Lead with Your Footprints


The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.
– Warren Buffett

Jim Collins has popularized the notion of the “stop-doing list.” Equally as important as your do-list, he argues we need to make room for innovation and growth by ceasing some of the repetitive, mindless, or ineffective activities that can become habitual, but might not be leading us in constructive directions. In a recent presentation, I suggested the “stop-doing” mantra. Afterward someone approached me and said, “OK, stop doing…like, what?”

Fair enough. Here are ten mindless-doing traps we can often engage in, that you might try stopping. For more great ideas to add to your stop-doing list, Joe Calloway has some good advice.

  1. Stop replying to all, and pick up the phone
  2. Stop waiting for someone else to decide, and gather those who are willing to help decide
  3. Stop trying to do everything yourself, others can and want to help
  4. Stop focusing on what you can’t control (see #2)
  5. Stop needing to be right
  6. Stop waiting to talk, and start listening
  7. Stop wishing someone else will change, and accept them
  8. Stop trying to make it perfect. The world needs to see it.
  9. Stop muting conference calls while you do other things (like throw emails around)
  10. Stop having the same conversations with the same people. Comfort conversations are good but try reaching out to a dormant contact and ping someone you haven’t interacted with in a while. When you do, start by giving without expectation.

You might read these and think, “Right! [insert name] constantly does these things.” But here is the killer application of these ideas. The only reliable way to ripple effect these behaviors is to model them. People around you are far more likely to follow your footprints than to follow your advice. I too, am trying to let go of what I can’t control. That, and stop drinking coffee after noon.

The Flying Handshake

face-to-face-600I met a guy named Marcus who was based in Germany and ran an IT services group, which was based in Silicon Valley. Several times a year Marcus would fly to California to spend time with his team, chatting, having meals, talking about work, but also interacting on a human and personal level. He calls these trips “The Flying Handshake.”

We know from research that it’s critically important to meet in person. So much nuance can get lost in translation over the phone, and certainly over email or in social media environments. Meeting face to face is important in early stages of assembling teams to embark on projects, and particularly important when introducing new people to projects whom others have never interacted with before.

In an interview with team expert Mary Waller, Professor of Organizational Studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business, she described an important accelerator to collaboration known as Transactive Memory Systems (TMS in pro lingo). Which basically means an understanding of who knows what information, and who possesses what skills on the team. This understanding of whom to go to for particular types of skill and knowledge to get things done is critically important in accelerating the performance of teams. And when the team is virtual, face to face interaction becomes increasingly important over the life-cycle of projects.

As this study, published in Management Science found:

“Frequent face-to-face communication also led to TMS (Transactive Memory Systems) emergence, but communication via other means had no effect.”

In other words, while digital or phone interaction at a distance is certainly valuable in the exchange of information and collaboration of ideas, such interaction doesn’t improve the quality of team transactions, thus performance.

So next time you have a digital interaction on a project, break the thread of email by picking up the phone. Then break the thread of constant conference calls by actually meeting in person.

The alternative can be pretty amusing:

The Wobegon Effect


One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.
– Bertrand Russell

Skiing this past weekend, I thought I might learn something by watching myself ski. I stopped in the middle of the trail and asked my friend to take a short video of myself. Ack. It was helpful, but painful to watch. There’s a reason we don’t like to listen to our own voice recorded, or watch video of ourselves. We’re much better in our minds.

It’s an odd thing that the more inept we are at something, the better we think we are. And inversely the better we are, the more likely we are to undervalue our skills.

  • In a study of self-assessment in classrooms, students performing in the bottom 25% described themselves as performing above the 60th percentile
  • 87% of MBA students at Stanford University rated their academic performance as above the median
  • In 1976, the College Board did a survey and discovered in ratings of leadership ability, 70% of the students put themselves above the median
  • The same study asked participants to rate themselves in their ability to get along with others, an indication of their emotional fluency – 85% put themselves above the median, and 25% of students rated themselves in the top 1%
  • A 1981 study of american drivers found that 93% rated themselves among the top half of skilled drivers on the road.

All statistical impossibilities. Another unfortunate truth is that the less competent we are at problem solving, gaining particular skills, or storing knowledge, the more we overestimate our abilities. Some researchers think it’s because we don’t know what we don’t know.

I had an interview with Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, one of the largest in the country, who emphasized the value of humility in developing oneself. As he described, the key is not to think of humility as a self-deprecating exercise. Humility is not another way to say, “I suck.” It’s a way to identify, with honesty, those beliefs and behaviors which are inhibiting our own growth and those around us. As he described, start with an honest sense of humility, and a willingness to ask hard questions:

Often we are so afraid of appearing like we don’t know it all, we end up not knowing it all. I’d rather admit I don’t know it and learn it than to pretend that I know it all… Asking questions is a mark of humility because you can learn from anybody if you know the right questions.
– Rick Warren

What it really takes

Imagine a race in which you don’t know what you will have to do, where or how long the course is, or even when it will end. Imagine that once you sign up for this race, you are immediately told, repeatedly, to quit before you even start. You are warned you might die, and even if you don’t, you don’t have what it takes anyway to finish so you shouldn’t even bother showing up.

During the course of the “race” which has no finish line, you may be asked to dig up a tree stump with your bare hands and then drag it 10 miles to the top of a mountain, where you will be greeted by someone who asks you to memorize passages of the bible. You then drag the tree stump back down the mountain 6 miles somewhere else and recite the lines. If you get it wrong you hike six miles back to memorize it until you get it right. After 36 hours of no sleep, you may be asked to count out exactly 5000 pennies, only to have them thrown in an icy pond. Your next task is to retrieve them.

During the race you are constantly berated by race organizers who tell you to quit. And you have no idea where the finish line is until they tell you it’s over. It’s called The Spartan Death Race (www.youmaydie.com). The 2012 version lasted three days. Less than 15% finished. Intelligence may be the least of the discerning factors in finishing. Grit may be the biggest.

Why do some people accomplish more than others of equal intelligence? This was the question Angela Duckworth and her colleagues posed when embarking on a study in 2004 to measure people’s level of “grit.” Surveying the available research regarding traits beyond intelligence that contribute to success, Duckworth and her colleagues found it lacking in the specific area regarding the influence of possessing this quality, which they defined as follows:

We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.

Basically, Duckworth identified grit as the combination of two distinct characteristics: consistency of task, and perseverance through adversity.

The researchers initiated their own study to develop something they call the “Grit Scale.” After generating a series of questions intended to measure “grittiness,” (for example, “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge,” “I finish whatever I begin”), the researchers set up a questionnaire on their website, www.authentichappiness.com. Their results reveal higher levels of grit correlate with higher levels of education. The results also showed that grit tends to increase with age. Those individuals with high levels of grit also tend to have fewer career changes. Yet more surprisingly, those identified as possessing high levels of grit often had high grades in school yet scored more poorly on Standard Achievement Tests, suggesting that, despite lower scholastic aptitude, their perseverance and tenacity yielded stronger overall academic results.

The study gets even more interesting when the researchers decided to apply their Grit Scale to the 2004 incoming class of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Just getting into West Point is famously difficult. Entrance requires a nomination from a member of Congress or from the Department of Army. Once accepted, each entering cadet is evaluated on the Whole Candidate Score, which takes into consideration school grade-point average, Scholastic Aptitude Test results, physical fitness, class rank, and evidence of demonstrated leadership ability.

This comprehensive evaluation process for those applying to the academy is necessary to help the academy predict not only the graduation rate, but also the likelihood that entering freshman will finish an arduous summer entrance session known as “Beast Barracks,” or more simply “Beast.” Nearly 100 percent of the freshman cadets also took the Grit Scale test in 2004, and its results proved to be a better predictor of whether or not a cadet would survive Beast Barracks than the military’s own sophisticated and complexly designed evaluation tests.

It is grit—perserverence and passion for long-term goals, plus a willingness to remain tenacious in the face of adversity—that leads to deep expertise and mastery necessary to propel innovation

Incentivize Innovation that Escalates Me to We

We do this constantly in our work: we figure out macros and hacks that streamline and accelerate our work. A routine we might perform numerous times a day, becomes a habit we learn how to tweak and accelerate and perform faster to increase our own performance.

But what if our organizational cultures incentivized people to conjure hacks and macros that accelerated the work of the team, of the entire groups we collaborate with?

I had an interview with the VP of HR for a leading consultancy in India. He described a practice there to incentivize bigger thinking innovation we can all emulate. If an associate there figures out a faster, cleaner why of performing a routinized task, they are acknowledged and rewarded. Their work gets better, and the entire team benefits from their elevated capacity.

However, if they develop an innovative new process which lifts the productivity of their entire collaborative team, the recognition and reward is significantly larger. Because now the defining mindset and orientation shifts on what innovation really means. Innovation is now cast in terms of lifting the larger whole, the greater goal and purpose. Instead of being defined as personal and incremental, innovation is recast as the opportunity and expectation that everyone will both think of themselves constantly as part of a larger we.

Here’s an example of that idea in practice borrowed from a fortune 500 financial services company that does just that in spades. I had a cool conversation with their IT leader who encourages professionals on the team to post internally their custom hacks and scripts to a social platform for others to copy and build on. The practice has spurred a friendly cooperative competition among the programmers to post and defend their own cool custom hacks. Then, other pros in the IT group are encouraged to borrow that brilliance and build on these signature scripts, which again elevates the productivity of the greater whole. It encourages personal, creative expression, and it builds a shared network of signature solutions within the group.

Figure out how to not only recognize and incentivize individual creativity and productivity, but also create shared solutions that support everyone around them.

Mindset Exercise: Resources vs. Resourcefulness

[one_half]Think of a failed project or effort in your life, choose below and finish this sentence:
“I can’t do that because I don’t have the ____________”

  • Time
  • Money
  • Technology
  • Contacts
  • Experience
  • Management Support


Now think of a successful effort, choose below and finish this sentence:
“We pulled off a great success because we had the _______________”

  • Creativity
  • Determination
  • Care
  • Curiosity
  • Passion
  • Resolve


Thank you Tony Robbins

The Velocity of Learning

You don’t often think of learning as having a speed, a velocity, but it does. The classic notion of practice involves putting in the hours, doing the time, right? But there is a striking difference in the quality of practice that leads to accelerated learning. And it isn’t about watching the clock, it’s more about purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is found right on the edges of your ability, at the intersection of challenge and ability when you are successful perhaps 50-75% of the time. Not so much easy success that gains overconfidence and loss of challenge, and not so much difficulty that it creates a sense of stress and anxiety.

But the only why to find that sweet spot is to try, to get in action. Particularly when trying to acquire new skills or new behaviors the aim shouldn’t necessarily be to stop a trait or practice, but instead think about starting new behaviors and habits. Dan Coyle told a marvelous story about visiting the Shyness Clinic in Palo Alto, CA where they focus on building new habits toward developing what they call “social fitness.” The folks that come to the shyness clinic often have arrived at a point where their social anxieties and shyness have become a real hindrance and barrier to connection. The clinicians and psychologists there believe that much like developing physical fitness, or leadership or creative capacities, so too can people develop social fitness.

A simple exercise might involve asking participants to approach two people per day in a public place and simply ask them the time of day. And then graduate to asking a store manager where the restroom is, for example. For a final exam a participant was asked to go to a supermarket and intentionally drop a whole watermelon on the floor and work with the market employees to deal with the mess and apologize for the accident. Such a scene would be an appalling thought to someone suffering from acute shyness. But over time, with incremental social practice and repetitive purposeful practice and interactions, the participants could build the social and emotional capacities to envision such an incident, and effectively deal with it in a public social setting.

And remember the practice needs to be in context, under real conditions, with a little stress, a little challenge such that you are on the edges of your ability. For example, instead of asking the soccer team players to shoot twenty penalty kicks at the end of practice, instead stop the scrimmage in the middle of practice and have a player shoot just two, under pressure, in the middle of the game.

Your product is not what you sell, it’s the difference you make

Your product is the impact you make, the change you affect, the experience your product delivers. Your product is the result, the causatum, the punch. Sell cars? No, you don’t sell a car, you sell utility or transport or identity or experience or speed perhaps. In pharma? – you don’t sell drugs, you sell health and well-being. Clothing retail? – your product isn’t jackets and boots, it’s warmth and style and durability and expression of taste.

It starts at the beginning – teachers and educators certainly aren’t selling, they are creating idea agents, young people interested and willing to learn, excited and touched by ideas they put into action. My wife, a high school science teacher, should justifiably be proud when she talks to a former student who was inspired to enter teaching, or go into microbiology, or well… go into any discipline related to science because they were touched in a meaningful way in her class in high school.

And if you are in the the business I’m in – the learning business, you aren’t selling books, courses, classes or video learning, your product is behavioral change. Your product is impact – the difference those ideas make.

Early this year, Tim Sanders gave the keynote address at our annual client conference, Perspectives. Afterwards, a woman approached him to congratulate and thank him for his message, she said “Thank you for a wonderful presentation, but I still don’t understand. What are you selling?” Tim smiled and said, “I’m selling success, your success.”

It doesn’t matter if you are in sales, you are still selling – ideas, solutions, change, experiences, expertise. But understand your product might not be what you think it is. The core asset in your arsenal to make an impact is between your ears – your brain and your willingness and ability to engage and affect change through whatever products or services you happen to be representing. The course, the textbook, the video, is merely a transit mechanism. It’s the vehicle for ideas.

Your difference is the difference you can make, representing something you believe it. But remember the quality of the interaction matters. As Susan Scott says, “The conversation is the relationship.”

Lessons from Challenger, Build Hope and Be Accountable

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
— Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Richard Feynman, renowned physicist, was asked in 1986 to help understand what happened in the Challenger disaster. He not only gave a famous testimony to Congress describing the O-ring failure that led to the catastrophe, he also led a more quiet inquiry conducting interviews of the NASA engineers and leaders. He devoted the latter half of his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? to his experience working on the Rogers Commission. One of his sober conclusions was that the engineers on the ground building the componentry had a much different perspective than than the leaders in the organization. He found that, while the engineers estimated a catastrophic failure upon launch of only 1 in 100, the management’s estimate was closer to 1 in 100,000 This disconnect is linked to what I wrote about in a previous post about the power-poisoning effect Stanford professor Bob Sutton found through his research.

Sometimes in our grandiose vision for change and mission we can lose sight of the details that matter so dearly in execution. Do this:

  • If you’re on the project, speak the truth.  Regularly.   Although unfortunately it is true leaders like only good news, by concealing ugly truths you are only sabotaging your own efforts.
  • If you’re leading the charge, ask and take time to understand the details. A disconnected leader isn’t leading – they are pontificating without honest accountability. Accountability is about understanding the goals, giving honest responsibility and getting out of the way of individual efforts without compromising results.

Build hope and vision, yet remain accountable, because ultimately, if you own the solution or project, see it through to success.

Hit a Wall? Your Mindset Matters

“Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.”
Thor Heyerdahl, innovator, adventurer, and border-smasher

I have a friend who installed the same invisible dog fence I did, but he admitted he didn’t bother with the training and simply installed the underground wire and shackled his dog with the electrical buzz collar which would shock the dog whenever he got near the line. His thinking was the dog would just learn the boundaries himself and viola! – a dog self-trained to stay in the yard. I asked him what happened, and he described that as his young boisterous dog started to run and play as usual he would get shocked and, since he didn’t associate the pain with any clear boundary, he eventually sat in the middle of the yard shaking in fear, paralyzed to move. From that point on all the dog wanted to do was stay in the house.

There are many dimensions to this story – not least the owner’s choice and behavior – but what I want to address is the dog’s perspective. The dog, not understanding why the random shocks, arrived at a state psychologists call “learned helplessness.” It’s the point at which they (we) are capable of believing that nothing we do matters, and regardless of our action, we’re going to be punished or bad things will befall us. A sense of control, and a sense that our behavior matters, is one of the most important predictors of happiness, and in turn workplace productivity, collaboration and creativity.

In a 2002 study from the Families and Work Institute, researchers concluded the following six criteria for creating an effective workplace:
• Providing job autonomy;
• Creating learning opportunities and challenges on the job—where employees can grow,
learn, and advance;
• Developing environments where supervisors support employees in being successful on
the job;
• Developing environments where coworkers support each other for job success;
• Involving employees in management decision-making; and
• Creating flexible workplaces

All of the above offer workers more, not less control and autonomy over their team, their task, their technique.

Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, in a series of studies, has found that people fall into two gross categories – those who believe their intelligence and aptitude is fixed, and those who believe their intelligence and capabilities are malleable and can change over time with effort. When people are in a learning, instead of a fixed mindset, they continually keep getting better because they try harder and constantly put themselves in positions where they might fail. And keep getting better because, or despite of, the challenges they self-impose.

In the invisible fence example, think of the ways in which you bump up against boundaries and how you react to them. Do you run back to the middle quaking, or spend time probing to understand that invisible boundary and then concoct ways to circumvent, or leap beyond it? Or maybe tunnel under? And if you are the boundary-creator, ask yourself why? It could be a legitimate boundary – we do it to our kids all the time for health, or safety, or learning, etc… But in my experience, when you give trust, you get trust, and sometimes exceptional performance.