The Problem with Leveling Up

The Peter Principle sure can be observed frequently and predictably, not only in hierarchies, but in new endeavors.

Just because something worked at a lower level of pursuit does not mean it will work in the next level up. Common sense? Yes. But it is a principle that repeatedly gets reinforced by the comfort zones that those leveling up tend to carry with them into new opportunities or roles.

The problem with leveling up is that blind spot of underestimating the new game. We want the money, reward or prestige, thus, it is why we push towards something bigger, perhaps in a larger operation, new market or product development. Thus, we see the problem of rising to the highest level of incompetence.

At some point, what worked in one situation or level does not work in the next level. It’s a new game.

New games require new skills, mindsets and approaches. Just because you can work at small scale does not mean you are operationally sound to work at large scale. Or if your familiarity with one vertical market has gleaned amazing success, it doesn’t mean you can all of a sudden have the same conversation style in a completely different market segment.

Leveling up is a natural pull that is attractive. More equals better right? The enticement can be seductive to step into a new level. Since you have already had some kind of success, then moving up becomes the next step. But, before you push and drive, how about taking stock of your own abilities and limitations. Assume you do have limits. Will those be your achilles heel in your new challenge?

Ask the simple question, “What do rock stars in that next level do different than I do?” It may be hard to be honest. But it will save you an immense amount of heartache and disappointment.

Otherwise, the better strategy might be to stay where you are and make it more efficient if you are not willing to pay the price of thinking hard about what’s required in the next level.

Managing the Ask

If you feel overwhelmed in life or seem to be putting out fires all the time without much forward progress, then consider how you manage expectations.

I can understand that when you want to be helpful or valuable that it is easy to jump at requests. Or sometimes, you may not know that you are being asked for something because of your eagerness.

Someone may want something from you and you see it as helping. Depending on your relationships and the frequency you are asked for help, consider managing the ask with your own ask back.

Someone might say,

“Can you get help me put this presentation together?”

or

“Could you get this work done for me?”

The ask can come in many different forms. And the thing is that there’s not a cost for asking.

But you can create one for those that might freely use your time, attention or money by simply asking back.

“Sure, can you do me a favor first … ?

or

“Not a problem. Glad to help. How about you do this first and then get back to me and let me know what you find.”

You can be simple, polite and free. You can lead by seeing if the person requesting your resources is willing to pay a small cost to value the request they make of you.

Why is this so important? So you don’t become resentful. You don’t have to be subject to the whims of people. We live in a fast moving economy and you have goals of your own and only so much energy.

If people can get something for nothing, surely they will. But that’s not their fault. It’s simply deal making.

And you want to exchange value with the traders that are willing to pay a cost, however small, to show a gesture of good faith.

How can you practice asking back to make better deals with others and yourself?

Effort And Results

urban uphill 008

We are told not to confuse the two – effort and results. It is not that they are opposed to each other. One is process. The other is outcome. Results depend on effort. Effort drives results.

In the thick of your daily work, there is likely a lot of waste. It’s the noise from the world and the overwhelming demands on our attention. We have to respond many times. It’s part of our work also. It’s not ok to leave a customer lacking or our families without help. It all takes effort.

The hard part is keeping on course with the things that matter and differentiating the things that will push things forward in a general sense. I think leadership is much more about having an internal compass which points north and knowing our journey gets throttled and jostled at times. Perhaps you feel this. It’s hard to figure out whether a day was just meaningless or worthwhile. Here are some things that help me to stay on course:

  • Do the one thing. There is one thing that translates into growth. For me, I write. The more I write, the more good things happen. My writing positions my brand, connects with potential and current clients and helps to make a difference. Yours may be something else. Get clear on the main activity that is the cornerstone of what you do.
  • Do the one thing first. If the one thing has not gotten done for the day, put it at the beginning, before all the distractions. I like to write first before I react to everything. Get up earlier. Let the important precede the urgent. It is amazing how it sets the tone for the rest of your day. It frees you to react with freedom knowing you did the important thing for yourself and business already.
  • Do the one thing daily. Make your most important task a ritual. It aligns your work. Your body of work will show up over time. I have years of writing behind me that clarifies my thinking and allows me to serve with a high level of engagement.
  • Align the one thing. Your work can be strategic or scattered depending how you organize it. Be sure it builds something, is organized and is presented in a way that is a true asset. This makes it build compound interest. It can be a performance, a blog or a book. Make it shine in some kind of packaging. Make it have meaning. If it doesn’t then find another thing that is strategic.

My observation is that those who are building worthwhile businesses move forward because they do these things. There is a habit which adds up to a result. Being scattershot and merely feeling busy is what keeps everyone else chasing after something elusive or vague.

How would you describe your own efforts? Are they moving towards something you can see clearly?

Doing The Work Every Day

Hard Work
Photo from chinsen's Flickr

There’s a part of us that craves relief. We want to take our foot off the gas pedal and find comfort. It’s the primitive part of us that seeks security and ease.

It’s a slippery slope. I can recall when growing my business years ago how the days could be ambiguous. Deciding what was important and what to do can be overwhelming. On the one hand, there is excitement around having a white sheet of paper. On the other hand, there is a daunting feeling. Noone is telling me what had to be done. I had to decide. It’s the core part of what it means to be an owner.

Doing the work which will push your business forward needs to have a few disciplines, habits and mindsets in order to avoid being derailed:

  • Disciplines. You have to make a decision of what you are committed to on a daily basis. Days turn into weeks. Weeks into months and months into years. The daily work you do builds what you see in the year. Decide before you start on what is important. Write them down. When you don’t know what to do, focus on these things.
  • Habits. We truly are creatures of habit. Train yourself to start the important work first. The world will have plenty of urgencies, temptations and distractions to pull you in other directions. You can give yourself permission to be pulled, but first do the hard work and the important work. For me, it is writing and relationship building. For you, it might be something entirely different. Get concrete about it and bend your habit to this.
  • Mindsets. We are in a different era and time. We all have to think like owners. Noone is looking out for you. Embrace the owner mindset. This means realizing there are problems every day. Don’t pass the buck. Be known for solving problems and kick your fear in the face. It’s the trademark of leadership. If you lead well, people will want to follow.

These are some frameworks I have found that are foundational. Find your groove and don’t compromise. The world is waiting for your work to make a difference. Persistence and daily commitment pay off. At some point you cannot help but do the work every day. It becomes who you are.

Where are your challenges today for doing the work that matters consistently?

The Art Of Responsiveness

Responsiveness used to be a competitive advantage. That was when everyone was catching up with the tools and technologies for on-demand communication and action. Now that we all have access to the tools, responsiveness is expected.

Ironically, there is still a deficit in responsive communications. We are still put on hold in directory trees when we call in. Many people still take days to respond to email, or not at all, much less return phone calls.

I have observed the following in the nature of work today:

  • People are overwhelmed
  • We have many inboxes
  • Many people’s inboxes are unmanageable
  • It doesn’t bother people to not respond
  • They don’t respond because they are thinking of themselves, not others
  • Most people are used to chaos rather than systems
  • Chaos can be used to hide from execution

If you are known for responsiveness, it is a powerful brand. It meets a need in the market for getting answers and solving problems quickly. Depending on your work and industry, there are many other reasons to hone in on responsive communications and actions. I will just assume that you want it but it may be elusive. If that is the case, then your ability to respond is tied to how you set up your processes, both individual and collaboratively. Consider addressing your world as follows:

  • Minimize your inboxes. Every place you check – voicemail, email, social media, etc. – has to be managed. Consolidate, eliminate and streamline the number of inputs.
  • Delete. Trash most of your stuff. You won’t need it. Be ruthless in your clean-up and your ongoing habits.
  • Get a ZeroInbox. You can operate with a zeroinbox. It allows for new challenges to flow in and be managed up front. Keep your up front decision making clear from noise. There is work to get done now, later and never. Differentiate with a quick decision-making process.
  • Commit to cloud computing. Put everything in the cloud. Sync your data. Get rid of paper. Working online is efficient, available and easier to serve your customers and partners with. The solutions are vast. Integrate, customize and have a strong process for how information flows.
  • Be vigilant. This is the hardest part. It requires a habit and mindset committed to ongoing work process. Here’s the primary motivation – it is about others, not about you. You would not ignore someone who started talking to you. It is rude. If you don’t want to engage, be courteous and direct. But do address the person out of courtesy and respect. It takes vigilance. If your work gets larger, then your systems need to scale accordingly as well. This is all achievable if you are committed.

We used to be able to hide in bureaucracy and inefficiency. The speed of work today has made our own output highly transparent to everyone that touches us or expects something from us. If you can’t execute, then at least communicate. That is your work and will pay large dividends over time in terms of building trust and your brand.

How responsive are you? What can you change?

Persistence And Leadership

Change direction
Image from Flickr Phillie Casablanca's photostream

 

We live in a world of dichotomy. On the one hand, we are sold a lot of marketing enticements:

  • It is easy
  • Buy now, pay later
  • You can have it now
  • Shop what you are looking for

This may apply to buying a new Kindle on Amazon or even downloading a book when you want it. Amazon already paid the price of persistence and made it easy, convenient and fast. Their systems and platform work behind the scenes with logic, user interactivity and payment processing.

The other side of reality has a different feeling. Being a builder rather than a consumer has a different reality. It is a different mindset:

  • Things don’t work all the time
  • Failure is commonplace
  • You have to think all the time
  • Most of your time is spent in persistence

If what you want to build is easy, then anybody with half a vision can come along and build it also. However, all the ingredients for a successful business or product require discovery, innovation and persistence. Technology implementation, business partners, process engineering and marketing are hard, not easy.

The Ingredients Of Persistence

I think at our core, we all realize many worthwhile opportunities are difficult. It is why few people take advantage of opportunity, much less recognize it. Assuming you want the rewards of building something, here is what the journey requires:

  • Keep your problems. Stop making your problems someone else’s problems. Whiners have a skilled way of pushing their problems on others. Problems are part of life. How you approach and solve problems is the differentiator for the outcomes you experience.
  • Fail forward. When you fail, keep going. Make it about learning and not about failure. Failure is part of the process. Embrace it.
  • Practice patience. Many times answers are not so forthcoming. If you persist, you can start to connect the dots. Keep asking good questions. The universe has a way of revealing answers for the patient, whether through your recognition or someone who points you in the right direction.
  • Never quit. If you believe in a goal you have set, then know it will be hard. Adversity has a way of filtering out those who are not serious about what they want. Your strength of vision and ability to push forward through hardship can never be compromised.
  • Know when to quit. Sometimes the goal changes or the facts are different. Be sensible and differentiate between being bull-headed and persevering.

Our work might be easy when someone else is setting the direction or taking the risk. When you start setting the direction yourself and taking the risk, what I am saying here will have extreme relevance. There is no escaping the critical need for persistence. It is a hinge point of leadership.

Where can you apply this today?

Overcoming Inertia In Your Work

Speed

We’re all ruled by inertia.

I was a mechanical engineer in my past life.  It was drilled into my head that the laws of physics are governed by Newton’s laws of motion.  The first law according to Wikipedia states:

Every body remains in a state of constant velocity unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force.This means that in the absence of a non-zero net force, the center of mass of a body either remains at rest, or moves at a constant velocity.

It is the concept and law of inertia.  Forces acting on a body cause that body to change its state of motion or rest.

This same law acts on us.  Forces such as habits, friendships, thoughts and books motivate us towards movement.  Lacking such forces makes movement difficult.  We can become stuck.

Ironically, it is easier to build something today than ever before.  Automation, systems, order, networks and infrastructure which has been built over the ages has created immense opportunity for those that are in motion.  For those at rest, such opportunity is irrelevant.  It can never be taken advantage of without forces sought out or acting upon them.

Being aware that we need inertia to move us is critical to building something.  Function follows form.  You may need to change something to drive inertia into your actions, motivations and behaviors.  Consider your environment.  Are you in a place which motivates or subdues you?

What about your friends both live and virtual.  Do they propel you to greater things?  Are you reading books which help to shape and broaden your thinking?  The forces that act on you account for your propensity for movement and action.  If you give no thought to what is acting on you then you miss a key aspect of motivation. We are all emotional and forces acting on us are powerful.

Here’s the secret I have discovered: use inertia to help you move to action. Whatever helps you emotionally to increase motivation is fuel. Tap into it and allow it to create momentum for productivity on projects or starting something new. We all need to be inspired. Inertia works both ways. If you are at rest, it can keep you there. If you are in motion, it can accelerate you.

Overcoming Inertia

When You Are Feeling Overwhelmed

Overwhelmed

Feeling overwhelmed is common for many in our age of speed today. The pace, ambiguity and relentlessness of work can create a high level of stress. Every day has problems which need to be addressed.

When you are feeling overwhelmed, it is hard to function. Here are some things which you can do when life hits you hard:

  • Control your environment. Have you ever noticed the feeling of freedom and clarity you have when you clean a room? You are exerting control on your immediate environment, and this in turn produces clarity. If your work is calling and you are trudging along, try stepping away and clean your desk, throw away things and order your systems. Psychologically, this is an immense boost to help you get control back. Furthermore, you can see things from a different perspective.
  • Do small things first. Tackling the biggest, most complex task is not always the best. Instead, build momentum by doing small tasks. Keep your inbox to zero. Knock out the small tasks on your lists. It will give you further control and create the momentum you need. Always keep moving. If you are stumped in one area, simply shift to something else. Feeling overwhelmed is psychological, thus manage your psychology by getting small wins for confidence, enthusiasm and getting done what you need to do anyways.
  • Read a book. It is never a waste of time to read. Biographies, business books and productivity reading can move your mind to a place of empowerment. When you read, the thoughts become yours. It reshapes your perspective, attitude and convictions. These are all important for growing as a person and facing challenges. Having a book going and ready to pick up when you feel overwhelmed changes your mindset and when you come back to the big things, you will face them with a renewed outlook. If you need some suggestions, check out my bookshelf.
  • Go for a walk or run. Exercise pumps endorphins through your body and changes your psychological state. When I go for a walk or a run, my subconscious gets time to reflect and process. This is just as important as having your active brain engage problems. I have often come back with a problem solved after a walk or run. Different options are able to freely percolate in my mind rather than the narrow focus and determination found in the moment of knowledge work.

It is hard for everyone. We have long moved away from work that was brainless and methodical. Our challenges are new every day because work has been reshaped for the creative. If you can create habits in your life when you are overwhelmed, then you will find that you can handle greater challenges over time. It becomes a way of life and your abilities will meet the demand, whatever they may be.

How can you use these habits for yourself?

Bleeding For Your Work

Steve-Jobs

“The older I get, the more I see how much motivations matter.  The Zune was crappy because the people at Microsoft don’t really love music or art the way we do.  We won because we personally love music.  We made the iPod for ourselves, and when you’re doing something for yourself, or your best friend or family, you’re not going to cheese out.  If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, work the extra weekend, challenge the status quo as much.” – Steve Jobs, from the book, Steve Jobs

Why does this have to be said? It’s because the world is filled with crappy products. It’s a reflection of the values of people behind their products and services.

If you haven’t read Steve Jobs yet, I encourage you to get the book and consume deeply. You will discover the mind and obsessions of a person who relentlessly pursued perfection for your benefit, as well as his own. His motivation is clear and consistent throughout his life. He wanted to make great products that he loved and he believed the world, in turn, would love.

There is a trail of mixed feelings about Steve Jobs, however, it is undeniable that he changed the world and did it his way. The conviction he had around great design and technology is what differentiated him from other entrepreneurs. The control of the customer experience was of the highest importance and he infused that into a company he sought to be lasting in Apple.

So, why does this matter to you? Because he’s right. The world is filled with crappy products. I do think it comes from motivation. If it’s about cashing in, customers can sense it. They are tired of the crap. Sure, you may get some sales, but you will lose in the long run as the luster runs out. We are fickle, inattentive and snobbish as consumers. We want better, if we are not delighted.

Reread the quote. Ask yourself if you are bleeding for your work. Your success in the marketplace may be marginal from this very pivot point.

Do work which excites you and creates conviction about how the world should work. The alternative is irrelevance.

What are your thoughts?

Respect And Relationships

Respect is the lubricant of healthy relationships.  Our relationships are fragile when there is little trust.  Thus, we can be hypersensitive to disrespect.  It can keep trust from ever developing and allow for healthy relationships.

The give and take in a consulting client relationship is like a dance.  Both parties have to move in synchrony and in step.  If one is out of step then it can cause stumbling.  I think it is much easier to work together when there is mutual respect.  Here is what typically occurs in such a relationship:

  • Openness. Problems are easier to share as well as fears and struggles.  Knowing we are human and accepted creates a secure environment for real issues to be surfaced and addressed.
  • Risk-taking. Respect can breed security which allows for more risk.  Your strengths being affirmed is highly empowering. Accepting your successes and failures creates great freedom and perspective. Secure relationships can open up more opportunity from taking more risk together.
  • Change. Without trust we are on guard. With these overtones in our relationships, we are more apt to change because the conditions are ripe for influence.
  • Execution. Out of regard for the relationship, each party is held to a higher standard and expectation. I have found this is healthy for motivation on both sides for delivering on promises and keeping to agreements.

I would argue that if you do not have respect in place then you do not have much of a relationship. There must be some other motivation such as money, vanity or power that may be the foundation of your association. It may be pragmatic, but it is hollow at best for moving towards substantive achievements.

Think about your relationships and assess the level of respect that is there. It’s a good indicator for how far you will go with the other person.

What have been your experiences?