3 Simple Ways to Master Learning and Make Things Happen

Years ago, a dear friend of mine asked me what my biggest disappointment was with my career. That thoughtful question motivated some real self-reflection. I realized that what bothered me most was that my work was not having lasting impact. While my books were widely read, many people were not following through on the concepts and using them consistently in their day-to-day work. Most managers seemed content to merely talk about leadership practices, rather than to actually implement them.

My friend said, “You’re trying to change people’s behavior only from the outside. Lasting change starts on the inside and moves out.”

I knew immediately he was right, because all I had been focusing on were leadership methods and behavior. I hadn’t focused much on what was inside people’s heads or hearts.

Armed with this new insight, I teamed up with Paul J. Meyer and Dick Ruhe to write Know Can Do, a book about how to close the learning-doing gap. Together we developed three simple ways to help people make the leap from knowing to doing.

#1 – Learn Less More (and Not More Less)

While it’s fine to spend energy learning new skills and knowledge, you also need strategies to retain and apply all the helpful information you take in. For example, perhaps you love reading books and attending seminars. There’s nothing wrong with that—unless you do those things so often that you don’t pause to integrate your new know-how and put it into action.

The fact is, we retain only a small fraction of what we read and hear only once. Instead of gobbling up new information, focus on a few key concepts and study them deeply. Then repeat what you’ve learned over time, which is called spaced repetition. This way, the new knowledge becomes firmly fixed in your mind and you become a master in those areas.

#2 – Listen with a Positive Mindset

There’s nothing wrong with thinking critically; in fact, it’s essential for survival. However, many if not most of us did not receive unconditional love and support when we were young. This gives us a tendency to doubt ourselves and others. Self-doubt causes us to filter all information—whether in book, audio, video, seminar, or conversation format—through our indecisive, closed-minded, judgmental, fear-ridden mindset, which leads to negative thinking.

Negative thinking causes us to learn and use only a fraction of what we see and hear. As a result, we achieve only a small percentage of what we could achieve. We accept too little too soon.

A positive, open mind ignites creativity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. Instead of trying to find what’s wrong with new information, be a green light thinker who actively seeks out what’s right. Practice saying to yourself, “I know there is something of value in what I’m reading or hearing; what is it?”

#3 – Use a Follow-Up Plan

Doing what you’ve learned cannot be left to chance. To keep and apply the knowledge you’ve gained, you need a follow-up plan that provides structure, support, and accountability.

For example, suppose you’ve been out of shape most of your life, but thanks to your newfound positive thinking, you just finished a session with a personal trainer at the gym. You’re feeling proud of yourself—but you don’t have a follow-up plan. What do you think is going to happen in the coming weeks and months? Chances are good to great that you’ll revert to your old ways.

Follow-up plans can take many forms, but the best ones include someone who can tell you, show you, observe you, and praise your progress or redirect you as you practice the new skill. Don’t let your teacher skip the praise part of that sequence, because accentuating the positive motivates learners. Soon you’ll be able to praise and redirect yourself. Over time, you’ll become a master in that skill.

And what’s the best way to maintain that mastery? By teaching what you’ve learned.

So, put the knowledge you’ve just gained into action by reviewing this blog with a positive mindset, practicing these steps, and sharing them with others!

3 Mindsets to Brighten Your Day

I’ve talked a number of times about Norman Vincent Peale and the positive impact he had on my life. I love this quote from him that I often read for inspiration as I enter my day:

“We are here to be excited from youth to old age—to have an insatiable curiosity about the world. Aldous Huxley once said that to carry the spirit of a child into old age is the secret of genius. And I buy that. We are also here to genuinely, humbly, and sincerely help others by practicing a friendly attitude. Every person is born for a purpose. Everyone has a God-given potential, in essence, built into them. And if we are to live life to its fullest, we must realize that potential.”

I like this quote for several reasons that all have to do with having a positive daily mindset.

  • First of all, I love the idea of carrying a childlike spirit into our old age. I feel sorry for adults who mope around and act like they have tight underwear. I love being silly and curious—it makes things more fun for me and, I hope, for the people around me. I’ve always said we should take what we do seriously but ourselves lightly. Norman had a twinkle in his eye and a childlike smile all the way until his “graduation” at age 95.

 

  • I am also a firm believer in practicing  a friendly attitude. That was core to the philosophy behind Norman’s perennial bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking. Whenever I would call him, he would respond in that wonderful singsong voice of his: “I was just telling Ruth the other day, the only thing wrong with our life is that we don’t see Ken and Margie Blanchard enough.”

 

  • Finally, I think it’s important for every person to realize their life purpose. Why are we here? How can we live life to the fullest and be more helpful to our families, friends, and colleagues, our companies and communities, and other good causes and people? Serving and helping others makes life more positive and meaningful.

So as you go out into the world each day, bring three positive daily mindsets along with you: a childlike spirit, a friendly attitude, and a purpose that includes service to others. Your day and the days of everyone you meet will be all the brighter for it!

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Call an Audible

If there’s one thing leaders can count on, it’s that you can’t count on things to stay the same.  You get a game plan and then all of a sudden, circumstances change—your plan will no longer work. That’s when you’ve got to do what my friend, retired Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, refers to as “calling an audible”—doing something different to succeed.

One of my favorite stories about calling audibles comes from a seeing eye dog training program in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Two kinds of dogs would get kicked out of this program. One was the completely disobedient dog—the one that would do nothing the master wanted. Surprisingly, the other kind was the completely obedient dog—the one that did whatever the master asked it to.

The program only kept dogs that did whatever the master wanted unless it didn’t make sense. The trainers actually taught these dogs to think—to use judgment! So, if a dog is on a street corner and the master says, “Forward”—but the dog looks and sees a car coming at 60 miles an hour—the dog doesn’t blindly think, “This is a real bummer” as he leads his master right out in front of the car. Ha!

Sometimes leaders need to be like the seeing eye dog staring at the car heading their way at 60 miles per hour. Just because the business plan says to follow Plan A, it might be time to adopt Plan B.

Netflix provides a great example. In 1998—back when Blockbuster was the big name in movie rentals—Netflix started renting out DVDs by mail. But by 2007 the DVD rental model was losing profitability. That’s when Netflix called an audible—they took advantage of new technology and began offering a subscription streaming service.

Netflix is now the global leader in on-demand entertainment. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Blockbuster either didn’t see the car coming at 60 miles an hour, or they blindly followed a bad plan.

Organizations thrive when decision makers at every level learn to be audible ready. For example, a family with young kids was having dinner at a fine gourmet hotel restaurant in New York City. The kids ordered macaroni and cheese from the children’s menu. When dinner came, the kids played with the macaroni but didn’t each much. The grown-ups tried some and thought it was the greatest gourmet mac-and-cheese they’d ever tasted. When the waiter asked the kids if there was something wrong with their meal, they said, “It’s yucky! It’s not Kraft!”

The next evening when the family appeared at the restaurant, the waiter from the previous night spotted them and came right over to the kids. “I was hoping you would come back. I got Kraft for you.” With that, he went to the kitchen and returned with a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

With an audible-ready waiter like that, is it any wonder the restaurant was flourishing?

Many organizations today have an organizational chart with everyone in a comfortable box. It might look nice on the wall, but it locks everyone into a fixed game plan and often, fixed rules. Don’t let this happen to you. Plans and procedures are important, so have them in place. But be ready to call an audible when you see that 60-mile-an-hour car heading your way!

 

Be an Agile Leader

In business today, there’s a growing trend toward agile leadership: a focus on fast decision making, short-term goals, and the empowerment of individuals. What began as a leadership approach confined to IT departments—business units that must respond quickly to rapidly changing technology—has become a way of life for leaders generally.

Today, it’s not just IT departments that have to be on their toes—everybody in an organization must adapt quickly to change. People are recognizing that yesterday’s hierarchical structures and top-down management styles simply don’t allow for the flexibility and innovation required to compete in today’s fast-paced business environments.

That’s why the term agile leadership has expanded to include general leadership skills like acting on a shared vision, creating empowered teams, leading change, and sharing decision-making.

 

Agile Leadership at the Manager Level

Just as top-down management no longer works at the organizational level, it no longer works one-on-one, either. Agile leaders practice side-by-side leadership, partnering with their direct reports to provide the direction and support they need for their level of development on any given task.

Agile leaders are servant leaders, because they recognize that there are two aspects of servant leadership: vision and implementation. Creating a shared vision is the leadership part of servant leadership; helping people implement that vision is the servant part of servant leadership.

For many years, The Ken Blanchard Companies has been teaching SLII®, a servant leadership model that is based on the belief that leadership style should be tailored to the situation. This kind of flexibility is a key principle of agile organizations.

To become agile, SLII® leaders, managers must master three skills: goal setting, diagnosis, and matching. Goal setting involves aligning on what needs to be done, and when. SLII® managers make sure people know what they are being asked to do and what good performance looks like. Diagnosis involves determining a direct report’s development level—their competence and commitment to accomplish the goal. Matching involves aligning leadership style to a direct report’s development level. The goal of the SLII® leader is to develop direct reports so they can perform at a high level on goals without supervision.

Agile leaders trained in SLII® provide direction and support in the proper amounts to help fill in what direct reports can’t provide for themselves. When someone is new to a task, this means providing specific direction; when someone gets discouraged, it means providing coaching. As the person gains competence in the task, the leader pulls back on the amount of direction they provide as they support the person’s continued development. And when the person demonstrates self-reliance on the goal or task, the leader moves to a delegating style, giving direct reports the autonomy characteristic of people in agile organizations.

An agile leader can comfortably use a variety of leadership styles. As a leader’s direct report moves from one development level to the next on any given task, the leader’s management style changes accordingly. When leaders can comfortably use a variety of leadership styles, they have mastered the flexibility required by agile organizations.

 

A Real World Example

Let’s see how an agile leader can use SLII® to develop the empowered individuals needed in agile organizations.

Suppose you hire a 22-year-old salesperson with little actual sales experience. She has a high commitment to becoming good at sales and is curious, hopeful, and excited. Someone at this level is an enthusiastic beginner. A directing leadership style is appropriate at this stage. You need to teach your new hire everything about the sales process—from making a sales call to closing the sale—and lay out a step-by-step plan for her self-development, teaching her what experienced salespeople do and letting her practice in low risk sales situations.

Now, suppose your new hire has had a few weeks of sales training. She understands the basics of selling but is finding it more difficult than she expected. She’s not quite as excited as she was before and looks discouraged at times. At this stage, your salesperson is a disillusioned learner. What’s needed now is a coaching leadership style, which is high on both direction and support. You continue to direct and closely monitor her sales efforts, and you also engage her in two-way conversations. You provide a lot of praise and support at this stage because you want to build her confidence, restore her commitment, and encourage her initiative.

In time the young woman learns the day-to-day responsibilities of her position and has acquired some good sales skills. She still has some self-doubt and questions whether she can sell well without your help. At this stage, she is a capable but cautious performer. This is where a supporting leadership style is called for. Since her selling skills are good, she doesn’t need direction. She needs you to listen to her concerns and suggestions, and be there to support her. Encourage and praise, but rarely direct her efforts. Help her reach her own sales solutions by asking questions and encouraging risk-taking.

Eventually, your former new salesperson becomes a key player on your team. Not only has she mastered her sales tasks and skills, she’s also working successfully with some of your most challenging clients. She anticipates problems, is ready with solutions, works successfully on her own, and inspires others. At this stage, she is a self-reliant achiever. At this level of development, a delegating leadership style is best. Turn over responsibility for day-to-day decision making and problem solving; empower her and allow her to act independently. Challenge her to continue to grow and cheer her on to even higher levels of success.

Using the servant leadership skills of SLII®, leaders develop employees who are more proactive, engaged, and ultimately, self-reliant—in short, ready to meet the needs of the agile organization.

The Precious Present

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift—that’s why they call it the present.”

You may have heard this quotation, attributed to many different people including Eleanor Roosevelt. It reminds me of when I first met Spencer Johnson. He had just finished a manuscript entitled The Precious Present (Doubleday, 1984).  It’s a wonderful parable about a young boy who lived near an older man who always seemed to be happy. One day the boy asked the old man about it.

The old man told the boy that the secret to lifelong happiness was finding the Precious Present. “It is a present because it is a gift. And it is precious because anyone who receives such a present is happy forever.”

“Wow!” the little boy exclaimed.  “I hope someone gives me The Precious Present.”

For years as the young boy grew, he searched high and low, trying in vain to find the Precious Present. Finally, as a grown man, he stopped to recall the things the happy old man had told him so many years ago. At that moment, he realized the Precious Present was just that: the present. Not the past, not the future, but the Precious Present.

It’s okay to learn from the past, but don’t live there. And it’s okay to plan for the future, but don’t live there, either. If you really want to be happy as you go through life, don’t lose what is precious to you. Live in the present.

What a powerful message. I always remember it when I’m feeling bad about something that’s already happened or when I start worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. Living every day to the fullest is really the best way I know to be happy for the rest of your life. Thanks, Spencer.