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This post is adapted from the forthcoming third edition of my book, The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success. Available in October, you can pre-order it here.

Research shows that moving to the executive level is among the toughest transitions of any career. For example, a study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership shows that 40 percent of new executives fail within eighteen months of being named to their positions. What’s going on here? Is it a case of the Peter Principle at work? Have 40 percent of all new executives simply risen to their level of incompetence? That seems unlikely. After all, to get to the executive level, you usually have to be pretty smart, accomplished, and competent. How do we explain the sudden increase in the failure rate when leaders move into next level roles?

Let’s look first at expectations. Based on my experience as an executive and coach in Fortune 500 corporations and large government agencies, I know that the expectations of performance for executives are very high. I also know that they are very rarely explicitly stated. Unfortunately, much of the time the only expectation that is shared with new executives is that they are to figure out what to do and how to do it. In an effort to make the implicit more explicit, I have identified nine sets of key behaviors and beliefs that executives need to pick up and let go of to succeed. These sets of behaviors break down into three primary components of executive presence: personal presence, team presence and organizational presence. The Next Level model of executive presence is summarized in this table:

The process of picking up and letting go, I’ve learned, is central to succeeding at the next level. Succeeding at the next level extends beyond just being promoted; it also applies when executives find themselves leading in any situation where, for internal or external reasons, the results expectations have changed.

In working with executives in the 8 years since the second edition of The Next Level was released, I’ve identified three key imperatives in Personal, Team and Organizational Presence that executives need to master to be successful at the next level:

  • For Personal Presence, the imperative is to manage yourself by regularly reflecting on where you are and preparing for what’s next.
  • For Team Presence, the imperative is to leverage your team by shifting how you use your time and attention and coaching your team members to succeed in bigger roles.
  • For Organizational Presence, the imperative is to engage your colleagues by collaborating with them to get bigger things done while contributing your grounded point of view.

I’ve come to think of those three leadership imperatives – manage yourself, leverage your team, engage your colleagues – as layers of a pyramid in which one layer is the prerequisite to the next.

Managing yourself is at the base of the pyramid. I’ve been saying for a couple of years now that if you want to lead at your best, you have to live at your best. As I’ve written here before, because of the pressure of a seemingly 24/7 operating environment, too many leaders are living in a chronic state of fight or flight. Establishing a sustainable life rhythm is at the heart of managing yourself effectively. If you’re not doing that well, you won’t be able to operate at your best in the other aspects of your leadership role.

Leveraging your team is the next layer of the pyramid. Most leaders have gotten where they are because they’ve developed the reputation of being the “go-to person.” They’re known for getting things done. I like to joke that being a go-to person is a great thing to be until it’s no longer a great thing to be. That’s when the scope of the job becomes too big to continue to operate as the hero or heroine. If leaders don’t leverage their teams, they eventually fail. The key is to make the shift from being the go-to person to the person who creates and leads teams of go-to people.

Engaging your colleagues is the top layer of the pyramid because that’s where most of the marginal value is created. By looking left, right and diagonally and not just up and down, the most effective leaders work with their colleagues to create outcomes that they and their teams cannot create by themselves. That requires developing a business first, function second mindset. It also requires enough mental bandwidth to look down the road and around corners to uncover previously hidden opportunities. Successful leaders create that bandwidth by leveraging their teams and managing themselves effectively.

Manage yourself. Leverage your team. Engage your colleagues. Doing the first sets you up to do the second. Doing the second paves the way for the third. Collectively, they roll up to successful leadership. How strong is your leadership pyramid? What’s your biggest opportunity to make it stronger?

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.

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You can consider this post an update of one I wrote back in the summer of 2009 about how middle managers can feel like the meat in the sandwich. I’ve used that analogy for years with my clients in middle and upper middle management. It really applies to any leader who is not working in the C-suite equivalent of their organization. When you’re the meat in the sandwich, you’re adding a lot of nutritional value while getting squeezed from the pressure of the slices of bread above and below you.

My experience since 2009 suggests the meat in the sandwich dynamic has become more pronounced. Since then, I’ve asked hundreds of audiences of executives to give me a show of hands if they’re in the same job they were in a year ago, but the scope of the job has gotten bigger in the last year. Invariably, including in an audience of around 100 executives in a presentation I gave last week, 80 to 90 percent of the leaders raise their hands.

A couple of weeks ago, in a session of the Next Level Leadership® group coaching program, I was talking with my clients about the meat in the sandwich phenomenon when one of them laughed and said, “Yeah, and the sandwich is a grilled and pressed panini!” We were all laughing about the image when another participant added to the picture by exclaiming, “And we’re not even the meat, we’re the cheese!”

Now that’s an image – the cheese in a panini getting so hot and gooey that it’s dripping out of the sides of the sandwich. Sounds pretty tasty in real life actually, but, metaphorically speaking, you do not want to be the cheese in the panini. So how do you make sure that you’re not? Here are some field-tested ways to make sure you can deliver nutritional value over the long run and not be under so much heat and pressure that you get squeezed out of the sandwich.

Focus on the things that only you can do: When you’re in a designated leadership role, there are certain opportunities that accrue to you because you’re the incumbent in the role. Examples of these things include goal setting, resource allocation, team selection and development, information flows and relational access. Pretty much all of the things that give you leverage in your role are related to leadership activities. Your leverage will rarely if ever come from your subject matter expertise. Focus on the things that only you can do as the designated leader.

Sequence the work: It’s a fact of life that everything can’t be done at once. One of the key things that only you can do as a leader is sequence the work for your team and yourself. Doing that successfully will require that you create enough bandwidth in your calendar to take a deep breath a few times a week and then check that you and your team are still working on the things that matter most and redirect everyone’s time and attention if you’re not.

Communicate the plan: When you sequence the work, you end up with a plan to do the work. When you have the plan, communicate it. Communicate it to your team so they understand what everyone is trying to do, by when and how they all contribute to the plan. Communicate it to your peers so they can coordinate their work with yours and so you can catch any bumps that are going to make things difficult if not addressed. Communicate the plan to your boss so there’s clarity and no ambiguity about what you’re working on and why. Ambiguity creates micromanagement. The more of that you have, the more you’re going to feel like the cheese getting squeezed out of the panini. Reduce ambiguity by communicating and confirming the plan.

Quit thinking so much: If you’re feeling squeezed, quit thinking so much. I don’t mean quit thinking about being squeezed (although that’s probably a good idea), I mean quit thinking constantly about all the things you have to do and problems you have to solve. As I wrote in this article for Fast Company, your best ideas come when you’re not actively thinking about the problem. Your brain needs time to pull the threads of ideas together and that usually doesn’t happen when you’re sitting at your desk working on your computer, in a meeting or on a conference call.

Take frequent breaks: Get up every hour and walk around or stretch for 5 to 10 minutes. You brain and your body both need breaks. When you get away from your desk and move a little every hour, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system. That helps clear away the stress hormones that build up from grinding on a problem. When you do that, you rest your perspective and things that previously felt hard seem a little easier.

Don’t be the cheese in the panini! Try one or more these strategies that will help reduce the pressure and allow you to lead and live at your best.

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.

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One of the things I love about leading our Next Level Leadership® group coaching program is hearing leaders’ stories about how they’re following through on their most important development opportunities.  As I’ve written here before, when they’re mapping out how to follow through, I always encourage them to look for repeatable actions that are relatively easy to do and likely to make a difference. Taking that approach has the benefit of jump starting the leader’s momentum and creating a positive impact through their behaviors.

In one of our current group coaching cohorts, I have several participants who have landed on simple mantras that are changing their leadership for the better. Here are a couple of examples of what they’re saying and the difference it’s making for them and their organizations.

One super high capacity leader in the program learned through her opening 360 degree assessment that she could do a better job of listening and not dominating conversations. That’s an opportunity that a lot of really bright, “get a lot of stuff done” leaders have. Their brain and problem solving process run so fast that they have a tendency to roll over people in conversations.  In doing so, they inadvertently shut down ideas and input from their colleagues. When leaders score low on the listening without dominating behavior, I almost always encourage them to take it on because the impact of getting better at it is so great.  This particular leader took my advice and decided to work on it.

Her primary action step is so simple it’s brilliant. When she’s in conversation and feels the urge to jump in with an opinion or answer, she now stops herself and says to the other person, “No, no you go first.”  By going second instead of first in the conversation, she’s creating space for others to contribute, giving herself more of an opportunity to see the bigger picture and learning that she doesn’t have to always provide the answer. As a result of all that, she’s getting even more done through and with other people rather than pushing things through on her own. All of that from repeating the simple mantra of, “No, no you go first.”

Another leader in the program is working on the Next Level 360 behavior of spending less time using her functional skills and more time encouraging others to use theirs.  She’s another super bright, high capacity leader who has developed a reputation over the years of being an expert in her domain.  That’s one of those things that’s a great thing to be until it’s no longer a great thing to be.  It’s great because it can establish you as a vital resource in the organization.  It’s no longer great when it becomes limiting to growth and development – yours and everyone else’s.

Recognizing the importance of changing the expert dynamic, this leader has also adopted a simple mantra that’s making a big difference in raising everyone’s game.  When a member of her team asks her to dive deep on helping them solve a problem, she now asks them, “Who else have you asked for help?” The impact of her mantra-like question is broad.  It keeps her from getting sidetracked with issues that aren’t her biggest priorities.  It encourages her team members to broaden their networks and collaborate with each other.  It also helps them realize that they already possess a lot of the knowledge and resources needed to solve the problems themselves.  When she asks, “Who else have you asked for help?,” everyone wins.

Could a simple leadership mantra work for you? I’m pretty sure it would.  To get started, identify a leadership behavior that, if you moved the needle in a positive direction, would make a difference for you and your organization.  Then, ask a few colleagues for their best ideas on what anyone working on that behavior could do to be better.  From that list of ideas, pick your favorite and then develop a simple mantra (a.k.a. catch phrase or question) that will help you remember to follow through on changing the behavior.

Let me know how it goes for you. and let me know what leadership mantra you’ve come up with and the difference it’s making for you and your organization.

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.

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If you enjoy reading my blog, you’ll likely appreciate my monthly newsletter At Your Best. This year, I’m writing a series on how to build skills in the leadership competencies that most organizations flag as vital.

In the first four months of 2018, I’ve shared tips on building the competencies of:

In the months to come, I’ll be writing about how you and your team can develop your leaderships skills in:

  • Building and leveraging strong teams
  • Collaborating and promoting teamwork
  • Inspiring and motivating others
  • Building strong and healthy relationships
  • Learning continuously
  • Managing yourself effectively
  • Demonstrating adaptability
  • Developing others

If you like what you see, subscribe to At Your Best and the Eblin Group blog.  I’d love for you to join our community of next level leadership insiders!

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If you’ve spent any time thinking about your retirement account or other investments you may have, you’re probably familiar with the concept of asset diversification. The idea is to not over-invest in one particular company or class of investments but to balance your portfolio across different types of assets. As a simple example, it makes sense for many people to invest in both stocks and bonds since when one of the two is up the other is often down. You don’t get crazy high returns when you invest this way, but you usually avoid catastrophic losses. Over time, the balanced investment approach of asset diversification has proven to yield reasonably predictable rates of return. Not super sexy rates of return, but rates in which you can have some degree of confidence.

And, by now, you may be asking yourself, “I thought this was a leadership blog. What’s up with the investment strategy tutorial?” There’s a connection and it comes from a client I’m working with in one of our leadership development programs. On a recent group follow-up call, she and her colleagues were sharing what they’d been working on since our last in-person session on building personal leadership presence.  As I’m writing about in the upcoming third edition of The Next Level, the essence of personal presence is to manage yourself by reflecting on where you are and preparing for what’s next. That’s exactly what this client had been doing in the month between our in-person session and the conference call.

When I asked her what she had been up to she said, with excitement in her voice, “I’ve been diversifying my happiness!” She then went on to explain that the discussion we had had in the session about creating a Life GPS® (you can read more about that here), caused her to reflect on what was missing from her life. She loves her job and is great at it, but concluded that she was over-invested in it. Her self-reflection made her realize that she was under-invested in exercise and giving back to the community in some way. She jump started the exercise by riding her bike every day on a recent week-long vacation. The truly inspirational part of her story was on the giving back to the community front.

Using a program similar to the one at VolunteerMatch, she started searching for a cause that matters to her and that she could be personally involved in. In a month, she’s been trained to provide support to families transitioning out of homelessness who have one or more children on the autism spectrum. She’s been matched with a family who has a six year old son who’s on the spectrum and will be meeting with them on Sundays since that fits in best with her busy schedule for work. She’s already had her first meeting with the family and is very excited about getting to know them better and providing support.

My client provides a great example of how to diversify your happiness. In her case, she used the three questions behind the Life GPS® to do some self-assessment and reflection. Those questions are:

  • How am I at my best?
  • What are the routines – physical, mental, relational and spiritual – that enable me to be my best?
  • What outcomes would I hope to see at home, work and in my community if I was regularly leading and living at my best?

Then, she asked herself, “What’s missing for me?” and quickly identified some gaps. Then, and this is key, she took immediate action on the exercise gap and prepared herself to close the community gap by doing some research to find an opportunity that she cared about and was do-able for her.

In one of those cases of the student has become the teacher, my client has inspired me to take a fresh look at what’s missing in my life and what I can do to diversify my happiness. Through this post, I hope she’s done the same for you.

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.

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I took the picture that accompanies this post from atop a trash can at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Montana Avenue in Santa Monica on Saturday. Thousands of people rallied there at the end of one of 800 March for Our Lives events that were held around the world that day for students, their families and friends to speak out against gun violence. As you’re no doubt aware, the largest of the marches took place in Washington, DC where the student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida spoke to a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people.

It was only six weeks ago that 17 students were killed in a mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High. This past weekend a million or more people marched around the world in support of the Parkland students’ movement that is encapsulated with the hashtag NeverAgain. Like many of you, I’ve marveled at and been inspired by the initiative of a group of high school students who have organized themselves to lead a nationwide movement to curb gun violence.

Whether you agree or disagree with the policy prescriptions advocated by the students, there are some clear leadership lessons that anyone who is willing to look can take away from what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. Here are five of my lessons learned from the young leaders of Stoneman Douglas High School:

Assume authorship of your story – Tragically, there have been many school mass shootings since the one at Columbine High School that demanded the world’s attention in 1999. And, tragically, the story has usually been the same – a few weeks or days of media attention and then the focus of the news cycle moves on. The Stoneman Douglas students decided that it was going to be different this time. They took authorship of their story. They moved beyond being survivors of a school shooting by taking control of their narrative. Within a day or two of the shooting, they organized themselves to get their story out – that there are things that can be done to end mass shootings at schools.

Tell your story – Once you’ve authored a story, you need to tell it if you hope to make an impact. The Stoneman Douglas students have been masterful in this respect. They’re authentic and relatable. They tell their story in a way that enables listeners to empathize with what they went through and are going through. They’re consistently articulate, clear and succinct in their interviews, speeches and online. They’re not preaching to the choir of people who already agree with them. By telling their story in the way they do, they make it easy for people who don’t already have their minds made up to connect with their story. That’s what compelled hundreds of thousands of people to turn out for a march to show their support.

Connect and stay connected – There’s been a lot written about awesome the Stoneman Douglas students are at social media. They are but they haven’t always been. As The New York Times reported a few weeks ago, many of them learned in real time the most effective ways to use Twitter and Instagram to connect with people. They’ve used the tools and platforms available to them to connect with supporters, recruit new supporters and mobilize them to action.

Partner with others while staying true to yourself – It’s probably obvious that a group of high school students can’t organize marches around the world without help. One thing I noticed at the march in Santa Monica this weekend was how many parents and grandparents were marching with their kids. The parents were there to support the kids who were in the lead. I assume that’s the case with the core group of leaders at Parkland. Of course, to pull off what they did this weekend, you need more than help from mom and dad. Again, as The New York Times reports, numerous national organizations contributed money and resources to help the Parkland students organize and produce the March for Our Lives. True enough, but the speakers were all students who stayed true to their message and purpose throughout.

Don’t be afraid to punch above your weight – The Parkland students didn’t buy the conventional wisdom that there’s nothing a bunch of kids can do about something as complicated as ending gun violence. They’re punching above their weight by mobilizing hundreds of thousands of their peers and the parents of their peers to do what it takes to keep schools safe. They’ve leveraged their First Amendment rights and, coming soon for many of them, their right to vote to drive the change they think is needed.

What’s next for the students of Stoneman Douglas High School and their movement? It’s got to be a bit of a let down on the Monday after you turned out a few million people around the world to march for your cause. Now the grind begins. Based on what they’ve done and dealt with so far, I wouldn’t bet against them.

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.

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Think about the last time you made a big purchase like a car, a major appliance or a mattress. With the possible exception of the car, there’s a pretty good chance you bought the product online after reading a lot of customer reviews. Why was that the case? Of course, one reason is that Amazon and other online retailers make it really easy to buy things online. Another likely reason is that you would do anything to avoid an aggressive sales pitch at the dealership or the store.

There are very few of us who like to be sold to. It feels insincere and competitive because our interests rarely align with that of the sales person. A win for you is great value for your money. Unless the incentives are thoughtfully considered, a win for the salesperson is to maximize the money you spend. Making a major purchase in this kind of scenario is usually a stress-inducing experience.

Even though most of us don’t like to be sold to, many of us regularly engage in selling our ideas or initiatives at work. And how effective is that? All too often, the answer is, “Not very.” I was recently reminded of a better way to make progress on your most important priorities – don’t sell, enroll.

That idea comes from Donagh Herlihy who, when I interviewed him for the first edition of The Next Level back in 2005, was the CIO for Avon. These days, Donagh is the chief technology officer for the restaurant company, Bloomin’ Brands. I’ve been reading through my interviews with him and other executives for the third edition of The Next Level that’s coming out this Fall. He offers a lot of wisdom on the difference between selling and enrolling in this quote from the book:

“One thing I constantly coach people on is enrolling others.  Your job as an executive is not to sell ideas; it’s to enroll people in ideas.  People get kind of resistant to being sold a strategy.  The way to go is to bring them in early, enroll them, get them engaged and then there is no need for salesmanship.”

Here are five simple steps you can take to act on Herlihy’s advice about why you should quit selling and start enrolling:

Involve Others Early – True enrollment requires trust. You build trust by bringing people in early. I used to have a boss who insisted that my peers and I not spring ideas on her that had been “grown in a dark closet like mushrooms.” What she was looking for was the opportunity to influence the big initiatives before they became fully baked. If she wasn’t involved or at least aware early on, she didn’t buy what we were selling. Involvement is the first step to enrollment.

Receive More Than You Transmit – As a communicator, you can either be a transmitter or a receiver. If all you want to do is sell your ideas, go ahead and transmit away. If you want to enroll people in your ideas, put more emphasis on receiving. Ask open ended questions that give your colleagues space to think out loud and share what is most important to them. Show that you’re processing what they’re sharing. Incorporate their needs and ideas into yours. That’s another behavior that builds the trust that enrollment requires.

Look for Mutual Interests – Life and business don’t have to be win/lose propositions. Look for the win/win opportunities that come from identifying mutual interests. Ask yourself, “What’s in it for them?” and then verify or improve upon your idea through collaborative conversations.

Share What You Know – Don’t play your cards close to your vest. Share what you know and put it out there. You’ll either influence your colleagues’ thinking or you’ll learn what their concerns are (or both).

Create a Shared Vision – Co-create a shared vision of the future that connects with people’s sense of purpose. Work with your colleagues to sketch out a picture of what the future looks like when you implement your improved-upon idea.

You may have noticed that these steps lead to more of a collaborative approach to leadership than a heroic approach. It requires more patience but yields more sustainable and meaningful results.

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.

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Earlier this year, I was talking with an executive coaching client about everything that was going on at once in his business life. The short and incomplete list included integrating an acquired company, moving his company’s headquarters to a new location, the annual planning process and addressing some significant new competitive threats. After hearing his list, I said to him that it reminded me of that list of stressful life events where you add up the scores of each event that is going on in your life to determine how much stress you’re dealing with.

That stressful life events list is called the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. It was developed in 1967 by two psychiatrists (unsurprisingly named Holmes and Rahe) who analyzed the coincidence of stressful life events with the health outcomes of 5,000 of their patients. If you score more than 300 points on the inventory, the research shows you have about an 80% chance of a stress-induced health breakdown in the next two years.

When you read through their list of life events through the lens of 2018, you realize how much the world and society has changed since 1967. For instance, one of the factors they listed was a spouse beginning or ceasing work outside the home. Of course, two income families were a lot less common in 1967 than they are today. Another observation about their list is almost all of their stressful life events involve a change in circumstances. Since their inventory was developed in 1967, there’s nothing on the list about the chronic stress that’s generated from 24/7 connectivity through smartphones and other devices. (Someone way more qualified than me should update the Holmes-Rahe Inventory to reflect life in the early 21st century. Just putting it out there.)

Still, it’s an interesting list and got me thinking about what would a business-life stress inventory look like? So, I started with the following events from the Holmes-Rahe and tweaked them a little bit to reflect the way business is done in 2018. Check how many apply to you and add up your points:

So, what was your score? If you checked off every item, you’d be up to 297 points and likely headed for a stress-induced health breakdown. And, of course, since it’s 2018 and not 1967, there are probably a number of other high-point items that you could add that aren’t on the list. If you scored higher than you think is healthy, I have some short-term and long-term advice. First, for the long-term, start working on changing the circumstances you can influence. What is probably more important in the short-term (and the long-term, too, for that matter), is that you establish some simple routines to mitigate the physiological and psychological impact of working in a high-stress environment. Three routines you can start right now that are easy to do and will make a positive difference are breathing, stretching and walking. This post I wrote in 2013 explains why each of them are so effective and how to get started.

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What do you notice about your thought process when you’re about to start something that’s difficult or intimidating? Is your inner monologue helpful or hurtful? Here’s a hint – your self-talk is highly predictive of the result you’re going to get.

There’s a simple mental shift you can make that almost guarantees a better result when you have to do something you’re not totally excited about or find a little bit scary. Instead of telling yourself, “I have to do this thing,” say to yourself, “I get to do this thing.”

As I’ve written here before, I learned this little trick years ago from speaking coach Dr. Nick Morgan when he was helping me prepare for the biggest speech I’d ever given up to that point. It was a keynote to a 1,000 people at the Washington Hilton with production values that were through the roof. Spot lights, teleprompters, the works. When you’re walking from the green room to the stage at the Hilton, you walk through a hallway that is filled with pictures of every U.S. President who has ever given a speech there. It’s an intimidating setting to say the least.

Fortunately for me, Nick knew the venue from personal experience and gave me some critical advice for when I was sitting in the green room waiting to go on. He told me to skip past the idea that I had to go give a big speech and instead focus on the idea that I get to go share my ideas with a 1,000 people who could benefit from them. That simple shift made all the difference. I was actually excited to take the stage that day.

I’ve used that “have to”/”get to” distinction ever since when I’m facing a potentially intimidating situation. A few years ago, for instance, I gave another big speech to a conference in Mexico City where many of the 1,000 plus people were getting simultaneous translation in Spanish as I delivered my speech in English. Again, thinking “get to” instead of “have to” was the key to a good experience for both me and the audience. Thanks to the “get to” mindset, my energy and confidence levels were both high and matched up well with the room.

Today, I’m working on revisions and additions to the upcoming 3rd edition of my first book, The Next Level. A few weeks ago, I caught myself thinking that I “have to” do a bunch of line edits that were going to feel like tedious work. After a good night’s sleep, I woke up with the “get to” perspective. Sure, doing line edits isn’t the most fun thing in the world but the bigger and more important picture with the 3rd edition is that I get to share with my readers so many cool new things I’ve learned from working with great leaders in the eight years since the 2nd edition was released. Once I locked back into the “get to” mindset, the project really took off for me and my creativity and energy soared. (And I can’t wait for you to see the 3rd edition this Fall – I think you’re going to love it!)

So, what is it for you – “have to” or “get to”? What’s on your to-do list right now that could benefit from making the “have to”/”get to” shift? One way to shift your thinking is to focus on the people who are going to benefit from what you’re working on. Consider the difference your work is going to make for them and how it will change their lives for the better. When you develop that mental picture shifting to the “get to” mindset just seems natural.

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In some organizations, this is the time of year where individual performance from the previous year is summarized and communicated in annual reviews. (Which, by the way, is an abysmal practice that does nothing to develop people and has at least an 80% chance of causing them to feel disengaged.)

One of the reasons annual performance reviews suck so much is that they too often deal in data points, not trends. Too many managers don’t provide meaningful performance feedback on a real-time basis so when performance review time rolls around (as it always and predictably does), they find themselves scrambling for points to make in the review conversation. That’s where the data points come in. In the absence of any meaningful thought or preparation, whatever happened recently suddenly becomes a trend. That meeting you nailed? Good job on that – you had a great year! That presentation you muffed? You know, I’m not sure you’re really a good fit for us.

Here’s the thing. A data point does not a trend make. A data point is exactly that – it’s a data point, not a trend. Lots of data points observed and documented over time? Now, that’s a trend.

In the absence of observed behaviors over time, data points are just snapshots of whether someone was having a good day or a bad day at any given point in time. It’s the same dynamic with feedback solicited from others. If you talk to 12 people and 11 of them agree and the other one disagrees, pay attention to the 11, not the one.

You may think I’m off on a rant here (you might be right), but there’s a reason I am. All too often, I talk with an executive who focuses on the most recent thing that happened with one of their directs and, from that one data point, they extrapolate a trend that demands action. When I hear this happening, my favorite question to ask the executive is, “Is that a data point or a trend?” Nine times out of ten, they’ll stop, think about it and tell me it’s just a data point.

They call it the recency effect for a reason. A data point does not a trend make. It’s a cognitive bias. Don’t fall for it. Great leaders assess on the trends, not the data points.

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