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Authentic Concern

Itís All About Making Progress

February, 2021

Brian Wolff

As a leader, it’s tough to always know what is the right thing to do or say. In fact, I can think of many lost opportunities during my career when I could have been more effective or motivating. 


The truth is, that realization can be crippling because it causes you to second guess yourself or be overwhelmed with the expectation to always be spot on. 


Turns out, our job as leaders doesn’t have to be so complicated or pressure packed. 


Sometimes, it can be as simple as setting direction and making progress. 


Talking about how best to set direction reminds me of a gentleman with whom I worked a long time ago. 


Mark was a customer and despite having a very big job, he made time for me every quarter. 


Once, we were thinking through a big idea on ways to measure the intent of physicians to prescribe, and he said something that still resonates with me 20 years later. 


Mark said: “it’s not about being perfectly accurate, it’s about being directionally correct.” I’ve quoted him many times since, and here’s why.


At any given moment, no leader can profess 100 percent confidence in which direction to lead their company. 


However, leaders can make incremental decisions that move our companies in the right direction. 


For example, when all hell broke loose last year, we knew full employment and long-term survival were the outcomes we wanted. 


This empowered us to make simple decisions, like freezing head count and cancelling all non-essential spending because those directions were correct to our course. 


We didn’t need to say for how long or how deep, we just needed to make a decision that was lined up with the overarching goal. 


Once we made the correct decisions, it was time to turn our attention to motivating our people and helping them feel fulfilled
on the job – that’s where making progress is so important.


We all have an innate desire to be useful and productive. 


It turns out, the best way to keep your people’s heads in the game is to help them see how the work they do is helping the company make progress. 


The progress doesn’t even have to be big. In fact, even the smallest of contributions can be motivating. My inspiration for these conclusions came from two places: a Harvard Business Review titled “The Power of Small Wins” and a presentation by the former CEO of Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Scott McCorkle. 


In that HBR article, one passage said it all for me: “Because inner work life has such a potent effect on creativity and productivity, and because small but consistent steps forward, shared by many people, can accumulate into excellent execution, progress events that often go unnoticed are critical to the overall performance of organizations.” 


In essence, if people are focused on making small, but measurable progress in the right direction, they will feel more positive about their work, and the accumulation of those small steps will propel the company forward. 


We don’t have to be overwhelmed thinking about the effort it will take to scale the mountain. We just have to take one incremental step toward the peak. 


But how do we know we’re making progress that matters? 


That’s where Scott McCorkle’s talk was pure gold.


Scott was speaking to a group of entrepreneurs about how he helped build a company called ExactTarget that was sold to Salesforce in 2013 for $2.5B, and how hard it is to see progress on a daily basis. 


His advice to the group was simple: “One can only appreciate how much progress has been made when you look back to see the distance you’ve traveled.” 


His words still make me smile because I use those words all the time to take my teammates back to where we were a year ago or five years ago, to appreciate the customers we’ve accumulated, the processes we’ve streamlined and the maturity we’ve built into the business. Without fail, the progress we’ve made has been HUGE, yet often felt imperceptible, in the incremental steps we each took, one by one, throughout the days, weeks, months and years. 


As we embark on setting goals and building battle plans for next year, of course you’ll want to set big hairy audacious goals, and of course you’ll want to inspire your employees to give 110 percent every day. 


Just know that once those lofty goals are set, the best part of your job is to ensure all the little decisions are directionally correct. 


This will help your colleagues appreciate and feel satisfied with small progress they make every day and understand how that incremental progress contributes to the company’s goals. 


That reminds me of one final pearl I’ll leave you with, courtesy of one of my mentors: “by the inch it’s a cinch, by the yard, it’s hard!”



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