What the Woodcutter’s Dilemma Can Teach Us About Professional Longevity

Posted to Appos Advisors in the Utility Management Group
image credit: Shutterstock
Vanessa Edmonds's picture
Executive Director & Advisor, Utility 2030 Collaborative & Appos Advisors

Transformation strategist, speaker, and writer who pursues solutions to help utility leaders reinvent the customer experience. Honored to be leading people-centered utility transformation...

  • Member since 2014
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  • Nov 2, 2020

If you aren't familiar with "The Woodcutter's Dilemma“ and hope to stay gainfully (and blissfully) employed as your utility company transforms, you need to read his story:


A sweating woodcutter who—while clunkily trying to chop down a tree—was approached by a young man who asked, “What are you doing?”

The woodcutter replied with a “duh” version of, “I’m cutting down this tree.”

“You look exhausted,” responded the young man. “Take a break. Sharpen your axe.”

The woodcutter, who had been working for hours, had very little patience for the "know-it-all" young man distracting him from the job at hand. Nevertheless, he stopped to catch his breath and bring the young man up-to-speed.

“Dusk is nearing, and I need to finish before it gets dark. If I stop to fiddle with my axe, I’m not going to finish on time.” The young man, perplexed as to why the woodcutter would continue doing it the hard way, shrugged his shoulders and walked away.


In this analogy, your contribution to your company is the tree, and you are the axe. Here is the logic:

  1. Carving out time to work on yourself sharpens the axe;
  2. Your ability to excel in your current role (chop down the tree) increases when you sharpen your axe; and…
  3. Sharper tools set you up for new roles--perhaps your current “tree” is standing between you and what you would rather be doing.


The Woodcutter’s Relevance Today

Prior to 2020, utility professionals began taking steps to evolve into more customer-centric versions of themselves with digital technology projects as their great enabler. Then came Covid-19 and these “steps” morphed into a fully committed, Cirque Du Soleil version of business agility and speed. Providing safe and reliable service to people who could no longer pay their bill was the new (daunting) hill to climb, but you made it to the top, almost overnight!

This experience brought utilities to the realization that their transformation projects are more important than ever if they are going to be prepared to best respond to what’s next. Prepared folks respond with thought and purpose. Unprepared leaders make emotional decisions that often fail to align with the overall vision of the business.

Having the right people at the helm of customer-centric transformation strategies, initiatives, and projects is critical. Unfortunately, the skills and knowledge many of us have today aren’t going to be what our businesses will need from us in the future. Evolving businesses require evolving employees. If we don’t evolve with clarity, purpose, and intentionality, we risk being replaced. To this point, we all know someone really smart who lost a job when their company decided to move in a new direction. Most of us don’t want to be that person (or be that person again).


Organizing Your Leadership Development Journey

The goal of sharpening your axe should align with the four pillars of leadership:

  1. Providing direction for yourself and others;
  2. Creating structure for teams and within roles;
  3. Building trust among internal and external stakeholders and customers; and…
  4. Fostering hope that inspires people to push forward when the world starts pushing back.


If it feels too ambiguous on your own, there are a whole lot of savvy career and leadership development experts who want to invest in you because of your importance to the future of utilities. Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter @VanessaU2030 and I’ll start introducing them to you in the form of their really meaty professional leadership insights.

Why You Need to Start Today

While sharpening your axe may seem less important than the tree staring you in the face—especially during Covid when you have more to accomplish than ever before—consider this recent stat gathered by Gallup to measure the impact of the pandemic on employees: 74% of employees have the feeling they are missing out on important information at work, and that's just one issues companies are grappling with.

Covid isn’t the first or last catastrophe you will need to manage, so you need to start sharpening your axe right now to address current issues and be prepared for future challenges. This is the best step you can take to ensure that you don't get transformed out of job as your company's goals and objectives evolve.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 3, 2020

I hadn't heard that story before-- a great and simple explanation for many important things: getting and listening to outside perspectives, looking at the big picture, not being entrenched in your way of doing things since you've always done it one way, and keeping your skills and focus sharp for the lang-haul. Thanks for sharing, Vanessa. 

Vanessa Edmonds's picture
Thank Vanessa for the Post!
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