The CEO of a large European manufacturing company once shared with me this regret: “I wish I had gone to business school earlier in my career.”
I was confused.
This was one of the most talented leaders I had ever met; his business acumen was sky-high.
Frankly, I was surprised that he had decided to put his fast-track career on pause to attend Harvard Business School in his late thirties.
When I shared my confusion with him, he laughed.
“No, it wasn’t because I was lacking in business knowledge,” he said. “I was lacking space to think. My time at HBS was the first opportunity I had to pull up, reflect, on my personal and professional life to-date.”
He continued softly, “I might have made some different decisions had I done it earlier in my career.”
Disconnect, Reconnect & Renew
In 2008, Facebook was in trouble.
A smart, but young, Mark Zuckerburg went to a mentor, then Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and asked for help.
Jobs’ advice: disconnect, reconnect, and renew.
In other words, create space to reflect on what’s happening (disconnect).
In that space, review your higher level goals and objectives (reconnect).
And, finally, identify the lessons you have learned and update your strategy, approach and habits, as necessary (renew).
Zuckerburg followed the master’s advice, spending nearly a month in an Indian ashram, before returning to Silicon Valley and going on to build one of the world’s most successful companies. He now makes this practice part of his regular routine.
And he’s not alone among tech titans how make it a point to create space and time for reflection.
LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner, calls it “white space” — scheduled time, on his calendar, to review, reflect, or just catch his breath, during his busy workdays.
While running Microsoft, Bill Gates famously scheduled two “Think Weeks” during the year where he would reflect on the company, review new ideas and develop plans for new initiatives going forward.
Successful leaders in every industry appreciate the importance of creating regular, structured, time and space for reflection.
Escaping The “Busy” Trap
This is not a nice-to-have, this is a must-have for anyone interested in avoiding the “busy trap” as author Tim Krieder refers to the condition affecting our society.
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
It’s another example of what author Charles Hummel called the “Tyranny of the Urgent” in his best-selling book.
For business leaders like Weiner and Zuckerburg, and for individual leaders like you and me, our best defense against the threat of progress-throttling overwhelm is the same: reflection.
I recommend doing a review at least quarterly, if not more frequently. Personally, I conduct a daily, weekly, monthly and annual review.
The Art Of The Personal Strategy Review: Four Questions To Ask Today
A great review and reflection always includes four main questions:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go well?
- What did I learn?
- What will I do differently, going forward?
Below, I’ve elaborated on each of these questions and included some additional prompts to help guide you to richer, more substantive, answers.
That said, if you are new to the review process, don’t get bogged down with substance. Just carve out a fixed amount of time (at least 15 minutes) and start writing.
Question 1: What Went Well?
I always start the reflection process with a celebration of everything — big and little — that I’ve accomplished in the previous period.
As he describes in his book, The Happiness Advantage, Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor shows that by starting with the good stuff, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive.
In other words, when we start with the good stuff, we set ourselves up for a better reflection process.
Here are some alternatives ways to ask this question:
- What were the highlights?
- What were my key accomplishments, personal and professional?
- Of what am I most proud?
Question 2: What Didn’t Go Well?
From a growth and development perspective, this is a critical reflection; a cure to what David Brooks’ calls the curse of “self-satisfied mediocrity.”
This is our opportunity to hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard and objectively identify the underlying root causes of any under-performance.
The good news (again, the positive!) with a long list of highlights already documented, this daunting piece of the reflection is much easier to do.
Here are some alternatives ways to ask this question:
- How could I have made the last ____ day(s) better?
- What didn’t happen, that I hoped would?
- What mistakes did I make?
- When did I let fear hold me back?
Question 3: What (And How) Did I Learn?
Passing the Professional Ski Instructor “Level 3” examination is tough.
In fact, with a 10% pass rate, it’s easier to get into most elite colleges than it is to pass the rigorous final exam.
What makes the test so hard is that it focuses as much on teaching, as it does on skiing.
I took this exam in my mid-20s and, while preparing for it, was first introduced to the idea that not everyone learns the same way.
Some people like to learn by listening (auditory), others prefer to watch and learn (visual), and yet others prefer to learn by doing (kinesthetic).
(Personally, I am a learn by doing kind of guy.)
If you try to teach an auditory learner how to ski by saying “just do what I do” and starting down that slope you are going to fail miserably. Alternatively, if you first explain the principles of angulation, speed control and rotation, they are far more likely to be successful.
How does this impact a personal strategy review?
Simple: if the objective of this process is growth, you must first learn how you learn and hold yourself accountable to creating opportunities where you can continue to learn over time.
That’s what this question, “what (and how) did I learn?” is all about.
Here are few additional questions that can help you go deeper on this critical piece of reflection:
- On a scale of 1-10, how much did I grow over the past ______ days?
- What lessons did I learn?
- From whom did I learn?
- From what (books, podcasts, courses, etc.) did I learn the most?
- At what critical skills did I get “better”?
Question 4: What Will I Do Differently, Going Forward?
“Zero mistakes. No bad investments. That’s the goal.”
It was an ambitious declaration by an ambitious man; the young, charismatic leader of one of the world’s fastest growing investment funds.
As he said it, his small team of hyper-talented men and women, all nodded confidently.
No mistakes, they agreed. That’s the goal.
Months later, while conducting his own review, he quickly identified a key lesson learned: “no mistakes wasn’t the right goal.”
He continued, “what we learned is that if we really want to be creative, innovative and high-growth company, we are going to make some mistakes along the way. Going forward we are going to accept and celebrate these mistakes as signs that we are pushing the envelope.”
A “lesson learned” is meaningless unless it is translated into new behavior going forward. Something that you will do, or you won’t do, as a result.
This talented rising leader was able to not only identify a critical lesson learned but, capture and retain that knowledge through action.
That’s your objective in this fourth and final piece of the reflection process.
Here are some additional questions to help you turn these lessons learned into a plan:
- How will I spend my time differently?
- How will I spend my money differently?
- What is most important, to me; to my success?
- What metrics will I track?
- In what people/relationships will I invest?
- What will I start doing? Stop doing? Keep doing?
- What bad habits must I break?
- What new habits must I develop?
The Need For Self-Renewal (a.k.a. Don’t Be A Barnacle)
“The barnacle is confronted with an existential decision about where it’s going to live. Once it decides, it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock… For a good many of us, it comes to that. We’ve all seen men and women, even ones in fortunate circumstances, who seem to run out of steam in mid-career.”
This quote comes from John Gardner, in a speech he gave to senior leaders at McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm.
How do you avoid the same fate? How do you make sure that you don’t run out of steam?
First, you need a “roadmap,” clear and compelling answers to the three critical questions that every leader must be able to answer:
- Who am I?
- What do I want?
- What must I do to make it happen?
Second, critically, you must continuously reflect on, and learn from, our experiences through a regular, structured, personal strategy review process.
You have to fight back against the forces of busyness, fear and inertia that threaten to throttle your growth.
You have to create the space you need to for reflection, critical thinking and learning.
You may be tempted to say “I can’t afford to right now. I don’t have the time.”
Resist taking that easy way out.
As Gardner, and countless of the most successful men and women in the world can attest, personal review, reflection and renewal is something that you can’t afford not to do.