Proactive Means Now

For many of us the new year begins with the best of intentions. It’s not so much that we delude ourselves in committing to resolutions we will never pursue as it is the open calendar before us filled with possibility and promise. What can we do with all of those days between now and the end of the year? The choices are as endless as the opportunities.

Almost immediately we start falling behind in our daily tasks. Days into the new year we are already playing catch up. Why can’t we get ahead of our task lists and beat the daily grind into submission? Why can’t we focus on projects and prospects that matter? Why do we spend endless hours on stuff but still waste so much time?

Maybe it’s just too easy to kick the can.

Difficult challenges don’t sort out themselves. They have to be wrangled and wrestled. That’s the kind of intellectual and emotional commitment that takes the force of will to muster. If you want to achieve meaningful progress, you have to get ahead of your calendar, not let it consume you.

Want that glorious promotion at work? It’s not going to find you.

Want to make a significant dent in your competition? They aren’t going on vacation to give you breathing room to pounce.

Want to learn a new skill, a new language, accelerate your ability in an artistic discipline, or finally figure out why your department is going sideways instead of upward? Those are all really difficult things to do that won’t take place between Facebook posts or tweets.

If you want to stop drowning in your dizziness, learn to think proactively. Set your sights on a potential outcome and work your way back to the present. Envision a roadmap and establish a set of checkpoints that will lead you to a better outcome. Own the outcome by owning the process.

Most important, you need to do it now. Not in a month. Not in a week. Not tomorrow. Not in an hour. Now means now.

Procrastination will cost you your dreams. If you have dreams, you need to act on them. Even if you don’t have dreams, and you should, if you have stuff to do that will make you more successful and personally fulfilled, you need to do it immediately.

Not after breakfast. Not after lunch. Not at the day’s end when you are exhausted, pissed off, and want to climb under a blanket. Do it now.

I don’t care if you’re busy. We’re all busy. If you are putting off the stuff that matters for busywork, knock it off. Do the hard stuff first. Busywork is a punt. People do busywork to look busy, often at the expense of making a difference.

What does it mean to be proactive? It means not waiting to be reactive.

Reactive is a deflating death march of punch lists.

Proactive is an uplifting rallying cry of planning.

Reactive is missing a sales forecast and formulating a remedy to catch up on lost business.

Proactive is outpacing a sales forecast by building customer loyalty through surprising and delighting.

Reactive is compiling a list of customer complaints bludgeoning customer service.

Proactive is regular ride-along listening sessions in customer service to turn suggestions and trends into repeatable wins.

Reactive is lowering prices to steal market share with thin margin transactions from customers who will easily abandon you to save pennies.

Proactive is designing a brand that is equal parts price, service, and quality so that small fluctuations in price become ignorable noise to your best customers.

How do you stop being helplessly reactive? You have to commit to the habits of being a self-starter. You’ll know you’re a self-starter when your boss asks a question in a meeting and everyone looks at you to serve up a suggestion fearlessly.

Ready to be a self-starter?

You need to move faster. If you thought something was going to take a week, do it in a day. Force yourself to accelerate.

You need to act with higher quality. If you thought good enough was going to please a customer, you’re wrong. Exceed their expectations.

You need to utilize fewer resources, not more. Use every tool that is available to you and don’t worry about what you don’t have.

The formula for reinvention is better, faster, cheaper. Not one, not two, not two and a half, all three.

What does being proactive mean?

Proactive means to take on a task before someone asks you to do it. It means to finish the task with excellence before someone even knows you started it.

Proactive means knocking the stuff off your to-do list that will have an impact, not the maintenance stuff that no one will notice.

Proactive means knowing that email is a tool, not a task. Unless you work in customer service, no senior executive is going to promote you because you answered all your email.

Proactive means plan for a crisis by avoiding it. If you’re dealing with a surprise crisis, you’re already reactive. Anticipate the crisis. Write down your response to the crisis before it happens. Scenario plan. Have notebooks filled with scenario plans.

Proactive means investing in quality assurance testing at five cents on the dollar instead of a product recall at 200 cents on the dollar.

There aren’t that many commonalities in the success stories you may admire, but one that holds true is urgency. Setting priorities, making time for abstract planning before reporting memos consume you, carving out blocks of time to schedule the milestones of your challenge — that’s how big things in your life will happen.

No outsider will hold you to the promises you make to yourself. You have to decide you want to be proactive. Then you have to remain consistently proactive.

Someone has to make change happen. Why not you? Your future outcome is at this moment in the making. Think about how you could be feeling this time next year if only you can get ahead of your day.

Being proactive is more than a choice. Being proactive is finding the freedom to make this year a year like no other.


Image: ©Scott Adams


Three Arguments Against Performance Reviews

sb-2015-blog-top-10I don’t like performance reviews. I never liked giving them, and I never liked getting them. They are like school report cards, only less well-meaning and more poorly formed. They make the workplace more political, needlessly enforcing nerve-wracking centers of power. They serve a legal function much more than a creative function. They don’t make products better and they don’t serve customer needs. They are obligatory, perfunctory, dreaded time sucks for both giver and receiver, putting a check mark in an annual rite of passage that is largely ignored until the Earth completes another full orbit around the Sun.

On the other hand, I love feedback—really good, thoughtful, useful, timely, focused feedback. I love to give it and I love to get it as part of a regular routine.  No check boxes, no check marks. Feedback, sometimes known as coaching, requires relevant substance to have impact. It needs to center on step by step improvement in how an individual is doing against goals, how a team is advancing by virtue of an individual’s progress, how innovation is being served by attitudes and decisions on a daily basis, and how an individual’s achievements are translated into outcomes valued by an employer.

I don’t believe anyone can effectively coach, empower, and bolster an individual’s workplace contributions sitting down once a year and filtering a list of positive and negative attributes. The best you can hope for is polite-speak that doesn’t upset anyone too much—unless you are marching someone to the door—and the worst you can muster is demoralization that shuts down all future hope of trust and collaboration.

Here are three thumbnail cases against performance reviews that you should find terrifying.

Argument 1: Performance reviews can put off for up to a year what needs attention now

Performance reviews can be a passive-aggressive haven for managers afraid to lead in the present. You know something wrong is happening, and you know it’s going to be uncomfortable to deal with it. Rather than do the right thing and jump on a concern in real-time, you kick the can, deluding yourself into believing there is a chance the issue will sort itself out. While it’s not sorting itself out, considerable damage is being done. You tell yourself if the individual doing wrong doesn’t figure it out by the next performance review cycle, you will deal with it then. This is pain avoidance up the ladder at the cost of pain induction everywhere else. It’s not leadership. It’s cowardice.

Instead of keeping notes for the big annual summation of all that has gone wrong, how about a simple human conversation today around what is and isn’t working for an employee. Start with an easy question: “How are things going?” If you don’t like the answer, offer your own opinion. Start a dialogue. Make it specific, give-and-take, and optimistic in nature. Do not catalog a set of ills. Begin with previously discussed goals and work forward from those to observations and measurements. Instead of feeling evaluated, an employee is likely to feel directed, supported, and knowledgeable about where he or she stands.

There is no greater fear in an employee than worrying about what the boss thinks. There is no confidence greater than knowing the truth of that opinion right now, while there is still time to do something about it.

Argument 2: Performance reviews are largely clueless  on the value of failure

Imagine this scenario: You are an executive with significant profit and loss responsibility. One of your most promising managers has just led a two-year late-to-market death march on a brand extension that has launched and failed. The team that worked on this product is angry and exhausted. Boatloads of resources, including millions of dollars of investment capital, have gone up in smoke. You have lost market share, customer service complaints are up, and your own boss is pissed off.

In most corporations, you can guess the review would be harsh. There would have to be accountability for the downside, the losses, the ceding of momentum. In the event you chose not to put the manager on a “performance improvement plan” (which both you and the employee know is a scripted formality), the mandated gravitas of your critique might get you the intended outcome—the employee’s resignation. If the employee doesn’t resign, what are the real chances he or she will bounce back and give their all on the next go around? Aren’t they more likely to tread water until they find a way to navigate to a new job elsewhere?

Here’s the problem with this exit: Your employee takes all the learning from the failure directly to your competitor. You have funded the education of your competition and put yourself further behind the curve by virtue of the reprimand. You got what you wanted, except you didn’t. A performance review codifies failure “for the record” as historical documentation of the negative case, and even where it might allude to the notion that learning has occurred, there’s something about those pieces of paper in our “permanent file” that never sits quite right with us. Talk with me as colleague, make me believe you embrace “mi fracaso es su fracaso,” and together we’ll put this learning to work. Mold my upside down experiment into a tombstone and you can forever bury me and all that might someday come of it.

Argument 3: Performance reviews require a level of mentoring expertise few managers ever master

It’s really hard to explain to someone how they can learn from mistakes and get better at what they do. I’m not saying it’s a little hard. It is one of the hardest things any of us are ever asked to do in a job function. Each time we blow it, we never get a chance to repair the enormous damage we create on top of whatever relatively minor damage has already been done. A career is a terrible thing to waste, yours or mine. Do you really feel up to the right to objectively assess where I’ve gone off the rails?

We need to be extraordinarily careful where we entrust the authority for talent evaluation in an organization. Too often it’s the battlefield promotion—or drawing the short straw—that puts an inexperienced manager on point for filling out these crazy forms. It’s a mistake to believe you’re ready to handle this delicate task simply because of where you sit on an org chart.

Let’s try that performance review about failure again in the form of higher level feedback rather than evaluation, from someone who has been at it several decades and really wants a winning outcome. The leader entrusted with course correction can ask a single question, and then shut up for about half an hour while listening to the answer: What did you learn from this failure?

If an employee has little or nothing to say in response—if the answer you hear lacks substance or authenticity in addressing what might come next—proceed to complete the performance review. It doesn’t matter what you write on the page. Your competitor is getting nothing but a disingenuous cost center. Lucky you. Yet if you like what you hear, you have the beginnings of a rebound, because all learning is valuable in a comeback. No one knows more than an employee who has failed what went wrong and how to course correct. It’s not about a performance review. It’s about what comes next, and how you get better.

A performance review is a task, feedback is a means

There are a hundred legal reasons your company wants documented performance reviews, every one of them sensible and with precedent. Sadly not one of them has anything to do with innovation. It’s not failure if it’s learning. Not many people ever learn to think this way. Any success subsequent to a failure can pay for the failure ten times over, a hundred times over. Any lost knowledge following a failed initiative is plain old sunk cost.

I write often about employer and employee loyalty and my sense is how employees are evaluated has a lot to do with their predisposition to hanging around for next year’s evaluation. Maybe you shouldn’t wait a year to communicate something that matters so much in a format that makes Human Resources happy. Remember, most employees don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. The really talented ones who have options are likely to despise performance reviews, but they love talking with someone who cares about what they do and how they can get better.


This article originally appeared on SmartBlog on Leadership.

Photo: SmartBlog on Leadership

Rotten Choices, Rotten Jobs

Tenure 2010 BLSMaybe I’m getting a tad older. Or maybe with a few added laugh lines I can see a tad more clearly. Here’s what I see:

Too many people leaving too many jobs much too quickly.

What might that mean?

When I look around, I see way too many folks I know pushing themselves to perspiration to land a job, then in the first few weeks discovering they don’t like it (or it doesn’t like them). They leave in a year or less, maybe two years, three becomes a stretch. Then they leave and step on the conveyor belt anew.

What’s going on here? Is it generational? Is this a millennial thing?

Afraid not. It’s an epidemic. I am seeing it across the board, people of all ages and levels of experience. We might like to believe the way of the world now is job-hopping and we should get used to it, but I would like to suggest it’s more than “internet time” that’s wasting these human cycles. I think too often we bring it on ourselves and then make excuses for it.

Perhaps all this casual turnover is a symptom of a more pernicious ill—the unstructured, undisciplined application of choice.

Rotten choices. Rotten jobs. Crappy bosses treading in goo. Crappy performances by individuals biding their time before they get caught dialing it in.

Gee, Ken, there’s a dose of optimism! So glad I stopped by the open door.

Don’t worry, the optimism is coming, down in the punchline at the end. First let’s look at why these jobs are so short-term. I’ll give you four legs of the stool (metaphor intended):

1) Mediocre Products: Seriously, how can anyone do a great job jamming a me-too knock-off? On my weekly radio spot with Barb Adams last week we talked at length about the failure of Google Plus. Imagine working that hard on a death march with all the resources of a powerful company behind you, only to release a weak knock off of your rival, Facebook. A very quick way to burn up the employee-employer relationship is to sound the rallying cry of importance, then have to explain why it was all words and little action. Solution: Think strategy before you think deployment of resources. Ask What and Why before How and When—what customer problem are you solving, and why are you the right company to solve it. Then grind!

2) Amateur Leadership: I’ve said it many times in these articles—people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. If you’ve never had a good boss, you probably will repeat the cycle and stink at it. It’s wonderful to see so much young energy driving the latest wave of startups, but as these New World startups get momentum, they take on many of the same problems as Old World companies. Battlefield promotions abound, and you can’t fake it in front of an army of grizzled veterans no matter how clever you think your quips are. Solution: Mentorship! If you never had a good boss, find one of those grizzled veterans who was a good boss and surgically attach yourself to him or her. You can do this privately or publicly, but don’t be afraid to ask innumerable questions, and whatever you may ultimately choose to do, be sure you LISTEN! Also remember that anytime you choose to have a boss you are leaving some money on the table (the value you create pays your boss’s salary), so if you are giving up income, you should be getting something for that, and it’s called LEARNING. Ask for this benefit upfront. If you’re not getting better at what you do because of your boss, you’re getting burned.

3) Hiring by SEO: Indeed I Love LinkedIn, but if the primary reason a manager makes a hire is because of the keyword overlap between what they need and what someone else has done (evidenced by lots of highlights in the overlay), start the countdown clock. This cuts both ways, company and applicant. Solution: Hire and accept a position for character and compatibility as well as competency. Every company has a culture (and if you think your company doesn’t have a culture, that’s the company culture). A hiring manager needs to Think Different as a team expands. A star individual achiever may not be a consensus player. Legendary companies begin and grow through culture, and that comes from people. And don’t forget diversity. Without it, your products are going to be mighty ordinary.

4) Job Application without Roadmap: If you the hiring manager don’t know what is going to light your fire, what makes you think the person with the offer letter has flint? You must have a notion of what you need now as well as where that relationship can evolve before you begin interviewing. A candidate also has to evaluate not just whether he or she is a fit today but where this position might lead over time. If you think of the opportunity as a relationship, you’ll know you need to leave room to let it expand. Solution: Get clear about yourself first, then start to think about soliciting or fielding offers. If you’re thinking short-term, don’t be surprised if the results are short-term. The immediate need before you is not an end in itself but a launching point. If you’re not thinking that way, the revolving door will soon be spinning.

There’s no question the employment landscape has changed significantly with the generational shift. There is now little stigma associated with short job tenure on a resume. Few pensions remain to hold people in place. Headhunters comb online profiles for middle management as well as senior positions (sometimes entry-level positions!). Self-employment and consulting are becoming increasingly viable alternatives to third-party employment. Many people now value lifestyle over career achievement and will dump a job if it underperforms their personal expectations. Yet even with all that, I hear one heartbreaking story after another about talented individuals departing gigs before they could make a lasting contribution or feel proud about their productivity. You can switch jobs all you want, but you still get one life. What do you want it to be about?

About that punchline and a scoop of optimism—try this on for size: Anyone can change the world, but few people will. You can change the world. That’s not a slogan and it’s not hyperbole. It’s the fuel of innovation, the only true gas in the tank of the companies we admire. Decide how you want to change the world, at any scale large or small, and connect that vision to an employer’s honest promise to let you have that chance. Do you think anyone could pry you out of that job with a flame-heated crowbar? Fat chance. You’ll stay where you’re wanted, and where people let you do the best work of your career. Find that, and the words “rotten” and “crappy” will be replaced by more upbeat adjectives than exist in any vocabulary.

Stop whining. Start growing. Stop offering and accepting dead-end gigs you already know are terminal. Our time is precious, and you’re running out of it. Change the world.


This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.