The Art and Science of Coaching

Most great athletes wouldn’t think of stepping into competition without a coach, both in practice running skill drills and on the sidelines during an event for strategy and encouragement.  Where you find a great business leader, there is often a similar proxy — a mentor helping guide them, either a current boss, a past boss, or a colleague who just cares enough to help.  When you want a coach and aren’t lucky enough to have a mentor, where can you turn?  Some have tried executive coaches, paid professionals hired to fill the role, sometimes successful, sometimes not.  Because I find the role of being a mentor the most satisfying aspect of my career, I have taken up an interest in coaching over the past few years and learned through experience some stuff worth sharing.

John Vercelli, with whom I teach the Executive Coaching Workshop at Coaches Training Institute, recently sent me an article from Human Resources Executive that largely captures why we created our new program.  The article, by Andrew R. McIlvaine, pretty much says everything I was intending to write in a post here, not the least of which is:

Too many executive coaches lack the business experience necessary to help clients.  But others say such experience isn’t necessary to effect real change — and in some cases, it may even be a hindrance.

John and I are somewhere in the middle (surprised, huh?).  We believe it is virtually impossible to be an executive coach if someone hasn’t developed empathy for the job of the executive.  Yet we also believe that just because someone has significant executive experience, that may not qualify them to be a world-class executive coach.

That’s why we decided to lead the Executive Coaching Workshop together, and are having a blast doing so.  John is a longtime member of the faculty at CTI and now serves as Director of Corporate Programs.  I have taken courses at CTI, but I am not a certified coach.   I have immense respect for the work of the coach, but that’s really John’s expertise as one of the senior curriculum designers for CTI.  My role in this program is to help prepare a new wave of coaches to step into the corporate arena by placing them in real world simulations that illustrate the weight of walking in an executive’s shoes.

We can no more substitute a lifetime of making business decisions in a few intense days of training than we can alter the personality of someone who doesn’t appreciate empathy to exhibit it.  What we can do is paint a picture of what high level business decision-making is like day-to-day as well as year to year, and how a good coach can add value to that decision-making by helping frame the context of situations as a resource and sounding board rather than an “answer machine.”  The combination of John’s co-active creativity and my goal oriented pragmatism — both tempered by true commitment to human potential and respect for the individual as well as the team — seems to be working.  Here are a few things we have learned in the initial trials:

1. Role-Playing Creates Memorable Models: When we take prospective executive coaches and load them up in exercises with the burdens of time bound goals, intense competition, market forces, unforgiving shareholders, management hierarchies, and corporate politics, they start to understand the client by becoming the client.  Of course this is no substitute for the reality of the client’s struggles, but it’s a good start down a path toward empathy.  If you have a little high-octane improv you want to try out, there’s nothing quite like giving your material a no-fault test run.

2. Intellectual Curiosity Can’t Be Faked: If you want to cheer people on, you need to be interested in what they do.  As obvious as it may sound, an expressed interest in business is prerequisite to being a recommended executive coach.  Reading the Wall Street Journal regularly, digging into corporate annual reports, subscribing to industry email newsletters, participating in webinars — all of these help to build a shared vocabulary around profit and loss, return on investment, and growth opportunities.  Where prospective executive coaches don’t find the subject matter naturally interesting, easy flowing dialogue is not easy.

3. It Takes a Toolkit: There is no single path to success for the executive, and there is surely no single connect-the-dots methodology for successful executive coaching.  The dynamics of today’s business environment are fierce and opaque, creating a landscape of ambiguity that has to be constantly reevaluated and balanced.  There is no reward without risk, and helping the executive to consider risk requires an establishment of trust and credibility that constantly has to be reinforced.  We believe empathy is possible through extrapolation of life experience, but thin analogies will only get you so far.  Experience and knowledge compound over time to broaden the context of dialogue, convincing us that process is your friend to the extent you have the personal resources to chart new paths under immense pressure.

How deep can organizations go with coaching?  A recent post in Psychology Today suggests that even a CEO can benefit strong from an executive coach, although building that level of trust and empathy is no small task.  The point is that everyone can benefit from a sounding board, and in a perfect world everyone would have one that embodies a level playing field of shared knowledge.  Since that business utopia is unlikely to emerge anytime soon, we think great executive coaches will be increasingly in demand, but like anything worth the money, the difference between good and great can be considerable.

The science of coaching is most likely to be revealed through improved business results, the scoreboard of performance upon which the client’s metrics will be formally evaluated.  The art of coaching may seem more abstract, as each coach will undoubtedly develop his or her own style for working with the client to achieve the anticipated metrics, but without concrete improvements in financials, style won’t much matter.  John and I believe you can’t have one without the other, and it is the integration of this vision that motivates us to help fill that toolkit.


Your Next Move

Few people these days seem to have a lot of choices to make about job opportunities. With national unemployment stuck above 9% for the past 26 months, those who have jobs are largely counting their blessings, and those who don’t are spending most of their waking moments trying to get anything at all, hoping to stay in a field relevant to their expertise and not drain their savings. We all hear the stories of people’s sorrow, hardship, and demoralization. The impact is daunting, and those you meet fighting to pursue their passions and remain financially independent deserve our most sincere empathy. If you have the chance to offer support to a friend or networked acquaintance, do it. Even if all you can do is lend an ear, you may be surprised how much that outreach is valued and appreciated.

This past week I had the opportunity to lend an ear on a different tangent, helping advise a bright young rising executive on his next career move. I enjoy being able to mentor those whose careers I have watched evolve anywhere from one to thirty years, and although the last thing in the world I ever want to do (or will do) is tell someone what to do, I do like to put very difficult and often uncomfortable questions in front of people for them to answer, hoping that the thought process leads them to their own answers. My sense is, the better the questions, the better chance you have at improved answers, and anyone who knows me knows that I love to ask questions.

I didn’t know this fellow extremely well, but I had the good fortune of observing his broad range of skills. He called me up and wanted me to help him decide if he should leave his current position and take another offer. Simple enough, right? You have this package and set of circumstances, and the other company is offering that package and set of circumstances. Compare and contrast, make a decision, stay in place or move on. Well, if that’s your framework for making a career decision, I am certainly the wrong person to ask for coaching. First, you don’t need someone else to help you with that framework; you can do that math in your head all by yourself. Second, I would never use that framework; to me it’s a path to an almost certain dead-end.

Where I begin the process of deciding if you should make a move is with a very simple metaphor: have you ever played pool? If you haven’t, have you ever watched a pro run the table? And if you haven’t, check out Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman in the original 1961 version of The Hustler. But I digress. What you observe in the difference between amateur and professional pool is how the table is run. Amateurs look for the best shot on the table and sink that ball. Pros only take a shot when it lines up their next shot, so after a ball has dropped, there is another ball ready to drop, then another, then another, letting them run the table and only then sink the eight ball. A shot is only good if it sets up the next shot. Period.

That’s the framework I suggest for anyone trying to make a tough career decision: each move has to set up the next move, even if you don’t know where the balls are going to stop moving—which you never will, because our lives are governed by market forces and luck as much as they are our own determination (that’s a lesson humility teaches us). The job and package you have is a known. The package being offered is a known, the job not so much because you haven’t done it yet. What is unknown is where and when you will be at the end of the next job if you take it, and the one after that, and the one after that. Those can never be known, unless you can see the future, in which case you don’t need to have lunch with me.

To have a chance at getting the right decision, you’re going to need to answer three extremely personal questions. Sorry.

The first question I asked this fellow was quite simple: to what do you aspire? If you could see the future, five years out, ten years out, what do you think you want those illusive opportunities in your target sights to be? Force yourself to focus on that, think about what you want downstream. It may never happen and you may change your mind a dozen or more times between now and then, that’s fine and natural. Still, ask yourself right now, what is the downstream job you want?

Now the second question: why can’t you have that job right now? It’s a trick question. You can’t have it because it isn’t being offered, but the real question is what skills and experience don’t you have right now that would let you step into that job? You know what experience and knowledge you have today. What don’t you know or haven’t you learned to make you qualified for that opportunity? You must answer this honestly and specifically.

Now you’re ready for the third and most important question: what knowledge and experience do you need to acquire in your next opportunity to most closely qualify you for the opportunity beyond it? You know the present, you have an inkling of what you think you want the future to look like. How do you close the gap between the present and the future? What do you really want out of your next job to set you up for the job beyond it, or set you up for the best chance at the desired job beyond it, or set you up for the best and broadest set of potential choice opportunities for the job beyond it?

To me, that is how you decide if the next gig you are being offered is the right gig for you. Don’t take the shot unless it sets up another shot. More money is nice, more responsibility is nice, an expense account is nice, a beautiful office is nice. All of those things are very, very nice. And all of those things are fleeting. They can disappear in a nanosecond. When they are gone, what will you have? The only thing you will have is your experience—what you have learned is what you can take with you. Nothing more, including salary history. What you can do next is a combination of your track record, your integrity (= your reputation), and the probability that what you have learned will be of value to your next set of challenges.

At the end of our lunch, the fellow whom I assaulted with these questions made an interesting decision. He was neither going to stay in his current job nor take the new offer on the table. He was going to revisit an offer that had been made to him a few months earlier that he had rejected. He realized he had rejected it for the wrong reasons. He rejected it for the package and relocation requirement. When he thought about the opportunity downstream that he really wanted and the gap he needed to fill to be ready for that, the offer he rejected appeared to him to be the perfect fit. He left the lunch hungry to see if that gig would still be there, and if not, how he could actively find one more like it. He was 100% focused on filling the learning gap—that was his new criteria! That felt pretty spot on to me, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. I have a pretty good idea that he and I will be talking again in about five years.

Oh, one more thing. If you are going to be a manager and have never had a good boss, get one. The odds are terribly against this, as you know from your history. The reason most employees complain about their bosses is because their bosses aren’t good bosses, and the reason their bosses aren’t good bosses is because they never had a really good boss. There is no way you can learn to be a good boss if you haven’t experienced one, been mentored by one, and drained them dry of all they know. If this is part of the package, value it over cash big time. Most people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. The value of someone who cares about you and will help you become your best cannot be quantified.

Not Just a Test

Maybe we have so many problems right now that we’re simply at overload, so much so that there is practically no bad news headline that can hold our attention for very long.  We don’t have enough jobs, we’re stuck in two wars, contractors are fleecing our government when they are supposed to be helping with the wars, we are at internal political gridlock, our tax code is horribly broken, our roads and bridges and pipes are giving out, home prices are going in the wrong direction and too many people are stuck underwater with bad mortgages, and mother nature has been serving up an unusual amount of natural disaster pounding.  That’s not all of it, but it’s a lot.  It’s a wonder we aren’t in a worse mood.

So when yet another negative headline comes at us, it is any wonder it’s a one day wonder, if that, and we just don’t have any appetite to deal with it?  No, human nature at a certain point just shuts down, so it’s understandable.  But I think this one is core, and we can’t let it go:

Last week we learned that U.S. SAT scores for reading and writing hit a new low, with math scores also declining.  Here’s a quick summary as noted in the Wall Street Journal:

The results from the college-entrance exam, taken by about 1.6 million students, also revealed that only 43% of students posted a score high enough to indicate they were ready to succeed in college, according to the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the exam. Students had to score a 1550 out of a possible 2400 to meet that benchmark, which would indicate a 65% chance of getting at least a B-minus average in the first year of college, the Board calculated.

Okay, so not everyone does great on tests, it’s an acquired skill, and not everyone is college bound.  What’s the big deal?  Quoting further:

“At the precise time the importance of a college degree is increasing, the ability of the U.S. to compete in a global economy is decreasing,” said Jim Montoya, vice president of the College Board. “We, as a nation, have to do a better job preparing our kids for college.”

Let’s go back to the litany of problems, starting with the one about which President Obama recently gave a special speech to a joint session of Congress and the American People.  In that speech, the President said that right now, Job #1 is Jobs.  Barring some untold natural or unnatural crisis on the horizon, I am guessing that Job #1 doesn’t change through the next Presidential election.  After that, Jobs will probably remain Job #1 until unemployment is below 7% or so, which could be a long, long time — and there is no guarantee that it will ever be corrected, we have no natural entitlement to Jobs.  We have to create them.

Is there not a little irony here?  Is it possible we are trying to solve a problem in the short-term that was created in the long-term and can only be solved in the long-term?  Do we not see a link between falling test scores and an inability to compete?  Perhaps it’s fair to say that’s a little abstract, even obtuse — we all know plenty of well-educated, intelligent people who are out of work, so maybe that’s not the problem.  But let’s try to roll the clock forward a generation or two, at which time it is likely yours truly and many of you will be but particles of dust and memories.  Is there anyone who believes if a lot more than 43% of our kids can’t do better than 1550 out of 2400 that we are going to be the first stop on the investment train?  I’m not talking goosing the scores through prep programs and gaming strategies, I’m talking read the paragraph and answer the question, add the numbers in a column, writing a few coherently linked sentences that make a point.  That can’t be too much to ask for a high majority of the citizens of the #1 economy in the world, unless that doesn’t matter to us anymore either.

How did we slip?  Well, just when we got a little too distracted by so many consumer options created by our magnificent economy, as Thomas L. Friedman told us, the World Got Flat.  Competition for jobs become global.  Demand for commodities became global.  The internet and telecom made easy information exchange global.  Industrial contracts are up for bid regardless of geography.  Lots more people are attending many more years of school in places like India and China — and they are taking school very seriously, as an opportunity and a privilege, a gift that lets them advance the way we thought about education when our middle class was emerging over 100 years ago.

If we don’t think of education as a gift but instead a legal mandate to be tolerated, how do we compete in a world that is flat?  If we don’t use the time we have to be here with each other to absorb the knowledge collective, how much of life have we missed?  If our kids don’t learn math and science and history and language, what kind of leaders will they fall prey to electing?  Learning is at the core of prosperity, fulfillment, and public safety.  Why aren’t we treating it that way?

We can’t afford to let this be just another piece of bad news, another negative headline that just goes by because we are overwhelmed.  If we want to fix the problem at its core, we need to think long-term.  This isn’t unemployment, this isn’t terrorism, this isn’t social security or Medicare, this isn’t the banking system, this isn’t GNP, this isn’t an emergency brought on by the ground shaking or the winds howling or the rivers flooding.  It isn’t even global warming or protecting our precious planet.  I get it, we have a lot of priorities, too much to fix and not enough dough to fix it all.

I would still make our education system our #1 priority — because if we don’t fix that, the other stuff is just going to stay broken.

It’s not just a test.  It’s an evaluation, a form of measurement, a benchmark, an early warning system.  We’re getting bad grades.  We need to do better.  Shame on us for letting it slip to this level.  We either get on it now, or we don’t.

I say hit the books — make that Job #1.


The Learning Window

Last month I enjoyed the immense privilege to spend some time with my high school alma mater — working with some young entrepreneurs on their business plans, attending the annual athletic assembly, and presenting an award at Honors Day.  It was uplifting, it was heartening, it was nostalgic, and it was reflective.  I returned from the visit both inspired and in dread.

Why dread?  All I could think about the entire time I was on campus was why every student in our nation cannot experience this empowerment.  We can afford it, we really can, if we simply make it a national priority.  I do not sense in any conversation I have at large that this is a national priority.  The economy (deficit/debt, job growth, wage growth) is a national priority, defense and combating terrorism are national priorities, health care, and infrastructure all seem to be national priorities — it would seem this is because our political culture is largely reactive, that’s how winning elections are mostly conducted.  Yet can any of these priorities be met without a proactive priority, where a broad and well-educated next generation is ready to tackle these challenges?  I don’t see it, which is why when I write to the President or my Senators or Representative on feedback of my concerns, I always tick the education box first, because I believe it is a priori to all other challenges.  People don’t just create problems, they solve them, but they can’t solve them if they are not prepared.

This just isn’t fair.  A great education should be the right of every young person growing up, that is where we should happily invest our capital.  We can talk about unmotivated teachers, absentee parents, bureaucracy, unions, administrative costs, budgets, corruption, inefficiency — we can talk about anything we want in terms of why it can’t happen — but when you see that it can happen, your spirits are lifted for those who are getting the gift, and crushed for those who are not.

When I was on campus, here are some basic, simple practices I observed all around me that would not seem impossible to emulate:

1) A school should be safe — you can’t learn if you are worried about getting beat up, shot, killed, sold drugs, bullied, silenced, or repressed.  When you see students who are safe, they teach each other.  It seems so natural, but we know how rare it is.  Free flowing dialogue is really not possible in any climate of fear.

2) Students should be able to admire and respect their teachers — if a teacher is worthy of respect, she or he will command it.  You have to hire right, and the talent has to be fairly compensated, then the teacher has to want to be the subject of admiration and respect, every day.

3) Teachers should be able to admire and respect their students — remembering that they are further along in life and must cut students some slack for their emerging abilities, teachers should feel good about the students they teach, learn from them , listen to them, help them course correct when appropriate, and celebrate with them when there is something to celebrate.  Students have to understand that if they don’t show respect for their teachers, they can’t get it for themselves, it is a two-way street.

4) Administrators should be helpful and supportive — administration is necessary and valuable when performed with insight, but it is a background task for the purpose of letting teachers teach and helping students learn.  There has to be humility in leadership, and it is has to be self policing to ensure that is lean.  If this is accomplished, administrators can then share and celebrate with students and teachers on a level playing field.  I have seen it, and it is quite a party.

5) School is about learning how to think, not about how to make money — this holds for academics, athletics, clubs and the like, we must emphasize foundation, not trade, as young people emerge.  Everyone already knows we all need to work, and a good education can push us further down the path to achieving better earning potential.  But if that is the carrot and the stick, it will not motivate ubiquitously, because self-doubt will overrule hope in too many cases and conditions.  Self-esteem is achievable in modest increments step by step, in small wins that come from building self-confidence — through learning to accept ourselves, the views of others, the unraveling mysteries of science, the expressions of art, and the teamwork that replaces self-satisfaction.  In an environment that makes learning an end and a means, career potential can blossom on its own fuel, through natural interests and abilities that translate over time into workplace commitments.

I am not envisioning a utopian solution, I’ve been around the block enough to understand all the counterarguments and very real hurdles of reality.  I am simply advocating a commitment to focus as a pragmatic approach, among a set of conflicting agendas where it is easily counterintuitive to look at long-term plans for fixes we need now.  Yet there are so many good schools that emphasize so many good values, we have models all around us in every community.  We just don’t have enough, and what we have in good schools is a minority, which is wrong and not fair — we can’t let education become part of a have and have not culture, that does not help anyone on the horizon.  To see the next generation experience the miracle and benefits of great learning is to understand and appreciate human potential and hope.  To accept that it is in limited supply is to let ourselves implicitly endorse a set of conditions that is not only wrong, not only unfair, but entirely detrimental to our future and the perpetual reconstruction of our enterprise.

I salute those who are doing this right, and only hope we can make this mission a national priority.  So much happiness is possible if we just set this level playing field and try to give people the chance to learn.

What Are You Waiting For?

The Journey is the Reward
by Ken Goldstein
Tenth in a Series of Ten

Here are some phrases in various shapes and flavors that I hear much too often:

“If I just get through this test, it will be smooth sailing to the end of the semester.”

“If I just get this promotion, I will have the authority and title needed to do my job.”

“If I just get through the budget, the rest of the fiscal year will be a breeze.”

“If I just survive until my boss fires my arch nemesis, all of the stupid conflict in my day will be eliminated.”

“If I just hold on until the stock hits 100, I will have enough coin to blow out of this asylum and ditch these losers.”

Each one of these statements has the same element in common: Delusion.  Yes, these are delusional declarations.  They seem so credible when we think them, and so laughable in hindsight.

This tenth hard lesson learned in the series is the hardest of all to accept.  Learn it young and you can spare yourself a good deal of needless angst.  Suspend your wishful thinking now and understand the pure and existential truth of career making, perhaps life making:

There is no such thing as “If I just…”

If you just get over the hill ahead of you, I promise you almost without exception there is another hill that begins where that one ends, and in all likelihood it will be steeper causing you to sweat more.  If you just get through the performance review next week, I promise you almost without exception there is another one next year, and that next boss will probably not be any easier on you.  If you just get promoted to Director, I promise you almost without exception you will immediately set your sights on Senior Director, then VP, then Senior VP, then Executive VP, then Division President, and then you will feel empty until you move into the holding pattern awaiting to be ordained C-Level.

If you long for a game changer, you are likely Waiting for Godot.  No matter what you achieve in the here, there will always be a there, and another there behind it.  The solution is all too simple: stop deceiving yourself into believing today’s milestone somehow miraculously is The One that Solves The Problem.  It’s not.  It never is.  My apologies, but the system is designed that way.  It wants you to think there is a short-term fix to the long-term problem, but that’s just so you will work even harder at breaking the back of the short-term fix, which is what the system wants you to do, because it needs the short-term fix more than you do, and your motivation is a conduit to the short-term fix.  That’s the dangling carrot in front of the carriage, but you know, if the horse gets the carrot, there’s no reason for it to keep pulling the carriage.  Business is much better designed than the carriage, much more complex and enduring, not often second guessed in rapid succession.

Try this instead of projecting the fanciful: run a search and replace in your vocabulary for “If I just…” with “Because it’s now…”  Instead of “If I just get over this hill…” think in terms of “Because it’s now, I am going to observe everything I can on the way up this hill to see what is around me.”  Instead of “If I just get this promotion…” think in terms of “Because it’s now, I have the opportunity and ability to show my boss and peers my creativity in the otherwise crushing task I don’t know why I accepted.”  Instead of “If I just hold onto the stock a while longer…” think in terms of “Because it’s now I have ownership in a great company where my talents can add value to the mix every day.”  You get the idea, all you are doing is reframing the context of the exact same challenge you are taking on, but instead of seeing it as an exit strategy, you begin to see it as a continuum.

There is a very good reason this is more than semantics, more than some guru espousing the power of positive thinking (author’s sidebar: if you know me, you know I am not that guy).  Almost all of leadership stems from the ability to inspire and motivate.  If you can’t inspire and motivate yourself, your chance of helping others in this capacity is really quite low.  And I am understating how low that low can be.

There really is only one truly important career-making question I think we need to answer on a regular basis to keep climbing hill after hill as a journey rather than a series of destinations, a marathon instead of a series of sprints.  Try asking yourself at the end of each day, “What did I learn today?”  If you don’t have a good answer, try again tomorrow.  If a week or a month goes by and you still don’t have an answer, you are likely in a dire situation.  While you might be awaiting an “If I just…” moment, the people around you might be getting better at what they do, possibly at your expense.  In a flourishing environment, everyone learns together, that is The Journey.  If the environment is not flourishing, you may have a bigger problem than you think, it might be time to tackle that.  If you are in a flourishing environment and you are not flourishing, it probably is time to hear the words, “Because it’s now…”  Trust me on this, you don’t have much time, and any time you lose, you aren’t getting back.

When we enter the work force we think it is about what we get in compensation, perks, awards, and acknowledgment.  Each time those carrots get a little tastier, we realize that extrinsic rewards are soon supplanted and eventually replaced by intrinsic satisfaction.  That is when we come to understand that The Journey itself is why we set out on this path, not for what is at the end of the path, we don’t have a clue when or where that is.  The Journey itself is The Reward, because it constantly opens our eyes, teaches us, surprises us, allows us to see what was always there, and make better decisions to help others get down the trail with less deception and more learning.  With that Journey will certainly come material bounty, all facets of the “If I just…” mode of thinking.  Yet if you’re not seeing The Journey as its own Reward, you aren’t only missing the most important motivation of all, you might be stuck in the lobby for the whole show.

Every day will not bring party time, we all know that, and truth be told, setbacks will always outnumber successes, the math makes it so.  To revel only in successes is to allow ourselves to be consumed by the setbacks.  “Because it’s now…” makes all setbacks part of success.  That to me seems like an easier hill to climb, especially because we now understand, the hill we are climbing only trends upward for a reason — to see who figures it out, and what they do with that knowledge when they discover it.

Earn Each Moment.

This You Must Do

Say What You Are Going To Do, Then Do It
by Ken Goldstein
Ninth in a Series of Ten

Of all the many lessons I have learned over the years in watching the difference between success and failure, this tiny bit of advice is the most basic concept, the easiest to understand, the most consistently impactful, and the most abused and violated. It comes down to this — all we have is our word. Credibility, trust, betting on talent, in the final analysis, it just does not get any more understandable than this:

Winners say what they are going to do, and then they do it.

Successful people don’t mince words, they are clear. They know themselves what matters, and they share that information with utter transparency to all with whom they come in contact. Then, having made a statement of purpose or declaration of intent, they put action behind their words. Successful people do not do this from time to time, they do it all the time. They do not differentiate claims and actions by tiers, they are predictably consistent. When you know someone believes what they are saying, and then will do what they say, you will follow them, you will invest in them, you will believe in them, and you will stick by them.

How hard or easy is this to pull off? Let’s start with the easiest of all possible promises. You bump into someone at a party, the mall, or a sporting event. You haven’t seen them in a while. You talk briefly but you are in a hurry. In departing, you say, “I will call you for lunch.”  Contrary to the Los Angeles standard exported lexicon, “I will call you for lunch” is not the same thing as saying, “Goodbye, I have to go now.” If “Goodbye, I have to go now” is what you mean, then say that, not a problem. It’s honest, it’s true, and it comes with no attachment. How many people have told me they will call me for lunch and then don’t? Too many. Would I do business with them? Probably not. If they can’t follow-up on a suggested lunch, how can I expect they will follow-up on anything more important?

Now let’s step it up. In order to get back to a task you think is more important than the one your boss is asking you about, you say to your anxious boss, “I will get you a report on that before the end of the week.” You have escaped, and perhaps you believe your boss will forget you said that. Your boss will not forget that, and the end of the week is Friday or Saturday, not Monday or Tuesday or never. Do you reinforce what you promised by doing it, or do you let it slide? If you really, really get jammed up, do you call or see your boss before the end of the week and ask forbearance, reminding your boss that you made a promise but suggesting that you have some other critical matters at hand and would like to re-prioritize this if possible before the deadline comes. How many people get this right? I promise you, not enough.

Here’s another step up. In a team meeting everyone agrees on a set of tasks. The engineers will write program code to execute a set of features, the marketing managers will develop collateral to evangelize that set of features, the sales representatives will tell their customers that this set of features is coming and when. Meeting adjourned, break huddle. A week later, the engineers got a better idea and developed a different set of features that are much more cool, the marketing managers created an online brochure and email campaign that described a set of features they always wanted but were never discussed, and the sales representatives secretly always hated the entire concept so they just never told any of the customers anything at all. How are we doing there? Some teamwork, huh? No alignment, no success path.  Happens every day.

Let’s step it up again. You are the CEO or CFO, you give earnings guidance to the street of $0.26 per share. On the earnings call you report $0.13, some unexpected problems emerged subsequent to your guidance. What do your shareholders think now? They think you missed your own guidance. You would have been better off not giving any guidance than giving poor guidance. In fact, saying “We don’t give guidance” is a strategy that many companies utilize, because they don’t want to be in a position of creating lack of faith in their understanding or leadership. So they say what they are going to do, not give guidance, and they do that. It may not be satisfying to everyone who follows the company, but it is honest and consistent, much better than being wrong by a factor of 50%.

What is the through line in all four of these cases? Dependability. It does not matter if it’s a promise for lunch, a promise to deliver a report, a promise to own a subset of a team’s tasks, or a promise on corporate performance to shareholders. The winning case is the one that builds trust and confidence, however simple or complex. I had the privilege to work for one of the most successful corporate CEOs of all time, and when he said he was going to do something, he did it, without a reminder, regardless of the circumstances under which he made the commitment, however casual. If he could do that with his schedule, how could I not be expected to do the same? It was a cultural mandate, and it built a bond I hold to this day.

How many people get this right? So few I could make you cry.  A student tells me they are going to send me their resume and they forget.  A colleague tells me they are going to have a friend they know look at our product proposal for feedback and they don’t. An employee tells me the current approach we are taking is wrong and I invite them to submit a better idea, never hear from them again.

Want to leap ahead of the pack? Save this point, glue it to your forehead, make it religion. Just by saying what you are going to do and then doing it — right or wrong, good or bad — you are leaping to the front of the line. You may think I am kidding and I am not. Other tasks are hard, this one really is that easy. Yes, Just Do It.

It’s Not Lotto, It’s Life

The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get
by Ken Goldstein
Eighth in a Series of Ten

The quote in the subtitle above, “The harder you work, the luckier you get” has been attributed to so many individuals it is probably best accepted as a cliché, but since I heard it first and most often from my father, I’m giving him the credit.  I’ll apply another cliché, “minor poets borrow, great poets steal,” so credit here is probably less important than viral sharing, which is the value of any common sense idea broadly distributed.

Yet how common is the common sense in seeking luck by giving your all to what you do? Those seem like different things. Luck is elusive, ephemeral, it may not even exist except in hindsight, as a descriptor rather than a force. Work is what you do, effort that you control, with results that may or may not have the impact you desire based on any number of uncontrollable market forces. You cannot will good fortune anymore than you can guarantee an outcome where you cannot predict and guide any number of moving parts well beyond your scope of influence.

Or can you? Think about this for a moment, the people in business who you would call lucky — do they tend to be lucky once or lucky many times over? You would probably answer both. So let’s toss out the one timers and call them lottery winners, nothing we can learn there except sometimes good stuff happens to both good and bad people, and that’s just it, it happens. Now let’s think about the consistently lucky individuals we see winning over and over, in good times and bad. Are there any consistencies in their actions? My guess is that they may just be working a little harder than their competition, pushing themselves intellectually beyond the obvious tasks that others do to get by, challenging themselves to Think Different and really work a complex set of issues to unexpected outcomes. I am not sure they make luck happen, but they do allow themselves to be in positions where they can be more often than others open to unusual and often positive circumstances. They might be just a little more dedicated than others, just a little more optimistic about creativity as a tool, just a little more self-energized to seize upon an unexpected win scenario when it appears out of nowhere.

Last month in a Wall Street Journal column entitled “How to Get a Real Education,” not less than Scott Adams, the visionary mind behind Dilbert, offered this among his tidbits of advice to college students whom he was trying to give a shortcut to success given his own treks through the school of hard knocks. Wrote Adams under the header Attract Luck:

You can’t manage luck directly, but you can manage your career in a way that makes it easier for luck to find you. To succeed, first you must do something. And if that doesn’t work, which can be 90% of the time, do something else. Luck finds the doers. Readers of the Journal will find this point obvious. It’s not obvious to a teenager.

Fans of popular quotes may hear the echo of Pasteur’s “Fortune favors the prepared mind” in the words of Dilbert’s creator, which simply reinforces the same theme.  Harnessing luck might be akin to catching lightning in a bottle, but how are you going to capture the lightning if you don’t have a bottle ready, and if you aren’t willing to get wet in a storm without real expectation of what’s awaiting you under the clouds?  What’s out there that can change your life for the better or improve your success ratios is seldom obvious or clearly labeled, but if you aren’t on an active quest, your chances of bumping into it will be awfully low.

Hockey great Wayne Gretzky bottles this in yet another flavor: “You will miss 100% of shots you don’t take.”  How often in all sport do we hear the announcer say on a big point or play, “Now that was lucky!”  Sometimes it is, and we may need a bit of luck to break the stalemate when the other team is our equal in every way.  Yet is it really luck, or is it captured opportunity because we were trying just a little bit harder at that moment.  Who can say, probably a little of both.  I’ll take it.

There is another argument that reminds us to maintain humility in a lucky outcome.  We can only take so much credit for what we do, and if we are humble about recognizing what we did accomplish and that from which we simply benefitted, my sense is we have a lot more chance of it happening again — or at least of our peers not taking us for fools or blowhards when we don’t acknowledge the fate factor in our success tracts.  That which we can control is our effort, our ethics, and attitude, I would say people who strive to take those items very seriously in a team approach are going to be beneficiaries of luck now and again, maybe not when we most want, but often when we least expect it.

Perhaps it is just the word itself, luck, which causes us the problem, because we can’t prove it exists and we can’t reach in our quiver and pull out the luck arrow when we face a nasty monster.  So how about another word that could be a better factor in our control: openness.  Then we might have: “The more you remain open to opportunity by pursuing it in different venues, the more chance opportunity may have of finding you.”  Nah, too many words, I liked the original quote better — but I’ll keep an open mind about a better phrasing that might emerge.