Monthly Archive: November 2011

Nothing prevents astronomical achievement quite like marginal success

I love this comment by Missing Link‘s Rich Mulholland in his comment on a recent blogpost: Nothing prevents astronomical achievement quite like marginal success.

I love it because it’s a simple statement that contains a very deep truth. We all aim to be successful and those dreams we dream when we start out tend to be pretty grand; pretty impressive. For most guys they tend to include a fast car and a hot chick and some sort of wildly over-featured home entertainment system.

But as we start down the path, we’re all in imminent danger of being seduced by a success that is only a vague shadow of our original vision. We make a bit of money, get a place and a nice car, have a holiday on a beach somewhere which is fatal to our ambitions, because really, how much better can it get?

We begin to measure our successs in terms of our immediate comfort levels. And then we start to fade into the middle distance.

Because breathtaking success isn’t measured in comfort. It’s measured in discomfort. It’s measured in how audacious you dare to be and how willing you are to lose what you have in pursuit of something truly great.

It’s not for everyone. There are only so many Richard Bransons who are willing to sell off their life’s work and an already audacious dream in Virgin Music, in order to play out a longer gamble on a grander but by no means assured alternate dream of Virgin Atlantic.

But the difference between those that see successes as building blocks and those that see them as destinations to settle and protect can probably be measured in the millions of Pounds, Dollars, influence, reputation, wide-respect and all the rest.

The world’s constantly minting new millionaires and creating new business celebrities, known for their originality and their ability to change all the rules, even in this crappy economy. It’s a guarantee that the overwhelming majority of those people simply said no to marginal success.

Also, this is personal for me. Several times over the years I have figuratively pointed the vehicle that is my life and career at a solid wall and stood on the gas. I haven’t done this through any self-destructive bent; precisely the contrary. I just fear the complacent creature I become when I feel comfortable.

It’s why the greatest achievers never stop working and the rest of us dreamers never stop trying. What about you?

It’s okay if they hate you sometimes

Consultative, involved leadership has its benefits. Including people in the grand adventure you lead them on, gets buy-in and can bring out the best in people as they assume a mindset of responsibility and accountability. There’s a reason that it’s becoming popular.

But there are times when you have to simply make decisions that not everyone is going to like, because you’re the one in charge, with the most experience. Or maybe just because you know how you want things to be and that’s all there is to it.

That’s part of leadership too. We mustn’t ever forget that.

Doing that requires that you’re able to stomach being unpopular from time-to-time. It’s a lot like raising teenagers. You may not have ever done this – I know I haven’t – but I was one once and I remember hating it when rules got thrown down and resenting the curtailment of my clear and unambiguous genius on all matters under the sun. And I thought my parents were jerks.

It turns out though, that they were generally right. And in retrospect, I have more than one reason to be thankful for the fact that they had my best interests in mind and didn’t cave in to the idiocy of my uninformed opinions.

If you’re worried about being liked, you can’t do that. But not being liked on occasion, and often for extended periods of time, doesn’t preclude you from being loved and respected.

Which is a better thing for everyone, when you think of it.

Wish for wisdom and courage, not for things

Few things matter more than having the balls to take a stand and the contextual knowledge to back it up.  One without the other is pretty useless; balls without knowledge is mere cockiness and knowledge without balls condemns you to slavery to anyone cockier than you.

And yet I’m reminded of a story I read a little while back in which Bill Gates said that one of the most common requests he has is for money as a hand-out, rather than insight into how to make some of your own.

The subtext is that people generally seem to place greater importance on getting their hands on things than they do on learning how to build something that will sustainably generate those things. As if the things themselves are the ultimate measure of success.

It’s why people play the lottery and there are so many betting shops on every high street in Britain.

Now I’ve argued before on this blog that I don’t think there is a huge amount of difference between a Bentley you’ve been given and one that you’ve earned. I don’t think buying a ticket and winning the lottery should make your fortune worth less than someone who has fought for years to earn it. They both buy the same things. In function they’re equal.

But there’s a world of difference in philosophy between those two fortunes. One took wisdom and courage to build where the other required nothing more than the action of buying a ticket, based on a desire to have stuff right now.

With the former often comes a greater ability to hold onto your money coupled with the ability to generate more of it going far into the future. With the latter often comes a need to spend it lavishly, perhaps pointlessly and rashly without the ability to replenish a finite source of funds.

The difference between the two – the thing that is ultimately lacking – is the insight and the courage to actually build something. If we judged ourselves and each other by how much value we’re creating rather than how many things we have, we’d have an entirely different system of measurement which would surely be a much more relevant and globally-competitive position to be in.

And ironically, we’d probably all get to own more things too.

Why I don’t believe in leading from behind the scenes

There was a day when wars were fought with the leader out front alongside the troops. Napoleon Bonaparte earned fanatical loyalty from his men partly because when the air was full of gun smoke, he’d be right there, doing whatever was necessary, from loading canon balls – the job of a corporal – to firing off rounds from a musket.

But as technology advanced to enable communication to travel further, more quickly, that lead-from-the-front mentality began to change. For most of the 20th century – most notoriously perhaps during World War I – the war experienced by the men at the front, and that experienced by leaders far behind the action, became very different.

There’s good and bad in that. You’ll hear me say that a lot, because there always is.

But you can’t deny the power of being up front where the action is, if you want people to follow you.

Getting off the battlefield and into the workplace, I posted a few weeks back about my belief in the absence of unnecessary doors. Let me elaborate on that a little though, because there is no limit to the depth of this topic.

If you want to be a real leader, being among your people as often as you can can deliver three unbeatable opportunities:

1. You get to know what they need to do their best work. You get the clearest possible view of what they need to do their jobs, what challenges they face in getting great results and both what they’re doing best, minute-by-minute, and what they’re doing worst. You cannot get the same perspective from behind the lines, in an office with a closed door, or on a different floor of the building.

2. You can celebrate mini-victories. We all get to celebrate the big ones. But most of your team, most of the time, aren’t delivering big victories. Yet, recognising those mini-victories; saying thank you and well done and offering sincere appreciation for the effort, can grease the wheels of the machine better than anything and create ‘wow’ morale in your team. You’ll only see them however if you get out from behind the scenes.

3. You can get your hands dirty. Go back to the story of Napoleon loading canon balls. When his men saw him doing that, they knew he was fully committed. He was a great orator and a masterful motivator of people, but words for such a man come easily. The same rule doesn’t necessarily follow for actions. When you demonstrate that you know how to do the job and that you’re as willing to commit to the successful outcome as they are, your voices of dissent fall silent.

I’m like everyone in that I really just want to be inspired by the people around me. Ultimately, that’s critical to leadership. I really can’t see how you can do it by choosing not to get involved though.

It’s what you’re doing right now that counts

Many years ago, an American colleague put it to me that a central difference between US East Coast thinking and US West Coast thinking is that in the east, they’re fascinated by where you went to college, where in the west, they care only about what you’re working on right now.

It’s not really that surprising; the world of finance and high society in New York is married to old school connections, whereas in California, hot new tech companies, building apps out of a garage, only care about the latest, freshest innovators. It’s old world traditionalism versus new world pioneering.

But actually, you don’t have to look far to see this in action no matter where you are in the world. Read through the executive bios on any company website and you’ll see some speak about recent big achievements and others offer a deeply detailed description of the university degree they achieved, often many years before.

That degree is certainly something to be proud of, but I wonder how much it really matters once you’re in the workforce?

Where they went to school is almost the least interesting thing about Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or anybody else truly successful. On the contrary, it’s their newest ideas and activities that create excitement.

The mass appeal of MacWorld was always that it showed the world what Steve Jobs and his team had been working on over the previous six months. I trust it still will be for Tim Cook.

The reason Richard Branson is constantly coming up with new crazy publicity ventures is because what happened last year, much less five or ten years ago, is all but forgotten.

Entertainers obsess about finding a new hit because being in the lead is all that matters.

And it’s pretty important in the real world too, when your pay increase is measured by your performance, and partnerships created based on what we can demonstrably do for one another.

Regardless of how glorious and impressive your past, it seems important to ask yourself whether you’re pursuing an even more impressive present …

You have to DO, to understand

The very brilliant Henrik Edberg from The Positivity Blog posted a great set of Confucianisms during the week which has had me thinking long and hard. Confucianisms are the butt of many jokes because the concept of the wise old Chinaman parodies so well in our western way of thinking. But the jokes hide a sincere truth: the guy was masterful at simplifying lessons in common sense.

High up on the list was this little gem: You have to do, to understand. Note: you have to DO.

The specific Confucianism goes: I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand, though I doubt the veracity of a translation into English from 2 500-year old Chinese. It doesn’t matter. The lesson is gold.

I think for the most part, we all know that to be true.

Although the world is over-populated with people who insist that they’re experts before their time, management consulting in their 20s for example, or offering self-improvement advice before they’re old enough to have faced any real challenges to overcome, for the most part, people have a dawning of inspiration only after they’ve experienced something first-hand.

You get kicked in the balls and it teaches you a lesson in how to treat people. You watch success turn to failure and you retrace your steps to see where it went wrong. Or you achieve something stunning and realise that you have created a formula of your own. Usually though, it’s the lessons learned from mistakes that matter.

The important thing though, as Henrik elaborated is that “It’s easy to confuse what you read in a book or see happen to someone else as having an idea of how it is to do or experience such a thing for yourself. Sometimes it gives you a good idea of what it is about. Other times it’s quite different than you thought it would be.”

Management books are great sources of ideas. Self-help books also. And I’m sure Henrik himself would say that The Positivity Blog – and the COLINISM one too for that matter – fall into the same category. But to really make things happen, you have to go out and get busy.

Only by doing that can you screw up enough times to learn lessons that will make you truly capable.

The reason brilliant ideas so often die

We are a follow-your-dreams society in the western world, and perhaps further afield too. In fact, with the exception of the one billion starving people on Earth, for the most part, we’ve got it pretty good.

And it leads many of us to imagine that we can have it even better if we could just come up with an idea.

Common self-help wisdom will tell you that one key to generating great ideas and getting support for them is to surround yourself with like-minded people. Or at least, with positive people. Cheerleaders, if you will. And the advantages of having such people around are genuine; one comment I read on a recent blog by Nick O’Neill said that for many elite athletes, the purpose of a coach can be just to say “looking good today,” for example.

But there’s a problem.

When the oddity that is ‘The Secret‘ came out a few years back, I interviewed one of the people involved, a guy named Mike Dooley, and then had the opportunity to hear him speak. What followed, terrified me because I got the impression I was the only one actually listening to what the man was saying amid a sea of people who just wanted to be told they’re brilliant merely for having ideas.

Dooley, to the best of my understanding was urging people to take action and make the right things happen, but to think positively about them. That was the message I took away, anyway.

The way I see it, while we’re right to seek cheerleaders, we’re deluding ourselves if those cheerleaders don’t also kick our asses for us and encourage and cajole us to kick our own asses a lot. Those coaches who say “looking good today” also have a habit of shouting, pushing, urging, encouraging and thinking up new and better activities to develop peak performance. They’re cheerleaders, but they’re also activity creators.

The challenge is to stop thinking of success as something that might come easy because we’re conditioned to think in terms of abundance and surrounded by people who tell us we’re brilliant, and to focus on the basic hard work that we’re going to need to do in a structured and resourceful way.

Ideas are cheap. That’s what’s great about them. But the reason brilliant ideas often fail and mundane ideas often succeed is because someone put a stack of effort behind the latter.

The easiest way of all to stand out

One key to success that keeps coming up time and time again, the more I read up on, and study the subject, is that of being proactive. Getting out and doing something before you’ve even got a business case for it, because you really want to get it done.

There are several reasons for this:

In the first place, the sorts of people who can help you get to where you want to go, prefer to work with people who are already doing stuff and in doing so, are proving their capabilities. You may want to start a business or write a book or create the next greatest flavour of ice cream … but so do a billion other people. The difference between those who get the breaks and those who do not, is that those who do have already taken the first steps, and often many more than that.

The same goes for any aspect of your career and your life. People get discovered by investors and partners because of the work they’ve already done, not because of their future plans or good intentions.

In the second place, your project often isn’t that unusual, but your way of going about it may be. What might make your idea more exciting to an investor or partner is your process; your unique brand of genius. But things are rarely as exciting in theory as they are in practice, and getting started lets others see what you’ve got in you.

And finally, you’ll be fairly unusual if you stop talking about it and get on with it. Most people never get to the first stage of even talking about it, but only a fraction of those that do, get into the activity stage. That isn’t to say that being in the activity stage will guarantee you success, but not being there at all is a pretty good guarantee of the opposite.

Proactivity ultimately is just about kicking your own ass to start your own project and get it off the ground. Nobody should want it more than you. If you’re not willing to get it underway, why should anyone else be excited about it?