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Three Things That Matter

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who labor over minutiae and waste time that could otherwise be dedicated to things that matter. Business is riddled with “minutiae zombies.” They walk around aimlessly, missing major opportunities because they’re focused on fleeting, insignificant details. Over time, these people are like a dense swarm of gnats in your eyes.

zombies-work-d-sign-48671158Case in point: I once worked with an S-level executive at a multi-billion dollar company who loved swimming in the trivial. This individual would insist on frequent and laborious catch-up meetings with senior executives that consisted of walking through a random punch list of unimportant topics. These topics included everything from “someone on your marketing team gave someone on the digital team a dirty look” to “Bob thinks you don’t like him.” Not once did this person advance an issue that mattered. Ironically, this same executive lamented frequently about being overlooked for a promotion. Heads up: that’s probably not a coincidence.

Throughout my career, I’ve done a lot of formal and informal mentoring. One of the things I get asked most frequently is how to get noticed for your achievements and climb the ladder. As you take the leap from “doer” to visionary leader, the ability to identify meaningful things and craft strategies around those things is paramount. It’s the difference between unlimited career potential and being “capped.”

Admittedly, this is easier in theory than in practice. In today’s work environment, we’re inundated with more information than ever through an endless barrage of reports and dashboards. Likewise, most staff meetings are a round robin, covering a random list of activities akin to “what I did on my summer vacation.”

Developing a keen eye for the truly critical takes practice and discipline. All of the information is there. You just need to harness it. And, your people are your greatest asset. Leveraging their perspectives is the surest way to improve your strategic focus. To accomplish this, I like to employ a tactic I call Three Things That Matter.

Every Friday, I ask my team members to shoot me an email describing Three Things That Matter. This isn’t anything fancy format-wise. It’s just a standard email. I like this exercise for a number of reasons:

  1. Unlike a traditional weekly report that tends to be a laundry list of activities, this tactic encourages people to focus and think critically.
  2. It’s a development opportunity, improving team members’ ability to identify what matters most. This is an important step in their leadership journey.
  3. It gives me a good “temperature read” on the team at large (e.g., morale, common challenges, areas for development/improvement, opportunities, etc.).
  4. It helps me focus and be a better people manager.
  5. It’s a fitting way for all of us to wrap up our week, taking time out for contemplation and strategic thinking. This is often overlooked in the fast-paced world in which we all live.

Additionally, I hold all of my staff meetings and one-on-one sessions with direct reports on Mondays. I like to kick-off the week with clear communication and direction. Three Things That Matter sets a considerable portion of the agenda for those meetings.

two-male-zombies-standing-empty-city-street-looking-camera-45438212Without a doubt, reading through my team’s Three Things That Matter is my favorite part of every week. It energizes me and serves as a constant reminder that smart, positive people can accomplish anything. I promise if you try it, you’ll be delighted and impressed with what you learn. And, you’ll score another point against the “minutiae zombies.”

Cultivate Your Garden

A good friend of mine is struggling at her job. She’s a brilliant contributor who, despite her best efforts, can’t seem to move her perplexing and often inert organization forward. We’ve all been there. Tolerating mediocrity and taking the path of least resistance is way too commonplace in business today. I’m not a fan. Witnessing her woes reminded me of the concept of “cultivating your garden” at work – an important way to keep your sanity and pursuit of excellence in tact.

Let me explain. When I first started working at Outdoor Channel, I reported to the head of ad sales who also happened to be a Berkeley-educated English lit major. He was a very smart, well-rounded guy and a great mentor. He had worked at the network for several years and had a keen sense of what the culture would and would not tolerate in our quest to grow the business. Each week, I’d sit in his office for my weekly meeting, talking about all of the things I wanted to accomplish. I’d lament about my desire to move lots of things forward very quickly…and my frustration at how slowly things moved.

One day, after listening to me complain, my boss sighed and said, “Denise, sometimes it’s best just to cultivate your garden for awhile.” I was not familiar with the phrase, so he explained its origins to me. The phrase “cultivate your garden” is from the book Candide by Voltaire. Candide is a satirical look at unbridled optimism, and the phrase is Voltaire’s attempt to assert a more pragmatic perspective of the world.   Pragmatism? Sign me up.

From that point on, my boss used the phrase as a magical re-set button for me. He’d see me getting frustrated, utter the phrase “cultivate your garden,” and I’d get back on track.

What I love about these three simple words is that they keep me grounded and positive when things are at their most exasperating. They remind me to focus on absolute excellence in the things I control absolutely. Struggling to get a wrenching reorganization approved? No problem: focus on developing the superstars you have on your team. Things are moving slowly with a new business development project? Tighten up a critical internal process in your function.

This doesn’t mean that you drop your agenda for moving the business forward. You just lay off the gas pedal a little bit and focus your attention elsewhere. Cultivating your garden gives you the much needed energy to continue being a change agent. Let’s face it: pushing change can be exhausting. And, change activities often touch areas outside of the ones you wholly control. It’s easy to get discouraged and burn out. But, taking a step back and focusing on the things you control is a powerful weapon in your leadership arsenal. Plus, it guarantees that you continue to make positive things happen for your organization.

So, the next time you get discouraged on your leadership mission, remember that the path to change is more like a marathon than a sprint. Bring your best running shoes, gardening gloves and a trowel.

Do the Hard Things First

When I was a kid, I hated math. This is totally ironic because I’ve dedicated my career to a very “mathy” discipline of marketing. Nonetheless, growing up, I abhorred what seemed like an endless supply of math homework. One day in the third grade, I was complaining mightily about my personal feud with numbers. I was also procrastinating. My mom, a wizard at time management and pragmatism, looked at me and flatly said, “Life will be a lot easier for you if you do the hard things first.”

That bit of wisdom stuck with me, and it has been a guiding principle throughout my life. It applies to every facet of my being, from fitness to work life.

Doing easy things is, well, easy. Our tech savvy culture is increasingly conditioned to do a bunch of little things now. Over the years, I’ve watched some of my smartest colleagues focus on the smallest things: endless emails, unproductive meetings and random tactics that do nothing to advance the business in measurable and significant ways. These are otherwise smart people who allowed themselves to be sucked into the quotidian.

Why? My theory is that crossing small things off of a list makes humans feel accomplished. It’s the “Hey, Mom…Look what I Did!” approach to management. Additionally, most people are conditioned to avoid conflict. Doing hard things often requires conflict.

I once worked for an incredible company full of energetic, talented people. Let’s call it Nice, Inc. because it was also known as having perhaps the “nicest” culture in its industry.

When I came into Nice, Inc., I was charged with growing our consumer audience which had been flatlining for almost six years.   After about a month in the business, I figured out what was hampering growth: an unwillingless to do hard things – not merely doing them first but doing them at all. The company’s renowned niceness often translated into a culture that avoided conflict and played what I call “small ball.” “Small ball” is my very technical term for doing a litany of random and often fun things that do nothing to move the needle on growth.

In the early days, I did a bunch of hard things that were not always well received. I assessed the team and restructured based on the people and skill sets our business needed to grow. I actively and aggressively implemented a goal setting and tracking program, creating a cadence of accountability in every corner of my marketing organization. I put an end to endless unproductive meetings and instead, encouraged my people to (gasp!) have the courage to decline unnecessary ones with their colleagues. Plus, I encouraged them to hold shorter meetings as opposed to the longer, soul-sucking 60-minute ones. Most importantly, I also stopped greenlighting small, random ideas and instead, helped my team understand how to do big things that matter (A.K.A. big ball).

The bottom line is that all of this worked. Within a few years, we were able to become a top 10 player in our competitive set. Plus, most of the folks on my team appreciated the clarity of direction. To this day, when I see someone from my former team at Nice, Inc., he/she almost always references the term “big ball” or the phrase “do the hard things first.”

Pop quiz: what might doing the hard things first look like in the typical week of a people manager?

A)  Take a 90-minute meeting to hear Jane Sadface, your chronically dissatisfied non-collaborative employee drone on about her unfulfilling work life

B)  Engage in a 27-deep email tete-a-tete with Bob McAnger about a silly turf war between departments

C)  Have a hard talk with an underperforming employee on your team

D)  Launch a new project, well, because it’s super cool!

Of course the answer is “C” because it’s the hardest thing on the list. And, while it has the potential to be emotionally charged, it also has the highest probability of pay off. With your exemplary coaching, that underperforming employee may become a great turnaround story. And, if not, you’ve put them on notice that underperformance won’t be tolerated, and change will be imminent at some point in the future. You’re laying the groundwork for your team’s success. Successful teams are happy teams.

So, if you want to be genuinely accomplished, I recommend tackling the tough issues first. It forces you to play “big ball,” and it makes the rest of your “to do” list a breeze. More importantly, it moves things forward for your business – quickly and with purpose. Now, suck it up, and do something hard.

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