A while back, I had coffee with a former athletic company executive and mentioned how often I sprain my ankle playing squash. "But aren't you wearing squash shoes?" he asked incredulously. I admitted I wasn't; I assumed the existence of "squash shoes" was only a branding scam. Alas, it turns out that they -- unlike regular sneakers -- are optimized to protect you during horizontal movement across the court. Humbled, and with the right equipment, I haven't hurt my ankle since.
I thought I had all the facts -- I was being a savvy consumer, avoiding the corporate spin that dictated a different shoe for every sport. Instead, I was wrong, and injured myself more than once as a result. Sometimes, we need certain equipment or skills to succeed -- and literally can't make a go without them. So it's worth it for every businessperson to ask: do you have the tools you need to succeed? You can start with three questions:
- Do I know what tools are required?
- Do the tools I need exist -- or can I invent them?
- Am I willing to embrace the necessary tools?
Do I know what tools are required?
Retrospectively, I should have sought out a squash pro at the outset to help me strategize about equipment. Similarly, it's worth it for you to approach your boss or senior mentors and get their opinion about what you need to thrive at your company. What do they wish they'd known? What would they have done differently? If the path to the C-suite is through a global assignment, it's not a bad idea to start those Mandarin lessons now. And if everyone else is using a particular tool or skill -- whether it's a productivity app, a methodology like Six Sigma, or (in my case) squash shoes -- you should at least investigate it before assuming you know better.
Do the tools I need exist - or can I invent them?
The New Yorker recently profiled a well-known Charleston chef, Sean Brock, who set out to reinvent Southern cooking by bringing back "heritage ingredients" that have fallen out of favor, from Ossabaw hogs to heirloom rice. But Brock quickly realized that in order to fulfill his vision, he'd have to do more than just cook. Because the crops had largely disappeared since 1980 -- the victim of changing tastes and the rise of Big Agriculture -- he also needed to take an active role in farming and animal husbandry. "I've dedicated my life to this craft," he said, "and they can't give me the tools to do it right." So he had to create them for himself.
Odds are, you won't have to take up seed conservation in order to succeed at your career. But you may have to get creative. Let's say you feel frustrated about the lack of interdepartmental communication at your company. If there's an existing channel to leverage, great -- but if not, why not invent one and make yourself the information hub? If there are particular skills or training you'd like to have but HR is falling short, why not organize a study group and spread that knowledge throughout the company? Taking decisive action to obtain the right tools can send a strong message about your leadership abilities.
Am I willing to embrace the necessary tools?
You'll always get a better result in the end if you use the right tools. But it's also more onerous along the way. Who wants to go out in the snow to get the exact screwdriver or drill bit, when you can usually find a semi-passable workaround? And who wants to expend the time and energy to learn how to touch type (even if it means you can write your memos 10x faster), take an intercultural communication class (even if it means you'll relate better to the Bangalore office) or set up a blog (because it means you'll actually have to write blog posts)?
Stepping up and owning your professional development entails some sacrifice. It's so much easier to make do with what you're given, and grumble that the folks in IT haven't given you the right technology, or the training department hasn't prepared you to do such-and-such, or your boss hasn't mentored you sufficiently. But real leaders are willing to ask themselves -- and others -- what they don't know, and take action to correct it.
What tools do you need to succeed in your career? And what are you doing about it?
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.