What Executive Productivity Hinges On

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As work relentlessly gets democratized, it’s hard for people to get formal training that was once consolidated within large industrial companies. The internet does continually grow with knowledge and content and this should suffice to educate everyone. But it’s hard to make sense of all the information or put it into strategies that make an impact.

Knowledge work demands that we move information and make decisions quickly. While everyone is not officially titled as an executive, we have to make decisions efficiently.

There’s a lot written on creating big visions, mission statements and developing strategies. But there is something even more foundational that should be part of any good executive’s daily ritual. It is a critical daily habit that allows for extreme leverage across projects. It is the habit of list management.

Managing Across Your Lists

Think about how many logins you have. You have a login for your email. You have plenty for your social media accounts. One for your bank accounts, accounting systems, client management databases and the list goes on.

Ultimately, these are all lists. And they are data dashboards to keep you informed of what matters in your world.

When you look at your email, it’s essentially a list. Learning to manage that list will move communications and decisions along. You can become extremely quick and free with a ZeroInbox approach to this list. It’s a core list you have to stay within.

Then there is your daily task list. You need a quick capture of anything that comes your way and check things off quickly and efficiently. I use Google Tasks heavily and manage my Today List this way.

If you are managing cash, then you need to look at your accounts receivables and payables. Put those into meaningful lists with due dates and follow up. Make it actionable.

Your calendar is a list that requires moving intentional engagements within finite time slots. Manage it well and you can get a lot accomplished in a week by being focused with your choices of time.

A lot of the above lists are around data and tasks. Those tasks break out into various lists for actions and next steps. Most of what we do is define what has to be done and put it in the right list.

We also have to manage relationships. Building and maintaining relationships doesn’t just happen on its own. You have to work hard to create the opportunities and life you want. Everyone is busy and they are better at reacting than driving.

So, it’s important to organizes your list of Contacts in your address book or CRM. Then review those lists regularly and move towards communications – emails, texts, social posts, etc. – to follow up with relationships that matter to you.

If you wrote a list of all the lists you manage, you might find that it could end up being 10-20 places. This is not uncommon. But, your world revolves around your ability to keep those lists organized, current and moving.

If you can get rid of or consolidate lists, you lower your own management commitments.

Every morning, check your lists. Make it a daily habit. Spend that 30 minutes to send, post and comment within the lists you need to participate. Don’t skip a day and be relentless. And always be pruning.

If you are talented, then doing the work is less of an issue than knowing what work to focus on. List management is core to executive productivity and getting your big goals accomplished with consistency over time.

So what lists do you manage?

Why Entrepreneurs Need To Be Contingency Experts

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The best laid plans will not work out. We don’t live in Eden. We live in a world where there are good intentions, but life gets in the way. Things go wrong all the time.

And for the entrepreneur, the person pioneering on the frontier of ideas and seeking to make them happen in reality, things always go wrong. There’s simply too much uncertainty around what is novel and untried.

The idea that an entrepreneur is someone who takes great risk and throws caution to the wind is a misnomer and a foolish path to follow. That’s not very smart or rational. Much of what entrepreneurship requires is exploration, discovery and testing. Smart entrepreneurs are always looking to reduce risk.

Otherwise, the uncertainty will smack you in the face. There is a method that works to avoid striking out early and often and that revolves around thinking through contingencies.

Entrepreneurs have to test their ideas, and when their work takes a turn, there should be contingencies in place.

So, let’s say you are testing a new software product idea. You are committed to spending $10K on the project with a developer you have found. You haven’t worked with this person in the past so you don’t have any idea how they might perform.

Instead of betting the farm, you could create multiple contingencies:

  1. Split the project up with a couple developers and define their complementary roles.
  2. Capture the knowledge in a centralized repository so there is continuity on the source code development.
  3. Create a competitive situation with parallel development paths and split budgets to see what solution works best.
  4. Set milestones and payouts based on clearly defined deliverables.
  5. Sell a solution instead of a tool should the delivery get compromised and use a first client to underwrite the project.

Your ideal plan will not play out. When dealing with something unproven and custom, smart entrepreneurs think through the various scenarios and have contingency solutions ready to go.

It not only takes the stress out, but you are being realistic. You can’t control people, problems or, much less, account for every possibility.

Entrepreneurs do not have the luxury of repeated methods that their corporate counterparts enjoy. They maintain and manage what is known and take incremental steps on already proven ideas.

If you are creating and innovating, then you have a much higher probability of failure. But it doesn’t have to stop there. With contingencies, you have the opportunity to take second, third and ninth shots along the way as you hone in on delivering.

Find Your Everest Now

“If you are not authentic and passionate about what you do, someone who is will overtake you effortlessly.” ~ Raj Rawat

Drifting is a sad existence. You go through the motions and live an unfulfilled life. You’re not only robbing yourself of great possibilities in this extremely short life, but the world doesn’t get your best.

My friend, Raj, has a short series he has been working and put out his first book above, Find Your Everest to stir passions and get people focused on bigger and clearer thinking. For without that, life gets frustrating quickly. You underperform and bring low energy and output to the things you do.

I like the call to pursue a big, scary goal. Your senses come alive and you have to make success happen. Going big and getting clear is where you have to start and your mind, emotions and focus line up rather quickly.

What the heck are you pursuing? Have you plateaued from a bit of success? Or are you still drifting without a clear Everest to pursue?

The question put forth in this book is a first priority. I have walked the journey of defining and pursuing my own Everests in business and life and Raj is right,

“When people get connected to their purpose, they become mindful of time. Distractions fade away and fall off. Their minds don’t leave any bandwidth for unimportant things.”

The message is succinct, clear and with conviction. We have a lot of noise in this world and this is a message that is a signal in the noise. Well worth an hour or two to take in the insights, path and call that could send you on a strategic trajectory.

Create More Options and Stop Working Harder

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When you are not getting the results you want, is it better to try harder or diversify your options? While there are myriad circumstances, when the law of averages governs the game you are playing, more options, attempts and scenarios can be a strategic move.

Instead of working hard on one relationship build a hundred more with different people.

Instead of trying to make one market or channel work, test others to uncover more opportunities.

Instead of putting everything in one employee’s responsibility, load balance and create redundancies with several team members.

The strategy fits situations where working harder with determination has diminishing returns. And instead of getting locked into less optionality you can open up more channels for opportunity and feedback. You mitigate risk and get to look at what percolates from diversification.

In addition, you can add the hard work and number of attempts into your new options to see what outcomes will produce results.

When I was a kid, I played a lot of sports. Some came easier than others. At some point, I had diminishing returns playing baseball. I put in hours and hours throwing, catching and batting. But I could easily see how teammates had better results for their efforts. It didn’t discourage me, but even as a young kid, I could tell I had an upper limit.

I went on to other sports with some successes and some mediocrity. But trying a lot of them and testing for what I could get out of myself gave me perspective on what would work for me, much like many other youngsters discover.

Eventually, I found that distance running fit. I got results from putting work in. Not my first pick of sports, but I had to go with what worked and I made that my bread and butter sport through high school and college at the expense of other sports. It was worth it to me for the work I was going to put in.

There’s a world of options we can easily get overwhelmed by out there.

A platform that your customers interact on would make for the best use of your time, for example.

A group of friends can be much more fun and rewarding than other social groups with different tastes.

And if you find yourself getting stuck, merely working harder, then how about taking that energy, time and focus to diversify far and wide? Use that strategy to create new momentum and insights that help you get out of the rut. Going wide can create new energy and opportunity in contrast to simply pushing deeper into things you are comfortable doing.

This is especially true for things that used to work in a different era and don’t work as well anymore.  The better strategy is to diversify and open up new channels you may not have considered. Do it at the expense of what you already know or are accustomed to.

Ultimately, you are giving yourself better probabilities of finding higher returns of your time, money and attention.

What do you need to stop working harder at and go wider with instead?

Make Good Deals So We Don’t Hate Each Other

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I have always said,

“Good agreements make for great relationships. Bad agreements make for bad relationships.”

And having done many deals over many years, I can see where I have had a profitable and fun relationship when there are explicit expectations. And when there has been innuendo or ambiguity, relationships suffer because there is not a good agreement.

There are a lot of reasons bad deals happen. Sometimes it’s out of laziness on one or both parties. Other times, goodwill. I have made many of the mistakes and I am not one to keep repeating a script that doesn’t work. I want great relationships and have a lot of fun at it. Sure, there’s opportunities for making money, but I also enjoy people and life. Life’s too short to miss the fun.

So, if you’re like me and want to avoid the mess of unmet expectations or resentments that follow bad deals, then here are 4 keys I have learned over the years:

  1. Make sure the other party wins. We have too many options today and so does your counterpart in a deal. If you burn them or try to tilt advantages to your side, you may collect on a deal, but it will be short-lived. Playing for the long-term relationship and building trust and credibility have a much higher return. It’s why it is so important that when you take money, you deliver. Plain and simple. You have to think deeply about helping the other person win. This may include achieving a fitness goal, getting $100K in revenue or having harmony in their relationships. That win is the focal point of the deal.
  2. You have to put it in writing. Verbal agreements are extremely risky. How can you read between the lines or pick up intentions? Writing clarifies and clarity is your friend when building agreements. At a minimum level, exchange emails to clarify what is expected and what will be delivered. Outline what you have discussed, what items will be delivered and what the pricing will be for the venture or engagement. It’s good to have a back and forth and even a review of the details. This way nothing gets missed.
  3. Account for uncertainty. You can’t control or predict the future. What if something goes wrong? I don’t want someone hating me and I don’t want to hate someone either. Things do go wrong. Talk about those What If’s and get clear on what should happen. If the relationship is important, then make sure the other person knows, “Hey, who knows what will happen. But I want to maintain a long-term relationship. How can we make sure that happens if things don’t turn out the way we hope?”
  4. Celebrate. It was Socrates that said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I don’t get people that move on from one thing to another without reflecting and celebrating. How unfulfilling. When you celebrate, you are able to have a reward in the celebration itself. But it also sets you up for better agreements. The celebration allows you to have a case study of sorts. You can see how your partner sees the process and outcomes and tune in further. You also close the loop on your agreements by making sure there is no expectation left unmet. Winning is fun and celebration puts your wins in an explicit light.

I like finding good deals and getting to mutual wins. It has a compounding effect for business and life. I make more money and more friends in the process.

It takes leadership from you. Instead of playing things loose, you show respect for the other party by putting concerns, hopes, and goals on the table.

Imagine laying out the deals, agreeing to them, knocking them out and celebrating at the end. If you have a dozen of these experiences under your belt, deal making becomes habitual and your convictions on what you can deliver will solidify over time.

So how do you like making deals?

Unburden Yourself

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I cannot overstate the value and pleasure of an unburdened life and clear mind. It’s too easy to overcomplicate our lives with so many things that simply do not matter. I have observed the reality that Robert Ringer puts forth about human nature:

Human beings, by nature, tend to seek ways to complicate their lives. Given a choice between a simple and a complicated method to accomplish an objective, most people will opt for the more complicated course of action. This is one of those great mysteries of life from which there is no logical explanation.

Some examples I have observed that create unneeded complexity where it’s a giant burden to people:

  • Maintaining high overhead instead of simplifying with technology.
  • Hiring friends and family for their comfort and familiarity over competency for a job.
  • Having complex legal structures, locations and operational redundancies in a business.
  • Traveling to the ends of the earth to work on deals that may or may not materialize when there are simpler deals locally.
  • Developing many different products and services that don’t pay off compared to a few that do.
  • Working in high hassle industries where most of your time is spent on non-productive work that doesn’t help your customers. i.e., high regulation industries.
  • Selling with manpower vs. systems
  • Constantly in drama
  • Always overworked and not having time
  • Managing too many open accounts
  • Continually adding every new technology or gadget
  • Maintaining social appearances
  • Arguing
  • Social media
  • Narcism

When you have much more noise than is required to get your goals, everything gets harder, unnecessarily. Why? It’s such a waste. It’s a blind spot, for sure, if you can’t fathom or see the possibility of boring, efficient results.

I don’t want to run around in chaos. I like working in calm and ease.

I don’t want drama. I like enjoying my wife and three kids laughing and snowboarding 50 mph down mountains.

I don’t want busy work. I would rather work little on things that matter with big payoffs.

I don’t want a ton of uncaring associates. I would rather have a few good friends.

I don’t want to talk about meaningless chatter. I want depth and honesty.

All the things we let leak into our lives have costs. And managing a ton of little details, costs and superfluous junk becomes a burden. It’s like dragging weights through life when we are trying to go fast.

What if you started shedding? Might be hard. After all, Buddha observed,

All unhappiness is caused by attachment.

You can certainly be happier, feel lighter and get results. Ever notice your burdens?

We Are the Factory

In my past life as an engineer, I used to visit manufacturing facilities, tool shops and fabrication outfits for project work. These are places where efficiency, speed and output are the focal point. Human beings acted like machines in their work pushing dozens or thousands of parts and assemblies through every day.

In the industrial age we had a focus on making things cheap, fast and predictably. That game is a commodity now.

Now, we are the factory. You take raw materials – content, ideas, conversations, software, and relationships – and put them together creatively to make an output.

If you are merely a functional piece in the assembly line without much creativity, then you’re not worth much. You are not scarce. You are interchangeable.

If you are on the creative side, then you are a factory that has to make ideas happen. It can be a paradigm shift to think that you are the factory. But your ability to output is related to a set of factors that require just as much, if not more, care and attention:

  • Wide nets. The degree that you are exposing yourself to ideas, experiences and relationships dictates where you draw inspiration, resources and solutions.
  • Personal growth. Are you becoming someone of more value? Your convictions, attitudes and insights come from the people you meet and the books you read.
  • Energy. Do you consistently take care of your health and emotions? Daily routines that help you recharge and keep a clear mind focused on your goals is critical to keeping your factory moving from ideas to execution flowing.
  • Productivity. Are you doing things that don’t matter? Are you focused more on doing things right more than doing the right things? How streamlined, efficient and fast is your workflow? Managing lists, clearing time and space and getting things done keep your processes moving.
  • Creativity. Do you enjoy nature, listen to music or read wild works? Exposing yourself to concepts outside of your box feeds your creativity. And creativity, not hard work, moves your results.

If you are the factory, you want to gain leverage and ensure you are efficient and continuous. It’s a long-term game of personal management, much like industrial scale factories required continuous oversight.

The great thing is that you can control the variables, and with technology and business systems, do much more than ever before simply by approaching your work like a factory manager.

Factories are about leverage, ultimately. And you, as a factory, are competing with the world of people out there that have the same access. It takes your desire, focus and consistency to reap the rewards the economy bestows to efficient creative factories.

Don’t Waste Your Time and Commit to Personal Growth

It sure is easy to get distracted. No doubt you can zone out with so many entertainment venues that are accessible. But while you are snoozing, there are so many people that are committed to personal growth in their downtime that are getting ahead.

Think about the reality of the high-tech world we live in. Will getting more muscles or working harder and longer truly get you ahead?

We have machines that do the work. There is a relentless pursuit to make our world like WALL·E where humans didn’t have to move or lift a finger to do anything. Artificial intelligence, heavy machinery and automation put in the hard day’s work.

No, much of what is leverage and value today comes from hard thinking and creativity. And you don’t get creativity by checking out. You have to focus on personal growth in your downtime where you can gain insights, knowledge and awareness.

Your ideas will make you more valuable.

Your creativity will cause you to be in demand.

Your strategies will be launch points to test from.

But how can you generate ideas, creativity and strategies by working like a machine and then checking out? You might be able to fake it and get along in life for a bit. But people are pretty good at detecting substance from salesmanship.

When you have downtime, how about listening to an Audible book like Zero to One to understand how the future will be shaped. Or work on an article and pull your ideas together on a topic from other content and books to solidify your thinking?

Personal growth allows you to become more valuable. You cannot give what you do not possess.

We don’t have a scarcity of technology or ways of doing things anymore. Everyone can use the same tools, platforms and avenues.

However, there is more noise than ever. And if you can create clarity because you have developed in your own personal growth, then you can help solve the myriad complex problems that everyone is bumping around trying to harmonize in their chaotic worlds.

That supposes that you have taken time to think, gain insights and invest in your personal growth.

Can you change your habits to focus on your personal growth for half an hour a day to start? Pick up a book. Share insightful thoughts. Develop ideas. Make them happen. Become more valuable.

If You Are Not the Winner Do This

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Someone has to be the the winner.

Someone has to be Facebook. Or Uber. Or Google.

In our connected economy, we have a winner-take-all dynamic. It’s easier to consolidate and see a clear winner arise from leveraging a business system.

However, what we see and are aware of is based on a success bias. We don’t see who is second or has lost along the way. I’m not sure studying the outright, asymmetrical winners is helpful to everyone else. A 1/99 ratio where 1% takes 99% of the winnings doesn’t leave room for replication.

If everyone can participate like the winners then there’s much to learn. We can simply persevere through the same business roadmap laid out by the winners.

But, that is far from the case in the trenches of business today. You can’t simply copy what a forerunner or market leader has done. Their barrier to entry comes from a consolidated position over time from efficiency, especially after they won the lion’s share of the votes early.

So, you have two choices:

  1. Be first
  2. Be different

Being first has its own risks with great rewards. If you innovate too far ahead of the market you may only be setting up the success of the second mover who learns from your mistakes and capitalizes en masse.

Being different can work well for premium products and services especially well where price sensitivity and comparison become difficult for the buyer. Your differences create unique positioning that keep you from commoditization traps. I prefer to design around being different as a strategy. It works well in a world of too many options and scarce attention.

Design Around Differentiation

If you are being compared as an option, then you are not different enough in your proposition.

Sure, you can insist on being better, and this favors buyers. Comparison becomes an opportunity to move the conversation away from value and towards price. That’s what’s left if there is not clear differentiation, simply price. That’s that natural place for a buyer to focus when they can’t see what is special about you or your offerings.

That signal, price comparison, can be your motivation and trigger to work harder at designing a different product and positioning it accordingly.

Here are some strategies to implement towards the hard work of differentiating:

  • Value. What is the output, the result? Can you integrate the experience, product and service in such a way that the value is what becomes the primary focal point, not the rudimentary parts?
  • Positioning. Are you able to affect the perception of how you are seen, especially in comparison to your competition? What word do you want people to think in their minds when they think of you? Make that the essence of how you communicate, frame and connect with buyers.
  • Price. Can you price higher and be worth 10x the amount? Instead of asking how much you can squeeze out, ask how you can be at the top of the pricing ceiling and make your customer so happy they are eager to pay you. They feel they got the deal.

Differentiating has its own work and you have to care enough and focus on driving the experience so high that price becomes a secondary issue.

Imagine the impact if you did the hard work of design and delighting people.

400% Returns on Assets

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Take a look at the chart of some sample industries and the multipliers on asset value (business). If you can get net income or profit to $100K in a business like plumbing, you can sell the business for $450K. Every thousand of profit increases the sales price by 4.5x.

You can try and hunt for such returns by finding a better stock at 8%, however, you can’t beat a business profit of 56 times that rate.

Or put your money in a piece of real estate. But finding multiples on asset value would be a rare homerun. You might eke out 15%, and miss out on 30 times the opportunity.

Paper assets, real estate and businesses are holders of value that have different scales of return that the market will bear.

And if you want to exit with a business liquidation event then you focus on the variables to increase the asset value:

  • Operational efficiency and cost savings
  • Expanded paying customers
  • Product pricing
  • Top line revenue
  • Cash flow predictability

The strategy is to maximize the value of your business asset.

Of course, picking an industry that has a conventional return impacts your exit as well. Picking well creates a built-in multiplier effect with leverage.

Ultimately, strategy around leverage is the key component here when it comes to driving an exit that makes sense and the built-in variables govern your maximum upsides and opportunity.

Some leverage strategies to think about in the game you have chosen to play:

  • How much upside are you able to capitalize on?
  • How leveraged is the nature of the industry norms on value?
  • Where can you impact value the most?

If you are in a low leverage, low upside, small impact game (like employment or mutual funds), time will pass and you don’t have a shot converting your energy and time to something major.

If you’re going to have to work anyways, what about thinking a bit more strategically about what game you are in and what the end game looks like?