Category Archives: Work Life

Making the Transition to a Not-For-Profit

I have a clear memory of the moment at which I decided to make an adjustment in my career trajectory. I’d spent the day in a truly awful corporate retreat and felt dejected in its aftermath. A couple of my colleagues and I decided to drown our sorrows in a nearby pub and wound up in a rather far-ranging discussion about work and life once. Then one of my colleagues referred to our industry (tech) as the digital holocaust. He acknowledged that it helped corporations run more efficiently and economically; however, automation was responsible for job loss among persons who could least afford to sacrifice their incomes.

Suffice it to say, that characterization hit me like a ton of bricks. On the one hand, I had the training, insight, and experience to recognize the inevitability of cost saving measures to sustain competitive survival in the relentlessly Darwinian corporate environment. On the other hand, I lost my will to play an active part in that milieu. I wanted my efforts to be in service of more lofty ambitions.

I’ve met folks who’ve had a similar conversion experience. Others arrived there as a result of downsizing or early retirement. Some wanted to gain new skills or seek a better work-life balance (though the latter were surprised at the demands placed on resource-strapped social sector workers!) Whatever the motivation, we all face the challenge of finding a new home in a vast sector.

If you’re considering this path, here are a few steps you might take to figure out where you might fit.

ONE: Think about the issues or causes that might ignite your passion. The non-profit sector encompasses Health Services, Education & Research, Social Services, International Aid, Charitable Foundations, Arts & Culture, Religious Organizations, and Fraternal Organizations, to name a few. Most of their employees, funders, members, and interest groups will be deeply committed to the work they do. If you expect to be welcomed warmly, you’ll need to share their enthusiasm.

TWO: Think about which approach to the issue area best suits your skills and interests. Do you see yourself as an advocate or policymaker who wields influence with lawmakers, governmental agencies, foundations, and/or public opinion? Are you interested in working with organizations that provide direct service? Would you like to serve as a consultant and provide capacity building services? Do you enjoy being affiliated with a membership organization? What atmosphere and activities fill you up?

THREE: Identify skills, expertise, experience, and connections that could benefit non-profits. Consider how these assets might be leveraged to address a non-profits top capacity building needs:

  • Funding, funding, funding: Executive Directors (EDs) face significant (and growing) competition for scarce dollars – especially unrestricted funds.
  • Human capital: Every organization faces the challenge of getting the right people in the right roles with systems to manage them successfully. Non-profits face the added hindrance of sub-par market compensation.
  • Technology: Non-profits need to build a robust communications and information technology infrastructure on a shoestring budget.
  • Impact evaluation: Quantitative and qualitative measurements must be prepared to demonstrate short- and long-term program impact and inform continuous improvement. It’s not just “good for business”; it’s a requirement for sustained funding.
  • Fiscal management: Regulatory authorities, funders, strategic partners, and others have placed increased demands on non-profits to shore up their fiscal policies & procedures, budgeting, forecasting, cash flow analysis, risk assessments, financial statement preparation, and audit practices. It’s a daunting task if these disciplines are not established.
  • Marketing: Non-profits need a compelling brand identity and messaging to garner public support and position them favorably among their constituents. Otherwise, they risk having their issue area fly below the radar and their stellar performance become a well-kept secret.

FOUR: Figure out what kind of non-profit is right for you. Do you want to work for a start-up? A founder-driven operation? A grass-roots organization? A large institution? Would you prefer a long-established, stable organization? Do you thrive in a growth-oriented operation? Or are you best suited to throw in with an organization in transition that’s seeking a fresh infusion of ideas and energy?

You might be one of those rare individuals who can quickly rip through this list and figure everything out on your own. But, for most of us, it takes a bit of thinking, a bit of dialog with trusted associates, a bit of outside help, and a bit of dipping toes in the water to figure it out. That’s OK! Just start the journey and be open to where it leads.

The Encore Years: Passion and Purpose

Every day for the next 10 years, ten thousand Americans will reach the traditional retirement age. Like their parents before them, some will leave demanding careers to pursue leisure activities and long-standing interests. Some will continue working in their chosen fields, perhaps addressing shortfalls in retirement resources. Others may look for paid or unpaid positions that leverage a lifetime of skills, wisdom, and experience in service of others.

Marc Freedman book Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life provides an extended argument in favor of pursuing meaningful work in one’s “golden years.” He notes:

  • older adult at workLives are getting longer; careers are getting shorter. As such, it pays to cultivate a second (or third or fourth)
  • An active lifestyle is twice as important as one’s genetic inheritance in helping individuals thrive in later life.
  • Extended work improves psychological and physical health.
  • Social connections cultivated in work and volunteer settings support successful aging.
  • Interacting with youth – e.g., tutoring or mentoring – helps people stay young.
  • Older Americans need to stay engaged in the workforce to forestall an anticipated labor shortage.

These “encore years” can be all about choice. They open up the possibility of passionate involvement in something about which individuals cares deeply. They may offer flexibility in the times of years, times of day, and hours one works. And they can bring just the right amount of income to bridge the gap between income/resources and monthly expenses. Freedman refers to this period as a chance to “blend the spirit of social impact with the pragmatic need for real pay and benefits.”

To be clear, the “encore years” are not just a transitional phase between one’s primary career and retirement. It’s a new body of work that marries clear-eyed pragmatism with the determination to make the world better.

I had the opportunity to participate in Freedman’s Encore Fellows program through a placement with the Oregon Community Foundation (OCF). My fellowship focused on promoting volunteerism in Early Childhood Education (ECE). The project had the following goals:

  • man reading with childBring adults into children’s lives in ways that improve the children’s readiness to learn
  • Increase the capacity of ECE organizations to serve young children
  • Raise awareness of early childhood as a volunteer arena for older adults
  • Educate the early childhood field about how to use volunteers effectively

OCF engaged a wide array of organizations in the project through pilot programs, volunteer management audits, and funded implementations. Working individually and collectively, they explored requirements for recruiting, training, and supporting older adults in working with young children and their families. They also address orientation and training needs for program staff to incorporate Boomers into their working environments. My principal task was to capture “best practices” and create a repository of materials that could be customized readily by ECE organizations around the State.

Suffice it to say, I learned a lot about early childhood through my year with OCF. My position included participation in Social Venture Partners Portland’s (SVPP’s) Ready for Kindergarten initiative. I spent two years on SVPP’s Grant Evaluation Committee – once as a member, and once as its Chair. I was also part of a cohort of Fellows who met monthly to explore all aspects of non-profit management and share experiences from our varied assignments. It was a great experience through which I made a number of strong connections.

Now several years into my “encore years,” I’m still engaged part-time in my long-time career while continuing to pursue projects that deliver favorable results for my community. I really don’t think about “retiring,” per se. I expect that I’ll always seek some form of purposeful work that stimulates my brain, stretches my capabilities, ignites my passion, builds connections, and contributes to my community. And having built up my “nest egg,” I’ve earned the privilege of choosing how I’ll invest my time and talents. And that feels mighty “golden” to me!

Career Path… or Career Adventure?

As I prepared to leave graduate school years ago, I put a lot of time and energy into mapping out my career. I identified the industry in which I wanted to work (telecommunications) – an area characterized by tumultuous change and growth, both of which spelled o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y for me. I decided to look for positions in sales and marketing, first with a larger company, and then at a start-up. And I envisioned movement up the ladder as my career progressed.

Not surprisingly, career planning factored into every job interview. Prospective employers asked about where I’d see myself in 5-10 years. They expected me to have a destination in mind when embarking on my professional journey. They wanted to know how the current position fit into that plan and assess the likelihood that the company and I shared long-term interests.

In the ensuing years, I remained conscious of how each position helped me progress toward my long-term goal. I occasionally took assignments for which I was ill-suited in order to gain valuable experience that would confer “street creds” and serve me in the future. I changed companies when I felt that I’d stalled out so I could keep moving forward. And I worried about how my resume was shaping up and whether or not I was keeping pace with my peers.

Then life got in the way. Doors that I expected to open remained resolutely closed. My two-career household made shifts in geography that took me away from my professional “sweet spot.” Family responsibilities impinged on my capacity to be a hard-charging workaholic. I adjusted time and again. And then the big jolt hit. I realized that the destination toward which I’d been moving all these years wasn’t a place that I wanted to go. I couldn’t see myself living there, and I didn’t want to make the personal sacrifices necessary to ensure my arrival.

I remember feeling as though I was the only person in the world to find myself in this predicament. I didn’t like the idea of getting off the path, but I didn’t want to stay on it, either. I decided to take some time off to think about what I really wanted to do and consider my options. I treated myself like a project and gave myself a series of tasks to help me course-correct and set off toward a new destination. Simple, right?

Not so much…

After years of focused energy on my chosen path, I’d done a fine job of shutting down the part of me that could tap into my inner source of joy and gratification. I didn’t know what it was or even where to look for it. And, as a lifelong overachiever, I was decidedly uncomfortable foregoing the steady diet of personal accomplishments.

Venturing forth into my social circles, I was asked regularly, “What are you doing these days?” I felt as though I should have something impressive to say in response. If I wasn’t charging up the corporate ladder, I should at least be making some substantive contribution to my community or the world at large. It seemed indulgent to take time out to invest in myself.

Long story short, I didn’t “find myself” by sitting on a lily pad and contemplating my future. I found it by doing. By experimenting. I took on a variety of consulting assignments in the for-profit and non-profit communities. I got a second Master’s degree and pursued ministry in the church and hospital settings. I served as an Encore Fellow with the Oregon Community Foundation. I participated actively in two social venture partnerships. I volunteered. I got back into the performing arts. I paid attention to what “worked” (and what didn’t) and kept that in mind when seeking new opportunities.

There are plenty of social circles in which “experimenting” is a euphemism for “floundering.” A career shift is OK so long as you pick a road and take off on the next journey. Moreover, gender stereotypes conjure up the image of a woman who can’t make up her own mind. For quite some time, that kind of feedback felt shaming. It had the effect of shutting down the voice of the inner self who longed for joy and gratification. It was something I needed to overcome.

Have I found my ultimate destination? Not really. But I’m not looking for it either. In fact, I no longer embrace the notion of a “career path.” It’s too restrictive and prone to headlong pursuits of goals that may or may not make sense downstream. I prefer to think of my journey as a “career adventure.” I seek work that I find interesting, enlightening, meaningful, and energizing. I want to collaborate with folks whose contributions and companionship put a spring in my step. And I want my professional endeavors to play nicely with my personal and lifestyle goals.

I don’t regret any of the experiences that brought me to this point. I learned a lot from them and found most of my professional gigs rewarding. Through careful financial planning, I’ve given myself the flexibility to pursue things that “light me up.” I don’t worry a whole lot about whether any of my choices will move me toward the illusive “next step.” And I’m not afraid to make mistakes. After all, it’s an adventure!

If only I could come up with a great “sound bite” to describe it…

What I’d Tell My Younger Self

career advice

As I gradually transition to a new phase in my life, I’ve thought a great deal about what I might say to that fresh-faced Stanford MBA who launched her career several decades ago. Here are a few things that come to mind…

Choose an industry and a role within it that inherently interest you. You’ll get a lot of “good advice” about what’s hot and what’s not, what pays well and what doesn’t, and where opportunity knocks. But remember: You’re going to spend a really big chunk of your life immersed in that environment. If you don’t find it captivating, or the demands of your job are a mismatch with your personality, you won’t do your best work or feel energized about it. And that’s a tough row to hoe week-after-week, year-after-year.

Take advantage of information interviews to gain a sense of career options that you think you’d find attractive. Folks who’ve been around the track a few times are generally delighted to lend a helping hand to someone who is interested in joining the ranks. Don’t be afraid to ask! But do your homework before the meeting. Read about issues facing the industry. Take a look at sample job descriptions to understand a bit about the scope of responsibilities. Come prepared with conversation starters to help you explore a day-in-the-life as well as the key ingredients to success. See where and how it might light you up; surface frustrations and challenges.

Put your best foot forward when seeking employment. Make sure your job application, resume, and other materials are well-written and build a compelling case for why you’d make a great addition to the organization. (Have someone proof your work to surface typos and grammatical mistakes!) As with your information interviews, do your homework on the industry, the company, and the position for which you are applying. In short, be prepared to make a great impression… every time.

Don’t sweat it if you don’t hit pay dirt during your first few years on the job. You may have thought deeply about what floats your boat yet still come up short on enthusiasm once you got into the position. That’s OK! There are things you simply won’t know about yourself until you’re actually doing the work. And there are things about the company that you won’t know until you’re actually in it. Take time to think through the factors that make your situation unappealing. Be specific! Then ask yourself:

  • Are there things about yourself that you simply need to work on? (Better to stay on the job and work out your own junk rather than play out that same old act on a new stage!)
  • Are there things you can learn and skills you can develop before moving on?
  • Is your employer amenable to working with you to make adjustments?
  • Do you need to log a respectable amount of time here before vying for a new position?

Learn to be your own advocate. It’d be lovely if there was a fairy godmother who played a starring role in your advancement. But most of us aren’t blessed with that kind of mentor. It’s up to you to discern which projects, experiences, responsibilities, job titles, et al will advance your journey. And it’s up to you to keep an eye out for opportunities as they arise. That being said, make sure you’ve mastered the work to which you’ve been assigned before clamoring after the next one.

Beware of being perceived as indispensable to the job you’re currently doing. There will be a high degree of resistance to letting you move on. (In fact, it could very well be the reason that you don’t even hear about new opportunities!) Cultivate skills that will make you eligible for the next logical step in your career. Work with your boss to groom your replacement and develop the transition plan that will help things run smoothly once you’ve left. If you’re a great employee, they’ll want to keep you interested and engaged rather than lose you.

Don’t expect the workplace to be a meritocracy. The best and brightest don’t always find their way to the top of the heap. A number of other factors play a role: connections, tenure, “fit,” luck, etc. It may not seem fair, but that the way it works. Get over it. Focus on putting forth your best possible work while advancing your skills and knowledge.

Surround yourself with great people. Few things are as rewarding as working with a collective of folks who share your passion, stimulate your mind, challenge you to be your best self, and serve as traveling companions on your professional journey. They’ll make work much more interesting and enjoyable. They’ll share in your triumphs and lift you up in your disappointments. And quite a few of them will wind up becoming life-long friends.

The Art of Collaboration

The opening weeks of 2019 have been bumpy. The daily news feed serves up stories that highlight the dissention among our elected officials. Yet another mainline church stares down the barrel of schism over differences of opinion regarding the LGBTQ community. An undercurrent of tension lies within the fabric of a local organization that is near and dear to me. Some personal and professional relationships are not firing on all pistons. I seem to be channeling Shakespeare’s King Richard in thinking: “Now is the winter of our discontent…”

Truth be told, I have a great life. I consider myself to have been richly blessed on so many levels. But I am a social being who revels in community, and I find disharmony deeply troubling. I’m particularly vexed by scenarios that get stuck in win-lose confrontations without putting forth good faith efforts at finding a win-win. It seems we might risk becoming Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

connectionThe library bookshelves teem with tomes on leadership and team building. The book that caught my eye was Twyla Tharp’s The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together. Tharp is a world-renowned dancer, choreographer, and author who lives and works in New York City. She founded the Twyla Tharp Dance Company and created a distinctive body of work that fused classical, jazz, and pop music.

Here are quotes that resonated for me:

“The wisdom of a smart group is greater than the brainpower of its smartest member.”

“People are people. And people are problems. But people practiced in collaboration will do better than those who insist on their individuality.”

“Personal emotional commitment is essential. Collaborators aren’t born; they’re made. Built one day at a time through practice, through attention, through discipline, through habit.”

“Collaboration balances self-absorption. It’s a powerful tool for socialization and tolerance.”

“A clearly stated and consciously shared purpose is the foundation of great collaborators.”

“The sooner you establish a routine, the more smoothly your collaboration will advance.”

“The first requirement of collaboration is commitment… With agreement, you don’t revisit. You execute.”

“Creative disagreements between sympathetic collaborators spur new ideas.”

“Collaboration can be internal – an act of listening to others and then having a silent, private conversation with yourself.”

“The ultimate best result of any collaboration is learning to look through your collaborator’s eye.”

Twarp also shared the ethos of the Guarneri Quartet, an American string quartet founded in 1964 that performed for over four decades with only one personnel change: “Honesty and bluntness, but not to the point of pain. Mutual respect, but not to the point of formality and stiffness. Shared values, so the group’s mission can carry it over the inevitable bumps. And, of course, actual achievement, so the group is supported by an appreciative community.”

As patrons, we can let art lift our hearts, spark our imaginations, and promote an appreciation for our shared humanity. As a community in distress, we might reflect on what the collaborative arts have to teach us about finding a way forward.

A Business Model for Change Management

In an earlier post, I covered the psychology of change as interpreted by Drs. Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente, all PhDs. It wasn’t my first introduction to the subject matter. I’d heard about it from a colleague at Vanguard Communications when he launched a company dedicated to this discipline.

ready for changeA former engineer and program manager with Bell Labs, Jeff Hiatt made the astute observation that superior technical solutions combined with expert project management proved insufficient to guarantee success. The missing ingredient was the “people side of change.” When people embrace and adopt change, things can go swimmingly. When they don’t, things can go awry.

Since 1994, Jeff and his colleagues at Prosci have conducted research and developed best practices help people and their organizations embrace and adopt change. They provide “best in class” training and materials and partner with corporations, government agencies, and not-for-profits.

I mention Jeff’s work because the model he developed to support organizational change is equally relevant to personal change. It’s called ADKAR to reflect the 5 basic steps of effective change management:

Awareness represents an individual’s consciousness of a need for change and the risk of doing nothing. While there may be external drivers to create the impetus for change, the person needs a clear understanding of “what’s in it for me.”

Desire represents the willingness to move forward and make the change. In otrher words, the “what’s in it for me” is noteworthy enough to get on the priority list and motivate behavioral adjustments.

Knowledge represents the information and training necessary to make the change. It may include facts, systems, processes, skills, and behaviors.

Ability represents the capacity to turn knowledge into action. It’s more than well-intentioned activity; it implies a level of performance that will produce the desired results.

Reinforcement represents the internal and external actions, processes, rewards, recognitions, et al, that stoke the fires of change and keeping it going.

It’s easy to remember the acronym – ADKAR – and apply it to any situation. And it doesn’t take a fancy plan to put it into effect. Here’s an example from my household:

Awareness: My husband’s primary care physician was concerned about cholesterol and its potential for harm as my husband ages. The doctor wanted him to consider taking a statin.

Desire: We have friends who’ve taken statins and had unpleasant side effects. Our research on the drug did not evoke enthusiasm. So we opted to explore opportunities to lower cholesterol naturally.

Knowledge: We read several books on the whole food plant based diet and watched the Forks Over Knives video. These materials created a compelling case that a dietary shift could result in a substantive drop in our cholesterol.

Ability: I purchased several whole food plant based cookbooks and trained myself on meal planning and cooking without using meat, poultry, fish, dairy, or eggs. We also decided to cut way back on salt, sugar, and fat.

Reinforcement: We’re compiling a collection of delicious recipes that are just a satisfying (if not more so) than our prior eating habits. We both realized impressive drops in blood serum cholesterol which elicited praise from my husband’s physician.

In sum: If you’re a business manager who worries about change management for your organization, check out Prosci. If you aren’t ready to make that investment personally or professionally, try giving the model a test drive!

The Road to Gainful Self-Employment

be your own bossA few years ago, Pew Research conducted a study to determine the size of America’s self-employed workforce. They found that 10% of the active workforce – or 14.6 million people – were self-employed. As these individuals employed another 29.4 million people, they accounted for roughly 30% of the workforce.

I’ve counted myself among their ranks for over a quarter century. I never set out to be self-employed. It just turned out that an active consulting practice afforded me some freedom alongside the opportunity to do interesting work with bright people. That freedom comes at a cost:

  • Work has never just fallen into my lap. I’ve always had to work at getting work.
  • I’ve had to wear a lot of hats to keep the business going above and beyond doing the actual work – e.g., business development (a.k.a. marketing and sales), client relations, billing, collections, accounting, and general administration.
  • I’ve needed to price my services to account for all of those roles as well as holidays, vacation, sick time, personal days, and saving for retirement.
  • I’ve had to purchase individual health insurance… which isn’t cheap!
  • I’ve had to learn to manage my time effectively from my home office to make sure household responsibilities doesn’t spill too much into business and vice versa.
  • I’ve needed to learn how to cultivate community as part and parcel of my sole proprietorship to keep the extrovert within me satisfied.

Despite the challenges, I’d still opt for working for myself if I had it to do all over again. And as I plan for the next chapter of my life, I’m still thinking about ways in which I can work for myself.

I just finished reading Chris Guillebeau’s book Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days. It proceeds from the assumption that folks would like to make a little money on the side while they continue to work their day jobs. These ventures might exercise their creativity while adding a little cash to the household’s bottom line. They might be used to diversify income sources. And they might be the initial stepping stone to going “all in” as an entrepreneur.

Chris does a great job of breaking down the entrepreneurial process into discrete steps that pretty much anyone can follow. His 27-day process covers:

  1. Building an arsenal of ideas
  2. Selecting your best idea
  3. Preparing for lift off
  4. Launching your idea to the right people
  5. Tracking progress and determining next steps

Even with my MBA and decades of business experience, I found some pointers in Chris’ book that I’ll put to use as I contemplate my next venture.

Another great resource if you’re considering this path is Jonathan Field’s Career Renegade: How To Make a Great Living Doing What You Love. Jonathan is the Founder of the Good Life Project and hosts a lively podcast by the same name. He endeavors to help his readers find work that makes them come alive while also paying the bills. He provides all kinds of suggestions for finding underserved markets in which one might establish a toehold and build a successful business. The book also comes with a gaggle of concrete suggestions and resources that help readers go from wishful thinking to reality.

The Progress Principle

I’ve come across a number of studies in the past few years that link employee satisfaction with their productivity and tenure on the job. Not surprisingly, when people are happy, they do better work, they enjoy the work they do, and they feel good about the company and co-workers. So the $64,000 question becomes: How do you create an environment that fosters these sensibilities? Dr. Teresa Amabile, PhD and Dr. Steven Kramer, PhD share their insights in The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.

the progress principleTalented employees look for their employers to provide meaningful work, clear goals, and appropriate measures of autonomy, resources, and help. The degree to which the company delivers on these key elements of their work life affects their creativity, productivity, commitment, and collegiality. Moreover, companies add “booster rockets” to performance by creating opportunities for employees to realize small “wins” on a consistent basis. Progress stokes motivation.

Most managers aren’t clued into the importance of progress. They rest too easily on compensation packages, longer term performance incentives, high-level goal-setting, and recognition. Yet progress confers confidence and a sense of empowerment. It creates and sustains momentum. Amabile and Kramer would argue that work plans with many small milestones prove more effective than those with a handful of big ones.

Beyond architecting projects with progress in mind, the following factors contribute to an atmosphere of positivity:

  • Due consideration for people and their ideas
  • Adequate time to complete the work (but not too much!)
  • Clear, honest, respectful, free-flowing communication
  • Encouragement to overcome stumbling blocks and forge ahead
  • Post mortems on problems and setbacks that foster learning in a context of psychological safety

Attentive managers stay in touch with their teams to be mindful of their progress and needs. They “check in” without making folks feel as though they’re “checking up.”

As a former corporate employee, I certainly resonated with the core messages in this book and valued the research used to back it up. Yet as one who has been self-employed for many, many years, I needed to adapt the findings to account for my wearing the employer and employee hats simultaneously. The obvious adjustments will surround my weekly “to do” lists, as follows:

  • Build each week’s “to do” list with enough work to keep me occupied without overloading the plate (and, therefore, making me feel discouraged or put upon)
  • Define tasks in greater detail to give more opportunities for victory celebrations
  • Reflect on what I’ve accomplished at week’s end rather than simply moving on to the next set of projects and chores
  • Enlist support and resources to help make progress faster!

The “It” Factor in Start-Up Enterprises

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to work for a venture-funded start-up called Octel Communications. I’ve never worked so hard nor had more fun on the job as in those early days of the company’s history. So when I picked up Randy Komisar’s NY Times best-selling book – The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living – it felt like old home week.

entrepreneurKomisar was a successful entrepreneur who became a venture capitalist in 2005. His book follows the travails of would-be entrepreneurs as they work with Komisar to secure funding for their business. He starts with three fundamental questions that venture capitalists ask when business plans come across their desks:

  • Is the market for the product or service large enough to warrant investment?
  • Does the business plan outline the means through which this company can become the market leader?
  • Do the entrepreneurs have the knowledge, skills, experience, resources, connections, et al to execute the plan?

That being said, most MBAs have adequate training to craft business plans that address these issues. Astute venture capitalists look for something more – an “it” factor that transforms a good idea into a great company. As Komisar explains:

“Don’t confuse drive and passion. Drive pushes you forward. It’s a duty, an obligation. Passion pulls you. It’s the sense of connection you feel when the work you do expresses who you are. Only passion will get you through the tough times.”

“The chance to work on a big idea is a powerful reason for people to be passionate and committed… For people to be great, to accomplish the impossible, they need inspiration more than financial incentive.”

“Set the compass, then work hard to clear a path, knowing that you may meander as you stumble upon obstacles but will always keep heading toward the same coordinates.”

Citing his own company and business partner as an example: “Bill had an underlying faith that if we focused on the people issues, worked hard, and did a great job, the business would take care of itself… [Our customers] valued our products. Our partners respected and trusted us. Our employees were highly motivated and committed… There was an intense sense of loyalty and camaraderie.”

“Excellence is not simply the spoils that come with good fortune. It should be the primary measure of success.”

Komisar ends the book by asking his readers if they’re doing what they truly care about. He opted for a distinctive life journey that reflected his ideals and values. As he says:

“What was the sense of rushing down a beaten path with a map that I had cribbed from others? This was my trip, my life, and I needed my own journey. I decided to thrown away the itinerary and see where this might lead.”

In case you’re wondering, Komisar offers up the back story for the intriguing title to his book. While it’s easy to paraphrase, I’d rather give you one more reason to check out the book yourself. It’s a worthwhile read.

Coping with Uncertainty

As the 2011 winner of 800-CEO-READ’s best in category for personal development, Jonathan Field’s Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance grabbed my attention. I’d been listening to his Good Life Project podcasts and enjoyed the content. I’d also read his 2016 book How to Live a Good Life. So even though I wasn’t looking for entrepreneurial advice, I figured he’d have something interesting to say.

uncertaintyFields asserts that creativity and a tolerance for ambiguity go hand-in-hand. When attempting to bring something entirely new into being, the initial concept may or may not work. You may or may not build the team or acquire the resources to reach the finish line. The market may or may not rally around the product or service. Yet Field’s core message is: “The more you’re able to tolerate ambiguity and lean into the unknown, the more likely you’ll be able to dance with it long enough to come up with better solutions, ideas, and creations.”

While I’m not hankering to bring the “next big thing” to market, I’m standing at the crossroads of the next chapter in my life. I understand the temptation to lock in on a safe course to ease my anxiety about what comes next. Fields suggests that I build some “risk, exposure, and uncertainty scaffolding” to give me an extra boost of calm as I move forward. Here are his suggestions:

Build and practice daily rituals that accord with the ebbs and flows of energy throughout the day. He deems such practices the “psychic bedrock” that keeps you grounded and productive even when you feel anxious or simply don’t want to get down to business. It defends against the urge to procrastinate. And when supported by your natural biorhythms, you take full advantage of your peak hours of productivity.

Intersperse bursts of creativity and productivity with rest periods. As Dr. Baba Shiv of the Stanford Graduate School of Business discovered, willpower gets depleted via heavy thinking, working memory, concentration, and creativity. Our brains need to re-fuel periodically to function properly. Forty-five to ninety minutes of work followed by light exercise, a short walk, meditation, a cat nap, or the like should do the trick.

Find a mentor or a champion to provide support and encouragement on your journey. His or her advice and confidence can be an antidote to unfavorable internal or external judgment. If the right person has not surfaced, find and study a hero whose journey inspires you.

Learn to pivot. Be willing to make and own mistakes. Give yourself permission to course correct if the available evidence, constructive feedback, and/or your “gut” instincts suggest a new direction.

Engage in attention training – e.g., meditation, mindfulness, or other contemplation-driven spiritual practice. Fields notes: “Through daily repetition, they create both physiological and psychological changes that can profoundly alter the way we experience and handle nearly any challenge or endeavor… They also open channels to insight and innovation.”

Practice process visualization to gain traction around the steps and actions needed to realize a goal rather than simply the outcome to be achieved. In so doing, you end up engaging in those processes with greater regularity and increase the likelihood that you’ll get to the finish line. (Greatness is largely about work!)

Take care of your body by exercising, eating healthy foods, and getting plenty of rest. Exercise elevates mood while easing anxiety. It’s also correlated positively with brain function. The key to sustained effort is finding activities in which we genuinely find pleasure. While it may seem counterintuitive to take time away from work for self-care, the payback in improved spirits and cognitive function more than compensates for this investment.