Maxine, CEO of a national call center, had invited me to meet and discuss what elements to prioritize in a custom leadership development program she wanted to roll out for her top managers. We sat at her conference table, protected from the blustery winds tugging discarded papers and cups around the near-empty parking lot at 8:05 in the morning.
Before we got down to business, she had commented on the “umpteenth” article on what a good business leader should do to start the year off right. “And it’s only the first working day of the year!” I teased.
During the first week of the year, we are all “lucky” enough to have thousands – yes, thousands – of suggestions come through our newsfeed and social media channels; I’ve summarized my favorites to share with my clients, students, and friends.
The advice ranges from the indisputable (yes, getting more sleep, more organized, and more focused are universally beneficial) to the financial rebalancing of our portfolios to how to manage your team better in 7 easy steps to the host of foods that were on the “avoid list” just a short time ago that now appear on the the “must eat” list today.
Some of the advice is packaged as making “resolutions for the new year” – a terrible ritual for many reasons, but here is the biggest: it actually weakens your resolve. Making resolutions can often be a way of masking your hidden desire to let yourself off the hook for not actually accomplishing goals, since we all “know” that resolutions are “hard to keep” and “nearly always fail.” I’ve seen well-intentioned advice better delivered by a best man at a wedding whose total preparation for the toast was preceded by a panicked query “I have to do WHAT?” Instead of hastily (or worse, spontaneously) made resolutions, spend serious time reflecting and shaping goals, objectives, and directions to pursue for business and personal benefit and enjoyment.
Really, what we need to do is remember a few principles to guide us in making selections. Though it is often difficult, it is wise to seek out advice, to learn from other people’s successes and shortcomings. Stephen Covey’s famous first habit of highly successful people advises to be proactive, rather than reactive or simply inert. While these items qualify as advice in similar way, it’s really meta-advice, or tactics on how to better filter and select other advice to your benefit.
- Make sure you have an emotional connection to each goal.
Here is where SMART goals have added dimensions and also taken away powerful forces of commitment. For years, I urged members of an SBA initiative to look beyond a goal that was simply specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based to include those aspects that were emotional, or as I like to say, “juicy.” It’s quite different to set a business goal that increases revenue by 18% over the same period last year as when you link it to what that would mean personally (“I be driving the GS Lexus instead of the ES then!” or for your team (“We’d all know that our cost reduction initiative led by Lisa and Nick succeeded!”). There is always a personal payoff for the goal setter and the goal getter, so make it explicit.
- Attach new habits to existing habits for faster adoption.The fastest way to have your brain throw up all sorts of resistance to your new plan is to think of it as “totally new.” It’s so much better to build upon an existing foundation rather than developing (or even thinking of building) new habits from scratch. A software founder complained about the startup delay of bringing his laptop “awake” each morning – it was too slow in becoming fully available and responsive. Since he had been enjoying the practice of writing down the next day’s goals each afternoon, I asked what it would be like to make shutting down the computer (instead of just letting it sleep) as part of his end-of-day ritual. He thought about it for two seconds and smiled, realizing that the time and energy he “fought” with it each morning to wake it up would be put to far better time and use just powering it on.
- Reaffirm your objectives.
Here is where the advice spigot can really become overwhelming, since without a destination, goal or outcome to aim for, anything can have appeal and risk sapping your energy, time, credit balance, morale, and other resources. If you are focused on launching a new product in the next few months, then you have to say no to some other activities and good ideas. Use the power of No as your way of safeguarding your bandwidth from bright shiny object syndrome.
- Know what works for you already.
Self-knowledge and self-awareness can expedite your path to success with reaching your objectives any day of the year. Think for a moment about each of your direct reports and whether they respond better to a call or an email when you want to direct their attention to a new priority. You may be using the communications channel that you prefer; however, each of us responds best when we get new information in the way that we prefer. Now turn this around on yourself to get the advantage. If you want to make it easier to succeed with a new habit or routine, then reflect on what has worked already and follow that path. For instance, one executive I know likes putting post-it notes on his monitor to remind him of his goals, while another VP hardly ever writes things down, but instead calls out instructions to Siri on her iPhone.
- Set a range of success markers.
Establishing milestones for yourself is one of the best ways to stay on track, because as you meet these incremental benchmarks you’ll feel a greater sense of accomplishment. Give yourself a range of good, better, best ways to succeed. For example, a CMO is responsible for selecting and approving ads that his internal and outside contractor team brings him for review. It’s not one of his favorite or strongest activities, so he employs a range of success markers and attaches proportional rewards to each. The ads are A/B tested, and he and aims for an average 3% improvement each week over the control; if he gets more than 6%, he rewards himself with taking a key client to a long lunch the following week; if he averages more than 12% improvement, he chalks that up to taking a group of clients out for a dinner or site visit, part of his job responsibilities that he enjoys greatly. Isn’t that a much juicier approach!
Here’s one additional perspective that I’ve found essential to navigating toward my goals not only faster but with more enjoyment and less effort: Let go of the FOMO, the fear of missing out, or the advice you can really use to move the needle forward will become buried deeper in the virtual haystack. With the Internet’s searchable archives, all of the articles, blog posts, and podcasts will be available for your perusal when you are ready to fortify one of your desired outcomes. Choose more wisely and incorporate these meta-filters of wisdom into your master plan for the coming month/quarter/year.