotional outbursts and stay in control of their emotions. That is the external manifestation of self-regulation. More important to the Homework trait is the internal effect of self-regulation: accountability. Homework—and preparation—lead to personal accountability.

Your Homework teammates also exhibit motivation. Learning with the goal of understanding and conveying to others is not a chore for them. They will grind; but their grind often turns to flow. Homework brings a quality component that disdains shoddy work.

Getting Personal

We all do homework, regardless of our point in life. If you chart the extent to which you have gotten better at your craft over the years, the line might be a constant increase. Good for you! More likely, there are times where your knowledge has increased, times when it has plateaued, and perhaps even declined. (As a young revenue economist, I was a power SAS user; I can assure you that ship sailed long ago). The strength of your homework trait directly correlates to your commitment to study. How often have you gone to a secondary or tertiary source to help solve a professional challenge? Better question: how often have you done that simply for the joy of it? Just like in your college years, homework combats the fear that comes from being unprepared.

Leading Questions

  1. We need a better grasp of technology improvements common to our industry. What team members could turn around a cogent summary of the technology environment and where we might have gaps as a company?
  2. Executive management has been critical of our reporting recently. What are we missing? Who can review our recent communications and provide fresh ideas?
  3. Who on your team is most willing to conduct research beyond the surface analysis of prominent issues?



The Leader’s Checklist: HOMEWORK

How often does a member of your team exhibit these attributes?

Team Member:
Anonymous Smith
 Consistently  Usually  Sometimes  Seldom  Never  Not Applicable
Solution oriented
Excellent questions: probing, contextual
Understanding Best Practice
Seeking secondary (tertiary) source material
Concise written explanation of concepts


For other articles in this series:

© Copyright 2022 Adam Jones

Adam Jones writes and speaks regularly on management, leadership, and strategic governance. He is the organizational assessment practice leader for Weaver and Tidwell, L.L.P.


Five Traits of Difference Makers: Homework