In this first of two articles, I discuss the power of clear intentions—the importance of finding the time to know your own mind before committing to a course of action. In Part 2, we look at how you can anticipate obstacles and use these to propel you forward.
Be Clear on Your Intentions
What are you trying to accomplish? What or who will get in your way? What conflicts do you foresee as you try to fulfill your aspirations and overcome impediments?
I always ask my advisory clients these questions and press hard for answers that reflect both personal and professional, immediate and longer-term aspirations.
While major life events tend to trigger moments of deep reflection, finding time for reflection far more often, earlier, and more rigorously than most of us do pays real dividends. Otherwise, we cannot be there fully—be present in mindfulness parlance—for those who depend on us, and we cannot make the best decisions amid complexity.
Without presence of mind, we spend all our time regretting the past or anticipating the future. Some have defined “stress” as the continuous focus on the next moment. Your body senses that your mind is not in the same place that it is and anticipates that you’ll soon be doing something else, and the juices (literally) start flowing.
Put a little differently, making the right decisions is hard enough; making them for the right reasons is even more important. See Reflections: Why We Do What We Do and Why It Matters. This cognitive dissonance (mental stress) can be hard to shake and gets in the way of clear thinking.
This means that we need to know our own minds, and it is never as easy as it sounds. Our minds are incredibly powerful but, at any given moment, based on circumstances and emotions, they can distort reality—leading us to believe what we want to believe or convincing us that we can’t achieve what we want to achieve. We must assess our own desires and needs in the context of our specific circumstances.
Let’s take a typical career pivot point that most of us can relate to and consider the questions you might ask and answer.
Situation: You’re a first-time CEO or a new senior executive. You have a lot to prove to yourself and to those who took a chance on you. What are your expectations of yourself and their expectations of you? What things have to happen for these to be fulfilled?
Ask Yourself the Hard Questions
Talk to the little voice in your head and listen with a critical ear. Do this when you really have time to think. And be honest with yourself, which means be willing to accept the reality of your current situation as it is—not as you’d like it to be. Answer the questions without simultaneously judging the response.
Here’s a good example from below: What are you especially good at and not so good at?
You can say, “I’m a very careful, analytical person who doesn’t especially like having to spend time convincing others of my point of view.”
If this is factually accurate, then that’s enough. Resist the temptation to then say to yourself, “But I should be better at influencing others at this stage of my career.” That may be objectively true given your career aspiration. But for the purposes of this exercise, there’s nothing you can do about it in the present moment, so you have to let it go. This mindset will just cloud your judgment.
Here are some questions to prime the pump.
- What do you want from this new career experience? To learn on the job? To refine your brand as a leader so you can move to a larger organization? To spend your career with this company?
- What are you especially good at doing? No one excels at everything. How can you safely be open about your strengths and weaknesses?
- How will you play to your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses with help from your team, peers, and board?
- How important is to you to be liked? If it’s important, and you’ll avoid conflict to ensure being liked, how will you compensate for this preference? Leadership is not a popularity contest, and some executives are more comfortable with this fact than others, so be honest with yourself.
- How hard are you willing to work/can you work at this stage in your life? Being a CEO or senior leader means you’re always on call, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose yourself in the job.
- What conditions must exist so you can focus on the right things at the right times without distraction? Can you organize your personal life and other professional commitments in such a way that you can make time to be there for your team
After you’ve asked and answered these questions for yourself, enlisting the help of a confidant who can do a reality check on your own assessments can be extremely helpful.
We all have strengths, preferences, and limitations. When we’re clear about these before making a decision that commits us and others to a course of action, we create the mental space that allows us to be more conscious of others.
In Part 2, we’ll explore some obstacles that might arise as you seek to act on your intentions.