The Power of the Action Item List

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How many times have you had a seemingly simple goal or plan fail along the way because you lost sight of the little things that were critical to a successful outcome? It’s happened to me many times, and I’ve learned to use action item lists to combat these failures. It’s not for lack of good intention or work-ethic that we fail; we just overestimate our ability to focus and remember our plan in the days or weeks that follow the creation of it. We leave a meeting with clear direction believing it will be easy to remember everything we had to do, and then the inevitable happens…..our attention is drawn elsewhere, then we sleep, and before we know it, we’ve lost focus or plain can’t remember what our part even was!

Action lists are incredibly powerful tools, and are simple to create and use. One of the reasons they work is because we remember more if we write it down. The second reason is psychological; creating a plan that gives us clear direction to achieve the goal gives us the confidence to go GET IT DONE! It also makes the goal appear much less daunting and uncertain than it did before we took the time to formulate a plan of attack and write it down. As we make progress and check off action items, it gives us even more confidence and security that we’ll achieve the goal on time.

With New Years around the corner, many of us will be creating personal goals to achieve in the coming year. Do yourself a favor and take the time to create a plan to achieve those goals and write it down. Then post it where you’re constantly reminded of each step needed to accomplish the goal so you don’t lose focus as unforeseen distractions unfold throughout the year. A white board mounted somewhere you frequently look works well. If you’re prone to watching TV instead of walking after dinner, mount it above the TV for instance. This reminds you that your time is better spent on achieving your goals. I recommend making the first few steps simple and easy so you can get a little traction and confidence going before things get tough.

Final words: This is going to take some humility to admit that you can’t keep everything straight in your mind for you to effectively use action item lists. Wear your action item lists as a badge of honor; after all, the reason you need them is because you’re someone who GETS IT DONE, and people respect and count on you to perform! There’s no shame in using all the tools available to you, so drop the ego, and make those lists!


Fake It Until You Make It?

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Faking until you make it is a well accepted and common practice in the workplace. This raises the question; if everyone knows about it, can’t we just be transparent about our skills and abilities? How much time and efficiency are we losing by pretending we know something we don’t, and then figuring it out on our own? What’s that doing to our mental health?

Faking it can lead to feelings of impostor syndrome, which Merriam-Webster defines as: a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success. These feelings can lead to anxiety and depression and can happen even if you aren’t faking it, but it’s much more likely among those who are faking it because they have real reasons to fear they’ll be exposed. It’s normal to have some feelings of self doubt when taking on a new challenge, but faking it adds to the stress of trying to overcome the challenge.

I suggest a different course. Be open and honest about your skills without downplaying them or selling yourself short. This leaves the door open to ask questions and get the help you need to learn that new skill faster, and people will respect you for your honesty and genuine confidence. If you feel a skill is critical to getting hired or advancing, do the work to learn it before applying. Commit yourself to continuous learning throughout your career so you’re ready to take on new challenges and opportunities as they present themselves. It’s not healthy to live with the stress of being fake and you’ll feel better without that weight around your neck, so start being honest today!

Look Ahead for Success

Thanks to Lucas parker for use of the image.
Thanks to Lucas Parker for the image.

Hi everyone, this one’s for all my fellow mountain bikers and leaders. I’m just getting back from a mountain biking trip to Arkansas where I arrived at the conclusion there’s some similarities in what it takes to be successful on the bike, and in professional and personal pursuits.

One of the hardest things to train yourself to do when mountain biking is to look 10-15 feet down the trail instead of what’s right in front of your tire, but it’s a critical skill if you want to succeed on the bike. This gives your brain time to understand what’s coming (rock, turn, root) and formulate a plan to successfully go over or around it. If you look down and focus on what’s directly in front of your tire, you end up making continuous adjustments and not being comfortable with any amount of speed. This makes for a jerky and awkward experience which limits the fun and can discourage people from riding more.

The same thing happens in business to leaders who get bogged down in the daily business and don’t look up and out at what’s coming in the future. This doesn’t give them time to properly prepare for the next challenge and ends up adding to the stressful cycle they’re caught up in, fighting whatever fire is raging that day. It’s just as difficult to train yourself to look farther ahead in business as it is on the bike, but it’s also every bit as important to achieving success and enjoying the experience. Just like your brain figures out and automatically adjusts your body to compensate for obstacles in the trail, your team will figure out the best way to run the daily business if you tell them what’s coming.

The second similarity is the effect that confidence and drive have both on the bike and in business. On the bike, if you believe you’re going to crash, then you’re absolutely going to crash because you’ll be so focused on not crashing that you won’t be doing the things you need to be to take the trail on. You won’t be aggressively pursuing excellence, instead you’ll be trying to avoid failure…. The same is true in business if you focus on avoiding failure, as you’ll end up in a declining state because you aren’t pursuing the things that lead to success in the current or future environment.

Our actions follow where our thoughts are so show up each day with a strong drive and focus on how to be successful, not how to avoid failure. Inspire confidence in the team by looking ahead for opportunities and obstacles so a plan can be set in motion to find success. Show up strong. Get out there. Take some risks, and have fun doing it!

Show Up Every Day Like It’s the First Day

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I was traveling this week, so although I don’t typically watch sports on TV, I did by accident at the hotel gym. The screen was split, showing a basketball coach on both sides coaching opposite teams in the same game. For one coach, it was his first game as head coach and the second coach had hundreds of games under his belt as head coach. Their actions and body language were strikingly different, which had me instantly thinking about how leaders change over time.

The first coach was pumped up, holding a stance like he was in the game himself, and shouting encouragement to his team! The second coach wasn’t speaking at all, in fact he looked kind of bored, and was just watching to see how the game was progressing. There was a stark contrast in the behavior of these two coaches, but I believe we can learn from both of them in this situation and become better leaders as a result.

The first coach was bringing a lot of passion and energy to his team, actively supporting them in making decisions. I think this is great and demonstrates the drive we have on our first day as new leaders to make a difference! Great leaders somehow keep this energy and optimism going throughout their careers and their teams benefit from it, but they also learn to trust their teams to carry out the strategy and vision without the leader constantly managing every detail. This is important and something the first coach will hopefully learn; bring the energy but let the team make decisions. Detach from the details so you can see the bigger picture and create a strategy that fits the environment.

The second coach was definitely detached, so much that the team wasn’t getting any feedback or encouragement from the sideline….. He had let hundreds of games wear him down, and somewhere along the way, lost how important it is to be excited about the things the team gets excited about. The effect of this behavior will be a lack of motivation and end with poor results. This coach needs to reset and remind himself before every game to be present in the moment and provide encouragement to the team to keep them motivated to win!

Each of these coaches were doing some things correctly and some things incorrectly as a result of their personalities and time as leaders. On Monday morning, remember this contrasting tale of two leaders and combine their strengths to encourage and motivate your team to win the game, while doing your job and seeing what it takes to win the championship. Your attitude sets the tone for the team so show up with the energy you brought to your first day as a leader!

Stress Test to Ease Your Mind

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There’s nothing worse than wondering what unplanned issue is around the corner that’s going to impact your business or life, and for many, it can lead to anxiety and the feeling you’re not in control of the outcome. Given the current hiring situation mixed with supply chain interruptions, this is an all too common feeling among leaders trying to keep it all together. We’ve all come to expect the unexpected but few are preparing for it which sets them up for failure when the next calamity hits.

Rather than wait for the next interruption and then figure out how to react to it, I began performing stress tests on critical areas of the business to see how prepared we were and what steps we would take in each event. This has been incredibly powerful towards easing the anxiety associated with running a business dependent on international supply chains and it’s been a differentiating factor with customers who count on us to perform. I got the idea from the post-recession banking industry which was required to pass stress tests for liquidity in order to avoid needing a bailout in the event of another economic disaster. Given how unstable hiring and the supply chain have been recently, it’s been a lifesaver.

Running stress tests forces you to think about what could happen instead of worry about what might happen, which eases the mind and makes you feel more in control. Stress tests apply to your personal life as well. Looking to retire? Try living on the anticipated retirement budget for a few months to see if it’s feasible. Want to run a 5k in the middle of summer? You better get out of the air conditioned gym and try running outside to see how it feels. Be intentional about planning and preparing for the worst and put yourself back in control today.

Encourage Leadership

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In traditional organizations with a hierarchy of management, individual contributors often feel like they don’t need to lead, or worse, they would be out of line if they acted as a leader. This creates a dysfunctional organization and a culture where no one will make a decision but “the boss”. No one knows better how to react to challenges than the people doing the work, so why would those people wait around for a decision? The answer is, they haven’t been encouraged to make decisions on their own and fear the consequences of doing so. Talk about being inefficient at a time when we all expect goods and services delivered at record speed. I would argue it’s costing organizations more to pay for managers and lost production time waiting on decisions than they would if they paid for a few mistakes made here and there by employees who were trusted to make decisions on their own.

Flat organizations have been successful empowering employees to make decisions on their own, so why haven’t more organizations transitioned away from a rigid hierarchy and encouraged their employees to lead when they can? I believe it’s due to ego on the behalf of managers who want to show they, and they alone, have the power because someone bestowed the title of “manager” on them so they must be important…. For all of the rapid advances in technology over the past two decades, many American organizations are still stuck with outdated structures and poor leaders. It’s no wonder that employees staged a Great Resignation over the past two years and decided the time was right to find organizations that better aligned with their personal values and aspirations.

I always hear the argument that flat organizations don’t work in regulated industries but it just isn’t true. You can still have the required quality checks and have a workplace full of empowered and motivated employees who feel they are important because the organization relies on them to make decisions. I feel organizations who don’t embrace this strategy will struggle greatly over the next decade and many could fall to disruptors who are operating more nimbly. There are incredibly talented people at all levels of their careers, regardless of title; why wouldn’t we want to let them add as much value as possible and have a team full of people who take action on their own and don’t wait around for the boss?

Marginal Gains Theory

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The reason the Start Small method of achieving goals works, is rooted in the marginal gains theory. I’ve only recently heard of this theory and have to credit Joel Cochran for introducing it to me on an episode of the Proclivity Podcast. When I researched it a bit further, there’s a ton of evidence out there that supports what I’ve come to realize; making small gains yields big improvements in the long run. Essentially, the marginal gains theory supports the idea that 1% gains in many areas will cumulatively create a large positive impact.

The research and evidence supports the notion that as you make changes and see positive results, you continue to be motivated to achieve more gains and will look for ways to improve elsewhere. I believe this has the potential to help millions of people and organizations improve their results, so it’s my hope the theory will be taught in schools at scale someday. What better way to prepare someone for the world than giving them a tool to succeed in both their personal and professional lives?

Organizations already use the continuous improvement model but many times they make the same mistake individuals make; they take on huge projects that are difficult to complete and end up failing. If organizations were to take a 1% improvement approach, the projects would be much smaller, take less time to complete, and hold everyone’s interest long enough to make a positive impact. Over time, this could change the culture to one where employees are taking it upon themselves to make positive changes to benefit the organization.

The Start Small method and the marginal gains theory help build mental toughness, just like exercise helps build physical toughness. By being intentional about making 1% improvements, you’re changing the way you view the world and building the confidence that you’re in control of your life. I bet you can make a 1% improvement in your life before the end of the day!

Help Someone Today

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There are numerous benefits to helping others succeed. First and foremost, most of the people you help will remember it and do the same for you some day. I remember my father-in-law mentoring a young intern pharmacist by helping him with homework over the phone, and years later witnessed him ask for advice from the young pharmacist who had graduated by then and was an expert on the latest developments in the industry. When you help others, it builds your network of people who can be relied on for advice, references, open positions, etc.

Experts say we retain 50% of what we write down and 80% of what we teach to others. By teaching others, you’re actually reinforcing the knowledge you’ve learned so it doesn’t fade over time. When teaching, you gain knowledge yourself from getting the perspective of someone who views the problem in an entirely different way. If you’re open enough, interactions like this lead to the next industry development or business disruption because you’re able to combine your deep industry knowledge with someone else’s knowledge of current technology, etc.

Finally, helping others succeed is a sign of strength and leadership potential. Your organization will notice who’s sharing knowledge and helping the entire organization grow, and who’s hoarding knowledge to keep everyone else weak. Both the sharing and hoarding are very apparent to leaders in the organization, and despite the hoarders believing they’ll be promoted for their superior knowledge over everyone else; the opposite is true. Good leaders recognize the power in sharing and teaching within the organization and will promote people who possess this behavior.

Who can you help today?

Don’t Be Fake

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If you want real respect in the workplace, act with complete integrity, even in situations where the consequences aren’t high. This gives everyone around you the confidence that they can count on you when there are real consequences at stake. Leaders lose a lot of credibility when they tell employees a lie when asked a sensitive question. If you can’t talk about it, tell them that in a way that’s respectful and let’s them leave the conversation with dignity. They know you can’t talk about everything and they will respect you for telling the truth.

The same holds true for customers when you make a mistake. Own up to it at all costs, always. You may think your customer doesn’t know enough about your business to smell a lie, but we know from our own personal experiences as customers that isn’t true, just wishful thinking. If a customer feels they can’t trust you to tell the truth, they’ll quit you just like the employee who feels disrespected when you lie. Our first reaction is to save face but in the long term, you lose credibility. Honestly, people know mistake are made and they’ll respect you for owning it, especially if you’re owning a mistake made at a lower level that was out of your control.

One frequent instance where being transparent is frequently abused is in job interviews or when approached for new positions. Your new employer will quickly find out what you know or don’t know, and they will be disappointed to find out you don’t know what you told them in the interview. Talk about starting off with zero credibility and having to rebuild it if you’re even able to keep the job! Avoid the mess by being brutally honest and the people interviewing you will know they’re dealing with someone who values integrity and can be trusted. It’s easier to train someone with integrity than deal with someone you don’t trust.

Quit being fake today, no one appreciates it and they never have!

Small Disciplines Lead to Greatness

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Achieving your goals really begins with creating the right mindset, but how do you do that in a way that’s sustainable in the long term? Creating good habits is the key to changing your mindset from one where you get tossed about by what the world throws at you any given day to one where you’re in control. Once you feel in control of the present, you can take the actions needed to change your future.

Good habits are dependent on your ability to be disciplined in your actions, and discipline doesn’t happen by flipping a switch, so you have to Start Small. Doing things like making your bed in the morning put you in control right away, and without being aware of it, gives you the confidence to do bigger things. Having your clothes laid out the night before makes you feel properly prepared and even more in control of the day. Packing lunch keeps you on track with nutrition because you won’t end up skipping it and suffering, or worse, eating junk because it’s convenient and then feeling guilty that you aren’t prepared and in control of your life.

These small disciplined actions change the way you think over time and can lead to bigger disciplines like creating a personal budget and saving for a house, setting time aside to learn new skills, etc. Whatever it is you want to accomplish; it begins with small disciplines that create good habits and change your mindset and locus of control. We all know what we need to do to be successful, most people just aren’t doing it because they don’t feel in control and make excuses for why they can’t accomplish things.

There’s power in being intentional and disciplined, even in areas that seem trivial or can be hidden from the world, because your biggest influencer is yourself. For example, we all know the bad feelings associated with procrastination and incomplete projects. Flip that feeling by being disciplined enough to set aside time to work on it. If you can make yourself feel good about your actions, you can achieve greatness. Start Small today by making your bed and see where it leads from there!