Most of my work life has consisted of many small steps toward an elusive goal. I’m on a greyhound race track and I know I’ll never catch the mechanical rabbit, but I am fascinated by building layer on layer of solid, small accomplishments. Sometimes it seems like there’s this sadistic maniac controlling the rabbit to keep it just outside our reach, eh?
The few big breaks that fell in my lap were largely accidental. I wasn’t doing anything specific to earn that big thing, but I was trying to do the right things so that I’d be ready to catch lightning in a bottle if the storm hit just right.
If you’re too focused on a goal, like one of these:
- $1M in sales this year. Or maybe $10M
- Raise your profit level from 11% to 15%
- Land that big client whose logo you want to tack on your digital wall
- Get to the point where clients are paying their way
- Have an unassailable positioning that gives you command of closing opportunities
If you’re too focused on one of those goals, then you won’t find much satisfaction in all the little steps that lead toward it.
Here are a few examples.
One of your annoying clients asks for something. They aren’t normally annoying—just annoying today. You’re tempted to reheat an old solution, raise the “scope” flag, or just claim a scheduling issue. Instead, you realize that you haven’t really done your best work, yet, to solve that specific problem. So maybe you use it as an opportunity to build the ideal tool to solve that and then put it in your toolbox. It’s an opportunity to learn by solving the same problem that a lot of clients probably have if you just stop and notice the patterns. Keep doing that and eventually you’ll have 80 or so kernels of really solid work. And then maybe lightning will strike because word will spread about the thinking that your staff does, and you’ll earn a bigger opportunity.
An employee asks if they can see you. They walk in and sit awkwardly and fumble around a bit with the wrong words. Essentially the employee wants you to talk them out of an offer they’ve received to go elsewhere. But this is the wrong time to deal with that. Clients are muttering about missed deadlines, you really can’t afford to lose one more person to better paying employers, and you’re just tired of how the system never seems to get better. They come, they go, they come, they go. But then you stop in your tracks and your mind wanders while they keep talking. Finally you come back to being present in the discussion that’s important to them, and you interrupt and ask. “Hey, you aren’t the first person who’s struggled with how to handle a job offer. I want to give your situation some specific thought—and I think I can get back to you by Tuesday—but what do you think about assembling a task force of your fellow employees and do something for me? Write out a pros/cons list of what it’s like to work here. Why should someone stick around. What are the big draws that pull you away. And given our budgetary constraints, come up with some ideas about how we could think about this situation whenever it comes up." And then maybe lighting will strike and–looking back–you’ll see how the culture changed that day because you took that little opportunity to solve the bigger problem by listening and facing it head on.
Or you’re at a gathering with people you don’t know. It’s a birthday party for one of your kids, and you have little in common with these folks, but it’s looking odd that you’re off by yourself drinking punch and pretending that something important is happening on your phone. You see someone else who seems to be sharing your predicament. You walk over, praying to God that they are an interesting conversationalist and not one of those 26-year old digital marketers who has the secret to everything. No, you step up your game. Instead of talking about yourself, though, you ask them lots of thoughtful questions. After about 20 minutes, it turns out that this person is on a TEDx committee responsible for choosing speakers for the 2020 event and they ask if you might be interested. You casually say “sure” when you’re actually so excited you want to go call your mother, who hasn’t heard from you in a long time. Bam. You caught lighting in a bottle, not because you were chasing it, but because you were just doing what good humans do.
“Entrepreneur” comes from a French word (entreprendre) that really just means to “undertake”. It’s not about the end, even though that end goal is what can pull you through the sh1t with a chain when the going gets tough. No, it’s about all the small steps that we keep undertaking so that we’re in the right place at the right time when little opportunities start adding up.
If you keep seeing these little opportunities as obstacles on the way to your big goal, you’re going to:
- Look for shortcuts
- Resent the building blocks that would otherwise be essential
- Not deliver value
One key to doing that well is to stop–even when it seems like there is no time to stop–and develop a process of steps. Then work those steps and find satisfaction in honest craftsmanship, whether that’s in being a valuable software engineer, leader to other people, ambassador to other clients, or Chief Runner of the Control Tower at your firm.
Contrary to what you might have heard, your clients don’t necessarily deserve your best. But you deserve your best, because it is about the journey, one small step every day or hour.
We’ve put out some great podcast episodes recently, like the one on how greatness requires discomfort, selling to clients with in-house resources, where do ideas come from, why account people should close new business, there are not seven reasons why clients use you, and a beginner’s guide to negotiating.
May you have fewer chiggers and tick bites than I do at the moment.