Help! I’ve Been Hijacked!

Have you ever had that feeling that you’ve been hijacked? No, not literally hijacked on an airplane bound for Boston, then suddenly headed to Havana. But maybe you’ve been hijacked by someone else’s agenda. Perhaps you know the feeling of moving forward resolutely toward your own goals and objectives when suddenly, you find yourself writing copy for someone else’s campaign or you’re volunteering for a cause just because you couldn’t say “no” to that persuasive friend. Everywhere we turn we’re faced with opportunities, decisions and invitations, most of them well-meaning but with the potential to distract us from our own powerful missions.

Recently I wrote, in dry-erase marker on my bathroom mirror, “Don’t get hijacked by someone else’s agenda.” This reminds me, daily, to consider the invitations that come my way. Do they support the mission I’m on, to create a world where people love what they do and do what they love? Are they part of my strategic marketing plan? Is the opportunity one that aligns with my commitments, passions and brand? Or am I just caught up in the moment, swept away by someone else’s (well-meaning) enthusiasm for their own project? The writing on my bathroom mirror cautions me to take the time to stop, think, and reflect before saying “yes.”

A while ago I read this quotation by Warren Buffett, the famous business magnate, investor and philanthropist:

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”


This quotation initially shocked me. For many years, I had lived by the credo, “Just say yes!” For someone who “smells” opportunity everywhere, I was convinced that staying open to the world, and saying “yes,” would move me closer to my goals. The wisdom of Warren Buffett turned my thinking upside down and made me very uncomfortable–it seemed so ungenerous! But after much reflection, I think I understand. Successful people stay committed to what they say they are committed to. Reluctantly, we can’t do everything. The “really successful people” maintain a laser-beam focus, resist being distracted and refuse to get hijacked by other people’s agendas. We can wish them well, and stay open to possibility. But in order to make a really big “dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs famously said, we must maintain our own mission, purpose and direction. We have to practice discernment. When in doubt, refer to your strategic plan. If you don’t have a strategic plan, let’s talk.

Promise Made, Promise Kept

My morning ritual consists of several important ingredients, the most critical of which is coffee. Armed with some strong Eight O’Clock Dark Italian Roast coffee, I retreat to my corner of the couch and curl up, ready to begin my day. I read a daily devotional, a faux-leather bound edition of Jesus Calling by Sarah Young (a gift from my friend Katy McDonough), and I usually read it twice because that’s how slow I am. I let the words wash over me and sometimes I even read it aloud. Then I pull out Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach. This book caused quite a sensation when it came out and made Ms. Breathnach a fortune, which she later lost due to an errant and ne’er-do-well husband. That story is detailed in Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Path to Financial Serenity by the same author. I read that next, a chapter or so at a time, to support my own rocky love affair with finances. And I recently I’ve been topping this morning ritual off with a chapter from Tim Sanders’ book Today We Are Rich: Harnessing the Power of Total Confidence. Oh, and then I pray. I guess that’s really the most important ingredient of my morning ritual.

Yes, I admit it, I’m a self-help book addict. I love beginning my day with not only Scripture but with messages from people who have been there, done that, faced adversity and won and who have a story to tell. In Tim Sanders’ book, he lists seven principles of confidence, and the last is “Promise Made, Promise Kept.” He tells a story of a woman who kept a promise not just to herself but to her boss and her physician–to quit smoking. Then she lost a significant amount of weight. She began keeping her promises and as she did so, she built that muscle and got better and better at it. That made me think, what promises am I keeping? And which ones am I failing to keep that, if I just paid more attention, would contribute to my life, my work and my relationships?

Each year I update my strategic marketing plan for my coaching and speaking business, and my first strategy for success is to “maintain and enhance client service.” One of the tactics supporting that strategy, a tactic I include each year, is to “return phone calls within 24 hours.” That’s a promise made but not always a promise kept. Whether it’s a client, a prospective client or a business associate, a family member or a friend, the value of returning that call can make the difference between success and failure. When I don’t return those calls–when I don’t keep my promises–I tend to see myself as a failure.

So today, I’m recommitting to that promise and (gulp) telling the world–that is, YOU. I invite you to hold me accountable to that promise and remind me when I’m breaking it (be gentle with me, I’m still learning). I know that by exercising my promise muscle, I will get stronger and stronger and there’s no tellin’ what might happen.

What promise will you make today, a promise you’re willing to keep?

[Photo: Hummingbird locket, available on Etsy]

Management 101 Revealed at Downton Abbey

When I first heard the buzz about “Downton Abbey,” a popular Masterpiece Theatre series, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Then I watched it–and watched it some more. Now I can’t wait until the stroke of midnight following the show on Sunday night because on Monday, it’s available online on PBS (we don’t have cable). For a while I was so smitten with the series that I tried to get my family to call me “M’Lady.” Alas, to no avail.

I’m not the only one who studies the show from another perspective, observing the relationships between the upstairs and downstairs characters for their lessons in leadership. Mark McKenna Little, a financial advisor who blogs regularly at “Mark McKenna Little’s Advisor PACT (TM) Blog” has written an insightful post “The Downton Abbey Service Model for Trusted Advisors.” In it, he confesses his own addiction to the series and profiles the people on the estate as employees within an organization which, in essence, they are. He also highlights a phrase that had caught my own ear after watching the show consistently: the staff, including the maids, the butlers, the footmen and valets, describe themselves as “in service.” That’s their vocation, their calling–to be “in service” to the aristocracy. With some exceptions (the nefarious Thomas comes to mind), the downstairs characters are dedicated to serving the Crawley family with commitment and devotion. Mr. McKenna Little delightfully dubs the domestic service staff “The Deliverables Team” and, indeed, that is their mission: to deliver. Whether it’s an elaborate picnic in the woods or the nightly meal with all its courses, the domestic staff/Deliverables Team are behind the scenes, making it all happen at the ring of a bell.

Mr. McKenna Little and I agree that those of us in the professional services field–financial advising, speaking, coaching, or any other type of service business–would do well to follow this Downton Abbey Service Model. The model as described in his blogpost delineates the keys to its success: an accepted team leader, process, high standards and accountability, integrity and, most importantly, an overriding theme that says “I’ll take care of it, M’Lord.” That last principle, the not-to-worry-I’ve-got-it-handled message, is summed up by Mr. McKenna Little as a single, overriding success principle: “Service is an attitude, not a process.”

Recently I spoke in Phoenix to the Summit Study Group, a collection of talented wealth management advisors who have formed a mastermind group to share best practices and hold each other accountable for their success. My topic? “The Joys of Strategic Planning.”  Many of these accomplished professionals already have some sort of plan in place and for some it was a new model. I outlined the simple model I use, emphasizing that all good plans start with a mission and a goal: To be of serviceFor financial planners, it may be to help their clients build the wealth that will give them financial freedom. For a speaker, it may be to inspire and motivate her audience to action so they can have a life they love. And for a coach, it’s providing the structure and support for clients to accomplish their own big dreams. At the heart of any professional services business is the goal to make a difference. And we can only do this by being “in service.”

I’ll watch “Downton Abbey” with a new eye, thanks to Mr. McKenna Little and his perspective of the Deliverables Team. And instead of feeling a wave of pity for those who appear to be indentured servants, I’ll think about my own service attitude and how that applies to my relationship with my clients. I’ll practice the art of making it all happen, meeting my clients’ expectations with that aura of effortless ease managed by the Deliverables Team.

Now, if I can just get my family to address me as “M’Lady.”

Luck is Not a Business Model

My son William, an actor, student and short-order cook, recently sent me a blog post by Michael Ruhlman in which Mr. Ruhlman quotes from the book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook  by Anthony Bourdain. Both profane and profound, Mr. Bourdain has made a career out of his eclectic experience as both chef and author, and his first book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, rocked the culinary world and led to television fame.

The blog post is entitled “So You Wanna Be a Chef” and the excerpt from Mr. Bourdain’s book is a litany of all the reasons not to commit to attending culinary school and/or to the world of professional cooking. He ends his admonition to the reader by admitting that in spite of his own bad choices early in his career, including his battle with addictions, he got lucky. “And luck,” he writes,” is not a business model.”

Those words resonated with me and I hope they will with you, too. Don’t get me wrong–I believe in luck. Every time I circle the block looking for a place to park in downtown Wheaton, I call on the spirit of my deceased father whose “parking karma” was epic. Sure enough, a space opens up for me! I usually give a nod to the heavens and say, ‘Thank you, Daddy.” Is that luck or timing? I don’t question it. I’m just grateful.

My dad was also fond of saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” He was a big fan of the “luck-is-not-a-business model” school of thought. A child of the Great Depression, my dad believed in hard work and had my sister and brother and me apply for work permits before the candles were blown out on our sixteenth-birthday cakes. My parents, both influenced by the Protestant work ethic, insisted that we pay for half of anything we wanted to buy that was a big-ticket item. I’d been pocketing cash from a lucrative baby-sitting business since I was 12 and to my luck (there it is again) and delight, we lived next door to a couple who had two small children and who loved to party. This was back in the day when babysitters got paid fifty cents an hour–double after midnight. I committed to saving for my first pair of contact lenses which was going to cost around $100, an astronomical sum to me then. For more than a year I baby-sat to earn my half of the investment and never felt richer than when I had that $50 set aside. Lucky? Maybe. Lucky enough to have parents who taught me the value of hard work.

You’ve heard of the star who is discovered, an “overnight success” who ruefully admits in a magazine interview that there were 20 years leading up to that sudden surge of fame. Nothing happens overnight–at least not that I know of. Those of us who do strategic planning believe in the power of declaration, putting pen to paper (or cursor to mind-mapping for those with a bent toward technology), planting seeds today that we’ll harvest not tomorrow, not even the day after that, but maybe years from now. Success takes vision, patience, tenacity and grit.

And maybe just a little bit of luck.

[Photo by © Ralf Roletschek – Fahrradtechnik und Fotografie]

Perfection is Overrated

This is the time for New Year’s Resolutions, for raising the bar on our performance and creating a vision for the next 12 months that will help us up our game and improve. Between updating our strategic plans and recommitting to a more rigorous exercise regime, we’re looking at how to get better, faster, thinner. In all this hubbub over self-improvement, I thought I’d throw out an idea to help us all get through the year: “Perfection is overrated.”

Perfectionism is the hobgoblin of creativity. When we set out to create something, whether it’s a business, an article, a project or a design, we’re filled with the spirit of anything is possible. But then, our inner critic starts in on us–“It’s too big! It’s too small! It’s not good enough!” Ultimately we take that to mean that we’re not good enough, so we stop creating. This is the death knell of innovation and it stops a lot of would-be artists, inventors and business moguls-in-waiting from accomplishing their dreams.

There’s a tradition with quilt-makers (and a similar tradition with Navajo rug-makers) to build some imperfection into a quilt. The premise is that only God is perfect, so the flaw is a built-in reminder of our own humanity.  This is a good practice. Anne Lamott in her classic book on writing, Bird by Bird, recommends beginning any writing assignment with the title  (pardon the language, please) “Shitty First Draft.” That way, we diminish our expectation that whatever we’re creating has to be perfect on the first round, giving us the freedom to produce.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life…” Ms. Lamott writes.

So while it’s good to aim for excellence in any endeavor, please let go of any aim for perfection this year. Create. Experiment. Make a mess and color outside the lines. Write that shitty first draft. And enjoy the process of creating your business, your career, your work of art, your soufflé, your year, with freedom and flair. There will be time enough for editing.

(Photo: Tumbling Blocks Quilt by Mrs. Ed Lantz, Elkhart, Indiana, 1910-1920, American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY)

That Time in Between

I love this week between holidays. Christmas is over, save for the shopping for half-price Christmas wrapping, bows, and gifts for next year–and, of course, the clean-up. The New Year is just around the corner, bringing with it the chance to create something new, something profound, a blank slate to fill with accomplishments, achievements and even brand new mistakes. This week is a time for contemplation, planning, celebrating the victories of this waning year and anticipating the new year to come.

This is the time to complete the past and create a new vision for the future. What’s your vision for 2014? Do you have your “theme” for the year? Mine is “The Year of the EveryDay Diva.” I’ve redefined diva to mean a woman who 1) knows what she wants; 2) knows how to get what she wants and 3) honors the people who support her. This can be gender-neutral, by the way… guys can be “divos.”

As you peer into the future, what do you see? I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions because too often they’re short-lived promises related to weight loss and going to the gym. But I do believe strongly in the power of intention and the law of attraction, another reason I like this time of year so much. We have this glorious week to think about what we want to generate in the New Year, declaring our intentions and deciding what it is, exactly, that we want to attract. Good health? Goes without saying. Properity and abundance? For everyone! Making a difference in the world through whatever gifts we’re given… that’s my intention for all of us.

Whether you create the future year in declaration, speaking it to others, through creating a collage with images from photos & magazines or updating your strategic plan, enjoy this week as a preamble to the year ahead. Take the time to congratulate yourself for all you’ve accomplished this year. Forgive yourself for what you missed. And document your vision for 2014. Next December, you’ll be glad you did.

Happy New Year!

Feed Me, Seymour

In the Broadway play and film “Little Shop of Horrors” there’s a plant named Audrey II that has a voracious appetite and must be fed a steady diet [of blood]. This comic rock horror musical featured Rick Moranis and Steve Martin in the movie, but the biggest star may have been the plant himself. The line most remembered is when Audrey II continues to implore his owner, “Feed me, Seymour!”

I think of the Internet as a kind of Audrey II. Like the plant, the Internet has a pressing need for content. Our job is to keep feeding it. What we feed it, and how, was the subject of a great presentation I heard last week, “The Path to Member Engagement: Consistently Delivering Highly Valued Content,” expertly presented by Doug Klegon, Principal at Klegon Strategic Communications. This presentation was hosted by the Association Forum’s Shared Interest Groups (SIGs), the Marketing SIG and the IT SIG.

Mr. Klegon’s presentation was geared to association professionals whose main audience is their members. But the principles he shared can apply to anyone who is responsible for continually providing valued content to an Internet website, a blog, or even to social media outlets like LinkedIn and Twitter. Lesson #1, he said, is that content strategy is critical to delivering member (read: client) value. He said it’s crucial to plan for useful, usable content that is, most importantly, easily retrievable. I leave it to the IT geniuses to work out the back-shop mechanics of making content easily retrievable. My focus in on developing valuable content and reinforcing the connection between content and strategy, both for my clients and for my own efforts as a business owner.

“Content strategy is change management in disguise,” said Hilary Marsh, another Association Forum member, during the presentation which was graciously hosted by the Association Management Center. Ms. Marsh is president and chief content and digital strategist at Content Company, a firm providing consultation on web, mobile, social media and e-communications. Mr. Klegon loved Ms. Marsh’s line so much that he nimbly incorporated it as his own later in his presentation, providing a good laugh for his audience. Both were saying the same thing: a content strategy begins and ends with an organization’s strategic plan.

Like that insatiable plant in “Little Shop of Horrors,” the Internet demands content. What we feed it and why is up to us. Having a plan in place that aligns with our mission, our vision, our values and our audience is critical before we go lobbing stories and articles onto the web. Without that discernment, like Seymour, we risk being eaten alive.