Prism or Laser? (#109)

Understanding the fundamental difference between a prism and a laser can predict success in life and business.

Allow me to explain.

A laser takes light and amplifies it, turning it into a powerful, focused force. It creates heat.

By contrast, a prism refracts light and disperses it into several different color streams that lack any heat or power.

I can’t think of a better analogy to describe different people’s approaches to life and achievement.

A great example of this is what I will call the “prism entrepreneur,” who, for conceptual purposes only, we will refer to as Paul.

I have met a lot of Paul’s over the years. After some early success in his business, Paul gets over-confident and distracted. He starts doing a lot of new and different things and gets excited about starting (not finishing) new projects and businesses. His thought process is that, by putting a lot of his time into more things and dispersing his energy, he’ll be more successful.

Here’s the rub with this approach. If I check back with Paul 6-12 months later, he’ll most likely have started losing (or lost) focus, his initial business will have hit an “unexpected” rough patch and the new projects/businesses that he started are either in trouble or shuttered.

Are there exceptions to this? Sure. But more often than not, this is the typical trajectory.

Prism entrepreneurs like Paul are often doing a lot, but are not getting a lot done. While it can feel rewarding in the moment, they are riding the hamster wheel. I speak from experience as I’ve been Paul many times in my career. I have learned through repeated failure, however, that doing more has almost never worked. From my experience, better outcomes occur by stepping back, doing less and simplifying my life or business.

On the flip side is the “laser entrepreneur,” who we will call Lisa. Lisa is focused, has a plan and, upon seeing early success, she does not deviate course or get distracted. When Lisa sees that her plan is working, she doubles down on her current strategy, stays the course and focuses on excellence and being the leader in her market.

She eliminates distractions and stops doing things that don’t support her goals or values. Almost always, she achieves success faster than she could have imagined.

I think many of us tend to get enamored with the Paul’s. Our perception is that people who do a lot, renaissance men/women if you will, are more successful. The reality is that most of the data and real- world experience shows the opposite.

We only have so much time and energy to give. As such, applying it in a focused way produces better results. What might confuse us, however, is that there are many people who look like Paul’s, but are really Lisa’s. They have a carefully selected portfolio of business, interests or activities that support the same long-term goals and values. And not only do they reinforce each other congruously, there’s often a multiplier effect.

2018 is well under way. As you head into a new month of a new year, it’s time to decide… do you want to be a Lisa or a Paul?

Taking that a step further, it’s also the time to identify the Lisa’s and Paul’s in your teams and in your life.

The best advice I would give anyone is, pick a direction or focus, simplify and eliminate distractions. Don’t let everyone else’s priorities or distractions become yours.

Quote of the Week

“I don’t care how much power, brilliance or energy you have, if you don’t harness it and focus it on a specific target, and hold it there you’re never going to accomplish as much as your ability warrants.”

Zig Ziglar

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Game Face (#108)

“There is no way the kicker is making that field goal.”

I made this bold proclamation to a table full of colleagues as we watched the recent College Football Championship game between Alabama and Georgia.

Alabama was in the middle of staging a comeback that would set them up for a game-winning field goal. Their kicker, Andy Pappanastos, had badly missed a 40-yard field goal and barely made a 30-yard one early in the game.  (For non-US readers, that distance is usually considered quite achievable).

Now, here he was, with a chance at redemption. A relatively short field goal would give Alabama the national championship in a dramatic comeback. He should have been pumped.

As Alabama marched down the field, the TV crew kept panning to the sideline where Pappanastos was doing his warm ups for the kick. What you usually see is a kicker with his head down, focused, with his game face on; perhaps visualizing being the hero for his team.

What I saw in the look of Pappanastos’ face however, was fear, panic and the look of “I’d rather be anywhere than here.” He looked like he wanted to throw up.

After Alabama was unable to score a touchdown, Pappanastos trotted onto the field to attempt the 36-yard field goal for the win. Neither the color in his face or his expression improved. He looked visibly uncomfortable, thus leading me to repeat my prediction to the table.

And I was right.

Seconds later, he kicked. The ball went way left of the goal post, sending the game to overtime. It was what we refer to as a “shank,” very far off; a mishit.

Fortunately for Pappanastos, his teammates bailed him out in overtime with a dramatic 60-yard pass, which was, ironically, thrown by an upbeat and confident Freshman quarterback playing in his very first game.

There are a few key lessons that can be gleaned from this story.

1. Brain/Body Connection. It’s really hard to get your body to do something well if you mind doesn’t want to do it. We all know the difference in the look of defeat on someone’s face versus the look of hope and optimism.

2. Confidence & Projection. How we project ourselves to others matters. Studies conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian reveal that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through vocal elements (tone, timber, pitch, etc.) and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc.). For example, if I am telling you I want your feedback on a project, but am scowling at you with crossed arms, that’s not the message you get.

The implication is that, when you have a big challenge or opportunity to tackle, your mental preparation combined with awareness of your body language, has a big impact both on your performance and how you will be perceived by others. Those two are also likely to be connected.

Even if you don’t make the metaphorical field goal, it’s better for others to perceive that you had every intention of doing so. That, combined with a high level of confidence, should improve your chances of success.

Quote of the Week

“Pretend to be in complete control and people will assume you are.”

Walter Isaacson

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Breaking Bad (#102)

To be great, organizations and individuals alike need to be embrace their bad side.

I don’t mean bad in the behavioral sense. I mean being clear about what you’re not going to be good at.

This was a key message Francis (Fran) Frei gave in her presentation to an audience of business leaders last year. Fran, a bestselling author and speaker on leadership and customer service, shared a few examples of this:

  • Southwest Airlines built its business on low fares, excellent customer service and punctuality. The airline intentionally decided to be bad at convenience, on-board amenities and an extensive route network. The result? Southwest Airlines made more money over a twenty-year period than every other US airline combined.
  • Ikea created a new market for furniture by deciding to be bad at assembly, quality and convenience of store locations. Instead, they focused on being great on price, systems, and creating stylish furniture for small spaces. By targeting buyers who wanted all of the later and cared less about the former, they’ve built revenues estimated at $37B this year.

What’s interesting is that there are smart business consultants who might come in to these organizations and suggest that they work on improving in the areas they’ve chosen to be bad at.

What they’d be missing is that the areas these companies are “bad” in aren’t important to their potential customers. What’s more is that trying to be great at everything is more likely to dilute or even damage the value proposition that got them to be market leaders in the first place.

Both Southwest Airlines and Ikea made very conscious and strategic choices about where they wanted to be bad.

We each face similar decisions in our personal and professional lives. More often than not, we try to do many things well rather than figuring out the handful of things we’re good at that are most important.  Once we’ve figured out what those select things are, we should be unapologetic about being bad at things that fall outside of that.

Trying to be good at everything just doesn’t work.

In her talk, Fran shared another example of working parents she had studied and the differences in their happiness levels. The ones who were unhappy and stressed were trying to be good at everything in their lives simultaneously. The ones who were happier were clearer about the things they had the bandwidth to be good at (e.g. their jobs, their family relationships, etc.). They were also more willing to let other things fall by the wayside, either permanently or temporarily. In other words, they had unapologetically embraced being bad at them.

One of the first steps on this path is giving up the guilt about what you are bad at. Even though I have written a lot about the important of excellence, breaking the habit of feeling guilt about things I’m bad at is something I’ve been working on these past few years. By playing to my strengths, I’ve been able to have a bigger impact on my employees, my friends and my family.

So, how do we know when we need to be good or bad?

We need to be excellent at what matters most, whether that’s ourselves, our team or our customers. And we need to give ourselves permission to be bad at the things that these same parties don’t care about.

It never feels natural to be bad. What’s important to remember is that it’s in the service of being great at things that matter more. Remember, if you try to be everything to everyone, you will just end be being nothing to no one.

Quote of the Week

“Choosing bad is your only shot at achieving greatness. And resisting it is a recipe for mediocrity.”

Frances Frei

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BS of Busy (#101)

There’s a response to a commonly asked question that’s become a conversational crutch:

“How’s it going?” “Good! Just busy.”

This exchange is ubiquitous in both our personal and professional lives. It’s as if busyness carries a certain status symbol. Yet, being” busy” doesn’t make us happier; and it doesn’t make us more productive. It just means we are filling all of our available time.

Years ago, in one of our quarterly offsite meetings, a leadership team member told our facilitator, “I just don’t have enough time!” The facilitator’s looked at her, then at all of us, and said, “As a leader, ‘not enough time’ is an excuse you all must take out of your vocabulary. If you are waiting for all this free time to come, it’s never going to happen. It’s about what you prioritize and how you use your time. Effective leaders know how to prioritize what’s most important.”

His words have stuck with me. Even though I still find the phrasing “I’ve been busy!” on the tip of my tongue when someone asks me how I’ve been, I make a conscious effort not to say it. I try and remind my team to do the same.

Instead of hopelessly waiting to be given the gift of more free time, consider what high-achievers do to stay focused and accomplish large, long-term goals. They:

  1. Accept that time is a precious and fixed resource
  2. Know how to separate Urgent from Important
  3. Align their top priorities with their core purpose and or core values
  4. Don’t book 100% of their time; they value rest and relaxation
  5. Constantly look for things that they should stop doing
  6. Are selective about the people they give their energy to

Management guru Peter Drucker has said that effective leaders record, manage and consolidate their time. If we were more accountable and honest with ourselves about our time and how we spend it, I think we’d all be far more effective and happier. Turns out, most people aren’t very accurate in recollecting how they spent their time in a given day or week.

When an important task isn’t getting done, it’s important to acknowledge and admit that you have chosen to spend your time on less important tasks (i.e. posting on Facebook and Instagram). Instead of saying “I didn’t have enough time,” try saying “I chose to do X today instead of Y” or “I’m getting distracted” or “I’m focusing on the wrong things.”

This honesty and accountability will help you use your time more wisely, accomplish more and be less “busy.”

Quote of the Week

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

Henry David Thoreau

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Sink or Swim (#97)

In past weeks, I have written about people who’ve overcome adversity to reach new heights. Paul de Gelder is one such person and his incredible story offers a window into how one can create something positive from a seemingly impossible situation.

During his teenage years, Paul spent his time chasing girls, shoplifting, fighting, drinking and smoking pot.  At 20, after waking up beaten and bruised from a fight the previous night, he realized that if he didn’t make a change, he “would be dead by 23.”

So, he channeled his need for adrenaline toward the Australian army and become an Army Paratrooper. Soon after, he fell in love with diving and became a Navy Clearance Diver, an elite unit focused on underwater combat and countermeasures. Paul had found his passion and was loving life.

All of this changed on February 11, 2009. During a routine training drill in Sydney Harbor, Paul was swimming and setting up equipment when a he felt a tug on his leg. He turned around and came face-to-face with the head of a giant bull shark; its teeth were sunk into the flesh of his leg.

He tried to jab it in the eye, but as soon as he tried to move his right arm, he realized that his wrist and hand were in the shark’s mouth, too. When he tried to punch the shark with his free hand, the shark started to shake him and proceeded to pull him deeper under water.

As his lungs filled, everything slowed down and he thought to himself, “You’re gonna die right now…you’ve lived 10 lifetimes in these last 31 years. If it’s my time to go now, I’m ready.”

Suddenly the attack was over.  Although he was in complete agony, Paul was able to summon the strength to swim towards the raft where his team was. They managed to stop the bleeding just minutes before he would have bled out.

Paul ultimately lost his arm and leg. After his surgery, doctors struggled to get his pain under control; he thought many times that he would be better off dead.

That’s when he made a choice.

As Paul recalls, “I remember lying in the hospital bed thinking, what do I do now? I’d fought tooth and nail to make my life amazing from what it was. I’ll be damned if I go back to that life before. I realized that was the only power I had. I might be laying in a hospital bed dripped up on drugs, and I can’t go to the toilet by myself, but I have the power to make a choice.”

What followed was nine weeks in the hospital, another six months of therapy and rehab and then an uphill battle lobbying the military for more advanced prosthetics. Through it all, Paul had one goal in mind: get back to being a diver, something the Navy initially told him he could not do.

Refusing to accept this as an option, he worked out harder than ever, learned how to dive with his prosthetics and returned to work as a dive instructor within six months.

Five years later, Paul travels the world as a sought-after speaker.  He’s written a book titled, No Time for Fear and is also a co-host on Discovery’s “Shark Week.” He’s learned to embrace his fears and become empowered by them.

When I spoke with Paul, I asked him what his takeaway was for someone who had to overcome such a major setback or injury. His response was simple: “Rest, heal and get back in the game better, stronger and more determined.” He also lives his life around the principle of Improvise, Adapt and Overcome, a mantra he learned as a young paratrooper.

Wise words from someone who has the credibility to give this advice.

Paul has created an amazing video of his journey and his training regimen. You can also learn more about his story at

Quote of the Week

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

Francis of Assisi

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Goals and Standards (#94)

Goals are something you hope to achieve. Standards are uncompromising.

This was the essence of a talk given by Eric Kapitulik last month to a group of local CEOs. Eric is the founder of “The Program,” an innovative leadership development firm with military roots. He and his team work with top-performing college sports programs and private companies.

Eric’s description illuminated something that I had been struggling to wrap my head around – on both a personal and professional level. He explained that when we don’t meet our goals, we dust ourselves off and try again. But, when we don’t meet our standards, there needs to be a consequence and/or accountability.

In a business context, we need both goals and standards. Goals push the organization and individuals to reach objectives. I agree with Eric that not hitting a goal is not a reason to part ways with an employee. However, if that person continuously struggles to hit the goals set for them, then that requires a more careful look.

On the other hand, an organization needs standards and principals that are uncompromising. Failure to meet those standards on a regular basis requires accountability and action, otherwise, the standards won’t mean anything or be trusted by stakeholders. A good way to think of these is in terms of “always” and “never.” For instance, an organizational standard might be, “We always respond to customers within 24 hours and we never promise to do something that we know we can’t.” The expectations are very clear.

The same is true in our family dynamics. You may have set goals as a family, but you also need standards; expectations for how we behave with each other and contribute to the family unit that’s in addition to basic responsibilities. What’s more is that parents can’t be afraid to set consequences when those standards aren’t met. To have these standards mean something, there should be a clear association between cause and effect.

For example, when your child comes in after curfew, they should know what happens next. Otherwise the curfew is meaningless and you have comprised both your standard and integrity. Kids also need to be empowered to call out their parents when they feel standards aren’t being met.

Finally, if we truly want to achieve personal greatness, we must have personal standards. Last week, I heard a serial entrepreneur share that his coach calls him each morning to see if he followed his fitness plan from the previous day. If he didn’t, there are predetermined consequences, such as no alcohol or dessert that day.  At a higher level, when we fail to meet the standards we have laid out for ourselves, it can call our character and integrity into question.

This week, I encourage you think a bit more about the standards you want to establish for your team, your family and yourself. Where you set the bar has a lot to do with how much you can stand above the crowd.

Quote of The Week

“If you don’t set a baseline standard for what you’ll accept in life, you’ll find it’s easy to slip into behaviors and attitudes or a quality of life that’s far below what you deserve.”

Tony Robbins

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