What is the true value of evaluating experience?

todd herman web

What have you been doing the last 6 weeks? If you're like me, you've done a lot of sorting.

Year-end – A Time for Sorting

"The only adequate preparation for tomorrow is the right use of today."John C. Maxwell, Today Matters, page 20.

Sorting. In the gym early this year, I realized how many things get sorted around year-end. Before year-end, we go through our closets and sort our clothes – good items we'll keep, unwanted or outgrown items we'll give to charity, and items we'll toss. After year-end, volunteers at Greensboro Urban Ministry and other food banks will sort the food donated over the holidays – tossing expired or unusable items, grouping and boxing items by type such as canned meat, and placing the boxed items away for use.

Experiences – Things to Sort

"Weight training is a fascinating science. ... People who train successfully pay their dues for the first minute or two and then get all the benefits at the very end. Unsuccessful trainers pay exactly the same dues but stop a few seconds early."Seth Godin, The Dip

Sorting holds true for habits and behaviors, too. Around year-end, we'll look at our prior year, sort through our habits, and make our New Year's resolutions – join the gym, eat healthy foods, lose weight, give up smoking. In business, a similar concept holds – we look closely at our experiences and determine which things worked well and which did not, evaluate what brought results and what did not.

Of course, no sorting can occur without experiences to be sorted. Most people naturally tend to play it safe, so they stay inside their comfort zone, and keep doing the same things – these people rarely have new experiences, and thus few opportunities for growth and sorting. Like the person who weight trains unsuccessfully, they do not push through the tiredness to do the one or two more repetitions which cause the muscle to grow.

I have found new experiences occur most consistently when I am intentionally stretched outside my comfort zone – in these instances, opportunities for growth abound, yielding things to discuss and sort with my accountability partners. Growth is only possible when you approach your perceived limit, get up your courage, prepare to be uncomfortable, and move beyond your previous limit.

Accountability Partners – Turning Ideas into Experiences

"Do, or do not – there is no 'try.'" – Yoda, in The Empire Strikes Back

In far too many situations, people are reluctant to step outside their comfort zone. I don't believe this is for lack of opportunity – rather, it seems more a lack of vision, courage, and execution. I've always liked a 2003 ad which dramatically summarized these ideas. The ad pictures a businessman in a suit, carrying notes, walking by himself across a stage toward a podium, preparing to speak to an audience of several hundred. The ad reads:

At the beginning of the day, it's all about vision.
At the end of the day, it's all about the courage to execute it.

Two short and memorable sentences, which distill key points about leading and managing. Vision. Courage. Execute. Three key ingredients to turn ideas into experience.

For several years, my two accountability partners have done just that – help me turn ideas into experiences. They have challenged me to fully form my raw ideas into a coherent vision, stiffen my resolve into true courage, and turn loose the natural achiever in me to execute each step leading to a fully implemented vision. I have always responded to the challenges set forth by my accountability partners because I trust and respect them – and because I want to avoid public admission of failing to achieve my goals on the "Todd's Results" web page!

In 2006 and 2007, "Todd's Results" focused on business development tasks. In reviewing 2007 and planning for 2008, my accountability partners and I realized my firm needed different results from me. Thus, the 2008 "Todd's Results" focused on 3 areas, all centered around the concept of "Working On The Business."

The procedures my accountability partners and I followed were these:

  • In January 2008, we set forth the overall concept and the 3 supporting areas.
  • Each month, we met to review the previous month's results and set forth specific goals for the upcoming month.
  • Each week, I logged my progress toward the monthly goals in a database accessible by my accountability partners.

My daily and weekly choices and actions, logged routinely and evaluated monthly, compounded and culminated to yield the vision we defined 12 months earlier.

Evaluated Experience – Getting Help Sorting

"Experience is not the best teacher–evaluated experience is. Reflection turns experience into insight." – John C. Maxwell

At this point, you're likely thinking, "I'm the one who has the experiences, so I'm the one best qualified to evaluate them." While the first part of the statement is true, the second is not necessarily so. I believe it is the rare individual who can filter themselves – their biases and egos – out of the evaluation, and become truly "third party objective" about things.

David Brooks recently wrote (New York Times, January 16, 2009) about the changing view of behavior in economic markets, and why recent events have challenged assumptions about "rational behavior" and "efficient markets." While he was writing about markets, several comments apply equally to individual experiences:

  • "Reason is not like a rider atop a horse. Instead, each person's mind contains a panoply of instincts, strategies, intuitions, emotions, memories and habits, which vie for supremacy. An irregular, idiosyncratic and largely unconscious process determines which of these internal players gets to control behavior at any instant. Context – which stimulus triggers which response – matters a lot."
  • "We don't perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. As Andrew Lo of M.I.T. has demonstrated, if stock traders make a series of apparently good picks, the dopamine released into their brains creates a stupor that causes them to underperceive danger ahead."
  • "Biases abound. People who've been told to think of a high number will subsequently bid much more for an item than people who've been told to think of a low number."

Do these comments sound familiar? I plead "guilty" to all of them! Rationalizations, excuses, and the like – these are my biases, symptoms of avoiding the truth about a situation. Once this clutter is sorted from the objective truth, a situation can be quickly addressed and improved.

So, the real value of the accountability partner is to provide reason, assess context, introduce objectivity, and filter out biases, as experiences are evaluated. Stated more simply – the accountability partner helps sort and evaluate your experiences.

Experiences in 2008 – and Evaluating These

"There is no such thing as 'time management.' The term is an oxymoron. Time cannot be managed. It cannot be controlled in any way. It marches on no matter what you do, whether you are moving forward or standing still. ... So what can you do? Manage yourself!" – John Maxwell, Maximum Impact, "Questions to Ask the Person in the Mirror."

What were some of my key experiences in 2008, and how did my accountability partners help me evaluate them?

  • Area 1: Planning and Executing Strategic Initiatives – While I am very good at generating ideas, it takes time and focus to shape these into the fully formed thoughts consistent with the firm's Mission, Values, Vision, Strategy, and Market Position. In 2008, my accountability partners reminded me I did not make the time for concentrated thought, because I was frequently reacting to other events.
  • Area 2: Practicing Delegation and Accountability – I made significant progress in this area during 2008, mainly as a result of "book learning" and beginning to apply new concepts to the work environment. Nonetheless, my accountability partners and I all realized this is not a strength area for me – I am much more comfortable being a leader than being a manager.
  • Area 3: Managing and Communicating – Similar to the previous area, I made progress in this area in 2008, learning and beginning to apply many valuable techniques. Again, this area does not play to my strengths – nonetheless, in a flat organization such as my firm, I am the only person who can perform most functions in this area. Thus, in 2009, my accountability partners will help me develop my skills to increase proficiency.

The good news – I met all my monthly goals in 2008! Looking back on how much was achieved in 2008 provides me a great sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.

The uncomfortable news – my accountability partners and I met in late December 2008, and again in early January 2009, to evaluate how well I did in 2008 against the "big picture" intent in each area. Not surprisingly, they identified further areas for growth. They joined me in briefly celebrating my 2008 results, and then we moved on to set the agenda for 2009, continuing to push me onward and upward.

Setting Up Experiences for 2009 – and Beginning New Habits

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." – Aristotle

To continue developing myself to benefit the firm, my accountability partners and I set forth areas for 2009, all within the overall theme of "Working On The People." For a professional services firm like mine, there is no way to work on the business without also working on the people – regardless of whether the people are clients, staff, or referral sources. These areas are:

  • Area 1: Planning and Executing Strategic Initiatives – Tasks in this area will be client-centered, forward-looking, and creative, and will challenge me to shut out disruptions to achieve focused thinking.
  • Area 2: Developing People – Tasks in this area will focus on staff, challenging me to deliberately focus on each person's strengths and to tailor my approach and their assignments to develop their potential – because no one in the firm (myself included) has plateaued yet.
  • Area 3: Developing Business Relationships – Tasks in this area will take me outside my comfort zones, while staying in my strength zones. The focus here will be more and richer opportunities to become known in the community, and build my value to others by first providing value myself.

One thing is certain for 2009 – it will likely be a tough year nationally and locally for my clients, staff, and referral sources. As Scott Blanchard comments in the January 2009 Ignite! newsletter

"If leaders don't manage people's energy and their emotion and their fear, then what is going to happen is very predictable. Employees are going to spend more energy worrying about things that they cannot control, rather than focusing on doing things as best as they can within their control."

These words hold true not just for employees but for everyone. Focusing on what you can control is a mark of responsibility. And leadership author and consultant John C. Maxwell says this about responsible people – "When they give their all, they live at peace. Success expert Jim Rohn says, 'Stress comes from doing less than you can.'" How true! If you always do your best, you eliminate second-guessing, reduce stress, and achieve peace of mind. My accountability partners draw out my best efforts by always setting goals requiring me to stretch and do as much as I can to improve a situation.

Accountability – Focusing on What I Can Control

"Personal accountability is not about changing others. It's about making a difference by changing ourselves." – John G. Miller, QBQ! The Question Behind the Question, page 78.

There are many things beyond our individual control – the job market, the economy, the stock market, and world affairs, among them. After acknowledging this truth, we should also confess how many things are within our individual control.

The experience of my current Director of Business Development is enlightening. Prior to joining my firm, she had worked in several sales-related jobs, including commissioned sales rep and sales trainer. She came into the firm hoping to apply the same concepts here. I told her, "You may not believe me, but we';re different. We have a complex sale – we offer a high-value service yielding mostly intangible benefits, requiring a potentially large investment, backed only by the reputation of the firm. I cannot control what our clients and prospects do, so I am unlikely ever to set or meet a monthly quota for fees." For two years, she encouraged me to set monthly or quarterly goals for fees, and I politely refused. Finally, she came around to my way of thinking.

It's true – I cannot control what our clients and prospects do. They may say "yes" or "no," which will lead to fees or to no fees. Fees are an outcome – the end result of a complex process – and I have virtually no control over the decision leading to this final outcome. So, what can I control? Myself. How so? My Director of Business Development and I determine the business development activities we deem most effective. Choosing the activities most likely to result in business, setting goals for the type and quantity of such activities, and consistently meeting our activity goals – these are things we can control, which is how we consistently generate fees.

And that's what accountability involves – focusing on those activities I can control. Part of setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound) goals means setting achievable goals. "Achievable" implies "controllable." Good accountability partners know this, and they shape agreed-upon goals to focus on what the individual can do and control.

Some Final Thoughts on Accountability

"Short-term pain has more impact on most people than long-term benefits do, which is why it's so important for you to amplify the long-term benefits of not quitting." – Seth Godin, The Dip

Here's an insight about accountability partners – the more you let them know you, the more valuable they become to you. Over time, they move from detecting to anticipating excuses, rationalizations, and biases – they progress from shooting them down quickly to preventing their occurrence. When we started this process 5 years ago, allowing them to know me was awkward and uncomfortable – and my growth was slower and less consistent. With time, we have all better settled in our roles, and they are a vital part of my ongoing development.

My accountability partners have agreed to be more flexible in early 2009, as we continue forming ideas and refining our approach for this year. Soon, I expect them to quickly and increasingly challenge me as 2009 progresses – because they know I respond well to their challenges! Of course, this is not to make me feel good – their challenges are set to benefit the firm and everyone in it.

What I experience with my accountability partners is the same type of culture I have created in my firm. Challenges are given, achieved, and celebrated – and the process starts again. For nearly 20 years, I have instilled high expectations throughout my firm, and I have engaged others to apply these same techniques to me. Sometimes I wonder – is all this worth it?

  • Accountability. Yes, it can occasionally be uncomfortable – however, I prefer to be uncomfortable because of growth, rather than live with the status quo.
  • Practicing Accountability. Yes, this takes time and energy from me and my accountability partners – yet, I view this as an investment to ensure numerous growth experiences in 2009 and to set the stage for another successful year for the firm. Rather than invest, I could irrationally hold onto resources and squander potential. Such an option is "doing nothing" – and I know the Return on Investment (ROI) of doing nothing is not zero, but is actually negative.
  • Accountability Partners. Yes, my first reaction to their probing questions is frequently discomfort, because they dig out the unvarnished truth – but, I choose to receive honest feedback from people I trust and who are committed to developing my firm and me, rather than be blind-sided by not listening to others. The goals set by my accountability partners can cause short-term pain, but they coach me through this by getting me to focus on long-term benefits. Hence, my second reaction to my accountability partners is always appreciation.

The true value provided by my accountability partners? Exploring my limits and challenging me to dig deep for vision, courage, and execution.

Sorting and Accountability

"I saw the angel in the marble and I chiseled until I set it free." – Michelangelo

This article is another chapter in my ongoing chronicle of growth through personal accountability. I continue to sort through my experiences and to chisel as I set free my potential.

I hope you enjoyed and benefited from this article. I invite you to share your own thoughts and experiences with me on sorting, accountability, and reaching beyond your own current limits.


Todd L. Herman

Latest Todd's Results

Read about Todd's last accountability check-in and what he learned from the 6 year program.

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This monthly series is Todd's continuing journey of "Intentional Reality" through the process of personal accountability. What's at stake? Todd's BlackBerry.

Check back each month to find out if Todd met his accountability goals or if he had to give up his BlackBerry.