Do You Want To Be There?

Years ago, I was having dinner with one of my daughters at a local restaurant and we got to talking about the classes she was taking at her high school. Even when I was a student – and your own experience is no doubt the same – I was struck by the enormous variation in teacher quality at every level of my education. And so as we were talking about her own teachers, I asked: “What do you think makes your best teachers great? What separates the great teachers you’ve had from the other ones?”

She immediately answered it – in a way that someone answers a question they’ve already thought a lot about – and it was an answer I’ll never forget. When I asked her what made her best teachers great, she immediately said “they want to be there”.

They want to be there.

This tells us those teachers are bringing their passion and energy to the classroom. Their customers and fellow employees students could immediately tell that these teachers weren’t mailing it in, and these same customers and fellow employees students were infected by the teachers’ passion.

Most of us have lost someone close to us (bear with me during this sudden transition). When that happens, we grieve and reflect upon how short even a long life can seem to be. We also recognize that our own time is limited.

You Have an Execution Problem

I’m in a Mastermind group. You might think that a Mastermind group is comprised of villains who are hatching fiendish plans of world domination, or even superheroes planning to thwart them, but you would be wrong. In fact, it’s much cooler than that.

No capes!

No capes!

Mastermind groups have been around for a long time, and are small groups of peers who come together to hold each other accountable toward their respective objectives and help members solve problems.

Recently, our group has been discussing and (imperfectly) practicing the concepts found in the book The 12 Week Year – a concept where annual objectives are tossed out the window in favor of 12 week objectives. I’ll be writing more about this concept in a later blog post.

There’s more to the 12 week year than compressed time horizons. I won’t cover it all here, but obviously recommend you check it out. However let’s focus on just one aspect from the book, and what I like and don’t like about this powerful quote:

Narrate Your Presentation!

How many times has this happened to you?

There’s a group of people in a conference room, and someone is presenting to that group on a plan that they are proposing.  You are not in that conference room. You are on the phone.

This is you on a conference call

This is you on a conference call

During the presentation, the presenter says things like this:

  • “As you can see, this number indicates that we should move these things right here over to this part of the operation.”
  • “Look at this number here!  Quite surprising!” 
  • “As you can from this area, we have some work to do.”

Meanwhile, you’re not exactly sure which slide they’re on.

I have been on the receiving end of these presentations throughout my career.  As a result, I’ve become pretty focused on doing the following.  For the sake of your presentation’s success, I recommend you try to adopt these same practices, if you don’t already.

What If Your Browsing Habits Were Printed?

I have written about Cal Newport’s important book Deep Work.  I’m a subscriber to Cal’s blog, where he writes about ways to cultivate the habits necessary to ditch the electronic distractions of our age and focus on sustained concentration.  One of Cal’s chief recommendations is to dump social media for a period of time (optimally, forever).

aziz-ansari-wants-to-join-house-of-cards-and-other-goodies-from-his-reddit-ama

In a recent blog post, Cal shared some great (and comic) insights from Aziz Ansari from his interview on the Freakonomics podcast (something I also subscribe and listen to).  Here is an interesting thought experiment from Aziz – who is definitely a deep work kind of guy – about why he doesn’t have social media apps on his phone:

“Like, here’s a test, OK. Take, like, your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. OK if someone every morning was like, I’m gonna print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. You can just get a bound copy of it. Would you read that book? No! You’d be like, this book sucks. There’s a link to some article about a horse that found its owner somehow. It’s not that interesting.”

Deep Work in a Distracted World

Are you always busy?  At the end of a day do you often have a lurking sense that you spent most of your time darting across the surface of your work, as if you were a water bug with email?  I read a book recently that attacks this feeling head-on by lamenting the lack of, and extolling the benefits of, Deep Work.

deep-work-cal-newport

In his book by the same name computer science professor Cal Newport draws upon historical figures, the latest in behavioral research, and his own experiences to make the case for deep work and how to cultivate the habit of engaging in it. Cal juxtaposes deep work from shallow work, which is what we spend most of our time actually doing.  Deep work is cognitively demanding, focused and sustained, while shallow work is often performed while distracted and is easily replicated.  Here’s how Cal describes deep work:

A Focus Secret for a Successful Startup

I recently gave the opening talk at a Startup Weekend, and since the reaction to my talk was overwhelmingly positive I thought I’d share one of the concepts I covered here.  If you’re already perfect at managing your time then you won’t learn anything here.  But if, like me, you struggle with time management issues, there might be something here to inspire you to approach certain decisions differently.  And while this is geared for startups, I think the concepts apply to anyone.  Let’s get started.

Startup Weekend

Startup Weekend

Startup Weekends are held worldwide and engage local entrepreneurs who come together for an intensive weekend of pitching and developing ideas and ultimately competing in front of a panel of judges.  They follow a set schedule which begins on Friday night with dinner and a speaker (me, in this case) to get things rolling, proceed for many long hours throughout the weekend and then end with a competition late on Sunday.

The core of the idea I shared was this: just as we all have to wrestle with claims on our time that are either “urgent” or “important but not urgent” in our daily lives, there is a parallel concept for startups, where investing time wisely can have an outsized effect on the venture’s success.

Let’s start with the idea of Quadrant 2 (Q2) time management, which anyone who has read Covey is well aware of.  In the box below, Q2 is the upper-right box and is the place where the highly effective people maximize their time:
Q2 v3

How To Successfully Meet with an Angry Customer

You know the drill.  A customer is angry and the problem has been escalated to you.  You have been called in by your company to be called on the carpet by the customer.  You know that the meeting will be unpleasant, and you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t apprehensive as the meeting approaches, if not downright scared.
concept of beating to competition isolated on white background

See that guy in the picture?  Unfortunately, that’s been me a number of times.  The good thing about being on the wrong end of several customer beatings is that along the way I have learned a few things that can make tough meetings more productive.

During a lunch meeting with a friend recently we got to talking about this, and he asked me how I approached these sorts of meetings.  Afterwards he asked me to write down some of the key points for him so he could share them with his team.

The key with emotionally-charged meetings is to listen, acknowledge the emotion, but to still control the meeting.  Here are the key points I sent to my friend after that lunch:

Gary Vaynerchuk Talks To Bankers

I am currently at the BAI Retail Delivery Show, which is an annual conference for those who sell retail financial services to consumers (translation: Banks and Credit Unions).  The tagline of this year’s conference is “Reimagine Retail Banking“, and digital marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuk was tapped as the person to walk on stage and help an industry that doesn’t exactly traffic in “imagination” engage in the process of reimagining retail banking.

For those who don’t know about Gary, here are the key facts:

  • Immigrant child who exhibited more entrepreneurial zeal before he was ten than most of us show in a lifetime.
  • Used the nascent social media space to grow his family wine business from $3M per year to $60M.
  • Was an angel investor in Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr.  Is also invested in Uber.
  • Runs a digital marketing agency, writes books, consults, and does presentations.

The apparent cultural chasm between new-world Gary and old-world bankers may have seemed fairly vast at first, but after a series of informal polls he conducted, the chasm may not be all that great.  Key points from his talk:

Blue Mind

This is your brain on water.

Blue Mind, is Walter J Nichols’ book about the science behind our deep connection to water: why we are more relaxed, happier, and more productive when we reconnect with water. It is an easy read, and mixes a few hard-science concepts with a number of observations about how our brains seem to operate differently when we’re shown a picture with water in it.

In terms of the focus of this blog, the benefit of reading the book has more to do with productivity and balance than it does with innovation and leadership, although the book offers stories about how people who have “unhooked” from their electronic distraction-a-minute lifestyles and spent some time near or on water have experienced deeper insights on the issues they’ve been wrestling with.

The subtitle on the cover tells you everything about book’s contents you need to know: “The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do”. That subtitle so completely describes the book that it’s a little like Agatha Christie writing a subtitle like “How The Detective Discovered That the Butler Was Guilty of the Crime”. But if you’re like me and are “haunted by waters” (as Norman MacLean wrote, and Robert Redford intoned in the movie “A River Runs Through It”), then this is a book for you.

The Secret of Business Focus

There is a word that is universally loved among those who aspire to grow their companies. It is whispered with great urgency in the hallways of venture capital firms, emphasized in countless articles and blog posts, and shouted from the rooftops all across the land. While it is hard to find anything that virtually 100% of the people vigorously agree with, this word might qualify. The word is “focus”.

Photo courtesy of Pieter Musterd

Investors preach the importance of focus to start-ups because they (the investors) know that creative, energetic people (the sorts of people who usually start companies) are prone to what I call the “dogs chasing trucks” problem, where every business opportunity that drives by looks shiny and worthy of a chase.