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.

Attributes in Balance

Our Greatest Strengths Are Our Greatest Weaknesses
by Ken Goldstein
Seventh in a Series of Ten

Many years ago a company where I held a senior position suggested a “voluntary task” that our executive team all take the Myers-Briggs “Personality Test” to help us better understand our “management styles.” Deeply suspicious and mistrustful of the kinds of words I put in quotations in the prior sentence and the ability for a series of multiple choice questions to tell me anything of business or psychological value, I only reluctantly complied to gently nudge Dilbert from the premises. To my great surprise, although I found most of the questions telegraph transparent and almost silly obvious, the results of that test seemed remarkably accurate to me. Rather than find myself in a defensive posture, I was actually quite pleased with the summary — I found it to make sense, and I liked what it implied. That’s when the learning began.

To this day I will never forget discussing the attribute matrix with our head of Human Resources, which served as an incredible bridge between my view of the world and hers, and led to a tremendous lifelong friendship. She agreed the summary was a good reflection of reality, and she was pleased that I was pleased because it meant I would stop widely dismissing the test as brain-dead corporate-speak. Then she made it make sense without judgment or criticism; her words were simple, memorable, and strangely this was the very first time I had heard them, the words captured in the sub-head above: “Our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses.”

That’s one I wish I had known and digested thirty years prior, maybe around birth, because it is not at all terribly intuitive and not something one of your high school or college friends, teachers, or coaches is likely to blurt out. So what does it mean?

Suppose you are an extremely independent thinker, you don’t much worry about what the crowd says, you let the noise blow past your ears and stick to your muse, to what you believe is true and right and just and fair and a winning approach. That’s a very good thing, right? It is a strength of which you can be proud, it will keep your eyes on your moral compass and let you make honest, uncompromised, unpolluted decisions everyday that steer you and your team to unprecedented success. You go, fellow! A strength is a strength and you got one.

But wait! What if there is another voice in the room that could ever so slightly adjust your approach, if only you heard it. What if the collective wisdom of those around you can improve your opinion, and with it build a consensus that becomes everyone’s shared moral compass. Isn’t that better? Well of course it is, especially if it’s more right than where you started. Yet you have this amazing strength to stay focused, so you don’t hear it, or you don’t encourage others to articulate it. So how is your strength a strength if it doesn’t get you the best possible point of view on an approach?

Oh, that’s fuzzy and messy, isn’t it? Not quite as clear and straightforward as we hoped. Now let’s flip it the other way.

Suppose you are a spectacular listener and consensus builder, the best ever. Your team actually looks forward to meetings because they know everyone has a say in everything, that their voices will always be heard and you will never move forward without consensus. Your colleagues across the board think you are great, kind, wonderful, open, accessible, even friendly.  That’s an incredible strength, you are a genuine team player. Your strength is your people skills, that too rare comforting gift which we seldom see in abundance.

Yet what if the team could not come to consensus? What if there is no shared point of view, no collaborative moral compass? What if the people around you are shooting from the hip? They haven’t really researched the facts on the topic at hand, but since you expect contributions from all they feel they have to say something even if it is not well-considered. So now you have a dialogue, but you don’t have a punchline. Or worse, you have a consensus, but because the input was tarnished, the direction you are taking is clearly wrong out of the gate. You remain respected for your strength, but when you get to the edge of Niagara Falls, you are still going to tumble over the edge with a mighty hard landing awaiting you in the rocks below.

The other side of strength may be weakness, and the other side of weakness may be strength. Balance is the hard part, and balance is what you find in the collective wisdom and talents of those around you. A quarterback leading the league in passing might be forced off his game by a smart defense, but does he know that and what is he doing with that knowledge? A virtuoso guitarist in a band may have the limelight and power to stand center stage, but is her voice the best to carry the song? These are not easy lessons or easy choices, but the answer is most often in the ask, and the ask is what we don’t often enough unravel.

With your talent came some offsets; unless you are superhuman that’s a fact. To know the offset is to enhance the talent. To balance the offset is to give the talent life.

That HR VP sure knew her stuff.  I am glad I learned to listen to her. Before the Myers-Briggs test, I probably wouldn’t have.