“On a good day, 80 percent of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves.” — Tasha Eurich

I recently had a fascinating conversation with organizational psychologist, executive coach, researcher, and New York Times best-selling author Tasha Eurich. Her most recent book, Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think, presents a compelling proposition for leaders: self-awareness exerts a dramatic effect on your success and it can be learned.

Tasha and I discussed the fundamentals of identifying and building self-awareness, why it matters so much, and how leaders can remove roadblocks that prevent them from understanding and seeing themselves clearly. Because we covered so many crucial insights and points of action for business leaders, today’s article is the first of a two-part series—the second of which will drop in my next newsletter. 

Why Self-Awareness Matters

Tasha’s research, writing, and coaching is driven by her desire to help successful people become even more successful, and particularly to help leaders become more effective, inspiring, and self-aware. Like me, she sees vast potential in individual leaders both within and beyond themselves. “It’s true that every leader—whether they’re a formal or informal leader—has a tremendous amount of opportunity to positively impact others,” she said.  

On the other hand, as we’re all painfully aware, leaders also have the less desirable potential to negatively affect others. And that happens—usually inadvertently due to cognitive biases and lacking self-awareness—far more often that we think. “So,” she added, “my job is really to help people who mean well and want to do good for the world actually do that.” 

“Those who are willing to see themselves differently, who are able to hear feedback that challenges their view of themselves, are always more successful than those who aren’t.” Click here to Tweet.

As an organizational psychologist for more than a decade, Tasha had observed a pattern: Regardless of whom she was working with, their position, industry, or the country in which they resided, “those who are willing to see themselves differently, who are able to hear feedback that challenges their view of themselves, are always more successful than those who aren’t.” 

What’s more, this pattern seemed to hold true against the backdrop of a world she perceived as becoming “more and more self-absorbed—and less and less self-aware.” 

That’s when she started to wonder what self-awareness—a buzzword in popular management literature at the time—was all about. Was it as important as she thought it was? And was it a learnable skill?

Two Types of Self-Awareness

These were not simple questions to answer. In fact, it took Tasha and her team almost a year just to define what self-awareness actually was. Two categories surfaced repeatedly, both of which were important and neither of which seemed sufficient on its own. She explained, “The first is seeing ourselves clearly—self-awareness from the inside out. That’s what I refer to as internal self-awareness. The second is understanding how others see you. This is external self-awareness.” Further, the team discovered that the two categories of self-awareness operate completely independent of one another.

To illustrate, Tasha offered concrete examples: “Everybody knows someone in their life or their work who considers self-examination to be a hobby. They love to journal or perhaps go to therapy several times a month or go to mindfulness retreats. They are very internally self-aware. But at the same time, they’re not necessarily focused on the impression they create with others. Other people might see them as selfish or stubborn, for instance. Just because we have one type of self-awareness doesn’t imply we’ll have the other.”

She continued, “The same is true for people who are externally self-aware but who are not internally self-aware. If you’re highly externally self-aware, you typically live your life by other people’s rules. You don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what is meaningful and important to you and how you can make authentic values-based decisions based on your own internal compass.”

Both of these archetypes are important, particularly for leaders!

Through my coaching practice, I’ve seen it both ways. Overly self-focused leaders have no idea how they come across to others and often inadvertently demoralize and confuse their teams. On the other hand, if you’re hyper-focused on how other people perceive you, you’re likely seen as inauthentic, unpredictable, or even lacking integrity because your rules seem to change in every situation. This scenario destroys trust which, of course, is THE fundamental building block of high-performing teams.

Tasha added: “For leaders, the roadmap is really clear. First consider how much time and attention you’ve paid to each of these types of self-awareness—these two camera angles for how you can see yourself. Then ask: Have I been neglecting one? And if so, what can I do about it?”

Which type of self-awareness do you typically pay more attention to–internal or external? Click here to answer today’s leadership poll question!

What, in fact, can you do about improving your self-awareness? To find out, Tasha posed a critical question to her research team: “Do you think someone can go from woefully [lacking self-awareness] to seeing themselves really clearly?’” She believed that if they could find these people, they could identify commonalities and patterns to help others improve their self-awareness.

One of Tasha’s research assistants was quite cynical and believed it would be extremely challenging to find people who had transformed their self-awareness—so much so that the team decided to label their elusive quarry self-aware “unicorns.”

From there, finding these so-called unicorns became the focus of the research program. Along the way, Tasha and her team surveyed thousands of people all over the globe and reviewed nearly 1,000 related scientific journal articles. 

Unicorn Insights

Indeed, the research team found their unicorns! As expected, unicorns represented a very small percentage of the total population analyzed—just fifty people. They were different ages and genders, from different countries and different walks of life, and held different professional roles in a variety of different jobs. There were teachers, artists, and entrepreneurs among the group. One was a Fortune 50 CEO. Others were stay-at-home parents. But all demonstrated that they saw themselves clearly. 

Our opinions of ourselves, however, usually don’t give us the whole story and we aren’t highly accurate judges of our own self-awareness. With that in mind, in addition to surveying the unicorns, the research team also asked others who knew them well to answer the same survey. To be deemed a unicorn, the answers provided by the subject and their counterpart had to align. Further, both parties also had to report that the subject had increased their self-awareness substantially over the course of their lives. 

Clear patterns emerged regarding what the unicorns did to successfully cultivate their self-awareness. All of them shared two traits:

1)  A dogged commitment to improving their self-awareness. No matter what they knew, they always wanted to learn more.

2)  A regular, consistent habit of increasing their self-awareness almost every day.

If you’re wondering about how self-aware you are, I invite you to take Tasha’s Insight Quiz to find out!

The 80 Percent Blind Spot

The team’s research produced other eye-opening findings, as Tasha mentioned: “We found that 95 percent of people believe that they’re self-aware, but only about 10-15 percent of people actually meet the criteria to be self-aware. That means on a good day, 80 percent of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves.”

Reflecting on the magnitude of this self-awareness blind spot and having found that the problems we seek to solve in the world—or the issues we see in others—are often indicators of things we need to resolve within ourselves, I asked Tasha “Did you come to any realizations about yourself that caused you to grow along the way?” 

“What I learned,” she answered “Is that I was definitely in that 80 percent. I now know enough to know that I am not as self-aware as I thought.” Tasha sees that as a positive outcome for anyone who might come to the same understanding. “It’s such an important step in our self-awareness journey to say, ‘Wow, so many things I thought were givens about myself are not as clear,’ or ‘So many things that I see are not things others see—and vice versa.’” 

In fact, these realizations are among the most important steps in building one’s self-awareness. 

“There’s a sense of humility and openness to learning that grows with increasing self-awareness.” Click here to Tweet.

Tasha continued, “What I always tell the CEOs I coach or my readers or the people I speak to is, ‘I’m right here with you. We are all on this journey together.’ And that actually makes it, I think, kind of comforting.”

“And simultaneously terrifying and liberating,” I added. “Terrifying because you now realize who you’ve been and how you’ve been showing up in the world. And liberating because the barrier is lifted, and you feel as if you have a path forward.” There’s a sense of humility and openness to learning that grows with increasing self-awareness.

I’ve learned over the years that embracing continual growth is critical for any leader. In fact, I’ve never seen a business grow at a sustained rate greater than the personal growth rate of the people running it. Self-awareness—whether newfound or longstanding—is a predictor of one’s “coachability,” my metric for potential learning velocity. 

“The beauty of that,” Tasha said, “is that the leaders who are smart enough and courageous enough to focus on this critical skill are going to be ahead of the pack in the marketplace, in their organization, and their career. So, it’s almost like the worst-kept secret that nobody acts upon.” 

Now that you know the secret, you have the chance to act on it and—like the unicorns—continually build your self-awareness. The reality is that 80 percent of us are—well—in the 80 percent! We have some level of self-deception about how self-aware we are and how we come across to others. Multiplied through leaders and across organizations, the costs of this are staggering!

Are you willing to acknowledge that you are likely in the 80 percent? And are you willing to do the work to become more self-aware? If so, Tasha’s Insight Quiz is the place to start.

We’ll cover the next steps in Part II of this series: How to build better self-awareness. Along the way, we’ll explore the ties between self-awareness and happiness, expose the factors that interfere with truly understanding yourself, and outline tactical ways to overcome them. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, for more on Tasha Eurich and her work, visit www.insight-book.com. You can also follow her on LinkedIn.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

The Self-Improvement Strategy The CEO of GoDaddy Uses to Find Success (BusinessInsider.com)

“To be a better leader, be a better person.

That insight, which comes from David Cotrell’s book “Monday Morning Leadership,” is one of GoDaddy CEO Aman Bhutani’s fundamental leadership principles.

“We’re in the fortunate position of riding the digitization wave,” Bhutani told Insider. “But even our company faced a significant number of challenges as the pandemic hit.”

Those challenges ranged from everything from ensuring GoDaddy’s China team was able to continue operating safely, to addressing the rapidly evolving needs of the company’s customer base, which largely involves small business owners who use GoDaddy to build online platforms.

But when faced with tough decisions, Bhutani returns to his principle of self-improvement — and it’s helped him to be decisive and navigate change.

“That principle has helped me through the most difficult of decisions,” he said.

It can be hard to know how to infuse personal growth into business. Here’s how Bhutani has used self improvement to better himself and his company…”

Five Questions Smart People Ask Themselves Before They Speak (Forge.Medium.com)

“Think before you speak,I told my 6-year-old son, Liam, earlier this week. I immediately regretted saying it as it’s often a generic phrase that parents give their kids when they say something rude, and I know I didn’t like hearing it when I was young. Liam stopped and asked me an interesting question: “What should I be thinking about before I speak?”

At the time, his question caught me off guard, and I told him he should always ask himself if what he’s about to say is true, kind, or useful. But his question got me thinking if there’s more to the answer. As adults, so many of us run our mouths aimlessly, which can lead to stress and anxiety for ourselves and everyone around us. What should we be thinking about before we speak in order to make our time with others productive and meaningful?

I’ve been trying to better answer Liam’s question by collecting questions smart people ask themselves before they speak. Here are five we can all use…”

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Next Steps to Accelerate Your Leadership Success…

“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.  He who understands it, earns it… He who doesn’t, pays it.”  –Albert Einstein

It’s been said that there is no such thing as an overnight success. The same is true of failure. Your outcomes are simply the accumulation of your choices and behaviors, compounded over time. 

For growth-minded leaders, the obvious question becomes, “Are my day-to-day choices and behaviors compounding in the right or wrong direction?” 

The most effective leaders I know are not only aware of the compounding effect, but—in alignment with Albert Einstein’s quote above—actively use it to their advantage. Consider the case of Boris—a CEO and current coaching client. Boris constantly asks open-ended questions to simplify the business, improve clarity, and achieve better results. Some of his favorites include: 

Why does this matter?

What do we mean by this?

How can we measure that?

Where is this new idea weakest? Where do its strengths lie?

Boris’ consistent questioning and drive for simplification, clarity, and results compounds in the right direction, helping his executive team and organization grow. It’s no surprise that his business has profitably scaled for years—including through 2020—despite the fact that his firm isn’t a typical high-growth organization providing a new technology or service, but a 60+ year-old manufacturing company that turns powdered metal into filters.

On the other hand, leaders who don’t understand the compounding effect struggle to advance their organizations. Joe (not his real name) was a CEO I coached many years ago. Although he built and ran a successful family business, he and his relatives had significant trust issues when it came to non-family employees. Joe wanted his executive team to step up and run the business’s operations without him, yet every day, he or another family member questioned their decisions and actions—effectively micromanaging and handcuffing the very team he said he wanted to be more independent. Those behaviors compounded in the wrong direction over time and virtually eliminated Joe’s ability to fulfill his aspirations. Unsurprisingly, all of the executives on his senior team quit within three years.

“Your outcomes are simply the
accumulation of your choices and behaviors,
compounded over time.” Click here to Tweet

As we delve deeper into the compounding effect, it’s important to note that this concept is not about intentions; it’s about behaviors. For example, although my client Joe had noble intentions as most business leaders do—his behaviors held him back. 

Four Behaviors that Compound for Growth

In my book Creating a Culture of Accountability, I identify nine accountable leadership behaviors that compound successfully over time. Here we’ll unpack four of them, each with the potential to make a significant difference in your outcomes. We’ll also expose the flipside of each: a corresponding behavior that compounds in the wrong direction, limiting leadership effectiveness. 

1. Hold Yourself and Others to High Expectations

Extensive research and real-world experience illustrate that people perform up or down to the level of expectations set for them. Time and again, in studies and in the workplace, people achieve incredible outcomes—or lackluster results—depending on what others seem to believe they are capable of.

University of California psychologist Robert Rosenthal demonstrated this with an experiment that measured how teacher expectations affect student achievement. At the beginning of an academic year, Rosenthal selected children at random and informed their teachers that they had particularly high potential. Lo and behold, at the end of the school year, those “high-potential” children outperformed their peers. The explanation for their success? The teachers believed they were talented, treated them accordingly, and the students met the expectations.

This phenomenon goes both ways. If the teachers had been warned that the same students were more difficult or less skilled than others, they would have changed how they related to the students and lowered their expectations. The children, in turn, probably—and unfortunately—would have met them.

An additional, extremely costly consequence of low expectations I’ve observed directly in organizations is the willingness of managers to tolerate attitudes, behaviors, and results that would be intolerable in a higher-expectation environment. As Jocko Willink and Leif Babin astutely point out in their book Extreme Ownership, what you tolerate in any individual sets the performance bar for your entire organization.

The compounding effect of high expectations must begin with you. When you lead by example and set high standards for yourself, then hold the same expectations of others, your team and the rest of the organization will follow your lead. 

On the other hand, if you set high expectations for others, but fail to walk your own talk, you’ll set the stage for disappointment and lackluster performance as your team follows your behaviors but not your words. Here’s a basic example: if you insist that all meetings start on time but usually show up 3-5 minutes late yourself, your team is likely to ignore what you’re saying and emulate what you’re doing. This leadership “saying / doing gap” effectively lowers your expectations of others to your own level of performance which, in turn, activates the adage that those who don’t expect much usually get exactly that.

2. Continually Course Correct 

In business and in life, nothing goes exactly according to plan, no matter how much you prepare. As such, just as a ship continuously course corrects to counteract winds and currents to successfully navigate from point a to b, so must a business. Both ship captains and high performing leaders know it’s far more effective to make a large number of small adjustments over time than it is to make a small number of large adjustments late in the game.

Although most people acknowledge that there is a much higher cost associated with delayed, larger corrections than with incremental ones, many struggle to execute on this relatively simple idea. It turns out that there’s so much fear around being labeled a micromanager that leaders miss real opportunities for small adjustments that yield vastly better outcomes in the end. Course correction isn’t micromanagement, rather it’s accountable leadership! So, face your fears head-on and course correct more frequently.

To make this work, use a regular conversation rhythm with your team to keep them on track and account for any snags. Note that this process doesn’t just apply to projects, but also to culture and people. Constant corrections and adjustments enable smooth sailing in every area of your operation. 

What behavior compounds in the wrong direction here? Tolerating even slight deviations from the expected course. For example, if you don’t course correct behaviors that run counter to your core values and culture when you see them, you’re tacitly communicating to the organization that those behaviors are appropriate within the culture! When you accept sub-par behaviors and performance, you’ll find yourself on a detour that may never lead to your aspirations across the main channel. 

3. Seek Clarity

You’ll remember that my client Boris exemplifies this compounding behavior. Strategy, priorities, roles, accountability, metrics, and more are subject to scrutiny, with the goal of developing the clearest understanding possible among the leadership team and beyond. Being clarity-driven is all about posing uncomfortable questions, asking for more information, making sure people are on the same page, and ultimately reaching a level of detail so granular that the team can’t help but have a unified understanding of where you are, the reality of your situation, where you’re going, and how you plan to get there.

Here’s an example of how this works: At a monthly “all-hands” meeting, a CEO declares that her company’s goal for the coming quarter is “to improve customer service so we have happier customers.” Although it sounds noble enough, it’s neither clear nor specific, and therefore not very useful to set the stage for a successful outcome. What exactly does “happy customer” mean, how do you measure that, and why does it matter? Are there other factors like manufacturing quality, timely shipping, and product design weaknesses that might also contribute to customer satisfaction—beyond the influence and capabilities of the customer service team?

Now, if instead she clarifies that what she means by “happier customers” is that fewer complaints result, and that fewer complaints correlate with more repeat business while also freeing more resources for innovation, her team would have more precise and useful context and clarity. A statement like that more readily translates into an achievable goal, such as “reducing quality- and service-related complaint calls by 75 percent over the next quarter.” That’s a specific, clear, measurable outcome. Increased context and clarity compound over time into better overall results.

There’s another benefit here. Clarity often cohabitates with simplicity–the more you know about what you’re trying to accomplish, the more you can pare away unnecessary complication. What’s more, when you see things in their simplest form, you have more power over their progress. 

“Clarity often cohabitates with simplicity —
the more you know about what you’re trying to
accomplish, the more you can pare away
unnecessary complication” Click here to Tweet.

On the other hand, leaders who accept ambiguity and complexity (often using words like “inevitable” or “expected” as justification) find themselves on the wrong side of the compounding effect. Right back to the rule of expectations producing commensurate results, these leaders and their organizations get stuck dealing with complexity as a prime, seemingly immovable obstacle to sustainable, scalable growth.

4. Communicate Transparently 

My globally deployed coaching colleagues and I unanimously agree that regardless of industry, culture, geography, and stage of growth, under-communication remains THE number one problem in business. Why is this such a common pain point? After all, for the most part, as leaders and as people, we believe we are good communicators. Here’s the rub: In reality, most of us aren’t nearly as effective as we think.

There are two cognitive biases that contribute to the challenge of fully embracing this compounding leadership behavior: Confirmation Bias and The Curse of Knowledge. Confirmation Bias is our tendency to seek out, choose, and interpret information in a manner that aligns with our existing assumptions—further solidifying an already-held belief. In other words, if you think you’re a pretty good communicator, you’ll tend to pay attention to evidence that supports your position while discounting information to the contrary. When we succumb to the Curse of Knowledge, we unconsciously and erroneously assume that others have the same information we do, when that is rarely the case. If you’ve ever had to stop someone mid-story because, in the telling, they left logical gaps that made it difficult to understand, you’ve been on the receiving end of the Curse of Knowledge!

To improve the compounding effect of transparent communication, first acknowledge that you must improve and apply focus to overcome your Confirmation Bias. Then, to combat the Curse of Knowledge, use communication rhythms and the WWWHWI framework to convey information to your teams.

Frequency is a vital component of effective communication. Most often, this comes in the form of regular communication rhythms, which I use with my clients to great effect. Although they work up to the full rhythm over time, we implement daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual meeting rhythms companywide. The WWWHWI framework follows the sequence Why, What, When, How, and What If to convey information (leveraging decades of research about how people absorb information and learn). Adopt this sequential framework anytime you need to communicate something to improve your effectiveness.

Of course, the opposite of transparent communication is withholding information from others, which I’ve seen well-intentioned leaders justify for all sorts of reasons. Again, while this may not be your aim, it’s a leadership behavior pattern that compounds in the wrong direction. 

Taking Action

The compounding effect of behavior works relentlessly and reliably, one way or another. As such, the most powerful macro compounding behavior at your disposal is to pause and consider the following question every day: “Are my choices and behaviors today compounding in the right or wrong direction?” 

From there, start small. Choose one of the four compounding leadership behaviors, determine specifically how you’ll honor it daily, and get going to build a new, compounding habit. Be sure that your actions reflect your intentions!

If habit change is a challenge, try using the Change Your Habits Tool (it’s free) from my first book Activators – A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done.

Lastly, as is the case with instituting any new behavior / habit, it’s critical to find allies who support your efforts. A colleague, industry peer, or external coach or consultant can provide valuable, ongoing feedback as to how you’re doing and also help hold you accountable to your commitment.

Like so many of my coaching clients, you’ll be surprised as to how quickly you’ll accrue the benefits of the compounding effect!

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

The High Price of Mistrust (FS Blog)

“Mistrust is expensive.

We need to trust the people around us in order to live happy, productive lives. If we don’t trust them, we end up having to find costly ways to formalize our relationships. Even if we’re not engaged with other people on a social or civic level, we still have to transact with them on an economic one. We still have to walk along the same streets, send our children to the same schools, and spend afternoons in the same parks.

To live our lives freely, we need to to find ways to trust that other people won‘t hurt us, rip us off, or otherwise harm us. Otherwise we may lose something too precious to put a price tag on…”

Can You Say What Your Strategy Is? (HBR)

“Can you summarize your company’s strategy in 35 words or less? If so, would your colleagues put it the same way?

It is our experience that very few executives can honestly answer these simple questions in the affirmative. And the companies that those executives work for are often the most successful in their industry. One is Edward Jones, a St. Louis–based brokerage firm with which one of us has been involved for more than 10 years. The fourth-largest brokerage in the United States, Jones has quadrupled its market share during the past two decades, has consistently outperformed its rivals in terms of ROI through bull and bear markets, and has been a fixture on Fortune’s list of the top companies to work for. It’s a safe bet that just about every one of its 37,000 employees could express the company’s succinct strategy statement.

Conversely, companies that don’t have a simple and clear statement of strategy are likely to fall into the sorry category of those that have failed to execute their strategy or, worse, those that never even had one…”

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Next Steps to Accelerate Your Leadership Success…

I recently connected with serial tech entrepreneur Luke Cooper, who sold his mobile tech support startup Fixt to Fortune 500 firm Assurant in 2020 for an impressive eleven times revenue. Luke and I chatted about his leadership journey, how he stacked the deck to sell his business for a large multiple, some of his key leadership principles, the value of learning and accountability, and his powerful mantra—which likely applies to your leadership journey as well. 

And, just like my interview with Stephen Shedletzky, this session produced so much insightful content for growth-minded leaders that I’ve split it into two parts, the second of which will be in an upcoming edition of this newsletter. 

The Meaning Behind the Mantra

Luke and I kicked off our conversation by digging into the meaning behind his website URL and the first words you’ll see on his landing page: “WHERE THERE IS MUD – THERE IS MAGIC.” He explained that to be an effective leader, resilience must be part of your DNA. “You’re always going to be met with challenges and problems,” he said. “I’ve learned the most when those problems and challenges require a new maneuver. So, all of the great things in my businesses—in my life—have really come out of the mud.” 

At first, Luke believed he was successful in spite of the hardships he experienced—including rising from his youth in the housing projects of Bridgeport, CT, critical family health issues, and more. But he realized over time that the difficulties he faced actually made him the leader he has become. For him, the idea of “No Mud. No Magic” is reminiscent of the lotus flower, a plant that grows beautifully from the depths of the mud. “Great things can come from that mud when you understand the power of hardship and leverage it,” he added. 

This truth can be hard to accept, as many of us were conditioned early in life to expect things to be neat and tidy. For example, you may have earned a college degree, planned to enter the workforce, and then progress in your career in an orderly fashion. And you may have been jarred to realize that—in many cases—the greatest things and moments in your life actually emerged from a bit of a mess. Years ago, I had a speaking coach who said, “you need a mess before you can create your message.” Luke’s mantra captures the same concept to help leaders find their footing.

Are you focused on tidying up or truly embracing life’s messes?

Power through Problem Solving

So, how do you accept the mud when you may have been encouraged to avoid it for much of your life? Luke says it starts with a shift in mindset. “If you chase ideas and the sort of vain features of a startup, you’re not going to succeed. The best and most efficient way to find a true path to something great is to become addicted to problem solving.” He shared a crucial insight from one of his mentors: “You’ve got to fall in love with the problem—the mud—way before you fall in love with the solution.”

Most founders tend to take the opposite tack; they are romanced by potential solutions—buzzwords we hear thrown around, like machine learning, vertical integration, and user engagement, to name a few—without understanding the true nature of the underlying problems to be solved. 

Luke shared that when he started Fixt, although he was up against two worthy competitors, he and his team knew they could win because of the way the others were positioned in the market. While the competition was pursuing episodic revenue in the form of one-off transactions, he saw a massive enterprise market with recurring revenue in which customers would pay a monthly or annual fee for tech support. By identifying the weaknesses in his competitors’ models and improving his own, he was able to rise to the top. As Luke aptly points out, “it’s best to market, not first to market.” 

Ultimately, his addiction to solving problems—not just his own, but also those others missed—led to his success.

What big problem are you striving to solve?

Seek to Understand

How do you teach yourself to fall in love with a problem, particularly if you aren’t naturally inclined to do so? You can start by challenging your question-to-statement ratio, which is something I work on with all of my coaching clients. If you think you have all the answers, you’ll find yourself in the unproductive leadership habit of making lots of statements. Asking questions, on the other hand, flips the script. The act itself requires opening your mind to new possibilities in an attempt to learn more. 

This concept is embodied by one of Luke’s core leadership principles: “seek to understand.” The idea here, Luke said, is that “you should seek to understand before you are understood. If you walk into a meeting, conference room, or brainstorming session, and you’re completely focused on your ideas and promoting your vision, you’re not going to get many people to support you.” A better way? Luke says leaders should give people autonomy by asking open-ended questions. The goal shouldn’t be to guide them somewhere; it should be to comprehend their perspective, why it matters, and its implications for overall strategy. “to seek to understand—with no bias whatsoever—is the quest of a good leader,” he said. 

How can you improve your question-to-statement ratio?

Grappling with Ego

Asking for others’ perspective—and truly listening to their answers—requires leaders to subordinate their egos. For example, I’ve watched leaders ask for feedback even though they didn’t really want to hear it. This practice compounds over time and eventually demoralizes the team, as they know it’s a hollow request. Even worse, because they know their leader doesn’t want to hear what they have to say, the flow of productive information slows to a trickle and the team ends up stuck. 

“I think every leader has blind spots,” Luke added. “A coach can help uncover some of them, but you’ve got to do the hard work of removing them yourself. I think the way you do that is with data. For the first three years of Fixt, I told myself I was a great CEO, a great leader, great visionary, great product originator—yet all these were just thoughts in my head.”

“The reality was that we had an attrition rate that was probably one-and-a-half times higher than the average startup. Our employee happiness score was really low. So I could sit there and believe I’m this great leader and I have all these great abilities—my ego can tell me all that. But the way to benchmark your leadership is against real data. And even when you see positive or favorable results, you have to keep asking questions.” 

Luke’s shift to a data-informed view of his leadership began several years ago when Fixt conducted an anonymous company-wide employee survey. When the results came in—including detailed feedback on his leadership—they were shocking. He felt attacked and defensive. And then he hired a coach: “I asked, ‘How should I react to this?’” With his coach’s support, he realized that communication transparency—the kind the survey had the potential to create—was a crucial leadership tool he was missing. 

“Transparency reduces anxiety; it helps everyone understand the conversation we’re having. And it levels the conversation with a measure of truth that usually doesn’t exist.” This realization caused Luke to create and share a presentation that directly addressed the comments from the employee survey. He shared which perceptions of him were accurate (many) and which weren’t (a few)—and worked to clarify any confusion. And he let the team know that he hired a coach to help him be accountable to the changes he was committing to make. The outcome? “We didn’t lose a single person after that. We continued to grow revenue 400 percent year over year. And we exited in August 2020 for eleven times revenue.” 

From that moment forward, Luke led with vulnerability. He put himself out there and his efforts paid off. Self-awareness, which Luke was able to embrace with the help of a coach, is crucial for leaders. If you’re blind to how you feel internally versus how others perceive you, then you’re going to have one or both hands tied behind your back when you try to enlist those around you to accomplish great things.

How can you use data to improve your self-awareness and effectiveness as a leader?

Care Deeply but Tell the Brutal Truth

At this point in our conversation, Luke turned the tables on me and asked: “Mark, how do you access the power of motivating people to accomplish more?”

As a coach, I strive to continually improve my self-awareness. I’ve learned that when I enter a meeting with a client executive team, I must do so as a contributing team member AND as their coach. When I join them this way, it’s easier to deliver the hard messaging my role demands because they know, based on my actions, that I care deeply about them and their success. I behave as Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor instructs, “care deeply, but tell the brutal truth.”

Luke’s willingness to release his ego and create a fully transparent culture also demonstrated his willingness to learn and adjust his behaviors, another vital element of leadership. We’ll get to the ins and outs of Luke’s learning experience at Fixt and the power of accountability in part two of this article series.

For now, check out Luke’s website and connect with him on LinkedIn, as you reflect on the mud you may have to slog through to find your own magic. 

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

The Deceptively Simple Exercise That Will Boost Employees’ Spirits (Quartz)

“Months into the pandemic and its economic fallout, a lot of workers are feeling understandably anxious and insecure about the future. What can companies do to boost morale?

Laura Gallaher, an organizational psychologist in Orlando, Florida, suggests one deceptively simple exercise: Ask the management team to name their top priority.

Most higher-ups will struggle to answer, she warns. They’ll rattle off their top five goals of the quarter or their individual aspirations, she says. In fact, when she has put the priority question to corporate leaders, they’re often confused by it.

That spells trouble for esprit de corps. Most employees want their companies to succeed, she tells Quartz, and they need to see and feel progress. “When you can create a really clear sense of focus and priority and direction, what’s going to happen is the company is going to actually move faster,” says Gallaher. “And I think that that can be very uplifting for people.” It can also save employees a lot of time and wasted energy…”

Embrace These Four Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Effectively Lead Today (Inc)

“One of the true marks of transformative leaders is that what we learn from them can transcend time. Every year as I remember the work and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am in awe of how his writings, actions, and the leadership principles with which he lived are still just as relevant today as they were more than fifty years ago.

As we continue to navigate through a time in our history where we deal with threats to our democracy, racial injustice, and vast inequalities across many levels of society, I’ve seen many leaders frustrated and at times paralyzed about what their role should be in creating positive change.

Here are four leadership principles to embrace from Dr. Martin Luther King to guide you in your quest to be a better leader…”

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Next Steps to Accelerate Your Leadership Success…

Buy a book: Activators – A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done -or- Creating a Culture of Accountability

A number of years ago, I was coaching Alex (not his real name), a successful CEO in the technology sector. Alex was extremely focused on bringing in sales. He constantly feared that there wouldn’t be enough and channeled the vast majority of his energy and time into avoiding that outcome.

During plentiful times—when there was no perceived risk around sales or finding the next client—Alex allowed himself to focus on other key areas of the business including people, strategy, and execution. But as soon as he felt the slightest uncertainty about revenue, like a stretched rubber band snapping back into its natural state, he resumed his hyper-focus on sales. 

As a result, his company didn’t have a strategy or repeatable core processes in place. They struggled to find and retain the right people, and to hold employees to the right levels of rigor and accountability. Although Alex’s operation was slowly scaling, it did so in an unhealthy and unsustainable way. 

Alex had fallen into a trap that I’ve seen entangle many leaders and strangle growth: he was focused on a small portion of the business for the vast majority of the time. This is the portion of the business—in Alex’s case, sales—I refer to as the 5 percent. As a result, he essentially (and unknowingly) abdicated his leadership of the other 95 percent, to the detriment of the organization. 

It wasn’t until Alex hired a chief operating officer to run the day-to-day and week-to-week business-generating activities that he was able to elevate his leadership and concentrate on the other 95 percent to build a healthier and more scalable firm. In hindsight, he saw that he paid a steep price for his focus on the 5 percent!

What is your 5 percent right now? Where do you have tunnel vision focused on a particular problem or area of pain in your organization, potentially at the expense of the other 95 percent?

Why does this happen—despite your good intentions—and how can you better balance your focus to include the totality of the business?

The Science Behind Hyper-Focus

To understand why it’s so easy to fall prey to hyper-focus, we’ll begin with the reticular activating system (RAS), a neural network in the brain stem that processes and filters the information that reaches your conscious mind. As you navigate each stimulus-filled day, this mental gatekeeper performs a vital function by automatically screening out non-essential sensory inputs (for example, you’re usually unaware of the feeling of your clothing on your body as you drive a car, whereas you’re very aware of the brake lights on the cars just in front of you). 

The RAS is also the reason why an object of your focus tends to grow in importance to you. 

Here’s an example. Imagine for a moment that you’re on a first date. You’re seated across from your date at a restaurant, and as you watch them enjoy their meal, you realize you just can’t stand how they chew their food. Suddenly, everything else seems to fall away. Your date could be the most gorgeous, successful, intelligent person on the planet—the person of your dreams—and all you can register is the cringeworthy way their mouth moves with each bite. Once you focus on that behavioral nuance, you simply can’t see anything else. And, in this case, your first date is also likely to be your last!

There’s good news and bad news about the function of the RAS. The good news is you can control your focus. The bad news is you can’t control the fact that the object of your focus automatically grows in importance to you. Thus, the difference-making lever has to be controlling your focus in the first place, rather than attempting to distribute it with conscious effort.  

With this in mind, let’s look at some of the “5 percent issues” that disproportionately distract leaders: 

What Hijacks Your Focus 

Over the course of my career, I’ve seen numerous factors hijack a leader’s focus, including: 

·   Problem clients. A client who is difficult to work with, doesn’t treat your employees well, fails to pay on time, or creates other issues for your organization is bound to capture a disproportionate amount of your attention. 

·   Significant client at risk. When you’re worried about losing clients, you’re also fearful about losing revenue and hurting your company’s reputation—concerns that can draw your focus from the rest of the operation. 

·   Toxic high performers. I’ve seen organizations nearly felled by high performers who create drama that must be dealt with on a daily basis. 

·   Low performers. When you tolerate team members who aren’t pulling their weight, you find ways to compensate—whether through your own efforts or your team’s—and that consumes time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere. 

What You’re Missing 

What happens when you’re focused primarily on any of the above? Zooming-in on that one issue—tunnel vision on the 5 percent—inevitably happens at the expense of the other 95 percent of your business. 

How do you counter that tendency? First, think about the elements you may be missing when you are sharply focused on any one problem, issue, or area of your business. 

For example:

·   When a problem client has all of your attention, your other clients—who likely compose a much larger proportion of your revenue—aren’t getting the care they deserve. 

·   Similarly, when you concentrate on a significant client at risk, those you neglect in the process—clients and employees alike—may end up slipping out the door. 

·   When you’re wrapped up in the drama of a toxic high performer, you’re probably not paying attention to that individual’s impact on the productivity, engagement, and happiness of the other 95 percent of people who work for you. 

·   And when you’re compensating for a low performer, you may fail to see the reality of the toll that picking up their slack is taking on the rest of the team. 

Even worse, the issue or pain point capturing your attention is often a symptom of an underlying root cause you’re not seeing. Say you’re facing a client at risk of leaving you for a competitor. Maybe your pricing isn’t competitive anymore. Maybe the quality of your product or service has fallen off. Perhaps your customer service team isn’t getting the job done to the client’s satisfaction. When you focus on and treat the symptom, which—thanks to your ever vigilant RAS—grows in importance to you, you ignore the possibility that there’s a deeper, even more costly root cause (for more on solving for a problem’s root cause, rather than its symptoms, check out this article).

Note too that the 5 percent often represents what you don’t want—drama, lost clients, underperformers, and the like. On the other hand, the 95 percent typically holds the key to what you’d like to see more of—things like more sustainable, profitable growth. That’s yet another reason why it’s crucial to flip your focus from the 5 to the 95. You’ll be happier and you’ll actually be focused on getting more of what you want rather than less of what you don’t. Here’s an article that explores this concept more deeply, including how to use your emotional state as an indicator of productive focus.

The Power of Words

So, how do you override your RAS-driven tendency to focus on that 5 percent and unlock the possibility of the other 95 percent? You’ve got to do some reframing. What does that look like in action? When you find yourself thinking about that one person on the team who’s not pulling their weight or the client that’s sparking concerns left and right, consider it a cue to pause and actively reflect about the other 95 percent. 

Who else is affected by the fact that your team member is slacking? How are you depriving the rest of your clients of attention as you tend to the one making the most noise? Taking the time to consider the bigger picture will help you see the reality of the focus-draining situation more clearly. And with better perspective, you can identify the true root cause of the problem and make better choices to arrive at the right, more sustainable solution. 

Find Balance

Of course, you shouldn’t disregard the 5 percent entirely. Instead, work to find equity between the issue at hand and the rest of your operation. Your ability to determine root causes and to make better decisions about solving them lies in the balance. Because we’re fallible humans and this is often a blindspot, it’s important to find someone—like a trusted colleague, coach, or advisor—who can help you be more accountable to the other 95 percent and avoid the perils of hyper-focus.

Where you focus goes, your attention and energy flow. It’s as simple—and challenging—as that.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

The Hidden Traps in Decision Making (HBR)

“Making decisions is the most important job of any executive. It’s also the toughest and the riskiest. Bad decisions can damage a business and a career, sometimes irreparably. So where do bad decisions come from? In many cases, they can be traced back to the way the decisions were made—the alternatives were not clearly defined, the right information was not collected, the costs and benefits were not accurately weighed. But sometimes the fault lies not in the decision-making process but rather in the mind of the decision maker. The way the human brain works can sabotage our decisions…”

How Barack Obama Approaches the Toughest Decisions (Medium)

“One of the first things I discovered as President of the United States was that no decision that landed on my desk had an easy, tidy answer. The black-and-white questions never made it to me — somebody else on my staff would have already answered them. And while few decisions in life are as complex as the ones you face in the Oval Office, I did walk away from my eight years as president with some thoughts on how to approach tough questions…”

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Next Steps to Accelerate Your Leadership Success…

The first article in this series featuring Stephen Shedletzky focused on the difference between finite and infinite thinking, why that matters, and the power of an infinite mindset. Stephen is the Head of Brand Experience and Lead Igniter at Simon Sinek’s organization.

The aspirations of infinite-minded organizations are “to advance a purpose, to protect people, and, of course, to generate profit, as profit is used to reinvest in number one and number two,” Stephen explained. 

Today in part two, we’re unpacking how to adopt an infinite mindset for yourself and your organization using the five practices of infinite-minded leadership highlighted in Simon Sinek’s book, The Infinite Game. 

·   Advance a just cause

·   Build trusting teams

·   Study worthy rivals

·   Prepare for existential flexibility

·   Demonstrate the courage to lead

Note that these are called “practices” intentionally, implying that there’s neither a beginning nor an ending to any of them. Mastery doesn’t exist. Rather, the practices outline areas for continual exploration and improvement over time. 

Advance a Just Cause 

In part one, we highlighted three organizations with infinite mindsets: Patagonia, Victorinox (maker of the Swiss Army Knife), and Chobani. Today, we’ll add CVS Pharmacy to the list.

“A number of years ago, the leadership team at CVS realized they had a purpose which is to inspire people to lead healthier lifestyles,” Stephen explained. “Then, they looked at the products they sold, which included $1.5 billion in cigarettes every year.” As a result, they decided that selling cigarettes didn’t align with that purpose, and in 2014 removed them from the shelves in every single store. To be clear: CVS, which is a publicly traded company, made a decision to walk away from $1.5 billion in highly profitable revenue. 

Here’s what happened as a result of their decision: At first, quite predictably, the company’s stock price went down, as they sacrificed both market share and profit as the short-term cost to honor their just cause. But simultaneously, the entire market for cigarettes in the US shrunk because a major player decided not to sell them anymore, which provided less opportunity for individuals to engage in an unhealthy habit.  

What’s more, when people came to CVS to buy their cigarettes, the store staff would offer them smoking cessation products instead, ultimately helping more people quit smoking (which 70% of smokers say they’d like to do).  

Eventually, new vendors and customers flocked to CVS because they recognized that the company made a decision based on its values—not its shorter-term interests. Strategic choices like this attract loyalty in the long run, as they attract those who are truly part of the same “tribe” with shared values. 

This dovetails with a concept I discuss frequently with my coaching clients: A focused strategy requires you to say “no” more than you say “yes.” You have to be willing to let go of things that you previously thought provided value. Although that can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around, as was the case with CVS, a virtuous cycle ultimately occurs. When you let go of the things that do not serve you, you inevitably make more room for those that do.

Questions to Consider:

·   Have you identified and articulated your Just Cause?

·   If so, how can you continually improve how you use it as a filter for decision-making?

Build Trusting Teams 

Several years ago, Google conducted a study designed to identify the root causes of team effectiveness. Psychological safety was at the top of the list of the five traits that emerged and is directly linked to building trust. The point of linkage is a willingness to be vulnerable; to admit mistakes, to speak your mind, to admit ignorance, to take (moderate) risks, and more. Psychological safety leads to increased vulnerability which, in turn, leads to higher trust. 

Stephen explained, “building trusting teams is about creating an environment in which people can operate at their natural best. This is about creating the condition where people can raise their hand and say, ‘I’m struggling. I don’t have the training for the job that I’m in. I’m having trouble at home and it’s affecting my work. I have fear, uncertainty, and doubt.’ And the response is to provide support, not reprimand.”

He added, “Too often, leaders ask the flawed question, ‘How do I get the most out of my people?’… The right question is ‘How do I create conditions in which my people can operate at their natural best?’” 

Those conditions create a circle of safety which allows your team to show vulnerability—exposing their weaknesses and their strengths. Knowing what each person is good at and where they struggle makes for an even stronger team as they use their knowledge about one another to have conversations with candor and care that provide meaningful feedback.

Trusting teams engage and retain high-performing employees and make it easier to attract more to your organization, further strengthening your teams and advancing your just cause.

Questions to Consider:

·   How can you improve psychological safety in your organization?

·   How can you better lead by example and demonstrate more vulnerability as a leader?

Study Worthy Rivals

Although infinite games don’t produce winners or losers like finite games do, there is a perennial competitor: It’s you. The goal is to continually improve everything that matters—your leadership, culture, skills, processes, and more—to become a better organization next year than you are this year. Stephen shared the story of a friend who leads a religious congregation. Every year, he tells his congregants, “Next year, I hope you have a better leader. And I hope that leader is still me.” 

Humility and self-awareness set the stage for continual learning and growth. 

Often, other players in the game will be ahead of you, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s great, because—as painful as it might sound—you can learn from them. They are your worthy rivals. Worthy rivals have skills, capabilities, and attributes that either make you insecure or spark your admiration. Either way, it’s a signal that you should start paying attention. Leaning into the discomfort of speaking to your worthy rivals, particularly with the intent to learn, yields valuable insights.

Focus on worthy rivals who can help you improve, like a person or an organization that does something much better than you. Your aim, after all, is to study their skills, thinking, and behaviors such that you can continue improving your own. 

Questions to Consider:

·   Who are three worthy rivals that make you uncomfortable, but who you could learn from?

·   How do your beliefs and assumptions need to change such that you’ll be able to engage and learn from your worthy rivals?

Prepare for Existential Flexibility

Existential flexibility is the capacity to make a proactive, extreme disruption or change to your business or operating model, should you find a better way. Preparing for existential flexibility requires you to play offense, rather than defense. As such, instead of reacting to market pressures or fads, any pivot you make should be in pursuit of your just cause. 

To illustrate, Stephen shared the timely example of Dimo’s Pizza in Chicago. “Dimo’s Pizza was seven months old when the pandemic hit in March,” he said. “Seventy percent of their revenues were from slinging slices on the street during lunch, which stopped completely. So, they looked at their assets. They had a pizza oven, and that oven got hot. They asked, ‘What does the world need?’ The answer: more personal protective equipment (PPE). So, they bought industrial-grade plastic, and molded it into face shields. Now, they sell those. And coming out of the pandemic, they can be both Dimo’s Face Shields and Dimo’s Pizzeria.” 

As was the case with Dimo’s Pizza, existential flexibility often leads to diversified sources of revenue, lower business risk, and higher profits. These three factors, in turn, help advance the long-term pursuit of a just cause. 

Stephen continued, “We never know when we’re going to have to do it, but we must prepare our leaders to have the mindset that they should bet the farm if they find something that will keep them relevant for the next 30 or 100 years, rather than the next 5.”

Questions to Consider:

·   What innovations, technologies, and/or risks could significantly disrupt your current business model in the next 5-10 years?

·   How can you allocate time quarterly to assess and discuss emerging opportunities and threats with your team? 

Demonstrate the Courage to Lead

Stepping into courage enables leaders to make right, hard decisions and ensure they’re properly executed. A lack of courage, on the other hand, prevents otherwise capable leaders from building trusting teams and advancing a just cause.

Courageous leaders take risks and make decisions based on their values, not their interests, often moving toward an unknown future. The result is increased loyalty from employees, customers, and the public alike—as we learned from CVS Pharmacy’s decision to stop selling tobacco products. 

But where does courage come from? “It doesn’t originate internally,” Stephen said. “Courage is actually external. A trapeze artist would never try a death-defying move for the first time without a safety net. It’s that external safety net that gives them courage.” 

Similarly, we build our own courage from mentors, from friends, and from those we call when we doubt ourselves. They tell us they believe in us, that our work is important, that they have our backs, and that we have their unconditional support.

Courage also emanates from purpose. Early in my coaching career, I belonged to a network of trainers and coaches. Each time we met, I would look around the room and marvel at how the more seasoned practitioners seemed “fearless.” Years later, I realized that what I had perceived as fearlessness was actually purposefulness. Although these practitioners may have felt fear, they acted despite it in service of something bigger than themselves.

Stephen emphasized the point further: “I don’t believe in fearlessness. I believe in feeling fear and doing it anyway. And the reason you do it is because there’s something more important than you as an individual. You say, ‘I’m willing to sacrifice my interests and put myself on the line because I believe in that more and I need to bring that to life.’”

That’s the courage to lead!

Questions to Consider:

·   Where would an external safety net help you act as a more courageous leader?

·   What are you tolerating in yourself or in others that interferes with the pursuit of your just cause? How can you eliminate counterproductive attitudes and/or behaviors?

How to Get Started

Here’s how Stephen suggests you get started implementing the five practices: “The first module is always self-awareness. I think it’s really healthy to look at yourself and ask, ‘where do I need to grow?’ And don’t just look in a mirror by yourself, but hire a coach or ask a friend or your colleagues, and actually listen.”

He recommends that you either study worthy rivals or build trusting teams from there, because both are readily accessible and actionable. Unless you already have a clear just cause, begin working on that with your team after advancing these first two practices, which help pave the way.

What if you’re not the CEO or a senior leader in your organization?

Although those in formal leadership positions certainly have the most opportunity to make a difference, everyone can embrace an infinite mindset—even if you work within a finite-minded organization, or with finite-minded leaders.

We all have a choice about how we show up. 

You can choose to be the leader you wish you had. You can focus on the causes you care about and try to bring them to life. You can make your team—even if it’s a small portion of a larger department or organization—high trust and high performance. You can make a difference!

At the end of The Infinite Game, Simon challenges his readers to live a life of service. With that in mind, Stephen concluded, “The thing that has made us most successful as a species is our ability to look out for and help one another… When we show up with an act of generosity and expect nothing in return, we produce the hormone oxytocin. It makes us feel warm and fuzzy and good. It’s biology’s way of saying, ‘Keep doing that. It’s in your best interest.’”

For more on Simon Sinek, Stephen Shedletzky, and their work—including books, online classes, Simon’s podcast, and other resources—visit www.simonsinek.com. Stephen also invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

You’re Only as Good as Your Worst Day (FS Blog)

“We tend to measure performance by what happens when things are going well. Yet how people, organizations, companies, leaders, and other things do on their best day isn’t all that instructive. To find the truth, we need to look at what happens on the worst day…”

The Art of Hansei–How the Japanese Philosophy of Self-Reflection Can Improve Your LIfe (The Ladders)

“Self-awareness is one of the best ways to improve or make progress — it’s a must for anyone interested in growing, personally and professionally.

Hansei is a Japanese word meaning “self-reflection”, or “introspection”. It’s a fundamental part of Japanese culture. It is both an intellectual and emotional introspection.

Hansei also incorporates the concept of greeting success with modesty and humility. To stop Hansei means to stop learning. With hansei, one never becomes convinced of one’s own superiority, and feels that there is always more room, or need, for further improvement…”

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Next Steps to Accelerate Your Leadership Success…

Buy a book: Activators – A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done -or- Creating a Culture of Accountability

I recently sat down with Stephen Shedletzky who leads Brand Experience and the team of Igniters for Simon Sinek’s organization. We discussed their work, Simon’s latest book, The Infinite Game, and more. 

So much more, in fact, that I’ll be covering the content from our conversation in two parts. In this article, we’ll focus on the differences between finite and infinite thinking, why that matters, and the power of an infinite mindset. In the next edition, we’ll break down the five practices necessary to transition from finite to infinite thinking and show you how to get started.

Stephen and I began our conversation by briefly exploring his role as head of Brand Experience and Lead Igniter for Simon’s organization, where he’s worked for close to a decade. As you might expect, Stephen started with why. He began by explaining what anyone who has read Simon’s work, seen him speak, listened to his podcast, or attended a class likely knows: Simon and his team have a bold vision for the world, imagining it differently from the one we live in today. 

“We want to live in a world where the vast majority of people feel inspired every day, feel safe wherever they are, and feel fulfilled by the work they do,” Stephen explained. “That is a message that we preach, teach, and engage with others. But it’s something we have to practice from the inside out. We aren’t immune to the challenges we speak about.” In other words, Stephen, Simon, and their entire team practice what they preach.   

Along the way, he’s learned “that the strength of an organization isn’t the absence of tension or conflict, it’s how [the team] responds when that tension and conflict emerges.”  

With that said, here’s the foundational thinking behind The Infinite Game: humans aren’t designed for scale. “If you look to the origins of our species, we lived in tribes of 100 to 150 people. We aren’t biologically wired to care for thousands, millions, or billions of people—we can’t even fathom it.” Stephen continued, citing a quote frequently attributed to Joseph Stalin that sums it up quite well: “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” 

A large number is something we can’t fully fathom—for 2020, think about COVID-19, the number of cases, and the (still climbing) number of deaths. You know it’s bad, but it’s still very abstract. However when you hear one person’s story, it pulls on your heartstrings because you’ve established a human connection to feel that.

In an organization, because we aren’t hard-wired to care for each other at scale, we have to work on it to be truly effective; sharing our values and beliefs, building human connections, and collaborating to overcome inevitable tensions as they arise. These are the elements that make tribes work. There are no “winners” or “losers” in this process. Tribes survive and thrive because of the never-ending focus and energy that must be expended to maintain the viability and vitality of the tribe.

What Exactly is Infinite Thinking?

Our tribal origins and the mechanism for tribal longevity bring us to the topic of finite and infinite thinking. Dr. James Carse, one of the founding theologians on game theory, pointed out that if you have two or more players, you have a game. And, as it turns out, there are two types of games: finite and infinite. Sports, an election, a sale, an acquisition—these all fall under the finite category. They have known players, fixed rules, and an established end point, including clear “winners” and “losers.” 

Infinite games, to the contrary, have both known and unknown players. There are no fixed rules, no common criteria for success, and certainly no “winners” or “losers.” As such, they are endless. 

“If you think about it,” Stephen said, “we’re all players in multiple infinite games. One, in which we have no choice, is life—though our lives are finite. We’re all going to die. Thus, there’s no winner of life.” There are finite games within infinite games—awards, for example—but achieving a particular win doesn’t mean you win at life or even in your industry. With that in mind, it’s good to be aware of the finite games and goals within the infinite ones, but you’ve got to pay attention. Simon often compares one’s vision to running a marathon of sorts, and finite goals are just mile markers along the way.

Meanwhile, organizations that have a finite mindset fail to recognize the true nature of the game they’re playing. “All you have to do is listen to the way their leaders speak,” Stephen says. “They say ‘be number one or beat the competition.’” Sometimes, too, ethics are skirted for the sake of simply achieving results. People are seen as expendable tools (ever thought deeply about the term “Human Resources?”) to achieve an end result, regardless of the cost. The result: an unstable culture that runs on continual competition—prioritizing numbers, metrics, and outcomes above all else. 

“Like a snowmobile operating on sand, the organization can run. But it will need to be repaired—or even replaced—a lot quicker than if it were running on snow, as it was designed to do,” he said.

Markers of an Infinite Mindset

On the other hand, infinite-minded organizations understand that goals, metrics, and timelines are arbitrary. The company itself is viewed as a vehicle to help advance an ideal or solve a human need, which Simon labels a Just Cause. Ego is put aside to address the cause and, rather than competing, teams display high trust. They constantly look for ways to improve. They’re never satisfied with the status quo, and they’re always seeking other players—worthy rivals, as Simon, Stephen, and the Igniters like to call them—to help them learn and grow. 

They also demonstrate a willingness to innovate. Those with an infinite mindset know that their business model may work now, but not in five years—and they have the courage to move toward an unknown future. 

Ironically, the kind of stability infinite thinking creates is often predictable and, well, pretty boring. Just as we aren’t wired to scale, we’re not primed to appreciate infinite thinking for the same reasons we’re compelled to slow down and look at a car crash, but don’t ever pause to admire good driving. 

However, a lack of drama is a sign that you’re on the right track. Stephen said, “Tim Galloway, the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, has a beautiful equation for performance: 

Performance = Potential – Interference

“In organizations that are infinite-minded, there’s less interference.” He added that when interference does happen, the team can spot it. They recognize that there is too much bureaucracy, that someone’s ego is getting in the way, that they’re making the wrong choice, and they decide to talk about it and identify the right next step.

That’s a concept that certainly resonates with me (and my coaching clients), as I believe the three primary roles of a leader are to establish a vision, get the right people, and systematically remove interference. 

With that insight in mind, Stephen shared a story about Captain David Marquet, now retired United States Navy submarine captain, leadership expert, and author of Turn the Ship Around and Leadership is Language. He had been given command of the USS Olympia, one of the best-run submarines in the fleet—a tremendous honor. To prepare for his assignment, he studied the ship for a year and learned every system on board. But two weeks before he was due to take command, he was told he would instead be commanding the USS Santa Fe, a submarine totally unfamiliar to him and with a notoriously low performing crew. Nonetheless, Marquet figured that with his leadership capabilities, he could do it. 

Once aboard the Santa Fe, everything went fine, until he issued a command that didn’t make sense; the submarine didn’t have the power setting he ordered. Though the second in command knew the ship well—and that there was no such power setting—he gave the order anyway, to the confusion of the seaman tasked with carrying it out. 

After the fact, when Captain Marquet asked his second in command why he relayed an order that didn’t make sense, the man replied, “Because you told me to, sir.” That was an eye-opening moment for Marquet, who instantly realized the danger of continuing to lead in the manner most of us learned—by being experts ourselves, which in reality creates interference, preventing others from thinking on their own and getting their jobs done. 

He became obsessed with removing interference by enabling leaders to grant authority to their teams, giving them far more autonomy and control. The result was his Ladder of Leadership, an incredibly powerful model that I frequently use with my clients.

Companies That Get It Right

I asked Stephen for some examples of organizations operating with an infinite mindset. In response, he rattled off three of them.  

Patagonia is all about sustainability and the environment, and the senior leadership team is willing to act with courage to advance that ideal—including taking measures that counter their short-term interests to support their Just Cause, like closing on Election Day to help advance humanity. Similarly, at Chobani, the product—yogurt—is just a vehicle. The company’s primary purpose is to promote equality and justice, which is reflected in their policies, hiring practices, and more. 

Stephen also shared the story of a fourth generation, privately held, family-owned company called Victorinox, better known for their signature product—Swiss Army knives. Victorinox aims for their product to be a companion for life, and that purpose is baked into what they do. But after 9/11 they had to rethink their business model, as the vast majority of their sales occurred in airports, which was no longer a viable location to sell pocket knives.

With their purpose—to be a companion for life—at the forefront of their consciousness, they pivoted to develop other high-quality products, including luggage, fragrances, and knives for home use. While business was still ramping up and demand was low, the CEO loaned workers to other companies. As a result, they didn’t have to let go of a single employee throughout their transition. When asked how he measures success, the CEO shared that he felt it was his responsibility to pass the company on to the next generation in better health than he found it. That’s infinite thinking!

The leaders of these companies made decisions to honor their Just Cause above all else, even when doing so incurred short-term losses. As Stephen explained, their overarching goals were “to advance a purpose, to protect people, and, of course, to generate profit, as profit is used to reinvest in number one and number two.” And for each of the three firms he cited, that mindset has paid off handsomely—an outcome typical of infinite-minded leadership. 

Interested in instilling an infinite mindset within your organization? Stay tuned for my next article, part two of the conversation with Stephen, which will dive into the five practices necessary to transition from finite to infinite thinking and show you how to get started.

In the meantime, for more on Simon Sinek, Stephen Shedletzky, and their work—including books, online classes, Simon’s podcast, and other resources—visit www.simonsinek.com. Stephen also invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

How to Be a Visionary Leader and Still Have a Personal Life (HBR)

“‘We nearly didn’t make it.’

The CEO of a large tech company was reflecting on the past year. He was talking about his leadership role — and his marriage.

Business leaders enjoy the ‘high’ that comes from redefining the identity, essence, and capabilities of an organization and the exhilaration of achieving something few thought was possible. But given its demands, the leadership role can take over your life if you let it. By the time you realize that it’s resulted in collateral damage to you and those whom you care about, it’s often too late…”

The Strength of Being Misunderstood (Sam Altman)

“You should trade being short-term low-status for being long-term high-status, which most people seem unwilling to do. A common way this happens is by eventually being right about an important but deeply non-consensus bet. But there are lots of other ways–the key observation is that as long as you are right, being misunderstood by most people is a strength not a weakness. You and a small group of rebels get the space to solve an important problem that might otherwise not get solved…”

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Next Steps to Accelerate Your Leadership Success…

As a leader, you likely spend much of your time thinking about results—financial, operational, and otherwise. But how often do you rigorously reflect on the quality of your decision-making and how to improve it over time? 

This is an important question because – whether you realize it or not – wherever you happen to be in any area of your life is exactly where you’ve chosen to be. You see, your current circumstances, whether fantastic, average, or even miserable, are the results of millions of choices and decisions you’ve made over time.

If you’re not regularly reflecting on and learning from your decisions, you’re apt to be more frustrated, as is your team. The high or low quality of your decision-making compounds over time and ultimately determines your destiny. This is why some create more success than others: it boils down to how we make our choices.

With this in mind, let’s explore a handful of effective decision-making techniques and the costly missteps they help avoid to stack the deck in favor of achieving the outcomes you want. 

Compartmentalize

Let’s begin by stepping into something you may have been advised to avoid in other areas of your life: compartmentalization. 

About a year into my relationship with a client in the technology sector, we assessed their employees’ performance and cultural fit using a methodology called Topgrading. Through this rigorous process, and somewhat to their surprise, it became clear to the executive team that to fulfill their commitment to continue growing, they needed to upgrade (replace) some of their staff. 

In my experience, their reaction and realization were typical. It often takes an outside perspective and a structured process to properly illuminate how and why things need to change. I’ve learned that teams proceed from this point by making one of three decisions: 

1. They deny or rationalize the issue at hand, take no action, and continue on the current path. 

2. They operate inside their comfort zone and take limited, low-risk actions but stop short of the steps necessary to achieve meaningful results. 

3. They swallow hard and decide to act, usually exchanging some short-term pain for a significant long-term expected payoff.

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Though they didn’t realize it at the time, my clients were standing at this three-pronged fork in the road.

As we talked through their options to upgrade staff and the implications of each, one of the first things that emerged was fear. They worried about what would happen. Would the terminated staff exit with important institutional knowledge? Would they take other employees or customers with them? Would they badmouth the company online? 

The complexity of our dialog skyrocketed with each “what if” scenario. That was when I stepped in to let the team know they were unintentionally conflating the decision itself with numerous other components of acting on it, and that in doing so they were setting themselves up to embark on one of the two weaker paths: denial and inaction or comfort zone actions. 

To take the third, less-traveled path—to do the hard, right things—the team would have to compartmentalize the why, what, how, and when of their decision. 

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean by this: 

Many leaders have dealt with a toxic high performer. You know the individual needs to be sent packing, but since they bring some value to the business, perhaps sales or certain know-how, you fear two things: loss and retribution. Let’s say the problem employee is in sales. You worry about how much revenue you’ll lose without them, and whether they’ll take some of your clients with them. You might also worry that they’ll move to a competitor or recruit some of your other staff to join them. 

In situations like these, the complexities of how and whenHow should I let them go? and When should I let them go?—typically dominate and delay the decision-making process. But if you compartmentalize the elements of your decision and start with the why, determining exactly why you need to take action first, then move to the what—determining the right action to take without regard to how or when to act, it becomes much easier to see the right path and commit to it. 

Once the commitment to right action is made, then and only then, advance to the how and what. These elements pertain to your plans to act on the decision, but not on the decision itself! 

As an added bonus, how and when can be delayed or planned for over time, because the right decision has already been made. Taking some time to implement your decision can be beneficial, allowing you to plan for contingencies or consequences. On the flipside, don’t let yourself (or your team) use that as an excuse to delay implementation indefinitely. 

Compartmentalize by making the decision first (why and what), then planning to execute at the time of your choosing (how and when).

Make Time for Reflective Thinking versus Reactive Thinking

Reactive work happens in response to external triggers like emails, phone calls, and an employee standing at your office door. On the other hand, reflective work includes planning, strategizing, and deep thinking—and it only happens when you give yourself time to truly focus. While some reactive work is bound to be part of your daily life as a leader, you’ve got to make the time for reflection—particularly because it’s necessary to make more thoughtful, informed decisions. 

I witness the debilitating impact of reactive thinking interruptions to reflective thinking from time to time during my meetings with the leadership teams I coach. This happens when we take a break and one of the executives makes a call to check on an “of the moment” problem impacting their team. When we reconvene after the break, there is notable distraction and lower quality high-level thinking for the first 15-20 minutes before that leader gets themselves back in gear for reflective thinking. Psychologists call this task switching and have demonstrated it exacts a significant toll on our productivity. To learn more about the cost of task switching and run a fun little experiment on yourself to prove the point, click here.

To avoid task switching and fully engage in the reflective work necessary to make solid decisions, set aside an hour or so of uninterrupted time in your calendar each day (or perhaps several hours one day per week) for deep thinking. Protect this time like you would an appointment with a major client because it’s equally or even more valuable in the context of your long-term aspirations. 

Treat your team meetings similarly and ensure that attendees aren’t tempted to be distracted. This might include some basic rules like mobile devices face down and muted, laptops closed unless being used to take notes, and no external calls during breaks – all of which I’ve seen work quite effectively.

If you don’t actively create the right environment for reflective thinking, you’re bound to get distracted by the reactive tasks that interfere with sound decision-making.

Ask Better Questions

The quality of your answers is directly influenced by the quality of your questions. With that in mind, it’s valuable to think about whether you’re asking the right ones to feed more and better insight into your decision-making process. To make this happen, you’ll capitalize on compartmentalizing and the protected reflective thinking time we’ve already discussed. 

As you gather information and prepare to make a decision, high-level, open questions are best to create possibilities and insight. For the application of open questions to personal decision-making, have a look at this article. Back to business, examples of open questions at this stage include:

·       What are we missing?

·       What’s the broader pattern here?

·       Who else should have a voice in this?

·       What are the potential 2nd and 3rd order consequences or benefits to this?

·       How do we feel about this?

A bit deeper into the decision process, you’ll want to shift to more narrow questions as you identify your options and zero in on a specific course of action. Narrowing questions include:

·       Does this choice align with our strategy and objectives?

·       What is the cost / benefit of this option?

·       What is the best- and worst-case scenario associated with this choice?

·       Which options are most favorable for further consideration?

To recap, open questions zoom out to broaden possibilities and expand the arena of thought while narrow questions zoom in to eliminate less favorable options. Regardless of the specific questions you ask, it’s most important to deliberately adhere to this “open then narrow” pattern of questioning to optimize your decision-making. 

Solve the Root Cause, not the Symptoms

I’ve observed brilliant, seasoned leaders consume valuable time carefully considering, debating, and solving significant problems that, in reality, were just symptoms of the real, underlying root cause. High staff turnover is a fantastic example of this! The problem is that high turnover is never the real problem – it’s the symptom of a deeper root cause (in many cases bad management, though there can be a number of other root causes). It’s quite easy to get sucked into this mode because the symptoms of a problem are what create your immediate pain. 

The challenge here is that it’s tempting to address symptoms—the stuff that’s standing in your way right now—as opposed to the underlying problem itself. Though that approach might help in the near-term, it’s rarely sustainable over time. In my experience, symptom solving is like stretching a rubber band. The moment you stop putting energy in and let go of the stretched rubber band, it snaps right back to where it was. On the other hand, if you allocate time for reflective thinking, ask the right questions, and ensure you’re focused on the root cause, you’re positioned to make a better, more sustainable decision about how to proceed. 

Here’s one technique to find the root cause:

When my clients enter into a discussion or debate during one of our monthly or quarterly leadership team meetings, we categorize each topic using the acronym IDS – Identify, Discuss, Solve. This ensures that the team separates the identification of a problem from their discussion about it and the eventual development of a solution – an approach that helps the team zero in on the root cause, as opposed to its symptoms. It’s a simple, highly effective mechanism to keep conversations more productive and avoid the temptations of symptom solving.

Mark Twain once said: “Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions.” The challenge for you as a leader is to acknowledge your less-than-good decisions, learn from your experience, and continually improve your decision-making process over time. Every decision is an opportunity to learn, provided you recognize the moment.

What’s more, you can get started right away with the techniques we’ve covered here.

When you compartmentalize, protect your reflective thinking time, ask better questions, and solve for root cause you’ll have installed a series of proven techniques that lead to more effective decision-making. And that means better outcomes for you and your team.

If you’d like to explore this topic more deeply, you’ll find additional strategies and tools to improve your thinking and decision-making in my book Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Why Business Associates May Trust You – or Not – Based on Your Looks (WSJ)

“Earning the trust of your business associates may be easier if you look the part—whether you deserve their confidence or not.

That’s the finding of a recent study published in the Journal of Accounting and Economics earlier this year that looked at how facial features affect business judgment. It found that traditionally trustworthy features can win over people in new professional relationships—but those positive assessments often turn out to be misleading…”

How Julia Child Used First Principles Thinking (FS Blog)

“There’s a big difference between knowing how to follow a recipe and knowing how to cook. If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia Child, “The French Chef”, did throughout her career.

The lessons of first principles in cooking are the same for the first principles in any domain. Looking for first principles is just a way of thinking. It’s a commitment to understanding the foundation that something is built on and giving yourself the freedom to adapt, develop, and create. Once you know the first principles, you can keep learning more advanced concepts as well as innovating for yourself…”

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Next Steps to Accelerate Your Leadership Success…

If you knew me anytime between high school and my early 40s, you would have described me as a person who was perpetually happy and optimistic. If you asked me how I was doing, I would tell you everything was “great”—even when it wasn’t. In reality, I believed sharing my emotions, especially negative ones, would make me appear weak, so I put on a happy face—literally for decades—and acted as if all was well all the time.

 Upon reflection, you may notice a similar tendency to mute feelings in yourself or perhaps in others you know. That’s because, just like in my case, the behavior of covering up emotions was likely reinforced as you grew and matured.

Parents and teachers with the best of intentions instructed us to “calm down” when we were upset. They told us, “It’s not so bad,” or “Big boys and girls don’t cry.” Then when things were going well, they may have warned, “Don’t celebrate too much; it’ll bring you bad luck.” One of the myriad effects of such conditioning is that, as adults, and especially as business leaders, many of us are paying a hefty price for not being able to tune in to our emotions and the emotions of those around us.

 It took me years to recognize my weakness and then figure out how to transform it into a strength. Along the way, I learned and witnessed that leadership performance and results improve dramatically when we’re emotionally tuned in. 

Why Emotions Matter in Business 

Decision-making, focus, and influence (including, but not limited to sales) are all overwhelmingly driven by emotion. In fact, much of the time—regardless of circumstances— our emotions govern us. Psychologists have demonstrated that we deploy logic to justify our choices after we’ve made a decision or taken action in response to our emotions. If you consider some choices you’ve made, big and small—the last car you bought, the most recent piece of clothing you purchased, or even an argument you had in the past couple of weeks—chances are you’ll see how true this “emotion then logic” sequence is. However, we often fool ourselves into believing that we make our choices based on logic. The vast majority of the time, we don’t.

Want even more evidence? 

Consider the concept of buyer’s remorse, the regret we feel after making certain decisions (primarily applied to purchases, but also for any choice we make). Many cases of buyer’s remorse are the result of high-emotion decisions, backed by weak logic. 

Since my birthday is just around the corner, allow me to share the midlife crisis version of how this works: because you were focused on how great you’d look in that sporty new convertible with your hair blowing in the wind and envious looks from other drivers, you signed on the dotted line. But a few weeks or months later, you regret making the choice—realizing that it was more than you could afford, or that the brand you chose looks great but isn’t very reliable—as a sense of dread and remorse invariably sets in. Although it may not have been a convertible or even a purchase in your particular case, with respect to our choices, we’ve all been there.

Recognizing your emotions and their impact enables better decision-making and helps avoid scenarios like these in business and beyond. 

Further, it’s crucial to understand that certain emotions—feeling connected, a sense of belonging, excitement, challenge, and inspiration to name a few— are intangibles that literally propel you and your team to meet your organization’s tangible objectives like revenue, quality, profit, and net promoter score (NPS) for example. Yet business leaders spend a tremendous amount of time and energy thinking about and executing tangible objectives, but almost no time on the intangibles that speed progress. Through this lens, we can begin to see emotions as a primary mechanism of achievement.

Learning to harness them accelerates scalability, resilience, and success.

Emotions 101

Let’s begin with a definition of emotion. According to Merriam-Webster, emotion is “a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as a strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.” 

Emotions are more than how we feel. An emotion has three components: a feeling, physiological change, and behavioral change. When you feel elated, your pulse races, you smile uncontrollably, and you might also raise your fist in triumph. When you feel angry, your pulse also races, you scowl, and you might also tense up your entire body preparing for a fight. For a deeper explanation, check out this fantastic eight-minute video clip of psychology and neuroscience researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett sharing her take on emotions. 

As I described in the opening, many of us have been conditioned to override our feelings—or at least tamp them down—so that they don’t affect our behavior. But when we do that, we effectively discard two of the three elements in the experience of an emotion, which makes us less vulnerable and less effective as humans and as leaders. Worse, research shows that attempting to quash your emotions leads to unhealthy stress and any number of other physical ailments. 

At this point, you might be wondering just how emotionally tuned in you are, so before we proceed further, here’s a quick opportunity to informally assess yourself. Grab a blank sheet of paper and a pen (or open a notes app on your phone), set a timer for three minutes, and write down every emotion, both positive and negative, you can name.

When you’re done, check out this list of 57 emotions to see how you did. If you’re like I was before I became more tuned in, you can name a dozen or so but completely miss the more nuanced emotions.

Three Emotional Levers to Advance Your Leadership

With an idea of just how many emotions are out there and their potential to influence your behavior for the better if you consciously and effectively tap into them, let’s get into three levers that can help you do just that. 

Marginalize Fear 

Fear affects all of us—and likely more than you think. A 2009 study by Chanel and Chichilnisky illustrated that fear often overtakes our decision-making process, leading individuals to make choices based solely on the potential of a catastrophic event, no matter how unlikely. In business, those decisions wind up as safe bets—involving less creativity, less risk, and less change.

Until you choose to identify and then confront your fears, they’re guaranteed to invisibly drive your thinking and behavior to keep you within your comfort zone, which is exactly where you don’t want to be as an ambitious leader.

Fortunately, there are a number of techniques you can implement to counteract fear-based decision-making. One is to simply slow yourself down. When you face a choice that is stressful or causes you to feel fear, refrain from taking any action in that moment. Instead, slow down, ask clarifying questions—whether of yourself or others—and take time to mull it over. The effect of the delay reduces the impact of emotional thinking and makes way for more logical engagement. This “decrease emotion and increase logic” pattern is tried and true to minimize the impact of fear on your decisions.

Another option is to use the Fear Reduction Tool from my book Activators. It’s free, and you’ll find it here. This tool facilitates a structured approach to slow your thinking and a probability-based analysis to help you assess the true reality of your fear. A perennial favorite of business leaders who attend my workshops for its shockingly rapid impact, I encourage you to give it a try!

Increase Inspiration

Increasing inspiration is the inverse process to marginalizing fear, and it is of equal importance. Another term I use for this is purposefulness, which creates a powerful impetus for action, an intense ability to focus, and a willingness to do the hard, right things required to succeed. When you and those around you believe in what you’re doing and where you’re headed in a way that creates a positive emotional state, you are much more likely to advance. Purposefulness is a chronically underutilized resource in business, often at great expense! 

The mechanism here is the exact opposite of the “decrease emotion and increase logic” pattern required to reduce fear. To increase inspiration and purposefulness, you need to apply an “increase emotion and decrease logic” pattern instead.

One way to do that is to clarify your WHY. The more deeply you understand why something really matters to you, the more you’ll move away from the relatively cold logic of business to engage your emotions to help you and your team take action, especially in difficult circumstances. 

To increase your inspiration and to help your team do the same, ask yourself a deepening sequence of “why does this really matter to me / us?” questions. To access a free tool that was designed to facilitate this thought process, click here to access the Know Your WHY Tool.

Tap into Your Emotional Guidance System

As I discussed with author Nir Eyal recently, the ability to be focused is one of the hallmarks of achieving meaningful traction in your work. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a way to keep yourself more sharply focused on the things you want to accomplish?

 You do! 

Your emotional state reflects your focus. That is, when you’re focused on something you want, you tend to feel positive emotions. On the other hand, when you’re focused on something you don’t want, you tend to feel negative emotions. In a business context, what you want could be “profitable growth,” and when you’re focused on that, you’ll likely be in a positive emotional state. That said, you might also focus on “not losing a key customer” in the name of achieving “profitable growth.” In this instance, you’re focused on what you don’t want – “not losing a key customer” – and will most likely be in a negative emotional state as a result.

Focusing your attention also primes the brain’s reticular activating system to seek ideas and items associated with that particular concept (this is why we “suddenly” see red cars everywhere when someone we know buys a new red car, for example). In this way, what you choose to focus on literally grows in importance to you. It also leads to your outcomes. 

This implies that when you focus on things you don’t want, you get more of those things (along with negative emotions). On the other hand, when you focus on what you want—your goals and aspirations—you get more of those things (and a bunch of positive emotions). For a deeper dive on the relationship between focus, attention, and achievement, check out this article about the power of attention.

The focus-emotion connection is a key insight to mastering your emotional guidance system. Here’s how to use it:

Whenever you feel a negative emotion like fear, shame, or anxiety, pause and ask yourself, “Where is my focus right now? Am I concentrating on my goals and aspirations, or am I focused on what I don’t want?” If you’re intellectually honest with yourself, you’ll find that 100 percent of the time when you’re feeling a negative emotion, you’re focused on what you don’t want. 

When you catch yourself focused on what you don’t want, adjust to focus on what you do want. This simple mechanism is incredibly powerful to keep yourself more productive and on track. I’d enjoy hearing how this technique works for you, so when you’ve tried it, please add a comment to this article or send me a note! 

Emotional self-awareness and mastery of the links between emotional state, decision-making, and outcomes confer significant advantage in leadership and in business. Whether you realize it or not, as Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. TP Chia explains, “We all live at the mercy of our emotions. Our emotions influence and shape our desires, thoughts and behaviors and above all our destiny.”

As you learn to use the three levers I’ve presented here, you’ll increasingly capitalize on the hidden power of your emotions, improving your leadership and accelerating even more toward your goals and aspirations.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

“Serious” Leaders Need Self-Care, Too (HBR)

“The benefits of self-care are well known. Yet when I work with my leadership clients, I often get major pushback around the whole idea. Why are many leaders so resistant to taking a bit of time for themselves?

It usually boils down to misperceptions around what good leadership is, what self-care is, and how self-care actually works. Luckily, I’ve also found that with some thoughtful introspection, it’s possible for even the most skeptical among us to overcome those misconceptions and learn to reap the benefits of self-care. Below, I consider the three most common excuses my clients give for their resistance to self-care, and offer some solutions to help leaders overcome that resistance…”

How Science Can Help You Make Better Decisions (Entrepreneur)

“Dark roast or light? Window seat or aisle? Whole wheat or rye? Every day brings an onslaught of new decisions — about 35,000 for the average adult, according to studies. If we account for seven hours of sleep, that’s 2,000 decisions per hour, or one choice every two seconds.

The vast majority of our daily choices are inconsequential, from liking an Instagram photo to declining that pushy limited-time offer. Tough decisions, however, can be daunting — and a real dilemma usually indicates that something meaningful is at stake. When we struggle to choose, it often feels like our livelihood, relationships, or wellbeing are on the line. Thankfully, science is here to help…”

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Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

CEOs and Executives routinely ask one of two questions immediately following my coaching kickoff meeting with their team:

1.  How do we stack up as leaders compared to your other clients?

2.  How closely did our kickoff map to your expectations of us?

Both are fantastic mechanisms to elicit feedback, insight, and specific guidance for improvement. But only if you happen to have a seasoned Business Growth Coach who spent the past couple of days with you and your executive team standing in front of you!

What if you don’t have a coach? How can you reliably assess how you’re doing and identify where and how you might improve?

And even if you have a coach, what questions should you be asking yourself and your team over time to continually level-up your leadership game?

Begin with Self-Awareness

A number of years ago, I was introduced to the celebrated CEO of a rapidly growing charter jet business. Although her firm was successful by any measure, the executive team was exhausted and the person who introduced us let me know that several key leaders were considering leaving. During our conversation, the CEO refused to accept any accountability for the conditions that were creating almost unbearable stress for her and her team and preventing the business from scaling further. For this reason, I declined further consideration as her coach.

This CEO was in denial of the reality that her leadership style and decision-making were massive contributors to the circumstances in the business, and yet her team could see it clearly!

Although this true story illustrates an extreme case, it underscores the value of self-awareness in growth-minded leaders. 

 Organizational psychologist, researcher, and author Dr. Tasha Eurich expertly explores and unpacks self-awareness in her book Insight. Dr. Eurich defines two types of self-awareness. The first is internal self-awareness, which is about knowing yourself, being conscious of your ambitions, your likes and dislikes, and your impact on other people. The other, external self-awareness, is about understanding the ways in which other people see you, including the ability to look at yourself from an external point of view. 

Meaningful learning and growth stem from both internal and external self-awareness. Together, they form a more complete view of one’s reality than either can on its own. 

As you seek insight through the seven leadership checkpoints that follow, use the key questions to identify the reality of your current circumstances and performance by reflecting internally and also asking others for an external point of view. Although you may not always hear what you want to hear, by listening to yourself and to others carefully and non-judgmentally you’ll gain valuable perspective to further accelerate your growth and effectiveness as a leader.

 Seven Leadership Checkpoints

Robert S. Kaplan, co-author of The Balanced Scorecard – one of the seminal books on performance metrics that balance both short- and long-term outcomes – instructs leaders to periodically ask themselves key questions across seven checkpoints. By stepping back and taking the time to internally and externally assess your performance in these areas, you can preempt serious problems and consistently improve your leadership. 

They are: 

1.  Vision and Priorities

2.  Managing Time

3.  Feedback

4.  Succession Planning

5.  Evaluation and Alignment

6.  Leading Under Pressure

7.  Staying True to Yourself

As we work through each of the seven checkpoints, remain mindful that the goal is to ask hard questions of yourself to gain perspective on the reality of your strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

Vision, Purpose, and Priorities 

It’s difficult to lead people if you lack a firm grasp of where you’re headed and what’s expected of your team. Unfortunately, though, in the rush of day-to-day operations, otherwise talented leaders often fail to communicate the WHY behind who they are and what they do. They neglect to explain their vision and purpose in a manner that is easily understood or with enough frequency to impart learning—not to mention clear guidance regarding the steps required to achieve it. 

Research shows that sharing vision and purpose is necessary to fully engage your team by helping them identify with a purpose greater than themselves and meet your expectations. 

With that in mind, ask yourself (and those around you): 

·   How frequently do I communicate my vision for the business? 

·   Have I identified and communicated three to five priorities for achieving my vision?

·   Would my employees, if asked at random, be able to articulate the business’s vision, purpose, and priorities?  

If you’re not communicating your vision, purpose, and priorities frequently enough or providing sufficient detail, you’re not alone. Most of the leaders I encounter don’t. The good news is you can change that starting today. 

 Managing Time 

Time plays a major role in the execution of your vision and priorities. You may be surprised to find a disconnect between your priorities and how you spend your time! This can pose a real problem, as others look to your example for guidance on how to think and behave in the business. 

Ask yourself (and those around you):  

·   How am I spending my time? Does this match my priorities? 

·   How are my employees spending their time? Does this match my priorities? 

If the answers don’t line up with your goals, realign how you and others consume time to spend more time on the right things. 

Feedback

Most leaders know that feedback is essential to their success and that it’s a two-way street of knowing both how to give it and receive it. You must be effective at both. 

The problem I observe most often is leaders who struggle to provide direct and timely feedback to their team members. The excuses abound: they don’t want to demoralize people, they fear confrontation, or worry about not being liked. 

As a result, they avoid giving feedback until performance review time rolls around. This is a big mistake! Feedback is delivered most effectively in proximity to behavior, and employees are more likely to learn, grow, improve, and become more engaged when they receive meaningful, timely, instructive feedback. 

By the same token, you must cultivate a team of individuals who are direct with you and you, in turn, must be willing to act on what you learn. If you do, you will keep the feedback loop open, allowing for continuous improvement. 

Ask yourself (and those around you): 

·   Do I provide my team with timely and direct feedback? 

·   Do I have employees who are willing and able to provide me with meaningful feedback?

Succession Planning 

I’ve noted a significant pattern of weakness in this area across organizations and industries that directly slows the growth and inhibits scale. 

If you aren’t aggressively engaging and developing the second level of leadership in your firm, you are contributing to personal and professional stagnation—for you and for them. If you and your executive team remain in the operational details of the business, you’ll never rise to become more strategic – and more valuable – as leaders. Over time, your “A” player employees will disengage from lack of challenge and leave. Failing to meaningfully challenge, delegate, and trust your employees creates a glass ceiling for everybody. 

Ask yourself (and those around you): 

·   Have I picked one or more potential successors for my role? 

·   Am I actively and deliberately coaching and challenging them to grow? 

·   Am I delegating sufficiently? 

Evaluation and Alignment 

In addition to considering who will lead your business in the future, you must also take time to evaluate its current state. What got you “here” today won’t necessarily get you “there” tomorrow. Your operation is constantly changing, as are your customers. If you don’t continually adapt, you risk being left behind. 

Keep in mind, too, that the most effective leaders regularly seek advice and fresh perspectives from external parties—knowledgeable people who aren’t emotionally invested in their business. It’s a fantastic habit to ensure you see reality despite your inevitable blindspots and biases. 

Ask yourself (and those around you): 

·   Does our business model still align with the market realities required for its success? 

·   If I had to develop my business from scratch, how would I do it? How would it differ from the present structure? 

·   How has our external operating environment changed to our benefit or to our detriment? 

Leading Under Pressure

This area is particularly relevant for leaders today, as all of us grapple with an unprecedented velocity of change. Your actions during stressful times have a profound impact on the firm’s culture and employee behaviors. 

Good or bad, emotions and behaviors are contagious—especially when they come from the top. Therefore, your conduct must be aligned with your core values and beliefs, no matter how challenging the circumstances. 

Ask yourself (and those around you): 

·   What types of events create pressure for me? 

·   How do I behave under pressure? Do I honor our core values at those times?

·   What signals do I send to my team when I am stressed?

·   What effect do those signals have on the success of my business?  

Staying True to Yourself 

Last—but certainly not least—highly effective leaders operate as their authentic selves. Their leadership style suits the needs of the business within the boundaries of their beliefs and natural personality. 

You should be able to speak your mind, express concerns, care for others, hold high expectations, and foster an atmosphere that encourages your employees to do the same. Creating an environment that allows for an open expression of opinions—especially those that might challenge prevailing beliefs and assumptions—is a force multiplier for any organization. 

Ask yourself (and those around you): 

 ·   Does my leadership style reflect who I truly am? 

·   When do I assert myself too much? When do I assert myself too little?

·   What prevents me from speaking my truths?

As you already know, the never-ending journey of leadership growth is incredibly challenging and simultaneously rewarding beyond measure. The constant I’ve observed in high-performing leaders is an unwavering commitment to improve their internal and external self-awareness as the most critical prerequisite to meaningful learning and growth. 

 This is a risky endeavor, as poet and author Vironika Tugaleva explains: “To know yourself, you must sacrifice the illusion that you already do.” 

Nonetheless, to learn, grow, and improve in a world rife with change, you must lead with self-awareness and continuously ask and answer difficult questions. If you stand too close to the blackboard for too long, you won’t see broad patterns of opportunity or adversity until it’s too late – so step back periodically to update and evaluate the reality of yourself through the lens of the seven leadership checkpoints.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Try These Two Smart Techniques to Help You Master Your Emotions (TED)

“One of the best things you can do for your emotional health is to beef up your concepts of emotions. Suppose you knew only two emotion concepts: “Feeling Awesome” and “Feeling Crappy.” Whenever you experienced an emotion or perceived someone else as emotional, you’d categorize only with this broad brush, which isn’t very emotionally intelligent. But if you could distinguish finer meanings within “Awesome” (happy, content, thrilled, relaxed, joyful, hopeful, inspired, prideful, adoring, grateful, blissful . . .), and fifty shades of “Crappy” (angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy, remorseful, gloomy, mortified, uneasy, dread-ridden, resentful, afraid, envious, woeful, melancholy . . .), your brain would have many more options for predicting, categorizing and perceiving emotions, providing you with the tools for more flexible and useful responses. You could predict and categorize your sensations more efficiently and better suit your actions to your environment. What I’m describing is emotional granularity, the phenomenon that some people construct finer-grained emotional experiences than others do…”

Find the Coaching in Criticism (HBR)

“Feedback is crucial. That’s obvious: It improves performance, develops talent, aligns expectations, solves problems, guides promotion and pay, and boosts the bottom line.

For the past 20 years we’ve coached executives on difficult conversations, and we’ve found that almost everyone, from new hires to C-suite veterans, struggles with receiving feedback. A critical performance review, a well-intended suggestion, or an oblique comment that may or may not even be feedback (“Well, your presentation was certainly interesting”) can spark an emotional reaction, inject tension into the relationship, and bring communication to a halt. But there’s good news, too: The skills needed to receive feedback well are distinct and learnable. They include being able to identify and manage the emotions triggered by the feedback and extract value from criticism even when it’s poorly delivered…”

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Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

Buy my book Creating a Culture of Accountability at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B082RHL566

I recently interviewed Nir Eyal, tech entrepreneur, former Stanford lecturer, and author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Today, I’m sharing some of Nir’s insights on how leaders can avoid distraction in their work and in their operations to achieve better results.

What Is Distraction, Really?

When Nir first embarked on his journey to understand and write about distraction, he wasn’t quite sure what exactly it was. Through his research, he discovered that the best way to explain distraction is, to begin with what it isn’t. Most people assume the opposite of distraction is focus, but that’s not actually the case.

The opposite of distraction is traction.

Nir explained, “Both traction and distraction come from the same Latin root [tractus], which means to pull… So traction, by definition, is any action that pulls you toward what you said you were going to do—things that you do with intent, things that help you live your values and become the kind of person you want to become. Distraction is any action that pulls you away from what you plan to do, from your values, and from the person you want to become.”

Stop Throwing Stones at Every Dog That Barks

In Indistractable, he shares a common scenario that plagues many business leaders: You sit down at your desk to tackle a project, determined to get started right away. Nothing is going to stop you! But then, you decide to check a few emails before you jump in. Next, you check off the one thing on your to-do list that’s easy to do, and things spiral from there.

Suddenly, the day is over.

You’ve spent your time engaged in tasks that look and feel like work. Those tasks seem productive, but because they are not what you planned to do with your time, they are distraction in its purest and most dangerous form. Why? You’ve hijacked your best intentions by prioritizing urgent and easy tasks at the expense of the important stuff.

You may be wondering why these tasks count as distractions if they need to be accomplished at some point. It is the planning piece—the intent—that sets traction and distraction apart. Thus, anything can be done with traction or distraction. For example, as a business leader, managing your team and their needs represents a significant portion of your role. As a result, you may feel as if an open-door policy makes you available to properly support your team—and it does. But if you engage with everyone who drops by your office as soon as they arrive or respond to every Slack or text message within moments, you cede control of your time by allowing interactions initiated by others to become distractions. This, in turn, sacrifices the productivity that only comes when you allow yourself to focus deeply without interruption.

To further clarify this concept, Nir explains that there are two types of work: reactive and reflective. Reactive work occurs in response to external triggers—the pings, dings, rings, and people clamoring for your attention. Of course, as a leader, some portion of your day—even the majority of it—must be spent doing that reactive work. But to achieve any real progress over time, you have to make space for reflective work: the planning, strategizing, and deep thinking that only happens when you give yourself time to concentrate.

Winston Churchill once said: “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” It’s a fantastic analogy for the costly habit of too much reactive work.

Allocating Time for Reflective Work

Setting aside just forty-five minutes to an hour to think and plan without interruption can provide leaders with a real competitive edge, but most don’t do it. Instead, they prioritize the reactive stuff above all else—“throwing stones at barking dogs”—even if it means going nowhere, or heading in the wrong direction. As a result, they end up feeling stuck.

It’s exhausting. You feel like you’re running on a treadmill all day. You are wiped out, but the view never seems to change. Put simply, you won’t make meaningful progress if you don’t make time to think. After all, thinking leads to new ideas, creative solutions, better decision-making, and productive change.

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling exhausted just writing about it! So why do we continue to do this to ourselves?

The thinking inherent in reflective work is hard. “We are what we call cognitive misers,” Nir says. “Psychologists will tell you we don’t like to think. It’s so much easier to check the mail, check the channel, make yourself available, walk around the office to see if anyone needs anything. What you’re really doing, though, is avoiding the discomfort of having to do the hard work.”

So, what can you do as a business leader striving to elevate yourself strategically by getting out of the details?

Understand the Nature of Your Distraction

The first step, Nir says, is to understand what’s distracting you in the first place. We all have external and internal triggers—the messaging that comes from outside and within, respectively. While it’s easy to assume external triggers are driving you to distraction, in truth, distraction begins from within: “Internal triggers are uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to escape from. Plato first asked why we get distracted 2,500 years ago—why we do things against our best interest. The answer is, we are constantly trying to escape discomfort,” Nir said.

In Indistractable, Nir busts the myth that human behavior is driven by incentives—carrots instead sticks—rather, “the reason we do everything, the seat of human motivation, is one thing, and that one thing is the desire to escape discomfort. Even the pursuit of pleasure is about a desire to escape discomfort. Want, craving, lust—all of that is psychologically uncomfortable.”

“That must mean that time management is pain management,” he continues, “If we don’t understand the discomfort we are trying to escape, we’ll always be distracted by something—whether it is too much news, too much booze, too much Facebook, too much football, it doesn’t matter. None of these life hacks are going to work. There is no magic bullet. Instead, we have to understand: What are we running away from?

Dig deeply to understand the discomfort at the root of your most costly distractions, and you’ll possess the key to unlock abundant traction in reflective work.

Technology Isn’t the Problem – You Are

To build an indistractable workplace, a process Nir describes in detail in his book, you must pay attention to the example you are setting—as well as the culture you’ve established.

In the five years he researched distraction, Nir found that the amount of distraction present in a workplace had nothing to do with the amount of technology used there. Rather, it had to do with the environment. “There was a remarkable study done a few years ago by two researchers at Oxford who found that the confluence of two workplace conditions cause anxiety and depression: high expectations and low control,” Nir said. “Anxiety and depression feel terrible, and as a result, people attempt to gain more control and bring things into alignment by responding to everything around them—the pings, dings, and rings.

The reactivity feeds on itself and creates a vicious cycle.

All of this aligns with my own research and dovetails with a model I share in my book, Creating a Culture of Accountability. Employees must have the agency (control) necessary to execute against high expectations. Without it, they can’t possibly be accountable to perform at their peak. Therefore, in addition to leading by example to help your team gain traction, you must also give them more (or even total) control over their time.

Think about whether you tend to text your team through evenings, or email late into the night (or on weekends) and expect a rapid response. If so, you’ve unknowingly established and embedded an agency-sapping norm into your culture. You’ll have to change your own behavior first to more fully engage your team and further improve their performance.

Turn Your Values Into Time

Nir defines values as “the attributes of the person you want to become.” He explains that to become indistractable, we have to turn our values into time—“We literally have to put time on our calendars to live out our values, because if we don’t, we’re just talking a good game.”

To do that effectively, he suggests a well-established technique called time boxing—setting an implementation intention in which you schedule what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. For example, if building deep personal connections with your team is important to you, you might schedule an hour of time on Tuesdays and Thursdays as your “appointment” to honor this value. But then, of course, you’ll have to keep the commitment to yourself!

Timeboxing helps you live out your values while avoiding distractions. Otherwise, it’s easy to simply go after low-hanging fruit—answering emails and checking off easy tasks without ever getting to the work that really requires your attention. According to Nir, it all comes back to prioritization: “You won’t be able to fit everything on your schedule. That’s by design. Again, you have to decide what’s important to do tomorrow, next week, and never.”

Traction, like any other meaningful pursuit, is attained by what you do, not what you say.

Be mindful that your tendency to seek distraction is natural, stemming from your innate desire to avoid discomfort. Over time, as you improve your ability to identify the root causes of your discomfort, to prioritize what’s important, and to ensure your time reflects your values, you’ll gain traction, elevate yourself strategically, and be better positioned to help your team follow your lead.

For more on Nir Eyal—including his books, workshops, and a free workbook on avoiding distraction—visit his website, www.nirandfar.com.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Being Smart is Not Enough (FS Blog)

“When hiring a team, we tend to favor the geniuses who hatch innovative ideas, but overlook the butterflies, the crucial ones who share and implement them. Here’s why it’s important to be both smart AND social…”

Coinbase is a Mission Focused Company (Brian Armstrong, CEO)

“There have been a lot of difficult events in the world this year: a global pandemic, shelter in place, social unrest, widespread protests and riots, and west coast wildfires. On top of that we have a contentious U.S. election on the horizon.

Everyone is asking the question about how companies should engage in broader societal issues during these difficult times, while keeping their teams united and focused on the mission. Coinbase has had its own challenges here, including employee walkouts. I decided to share publicly how I’m addressing this in case it helps others navigate a path through these challenging times…”

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Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

I was planning to drive my youngest son Casey to Winthrop University in South Carolina last month for the start of his freshman year. That is, until one Sunday evening about a week before we were set to leave, when he told me he wasn’t comfortable moving to campus. Casey’s concerns were understandable: Universities that had opened were already reporting outbreaks of COVID-19 and, in many cases students were being sent home. 

 “I’m pretty sure I can opt out of in-person classes and work the entire semester virtually,” he told me.  

“If that’s what you want, I support you,” I said. “Now you need to figure out how to make it happen.” 

He agreed and immediately got to work. First, he needed to ensure that it was even possible for him to switch to virtual. Several calls later, he determined it was. Next, Casey spent two days emailing and calling university officials to navigate his way through the less-than-straightforward process to unwind his on-campus semester—from course re-registration to housing.

 Just 48 hours after our initial conversation, he had completed the entire process to become virtual for his first semester, including cancelling his housing contract—which was the final step. 

I was proud of him and made sure he knew it. “When you start college,” I said, “you think your education comes from attending lectures and reading books. But in reality, the most profound growth occurs when you do things like you just did and learn how to make the world bend to accommodate what you want.” 

This process was a major milestone for Casey, as he experienced the most powerful kind of education there is: applied learning. 

Learning for Leaders

Like my son, many of the CEOs and business leaders I encounter are unaware of the sources of their most valuable learning. They focus almost exclusively on data transfer—a mode of learning that supports the absorption of information via books, seminars, conferences, and the like.

The problem is, data transfer isn’t at all effective to build skills. 

For example, you’d never expect a six-year-old child to watch a video about how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle, then hop on their bike having already mastered the skill!

Data transfer is far from the totality of how we learn and quite removed from the reality of how we receive and internalize our most valuable and enduring lessons. 

So how do leaders accelerate developing skill-based capabilities such as decision-making, leading, planning, communicating, creating accountability, coaching, and team building. 

Experiential Learning

To unpack how we really learn, let’s begin with David Kolb, an educational theorist who developed Experiential Learning Theory. Kolb’s widely accepted theory posits that all learning occurs through the following four-stage cycle: 

  • Concrete experience: You do or encounter something new.
  • Reflective observation: You consider any inconsistencies between your previous understanding of a concept and insights brought on by that new experience.
  • Abstract conceptualization: You come up with new ideas or revise previous considerations based on the experience and your reflection on it.
  • Active experimentation: You test out strategies and evaluate the results.

Learning only takes place when all four stages of the cycle occur. As such, the “doing” portion of the cycle—or active experimentation—is an essential ingredient. It’s how you learned to walk, ride a bike (without video instruction), be a parent, and run your company.  

It’s also how you’ll grow yourself to be an even better business leader. 

Doing via Deliberate Practice 

The best “doers” out there—those who make it to the very top of their field—get there through deliberate practice. This term, coined by psychologists Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer who researched how experts become “expert,” is defined as “effortful activity designed to optimize improvement.” Their data identified deliberate practice, rather than innate talent, as the primary accelerant of an individual’s learning and expertise. 

Deliberate practice requires three conditions:

●   Motivation to stretch one’s capabilities

●   Extreme repetition

●   Flow of feedback 

American professional basketball legend Larry Bird was an excellent example of deliberate practice in action, as he would not leave the practice floor until he shot one hundred free throws in a row, of which more than ninety usually went in. Bird was already at the top of his game but insisted on keeping himself in the learning zone. Making 90+ of 100 shots required intense repetition, and from every shot he made or missed, he gleaned a bit of feedback and learned something important about his technique. 

By the way, if you are able to ride a bike, you learned that skill via deliberate practice: You wanted to succeed and be more like the “big kids” (motivation), you tried over and over and over (extreme repetition), and you certainly had a constant flow of feedback, likely from a parent and from your own experience during each attempt (along with the occasional skinned elbow).

These examples illustrate something vital about how you should be learning as leader: Move beyond data transfer and also incorporate deliberate practice.

Consider: What leadership skill do you most need to develop through deliberate practice?

Failure Matters

Nothing worthwhile is completely free of effort or some degree of discomfort. Whether it’s your ego (and perhaps the voice in your head), struggling to grasp a concept, frustration, freezing when you need to perform, or even feeling physical pain from a wipeout, there’s always a price to pay for meaningful learning. Each of these is a form of failure or system breakdown that is a prerequisite to advancement.

If you aren’t able to frame failure as an integral part of how you learn and improve, you’ll constrain your thinking and actions to within your comfort zone. Progress will be slow and inchingly incremental at best or, more likely, you’ll get frustrated and quit altogether. As psychologist and author Carol Dweck outlines in her book Mindset, this is the domain of those with a Fixed Mindset.

On the other hand, according to Dweck, those with a Growth Mindset view failure as feedback and, therefore, an essential part of the learning process. And we already know that a constant flow of feedback is one of the three critical elements defining deliberate practice.

So if you’re not failing, you’re not really learning.

Consider: Where do you need to take additional risks and fail more to accelerate your learning?

Applied Learning for Leaders

I’ve never observed a business in which the sustained growth rate of the company exceeded the personal growth rate of the people running it, so the stakes are high to get this right.

The key to accelerating your growth is to acknowledge and balance all three modes of learning:

●  Data transfer, which occurs when you read a book, attend a conference, or watch a TED Talk, for example.

●  Experiential learning: thinking or talking more deeply about a problem, solution, or new idea.

●  Doing via deliberate practice to build expertise. 

Each learning mode requires different actions and yields different benefits. To illustrate, here’s a condensed behind-the-scenes look into how I incorporate all of them into a full-day quarterly client executive team meeting:

Data Transfer: There is always a learning segment in the form of something to read or watch, an opportunity to discuss it, and a chance to commit to act. Since this is a relatively passive element of the meeting, we schedule this during our lunch together. 

Experiential Learning: We allocate a significant block of time—typically 4+ hours—for deep thinking about strategy, opportunities, challenges, and people. This is non-tactical, expansive, and the highest value use of the leadership team’s time together.

Deliberate Practice: The team learns by doing as they debate, create constructive conflict, experiment, and plan throughout the day. I provide a constant flow of feedback and guidance to keep them productive, on track, and improving—as individual leaders and collectively as a team.

Like I do for my coaching clients, be sure to consciously allocate time and space for all three learning modes. They will not just happen on their own!

Consider:

What should your team be reading, watching, and sharing? 

What topics or opportunities require more time and deeper thinking? 

How can you add more experimentation—or doing—to your learning processes?

Who, What, How, Now. 

As you contemplate implementing the ideas I’ve presented, I’d like to leave you with a simple four-step process to follow:

1.  Identify who first. Who is best positioned to support each of the three learning modes for you and your team? It could be one person, like a coach, or three distinct individuals—each with expertise in a specific area.

2.  When you have your who (or who’s,as the case may be) identified, collaborate with them to consider what you should be doing to accelerate your learning. Once the elements of what you will do are clarified…

3.  Next define how exactly you’ll go about activating them. 

4.  Now get started.

You’ll be on your way to accelerate your growth as a leader and to better bend the world to meet your desires!

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Accelerated Learning: Learn Faster and Remember More (FS Blog)

“The greatest enemy of learning is what you think you know. When you think you know something, learning something new means you might have to change your mind, so it’s easy to think there’s no room for new ideas. But not wanting to change your mind will keep you stuck in the same place. Overcoming our egos can be one of the big challenges of learning. Therefore, being willing to admit when you’re wrong and adjust your thinking is the thing that will help you learn the most. The first step to learning is recognizing your ignorance and deciding to do something about it…”

How to Hire a Coach (Mark’s Blog)

“You make decisions every day based on some degree of incomplete information – you simply do the best with what you have and move forward. You are able to function this way because you possess deep knowledge and context of the day-to-day operation of your business.

Hiring a coach isn’t a day-to-day decision for you. In fact, it might be a once in a lifetime decision for you! And a risky one at that: You are contemplating a potentially large investment of money, time and energy that will also require a leap of faith.

There are six factors that I’ve consistently observed to separate “cream of the crop” coaches from the rest. Use them to tip the scales in your favor to find the “right” coach for your business…”

Why Success Won’t Make You Happy (The Atlantic)

“Imagine reading a story titled “The Relentless Pursuit of Booze.” You would likely expect a depressing story about a person in a downward alcoholic spiral. Now imagine instead reading a story titled “The Relentless Pursuit of Success.” That would be an inspiring story, wouldn’t it?

Maybe—but maybe not. It might well be the story of someone whose never-ending quest for more and more success leaves them perpetually unsatisfied and incapable of happiness…”

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Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

If you’ve followed my Debunking Leadership Myths Series, you’ve learned about ten common misconceptions that prevent CEOs and executives from unlocking their full potential and becoming the leaders they aspire to be. As a result, perhaps you’ve used some of the free tools and assessments on my website, or ordered my book, Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done

These are the leadership myths we’ve debunked to date:

1.     I need more “what” and “how” knowledge to grow my business.

2.     Experience pays.

3.     I am inherently rational.

4.     Fear matters, but not that much.

5.     Inspiration matters, but not that much.

6.     It’s ok to avoid actions that make me uncomfortable.

7.     I am already surrounded by the right people.

8.     My people should be accountable on their own.

9.     I can – and should – leave my past behind.

10.  Behavior change is hard.

Here’s a bonus Leadership Myth to round out the series. Leadership Myth #11 is yet another demoralizing, growth-slowing whopper that I regularly encounter through my work with business leaders:

“Everything should be predictable.”

Nothing in life is predictable, and your business is no exception. 

The replacement belief here is to expect—and accept—the unexpected. In fact, rather than perceiving unforeseen events as hurdles to overcome, you can learn to leverage them as excellent sources of innovation and entrepreneurial opportunity. There’s a catch though: You have to be ready to seize the opportunities and generate a return on your luck, regardless of whether the “luck event” appears to be positive or negative. That’s where acceptance comes into play. If you can’t accept the unexpected, your capacity to capitalize on unforeseen circumstances is lost. In other words, as Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” 

To ensure your mind is ready and willing to accept whatever “chance” comes your way, consider the work of psychologist and Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo, who conducted extensive research on the psychology of time. Zimbardo identified the concept of time perspectives—that each of us has a default setting that determines how we perceive past, present, and future events. His research suggests that those who are best prepared for whatever comes their way have the following time perspectives: 

·       High past positive: You can clearly envision and remember past successes, helping you maintain a positive disposition and motivating you to pursue similar outcomes.

·       Moderately high present hedonism: You are fully present, but not so much (think partying all the time…) that you ignore your future. And, importantly, you believe you have control over what happens in your life, driving you to actively pursue the results you want.

·       Moderately high future orientation: You are not too high, which could mean ignoring the present or becoming too much of a perfectionist; nor too low, unable to do the work, and maintain the discipline necessary for long-term success.

To find out how your own time perspectives stack up, assess them online using the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory. It’s free, takes just a few minutes, and will open your mind to how your perceptions impact your thinking and actions.

Having the right time perspective isn’t the only way to prepare yourself for unexpected events. You can also foster an important habit to increase your chances of success (with the help of deliberate practice) by training yourself to default to capitalize on luck. Changing how you think about luck—and choosing to capitalize on good or bad luck when you have it—will enable you to generate better returns, regardless of what the situation in front of you brings. The goal here is to develop the tendency to capitalize on luck as a habit of thinking in response to any luck event.

Here’s a simple, yet powerful example of what this can look like in practice. Say a key member of your team takes a temporary leave of absence. Most business leaders would see this as an unfortunate, temporary circumstance and frame it as the “loss” of a key player for a period of time. They’d plan to accept the discomfort that would inevitably ensue during their teammate’s absence, put a Band-Aid or two in place to hold things together, and count the days until the individual’s return. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way! You have the opportunity to approach things differently. 

Rather than bracing yourself for the weeks or months to come, you could think about your colleague’s temporary absence as both an opportunity and a challenge, shifting your focus toward how to translate this event into a positive return for the business and creating a return on luck solution. 

In this leave of absence situation, one of my coaching clients routinely taps other staff to not only cover the individual’s responsibilities, but also specifically to position more junior staff to stretch, learn, grow, and contribute in new and innovative ways. They’ve found a win-win approach that supports a positive outcome, even in the face of a “bad luck” leave of absence event.  

Here’s another way to accept the unexpected: Do your best to amplify your present hedonism time perspective. In other words, get great at being in the moment. 

I experienced this firsthand a few years ago during a conference hosted by Gravitas Impact Premium Coaches, a leading mid-market global coaching organization (Disclosure: I serve on its Core Advisory Team). At 7:15 a.m. on the morning of the event, I received an unexpected call from one of my colleagues who was scheduled to lead a sales training session in forty-five minutes at 8:00 a.m. He was stuck in another city due to bad weather and wouldn’t make it in time to teach the class. Meanwhile, eighteen coaches representing six continents were expecting to learn selling skills and techniques from him!

“Mark,” he said, “I’m not going to make it. I need you to teach my class this morning.” 

Teaching that class was the furthest thing from my mind—I hadn’t even showered yet! But I knew I didn’t have a choice. Plus, I recalled that I had facilitated the training once before. I found my PowerPoint slides and facilitation guide from the session, jumped in the shower, and made it to the classroom at eight o’clock on the dot. 

That morning with the coaches was fantastic; their survey scores demonstrated they received tremendous value from the session, as did I. Rather than resisting the situation in front of me, I chose to be in the moment, go with the flow, accept the unexpected, and teach the class. As a result, I had an opportunity to positively impact those coaches, and to learn some things from them as well. 

Life is full of unexpected situations. If you can be OK with that reality, you can learn to capitalize on it, and hopefully enjoy the journey along the way. When you encounter an unexpected luck event, asking yourself the following questions can help: 

·       What is the opportunity here?

·       How can I capitalize on, learn from, or grow from this moment?

·       How can I use this experience to help others?

·       What am I giving up or losing out on by choosing not to enjoy the journey right now?

To practice keeping yourself in the moment, try the free Schedule the Present tool from my book Activators to engage in more present-moment focused activities and enjoy your journey. 

No, everything isn’t predictable and, yes, we seem to be living in a world with increasing levels of uncertainty. That said, you can prepare for the unexpected and, through discipline and habits of thought, stack the deck in favor of generating positive returns for your business and for yourself from virtually any “luck” event.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

How to Stay Creative When Your Team Is Working Remotely (Inc. Magazine)

“Depending on whom you ask, working from home has been a blow or a boon to innovation. Among the pessimists is Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Bloom says he has spoken with dozens of CEOs and employees who report that while work-from-home is effective for continuing current activities, creativity has suffered. And while “change and crisis” will drive some innovation, he doubts it will make up for constraints on creativity created by working from home. “I fear 2020 will be the year of little innovation, and 2021 the year of disappointment,” he says.

Yet some companies say productivity is up since employees disbanded to their dens and back bedrooms. Tempted by the opportunity to save money on rent, many businesses plan to continue at least some professional distancing post-pandemic. A recent survey of the Inc. 5000, our ranking of America’s fastest-growing private companies, found that two-thirds intend to somewhat or greatly increase employees’ ability to work from home. Around 2 percent will go all-in on virtual.

How, then, to keep creativity thrumming within digital work teams? Several innovation experts offered advice…”

How to Beat Stress, Trauma, and Adversity with Resilience (positivepsychology.com)

“Why is it that some people, when faced with adversity, will be forced to defend themselves against further onslaught and erect barriers while others will transform it into a challenge and marshal all their abilities to meet it head-on?

Our resilience to stress, adversity, and change depends on our inner resources. And while we do not have much control over circumstances that determine our personality, intelligence or availability of support, we all can develop coping strategies…”

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Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

The last article in our Debunking Leadership Myths Series challenged the misguided notion that you can—and should—leave your past behind you. If you’ve read all the articles in the series (which starts here), it’s likely that the process of challenging your beliefs required some uncomfortable self-reflection. In sharp contrast, you may find the misconception behind today’s Leadership Myth (#10) to be a pleasant surprise! 

“Behavior change is hard.”

In truth, changing your behavior is not nearly as difficult or complex as you may imagine—if you master the essentials. For example, flying an airplane may seem extremely challenging when you think about it, which my own personal experience validates. When I began flying lessons, I found the cockpit, with all its gauges, lights, levers, and buttons, entirely overwhelming. My flight instructor started with the basics, and we proceeded to build from there – with plenty of repetition and practice. Over time, navigating the skies safely became as easy for me as driving a car and I eventually earned my Instrument Rating, which enabled me to fly in low visibility conditions.

Fortunately, for the most part, changing your behavior as a leader is easier than earning your pilot’s license! In the paragraphs that follow, you’ll discover a few proven strategies to make the process of change as simple and easy as possible.

But first, I need to give you an out. It’s the ultimate shortcut, and it demonstrates that any change is just a mind game. Let’s say you’ve received feedback that you tend to interrupt others in meetings (not uncommon for many leaders I meet) and you’ve decided to act on it.

Here’s the shortcut: JUST STOP DOING IT! 

If you look at the research, it’s literally that simple. But the problem is that we feel so entrenched in our habits that we “need” a more complicated solution, for which countless authors, gurus and consultants will happily charge you.

So try the JUST STOP IT technique – it can’t hurt, might work, and could save you lots of time, energy, and perhaps even money.  For a funny look at this very serious option, here’s a classic Bob Newhart skit (6-minute video) that is a must watch for any leader contemplating behavior change.

Now let’s explore some other options to make change easier, beginning with the two basic mechanisms of behavior change: You can either “think your way into being” or you can “be your way into thinking.”

Thinking your way into being is a slower mode of change that also requires significant mental effort. Say, for example, that you struggle to deliver direct feedback to your team. You could address this particular obstacle by addressing how you think about it. That may mean reading a book on how to effectively provide constructive criticism or choosing a set of positive affirmations (yes, they work) to adopt the mindset of someone who delivers effective direct feedback. The idea here is that with enough thought and attention, you’ll change your mind—and your behavior will follow suit.

While thinking your way into being is valid and effective, it requires both discipline and time. For most business leaders, the time requirement renders this particular model less than ideal, as both time and patience are often in short supply. 

 On the other hand, being your way into thinking offers a faster alternative. Another apt name for this technique is “fake it ‘till you make it.” For example, if you want to improve your ability to have direct conversations with your team, you would simply emulate the desired behaviors until they become natural.

Neurological research has demonstrated this to be true. In one experiment, psychologists had participants either smile or frown before completing an emotional survey. Those forced to smile scored better than those forced to frown before evaluating their mood, even though the only difference between the two groups was their pre-survey action. When you need to change your behavior—and do so quickly—take a cue from Nike and “just do it.”

The process of being your way into thinking begins with some thought-based preparation. For instance, you could reach out to a mentor who is great at giving feedback and ask her for a moment-by-moment breakdown of what she does when one of her direct reports needs a course correction. You may ask her what’s going through her mind when she walks through the door to begin the meeting, or how she opens up the conversation once they sit down. Her answers will provide insight into her perspective, and thus, its impact on her actions. While you may be nervous about ruining someone’s day, she might believe that she is providing a real gift in the form of excellent coaching that will allow her report to reach their potential.

 As you attempt to be your way into thinking, the next step is to emulate her thought patterns and behaviors immediately. This is the “just do it” part! It will undoubtedly be uncomfortable at first, but you’ll learn from the process in real time—and before long, you’ll notice a tangible impact on the way you think and act. You’ll also benefit from the relatively immediate results of your new behaviors.

There is another technique that can help you take action when doing so feels difficult, based on data from three German Researchers: Brandstatter, Langselder, and Gollwitzer. In 2001, they conducted a fascinating study on influencing behavior. They asked people housed in a drug rehab facility to prepare resumes to be used after they completed the program. Participants were divided into two groups. One group—the control—was asked to draft their resumes by the end of the day; they weren’t given any further instruction.

Meanwhile, the second group was asked to make a plan to complete their resumes by formulating an “if/when, then” statement. An “if/when, then” statement names a cue and the behavior it will provoke. For this group, it went as follows: “When I finish my lunch today and clear my table space, then I will begin to work on my resume.”

The results were astounding. None of the control group members finished their resumes, while a remarkable 80 percent of the “if/when, then” group completed theirs. The statement itself had a tremendous impact on the outcome.

“If/when, then” statements work because they prime you to notice a cue. The experiment group agreed in advance to do what they were asked (complete their resumes), and specifically when they would do it (after they finished their lunches). Behavior is governed by consistency. By our very nature, we tend to respond to cues in alignment with our stated intentions. If you tell yourself you’ll work on your resume when you finish your lunch, the rule of consistency dictates that you’ll follow through.

This same, simple method will work for you as well!

Behavior change isn’t necessarily difficult, rather we make it challenging because we believe that’s how it must be. The two techniques we’ve outlined – being your way into thinking and using “if/when then” statements – work quite effectively to accelerate whatever change you seek.

Oh – and don’t forget the elegant simplicity and potential of the JUST STOP IT technique, as it’s the most rapid of all!

This marks the end of our Debunking Leadership Myths Article Series. Over the past several months, we’ve debunked the top ten myths that prevent business leaders from getting things done and more quickly achieving the results they seek. In each article, I’ve provided Activators and tools to help you overcome the flawed thinking and/or behaviors that hinder your success.

If you would like to take a deeper dive into the unconscious mechanisms that interfere with your thinking and results, check out my book Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done. Inside, you’ll find more of the neuroscience, behavioral research, case studies, and insights from my coaching practice, along with assessments and tools to help you close the gap between the leader you are today and the leader you aspire to become.

You can find all of the Activators tools and assessments, available for free download, here.

Finally, as you change your own perspective and advance toward your goals, don’t forget to engage your team in the process. They will be an invaluable resource as you move forward, reminding you of the myths we’ve debunked and the commitments you’ve made. Combined with deliberate practice, you’ll be on your way to powerful change in your behaviors and results.

Stay tuned for the next edition of my next newsletter, where I’ll debunk an eleventh, bonus leadership myth for you: “Everything should be predictable.” 

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Avoid Making This Strategic Mistake in a Recession

“We are currently in the midst of the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate has hit a record high, and the International Monetary Fund is predicting a drop in our GDP of nearly 6 percent this year. If this is purely a supply shock, then our economy should recover quickly once restrictions on economic activity are lifted. On the other hand, according to a report from the Becker Friedman Institute of the University of Chicago, 42 percent of the jobs lost so far in this crisis could be permanent losses. If that is the case, then this supply shock will turn into a demand crisis much like the Great Recession of 2008, and recovery will be much slower. With so much uncertainty, what should a strategist do…”

The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals

“Why is it that some people seem to be hugely successful and do so much, while the vast majority of us struggle to tread water?

The answer is complicated and likely multifaceted. One aspect is mindset—specifically, the difference between amateurs and professionals. Most of us are just amateurs.

What’s the difference? Actually, there are many differences…”

A Triumph of Avoiding the Traps

“When you look at Oprah Winfrey’s multi-decade run through daytime talk, most of it at No. 1, — it’s easy to be impressed by what she did to make it happen. But her longevity and success probably has more to do with what she did not do…

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Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

The previous installment of the Debunking Leadership Myths Article Series unraveled the misguided perception that employees should be accountable on their own. This article delves deeper to a prevalent – and faulty – belief that causes leaders to suboptimize decision-making, prioritization, firing problem staff, getting accountability right, and more. 

“I can – and should – leave my past behind.”

Here’s an example of how this shows up behaviorally: It was midmorning on a Saturday when I heard the doorbell ring. I opened the front door and saw my neighbor Dennis. We had always been friendly, but that morning he looked angry and ready for a fight. He was red in the face and his jaw clenched tightly. 

“Hi, Dennis,” I said smiling, “How are you?”

“You know,” he blurted out, “Every day, your kids walk across my lawn to get to the school bus—back and forth, back and forth. They’re wearing a path across it,” he said, pointing energetically to his front yard.

I followed his finger with my eyes. Sure enough, he was right. I could see the path my boys had trod across the grass as they made their daily round-trip trek to the bus stop. 

“Wow—I see it,” I told him. “And I’m sorry. Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention, Dennis.” I assured him that they’d walk down our driveway from then on, and that if it ever happened again, all he had to do was let me know and I’d handle it. 

Instantly, Dennis transformed right in front of my eyes. His anger dissipated; his jaw unclenched. At that moment, our conversation became friendly and a few minutes later, he was happily whistling in his yard. 

After he left, I couldn’t help but wonder why he arrived the way he did. He must have experienced a similar situation in the past—and apparently it didn’t go well. As Dennis approached my door that morning, he brought his past experience with him

Have you ever been urged to “leave your past behind” by a well-meaning friend, a colleague, or even a meme you encountered online? While it may seem like a liberating idea, perhaps allowing you to see the present moment with fresh eyes, in reality the way we conceptualize the past shapes our beliefs, our decisions, our choices, and – ultimately – our actions.

Take a brief moment right now to reflect on some of your own past experiences. You’ll probably find you can relate. 

Psychological research provides further evidence and suggests how to control the influence of past experiences on the present. Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo has conducted extensive research on the psychology of time to better understand the interaction between our experiences and our behavior. He found that each of us has a default setting—or time perspective—that determines how we view past, present, and future events. 

When it comes to the past, our perceptions either skew positive—meaning we usually reflect fondly on our previous experiences—or negative, making us more likely to hold onto bad memories. To gain insight into your friends’ and colleagues’ tendencies, simply observe. In debriefing a tough project at work, someone with a past-positive orientation might share how they bonded with colleagues, found innovative solutions, and wowed their clients in the end. Meanwhile, someone with a past-negaitve orientation would harp on the long hours, late nights, and other pain points that occurred during the process. 

Now, think about how you react when you face a challenge. Do you recall past events that bolster your confidence (a past-positive orientation), or does a potential hurdle bring up feelings of fear, dread, or avoidance as you remember a similar experience that didn’t end well (a past-negative orientation, just like my neighbor Dennis demonstrated in the opening story)? 

As you take a pulse on whether you tend to have a past-positive or past-negative orientation, it’s important to note that there are no “facts” in our memories. Put simply: we make stuff up. All of our recollections are literally stories that we tell ourselves about our experiences with past events. This is the reason why people in the same place at the same time often remember things differently!

Our perceptions about the past—or present, for that matter—are not based in reality, but on our perspective. Thus, it’s possible to control how we perceive (remember) past events by manipulating our perspective. We can and should use past experiences – even negative ones – to our advantage in the present. 

With that in mind, let’s turn to Activator #7: Leverage Your Past

My friend David Rendall learned how to better capitalize on his past at one of the lowest points in his career and in his life. As a child, he exhibited classic symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). David couldn’t sit still. It seemed as if he was always in trouble at school. As he now likes to say, he was every school administrator’s worst nightmare. Although he was extremely intelligent, he grew up believing that his ADD was a weakness and that it would prevent him from achieving any real success in life. Further, and sadly, his belief was reinforced by many of the teachers and school administrators he encountered. 

When David graduated from the classroom to an office setting, he found his high energy and restlessness to be a liability as well. Just as he was about to resign himself to being miserable and misunderstood, he had an epiphany. He realized that the same traits that made him unhappy sitting in a cubicle also made him exceptionally well suited for public speaking. 

That’s exactly what he set out to pursue as he concluded that his greatest weaknesses was also his greatest strength (as is true for all of us). It’s a thesis he documented in his book The Freak Factor and has shared on stages around the world as a highly regarded public speaker. 

Like David, you can transform the way you think about your own past. To reframe the stories you’ve made up about your past, consider the following questions: 

  • What if you’re wrong about a particular belief you have about yourself? 
  • What was the good that came from a bad prior experience? 
  • Are there alternative explanations for events, or different ways to look at what happened in your past? 

These questions shift your perspective on the past, which is often key to both present and future effectiveness and accomplishment. 

To supersize your ability to reframe past events, try this free Reframe Your Past Tool from my first book Activators. Through a more specific, deeper series of questions, the tool provides actionable insight to recalibrate and even completely let go of painful prior experiences to enable a more positive, productive future. 

As you experience the Reframe Your Past Tool, you might also find insight into the next myth we’ll debunk in this Leadership Myths Series: behavior change is hard. 

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Thinking For Oneself

“When I was young, I thought other people could give me wisdom. Now that I’m older, I know this isn’t true.

Wisdom is earned, not given. When other people give us the answer, it belongs to them and not us. While we might achieve the outcome we desire, it comes from dependence, not insight. Instead of thinking for ourselves, we’re dependent on the insight of others.

There is nothing wrong with buying insight, this is one way we leverage ourselves. The problem is when we assume the insight of others is our own…”

The Three Things Employees Really Want: Career, Community, Cause

“These three buckets make up what’s called the psychological contract — the unwritten expectations and obligations between employees and employers. When that contract is fulfilled, people bring their whole selves to work. But when it’s breached, people become less satisfied and committed. They contribute less. They perform worse.

In the past, organizations built entire cultures around just one aspect of the psychological contract. You could recruit, motivate, and retain people by promising a great career or a close-knit community or a meaningful cause. But we’ve found that many people want more…”

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Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

The previous installment of this Debunking Leadership Myths Article Series unpacked the misguided belief that we are already surrounded by the right people. In this article, we tackle another frequent—but faulty—assumption related to people.

“My people should be accountable on their own.”

Almost every leader I’ve met has some degree of belief in this leadership myth. They think that by hiring the right people and putting them in the right seats they’ve also – magically – screened for accountability. As such, when it comes to getting things done, they assume all they have to do is delegate. Unfortunately, as literally millions of leaders worldwide lament, that’s just not the case.

And yet, the misguided belief persists.

To understand the truth about accountability and accomplishment, we can look to a 1992 experiment by University of California psychologist Robert Rosenthal. Rosenthal explored the impact of teachers’ expectations on student achievement. At the beginning of a school year, Rosenthal selected children at random and informed their teachers they possessed particularly high potential. Interestingly, at the end of the academic year, these “high-potential” students had outperformed their peers. 

Was it because Rosenthal somehow selected the most talented students by accident? Nope. This was a rigorous study that controlled for that. The only explanation for their success was that the teachers believed they were especially talented and treated them as such. As a result of that treatment, those students rose to the challenge and performed exceptionally. 

This phenomenon goes both ways. Rest assured that if the teachers were warned that the children were more difficult or less skilled than the others, they would have lowered their expectations, and in turn—unfortunately—those students would have likely met them. Ultimately, the onus was on the teachers to foster accountability in their students and the level of their belief about the students’ capabilities made all the difference.

The same is true for you as a leader. 

It is up to you to create the environment in which your people are accountable and, as Rosenthal’s experiment so clearly demonstrates, your beliefs about their potential will dictate how much they achieve. Further, it’s crucial that you get this right if your goal is to scale. To experience sustainable growth, you must continuously elevate yourself strategically and let go of more tactical things. Counting on others to manage increasingly important aspects of your business / division / unit / team requires that you believe your team is capable of successfully executing what you ask of them. 

If you don’t believe your people are capable of stepping up and executing with excellence, then you’ll need to confront the likelihood that you’ll need to upgrade your team. It’s not uncommon for a poor accountability diagnosis to mask the probability that one (or more) members of your team might not be the right person for their role! 

Get the members of your team right first. It’s a thousand times harder to accomplish anything without the right people in the right seats.

Holding others accountable has proven challenging for every leader I’ve coached, but if you believe those around you can step up to the challenge, you’ll create an environment that will enable them to do so—and reap the benefits of their capability, commitment, and growth.

There are three essential building blocks to create accountability:

1)  You must believe they are capable of completing the task or achieving the result you want. This is non-negotiable. If you don’t believe they can do it, they won’t either. Tell them outright: I believe in you. 

2)  Explain clearly and in detail why the task or project at hand matters. Let them know why it’s important to you personally and help them see how they are fitting into a bigger picture. Say, This is important to me

3)  Show them repeatedly that you’re watching. Check in – formally and informally. Provide coaching to help them course-correct along the way. Confirm their progress. Let them know, I am watching. 

When you put in the work to build accountability, it will motivate and challenge everyone involved. We all remember a boss, mentor, or leader who helped us perform at our best and how fantastic it feels to achieve things at the top of our game.

Marion Suro was the best boss I ever had and, not coincidentally, was highly effective at creating accountability. Her expectations of me were incredibly high. She put me in a position to stretch as I faced challenge after challenge. And she was very deliberate in letting me know that she was watching and that she expected me to fulfill each and every commitment I made to her. 

Here’s a classic example: When we’d pass each other in the hallway, she would cock her head to the side and say something like, “You’re going to get that report to me by the end of business today, right?” 

I could only reply with a confident “Of course,” before hustling back to my desk to ensure it was done and in to her before I went home that evening. 

At the time, it was maddening – yet motivating. Today, I know her approach made me better in so many ways—empowering me to meet her high expectations as I grew in my role. 

For additional help creating accountability in your own operation, look to Activator #6: Measure More. Tracking progress on the path toward a larger objective helps you focus on the present while simultaneously pursuing longer-term goals, all while inspiring your team to be accountable for hitting the marks along the way. Set small, incremental goals and make sure to check in on them repeatedly. 

You can use this free Accountability Tool to cultivate accountability within yourself and your team. This powerful, easy-to-use tool helps make measuring more a habit. Complete the tool with your team and refer to it daily to ensure you are consistently measuring progress toward your long-term aspirations. Don’t hesitate to modify as necessary, and make sure to assess and update quarterly. With a little effort, accountability will become the norm for you and for your team.

As a bit of a bonus, you can employ this Activator and the Accountability Tool as mechanisms to foster accountability and achieve your personal objectives as well. For example, several years ago, I decided to improve my health and fitness. In addition to weighing myself daily, I purchased a Fitbit and tracked my steps, as well as my daily calorie and water intake. I lost sixty-five pounds, changed a number of bad habits along the way, and I’m now in better shape than at any other point in my life. Measuring these details on a regular basis paved the path that ultimately produced the overall outcome I desired. 

In summary, your beliefs about the people you lead contribute massively to their accountability and accomplishments. Your team will not and cannot be fully accountable unless you create the environment that makes it so. Get the right people in the right seats, believe in them, and lean in using the three building blocks of accountability to challenge them to perform at their highest capacity. 

The next and ninth article in this Leadership Myths Series tackles an extremely costly myth to which many CEOs and business leaders fall prey: I can—and should—leave my past behind.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Eight Work Habits Found in Extremely Valuable Employees

“How do you define a valuable employee? Is it experience or maybe work ethic? Do you see competence in a specific area as the be-all and end-all of determining employee value?

What about soft skills? Do they hold the same value when interviewing for a rock star engineer or strategist position? Well, they should.

While technical skills and other hard skills defined in the job description matter, it’s an employee’s people skills and a whole host of other personal attributes that are crucial for long-term success…”

Covid-19 and a Study to Unpack the Psychological Response of CEOs – Three Types Emerge

“The FEAR-FOCUSED GROUP was the most negative and was watching too much media and occupying time on the blame game. (Who’s fault is this?) Which clouded judgment and is preventing them from seeing what CAN BE DONE.

The UN-FOCUSED GROUP had a bit of ‘head in the sand’ thinking and could have easily been classified as a part of the FEAR-FOCUSED group, but they demonstrated some slightly different traits. Mostly in the way they talked about finding a plan or getting a plan more than the FF group.

The STRATEGY-FOCUSED GROUP leaned WAY more on healthy networks and focused on solutions more and were overall more positive and felt more secure than others. Some of this was because they didn’t consume a lot of fear or negativity…”

Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues

“More than 1200 people in 24 different countries — working in industries ranging from manufacturing and science to real estate, education, and financial services — completed the first survey. We are currently following up with these people in subsequent surveys.

Our preliminary findings suggest that many managers are struggling in their roles, and would benefit from more support. As we suspected, our research also suggests that better quality management will improve remote workers’ well-being and performance…

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Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

The previous installment of my Debunking Leadership Myths Article Series focused on the common, yet misguided belief it’s okay to avoid actions that make us uncomfortable. Today, we tackle another frequent—but faulty—assumption: I am already surrounded by the right people. 

 Throughout this article series, using both anecdotal and research-based evidence, we’ve established that a willingness to be challenged and stretched—often to the point of discomfort—is essential to grow and progress as a leader. Those with whom you surround yourself factor into this directly.

Consider critically whether those around you—professionals you pay for advice, people in your mastermind group, networking organization, forum, peer group, etc.—are contributing to your growth, or perhaps delaying it. How can you know? Assess how much you contribute vs. receive in each interaction. If you’re giving more than you receive, you’ve likely outgrown that particular person or group and are in a comfort zone network or relationship.

If you maintain these comfortable networks and relationships over too much time, you’re likely to become stuck or even lose ground. 

Here’s why: The input you get from those around you is bound to embody the context of their lives and their fears—and potentially validate some of your own. When you surrender to fear (and to be clear, in most cases you don’t even realize that you are), you’ll find that you’re stagnating or setting yourself back. Even worse, you’re passively agreeing to receive advice (even “experience share” input) from people who haven’t yet fully achieved what you’re aiming for!

Combatting the myth that you’re already surrounded by the right people requires a conscious effort to leave comfort zone networks behind for individuals and groups who will push and challenge you – particularly people who might seem to be out of your league. 

I first encountered this crucial concept in 1993, when I began searching for my first home. Early in the process, my grandpa Ben pulled me aside. “Mark,” he said, “I need to give you a piece of advice before you buy a home.” 

“Sure, what’s your advice?” I asked.  

“No matter what you do, don’t ever buy the most expensive house in the neighborhood.” 

“Why not?” I asked. 

“There’s only one way the other houses in the neighborhood can affect your property value over time,” he told me. 

His advice made perfect sense to me. When I made that first purchase, I did as he suggested. In fact, I still do, heeding this insight in all of my real estate transactions. 

But it wasn’t until about a decade later that I realized grandpa Ben didn’t just give me real estate advice. By that point, I had established my coaching practice and was affiliated with an organization of practitioners primarily in the leadership development business. During one of our meetings, we were discussing a subject that had become well-trodden ground for me. Just then, I had an incredible flash of insight: I had become one of the most expensive houses in my professional neighborhood! 

I had acquired more experience and more clients than most members of the organization, and as a result, my continued participation was decreasing my professional value over time—just as grandpa Ben had referenced in his home buying advice all those years prior. 

In that moment, I made a deliberate decision to surround myself with people who make me uncomfortable, who challenge me with their intelligence and achievements, and who help me grow. I believe that this is the most direct path for accelerated continual improvement. 

If you find yourself in a similar situation, sitting amongst others whose experience and expertise you’ve surpassed, you’ve got to move on. To increase your value over time, surround yourself with individuals who have already reached the next level—who are beyond the place where you are now. These are the people who will broaden your horizons and challenge you to grow. 

Of course, these are also people who could put your ego at risk! This can be more of an issue for some people and less for others. Regardless, the value of the right people in your circle is well worth the potential discomfort.

My long-standing client Boris provides a perfect example. Boris runs a company that makes porous metal filters and filter elements that are distributed worldwide for a multitude of applications. A couple years ago, I offered him a seat at an exclusive two-day workshop for CEOs with Jim Collins. The workshop was costly and would require a significant time commitment, including a flight to Boulder, Colorado, where it would be held. Boris hadn’t done anything like this previously—and he would most certainly be changing his neighborhood by accepting the invitation. He jumped at the chance.  

Upon arrival, Boris found himself in a roomful of CEOs from around the world, many of whom he considered to be a step up in terms of experience and expertise—not to mention Jim Collins himself.  

With the discomfort of challenge and stretch comes great opportunity. Boris returned grateful and reenergized, with a whole host of new ideas that he continues to implement to advance his business. 

Here are some questions to consider:

  • When was the last time you changed your professional neighborhood? 
  • When was the last time you put your ego at risk and surrounded yourself with others significantly more experienced and capable than you? 
  • When was the last time you felt a bit intimidated by others in a room, or upgraded your professional advisors, your coach, or your mentor? 
  • When was the last time you evaluated and upgraded your personal relationships, including where, how and with whom you spend your time? 

This is truly what it takes to stretch, discover, grow, and uncover habits that may not be serving you.

If you’re ready, here’s how you can get started:

Employ Activator #5: Change Your Neighborhood – inspired by my grandpa Ben’s real estate advice, your neighborhood refers to the people around you. 

Use the free New Neighborhood Tool to help you plan and take action. With a clear path to identify and reach those well positioned to help you grow, you’ll be on your way to changing your neighborhood, your perspective, and your leadership capacity to reach new heights. 

It’s never too late to change your neighborhood, so the right time is always now. 

Stay tuned for the next article in this series! We’ll be dissecting and busting another people-based Leadership Myth: employees should be accountable on their own.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Find the Coaching in Criticism

“For the past 20 years we’ve coached executives on difficult conversations, and we’ve found that almost everyone, from new hires to C-suite veterans, struggles with receiving feedback. A critical performance review, a well-intended suggestion, or an oblique comment that may or may not even be feedback (“Well, your presentation was certainly interesting”) can spark an emotional reaction, inject tension into the relationship, and bring communication to a halt. But there’s good news, too: The skills needed to receive feedback well are distinct and learnable. They include being able to identify and manage the emotions triggered by the feedback and extract value from criticism even when it’s poorly delivered.”

Intelligent Minds Like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos Seek to Master This Crucial Skill. You Can Too.

“You may have heard the term “critical thinking,” but what does it mean exactly?

Critical thinking is the process of careful and deep thinking about a subject or idea. It includes being able to analyze and weigh facts, to carefully reason, and to make insightful connections. 

But take another look at the name of this concept, and you get another clue as to its meaning: Critical thinking.

Of course, the word “critical” can mean important or vital, but it can also be linked to criticism. In other words, we might think of critical thinking as looking for something wrong, something that can be improved.”

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Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

The previous leadership myth article in this series highlighted the importance of inspiration—and just how much it matters. This time, we’re digging into something slightly less pleasant: the impact of discomfort. 

Many of us have unknowingly allowed ourselves to be lulled into believing Leadership Myth #6: it’s okay to avoid actions that make me uncomfortable. 

In truth, discomfort is an inherent part of growth, and growth is the goal of almost every business leader out there. That growth doesn’t occur magically! Rather, you must think differently about your current circumstances and where you want to go, see things you haven’t seen before, ask yourself tough questions, and acknowledge things about your beliefs and behaviors as a leader that may have been difficult to face in the past. 

Progress in the form of sustainable growth takes serious work—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t finish a marathon and head straight to the gym. Why? You’re a bit sore and understand that your discomfort is part of the deal. In fact, it’s a large part of what makes crossing the finish line such an accomplishment. Which brings me to a crucial concept that has emerged over the course of my coaching career: 

I‘ve never observed a business in which the sustained growth rate of the company exceeds the personal growth rate of the people running it.

Your growth as a leader is essential to this process: if you want to see your company progress, you have to be willing to invest the time and energy necessary to address your own personal development. And that means—you guessed it—you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. 

When you’re not leaning into discomfort, it’s easy to pick up any number of unproductive habits—invisible growth killers afflicting virtually every business leader I’ve ever met. Worse, because the mechanisms maintaining our habits are unconscious, it’s hard to break them—or even realize they exist in the first place—a real issue when growth is your goal. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the unproductive leadership habits my globally-deployed coaching colleagues and I routinely observe: 

  • Failing to commit to a strategy
  • Denying reality 
  • Avoiding making decisions
  • Maintaining comfort-zone networks (in which the leader is surrounded by others who don’t actively and rigorously challenge them)
  • Tolerating low performers
  • Needing to be liked
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Not listening enough (i.e. talking too much!)
  • Demonstrating an inability to maintain routines
  • Tracking a few meaningful metrics

Do any of these habits sound familiar? Chances are the answer is yes, and not just because my coaching experience exposes their prevalence. In 2015, Leadership IQ, an online leadership training firm, surveyed more than one thousand board members from the private and public sectors who had recently fired their CEOs to determine the most common reasons for termination.

 The top five responses? 

  • Mismanaging change
  • Ignoring customers
  • Tolerating low performers
  • Denying reality
  • Too much talk, not enough action

As you can see, there’s a significant overlap between Leadership IQ’s research and the unproductive habits I’ve noted. If you read through both lists again, you’ll see that all of these items minimize productive action. It’s not that leaders don’t know what to do and how to do it; it’s that their unproductive habits render them unable to get things done—more than occasionally with dire consequences. 

Fortunately, though, you do not have to be stuck with unproductive leadership habits. You have power over them—and over the trajectory of your business. You just have to recognize and embrace the discomfort that accompanies transformation. That brings us to Activator #4: Change Unproductive Habits (from my book Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done). 

The first step in changing an unproductive habit is to recognize that humans, by nature, are creatures of habit. After all, your habits – like mine – have helped us conserve energy and survive as individuals and as a species. But like most things, there are pros and cons to habits; we all have some that don’t serve our goals, our relationships, and our loftiest aspirations.

Take some time to identify your most unproductive leadership habits. This free Hidden Growth Killer Self-Assessment is a fantastic place to start. Highlight the items that seem to have the most damaging impact—the ones preventing you from reaching your goals. For the bravest among you, dear readers, you can supersize this task by asking some of your direct reports and trusted advisors to complete the assessment from their perspective of you as a leader. Yes, hearing their input could certainly be uncomfortable – but you know by now that your discomfort is a sign of progress!

Next, you must acknowledge that there are rewards associated with your current patterns of thinking. Consider: if your habits weren’t rewarding you in some way, you wouldn’t maintain them. For example, let’s say you’re uncomfortable talking about money, so you have a habit of avoiding the subject entirely. It’s likely that by avoiding conversations about money, you avoid having to confront your own discomfort with it, or perhaps the fear that you aren’t doing as well financially as your peers. That “reward” of avoidance, though, is small and short-term. 

With an understanding of why you maintain a particular habit, you must identify its consequences. In this case, if you continue to hold financial matters at arm’s length, you will never be able to achieve your financial goals. And worse, chances are you’ll raise children who are equally uncomfortable talking about money, which will affect their financial progress down the line. Pinpointing the consequences of your unproductive habits and realizing that they far outweigh the rewards in terms of long-term impact help tip the scale toward change. 

How do you make that learning stick? Once you’ve reviewed the rewards and consequences of an unproductive habit, it’s time to identify and install a replacement. Research demonstrates that replacing, rather than resisting your urges, is the only way to permanently alter your habits. 

In a New York Times article titled “Resistance Is Futile. To Change Habits, Try Replacement Instead,” author Carl Richards describes ironic process theory, which dictates that when you try actively to change bad habits by resisting them, you are bound to fail.

Want to see what this looks like in action? Richards has an exercise for you. He tells readers to “try not to picture a white bear.” Go ahead, try it! You’ll see that you can’t help but picture that bear. Actively resisting something actually causes you to focus on it, making resistance even more difficult. 

That’s where replacement comes in. Richards shares the story of a friend who replaced an unproductive habit with something simple and totally innocuous: drinking a glass of water. Over time, his urge to engage in his old habit lessened until he forgot about it entirely. 

You can do the same. This free Change Your Habits tool will help you identify unproductive habits, fully consider their consequences and find potential replacements—the same process I just described. I urge you to check it out and try using the tool. It’s worked wonders for many leaders and will likely advance your productivity to a level you may not have been able to imagine previously. 

 Let me know how this process works for you!

One of the most virtuous habits of effective leaders is to surround themselves with exceptionally high-quality people. In the next article in this series, we’ll tackle Leadership Myth #7—a particularly debilitating, demoralizing, growth-killing belief: that you’re already surrounded by the right people. 

Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Learning is a Learned Behavior. Here’s How to Get Better at It.

“Many people mistakenly believe that the ability to learn is a matter of intelligence. For them, learning is an immutable trait like eye color, simply luck of the genetic draw. People are born learners, or they’re not, the thinking goes. So why bother getting better at it.

And that’s why many people tend to approach the topic of learning without much focus. They don’t think much about how they will develop an area of mastery. They use phrases like “practice makes perfect” without really considering the learning strategy at play. It’s a remarkably ill-defined expression, after all. Does practice mean repeating the same skill over and over again? Does practice require feedback? Should practice be hard? Or should it be fun?

A growing body of research is making it clear that learners are made, not born. Through the deliberate use of practice and dedicated strategies to improve our ability to learn, we can all develop expertise faster and more effectively. In short, we can all get better at getting better…”

These 7 Questions Will Change The Way You Lead Forever

“Coaching is one of the most powerful leadership and sales tools.

It can be tempting to dismiss it as time-consuming or hand holding, but both of those assumptions are mistaken. In his book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier gives busy leaders advice on how to coach effectively.

In ten minutes or less, you can ask strategic and thought-provoking questions that can help drive beneficial changes in behavior, help build team cohesiveness, and get things done effectively.Here are his seven questions to add to your coaching toolbox to make your life easier and get big results…”

Turning Strategy into Results

“How can leaders translate the complexity of strategy into guidelines that are simple and flexible enough to execute? Rather than trying to boil the strategy down to a pithy statement, it’s better to develop a small set of priorities that everyone gets behind to produce results…”

Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

In my last article, we debunked the myth that fear doesn’t matter that much when it comes to the decisions we make and the actions we take at work and beyond. Today, we’ll tackle a myth at the opposite end of the same spectrum: Inspiration matters, but not that much. In truth, feeling inspired is one of the most powerful motivators available to us. This is because your inspiration – whether you realize it or not – is often integral to something even more significant you may not have seriously considered before: your sense of purpose.

At first glance, you may find this concept to be a little too touchy-feely—reminiscent of crystals, incense, perhaps a tarot reading or two. But there’s nothing the slightest bit fluffy about tapping into purposefulness to achieve something important.

Hundreds of research studies make that clear; they demonstrate that big-picture objectives—like impact, one’s legacy, and an overarching purpose—are catalysts for inspiration and success-generating actions. This is because our emotions are a powerful driver of our behavior, which we’ll unpack shortly.

First, let’s understand why purpose—the fuel of inspiration—is so important. Research has shown that we weigh a negative outcome twice as heavily as a positive one. Studies have reliably demonstrated that when offered the option to take a particular bet, people begin to agree to it only when the potential for gain becomes twice the magnitude of the potential for loss. This can be expressed as a simple equation – 2I >F – to remind us that to take meaningful action, our level of inspiration (I) must be greater than twice the magnitude of our fear (F).

The implication of this effect is that to gain ground and take action, we have to raise our inspiration to twice the level of our fear, overriding fear’s tendency to hijack our plans. One way to keep your level of inspiration high is to maintain a strong locus of control: the belief that you have power over the circumstances of your life. When you have a strong locus of control, you stay true to yourself, your purpose, and your plans. Meanwhile, lacking a strong locus of control has the potential to derail us personally: Being swayed by others’ plans and opinions is a massive consumer of dreams and aspirations. There are thousands of would-be chefs and musicians out there who were convinced to be doctors or lawyers instead, and it’s not unusual to hear them mention their regrets twenty or thirty years later.

My friend David serves as an excellent example of how your life can change when you clarify and lean into your purpose. When we first met, David was a practicing attorney working eighty hours per week. His quality of life was miserable, and neither a pay increase nor promotion to partner—what is well established to be the peak of one’s legal career—would change that. He started thinking about a change of course, and to do that, he began considering what he was passionate about. He was a licensed pilot, and he loved flying—though he rarely had the opportunity to do it. While many people told him how great it would be to become an attorney, unsurprisingly no one encouraged him to become a professional pilot, and he knew many of his friends, family members, and colleagues would be critical of his decision if he chose to make the switch. Still, he decided to follow his own locus of control. He quit his job at the law firm and earned his flight instructor certificate.

Today, David is a full captain working for a leading fractional jet ownership company. He works a total of twenty-one weeks per year—seven days off, seven days on. Not only does he have the kind of flexibility and freedom that he could have only dreamed of as an attorney, but he also loves his work. He found his life’s purpose and made the conscious decision to honor it.

Doing so boils down to making choices you believe in and taking actions that promote them. How do you ensure you’re doing that? Consider your yes-to-no ratio. How many things do you commit to in a short period of time? For many of the CEOs I work with, it’s far too many. We can chalk some of this up to our culture’s fear of missing out (or FOMO), but it is mostly due to lack of purpose. And unfortunately, saying yes to something is effectively saying no to other potentially important things that could, in fact, be highly aligned with your goals.

You have a yes-to-no ratio whether you realize it or not. It’s a simple, easy-to-track key performance indicator (KPI) that you should track periodically to assess the quality of your focus as a leader.  To check your yes-to-no ratio, try counting all of your “yes” responses—including head nods and terms like “sure,” “yeah,” and “why not”—and all of your “no” responses for a full week. To achieve optimal focus, most leaders need to reduce their yes-to-no ratio by a factor of ten. Think about what you could accomplish if you tightened your focus by saying “no” more often—and then do it! But there’s even more you can do to make sure your inspiration significantly outweighs fear.

If you’ve read the previous Leadership Myths in this series (starting here), you’ve learned about Activators: handy strategies and techniques that shift thinking and behavior. When attempting to dial up inspiration to outweigh fear, look to Activator #2: Increase Inspiration.

Increasing inspiration is analogous to reducing fear—and just as important—but with one critical difference. The mechanism of fear reduction is to replace emotional thinking with logical thinking. The mechanism of increasing inspiration is the exact opposite: to replace logical thinking with emotional thinking! When you believe in what you’re doing and where you’re headed, you tilt the 2I > F equation in your favor and greatly increase the odds that you’ll act.

The Know Your WHY tool, which you can find here, can help you increase your emotional thinking; assess your yes-to-no ratio; and consider whether your business decisions, choices, and actions are self-directed—making it a vital companion in your ongoing efforts to increase inspiration and accomplish more.

Next up in this series is an easy-to-justify, insidious Leadership Myth that costs us much more than we realize: it’s okay to avoid actions that make us uncomfortable.

Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

What is Loss Aversion?
Losses Attract More Attention Than Comparable Gains

We don’t like to lose things that we own. We tend to become extremely attracted to objects in our possession, and feel anxious to give them up. Ironically, the more we have, the more vulnerable we are. Having accumulated wealth implies that we have more to lose than to gain. However, emotion regulation, such as taking a different perspective, can reduce loss aversion and help people overcome potentially disadvantageous decision biases.

Why are we so afraid of losing? Our aversion to loss is a strong emotion. The aversive response reflects the critical role of negative emotions (anxiety and fear) to losses. In other words, loss aversion is an expression of fear. This explains why we tend to focus on setbacks than progress. Negative emotions, such as from receiving criticism, have a stronger impact than good ones, such as from receiving praise. As Charles Darwin once said, “Everyone feels blame more acutely than praise.”

Stop Preparing for the Last Disaster

When something goes wrong, we often strive to be better prepared if the same thing happens again. But the same disasters tend not to happen twice in a row. A more effective approach is simply to prepare to be surprised by life, instead of expecting the past to repeat itself.

If we want to become less fragile, we need to stop preparing for the last disaster.

Consumers Are Becoming Wise to Your Nudge

I’m interviewing Chris, a 52-year-old man living in a small coastal town, for the second time. We’ve been exploring the new checkout process for a hotel’s redesigned website. The new site isn’t performing as well as the company thought it would, so I’m exploring why and seeing what we can learn.

“Only 2 rooms left? They don’t expect me to believe that do they? You see that everywhere.”

For Chris the implication was clear: this “scarcity” was just a sales ploy, not to be taken seriously.

We wondered, was Chris’s reaction exceptional, or would the general public spot a pattern in the way that marketers are using behavioral interventions to influence their behavior? Are scarcity and social proof messages so overused in websites that the average person does not believe them? Do they undermine brand trust?

Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

Our last leadership myth focused on our false belief that humans are rational beings. In reality, fear—a survival mechanism passed down to us from our early human ancestors—plays a significant role in our actions and behavior, whether we realize it or not. That brings us to today’s myth: fear matters, but not that much. 

 In fact, fear is the root cause of almost everything we do – particularly as leaders. 

Fortunately, we can overcome our fears and bring ourselves closer to the rational, even-keeled leaders we desire to be. To do that, though, we have to understand exactly what we are afraid of—and the implications of those fears. 

Let’s start with the most predominant fears, or what I call The Big Three: ego, scarcity, and failure. 

Ego 

How many times have you asked yourself, How do I stack up? You probably do it on a daily basis without even realizing it. Why? Ego serves as our psychological immune system; it is there to protect us and our sense of self. Our ego wraps around our self-image like a security blanket, rationalizing, making excuses, and even blaming others to help us feel whole.  

All that ego-based activity is a lot of work. As such, it’s easy to lose sight of your own goals in the process. You can’t break away from the pack if every move you make is based on keeping pace with it. Instead of encouraging you to take high-potential risks, ego-based fears spur you to avoid taking action—no matter how necessary or urgent—that may affect your status or position in others’ eyes. 

Scarcity

We’re also well acquainted with scarcity-driven fears. Scarcity is the notion that there’s never enough. Money is often the source of these fears—and few, if any, are immune. 

Many of us only have to think back to our parents’ behaviors to spot the origins of our money-based beliefs. And at no point during our education—formal or informal—are those lessons countered or behaviorally deconditioned. As a result, many of us become adults who cannot comfortably talk about and engage with money.  

The values with which we were raised—along with our current socioeconomic status—also shape our individual conception of what constitutes a lot of money. If spending $2,000 on a state-of-the-art television for your home seems significant, your “$2,000 is a lot of money” conditioning doesn’t just disappear when you lead a company with a multimillion-dollar P&L, to your detriment as a leader. 

Another scarcity-based concept is Fear of Missing Out—colloquially known as “FOMO.” Here’s just one instance of the impact on leadership: It has been well established that the most effective business strategies are narrow and deep, rather than wide and shallow. FOMO leads people to choose the latter. For example, a CEO operating from fear of scarcity may be unwilling to define a precise business strategy because she worries that she’ll miss out on opportunities that fall just to the left or to the right of her path. Unfortunately, scarcity driven choices like that can be fatal. 

Failure

That brings us to our final concern in the big three: failure. Here we’re talking about something bigger than a lackluster product launch, a bad hire, or even a bad year—we’ve all been through setbacks like these. Here, we’re talking about the existential fear of failure—failure to provide for your family, to accomplish your overarching goals, to take risks and reap the benefits. 

What’s the impact of failure-based fear? Making fewer big decisions. Avoiding significant commitments. Upholding the status quo. Unfortunately, that means you may very well end up sidestepping the moves that could make you truly great. 

But that’s not all. An unwillingness to decide or commit means your focus will be too broad—you’re just too afraid to cull extraneous activities for fear that you need a plan B, C, or D. As a result, you can’t be as efficient or competitive as you need to be, which ultimately translates to a less-than-stellar bottom line. 

Ego, scarcity, and failure directly limit your potential as a leader, as an entrepreneur, and as a human being—each in its own way. 

Ego: If you’re constantly comparing yourself to others, how can you ever be free?

Scarcity: Fearing scarcity is a self-fulfilling prophecy—If you worry about how much you have regardless of how much you get, when can you ever have enough? 

Failure: Fear of existential failure follows the same set of considerations: If you’re consumed with avoiding it, how can you possibly take the right risks and make meaningful progress toward creating the legacy you desire?

There is hope, however. You can diagnose these fears in yourself—the first step in staging a successful intervention. Check yourself for these five general symptoms associated with fear-based decision-making:

A focus on loss rather than realizing gains: How do you know if your decisions are fear-driven? Determine if they’re about avoidance rather than pursuit. If your greatest priorities are stopping customer complaints or preventing shipment delays, rather than reaching growth targets, for example, fear is the culprit. 

Procrastination: Anytime you delay a decision, no matter how logical your reasons for doing so, fear is operating somewhere, somehow behind the scenes.

The flip-flop: You’re swayed easily by what others say, by the headlines, or by any number of other factors. Fear fosters a tendency to question, doubt, and change your mind rather than stay the course. 

Unreasonable continued sacrifice: You choose to give up potentially good things in order to maintain what you have, even if there are significant downsides. I see the classic example of this all the time: a willingness to retain toxic, yet reasonably performing employees. It’s bird-in-the-hand thinking . . . except the bird is pecking at your face.

In your gut, you know you’re doing the wrong thing: This is one of the clearest signs of fear. But unlike the other symptoms, which are more visible externally, this one is internal. Those I coach often verbalize their internal conflict: They “know” they need to fire a client, but . . . They “know” they need to change their banking relationship, but . . . Though they can justify their actions (or lack thereof), their gut feeling is a strong indicator that those actions are fear-induced.

 OK – you’re human. You have at least one of the symptoms. So you’re naturally wondering, “what can I do about this?” 

 You’re now ready to employ Activator #1: Reduce Fear. 

 Check out my previous leadership myth article for techniques to interrupt fear-based decision-making. Then, put the fear-reduction tool (free writable PDF) from my book Activators – A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done to work.


Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

The 7 C’s of Change Management: Making Change Easier with Neuroscience

Change is rarely easy, especially when a habit has been formed. Just think about how difficult, stressful, and even annoying it can be when someone asks to change your morning routine or you are forced to change it. That is just one person.

So imagine the challenges of trying to implement a change management process in an organization, where all people have different responses to change and ways of coping with it.

In a survey conducted  by Towers Watson, researchers found that while 55% of employers felt that change was initially successful, only 25% felt that the changes were long lasting. Other researchers found that 83% of CEOs believe change is their biggest challenge, while 28% of CEOs were fired because of ineffective change management.

Five Ways Smart People Sabotage Their Success

Mark was always one of the smartest kids in his class. He’s done well in his career, but when he checks Facebook, he sees people he outperformed at school who have now achieved more. Likewise, there are colleagues at his firm who have leapfrogged him. Sometimes he wonders, “What am I doing wrong?”

Sound familiar? You might relate to Mark yourself, or have an employee or loved one who struggles with similar feelings. Raw intelligence is undoubtedly a huge asset, but it isn’t everything. And sometimes, when intellectually gifted people don’t achieve as much as they’d like to, it’s because they’re subtly undermining themselves. If you’re in this situation, the good news is that when you understand these foibles you can turn them around.

Hiring Isn’t Rocket Science: Why the Most Boring Strategy is Best

A lot of ink has been spilled and consultant hours racked up talking about the ins and outs of hiring heuristics. What deeply nuanced psychological traits should we be looking for? What tactics can you use to see them? What’s the one surprising trick that will help you identify the exceptional among the average?

The truth is, the best way to hire isn’t outrageous, groundbreaking, or clickbaity. It’s incredibly structured and boring. And that’s why no one does it.


Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

  1. Subscribe to my newsletter at https://mark-green.com/#newsletter 
  2. Learn more about coaching at https://mark-green.com/coaching/
  3. Book me to speak at https://mark-green.com/speaking/
  4. Buy my book Activators at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1949639096
  5. Buy my book Creating a Culture of Accountability at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B082RHL566

Do you consider yourself rational?

Chances are, and assuming you are reasonably sane, the answer is “yes.” You may even find it a bit odd that I asked. And you’re not alone: We humans believe ourselves to be rational creatures. But the assumption that you—and humans at large—are inherently rational is actually our third myth. In short, none of us are.

To understand exactly why we aren’t the bastions of rationality we imagine, let’s travel back through millennia. Our human ancestors—the early women and men—on the plains of Africa responded with lightning speed to the slightest of stimuli: a rustle in the bushes to the left, a flicker of movement in the periphery. Why? It was a matter of life and death for them! The barely perceptible sound or flash of color in the distance could have been a predator. Sometimes, it was. Often, of course, it was just the wind.

But our ancestors couldn’t be too cautious; natural selection ensured those who didn’t react to the sights and sounds they detected were eliminated. We are the product of those who survived: the descendants of those who always responded to that rustle or flash as if it were a predator. That wiring remains in each of us.

This “fight or flight” wiring influences us constantly, raising our blood pressure and preparing us physically to “fight for our lives” even in the comfort of our own offices. For example, your pulse accelerates as you make a decision about the future of your company or consider firing a low-performing employee, despite the fact that there’s no real danger in your midst. Your physical response tells you your fear must be valid; you can feel it after all. As a result, it’s the fear that fuels your actions, rather than the rational thought process you might otherwise imagine.

It gets worse: You’re either blind to or in denial of the vast majority of your fears and the emotionally based decisions you make. Why?

After we make an emotionally based decision, we use logic to justify our position. And when that logic is employed – even after the fact – the fear that actually drives our decisions becomes invisible. We buy into our own hype.

Here’s an example. If you were to ask a CEO why she decided to continue doing business with a client who posed numerous challenges, she would undoubtedly give you a perfectly logical argument, delineating the client’s value to the company and how it outweighs the difficulty they cause. It’s not an excuse; she truly believes that rational thinking, rather than fearing the loss of revenue or operating income, is behind her choice. In my experience, 99% of the time, the fear of loss drives this decision – our CEO is unknowingly surrendering to her emotional response.

We can turn to psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his explanation of System 1 and System 2 thinking to better understand how this disconnect arises. System 1 thoughts are instinctive and automatic: You bolt upright in bed when you hear a noise in the middle of the night, or brake while driving when you detect motion in your peripheral vision. System 2 thinking is slower and more deliberate—it operates in any situation in which you’re carefully weighing options, rewards, and consequences.

System 1 thinking governs much of our lives, often to our benefit. The quickness of System 1 processing makes us efficient, saving us time when it counts (we have System 1 thinking to thank for innumerable narrowly missed collisions). But there are times—particularly in business—when it does more harm than good.

To operate with its trademark speed, System 1 thinking relies on numerous rule-of-thumb biases that foster unconscious fear-based decision-making. Here are three I often see with negative impact on business leaders:

  • Anchoring: we tend to compare current experiences to previous ones, which serve as a frame of reference and color our approach. If your last conversation was as or more difficult than expected, for instance, you’ll avoid the next potentially challenging interaction to prevent a similar experience. 
  •  Availability: Think of availability as a bias of proximity. Most Californians don’t spend much time worrying about being attacked by an alligator. They don’t live near alligators, so the threat isn’t readily available or anxiety provoking. Catastrophic earthquakes, however, are another story. Here’s how availability bias applies to business: If you’ve been operating in a specific manner for a long time, the model or processes you use are highly available. Without realizing it, availability stealthily encourages you to discount other options and resist change, even if the merits suggest otherwise. 
  • Representativeness: Representativeness is a bias of categorization, a mental shortcut to put time on our side. If I were to show you a picture of two men, one tall and thin and the other short and fat, and ask you which one is more likely to be a professional athlete, you wouldn’t hesitate to pick the former. But overgeneralizing can be limiting. Say you’ve made a habit of hiring people with a certain background because someone with that background did well in that particular position. Inevitably, you’re overlooking great candidates who could bring fresh—and highly valuable—perspective to the role and to your firm. 

So, how do you overcome your tendency to let fear take the wheel and lean on logic to obscure that reality? This is where Activators, techniques to change the trajectory of your thinking, and thus, your behavior, come into play. Activators aren’t just powerful, they’re also readily accessible: You can put them to work right away to create a tangible difference in your behavior and your results.

We can turn to Activator #1, Reduce Fear, to neutralize the impact of our fears and take charge of our thinking and behaviors. There are a few techniques you can use to interrupt fear-based decision-making, right now.

One is to cultivate System 2 thinking as part of your decision-making process by slowing down. When you’re leading a business, it’s easy to feel like you need to provide an instant answer to a key client or employee who is making a demand or trying to negotiate a better deal for themselves. But that’s often not the case. And if you give in to the urge to act or answer immediately, chances are the decision you make will be driven by emotion (quite often, fear).

Instead, resist. Find a way to press pause. Taking a deep breath—or any other meaningful pause—overrides the default response and gives your brain the opportunity to slow down. By slowing down, you avoid the pitfalls of making a knee-jerk, System 1 choice and activate System 2 for more logical and less emotional thinking.

Activator #3, Get Rational (and Slow Down), provides additional insight into how to overcome emotionally-based decision-making. By now you know that rational thinking doesn’t come naturally to us. Our emotions get in the way, feeding our fears. But we can choose to override that and lean into rationality—if we are deliberate about it.

Just as enabling System 2 thinking requires slowing down, so does getting rational. Many business leaders are in the habit of being seduced by their own busyness. If this is the case for you, when you should be working on a big-picture (i.e., high-value) aspect of the business—like assessing trends or thinking strategically—you may be tempted to skip it in favor of fixing the (tactical) thing right in front of you that seems to be broken.

Rather than give in to that urge, you can slow down and get rational. Compare the value of one activity to the other and determine which has a higher long-term payoff. You should also ask yourself whether someone else in the firm could handle the immediate issue, delegating it entirely and—perhaps—helping someone else on your team learn and grow.

Although conducting these thought exercises by yourself will provide insight and value, the most effective path is to have someone else lead the way. A coach, accountability partner, or mastermind group can challenge your thinking and help you avoid buying into faulty assumptions.

With these strategies, you can begin to override your emotions and activate more rational thinking to improve decision making. But this article is just the beginning! For a comprehensive guide to interrupting fear and improving rational thinking for greater success in business and beyond, check out my book Activatorsand the free assessments and tools at Mark-Green.com.

The next article in my Leadership Myths series busts the myth that “fear matters, but not that much.” In it, we’ll take a deep dive into the dark realm of the three big fears that impact business leaders (like me…and you!) and shed light on how to limit their effect.

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In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter cases, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. I’ll share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

A CEO’s Guide to Reenergizing the Senior Team

Back in 2009, in the middle of what was then the worst financial and economic calamity since the Great Depression, McKinsey author Derek Dean wrote an article to rally the spirits of top executives. Fear of the crisis had paralyzed many of them. Others were in denial—they claimed that it didn’t require new business models, new assumptions, or new mindsets. People who had gone from success to success suddenly learned what it’s like to fail. 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is very different from the 2008–09 financial crisis, its psychological impact on the C-suite and other managers isn’t. To prevent another cycle of fear, failure, and paralysis, CEOs don’t have to become armchair psychotherapists, but they do have to address the emotional lives of their top executives.

Back on Track: What Leaders Can Learn from Ferrari’s Approach to the Pandemic

Headquartered in Maranello, a small town in the heart of Italy, Ferrari has been preparing since the start of the crisis to ensure that when it reopens its factory and headquarters, it does so safely. According to Michele Antoniazzi, the company’s Chief Human Resources officer, on January 21, 2020, when the coronavirus was ravaging the population of Wuhan, China, Ferrari executives asked themselves an important question: “Let’s assume that such a virus arrives here in Maranello. What should we do now, to avoid devastation and survive as a company?”

The plan that emerged consisted of three stages in three different areas: Core Activities, Employee’s care and Stakeholders value. Themed “Back on Track,” Ferrari’s leaders aimed at allowing workers to be as safe as possible upon their return to work. As a result, when the authorities allow the factory and offices to reopen, Ferrari will be ready.

Leaders in other industries can adopt Ferrari’s approach and adapt it to their own situation. This article outlines the key steps to follow.

Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

  1. Subscribe to my newsletter at https://mark-green.com/#newsletter 
  2. Learn more about coaching at https://mark-green.com/coaching/
  3. Book me to speak at https://mark-green.com/speaking/
  4. Buy Activators at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1949639096
  5. Buy Creating a Culture of Accountability at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B082RHL566

This second installment of my Leadership Myths series addresses a phrase you may have heard once, twice, or 300 times: Experience pays

You may find that you perpetuate this one yourself. Perhaps you believe that your success is predicated on the years you’ve logged in your industry, or maybe your hiring process is partially based on how long candidates have paid their dues. There’s some sound logic there, and this one isn’t a total myth—experience can come with significant benefits. But to go further—to reach peak performance and become a dominant player in your industry—you need more than experience alone. It’s called “deliberate practice.”

In the early ’90s, psychologists K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer set out to determine how people at the very top of their fields—true experts—got there. They found that the greatest factor in success was not innate talent, but deliberate practice, or “effortful activity designed to optimize improvement.”[1]

Deliberate practice requires three things:

·   Motivation to stretch one’s capabilities

·   Extreme repetition

·   Flow of feedback

What does this look like in action? Professional basketball legend Larry Bird provides a perfect example. During his career, he shot 100 free throws in a row at each practice (usually making around 90 of them). He was already at the pinnacle of the sport, but he insisted on keeping himself in the learning zone. Making 90+ of 100 shots required intense repetition, and from every shot he made or missed he learned something important about his technique. He amplified his experience and made it work for him. 

Deliberate practice is experience 2.0—you make the choice to build upon your experience and intentionally capitalize on what you learn from it. You reap the benefits not just from time spent, but more importantly from focused effort. Deliberate practice also has a lot in common with the process of habit formation, namely repetition and exposure. But what sets it apart is intentionality

You can use deliberate practice to level up your leadership game, adopt productive leadership habits, ultimately bringing you closer to your goals. 

Here are three of the ten success-driving leadership habits I discuss in my book Activators – A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done that are worth your consideration:

Seek simplicity: Albert Einstein, one of the most sophisticated thinkers of the 20th century, said, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” Many of us have been conditioned to favor complexity, but in an organizational setting, it’s simplicity that will boost efficiency and save your sanity. 

It takes work to undo that conditioning, but it’s worth putting in the effort. Simplify your processes as much as you can. Clean off your desk, clear unnecessary meetings from your calendar, and work on decluttering your mind. Study the effects of seeking simplicity on your productivity and use that feedback to address other areas of your personal and professional life where an excess of stuff—informational or material—may be holding you back.

Over-communicate: We believe that once we’ve explained our position or given an instruction, we’re done. But just because you’ve said it doesn’t mean that someone has understood you, that they have clarity on what they need to do, or that they actually know how to do it. Until your team is literally rolling their eyes and finishing your sentences, you haven’t successfully communicated. 

Repetition is at the heart of the deliberate practice, and communication is the perfect way to cement how critical it is.

Be grateful: When you appreciate and value what you have, you gain a clearer perspective. That’s why I begin each of my client meetings with a round of personal and professional appreciation. This ritual creates space for each executive to share and reflect on what they appreciate most and what’s been working before we dig into the business at hand. It lightens the mood in the room and facilitates clearer thinking and increased collaboration.

Try making gratitude part of your meetings and informal interactions, and gauge the effect of regular appreciation on yourself, your team, and what you’re able to accomplish.

The bottom line? Experience is important, but by engaging in deliberate practice, you can do so much more to enhance your knowledge and proficiency in any domain. Use this simple, yet highly effective process to learn from your experiences and build habits that will further accelerate your success. 

Next in the Leadership Myths series, we’ll investigate a flawed assumption you likely hold: that you, yourself, are inherently rational. 


[1] K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review, vol. 100, no. 3 (1993), http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/EricssonDeliberatePracticePR93.PDF.

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter cases, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. I’ll share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Why We Focus on Trivial Things: The Bikeshed Effect

How can we stop wasting time on unimportant details? From meetings at work that drag on forever without achieving anything to weeks-long email chains that don’t solve the problem at hand, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the inconsequential. Then, when an important decision needs to be made, we hardly have any time to devote to it.

To answer this question, we first have to recognize why we get bogged down in the trivial. Then we must look at strategies for changing our dynamics towards generating both useful input and time to consider it.

The Illusion of Uncertainty

One reason why the world is in a mess is because, for a long time, the ratio between ‘explore’ and ‘exploit’ has been badly out of whack. Entities like procurement have been allowed to claim full credit for money-grabbing cost-savings without commensurate responsibility for delayed or hidden costs. The shadow of this is everywhere, from Grenfell Tower to PPE shortages.

Bees seem to have spotted this trade-off between narrow and broad-scale efficiency 20 million years ago. Although most of them follow the waggle-dance (exploiting what is already known), a significant minority do not. These R&D bees explore at random, seeking nectar and pollen from sources as yet unknown. Most of these journeys are individually wasteful — but every now and then they pay off hugely in the form of a new find. Indeed there would be no bees without this ‘inefficiency’; hives would end up starving to death.

How to Hire a Coach

You make decisions every day based on some degree of incomplete information – you simply do the best with what you have and move forward. You are able to function this way because you possess deep knowledge and context of the day-to-day operation of your business.

Hiring a coach isn’t a day-to-day decision for you. In fact, it might be a once in a lifetime decision for you! And a risky one at that: You are contemplating a potentially large investment of money, time and energy that will also require a leap of faith.

What if you engage the wrong person or firm? Pick a tool, system or framework that doesn’t work for your particular company? Get sold something that feels and sounds great, but doesn’t address the root issues that you must address? Work through a process that takes a lot of time and energy, but doesn’t produce concrete, measurable business results? The list goes on…

There are 6 factors that separate “cream of the crop” coaches from the rest. Use them to tip the scales in your favor to find the “right” coach for your business.

Here are a few discussion questions designed to help you convert today’s content into directed action:

  1. How can you use deliberate practice to improve your capabilities as a leader?
  2. What decision, action, or initiative are you and your team over-complicating? What would a simpler version look like, sound like, or feel like?
  3. How can you limit the impact of the Law of Trivitality on your team’s discussions, debates, and decisions?

Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

  1. Subscribe to my newsletter at https://mark-green.com/#newsletter 
  2. Learn more about coaching at https://mark-green.com/coaching/
  3. Book me to speak at https://mark-green.com/speaking/
  4. Buy Activators at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1949639096
  5. Buy Creating a Culture of Accountability at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B082RHL566

As a strategic advisor and coach to CEOs and executives, I’ve encountered my fair share of leadership myths. I’ve seen how closely held beliefs about the way business works actually hinder leaders’ abilities to accomplish their goals and reach their fullest potential—often without them even realizing it.

This is why it’s useful to debunk common leadership myths; discuss the reality behind these pervasive misconceptions; and talk about ways to override them for clearer thinking, more purposeful action, and better results in business and beyond. 

We’ll start with a basic myth that has plagued almost every executive I’ve ever met: 

I need more “what” and “how” knowledge to grow my business. 

So many business leaders have determined that any issues they’re facing in their business—from personnel to profit—simply stems from a lack of knowledge. They conclude that if they just had a bit more information, they could easily accomplish their goals and resolve the problems that keep them up at night. 

This is rarely the case. 

Execution usually isn’t hampered by a lack of knowledge or skills; CEOs and their teams generally know what to do and how to get it done. And if they don’t, there is plenty of information, insight, and advice out there in all kinds of forms—from books to podcasts and mastermind groups. 

So, if you actually know what to do and how to do it, why isn’t it happening?

Though it took me years of experience and loads of research on neuroscience, behavioral studies, and social science to uncover the answer, it’s actually relatively simple: there is a huge disconnect between how we think leadership works and how it actually works.

Most of us think the process of leadership looks like this (see figure below):

1.   We learn new things from a variety of sources, including our personal experience, formal education, books, seminars, conferences, mentors, staff, and peers.

2.   We think about what we’ve learned, combine it with available data, and engage additional brainpower and research from industry experts to process all of that information and determine what to do next.

3.   We use these conclusions to commit to what we want to do and figure out how to do it.

4.   We act on our commitments, all while embodying our core values, maintaining accountability, and honoring our priorities. In this leadership utopia, the results of our actions provide additional perspective and learning that loops us back to the first step in the cycle.

How We Think Leadership Works

Mark Green - Speaker / Business Coach / Author

Unfortunately, for most of us, the process isn’t as tidy as we think. While our experience, knowledge, and thinking do form a framework within which to commit and act, the next steps are not nearly as straightforward as they seem.

What we don’t realize is that before any commitments happen, all that raw material—lessons we’ve learned, advice we’ve received, and more—is filtered through three unconscious forces operating in our brains: motivators, habits, and beliefs

How do these forces intervene? 

·      All of our choices are motivated by one of two forces: fear or inspiration. Often, fear wins out, leading us to pick safe bets that can undermine our aspirations. For example, studies show that fear often leads individuals to make choices based solely on the potential of a catastrophic event, no matter how unlikely.[1]

·      Habits can significantly limit our intentions too. While habits serve an important purpose in our lives—allowing us to complete mindless functions while focusing on more pressing issues—they are also hard to break, keeping us in a comfort zone that blocks progress.

·      In addition, beliefs about who we are inform how we behave. If you don’t see yourself as the leader you aspire to be, it’s much more challenging to make the choices and commitments that will get you there. 

Motivations, habits, and beliefs inhibit you from acting on what you know, and thus act as hidden growth killers, limiting your ability to make rational, optimal commitments and preventing you from achieving what you set out to do.

These unconscious factors don’t only influence you to make suboptimal commitments in the first place, they also take their toll once you’re ready to implement your plan. In fact, they are with you every moment of every day and at every step in your leadership journey. This is why business feels really hard, even when you know exactly what to do and how to do it!

In reality, the process of leadership actually looks like this:

How Leadership Actually Works

Mark Green - Speaker / Business Coach / Author

The good news is you can escape the limits of your mind. 

These obstacles can be overcome with a set of strategies and tools. You can use specific techniques—or Activators—to change the trajectory of your thinking, and therefore, your behavior. When you know where your invisible limitations lie and you have concrete tools to overcome them, you can control your motivators, habits, and beliefs, enabling more productive commitments and actions. 

In future articles, I’ll cover some of these Activators and other tools that can help you reach your goals and become the leader you aspire to be. 

Stay tuned for the next installment, where we’ll tackle the leadership myth that “experience pays” (spoiler alert: it doesn’t!) and outline the process to develop productive leadership habits. 

In the meantime, I invite you to visit my website to learn more about my first book, Activators – A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done, and to access freeassessments, tools, and more information on how to get better at getting things done. 


[1] Chanel, Oivier and Chichilnisky, Graciela. “The Influence of Fear in Decisions: Experimental Evidence.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty Vol. 39. No. 3. (2009): 2. Web. 27 June 2018. 

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter cases, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. I’ll share a select few in each edition of my newsletter — particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Key to Innovation

“If I have seen further,” Isaac Newton wrote in a 1675 letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

It can be easy to look at great geniuses like Newton and imagine that their ideas and work came solely out of their minds, that they spun it from their own thoughts—that they were true originals. But that is rarely the case.

Innovative ideas have to come from somewhere. No matter how unique or unprecedented a work seems, dig a little deeper and you will always find that the creator stood on someone else’s shoulders. They mastered the best of what other people had already figured out, then made that expertise their own. With each iteration, they could see a little further, and they were content in the knowledge that future generations would, in turn, stand on their shoulders.

Standing on the shoulders of giants is a necessary part of creativity, innovation, and development.

The Moral Bucket List

We all know that our “eulogy virtues” are more important than our “résumé” ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet

So a few years ago I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way.

The Little Things That Make Employees Feel Appreciated

While most companies run employee-recognition programs of some sort, all too often they produce eye rolls from those being recognized. Instead of giving people a meaningful sense of appreciation, they become just another box for managers to check and are completely disconnected from employees’ accomplishments. Some companies try to make programs more relevant by giving specific awards to individuals who’ve, say, created and led an important new initiative, “embodied” the organization’s values in their behavior, or had a significant impact. Yet that approach has problems too: Awards can be seen as an elite opportunity for a chosen few — and leave the majority of the workforce feeling left out and overlooked.

If managers could make a far broader group of employees feel appreciated, the benefits would be considerable. Adam Grant and Francesca Gino havefound that when people experience gratitude from their manager, they’re more productive. Another researcher recently found that teams perform tasks better when their members believe that their colleagues respect and appreciate them.

Here are a few additional thoughts to help you convert today’s content into directed action:

  1. What fear or habit or belief is preventing you from making a decision or taking an action that you know is something you should do? Find the corresponding tool here to work though your Hidden Growth Killer.
  2. Upon whose shoulders is your success built? Reach out to the most influential 1-3 people on your list to express your appreciation and explore further synergies.
  3. How can you immediately implement some of the 5 employee-generated ideas for managers about giving recognition?

Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

  1. Subscribe to my newsletter at https://mark-green.com/#newsletter 
  2. Learn more about coaching at https://mark-green.com/coaching/
  3. Book me to speak at https://mark-green.com/speaking/
  4. Buy Activators at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1949639096
  5. Buy Creating a Culture of Accountability at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B082RHL566

Sometimes an entire decade of change can occur in an instant.

This “decade in an instant” idea perfectly captures how so many of us feel right now, both personally and professionally. We are experiencing an extreme velocity of change, economic and social disruption, unknowns around the COVID-19 pandemic’s duration and severity, personal / family stress, and risks to our health.

These events and the emotions that are attached to them have been front-and-center over the past several weeks as I’ve engaged with my coaching clients — CEOs and their executive teams running mid-market firms — to help them find their way through the crisis. For some, it’s a matter of survival; for others, there are real opportunities; for all, it’s a far cry from business as usual.

Research tells us that we’re more likely to fall victim to our biases and emotions as uncertainty and time pressure increase. Structured, disciplined thinking, on the other hand, reduces the risk. 

To help my clients navigate the times, I assembled this three-pillar framework:

  • The Stockdale Paradox
  • Return on Luck
  • Speed to Decisions and Action

We use these mental models as our shared foundation for motivation, thinking, decision-making, and prioritization.

Pillar #1: The Stockdale Paradox

Originally shared by Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great,” the Stockdale Paradox provides guidance on how to manage through extreme uncertainty.

Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking American military officer captured during the Vietnam War. He spent 8 gruesome years in the “Hanoi Hilton” and was tortured over twenty times. Yet by his own account, he emerged from the prison camp stronger than he went in.  

After he returned home, he explained how he survived and why both optimists and pessimists were the first ones to die in the camp: the pessimists had no hope, and the optimists died of broken hearts — they gave up — as their hopes of safe release were perennially dashed. 

Jim Stockdale survived because he retained faith that he would prevail and emerge stronger, regardless of the difficulties AND because he continually confronted the brutal facts of his current reality, whatever they were at the time. 

This is the paradox and the path forward through today’s uncertainty and extreme conditions: maintain unwavering faith that you will emerge better and stronger WHILE ALSO confronting the brutal facts and probabilities about the current reality.

Pillar #2: Return on Luck

I’ve used the Return on Luck (ROL) mental model with my clients for years with great impact. This concept also originated from Jim Collins, this time in his book “Great By Choice.” 

Here’s how he describes ROL:

“Our research showed that the great companies were not generally luckier than the comparisons—they did not get more good luck, less bad luck, bigger spikes of luck, or better timing of luck. Instead, they got a higher return on luck, making more of their luck than others. The critical question is not, Will you get luck? but What will you do with the luck that you get?”

The idea here is that both good- and bad-luck events happen to people and businesses all roughly equally. What makes the biggest difference is how you (and your team) respond to luck events, whether good or bad.

We’re in the midst of a giant “luck” event. This mental model ensures that you seek opportunity and a positive return, even in the face of extreme adversity. It’s always there if you have the discipline to seek it.

Pillar #3: Speed to Decisions and Actions

In their books “Extreme Ownership” and “The Dichotomy of Leadership,” authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin underscore how critical it is to match your decision-making speed and time to action with the pace of the environment in which you are operating.

While this is an easy concept to understand, in practice it’s quite difficult to implement – particularly in rapidly changing conditions that are not your norm as a leader. Here’s why:

We want to make the right choices, so we tend to wait for perfect (or near-perfect) information before making a decision and taking action. We want to optimize our resources, so we tend to rationalize delayed action as efficient and, therefore, ok. We are creatures of habit who are well outside of our comfort zone, so we hesitate, seek reassurances, and often mistakenly over-weigh optimistic projections and outcomes.

Make a conscious effort to accelerate decision-making and speed to action in your organization. No, you’re not always going to be right, but there’s usually more to lose by way of indecisiveness and/or delayed the execution.

Yes, we’re a far cry from business as usual. This is exactly why you should use the three pillar mental models actively with your team. As I’m seeing with my coaching clients, you’ll stack the deck in favor of achieving the best possible outcomes with the resources at your disposal through this period of uncertainty and extreme change.

Resources I’ve Found Valuable

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter cases, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. I’ll share a select few in each edition of my newsletter — particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief

“Some of the HBR staff met virtually the other day — a screen full of faces in a scene becoming more common everywhere. We talked about the content we’re commissioning in this harrowing time of a pandemic and how we can help people. But we also talked about how we were feeling. One colleague mentioned that what she felt was grief. Heads nodded in all the panes.

If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it. We turned to David Kessler, the world’s foremost expert on grief, for ideas on how to do that. Kessler shared his thoughts on why it’s important to acknowledge the grief you may be feeling, how to manage it, and how he believes we will find meaning in it…”

https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?inf_contact_key=f10da90ba6652c109066ff30eaa2cf0d

Preserving Optionality: Preparing for the Unknown

We don’t often get the advice to keep our options open. Instead, we’re told to specialize by investing huge hours in our passion so we can be successful in a niche.

The problem is, it’s bad advice. We live in a world that’s constantly changing, and if we can’t respond effectively to those changes, we become redundant, frustrated, and useless.

Instead of focusing on becoming great at one thing, there is another, counterintuitive strategy that will get us further: preserving optionality. The more options we have, the better suited we are to deal with unpredictability and uncertainty. We can stay calm when others panic because we have choices…”

https://fs.blog/2020/03/preserving-optionality/

5 Unforgettable Leadership Lessons from
“Manager of the Century” Jack Welch

.
“Welch joined General Electric in 1960 as a chemical engineer.
At 37 years old, he was GE’s youngest vice president in 1972.
He was CEO of GE from 1981 to 2001. During his tenure at the helm,
GE’s total market cap soared from $14 billion to $410 billion.
In 1999, Fortune named him “Manager of the Century.”

Welch credited much of his success at GE to some utterly basic management principles that he learned from Peter Drucker, the 20th century’s most widely cited and respected management guru. Speaking with Drucker during meetings we had from about 1997 to 2001 offered a powerful view into what made Welch so effective as a leader…”

https://www.inc.com/thomas-koulopoulos/jack-welch-ceo-general-electric-business-leadership-management-lessons.html?cid=search

Leadership in a Crisis: Responding to
Coronavirus and Future Challenges

During a crisis, which is ruled by unfamiliarity and uncertainty, effective responses are largely improvised. They might span a wide range of actions: not just temporary moves (for example, instituting work-from-home policies) but also adjustments to ongoing business practices (such as the adoption of new tools to aid collaboration), which can be beneficial to maintain even after the crisis has passed.

What leaders need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviors and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead. In this article, we explore five such behaviors and accompanying mindsets that can help leaders navigate the coronavirus pandemic and future crises…”

https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/leadership-in-a-crisis-responding-to-the-coronavirus-outbreak-and-future-challenges

Here are a few additional thoughts to help you convert today’s content into directed action:

  1. Share the HBR article on Grief with your leadership team, then make time to talk about it together. What are each of you feeling? What are your employees feeling? How can you become a better listener to allow those around you to process their emotions?
  2. Where are you sugarcoating the “brutal truth” right now? Who is best positioned to help you see what you are missing? Ask for their help as you strive to embrace The Stockdale Paradox!
  3. Looking forward strategically, engage your leadership team to identify three areas in your business where you must develop additional opportunities (options) over time.

Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

  1. Subscribe to my newsletter at https://mark-green.com/#newsletter 
  2. Learn more about coaching at https://mark-green.com/coaching/
  3. Book me to speak at https://mark-green.com/speaking/
  4. Buy Activators at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1949639096
  5. Buy Creating a Culture of Accountability at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B082RHL566

I’m working with a client executive team to help them transform their culture. They are individually and collectively frustrated that their efforts to date have not affected much change within the geographically distributed 350 person organization. They made some people moves to get the right people in the right seats, they created and rolled out a solid set of Core Values, and, yes, they have the right people in the right leadership seats. But none of those things moved the culture needle.

This team is missing one of the two critical elements required to build culture. Culture is determined by specific behaviors that are rewarded and punished over time AND by leaders leading by example.

These leaders weren’t effectively walking their own talk!

To help them get started, I asked the team to identify a couple of specific behaviors they want to cement in their culture. 

The two we settled on were: show up to meetings on time and deliver on commitments.

With these objectives clear, my next assignment for the executive team was for THEM to model the behaviors themselves for a month. THEY must show up and start every meeting they attend on time and deliver on every one of THEIR own commitments.

Then — and only then — I’ll have them begin to coach and course-correct (i.e. reward and punish) their teams in alignment with the two behaviors. In relatively short order, these targeted behaviors will become normalized elements of their culture.

This process is an effective model to implement any change. Start with crystal clear behavioral outcomes, implement the behaviors yourself, then roll it out to the organization and course-correct from there. 

The problem is, we as leaders often forget the key element of leading by example.

Make no mistake about it: all eyes and ears are always on YOU as the leader. Your integrity, alignment, and accountability lay the foundation for every behavior and result within your organization.

You MUST lead by example.

Resources I’ve Found Valuable

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter cases, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. I’ll share a select few in each edition of my newsletter — particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

How to Filter Conflicting Advice from Mentors (short)

Mentors are invaluable to entrepreneurs. But what happens when you get conflicting advice from multiple mentors? Who should you listen to?

https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/232827

The Map is Not the Territory (long)

The map of reality is not reality. In our march to simplify things with useful models, we confuse models with reality. It is as if the spreadsheet comes to life. We forget that reality is a lot messier. The map isn’t the territory. The theory isn’t what it describes, it’s simply a way we choose to interpret a certain set of information. This is important to keep in mind as we think through problems and strive to make better decisions.

https://fs.blog/2015/11/map-and-territory/

Ron Rivera Wanted to Learn About a Winning Culture, so He Went to Jimmy Johnson’s Garage

A lot of attention is paid to cross-training but very little to cross-thinking. That’s probably because the latter is done mostly indoors in a chair, and it can make your head hurt worse than blackstrap rum. But two practitioners of it, Ron Rivera and Jimmie Johnson, have found cross-referencing their professions to be a useful mutual tool. As Johnson makes his last full run on the NASCAR circuit, he carries some thoughts from the NFL coach in his head, and as Rivera installs his system with the Washington Redskins, he will be borrowing some things he learned from watching the No. 48 car.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/redskins/ron-rivera-wanted-to-learn-about-a-winning-culture-so-he-went-to-jimmie-johnsons-garage/2020/02/19/33258626-532a-11ea-9e47-59804be1dcfb_story.html

The Surfer’s Secret to Happiness

Watching the surfers, I noticed that the time they spent standing on their boards, riding waves — doing what nonsurfers would call surfing — was minimal compared with the time they spent bobbing around in the water next to the board, generally going nowhere. Even the really good surfers spend far more time off the board than on it.

And the thing about surfers? They don’t seem to regret all that time they don’t spend standing on boards and riding waves. Not only are they surfers all the time, they are, it seems to me, happy all the time.

Could I do that? Could I declare myself a surfer all the time, and seize that happiness?

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/10/opinion/disability-surfers-happiness.html

Here are a few additional thoughts to help you convert today’s content into directed action:

  1. Where do you need to do a better job leading by example? Tell someone you trust and ask for their support as you level-up.
  2. Who is someone you respect from a different industry or with a different model of leadership?  Call them and make time to explore your similarities and differences.
  3. What is one thing — nothing big; keep it simple — you can do in the next 24-hours that will make you feel authentically happy?  Do it! 😃

Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

  1. Subscribe to my newsletter https://mark-green.com/#newsletter 
  2. Learn more about coaching https://mark-green.com/coaching/
  3. Book me to speak https://mark-green.com/speaking/
  4. Buy my book Activators https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1949639096
  5. Buy my book Creating a Culture of Accountability https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B082RHL566

Have you ever had this experience?  A friend mentions their intention to buy a certain type of car and then – suddenly – you see those particular cars everywhere.

This isn’t magic, but a matter of attention, and it’s the easiest part of you for others to hijack and control without you even realizing it.

The mechanisms of human attention are brilliantly demonstrated by Robert Cialdini in his seminal book Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion, one of my all-time most recommended reads for business leaders.

Our biology evolved such that what we pay attention to grows in importance to us. This was critical to survival when, thousands of years ago, a rustle in the bushes nearby often meant something with sharp teeth and claws was eyeing you for lunch. Today, it’s more critical to those seeking your attention via advertising, social media, the daily newscycle, etc.

Although you don’t need to worry about being eaten anymore (most days, at least), you should be hyper aware of how and when your attention is hijacked. Why? It costs you a lot: We chase red-herring issues, we burn precious time on others’ agendas, and we wind up delaying our own achievement.

In my book Activators, I discuss attention at length. We humans are undisciplined and inconstant creatures and we’re absolutely awesome at getting in our own way. Mastering your own attention helps you rise above this and is essential for sustainable achievement, particularly in our era of information bombardment and overload.

Signs You’re in The Growth Trap

Running your business feels like a frustrating vicious cycle – you take 3 steps forward and then 2-3 steps right back again. It may also feel like you’re spinning too many plates at once, and it’s only a matter of time before they start to fall when you’re too exhausted to keep them all going. You know there is a way to make it all work, but you haven’t found it yet. And wouldn’t it be great if you could?

What is the Growth Trap?

 You are stuck in the Growth Trap when you cannot fully leverage your organization to generate the results you want. Instead, growth and the accompanying increases in organizational complexity demand more of your energy and time when your would rather operate in a way that gives you more freedom and a significantly greater return that isn’t directly tied to your own, individual efforts.

Root Causes of the Growth Trap

There are five root causes of the Growth Trap, each of which must be addressed to create sustainable, profitable growth.

1. Increasing Complexity, Decreasing Alignment

As your organization grows more complex, it becomes increasingly difficult to put knowledge and understanding into practice. It’s not about “what” to do (in most cases the leadership knows this) – it’s about executing to get it done. Many talk about this; few actually pull it off – because they don’t know how to neutralize the complexity that inevitably creeps into a growing business. An inability to instill discipline, accountability, and alignment – all requirements for consistent execution – condemns many organizations to mediocrity (or worse).

2. Lousy People Decisions

Getting people decisions wrong creates massive headaches for you and stifles virtually every element that should be generating growth in your organization. People decisions including hiring, advancement, role assignment, and who to invest in and develop are best guesses, not data driven. The absence of a process and tools to accurately measure “soft” skills and capabilities prevents optimal leverage of your #1 (or in some cases #2) expense item. Getting people decisions correct dramatically improves staff quality, engagement, accomplishment, and retention – not to mention your own happiness! Consider – How many of your employees would you enthusiastically rehire if you could do it all over again?

3. Increasing Competition, Decreasing Margins

Growth and success is a double-edged sword. The competition is taking more notice of you and putting you on their radar, which means that you might not be as comfortably differentiated as you once were. At the same time, some of your long-standing clients are beginning to pressure you to offer some combination of better pricing and more features / services. Both of these inevitable trends – not to mention your increased overhead due to Lousy People Decisions and Increased Complexity – lead to decreasing margins.

4. Cash Flow Pressure, Decreasing Profit

Growth consumes cash. Pressure on your margins decreases profit, making matters even worse. Your Cash Conversion Cycle (CCC) is the elapsed time between when your business spends a dollar and when it gets that dollar back (hopefully with some profit) in the form of collected revenue. Inattention to the CCC can starve your business of what it needs most to grow! Even worse, insufficient cash flow severely limits your options and provides little cushion for the inevitable “bad news” events that befall even the most successful enterprises. Many things in and around your business have changed; now it’s time to change how you think about your CCC to break free and accelerate to the next level.

5. Leadership Stagnation

Because of root causes 1-4, it is virtually impossible for you and your executive team to spend enough meaningful time thinking about and focusing on the future. Rather, your time and energy are consumed “fighting fires” from the past and in the present. You and your team must grow for your business to grow. Failing to acknowledge and act on this condemns you to insular thinking, less innovation, and an inability to react to competitive and environmental threats. As a result, your team spends most of its time stuck in the past at the expense of your future. All strengths and weaknesses in your organization can be traced directly back to the leadership team and your levels of trust, competence, discipline, alignment, and respect – each of which requires continual care, planning, and development.

How to Overcome the Growth Trap

First, realize that you are absolutely impacted by one or more of these elements regardless of the current level of performance of your business. There is always something you can do to improve and/or accelerate your path to the outcomes you seek.

Begin by identifying which of the five root causes is having the most impact on your ability to grow the business and identify resources – books, seminars, friends, or a coach – to help you permanently overcome it. If you’re unsure where to start, ALWAYS begin with Leadership Stagnation. Your growth and the growth of your team MUST precede sustainable growth in the business.

One final note from my 16+ years in the trenches: I’ve met tons of CEOs who began a change initiative on their own, only to engage an outside expert later on. In each of these situations, the universal reaction after the fact is a wistful acknowledgement that they should have hired a professional from the start. Though engaging an expert was certainly more expensive than the do-it-yourself approach, these CEOs more than made up the difference via saved time, less frustration, and better, more rapid results.

How often have you been in a work environment that feels like you’re running full out on a treadmill, where everybody — from the front lines to the CEO — works hard, but the view never seems to change? Super frustrating, right? Everyone is sweating, yet it feels like there’s hardly any meaningful progress being made in the business.

How many times have you been at an annual planning session and struggled to recall the goals and metrics you set for the year? 

Or my personal favorite: When was the last time your organization fell short on a major project or missed a key deadline and when you went to investigate why, somehow nobody was accountable? 

Individually, it’s incredibly easy to write any of these examples off as “part of doing business.” It makes sense, even. 

It makes sense that sometimes communication breaks down and that sometimes we lose track of progress. It makes sense that sometimes it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly who is accountable for things. 

After all, the world of business can often feel erratic and unpredictable. 

The problem is, these conditions negatively impact your organization, slow growth, and accelerate burnout. This is why as leaders, we must step back and consider the root cause of why these things happen.

As a business and leadership growth coach for the past 16 years, I’ve found that even the largest, most sophisticated, professionally-led businesses struggle with one common denominator underpinning all of these frustrating conditions: accountability. 

This is why I decided to write Creating a Culture of Accountability. In it, I share the things I’ve learned after years of coaching business leaders around the world who represent a wide variety of industries. 

Depending on industry, location, and who you ask, a business can spend as much as 70% of operating expenses on people – employee compensation and benefits. Whatever the percentage for your particular business, the implications of increasing the return on your people expenses are quite compelling. Accountability is the way.

So what exactly is accountability? 

Accountability boils down to ownership — ownership of understanding, communication, and risk management. It’s not necessarily the same as doing the work, however. An accountable person will be the first to point out when something is forecast to be off track, or whether they’ve made a mistake, for example. They’ll inform you of the possible risks and obstacles that lie ahead and they speak up to be heard. An accountable employee owns their outcomes.

One fascinating aspect of accountability is its self-propagating nature. Leaders who foster a culture of accountability don’t just improve the performance of their own employees, they attract more high performers from the competition — sometimes even from other industries. It’s a self-sustaining positive feedback loop because high performers love the rigor of a high accountability culture!

The inverse is also true. Increasing accountability weeds out people who don’t belong in your organization. These folks are the low performers who hide in the shadows, avoid work, fear challenge and change, shunt responsibilities to others, lack consistency, and place their own interests ahead of their team and the company. They avoid high accountability environments like the plague!

A culture of accountability enables effective execution, retains high performers, repels low performers and will improve the sense of collaboration, winning and fun in your business. This cycle drives significantly higher employee return on investment (ROI), giving you more flexibility to scale and attain your most ambitious aspirations. You and your team will be off the frustrating treadmill and advancing the business with relative ease!

The need to improve accountability in almost every organization is clear. I wrote Creating a Culture of Accountability to show you how.

You make decisions every day based on some degree of incomplete information – you simply do the best with what you have and move forward. You are able to function this way because you possess deep knowledge and context of the day-to-day operation of your business.

Hiring a coach isn’t a day-to-day decision for you. In fact, it might be a once in a lifetime decision for you! And a risky one at that: You are contemplating a potentially large investment of money, time and energy that will also require a leap of faith.

What if you engage the wrong person or firm? Pick a tool, system or framework that doesn’t work for your particular company? Get sold something that feels and sounds great, but doesn’t address the root issues that you must address? Work through a process that takes a lot of time and energy, but doesn’t produce concrete, measurable business results? The list goes on…

There are 6 factors that I’ve consistently observed to separate “cream of the crop” coaches from the rest. Use them to tip the scales in your favor to find the “right” coach for your business.

1. Pick the person, not the toolkit

The last time you hired a contractor to work on your home or property, you probably never bothered to ask them which brand of tools they planned to use during the project. Why? Because you were more interested in the outcome than in understanding exactly which tools would be used to make it happen. So – accordingly – as you evaluated different contractors you focused on who they were: How well you liked and trusted them, the quality of their work, their references, and their overall qualifications to undertake your particular project. The toolset didn’t matter – you picked the practitioner and trusted them to bring the right tools to create the outcome you wanted.

Use the same thinking to evaluate potential coaches for your business.

If you already happen to have an affinity for or a commitment to a particular toolset for your business, that’s great. Simply look for practitioners who are certified to use it and follow the rest of this evaluation process.

If you aren’t quite sure which toolset or process you want or need, then consider candidate coaches just like you’d consider potential home contractors. Don’t focus on the tools! Rather, assess your confidence in them to actually deliver the outcomes you seek – and trust that they will bring the right tools to make it happen. The rest of this evaluation process will help you do just that.

2. Determine if they practice what they preach

It never ceases to amaze me that so many coaches fail to “eat their own dog food” (practice what they preach).  They’ll spend all day telling you why you should hire them, but not a minute on their own integrity, which is exactly why you must turn the tables and explore this important qualifier.

Here are a handful of questions to help you assess whether a coach practices what she or he preaches:

  • When was the last time you met with your own coach?
  • What kinds of things are you working on with your coach?
  • How are you using the tools / processes you recommend for us in your coaching practice?
  • How much did you spend on your own professional education and development in the past year? What did you spend it on?

A solid coach with integrity should be able to look you in the eye and easily answer all of these questions, lowering your risk if you hire them.  If they squirm and dance around the answers, they don’t practice what they preach.

3. Find the personal “fit”

Personality, methods, and style matter, but perhaps not exactly the way you think.

A great coach makes you feel uncomfortable as he or she pushes you and your team to learn, grow, and accelerate change in your business.  A great coach names the elephants in the room and tells the brutal truth.  A great coach asks thought-altering, assumption-challenging questions.  A great coach makes your brain hurt sometimes.

If you want these things from your coach – and you most certainly should if you are serious about change – then be careful not to confuse the appropriate “discomfort” they may cause in you and your team during the selection process with your sense of their “fit.”

A great coach also makes you feel capable, confident, and inspired.  A great coach – even in the midst of the most brutal truth – will give you a sense of possibility and hope.  A great coach listens intently to the both the said and the unsaid and interjects points that connect the dots in ways you’ve not yet contemplated.  A great coach is at once firm and compassionate, critical and affirming, distant (objective) and intimate.  A great coach energizes you.

As you think about the personal and stylistic qualities of the “right” coach, give careful consideration to where your personal needs fall on this “tough as nails” to “feel good” continuum.  Be sure to determine your sense of fit through that lens (my observation is that most CEOs fall right in the middle, seeking a balanced fit, though there are outliers for sure).

By now you are probably wondering how exactly to assess fit before you hire a coach.  There are two ways: (1) Great coaches coach, they don’t “sell” themselves to prospective clients – so you should feel their fit (or not) consistently throughout the selection process; and (2) Ask their client references specific questions to elicit the reality of their personality, methods, and style.

One final point: Trust your gut with regard to fit.

4. Probe for relevant training, experience and continuing education

Many professionals like physicians, attorneys and accountants (even hairstylists and morticians!) are required by law to pass exams and earn licenses before they are permitted to practice.  After that, they are then required to attend a certain number of “continuing education” classes or hours each year to maintain their license.  All of this intuitively makes sense – when you go to the doctor or need an attorney, you want to have some basic safety and comfort level regarding their competence, which is exactly what licensing programs help ensure.

How about when you hire a coach for your business?  Um…

Due to the absence of any mandated licensing requirements, there is an extremely low barrier to entry for the coaching business.  Just about anyone can decide they want to be a coach and – presto!  The next day they can legally be engaged by a client, without regard to their training and competence.  This is a massive risk multiplier and must be addressed in your selection process.

In the spirit of seeking a coach with integrity who “eats her or his own dog food” as a professional, probe carefully to determine their years of experience as a practitioner and their level of formal training – both as a coach and specific to the toolsets they utilize.  Also ask how many hours per year they devote to recurring education and training (look for 40 hours annually minimum) – and – for specific examples of programs they’ve attended within the past 12 months.

5. Assess prior relevant measurable results

Prior relevant results are the best predictor of future relevant results.  Carefully probe each coach’s experience with clients similar to you and your business to establish relevance before you enquire about their results.

Unless you are in desperate need of additional industry experience, which, in my experience, is the last thing most growth-oriented CEOs need, don’t fall for the “industry experience” trap.  Rather, focus on specific factors such as business size / complexity, business model, professional maturity of leadership, and ownership structure to determine relevance.

From there, have the coach focus on the subset of their clients who you consider relevant as you ask the following questions:

  • How do you measure your success in the first 6 months of a client relationship? Give me some examples of the early results you helped these relevant clients attain.
  • How do you measure your success 1-2 years into a client relationship? Give me some specific examples of the longer-term results you helped these relevant clients attain.
  • What are the results I should expect to hear about from your client references? Are those typical?
  • How long does a typical client relationship / engagement last for you? Can you provide an example of a client engagement that ended prior to the end of your anticipated term?  Why didn’t it work out?
  • What are the things your best clients do that drive their results and success? What is your role in that?
  • What are the reasons your least successful clients don’t get better results?

An experienced coach with a track record of results will answer these questions transparently with examples of both client successes and failures.  If the answers you get are non-specific, subject to extensive qualification, or in denial of any negative client experiences / results, buyer beware.

6. Look for some type of guarantee

The purpose of any guarantee is to lower a purchaser’s risk, whether perceived or real.  Ask your prospective coach if they offer any form of guarantee and, if not, why not.

Although business performance guarantees of results like profitability or growth rate are relatively rare (after all, you are the one running your business, hiring/firing, and calling the shots – not the coach), satisfaction guarantees – often including a “money back” component – are more common.

Skin in the game speaks volumes.  That’s why confident, competent, experienced coaches are willing – in some form or fashion – to lower your risk in the form of a written guarantee.

Conclusion

While there can never be a 100% probability of success, careful screening against these 6 factors will absolutely stack the deck in favor of a solid outcome from your coach evaluation and selection process.  Consider them your secret weapon against mediocrity as you seek professional guidance from a qualified coach to accelerate results and success.