Dec 282011
 
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The future is bright.

The Future Is Bright.  Focus On Solutions.

Despite all the gloom and doom we constantly hear in the daily news, the future is bright.

Regardless of what we may believe about global politics, national politics, local politics and struggling economies on all geographic scales, it is of little use to focus on gloom and doom.

What I learned at a young age, by virtue of some great mentors and just paying attention to what was going on in the world, is that no matter how horribly the media and my fellow human beings paint the scenario, it is hardly ever that bad for someone who is willing and able to be resourceful.

At the end of the day, even if, for example, some other country is going to take over as the dominant global economic and political powerhouse, or some competitive multinational business is coming into our neighborhood, what good does it do for us to freeze up in fear?  This is not useful.  Freezing up gets you nowhere.  The question is: what action are you going to take to mitigate the risk or to move in another direction?

I have found that those who are constantly talking about problems or potential problems, most likely are not doing anything about them.  Somehow they find it safer and more comforting to commiserate with other people who are doing the same thing, rather than spending their energy assessing their options and taking action.  This mindset defect applies to countries, to companies, to non-profit organizations, to individuals, even collectively to the human race.

Here are some simple steps for avoiding paralysis due to the fear and uncertainty caused by problems you may not completely understand.

Step 1:  Understand the problem as best you can.

Note that I said “as best you can”.  Don’t analyze the problem to the nano-detail, unless it’s a problem that requires that kind of precision.

Step 2:  Determine the magnitude of the problem.

Figure out whether the problem is “life-threatening” or something relatively minor.  It amazes me how often I see people fretting over problems that cannot have any major impact on them and ignoring those which can have significant consequences.

Step 3:  Focus on solutions.

Once you’ve figured out the magnitude of the problem, don’t obsess over it; just focus on solutions.  As soon as you understand what the problem is about, unless it’s highly dynamic, it makes no sense to pay further close attention to it; rather, you should move to focusing your energy on potential solutions.

Step 4:  Take action.

Once you have determined potential solutions, it’s time to take action.  Don’t fall victim of paralysis by analysis.  In the beginning of the process, the enemies were fear and uncertainty.  The enemy now is over-analysis, which itself is largely a result of fear and uncertainty.  Now is not the time for further analysis; it is time to take action and pay close attention to the results your actions are achieving.

Step 5:  Continually adjust your actions based on the results you achieve.

If you are paying attention, you will receive feedback on the results of your actions.  Based on this feedback you should continue to adjust your actions until the problem is successfully mitigated or completely solved.  The key here is not to stop until you get the result you are seeking.  Perseverance plays a key role in overcoming all difficult challenges.

The future is bright, as long as you don’t get caught up in focusing on gloom and doom and problems.  Take all information into account, but make sure that your focus is on finding potential solutions, taking action, and adjusting your actions based on the feedback you receive.  Then, don’t stop until you reach your objective.

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin

paul@companyfounder.com

www.companyfounder.com

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Sep 172011
 
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Struggling small business? Don't give up!

Struggling In Your Small Business? Don’t Give Up!

If you are struggling in your small business, take heart; you are not alone and you should not give up.  The potential reasons for your struggles, some of which we’ll discuss below, most likely have both a “macro” and “micro” foundation.  As long as you’re willing to be honest with yourself, there’s a good chance you can course-adjust and get your business back on track.  If not, you should at least be able to make a rational decision of “where to go from here”.

The first step in determining what you should do if your business is struggling is to assess whether you have a “good business” to begin with!  Whether you’re running a business that’s been around for seventy-five years or one that’s been around for a month, it’s important to take an honest look at what you have.  It’s sad to say, but some businesses shouldn’t have been started in the first place, and some businesses that were great at the beginning, have been passed by due to “human progress” (“buggy whips” come to mind) or poor management, or both.

Let’s focus on the case of a relatively mature small business that has run into hard times.  If instead you are looking more for a discussion of the characteristics you’ll want to consider in screening a startup, see Startup Basics – The Difference Between Ideas and Opportunities.

First, I want to make the point that I’m a huge fan of the entrepreneur (and any kind of achiever) who has the “never-say-die” mentality.  I applaud it.  I try to emulate it as much as possible.  I believe it is what leads to more progress in our world than almost any other single trait.  All that said, it’s important to be “realistic” too.  I am not saying to lose your never-say-die attitude.  Rather, I am saying assess the situation rationally, do what needs to be done, then channel your enormous willpower and energy in a direction that’s not tantamount to “rearranging deck chairs on the titanic”.

What are the questions you should ask yourself to determine whether your small business has “hit an iceberg” and become the equivalent of the Titanic?  Here are a few thoughts.  This is not an exhaustive list, but it should get your mind moving in the right direction.

Struggling Small Business Honest Self-Assessment Question #1

Has the industry taken a completely new direction, in which we are not prepared or equipped to go?

Take as an example the corner video rental store a few years ago.  Everyone could see the writing on the wall regarding the stiff competition from pay-per-view cable and Netflix, among other movie sources.  If you had owned a chain of video rental stores at that point, what would you have done?

Struggling Small Business Honest Self-Assessment Question #2

Have our margins been squeezed to the point that it’s impossible to make money on the bottom line?

In many industries, there is a tendency toward “commoditization,” which has very negative effects on gross margins, due to severe competition on price, without a commensurate reduction in costs of production.  A good example here would be most segments of the computer hardware manufacturing business.  The prices have come down far faster than the costs of production.  It’s now to the point where you need to be a very large player, doing a huge amount of volume, to have any hopes of making money in that business.  This is where commoditized industries end up.

Struggling Small Business Honest Self-Assessment Question #3

Do we have the right leadership team in place to grow our business?

I have seen this issue in non-family and family businesses alike, but it seems to be more prevalent in family owned companies.  What happens quite frequently is that someone has been with the company a long time, so they’re awarded a senior position, without any real assessment of whether they are the person who will be able to handle those responsibilities as the company grows.  It happens in sales, in marketing, in finance, in operations, even at the CEO and Board level.  The business simply outgrows some people.  It’s inevitable and it’s a difficult situation, but it must be dealt with, or the entire business is put in danger.  It is better to deal with the uncomfortable situation of having to demote or fire someone who cannot “make it happen” than it is to ignore the problem and bring the whole company down in the process.  I understand and fully agree with rewarding loyalty, but not to the detriment of the company, all its other employees, its shareholders, and other constituencies.  If your company and/or industry has outgrown you or other key members of your senior management team, acknowledge it and fix it as soon as possible.

Struggling Small Business Honest Self-Assessment Question #4

Should we be looking at a different part of the “value chain”?

Quite a few years back, I read a book by a couple of BCG (Boston Consulting Group) guys called Blown To Bits.  I don’t recall the exact terminology they used, but one important concept from the book has stuck with me.  They talked about how mature players will have to constantly defend attacks from insurgents who want to come in and “cherry pick” the most profitable pieces of the value chain.  Where are you in the “value chain” that brings value to your customers and solves their problem(s)?  Industries that have many layers of intermediaries en route from production to putting the products in the hands of consumers, these days are frequently seeing entire layers cut out of the chain.  This happens due to the ability of the manufacturer to go directly to the consumer.  Don’t become “disintermediated” (a term used in Blown to Bits, if I recall correctly)!  If you are in one of the layers that is not adding much value, you are in great danger of being cut out.  An example here would be auto insurance.  Geico simply cuts the broker out of the picture.  For other types of insurance, particularly complex business insurance, that’s not quite as easy to do.  Take a close look at your own situation.  Examine the “value chain” all the way from production to the consumer’s hands.  Where is the value being added?  Where is the money being made?  Where are you?

Struggling Small Business Honest Self-Assessment Question #5

If you conclude the future isn’t bright, you’ll need to answer the question: What should we do then?

If you ask yourself some of these questions and don’t like the answers you’re hearing, you will need to decide what to do.  There are typically several choices, including:  close the business, downsize the business, sell the business, change the market focus, upgrade the manufacturing capabilities, upgrade the senior management, etc.  In other words, there are a lot of possibilities and many of them are not mutually exclusive.  For example, upgrading the senior management and changing the market focus or overall strategic direction, would often be logical complements.  The key is that you must do something.  The worst thing you can do is nothing and just continue along a path that you know does not end well.  The other key is to be honest in your assessment.  If your business is struggling, there are reasons for it. It doesn’t just happen.  Most likely some of those reasons are related to macroeconomic issues and others are related to micro issues within the business itself.  In any case, you must take action to address the issues that you have control over.  For the remainder, you will need to do your best to be proactive and navigate around the “storms” in your immediate vicinity and those you see on the horizon.

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.

Paul Morin

paul@companyfounder.com

www.companyfounder.com

 

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Aug 052011
 
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Live “Sin Miedo”.  Without Fear.

There is an expression that is used frequently in Spanish:  “sin miedo,” which means without fear.  It is typically used in situations where someone is encouraging someone else to do something that may be a bit scary.  It is also a more general philosophy.

For those of you whom I’ve coached and those who have read a lot of my work, you’ll know I’ve written quite a bit about specific approaches to overcoming your fears and achieving peak performance in situations that otherwise could trigger a panic reaction and cause you to “run in the other direction”.  The piece on the GAMES Approach that focuses on techniques used by the U.S. Navy seals is a good example.  This article is not as focused specific techniques though; rather, it is about a more general “sin miedo” – without fear philosophy.

No matter who you are or what you do in life, you will run into “scary” situations – those that could cause you to freeze up or quit and run in the other direction.  If you are an achiever, which tends to describe well the vast majority of people with whom I work and associate, you will tend to run into these circumstances more frequently, as you are more likely to be “pushing the envelope” – that is how meaningful progress is typically made, after all.

If you are running into fear-invoking situations on a regular basis, you have two basic choices:  1.) You can go through life worrying when the next such situation may arise; and 2.) You can condition yourself and your mind to expect such situations to arise and welcome them as a challenge when they do.  You’d have to be crazy to welcome fear-invoking situations you say?  Not really.  The situations will arise regardless of how you choose to confront them.  Why not welcome them “sin miedo” and develop a spirit of embracing tough challenges?  Do you think such a mindset and approach may increase the likelihood that you will perform better in stressful situations and have less anxiety in general?  I assure you that it will.

So how do you program yourself to confront “scary” situations with unusual courage?  Well, there’s good news and bad news.  The good news is that it is possible – you can train yourself to respond without fear, or at least without as much fear as normal, when confronted with “fear situations”.  The bad news is that in order to program yourself to respond in an “unnatural” way to anything, you must do so through conditioning.  You must train yourself to confront such situations “sin miedo” and the only way to do that is to put yourself in those situations over and over again, respond “correctly” each time and it will get easier and easier.  The “correct” response will be come your default response.

Note that I’m not telling you to put your life in danger constantly just so you won’t be as afraid when your life is in danger.  That can of course be useful, but it’s a bit extreme for what I’m trying to teach you here.  Here we are talking mainly about irrational fears – those that we over-inflate in our minds as being “life or death,” when if we were thinking about them rationally, we’d realize very quickly that they’re not.  An example would be the fear of public speaking.  I’ve heard (and witnessed), more than once, the crazy contention that most people fear public speaking more than death itself!  So that would be an example of an irrational fear that you need to confront “sin miedo” – it’s clearly not “life or death,” but many people make it so in their minds.  You can no doubt think of several others, particularly those that you confront personally.

Alright, that sounds fine, right?  Confront my fears “sin miedo”.  But how do I do it?  In my experience, the only way to do it is to take the plunge and do those things that you fear most.  It sounds great as an intellectual exercise, I know, but trust me that I know it is not so easy to pull off in practice.  It’s very helpful if you have a friend, mentor or coach to accompany you on your journey to operate without fear.  If that person has experience in overcoming particular fears, even better.  But most importantly, you must trust that person implicitly, so that when it’s “go time” and you have to take that difficult step in the direction of the stage (public speaking) or out of the airplane (heights, parachuting), for example, you can trust that they won’t steer you wrong.

In a previous article I used the example of my youngest son and his fear of heights and how he ended up loving and embracing the ziplining experience in Central America, where you soar over the rainforest canopy several hundred feet up in the air.  That example is a good one here too, as it illustrates the importance of having a guide or coach to get you through the tough part – taking the first step.  In that particular case, my son was literally strapped to the guide, so he knew that his safety was inextricably linked to the safety and knowledge of that guide.  This allowed him to quickly develop a trust and confidence level.  He then had the “experience of his life” and while he still has some fear of heights, that fear has been greatly diminished.  And by the way, after overcoming that fear and doing the ziplining experience, his confidence shot through the roof in many other aspects of his life.  That is a nice collateral benefit that often accompanies a willingness to confront and overcome fears, to live “sin miedo”.

A technique that works very well in learning to live without fear and embrace difficult challenges is to develop a kind of “personal mantra” that you use whenever fear and worry start to creep into your mind.  In my case, I actually use “sin miedo,” as it has a lot of meaning for me and evokes a visceral response to “toughen up” and confront whatever challenge it may be head-on.  This is not so dissimilar to the importance of short-term goals I covered in the article “Why Goal Setting Is So Important,” where I discussed how you can use a kind of mantra (in that case “202”) to help you access your willpower and push through situations where you’d otherwise have an overwhelming desire to quit.  The two concepts are highly linked, as they deal with your mind’s desire to avoid or end an uncomfortable situation or feeling.

What are your fears?  Do you live “sin miedo,” or do you go through life in a constant state of anxiety and fearfulness?  I guarantee you that if you are willing to confront your fears, whatever they may be, head-on and you can find someone you trust to help you work through them, your life will improve significantly and irreversibly.  If you cannot do this, there will be little that can help you break out of a constant state of stress, worry and anxiety.  You must take action to get this result.  It will not happen automatically.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Paul Morin

paul@CompanyFounder.com

www.CompanyFounder.com.

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Aug 042011
 
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A Leader’s Dream.  Or Nightmare?

I recently had an experience where I was coaching someone and something happened that made a big impression on me.  It’s certainly not the first time something similar has happened, but this time it really affected me.  We were talking through how to prepare for a certain event and I told him, you will need a schedule in which you detail what you are going to do daily over the next four months.  He said to me, “Please make me the schedule and I will just follow it”.

My first thought was, ok, this is perfect – I will just make the schedule – it will save me a lot of time if I don’t have to explain it and the result will likely be the same – a leader’s dream, right?  Given what I do for a living on the coaching side, which is work with entrepreneurs, senior executives and other high-achievers to help them achieve peak performance, I quickly had to step back and point out to myself that the easiest route is not always the best route.

Sure, by just setting up the schedule and letting him perform the activities like a mindless automaton, he probably could have performed quite well on this particular project.  However, where would he be on the next project?  Would I really have been doing my job as a coach and a leader?  Some would argue yes, that the simple, straightforward, mindless approach was fine, as long as the results of the project were good – the ends justify the means argument.

I came to a different conclusion.  Even though it cost me and the person I was coaching a bit of extra time, I decided it was worth it to walk that person through the rationale for each activity and the timing of each activity on the schedule.   How do you think this went?  You are correct – it was “like pulling teeth”.  The “mentee” already had his mind up that he did not want to know any of “the why”; he simply wanted to know exactly what he needed to do, then go do it.

This led me to a few specific conclusions about this individual and one general and more troubling thought.  First, I realized that unless this person changed their mindset, they were not likely to progress much further in that particular field of endeavor.  Second, I also concluded that without a change of approach, this person could not very easily become a leader – after all, how could they ever lead someone else if they themselves did not want to understand the “why” behind what needed to be done?  Finally, I concluded that while this approach of “tell me exactly what, how and when to do it” may work for some relatively simple tasks and situations, as soon as this “paint by the numbers” trainee ran into a more complex and dynamic scenario, they would likely have no idea what to do.  That is not very useful in the exceptionally dynamic world in which we live.

The more general and troubling thought I had based on this interaction is that this individual is not unique.  There is a massive group of people out there, probably a significant percentage of the Earth’s population, who would rather be told exactly what to do than to have to spend one second thinking for themselves.  That is a scary thought indeed!  You can call it human nature if you’d like.  You can call it laziness.  But whatever you call it, it’s hard to disagree that if we only have a small percentage of the population willing and capable of thinking and planning for themselves, we have a real problem!  We must also ask ourselves how we can change this.  On a macro level, it’s going to be a tremendous challenge, starting at the beginning of how we raise and educate our children.  On the micro level, we stand a better chance of making a positive change in the short term.

What if, in our businesses and any organization in which we participate or lead, we slowly, but surely push ourselves and those around us to cease being automatons and start thinking for themselves?  Do you think we’d develop more effective organizations that way?  Do you think we’d develop organizations that are more capable of adapting to our dynamic, rapidly changing macroeconomic and global political environment?  I would say that the answer to these questions is a resounding, “Yes”!  We must create more leaders, not more followers.  Through our leadership, we must strive not to tell our followers exactly what to do and be content when they obey our orders.  That will not get us nearly as far as creating followers who are capable of thinking for themselves and becoming the next generation of leaders.  If we don’t do this, then who will become the leaders of the next generation?  How will they know how to lead?  Will they even want to try to lead?

Given the time pressures we are all under, it would be easier to just make the schedules and task lists for our followers, but we need to resist that temptation.  Work with your team, your mentees, your followers, your children and anyone else you may influence to teach them how to think for themselves.  Reward them for thinking and for being creative.  Tell them that the end result matters.  Of course, it always matters.  But emphasize to them that it is much more important that they can figure out how to get to that end result individually and in collaboration with their team, than that they can do a specific set of well-defined tasks from rote memory.  Reward problem-solving initiative and creativity as much or more than you reward results on specific tasks.

Another related and very important topic, which is too much to cover in detail in this article, is the importance of willpower in overcoming any problem.  Regardless of how well you teach your team to solve problems, unless they have the willpower (perseverance, determination) to follow through until the job is done and the goal is reached, it will be all for nothing.  As a leader, you must help your team develop not just the knowledge and capabilities necessary to succeed in dynamic environments, you also must help them develop the confidence and perseverance necessary to follow through until the desired results have been attained.  That’s the topic for another discussion.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Paul Morin

paul@CompanyFounder.com

www.CompanyFounder.com.

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Jul 312011
 
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Why Goal Setting Is So Important

I finally figured out and understand at a visceral level why goal setting is so important.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, based on my extensive work and research with entrepreneurs and achievers of all types, the strength of your willpower is perhaps the most important differentiating characteristic for those who accomplish “great things” versus those who don’t.  My interaction with “super-achievers” has been even more intensive lately as I write and prepare to release my latest book, called 10 Steps to Greatness:  The Super-achievers’ Little Handbook.  This more intense interaction with those who’ve achieved “greatness” has convinced me more than ever that having an indomitable will to succeed is the single most important characteristic of those who most everyone would agree have achieved exceptional levels of accomplishment in their fields of endeavor.

Ok, so what does all this have to do with the importance of setting goals?  Well, today I experienced first-hand something that I’ve experienced many times before without a similar “a-ha moment”:  a simple goal can keep you on track and keep you from quitting, no matter how much you might like to do so.  Let me explain the circumstances of this “a-ha moment” and how it drove home the importance of short-term goal setting as it relates to the all-important matter of willpower.

Today I was going for a standard weekend workout, which consists of 2.5 hours of aerobic exercise of varying levels of intensity.  In this case, the workout was a combination of running and cycling.  As is customary these days, I do the running first, and then finish off the workout with cycling.  The difference today, which hit me in the face as I walked out the door to get started, was that although it was just 6:15am, the heat index was through the roof.  Although it was pretty early and the sun had not yet come out, the humidity made it feel like being in a sauna on full blast – not an ideal environment for an intense workout.  We decided to give it a go anyway.  My wife wanted to do just the first half of the workout with me and we decided to do it at a quick pace.  So by the time we finished the first half, I was already relatively spent, but I decided to take an energy gel and another electrolyte pill and push on through the rest of the workout.

When I arrived at the one mile circuit for cycling, which is about four miles from our house, I knew I was going to be in for a tough hour and roughly fifteen minutes.  The sun had come up and it felt like a sauna with no roof and a strong sun shining in.  That was the first point where I would have liked to have quit and said, “I’ve done enough already; there’s no need to push it,” however we’re preparing for a couple of upcoming races and I knew if I could just push through it, it would be excellent preparation for those races, which will take at least 2.5 hours and may be in relatively high heat conditions as well.

Even though I wanted to “soldier on,” I was feeling pretty lousy, so I knew I needed something to keep me going and not throw in the towel.  That’s when I remembered one of the articles I’d written relatively recently about the Navy SEALs Pool Competency Test and how short-term goal setting could get you through pretty much anything that’s very uncomfortable and challenging.  So I decided to give it a try in this pressure cooker heat environment.  I calculated exactly how many miles I needed to do to reach my overall goal for the day, taking into account that I’d also ride another four miles to get back to my house.  The calculation led me to realize that my cycle computer would read 202 when I reached that number.

So, from then on, whatever negative thoughts came into my mind were quickly replaced simply with “202”.  I would not allow myself a single negative thought.  Into my mind would pop, “man, this is ridiculous,” only quickly to be replaced with “202”.  Then would come up “who would ride this many miles in a sauna without a roof,” which would be quickly erased by “202”.  And so on.  I’m not sure how many times this happened, but it was a bunch.  And you know what?  It worked.  Before I knew it, I looked down at the cycle computer and it read 200.3.  I was virtually ecstatic.  I knew it was just a couple more miles and I could head for home.  Without this approach I’m pretty sure that all the suffering I was feeling would have caused me to head for home much earlier.  [Note:  I was sure that I had everything covered from a hydration and general fitness perspective, so I wasn’t worried about serious physical problems – this is obviously extremely important any time you’re “pushing the envelope,” especially in high heat conditions.]

Why did this work?  As I was going through this experience and coming up to my “a-ha moment,” and when I wasn’t saying “202” in my mind, I was asking myself that question:  “why does setting simple short-term goals and focusing on them help you get through tough challenges?”  At some point, it occurred to me that the effectiveness of this approach is strongly linked to the importance of willpower in success and extraordinary achievement.  The human will can be absolutely incredible, but we need a way and a reason to access it.  We need a simple and powerful “why” to keep pushing on through exceptionally difficult circumstances.  In the immediate- and short-term, that “why” is a simple, clear, easily understood goal (or goals).  For me in this case, it was “202,” which I knew would get me to my overall mileage goal for the day.  This only explains the immediate- and short-term, of course, but we must get through them before we can get to the medium- and long-term.  The graphic below shows how this “virtuous cycle” works.

Goal Setting - Willpower - Virtuous Cycle

So, how can you put this goal setting “virtuous cycle” approach to work for you?  First, you must decide what, if anything, that you are trying to accomplish at this moment would make it worth “turning yourself inside out” (to use an expression the Tour de France commentators love) in order to achieve.  Is there anything you care that much about achieving to put in a “superhuman” effort?  We’re not just talking about a sports or exercise setting here.  The reality is, no matter what your field of endeavor, if you want to accomplish extraordinary things, you will need to put in a “superhuman” effort sometimes, if not very often.  Second, you need to decide what you are willing to do to achieve something extraordinary.  How far are you willing to push yourself?  Third, you need to do it!

The key is that you know what “it” is.  Do you know what it takes to be great in your field of endeavor?  If not, find out.  Once you have discovered what it takes to achieve greatness in your endeavor, formulate your goals accordingly.  You’ll need short-term, medium-term and long-term goals to keep you on track, focused and interested.  Make sure the short-terms goals build toward the medium-term goals and that the medium-term goals put you on track to accomplish the long-term goals.  Once you’ve done this, make an agreement with yourself regarding what “price” (pain, sacrifice of other activities, etc.) you are willing to pay, then, to quote a famous shoe company, “Just Do It”.

Once you’ve used this technique of having simple, clear short-term goals to access your willpower and get through difficult challenges, let me know how it goes.  For my clients, we’ll be talking in any case.  For others, shoot me an email or, if you have comments to share with everyone, please leave them below.

Paul Morin

paul@CompanyFounder.com

www.CompanyFounder.com.

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Jun 202011
 
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Where Does Greatness Come From?

Let’s focus in on human greatness here, as there are a lot of types of greatness in the world. So, where does human greatness come from? No one knows exactly, but I will give you some ideas of the steps to get there, based on my in-depth study of over 250 of the all-time great historical figures in a variety of fields, as well as my interviews and conversations with a large sample of contemporary greats, in fields ranging from entrepreneurship, to the military, to science, sports and many others.

The first and most important lesson is that generally speaking, people are not “born great,” simply knowing from the very start that they are gifted in a certain area and that they will become one of the “greats” in that area. As previously discussed, as much as there’s a great deal of folklore and exaggerated stories out there to that effect, most human beings do not become great at something from one minute to the next, without a huge, concerted and inspired effort. The common wisdom now is that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to move from beginner to expert in a particular endeavor. That does not necessarily make you “great” of course, but usually, if done correctly, it will at least get you to “expert” status. You will know more and be better at your chosen endeavor than the vast majority of the remainder of the human population.

So if it’s relatively clear what it typically takes to become an expert in a field, is it also clear what it takes to achieve “greatness” in a particular endeavor or field? Unfortunately, not really. In my experience as an advisor and coach and in my research, I have found a wide variety of paths to greatness. That’s good news and bad news, as the saying goes. It’s good news, since even if you are not or have not been on a particular path, it doesn’t, de facto, mean that you cannot become great in your chosen field or endeavor. It’s bad news because it doesn’t give us one well-defined path to zoom in on in an effort to achieve greatness. That being said, in my experience and my research, I have found some common threads of the path to greatness. I will lay out those commonalities in the form of a ten-step process to become great at anything. There are no guarantees, of course, as most of the hard work rests on your shoulders, but by using this approach, in my opinion, you will maximize the probability that you can become “one of the greats” in your endeavor.

The first step is to identify the area of greatness that you are pursuing. You should be as specific as you can, given that the more nebulous you leave it, the more difficult you will find it to make focused efforts toward achieving your goal in the steps that follow.

The second step is to uncover the key requirements to become great in your chosen endeavor. The four main approaches you will pursue in uncovering these requirements will be the following:

a. Go directly to the “horse’s mouth”. That is, you should contact one or several people who have already done what you’re trying to do – become great in your field – and ask them how they did it. Try to get as many specifics as possible.

b. Talk to one or several coaches in that domain. These could also be referred to as subject matter experts (SMEs) or maybe even SMEs with a bit extra, as they have chosen to be coaches and thus are likely oriented toward understanding how to maximize performance in your particular endeavor.

c. Read books by experts in the field. Reading appeals to some folks and does not appeal to others. There are also many books on tape now, which you can listen to when you are driving or exercising. If you are more oriented toward learning from video, you should also be able to find plenty of resources in that medium.

d. Watch true professionals in action. If what you’re trying to become great at is a sport, watch as many events as you can, but don’t just watch as a fan or casual observer; watch as a student of the game. Likewise, if your focus is in business or another area, become a curious student of all that happens in your field.

The third step is to take stock of your natural abilities. Take a look at your physical and mental attributes. Don’t judge yourself or determine whether these attributes are good or bad at this point, just take stock. Are you exceptionally tall? Are you great with numbers? Etc.

The fourth step is to look at your strengths and weaknesses relative to what you’ve determined that it takes to be great in your chosen endeavor. You’ll want to go into great depth here, as understanding where your weaknesses are, for example, will allow you to structure your practice in a way that helps you to optimize your use of time and accelerate your road to greatness.

The fifth step is to focus in on your “why”? That is, why do you want to become great at this endeavor? What is it that’s driving you? Is it a “strong why”? In other words, do you think it is sufficiently strong to drive you to put in and maintain the extraordinary effort and concentration level that will be required to become great?

The sixth step is to set goals for yourself. You will want to set short-, medium- and long-term goals that take into account the requirements to become great, as well as the specific areas you’ve determined where you need to make improvements. Monitor progress toward your goals and make sure that you set a timeline for completion of each goal.

The seventh step is to constantly reinforce your belief that you can attain the goals that you’ve set for yourself to become great in your endeavor. This belief will be reinforced regularly if you have set your goals in a way that they are achievable on an incremental basis. Allow yourself to achieve small victories along the way, as this will nurture your belief. As with the later step of maintaining calm, you will also want to use positive self-talk and visualizations in this step.

The eighth step is to develop a detailed preparation schedule that is oriented toward reaching your goals and achieving greatness. Regardless of what your endeavor is, you may want to work with a coach or other qualified third party to ensure that your preparation schedule makes sense in terms of getting you to where you want to be without burning you out in the meantime.

The ninth step is to make sure that you have in place a calming mantra and approach for when you get into stressful situations on the road to achieving your goals. If you are trying to become great at anything, no matter what the field, it is inevitable that you will encounter some, maybe even a huge amount of stress along the way. You need an approach to deal with fear and stress and keep progressing toward greatness. That approach will likely involve extensive use of positive self-talk and visualization.

The tenth step is to constantly work on and nourish your will to succeed and concentrate. In fact, based on my experience and research, this may be the most important step and factor in your success. There are very few exceptions among the historical and contemporary greats that did not have to exercise enormous power of will and concentration, usually on many, many occasions. Becoming an expert is challenging enough. Becoming great is another whole level and it almost always requires many instances of calling on massive willpower to overcome the inevitable obstacles that lie in the path to greatness.

We’ll go into each of these steps in much more detail, but this summary gives you an idea of the path you need to follow to move from beginner to expert, and then, if your “why,” your belief and your willpower are strong enough, on to greatness.

I look forward to your thoughts, comments and questions.

Paul Morin
paul@CompanyFounder.com
www.CompanyFounder.com.

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May 232011
 
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Punished by Praise

The Early Achievers’ Curse When Seeking Greatness and Peak Performance

Be careful when receiving praise or when heaping it on yourself (self-talk) or others. Too much of the wrong type of praise can be counter-productive and can actually undermine your efforts to become great and achieve peak performance in your chosen field or endeavor.

This sounds counter-intuitive, you may say. Doesn’t praise help to build up your self-image and make you a stronger performer with more confidence? It is indeed a double-edged sword. Praise, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. The issue is that when something comes easy to you and you hear from everyone around you things like, “Wow, you are really great at this … you’re a natural,” it tends to make you say to yourself, “You know what, they’re right; I am quite good at this”. In some cases, this leads to over-confidence and engenders a mindset that is not in touch with what it takes to become great at anything – hard work and “deliberate practice” over an extended period of time.

Based on everything I’ve seen in my own consulting, coaching and execution, there are no shortcuts to greatness, no matter the area of endeavor. You of course do have to believe that you can be successful and you have to have the willpower to make it happen, but it is very dangerous to believe that it will come too easily to you. I’ve seen it time and again, in fields as diverse as soccer, chess, mathematics, sales, entrepreneurship, art and music – the young student or adult beginner gets a lot of positive feedback early in the process of learning. They then do very well for a while and are at the “head of the class,” but then with time, they inevitably get passed by someone with less initial “talent” who wants it more and works harder and smarter to make it happen.

The other aspect of getting too much praise early is that for some, it makes them reluctant to take risks and step outside their comfort zone in the future. In order to become truly great at something, to become a true expert, you need to “take your knocks” and you need to be willing to take risks, make mistakes, learn from them, and then move on. However, if you really enjoy the early praise and recognition that you receive, it may make you less likely to take the necessary risks to achieve greatness in your chosen endeavor. The praise and recognition can actually become addictive and you don’t want to risk damaging your self-image by taking a chance of making a mistake or “failing”. Without the willingness to take risks, you can unknowingly place an artificial ceiling on your growth and your ability to become a master or an expert in your field. Such fear of failure can put an end to an otherwise promising “career” in anything.

So, what’s the answer? Well, it certainly isn’t excessive negativity. Nor is it ceasing to give or receive praise. Rather, when you give praise or receive it, you must include a counter-balancing reality check every time – a reminder that there is always more to learn – that no matter how good you are, there’s always room for growth. If the feedback, whether it be praise or criticism is not balanced this way, it can be very dangerous and can severely limit your potential to become great and achieve peak performance.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Paul Morin
paul@CompanyFounder.com
www.CompanyFounder.com.

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May 202011
 
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We all have fears. It is part of the reality of being human. Those who deny having any fears typically are lying or are not being honest with themselves.

The following comments are based on my work and research with athletes, business people and other elite performers such as Special Forces members. Further resources for information on this topic include many articles, books, audio and video works, including the 2009 History Channel documentary called The Brain. The GAMES Approach mentioned below is adapted from a Navy SEAL approach to dealing with fears, which was covered in the History Channel’s The Brain documentary.

Can fears get in the way of accomplishing your objectives? Can they keep you from becoming great at whatever it is you want to conquer? Absolutely! Fears can stop you dead in your tracks, quite literally. This is due to how the brain functions and sometimes this reality works to your benefit, particularly in the area of physical safety.

However, in the area of “mental safety,” fear can be a real problem. In the brain’s desire to protect you from the unknown and apparently dangerous, it can actually impede you from accomplishing your most important goals.

Rather than focus in depth on the physiological realities that cause you to stop “dead in your tracks,” I’ll give you a basic primer on what happens in your brain when confronted with “scary” situations, then we’ll quickly move on to what you can do about it, so that you can, to quote the Doors, “break on through to the other side”.

When you are confronted with a scary situation, in basic terms, your brain presses the “panic button”. The danger is perceived by your senses then makes it way over to the Amygdala, one of the regions of the brain that deals with emotion, where if the danger is perceived to be real and imminent, the brain starts a cascade effect of panic responses. Your heart beats faster, you breathe faster, your blood pressure rises, and if the level of panic is sufficient, chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into your bloodstream. The fight or flight system is thus activated and you’re in full panic mode, like it or not.

Unless the Frontal Lobes of the Cerebral Cortex can get the Amygdala’s panic cascade under control, or prevent it from occurring in the first place, the likelihood of pushing through your fears is quite limited. The Nervous System response and blood stream chemical effects are simply overwhelming. The problem is that research has shown that the sensory data arrives more quickly to the Amygdala than it does to the Frontal Lobes, where rational thought could potentially prevent the fear reaction from cascading out of control. Then how can the Frontal Lobes possibly prevent the Amygdala from reacting and triggering panic mode? Per The Brain documentary mentioned above, this was a question very much on the mind of instructors at the Navy SEALs Special Warfare Command in San Diego, California.

They came to the realization that they were losing a large number of potential SEALs from the training process due to one simple fact: they could not control their fear response.

Image of BUDS - Navy SEAL Pool Competency Training

Image by Official U.S. Navy Imagery via Flickr

This inability to control the fear response was most apparent in what’s called the Underwater Pool Competency Test. This is the test where SEAL candidates spend as much as 20 minutes underwater with SCUBA equipment, during which time they are constantly harassed by instructors. The instructors will turn off their regulators, tie their breathing gear into knots and generally make it difficult to breathe from the SCUBA tank for more than a short time. This harassment leads to a steadily worsening mental and physical condition and the candidates must do everything they can to resist the desire to surface for air. It is an incredibly strong desire that is extraordinarily difficult to suppress. The human brain has been hardwired to understand that breathing is absolutely fundamental, that we cannot breathe underwater, and without oxygen for any prolonged period, we’re dead.

So realizing that the Amygdala pushes the panic button, and further realizing that the only way to overcome this automatic response would be to get the Cortex/ Frontal Lobes involved, the SEAL commanders came to the conclusion that it was important to be pro-active and condition a “non-panic” response by repeated exposure to the “right” emergency procedures. What it boils down to is that the Cortex / Frontal Lobes cannot get involved “realtime” before the Amygdala at the moment the danger is perceived, as they receive the sensory input more slowly, so the response needs to be conditioned based on practice before any event that could induce panic. The candidates need to override their panic system, based on previously obtained and internalized knowledge and a set of step-by-step procedures and techniques. While there are more, SEAL instructors decided to focus on what they call the “big 4” techniques: Goal-setting; Mental Rehearsal; Self-talk; and Arousal Control. I have added a fifth, “Endurance,” and re-orderded them a bit to come up with the “GAMES” Approach to conquering your fears. Next we will touch on each of the elements of the GAMES Approach.

[G]oal-setting: This involves creating very short-term and achievable goals, so that you are not overwhelmed by a bunch of extraneous thoughts and concerns and can remain focused on the task at hand. So, for example in the case of the Underwater Pool Competency Test, when you were underwater and the instructor tangled your breathing apparatus, you wouldn’t think to yourself, “I wonder what he’s going to do to me next…”, or “I’m not sure how much more of this I can take…”, or “I wonder how the candidate next to me is doing…”. Rather, you would say to yourself, simply, my goal is to untangle these knots – nothing more and nothing less. You would then say to yourself: I will employ the knot untangling procedure we learned in training step-by-step. Then you would execute step one, step two … etc. In other words, you would block out all extraneous thoughts and factors and focus totally on the task at hand, step-by-step. Can you see how you could use the same approach with any fears you may have in business, sports or life?

[A]rousal Control: This element focuses mainly on breathing. Taking deeper breaths with longer exhales stimulates the body’s relaxation response and helps to mitigate some of the effects that the Amygdala’s panic response can create. So, in the Pool Competency example, when the instructor tied your hoses or pulled your mask off, rather than immediately starting to try to breathe rapidly (which you couldn’t anyway if what the instructor interrupted the air supply), you would calm your mind with a decent exhale and then calmly get to work on accomplishing your goals and following procedures to address the issue, step-by-step. The relaxed breathing is harder to do in this example underwater, but can you see how breathing in a more relaxed fashion in business, sports or the rest of your life, and remaining calm rather than immediately going into panic mode, could help your performance?

[M]ental Rehearsal: Often referred to as visualization, mental rehearsal involves running through in your mind whatever it is that you are trying to accomplish, envisioning all the steps, then reacting calmly to any stress and ultimately, achieving a successful outcome. Mental rehearsal is seeing yourself doing it over and over again successfully, as if in a movie. You can visualize the scenario from a first-person perspective, where you are seeing it through your eyes as you perform the actions, or from a third-person perspective, where it’s as if you are seeing it through the eyes of someone else who is watching you perform the task successfully. You should visualize the scenario in as much detail as possible, so it looks and feels as realistic as possible. There is a great deal of research out there that indicates that your mind has a hard time differentiating between a scenario vividly visualized and one that actually occurred. As one SEAL psychologist says, by performing this step of mental rehearsal, the first time you do something “in real life,” as far as your mind is concerned, it won’t be like the first time at all and you may have greater success controlling the panic reaction that typically would occur. The process of mental rehearsal has been of great assistance in enhancing SEAL performance; can you also see how doing this could help you perform better in all of your endeavors?

[E]ndurance: This element is a recognition that this pro-active approach to mastering the fear response is not something that will happen quickly. It is a war of attrition against your Amygdala’s fear response. You will have to have a great deal of endurance and determination as you do as many iterations as necessary to conquer your fear response(s) in your particular endeavor. You will need to commit to stay at it as long as necessary, bravely confronting and conquering your fears head-on, knowing that by doing so, you will greatly increase the probability of achieving greatness in your chosen endeavor. Your mantra should be: As long as it takes, as many times as it takes. It’s a marathon not a sprint. Commit ahead of time. Be brave. Do not give up until you conquer your fears and reach your objectives.

[S]elf-talk: As has been discussed and proven in many other contexts, the Navy SEAL commanders came to the realization that in becoming an effective Special Forces team member, what you say to yourself, particularly in times of stress, is very important. You can say as many as 1,000 words to yourself in a minute, but at a minimum, you are likely to say several hundred words. If you are filling your mind with negative thoughts, you don’t increase your chances of success; instead, you increase your probability of failure. Discipline yourself to focus on positive self-talk. Repeat encouraging phrases to yourself. Find specific phrases or words that are particularly calming for you, or particularly motivating for you. Use them constantly to prepare for scenarios and use them during scenarios that occur, in the “heat of the battle”. Be your own best fan. Be your own cheering section. Prove by your self-talk that you believe in yourself and in the probability that you will succeed. This will help you keep the stress response under control and it will help you succeed in every aspect of your life.

So there you have in a nutshell the GAMES Approach to overcoming fears and achieving your goals and “greatness” in all areas of your life. Don’t limit yourself to one or two of the elements of the Approach; use all five. Use them pro-actively and use them together, in concert. Some fear responses are so strong that they will overwhelm anything but a coordinated effort to make sure that your rational Cortex wins out over your emotional, panic-prone Amygdala. In the effort to control the fear response and increase the probability that you will accomplish your objectives and become great in your chosen endeavor, you need all the reinforcements and coordination you can get.

I look forward to your comments and questions.

Paul Morin
paul@CompanyFounder.com
www.CompanyFounder.com

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May 102011
 
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Your Will To Succeed

The Most Important Character Trait As An Entrepreneur

In my consulting and coaching practice, I have the good fortune to interact with a lot of top entrepreneurs, CEOs and athletes. I’m in a particularly intense period of such interaction right now, as I’m in the thick of research for a book I’m writing on peak performance and what it takes to be “great” at anything.

My coaching, research and consulting look at many factors that impact peak performance on an individual and organizational level. Even though we look at a wide range of factors, there is one factor that always stands out in successful individuals and organizations: the will to succeed. Given the complexities of talking about this factor as it relates to teams and organizations, I will focus here on the will to succeed on an individual level.

In talking and working with top performers in business and sports, we cover a wide range of factors including: natural ability, clear goals, preparation, belief and the will to succeed, among many others. I see a wide range of variability on all but the will to succeed. In peak performers, almost invariably, when we look at their will to succeed and talk to them about it, its importance comes out as a “10” on a scale of 1-10. When you take a closer look, it’s relatively easy to see why.

First of all, we all start out with different levels of natural ability. In reality, it’s something that’s beyond our control. As the saying goes, “you’re born with it, or you’re not”. Secondly, some people are extremely goal driven, while others are not. Next, some people are fanatical about preparation, while others tend to do the minimum to get by, and yes, this is even true among top performers in many disciplines. In terms of belief, it’s true, most peak performers do have a strong belief that they can be great at what they do, however this belief is something that usually develops over time, with each successive milestone reached.

The will to succeed, on the other hand, is a different sort of animal. While it’s true that many people that have a strong will to succeed seem to be “born with it,” the majority appear to pick it up from environmental factors, often in the early and formative years of life. In my case, for example, I grew up in a very competitive household, mainly with adults. I was not an “only child”, but my siblings are much older than me, so I spent most of my childhood with adults. I observed what they did and how they competed, and from a very early age, even though I was a child, I wanted to and I believed that I could beat them. When I was wrong in certain disciplines, mental or physical, I worked as hard as I could – I studied and trained as much as necessary, in order to beat them, despite the difference in years.

Other peoples’ inner drive to succeed comes from other factors. Perhaps, for example, as is so often the case, a person may grow up seeing what other people have and wanting to be more like them. When I say seeing what people “have,” I’m not necessarily referring to material things. Sometimes we see that other people have the lives we think we want, whether those lives include a lot of wealth, or an apparently happy family, or an apparently rewarding job – whatever it may be. In my coaching work, I often see that people are driven by trying to obtain the lives that other people have. Although this is often misleading, which people only realize once they obtain those things or “that life” that they had been envying, nonetheless, it can be a great source of motivation, drive and willpower.

Then there’s that inner drive that cannot be simply explained by childhood rivalries or by trying to keep up with the Joneses. That harder to explain drive and will to succeed may in fact be the most powerful of all. Where does it come from? I don’t have a great answer for you. For the religious, it comes from a God, that is whichever God they worship. For the non-religious, it comes from some inexplicable source, perhaps from some unknown drive within the human species to continue to evolve and improve constantly.

Regardless of where you may believe the will to succeed comes from, in my experience, it is the single most consistent and powerful factor in all peak performers in all areas of endeavor, including entrepreneurship. Cultivate your will to succeed. Make sure you focus on endeavors where your will to succeed, to compete, and to be at your best is alive and well. If you don’t feel such willpower in what you are doing, ask yourself why. Should you be doing something else? Or is it simply that you need to be more focused so that you can fully engage your will to succeed? Be honest with yourself and realize that without a strong will to succeed in any particular endeavor, your odds of achieving “greatness” are severely diminished, as you simply will not have the strength to overcome the inevitable roadblocks and challenges you will face.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments. Do you agree that the will to succeed is the single most important factor on the road to greatness in any endeavor?

Paul Morin
paul@companyfounder.com
www.companyfounder.com.

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