Thoughts & Observations

Choose Your Own Adventure

I usually make decisions quickly. I don’t dilly-dally. I get the information I need, give it just enough thought, and then I go.

But I couldn’t do that in this case.

This time, I had to sit with a feeling for months. I kept thinking and thinking and coming to the same conclusion in my gut, but I couldn’t move. I had to keep dipping my toe in the water, hoping that at some point the temperature would feel perfect.

I finally had the realization over the past month that the water was never going to be just right, that the circumstances were never going to align themselves perfectly. If I wanted the change I had been envisioning, I just had to jump.

Last week, I turned in my good-bye letter to Girl Scouts. I had been with the organization for seven and a half years. That was a mighty big band-aid to rip off. But I needed to do it. I realized that I had grown comfortable: I was addicted to the stability of a consistent paycheck and the comfort of health insurance.

On the surface, those may not seem like bad things to get addicted to, but once I realized what I was giving up in the name of achieving that security, I couldn’t look back.

When I first started working, I believed that work was a life sentence we all had to serve, and that the best I could hope for was a job I didn’t hate, with a good salary and some benefits. I felt pretty lucky to have found that comfort at a young age.

But when I became CEO three years ago, a light bulb was flipped on for me. It was dim at first – this slight flicker of an idea that somehow the way that society had conditioned me and everyone else around me to work was wrong. There was something wrong with being chastised like a five year-old for showing up ten minutes late to work. There was something wrong with having to ask permission to take a couple hours off in the afternoon to go to the doctor, as if we were third graders asking for a bathroom pass. There was something wrong with a hierarchy that required staff to write multiple memos to justify buying a $12 pair of computer speakers so that they could listen to an online training. There was something wrong with the fact that I felt that every time I walked through those office doors I had to leave half of myself on the sidewalk.

So I decided to change everything. I read an amazing book called Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, and within a month we became the first non-profit Results-Only Work Environment in the country. I found inspiration from Zappos and books like The Levity Effect and realized that half of what made work suck was that it wasn’t much fun. I started serving kids’ cereal at morning meetings. It became ok for people to laugh and to dress in silly costumes and to just be themselves.

I didn’t realize it as first, but as our organizational culture changed, I changed too. Our VP of Human Resources used to joke that when he first met me, he thought I had no personality. People who met me two or three years ago, when all of this change was just starting to happen, say that I’m a completely different person now – in a good way.

The difference is that I got comfortable being myself.

That light bulb that was once dim was now glowing brightly.

When I launched my Regret Me Not Project back in September, I knew I wasn’t the same person I had been. I was looking at life differently. And looking at work differently. I put a new value on every minute of my day, and didn’t want to waste any of time doing things that drained my spirit and stifled what I knew I was capable of contributing.

Soon, I started to have this strange, nagging feeling that I wasn’t quite where I was supposed to be and that I wasn’t quite doing what I was supposed to do. I started to feel frustrated and knew in my gut that it was time for me to make a big change.

There was still the problem, though, of the paycheck and the health insurance. Those things had built fences around me, and fences have a funny way of creating both a sense of security and a sense of fear.

But the more I sat with the fear, the more I realized I wasn’t willing to live with a constant state of unease and the overwhelming feeling that life had much more to offer me. I realized that staying behind the fences was actually more frightening then stepping out.

So I stopped dipping my toe in the water and I jumped in.

Within the week or so, I will have moved to New York City. I’ll be exploring, doing whatever work I get most excited about, and living a choose my own adventure, walking down my own path.

Starting now.

Thoughts & Observations

The Challenge of Execution Starts with Strategy

Reprinted from my “Practical Business Radical” column in The Business Press

The world is full of thoughtful strategy. Companies spend hundreds of hours every year and significant financial resources on ensuring that they have crafted a strategy that will lead them to success. When so much of a company’s intellectual capital is dedicated to building its strategic foundation, why does the execution of a strategy so often fall short?

First, crafting a strategy feels deceptively simple. It is a finite process. It involves a beginning (brainstorming, data gathering, conducting a situation analysis), a middle (analyzing and discussing data), and an end (crafting and writing the strategy). Even though this formal process may be revisited every few years, writing strategy is not work that a company has to do every day.

Execution, on the other hand, requires daily recalibration. If a strategy is going to be executed effectively, every moving part of an organization has to be aligned to delivering on that strategy, every single day. Even in small companies, it is difficult to align each department and staff person with the overall strategy of the company on a consistent basis.

It turns out that this challenge of execution can actually be tied back to an underlying problem with strategy. Often times, strategies sound visionary, but do not paint a clear picture for the individual employee of how they fit into the strategy. They may not see how their daily work needs to change or how they need to align themselves differently with another department in order to execute the new strategy appropriately.

Spending time at Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas back in October, I witnessed how a large company can effectively align all of its employees to its strategy. Zappos started as online shoe retailer and has come to be known not only for the shoes and other wares it sells online, but also for its phenomenal customer service, its creative culture, and its fast growth. Zappos’ first step in setting their strategy is defining their “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), which at Zappos is focused on growth in sales.

The BHAG is posted throughout the Zappos offices, complete with a graphic representation of the BHAG as a big, hairy beast, displayed proudly on the walls. Once the BHAG is established, the senior leadership at Zappos crafts plans for how each of their teams will contribute to achieving the BHAG. Each subsequent manager down the line finds a new way of refining the presentation to their group of employees to ensure that every employee knows what the BHAG is and knows how the work they do on a daily basis will contribute to achieving the BHAG. The employees in sports merchandising know what their growth in sales needs to be and the customer service representatives know what their level of performance needs to be in order to reach the company’s overall goal.

Taking a big goal and breaking it down into smaller, easily executable pieces is a daily occurrence at Zappos and is a skill that the company helps its employees develop. Zappos onsite coach, Dr. Vik, helps employees address a variety of personal challenges in their lives, from losing weight to reducing credit card debt. He teaches them the technique of setting their own personal BHAGs, and then slowly chipping away at their BHAG in small steps: doing 10 sit-ups a day or volunteering on a weekend instead of shopping. As employees see that this technique of accomplishing major personal goals one step at a time works, they start applying the same concept to the company’s BHAG. Everyone is focused on the BHAG and knows how they can help the company reach it, and it pays off.  Zappos recently achieved a huge BHAG – reaching $1 billion in annual sales.

Successful execution requires a strategy that is relevant to every employee. Although there are many factors that influence the outcome of execution, the rate of success increases dramatically when each employee can clearly see how they can contribute to achieving the company’s goals. How relevant is your BHAG?