Richard Medcalf reveals how to free up time for the strategic activities that will advance your career.
- Why productivity won’t solve busy-ness
- The crucial question that makes you more strategic
- The powerful reframe that slashes busywork
Richard Medcalf describes himself as “what you get if you were to put a McKinsey consultant, a slightly unorthodox pastor and an entrepreneur into a blender”.
He is the founder of Xquadrant, which helps elite leaders reinvent their ‘success formula’ and multiply their impact. His personal clients include CEOs of billion-dollar corporations, successful serial entrepreneurs, and the founders of tech ‘unicorns’.
Richard has advised the C-Suite for over 25 years. After a Masters at Oxford University, where he came top in his year, he joined a premier strategy consultancy and later became the youngest-ever Partner. He then spent 11 years at tech giant Cisco in an elite team reporting to the CEO.
Richard is bi-national English/French, lives near Paris, and is happily married and the proud father of two. He has an insatiable love for spicy food and the electric guitar.
- Book: Making TIME for Strategy: How to be less busy and more successful
- Strategy Score Test: XQuadrant.com/awesomeatyourjob
- LinkedIn: Richard Medcalf
- Book: The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth About Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
- Book: Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect by Will Guidara
- Past episode: 080: Finding and Doing the One Thing with Jay Papasan
- Past episode: 544: How to Build Exceptional Influence in a Noisy Digital Age with Richard Medcalf
Richard Medcalf Interview Transcript
Richard, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Pete, it’s a pleasure to be back. Thank you for inviting me on the show again.
Well, I’m excited to get into your wisdom and your book Making TIME for Strategy: How to be less busy and more successful. I’d love to hear your take. It’s been three years, and what a three-years it’s been since we last spoke, any particular discoveries that have really struck you in this time?
Yeah, actually, one thing that’s really struck me is this whole shift of virtual work, which, obviously, blah, blah, blah, everyone’s talked about time and time again, too much now perhaps, but it has exacerbated the problem that I saw everybody was having before, which is being overloaded and being overwhelmed because the barriers have really gone down for so many people.
They’re at home, they’re at work, or they’re everywhere, and there’s more and more stuff coming, and more and more pressures at any one time. It’s the Zoom call phenomenon. You’re on a call one minute, your baby is crying the next minute, everything else. So, I think people have felt a lot of pressure to deliver a lot of things.
Absolutely. And so, in your book Making TIME for Strategy, I’d love to hear any novel insights you’ve picked up along the way as you’re researching and assembling this?
Yeah. So, one of the studies that I talk about there, this sense, especially over the last two, three years, there’s just so much coming at us all the time from every direction. I realized this is something which almost every leader and every individual contributor, frankly, is feeling these days because the boundaries aren’t there. I call it the infinity trap because we have an infinity of things, Pete, now.
You want to chat with somebody? You’ve got infinite social media opportunities to go and speak to somebody. You want to consume content? You’ve got an infinite amount of videos, podcasts, books to read, blogs to consume, you name it, movies to stream. You’ve got an infinite number of messages coming into your inbox, tasks from your manager, from your colleagues, from clients, or from anybody who wants to get an email into your inbox or message into your Slack or Microsoft Teams, so, it never stops.
We think we can just kind of plow through it but you can’t beat infinity, and I think that’s what people have been suffering from, and why I see everybody around me is crazy busy these days.
Infinity trap. Well-said. I think it was Matthew Kelly, in one of his books or talks, said, long and ago and it hit me, he’s like, “You’ll never…” and he’s Australian so he’s got a charming accent, and he’s like, “There’ll never be a moment in your life…” and he’s like, “All right, I’m all caught up now. All the things that are on my list are now off of it. Like, that just will never happen, and it’s good to just see…”
But we say this, though.
Yeah, hear it, say it.
Yeah, we say this all the time. We don’t say it quite like that. We say, “It’ll be quieter next quarter.” A number of people say that, “Oh, Richard, I’m really crazy busy right now, so busy. Yeah, it’s a bit difficult time but next quarter, I’ve got some time opening up in my diary.” I’m like, “Of course, you’ve got time. It’s 12 weeks away. Of course, it’s not full up yet,” and we just keep telling ourselves that, somehow, it’s just a bit busy right now, and it’s going to get better. And does it ever get better, really?
Yeah, that’s a really good reality check right there in terms of “Is now really especially busy?” And I guess, I think sometimes that feels true in terms of cyclical industries like, I’m thinking, accountants in the US near April. All right. Fair enough. It really is a particularly crazy busy time. And you know it, and you’ll feel it. But in more of a typical workflow world, it’s sort of just always true that many stakeholders are requesting many things from you, and that’s just every day of the year.
And when you least expect it, you get, even your accountants or your finance team that you’re talking about, they get past the yearend, and then, “Oh, no, there’s an M&A going on. Now there’s an order.” Who knows? So, I agree there’s a cyclical part to business but, actually, when we’re on the down cycle, there’s always other projects that come in. So, yeah, I think we have this.
And I talk about the perfect day. We often say, “It’s not the perfect day right now to get started on whatever. So, you know what, I’ve got more important things I need to get to. I know that but today is not a great day because I’ve got my year end, because I’ve got this project going on, because COVID has just hit, because there’s a macroeconomic shakedown happening somewhere in the world.”
So, we kind of keep waiting often, we say, “Well, I’m really busy right now but I can’t quite sort out that busyness. It’s just happening to me, but give me next week, it will be better, or next month, it will be better, or next quarter, it will be better, and then we’ll get there.” But that’s like me, I’m going on a diet. I struggle to do these things, take on new habits sometimes because I’m waiting for the perfect day, like, “Well, now is not a good day to lose a few pounds because there’s a massive chocolate cake in front of me.”
“Now is not a good day because it’s the weekend,” “Now is not a good day because I’m in a restaurant,” “Now is not a good day because it’s your birthday,” or it’s my birthday, or the weather is nice, or whatever. We keep creating excuses sometimes for not dealing with some of the issues in our life, and it’s a myth. It’s a mirage that we put up. So, when it comes to this subject of busyness, I think we often put off dealing with it because we’re so busy we haven’t got the bandwidth.
Yeah, that’s just true. And it’s really kind of potentially vicious cycle there in terms of to do wise prioritization, for me at least, it feels like, emotionally, I need some, I guess I’d call it space, in terms of my brain. Like, there’s the mental-emotional state of being besieged by lots of stuff, it’s kind of like a stress, a narrowing, a tightening vibe. And then there’s the opposite, which is like, “Oh, hey, we’re on a retreat, and we’ve got wide open views and whiteboards or something.”
It’s like, “Ahh, here I can dream and think big, and zero in on what really matters.” And it’s tricky because when you need it most is when you have too much stuff to do, and yet that’s when it’s hardest to execute that kind of thinking.
Yeah, I think that’s right. I talk about war time and peace time. We often think, “Yeah, I’ll do all that stuff in peace time when I haven’t got all this stuff,” just as you said, “when I’m on a desert island and I can just kick back and muse.” The reality is most of our lives is lived in that high stress, high pressure busy environment and we have to make it work there. I think that’s really important.
Okay. So, in your book Making TIME for Strategy, first of all, how are we defining strategy or strategic time here?
Yeah. So, strategy doesn’t have to be corporate strategy, so this is something that we can apply at any level in the organization. We might be the CEO, and I worked with some of the most incredible CEOs on the planet, and it does apply for them doing corporate strategy, but it also applies to the individual contributor and anywhere in between.
And the reason is I’m talking about this strategic, “So, what’s going to move the needle for you?” Let me give you an example. Most of our days, we spend basically doing the same old thing, we do the same thing every week, or every month, or every time we get a new client or a new project.
And so, we get caught into the operational, keeping the lights on, turning the machine. And the strategic is going to be what breaks you out of that pattern, build a new capability, creates a new relationship, basically changes the game for you so that things become easier in the future.
I like to say that this idea of strategic time, it’s actually your number one KPI for your future success. It’s your key performance indicator. If you want to know how successful you will be in the next three years, or one year, three years, five years, then you need to look at how much time you’re investing in your future success, and that has to be looked at week on week, “This week, how much time did I spend, did I invest in making the future better? Or, did I just use all my time on all the day-to-day stuff?” I think that’s the big shift that we need to focus on.
I love that so much, investing to make the future better or make things easier. And this brings me back to one of my all-time favorite books that we had one of the authors on the show, Jay Papasan, The ONE Thing, that magical question, “What’s the one thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else becomes easier or unnecessary?”
And so, here though, you’re really making me think of, I don’t know, compound interests, finance, planting acorns, getting huge trees kinds of things. So, another way to conceptualize it, so that’s really cool.
Yeah, that’s right. I like to say, imagine that you’re a business, and, basically, you’re making zero profit, you’re bumbling along month by month, and you’re spending everything that you make, and you don’t have any money left, any margin, to invest in the future. Well, that business is a very precarious business. It can’t really respond to shocks. It’s not really going to get much better because it can’t invest in growth. Growth takes capital.
And so, a business that has no profit isn’t going to be a very successful business. It’s going to keep going very incrementally. Now, compare it with a business that can generate enough extra margin that it can invest in its future, build out new factories, do marketing, do customer acquisition, create new technology platforms, whatever you want. That business is going to go places.
And it’s like, individually, we’re that business. Often, we have no spare margin of time in a week, so how can we invest making the future better? We can’t. Which is why, in the book, I say, you’ve got to start small but you’ve got to start to find a little bit of time that you can reinvest in the future.
Okay. Could you share with us a particularly inspiring story of a professional who found themselves enmeshed in any number of infinity traps, too busy, and then made some changes, invested, put some time into strategy and saw some cool results?
Well, I’ll give you an example, actually, from my own career, at the very start of my career. I started my career as an analyst in a strategy consulting company, and we were working long hours, like, building basically Excel financial models for our clients, and this is how we got successful, which was bill all sorts of hours to clients, made the company money, and deliver some good piece of analysis.
What I realized after a few months, “You know what, every time we get a new client, we build one of these models, and they’re always different but they’re always kind of similar, and yet we’re building them from scratch each time. They take a long time, there’s lots of potential errors or bugs.”
I made those errors before, Richard. Flashbacks for review.
Yeah, this thing can happen. It also takes a lot of time building out a model from scratch.
So, what I realized is I needed to actually invest in building myself a framework, a template that allowed me to build these models quicker than before. So, when my colleagues were doing all their billed hours, I took some time off customer billing to work late at night sometimes on building my own template. My colleagues thought I was geeking out, that I was just have lost the plot, “Richard, what are you doing? That’s not how you’re going to be successful in our company. You’ve got to bill to clients.” Well, fast-forward two weeks, I’d built a model which would suddenly allow me to do in a morning what they were taking a week to do.
And it was more beautiful, it was less error-prone, it had all the charts built in, it’s more flexible, we could do analyses and scenarios, all the rest of it at the fracture of the time. With that time that I’d freed up, I was then able to invest it in project management, learning how to do business development, sell projects, generally use this time on the next level of activity because I’d already got the base level nailed and systematized.
Now, it wasn’t just because of this, but I ended up becoming the youngest ever partner in that strategy consulting company. I had a great trajectory because I’d figured out, “This is stuff which I shouldn’t be spending my whole life doing. It’s not going to get me to the next level. No one ever gets made partner because they’re spending all their time building the basic Excel models.” And so, it’s that kind of shift, I invested a bit of time, a couple of weeks, and then it freed me up forever after then.
I had another client I was working with on one of my programs recently in finance. He was a finance manager, kind of mid-level, and when he came to me, he said, “I’m just overloaded. I can’t do anything. I’m completely overwhelmed.” And then when we started to get into it and we looked at his time, we found 30% of his time was doing all the finance processes every month – payroll, and sales commissions, and these things, and it was incredibly complicated in his business.
He’d become successful because he had nailed those, he’d mastered it, he’d actually figured out the whole mess, and was able to process it and do it all well. So, he’d become successful because of that but it was now holding him back. So, I said to him, “You’re not going to be made CFO because of your ability to do the monthly payroll.” And he realized this was a gamechanger for him, and he had to shift, otherwise, he was going to get stuck.
So, 30% of his time, where that’s, I think, almost two days a week, a day and a half a week was being stuck on all this stuff. So, we figured out a plan, he didn’t think it was going to be possible to start with, he didn’t think his had what it took, everything else. But within about two months, two or three months, he was able to go to his manager, and say, “Hey, what else shall I take on? I’ve a bit of a spare end here. I’ve got some time.” And he took on extra responsibility in the commercial part of the organization. He got this promotion.
He couldn’t believe at how much he managed to free himself up. It’s because he thought it was just a question of a few tactics that he had to sort, but it wasn’t just a question of tactics. He had to address his mindset, he had to address his influence with his team. These are the deeper-level issues that keep us held back.
So, after we think we can’t do anything else, because we’d looked at the productivity, we’ve applied our Gmail filters, we’ve got a good to-do list, and we think we’re doing all we can, but there’s a whole level of other things that we need to be working on if we’re going to actually free ourselves up.
That’s really cool. Thank you. And I would like to see this miracle model template, as the former consultant dork in me would just like to see what that looks like in practice. So, that’s cool. Well, yeah, let’s hear about some of these deeper mindset belief stuff before we get into some tactics associated with shortcut keys or email filters. What’s going on internally that we should really address?
Yeah. So, when you’re really busy, you haven’t got much time, by definition, so you have to work on the number one limiting factor holding you back right now. And that’s really how I structured the book, because the first part of the book actually talks about “What do you actually want to put your time on?” Most people, they don’t actually know what they want to do if they had a free hour, or a free morning, or a free week. They’re not really clear.
And so, when faced with a vague, ambiguous idea of being more strategic versus concrete, specific, and rewarding actions like getting an email off your list, or taking some low-level easy activity done, we’re going to gravitate to the latter. So, the first thing is to really get clear on what is your strategic agenda, what are the questions you want to be asking yourself, the projects you want to do if only you had time.
So, once we figure out what we want to actually focus on, then we have to figure out what’s stopping us from focusing on them, and naturally we tend to go to tactics. We tend to say, “I need to get a better workflow,” and there’s a lot there that we should do but we can never beat infinity with increased productivity. We can’t. It doesn’t work. As I said, infinity is the realm of the gods, and productivity is a mortal’s weapon, a sort. You can’t defeat it, and so we need a different strategy.
And so, actually, in the book, I focus on these four areas, and I was very impressed with myself, I must say, when I realized that they spelt the work TIME. So, there you go, four easy strategies to focus on. The first is tactics, and so there are things we need to focus on there. And perhaps some leaders do it very well, other people, you know what, they do need to kind of get a bit sharpen up on how they deal with meetings, how they deal with incoming tasks, how they deal with incoming messages, what their workflows are.
And, also, whatever you are, if you are over-busy, you do need a tactical plan to extract yourself from all of this in a very short space of time. It’s, like, if your business is losing money, you can’t wait too long. You have to make big changes now so that you become profitable and you can start to grow again. So, the first is tactic.
The second is influence, because if you want to go on a diet, the people that are going to stop you tend to be your family by waving the chocolate cake under your nose, or offering you the alcohol, or whatever it is you’re trying to stop, because the people around us have a certain stake in how we operate. So, at home, if you want to eat differently, well, your family, well, their share their meals with you so it affects them, or they feel guilty if you’re not eating something that they want to eat, if you’re not opening the bottle of wine if they want to a drink or whatever it is.
And so, in the work situation, it’s the same. We have all these stakeholders and no matter what our plan is for being more strategic, we have to face the reality that all around us, we have our boss, our peers in the organization, perhaps our team, who require and expect things from us and have a certain way of relating to us, so we need to better influence and renegotiate their expectations. We need to say, “You know what, you’ve been getting this from me but, actually, it’s not my highest use of my time. To have a bigger impact in the organization, I need to do something differently, so let’s talk about that and figure out a way forward.” So, influence is a big issue.
And then there’s mindset, which is what we believe and think. I can give you a story about mindset, but perhaps one from the framework first. Mindset is clearly important because, often, we just don’t believe we can, or we believe we’re optimum in some ways. Mindset is basically so important because what we believe is necessarily possible or desirable is what governs our behavior. So, if we think that what we’re doing is basically necessarily, basically the only thing we’ve got, the only choice we have, and it’s also kind of desirable in some way, we won’t actually change our behavior.
And then the final part is environment, because if we have a team, then we owe it to ourselves not just to work ourselves but to free our team up so that if we want to delegate, they can actually receive our delegation, or if they’re getting pulled left to right by busy work in the organization that they get to free themselves up and work on their high-value activities. So, environment is all about shaping a culture across the broader organization and being a force of change in the wider business.
So, you have these four areas – tactics, influence, mindset, and environment – and the point I made before is really important. You have to focus on the right one to start with, otherwise you just get frustrated because nothing is changing. If you’ve got the wrong mindset, then all your tactics aren’t going to really make a big difference because you can be locked into the wrong way of working. Or, we haven’t got enough influence, then you might have the best plan possible but you fail to implement the plan because you get pushback from people around you.
And so, when you talk about the number one limiting factor, it seems like that rule applies here as well in terms of, “Okay, is it the tactics, the influence, or the mindset, or the environment, that is the number one limiting factor at the moment?” and then you can dig in.
You’re right, really figuring out what the number one limiting factor is really important. So, I’ve actually built a little assessment, I’ll probably link to it later on as we think about it. But what we actually have is about 20 questions, you give a sense of your score on the journey, and you actually can then choose, you’ll actually find out, which score you have into these four areas, and then you can go, “Oh, look, it’s actually mindset. I need to start on mindset.”
And so, the book is actually written to be nonlinear. Now, if you want t o jump straight into mindset, go there if that’s what’s going to be more important. Or, it’s actually, you’ve got the tactics sorted out but influence is holding you back, then perhaps open the book at that chapter and jump in there. So, I think I felt it’s really important because I don’t want to give people another big book to read when they’re very busy. I wanted people to be able to jump in and get pretty quick results.
Well, I guess this sort of feels like mindset, and it kind of feels like tactics, but I’m thinking of a scenario in which, sure, we’re overwhelmed by requests and firefighting and all of that, and yet, at the same time, I think, often, speaking at least for myself, there’s a thing going on where it’s like maybe it’s kind of energy levels are maybe on the mid to low side, motivation levels or focus levels also on the lower side. It’s like, “You know, I could do that thing but I kind of don’t want to, and there’s something else that’s more interesting at the moment,” even though that thing may well be the most strategically valuable. So, how do you think about this challenge here?
Because I think, in a way, most of us, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we could probably say, “All right, with a little bit of hustle, or staying a little later, or pushing back wisely and diplomatically on a couple of things, we could find that hour to do the thing that’s high, that’s leveraged.” But then it’s hard to actually do it, it’s like, “Ooh, I found an hour, I just want to sleep or relax.”
Maybe this is me talking with three young kids at home. So, how do we think about that vibe in the world of mindset, motivation, energy, focus, just the ability to summon our personal power to go forth and crush it?
Well, probably, if you leave it to the end of your day, it’s probably not going to be a good point because you’re going to go, “Oh, I’m tired.” So, I think you do need to know when you’re energized and make your success early. So, if you figure out what’s that high-leveraged activity, get it in your diary before all the operational tactics come, all the operational issues come.
If you can say, “I’m just going to not even be on the radar, not even be on communications activities for the first hour of my day,” imagine what you could do if you did an hour a day, that’d be five hours a week, on this activity that’s going to move the needle. So, I think respecting energy, I think that’s one place because then, actually, the things which fall off the, “Ahh, I need to go home now,” or, “I’m too tired,” they’ll happen later on in the day, and, hopefully, those will then be the lower-value activities that you end up pushing back or procrastinating on.
But I think, Pete, to your point, the first thing I would ask in that situation isn’t so much when in the day you’re doing it, though I think it is important for the reasons I mentioned, it’s more, “Are you really sold on the value of doing it? Are you really sold on the value?” because the first sale is always to our self. One of the things I say in the book is the most important project is the one that no one else is asking for.
No one asked me to build that financial model in my consulting company. Nobody was asking that finance manager I mentioned to actually delegate the payroll activities and the sales commissions activities. He was doing them fine, but that was his pathway to more impact as it was mine. And so, if we’re going to do that, we really have to sell ourselves because no one is going to make us do it. That’s almost the definition of the strategic, is no one is asking us to do it. We are taking the initiative.
So, we really have to go, “Is this really important? And what’s the picture of success? If I don’t do this, what’s my trajectory going to be like? If do do this, what becomes possible?” We need to really understand the stakes. And if it doesn’t inspire us, it probably is the wrong project in some ways.
So, I always start by inspiring ourselves.
Yes, that notion, the most important project is the one no one is asking for, that’s heavy. It seems often true. I guess, occasionally, the most important project might be something someone happens to be asking for. That’s my intuition. You can challenge me on that, Richard, if you like. But for the most part, yeah, that really seems to track.
Yeah, I’m sure there are examples you could come up with, of course, but I think, often, it’s we’re being asked for one thing but, often, what we need to think about is, “How am I getting better at getting better? How am I getting more of this in the future? Or, how am I going to do this without burning out, or whatever?” So, there’s normally something that isn’t being asked in the direct request to us very often.
Yeah, that’s good. And so then, when it comes to mindset, any other kind of critical beliefs that you think we need to face head on and readjust?
Well, there’s so many, there’s a bunch of them, and I talk about different ones in the book. It’s personal. Some of us, the people-pleasers, if we’re people-pleasers, we find it hard to say no, but, actually, that’s because we got a tunnel vision. We’re just looking at the person in front of us and what they’re looking for, and we don’t realize that every time we say yes to them, we’re saying no to somebody else.
If I have an idea of serving stakeholders and not pleasing people, pleasing people means I’m just going to say whatever makes you feel good in the moment, or helps the person opposite. So, I think stakeholders means thinking about the bigger picture, “What’s the highest contribution that I can bring?” I’m a big fan of this, contribution rather than fear, rather than anything else, really. If we figure out how we maximize our contribution, make an impact, I think everything else flows from that.
But when we get stuck into perfectionism, people-pleasing, over-responsiveness, sometimes people get over-responsive, they feel they need to be responding to anything that comes their way, but I’d like to say, “Well, you’re an important person, and if I was reaching out to some other important person, like the president or the CEO, well, I wouldn’t even expect them to drop everything and respond within seconds.” In fact, you’d be worried if they did that. You wouldn’t respect them more; you’d respect them less. And so, why do we think that people will respect us more if we respond immediately to everything?
Actually, we should be focused. Strategic leaders working on big projects, making big things happen, they’re not just waiting around for people to be sending us messages. Now, again, this requires influence. Even with your boss, you can change this but you have to perhaps go, and say, “Look, I’m working on some big projects that we’ve agreed are key for our success. To do that, I need some focused time. And to do that, I need to ask your permission to not reply to all your messages that you’re sending me on Slack on a Monday morning between 9:00 and 11:00. Is that okay?”
And either they’ll say, “Yeah, fine. I’m glad you’re really focusing. That’s great,” or they’ll say, “No, no, no, I can’t live without you.” If they say that, then you might say, “Okay. Well, what else could work so that I can differentiate the urgent from the not quite so urgent?” because you perhaps agreed, like, “Pick up the phone and call me on a Monday morning if you need me, and I’ll leave you on my VIP list. But if you send me a message, I’ll get back to you at 11:00 o’clock.”
So, you can start to create agreements with the people around you in order to address these things. But, for me, the focus is always on contribution. If you put contribution first, then that provides a lens through which to evaluate all the different activities we’re doing. So, mindset, it does really, yeah, some of us we’re addicted to the thrill of action and doing things, some us are people-pleasers, perfectionist, all these different things. But I think we need to really be honest with ourselves about what are the stories that we’re telling ourselves.
I’ll give you an example. One of my clients got pledges from the C-suite of his company, very big role, and we’re working together on some transformational projects that he wanted to roll out. I was helping him onboard, really, onto the C-suite and be a more strategic transformational leader. A few weeks into our engagement, he said, “Richard, you’ve been coaching me for a while now, and this has been great. I’ve got a problem. I’m stuck in my email too much.”
And I said, “Well, okay, how do you want me to help?” “Richard, just give me some tips.” And I said, “Well, you’re paying me too much money as a coach to give you some tips but you can Google those. But tell me what you really need?” And so, he decided to talk, and I said, “Okay, so why are you feeling the need to deal with all these emails coming in your way and so quickly and they’re taking so much of your time?” And he says, “Well, I want to be trustworthy, reliable, and a team player.”
I said, “Well, that makes sense, so I can’t help you.” “What do you mean you can’t help me?” “Well, you just said you want to be reliable, a team player, and you want to be trustworthy. If I tell you not to do your emails so often and not answer them all, then you’re going to be unreliable, not trustworthy, not a team player, right? That’s your value, that’s your mindset, I can’t help you.”
He said, “Well, we’re stuck then?” I said, “Well, just answer me this. If your CEO was in the room, what would he be asking you for?” “Oh, he wants those transformational projects.” “If your investors were in the room, what would they be saying?” “Oh, yeah, they’d be the one that brought in my benefits. It’s going to be big.” “What about if the team were in the room?” “Oh, the employees, they’re so desperate for more modern workforce experience.” “Okay, and what about customers?” “Well, our customers won’t really know. It’s an internal transformation but it will free up the team to spend more time with customers. That’s the whole objective, so I guess the customers will be for that as well.”
So, I said, “Okay, so what you’re telling me is if you’ve been paid the big bucks as a C-level executive to roll out these transformational projects, and everyone wants you to do those, so I’m going to predict to you that you’re going to be untrustworthy, unreliable, and not a team player when you’re in your inbox doing the emails.” And in that moment, he got it, he had the aha moment, his mindset shifted, “Oh, yeah, I’ve a different role here. Being trustworthy and reliable is about me doing the big stuff and not all this little stuff.”
And so, when you get a mindset shift, it’s like that, then your possibilities open up. You see what’s desirable, necessary, impossible has just changed for him in that moment. He didn’t need a tip on how to filter his emails, more of the important thing.
That’s right. That’s good. And I think that’s super helpful when you get deep down into the core values of a thing and see, well, really, which pattern of activity best serves those. And it could conceivably be possible that, in the certain seasons of the work life cycle, yeah, those emails are going to be critical to ensuring these transformational projects unfold.
I found out, it’s like, “Hey, we’re launching a thing, there’s a lot of people with a lot of questions. Oops, something broke and we got to get it fixed really quick.” And in so doing, that is what enables this transformational project to happen. But most days, I find that the emails are mostly not all that transformational, in my experience.
Yeah, so it’s back to “What you’re trying to achieve? Do you really know what this breakthrough success is going to look like, or what’s this breakthrough project?” And we know that it’s quite easy to maintain things in an incremental fashion and get a bit better, and a bit better, and a bit better, to live a week in, week out, and culture in and culture out. There’s always new stuff that’s going on. There are always things to address.
So, for me, as I help people, I really help people in two areas. One is from going from being an operational leader to being a strategic leader, which I find happens at the kind of mid to senior levels of an organization where people want to make that shift. And then, actually, with some of my top clients, they want to move from being more of a strategic leader to being an impact-centric leader, which is actually having a systemic impact beyond the company.
But if we look at these shifts, then I think it does start with an understanding that we have to play a different game as a leader. So, when you’re really good at operations, it’s putting many people are, then they know that they’re in a safe pair of hands, that they’re an expert, that they are reliable, that they basically don’t mess it up. That’s why they got where they are.
And, actually, when we become strategic, we have to start focusing on building the new, building new capabilities, forging relationships wider across the organization where we don’t have direct control. And that starts to become a bit more risky for people because it’s like, “Oh, this is a new game I’m playing. I might not be able to win it the same way.” And so, that’s like a big shift for people, and the mindset shift they have to really go, “Okay, to be strategic, I’m going to have to be a different sort of leader,” and that’s a big shift for people.
Okay. Well, Richard, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
Well, I’ll just say that if people are interested in this topic, the place I would start is by understanding which of the four pillars you need to focus on first – tactics, influence, mindset, and environment. To do this the best way would be to go to my website, you can take the test there, it’s about 20 questions, and it will give you a score in those four areas. And the best way to get there is to go to XQuadrant.com/awesomeatyourjob, and that will give you all the resources for this.
Oh, thank you. Cool. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Yeah. What inspires me is this quote, “You don’t get what you want. You get who you are.” It reminds me that work is always on ourselves, who we are being in any moment and not what are we doing.
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
I think my favorite piece of research is the one that Marshall Goldsmith did many years ago where he asked, I think it was 80,000 professionals where they rank themselves in terms of competency. And, basically, it was like 90% of professionals rated themselves in the top 50%, and 50% of professionals rated themselves in the top 10% in terms of competency levels and performance levels. So, we have to realize that we have a huge capacity for self-delusion and to think we’re doing better than we are, which, for me, is always a great reminder to try and get data points in how we’re doing.
Okay. And a favorite book?
Yeah, recently, one of the books I’ve really enjoyed, actually, is a book called Unreasonable Hospitality. It tells a story of a Madison Square place in New York and how they went above and beyond normal restaurant levels of service, becoming going from basically a three-star mediocre restaurant to the number one restaurant in the world by obsessing on customer experience, by doing absolutely crazy things, very unique one-off based on individual guests coming in.
They’d Google their guests before they arrive. They would listen in. They’d try to find things that would surprise and delight. It’s something which I try to integrate into my business. It’s an ongoing journey but I find that’s very inspiring, a very inspiring story.
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
Yeah, I run pretty much most of my business these days on ClickUp, which I have found to have taken out a lot of the complexity and chaos in my business, so I must admit that’s a tool which I use all the time.
Okay. And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?
I guess my favorite habit is probably meditation at this point. I’ve struggled with that for years on and off. I’ve found just getting the Headspace app and just doing 10 to 15 minutes a day at the start of my day has really helped me become calmer and more focused as I head into each day.
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?
Yeah. Well, I actually have a little snail on my desk, a little pewter snail because my favorite quote is “You got to slow down to speed up,” or as the racing car world would say, “You got to go slow to go smooth, and smooth to go fast.” And what that means for me is when we slow down our thinking to think about what’s really important in this moment, then we put our focus on more important things than when we’re rushing along just to get through our to-do list.
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
So, find me on LinkedIn. I try to write a daily post there, a value-added post around impact leadership and being strategic. My website is XQuadrant.com, and, as I said, if you go to XQuadrant.com/awesomeatyourjob, you’ll find a link to the book “Making TIME for Strategy” and all the details of that, you’ll find a link to the assessment I mentioned before as one of the few other goodies there.
All right. Richard, it’s been a treat. I wish you much luck and time for strategy.