In terms of generating sustainable improvement in an organization’s most important desired business outcomes, is it more effective for an employee to remain in constant motion or is it more effective for the employee to pause periodically and reflect on ways to improve performance?
In terms of generating sustainable improvement in an organization’s most important desired business outcomes, is it more effective for an employee to focus primarily on improving his or her weakest areas or is it more effective for an employee to focus primarily on improving his or her strongest areas?
There is no right answer to these questions. However, the way in which you answer them will significantly affect your future decisions on a variety of topics.
It’s been my experience that really smart, really hard-working, and really dedicated people subconsciously tend to want to make things really complicated because when things are complicated they feel more like work. Many times I’ve seen people achieve very good results with a simple process. Then they say, “If I’m getting very good results with this simple process, then I’m going to get amazing results with a complicated process.”
It usually doesn’t work that way. I encourage you to embrace the idea that a simple process of two to seven steps is much more powerful than a complicated process because you can learn it faster, use it faster, and teach it to other people faster so they can use it right away.
I don’t like the phrase, “Keep it simple, stupid.” The reason I don’t like that phrase is because people are not stupid. People are smart and complicated and complex. One key to leveraging your strengths and the strengths of the group is to embrace the idea that a simple process is more powerful than a complicated process.
EXERCISE ON EMBRACING SIMPLICITY
Over the next 90 days try to simplify any process that you are using down to two to seven steps.
This can be very challenging, but it can really force you to think through what you are doing and why you are doing it that way. Simplifying is actually hard work, but the refined process might very well be much more powerful than the more convoluted one. A simpler process allows a person to apply his or her strengths faster toward the improvement of the desired business outcome.
Schedule Thinking Time
Take out your weekly calendar for the upcoming week. Choose one hour that you are going to dedicate to “thinking time” and put it on your schedule. Treat this hour just as seriously as you would an appointment with your boss or an important customer. Decide where you will go for this activity. I strongly encourage you to go off-site for this hour where you can’t be interrupted. Before you leave decide on one specific business objective you want to improve or one specific business issue you want to resolve.
EXERCISE ON HOW TO USE ONE HOUR OF THINKING TIME
- When you get to your off-site location spend 35 minutes answering that question with as many answers as you can from a variety of perspectives: your perspective, your boss’s perspective, your employee’s perspective, the perspective of a variety of managers at your location in a variety of different functions, your competitor’s perspective, your supplier’s perspective, and the perspective of your customer.
- After 35 minutes of writing down answers, look at all of your answers and combine ideas together to make even better ideas.
- At the end of ten minutes of combining ideas together, select your best idea and develop an action plan. Then move that idea into action.
Try this approach that I just outlined once or twice a month during your weekly hour of thinking time. It takes practice to get good at “thinking time.” Don’t be dismayed if it doesn’t pay off for you in the first few months. Hang in there. Eventually you will develop powerful ideas that will positively impact the business results in a sustainable manner. Just like developing any skill, it takes a sustained effort to get really good at it. I believe it will be well worth your effort.
Why Thinking Time is Critical to Leveraging Your Strengths
In order to identify your strengths and determine how to use them, you need to actually take the time to think about your strengths and how to use them. In a few paragraphs I’m going to offer a number of suggestions on how to use your thinking time to improve business outcomes. But you first have to be willing to actually stop moving and really sit down and think. Easier said than done.
The Challenges with Thinking Time
Here are some of the challenges you will face if you attempt to go off site for one hour of thinking time each week.
- It’s probably countercultural. Based on my on-site observation of companies in over thirty industries, one thing I learned is that everyone is very, very, very busy. No one seems to slow down to catch his or her breath. From what I saw and what I heard, I would say that staying in perpetual motion is valued within most organizations. However, improving business results is also valued. I believe that if you will really focus for one hour a week on thinking about ways to improve the business that you will have a direct impact on improving business results in a sustainable way.
- People will question your motives. Some people will wonder what you’re really doing when you are off site for an hour a week. They will wonder if you are running errands or giving yourself a treat of some kind. However, trust is at the foundation of a great group performance. If people don’t trust you or you don’t trust them, then the capacity of the group is already endangered. Allowing people time to really think in an uninterrupted way demonstrates that you trust them to use that time wisely. Also, you can prove the value of thinking time by bringing back insightful ideas on how to improve the business.
- It takes time to get good at it. Thinking is actually hard work. Not only do you have to get past the criticism of other people, you also may have to practice doing it several times before you produce a really worthy idea. Just like it takes time to get good at properly handling a customer service phone call, it also takes time to get good at going to a quiet place with a blank sheet of paper and developing a powerful idea.
- Some people will say, “If it’s that important, then do it on your own time.” When people say that, I say, “Yeah, good one. When employees go home they have children to take care of and transport to an endless number of practices and events. They have aging parents to take care of as people live longer. They have a relationship with a significant other to focus on. And they need to squeeze in some time to take care of themselves. Of course that doesn’t count grocery shopping, cutting the grass, taking a shower, and so on. And if they do set aside time for thinking during their personal time they should focus that thinking time on their personal objectives and issues. Thinking time that is focused on improving business outcomes should be done during work time.”
Schedule Non-Thinking Time
I just wrote about the importance of focused thinking time. Now I want to talk about the importance of non-thinking time. One of the worst habits I saw during very tough economic times is the “24-7-365 Habit”.
This happens when people think they have to work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year in order to survive. I encourage you not to do that.
If you work non-stop day after day you will eventually become mentally and physically exhausted. Your brain needs a rest in order to be reenergized enough to produce better ideas.
Here is a suggestion on how to intentionally give your brain a rest.
Take a ten-minute walk outside every morning around 10 AM. Go out there without your cell phone. Don’t be disturbed for ten minutes. Don’t think about work. Just enjoy the day and the weather. Just relax and allow your mind to rest. If you will do that for ten minutes a day for the next few months, I believe you will start to get better ideas than before. By relaxing your mind, it will produce better ideas. Your mind needs rest just like your body needs rest.
Many people I’ve met in the last thirteen years didn’t do either one. They didn’t set aside focused time to really think, and they never stopped working long enough to let their brains rest. They just kept going and going and going. As one person I interviewed at a large company said, “We’re really good at multi-tasking, which may not always be a good thing.”
The Value of Self-Confidence
Self-confidence in a business sense means the degree to which you personally believe you are going to guide your part of the business to greater success in the future. Strong self-confidence is a tremendous asset in terms of improving business momentum.
There are two ways that I know of for strengthening self-confidence: review a past success story and preview a future success story. Consequently, the key to strengthening self-confidence is taking the time to reflect on your past successes and your future successes. Strong self-confidence is a business driver.
Review a Past Success Story
A past success is anytime you overcame the odds. You achieved something that someone else thought you couldn’t do or you thought you couldn’t do. When you go back and relive your past success story, you will recapture the feeling of excitement and adventure and self-confidence that you felt at that time. Then you can apply that positive energy toward your current challenge. The key is taking the time to recall your success story.
EXERCISE ON REVIEWING A PAST SUCCESS
Think of a time outside of your current organization that you achieved something that someone else thought you couldn’t achieve or that you thought you couldn’t achieve. Write down your answers to these questions, which will take you no more than three to four minutes:
- What was the goal I was going after?
- What were the obstacles I had to overcome?
- How did I persevere long enough to overcome those obstacles?
- What did it feel like when I achieved the goal?
- What lessons did I learn from that experience that I can use in my work today to achieve the business outcomes that I am working to achieve?
By writing down your answers to those questions they will become even more useful to you. I encourage you to do this exercise every other week. You can use part of your one hour of weekly thinking time to do this. It will take you less than five minutes to do it.
Preview a Future Success Story
The second half of the exercise is to preview the achievement of a highly desired business outcome.
EXERCISE ON PREVIEWING A FUTURE BUSINESS ACHIEVEMENT
- Write down one specific business outcome you want to significantly improve in the next six months.
- Write down why you want to improve that outcome. Come up with as many reasons as you can think of as to why that outcome is so important to achieve. What are the benefits to you as an individual, to your family, to your work group, to your location, to your business, to your business partners, to your suppliers, and to your customers? After you’ve written down every answer you can think of, challenge yourself to go for two more minutes in writing down additional benefits of achieving that goal.
- Then write down every reason you can think of as to why you fully expect to achieve that desired outcome. What do you bring to the party, what do your colleagues bring to the party, what do your suppliers bring to the party, and what do your business partners bring to the party? After you’ve written down everything you can think of, push yourself to keep going for two more minutes.
Identify Your Greatest Value
Your greatest value consists of your values (your beliefs that determine your behaviors), your strengths (what you do well), and your passions (what energizes you and gets you pumped up).
EXERCISE ON CLARIFYING YOUR GREATEST VALUE
Take out three sheets of paper. On the first sheet write down “My Values”, on the second sheet write down “My Strengths”, and on the third sheet write down “My Passions”. Keep those three sheets with you throughout each day. When you think of one of your values, your strengths, or your passions, write it down right away. Also, use part of your one-hour of weekly thinking time every couple of weeks to focus on these three topics.
Knowing your own values, strengths, and passions is the first step in leveraging your greatest value toward improving the achievement of high priority desired business outcomes. If you do this for the next 30 days, you will see with a much broader and deeper perspective what you bring to the table in terms of being able to add value to a variety of situations.
Identify High Priority Desired Outcomes
During one of your “thinking times”, write down your answers to these two questions:
- What is one high priority business outcome that I want to help our part of the organization achieve or significantly improve in the next six months?
- What is one high priority outcome that our customers want to achieve or significantly improve in the next six months as a result of purchasing from our organization?
Make the Intersection of Greatness Happen
Here are two important questions that you can focus on during your thinking time. I actually think these are the two most important questions to answer in terms of leveraging your greatest value toward achieving remarkable business results.
- “How can I use my strengths and my passions in a practical way to improve the achievement of the high priority desired business outcome while still acting in accordance with my own values?”
- “How can I use my strengths and my passions in a practical way to improve the achievement of our customer’s high priority desired outcome while still acting in accordance with my own values?”
The more you clarify your answer to these questions, the more you will be able to contribute your greatest value toward improving the desired outcomes. When you do that you will be operating at the intersection of a great performance.
Lead with Your Strengths
For the past 25 years the topic I have studied the most is leadership. During that time, I have invested more than 3,000 hours on site observing and coaching executives and managers in the normal flow of their work day in over thirty industries. I have watched hundreds of managers deal with situations as they came up. From all of this research on leadership, I’ve learned two things:
- Leadership is not based on a label. It is not based on a person’s title, income level, or authority. It also not based on the person’s gender, race, size, or personality type. I’ve never seen a label that automatically guaranteed that a person would be a successful or unsuccessful leader.
- Leadership means influencing how other people think in ways that generate better sustainable results both for the organization and the people in it. Your capacity as a leader is based on your ability to effectively influence how other people think in ways that produce better sustainable results for the organization and the people in it.
Create Value and Deliver it to Other People
Value is anything that increases the chances that the other person will achieve what he or she wants to achieve. When you create relevant value and deliver it to another person, that person will look to you for leadership, for guidance, and for influence. This is how to create opportunities to be a leader.
The best way for you to create value for other people is to use your strengths and passions to increase the chances that other people will achieve what they want to achieve. That idea is at the heart and soul of accelerating the achievement of your most important business outcomes by using what you’re good at and passionate about.
The Four Critical Leadership Questions
Another thing I’ve learned about leaders in all industries is they always answer the following four questions.
- What is the outcome I want to help us achieve?
- Who do I need to influence in order to help us achieve that outcome?
- What do I need to influence them to think about?
- How will I effectively influence what they think about?
Notice the first step to being an effective leader is to identify the desired outcome you want to improve. Leadership has to be directed toward some outcome. It can’t happen in a vacuum-like environment with no desired outcome.
The next step is to clarify who will have the greatest potential impact on that outcome. Who are the individuals that will play the most important role in positively or negatively affecting the desired outcome?
The third step is to identify what you want those folks to think about. Notice I didn’t say that the third step is to tell these people exactly what to do. Telling people exactly what to do and when to do it is micromanaging. Micromanaging is not leading. Micromanaging produces good short-term results with significant long-term problems. The third question of leadership focuses on determining what you want these people to think about.
The fourth question is really the nuts and bolts of leadership. An important key to being a great leader is to use your strengths and passions to effectively influence what other people think about. Don’t just try to be like your boss or some leader you admire. Determine what you are good at and what you are passionate about and then decide how you can use those assets to effectively influence what other people think about. Are you a good story teller, listener, facilitator, teacher, observer, role model, or collaborator? What are you good at doing? What are you passionate about? What beliefs determine your behaviors? How can you use your greatest value to effectively influence what other people think about?
There are no silver bullets or easy answers to these leadership questions. That’s why you need to schedule thinking time.
Good luck to you as you apply your greatest value toward improving the achievement of your organization’s most important desired business outcomes.
Book Recommendations Related to Leveraging Strengths
- The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (particularly Chapter 4)
- Strengths Based Leadership by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie
- Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney
- Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields
- The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder
- Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler
About Dan Coughlin
Dan Coughlin teaches practical ideas on how to improve business performance. He is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, executive coach, and author of four books on leadership, sales, branding, and innovation. His books including The Management 500, and Find a Way to Win. His clients include GE Capital, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Marriott, Boeing, Abbott, Toyota, Subway, Kiewit, Prudential, Denny’s, and the St. Louis Cardinals.