Emotions are powerful, especially if we let them work in our lives without paying full attention. They can derail our goals if we let them.

In my experience there are four emotions that usually come mixed in a powerful cocktail, sure to undermine our goals: fearuncertaintydoubt, and shame. Most of us succumb to these from one time to another. I certainly do.

Early in my career, I used to suffer from social anxiety. I couldn’t go an office party without getting clammy hands. I’d sweat like crazy. It was embarrassing. My only defense was to avoid going. But of course that avoidance meant I missed opportunities to advance my career. Later, when I was made CEO of AGN Schools, I was hammered by pretty intense feelings of inadequacy, which is just another name for that dangerous cocktail. It’s only a matter of time before they find me out, I thought.

It’s a universal challenge. As it turns out, most leaders are like that. Whenever I speak on this topic, they admit it. It’s a universal affliction. And it’s natural. There’s no playbook for leaders, no manual. We’re all making it up as we go. Under those circumstances, who wouldn’t feel like they might blow it?

To this day I feel it every time we start a new product. It’s the most natural feeling in the world. The truth is that any leader that doesn’t feel that way should probably get fired. They’re obviously self-deluded. But just because I wrestle with these four emotions doesn’t mean I have to succumb to them. Two realizations have helped me develop some immunity to this deadly cocktail.

Two Powerful Realizations

The first is something my mother always said: “Nobody is thinking about you as much as you’re thinking about you.” It’s a simple but powerful statement. It takes the teeth out of any fear I feel because I realize everyone is probably just as nervous as me. And if that’s true, they’re thinking about themselves, not me.

Once you get that everyone’s thinking about themselves and wondering how they’re coming off you can stop worrying. It actually makes the whole thing seem kind of comical.

The second realization is that nothing good ever happens when I’m tucked in my comfort zone. If I’m not struggling with all these emotions, I’m probably in my comfort zone – and I’ve learned that’s an unprofitable place to be. Going outside my comfort zone stretches me. It causes me to grow and be more creative. I might hatch an idea in my comfort zone, but to bring it to reality requires the bravery of stepping out.

Fearuncertaintydoubt, and shame can sink our dreams and derail our goals. But they don’t have to. It’s up to us how we respond. If we’re aware how they’re working inside us, we can face them down and overcome their negative influence.

Do you ever face these four emotions? What do you do to combat them?


traffic lightAre you waiting for someone to give you permission to lead, grow, or move in your organization? What if you already have all the permission you need?

I was recently invited to sit on a board and observed something there I’ve seen countless times in other settings. Some people around the table had no trouble making themselves heard, while others seemed hesitant, withdrawn, even sheepish. It was as if the quiet people were waiting for someone to give them permission to speak. But the truth is that their presence on the board was all the permission they needed.

The scene reminded me of a story I once read about a farmer who rented a donkey to take some produce to market. Along the way, a traveler joined the farmer and the donkey, and when they got tired the three stopped for a rest.

Unfortunately there were no trees around so the traveler reclined in the donkey’s shadow. The farmer protested that he’d only rented the donkey, not the donkey’s shadow. The traveler insisted that use of the donkey assumed use of the donkey’s shadow too. It wasn’t a perk, it was part of the deal.

It’s the same on a board or in a company. Unless you’ve been told only to observe, speak up! Act. Play your part. Whether it’s a seat on a board or a cube in the corner, the permission you need is assumed by your invitation. If it’s not, that’s a good sign you’re in the wrong organization.

It’s easy to retreat behind a kind of phony humility, as if not speaking were really a virtue. Some religious people might even twist a few Scripture verses to validate their sheepishness.

But not speaking up, not acting, not leading cheats everyone in at least three ways:

  1. It cheats your superiors. It’s a disappointment to the people who wanted you there to contribute. No one gets invited to suck up the room’s oxygen.
  2. It cheats the group. Important learning is on the line. If you speak up and your ideas are good, everyone benefits. If you speak up and you get corrected, there’s still a benefit for everyone. The truly humble are capable of serving the team regardless of the outcome.
  3. It cheats you. Holding back might feel like a benefit to you, but it’s a cheap win: The only thing you buy is your comfort. No personal improvement. No esteem in the eyes of your colleagues. No contribution to the organization.

I’ve been at this a long time, and so I’ve developed some confidence. But the only way to develop that confidence is to step out and speak up. Assume permission and go.

The traveler was right. If you’ve got the donkey, you’ve got permission to use his shadow. If an organization has entrusted you with a position, assume you have permission to use it. If you’ve been invited, that’s all the permission you need. Just go.

Have there been times you’ve held back in important meetings or events when your voice could have made the difference? 


1 (1)For the last few years I’ve taken a short sabbatical each summer. I’m looking to rest and focus on intense relational time with my family. The challenge is unplugging from the office.

Anyone who’s attempted it can relate to the difficulty. I’m at the computer or on another device a large portion of the day, every day. I’m reading, interacting on social media, dealing with email, building my business. Plugging in is second nature. Unplugging is hard.

People use many different solutions with varying degrees of success. Some try hiding apps on their mobile devices. Others use parental controls. I read an article a while ago about a writer who actually locks his phone in a safe. And then there’s this idea, a walk-in Faraday cage to block digital signals.

That might go a little far for me. The good news is that I’ve learned a few things about unplugging since starting my sabbatical tradition. These five steps work for me:

  1. I enable a special emergency email that I only use while on sabbatical. Only my family and teammates have this email. I check this once a day.
  2. I disable all other email accounts on my desktop and mobile devices. I’m using an auto-responder to explain my absence along with Gmail’s filter function to delete all messages as they arrive. Details on the auto-responder and filter below.
  3. I delete Slack and TweetDeck on my desktop and mobile devices so I’m not tempted to check them. I will reinstall them when I return.
  4. I view Facebook via my browser, but I will only use my personal account to stay connected with family and close friends. This is entertainment for me not work. I’ll keep Instagram on my phone for the same reason.
  5. I set up a voicemail message for my phone that mirrors the auto-responder message I’m using for my email accounts.

Here’s the text of that auto-responder message. You might find it useful. I also explain how to set up the Gmail filter to remove all messages from your inbox as they arrive. It’s not quite the same thing as deleting them, but it’s close.

To set up the filter, go to your Gmail settings and select filters. When you go to add a new filter, you’ll see a window like the one below. In the “From” field, type “.” This mean the filter applies to ever message.

You will get an error message on this, but you can ignore it. Once you set the parameters, click “Create filter with this search.” You’ll see a window like this one.

Make the selections you see above. You can’t actually delete the message and also trigger the vacation message. Instead, mark it as read and skip the inbox. The message won’t be deleted, but it will be automatically archived so you don’t see it when you return to your inbox.

These steps allow me to get my head out of my work and my heart into my rest. In my experience these steps allow me to get my head out of my work and my heart into my rest.

What steps to you take to unplug? How much rest do you get if you don’t?


mentor (2)Whenever an organization rolls out a major change, clarity and alignment are essential. Without those two things all the best intentions amount to little more than heartburn and headaches.

As a leader responsible for a medium company, I have experienced the difficulty of getting clarity and creating alignment with my team. In one instance, we shuttered more than a dozen division of our publishing operation and restructured the entire business. But I’ve also found myself on the other side of things – outside of the leadership seat and in the role of observer. Only in this case people were making decisions about my brand!

As an example, I remember when the National Speakers Association announced a significant change to their name (about 2 years ago). They announced that they would adopt the name ‟Platform”.

They noted that their members do a lot more than public speaking and their initials are far from popular right now. I sympathized. “NSA” was tarnished brand, regardless of what you think of the federal government’s operations. Within a ten days they’d reversed course and abandoned the name. As the whole situation played out, I was reminded of five key steps for any organization before rolling out a major initiative. Each of these steps is designed to achieve either clarity or alignment. Both are essential if an organization wants to avoid a backlash to its proposed changes.

These apply to the NSA, of course, but they also apply to all of us seeking to lead in the world of social media, where everyone has a microphone and everyone is connected to everyone else.

  1. Determine what you need to communicate. This is the single most important step. You need to get crystal clear on your message. Distill it down to one sentence. What’s the headline? That’s all most people will take away anyway. Part of this step requires answering the why question. You need to provide the rationale. This where NSA got it right and wrong. They did a great job of communicating why their brand needed an update, and I’m sure we could all agree. But they didn’t explain why taking platform was the right course for their organization.
  2. Commit your message to writing – in advance. My introduction to the NSA rebrand came through watching a video recording of a public address, so I’m not sure how this worked beforehand inside their shop. But I always start by writing a press release, talking points, and FAQ document. Not only does this step bring tremendous clarity to my own thinking, it also enables me to enlist others and keeps me from having to formulate communication in the midst of a public relations storm.
  3. Secure alignment with your leadership team. It’s crucial that you give your key team members information, time to process, and space to discuss. It’s hard to overemphasize this step, and the importance increases with the magnitude of the change. Individuals may express disagreement, but they can still get behind the change if they feel like they’ve been heard. If they feel ignored, however, they may well work against the new initiative.
  4. Contact key stakeholders – personally. You cannot afford to surprise your key constituents. This is another area where NSA might have stumbled. In the blowback of the initial decision, it seemed as if there were key people in the dark about the change. It’s essential to enroll your key stakeholders, determine who will contact whom, and then start making visits or calls – in advance of the public announcement. The information should quietly cascade within the organization. Then take it to select VIPs outside the company before the public revelation. You’re doing more than communicating about the change. You’re also conveying your respect by informing your VIPs before you go public. Then, once you go public, they are able to say, ‟Yes, I knew about that change. They contacted me in advance of the announcement.”
  5. Go public through all available media channels. Now take it to the world via press releases, blog posts, and social media. This ensures you control the narrative. Without a narrative, critics will create their own. And that’s when things begin to unwind. Part of going public is staying public. Keep the channels open for public dialogue. Interviews, blog conversations, Twitter exchanges – they’re all key for managing the public response. The NSA did this well. When the backlash came, the leadership owned the problem, solicited responses, and were quick to respond.

No change is easy, especially big organizational changes like a restructure or a rebrand. But clarity and alignment through good communication are critical components of initiating major change without blowing up your business.

I was eager to see what the NSA leadership was to develop for their new brand. I wanted them to succeed. Though they stumbled on this recent initiative, I think they had the opportunity to achieve even greater clarity and alignment within their organization. This would serve them well as they serve their members and the world at large.

What good and bad experiences have you had with major organizational change? 




Envying Other People’s Success

In this world of bloggers, business leaders, and message-delivers, it’s far too easy to succumb to similar temptations. A blogger stumbles across someone with a highly trafficked, killer site and tries to duplicate his success with a redesign and eerily similar content.

A wannabe speaker hears a powerful presentation and immediately abandons her message and style in an attempt to generate the speaker’s success.

Every day, on the web, at conferences and over dinner conversations, I see individuals swallowed up in the sway of outside influence. In all the chatter and noise, they fall out of love with their own voice. I understand the tug and pull all too well.

For years I dreamed of being a writer. I’d read a great book or blog post and think, “I want to write like that!” So I’d hunker down at my laptop and do my best to write equally glorious words. The problem? It didn’t sound at all like me. And my followers knew it, even this week, as the new webinar launched, a part of me felt the tug to conform.

This business of developing and delivering our messages is far more difficult than we realized when we started, isn’t it? We know where we want to go. We can see the end result. But the path between here and there sits in fog. So we search out the well-worn paths of other’s success and jump on, hoping it will lead us to our own.

But it doesn’t work that way.

2Resisting the Tug of Impersonation

In the chatter of a market filled with messengers, you and I mustn’t give way to the tug of impersonation. Your message is too important for that. Instead, we must commit to authentic representation. You have too much to offer. Want to stand out? Here’s the three-part secret:

  • Know who you are. This is no small task. It requires time, energy, and courage to connect with who you are at your core – your dreams, personality traits, talents and passions. It requires hanging out in the quiet spaces, outside the noise of the market, to connect with the less-than-public, less-than-packaged you.

Try this: Shut down the laptop. Power off the phone. Ignore your email and analytics and social media accounts for a day. In its place, take inventory of who you are and write it down. Honor yourself and your message enough to become well acquainted with both. Only then can you expertly deliver it to the world.

  • Know who you are not. Earlier this week I listened to an interview with Dr. Henry Cloud. He was discussing his book, Boundaries For Leaders, and in the course of conversation he said words I will not soon forget: “The first thing you need to know is who you are not. Be not conformed.”

I am not a technology wizard (this fact cannot be overstated). I am not a once-a-day blogger or web theme designer. And my writing style will always be far more narrative than how-to. But my differences don’t make me less-than. They make me me. Which leads me to the third aspect of the secret.…

  • Believe you are enough. When working in a world with such talent and opportunity, it’s easy to focus on what we lack. Like you, there are moments I wish I had different gifts and talents. But to standout, you and I need to spend less time wishing we were different and more time believing we have just what it takes. It is the quirky, unique, and uncommon that makes both a product and person stand out.

Don’t dishonor the uniqueness of you. You’re far too valuable than that. Instead, deliver the one product absolutely no one else can replicate – You


What would be possible for you and your message if you focused on authentic representation instead of  impersonation?


Portrait of male resting at home on his couchThe weekend gives most of us the chance to downshift and recharge. But how often do we seize on it to catch up or get ahead on our work instead? Slow down and imagine what could happen if we resisted the temptation.

If you’re driven like I am, you have more projects than time. It’s easy to think of downtime as simply another opportunity to get more things done. But downtime is crucial, and there’s more evidence every day that it’s essential to our productivity and wellbeing.

A “symphonic life”, like we discussed before, doesn’t allow work to dominate. It takes advantage of natural times to blow off work and rejuvenate. Here are three reasons to unplug this weekend.

1. We Need to Play

When researching people who demonstrated deep joy and life satisfaction, Brené Brown found that they “fool around a lot”. In other words, happy people play.

It’s easy to disregard playing as trivial, especially when there are so many “serious” things we need to do: problems to solve, deadlines to meet, tasks to finish. But play actually help us with all these things. It’s rejuvenating and stimulates our creativity.

“Play nurtures a supple mind, a willingness to think in new categories, and an ability to make unexpected associations” says Virginia Postrel after reviewing some of the growing research on the importance of play. “The spirit of play not only encourages problem solving but, through novel analogies, fosters originality and clarity.”

“Nothing lights up the brain like play” says researcher Stuart Brown, and it’s worth watching his TED Talk on the topic.

Play also helps us pop the stress balloon. Greg McKeown talks about this in Essentialism. Maybe that’s a “duh” for most of you, but I forget it pretty easily. Then I end up goofing around with my dog, Charlie Brown, for an hour and get up feeling like a new man. Just a brief time playing makes a big difference in my energy level and how I see the world.

2. We Need to Rest

We’ve talked a lot about sleep here recently. A couple of weeks ago I read that Yahoo’s CEO missed a high-power advertising meeting because she fell asleep before the event and kept people waiting nearly two hours.

The strange thing is that most of the coverage I read said nothing about how little sleep she brags about getting, just four to six hours a night. She defends working 80 hours a week by saying she gets enough vacations.

Apparently not.

Can we stop this already – this culture that values accomplishment at the cost of basic human needs like sleep? People have been sleeping since the beginning of time, and yet we think we can go without it. Isn’t it bizarre? We wouldn’t do that with food or water, but sleep is just as essential.

So close the laptop and take a nap. Or go to bed early. Or get up late. Don’t set the alarm. Just rest.

3. We Need Time with Our Thoughts

Now for the hard one. How often do you daydream or even allow yourself to get bored? This is a major struggle for me. It’s far too easy to scan Twitter or Facebook, flip through Netflix, or catch up on my RSS feeds. If I’m unoccupied I feel guilty. But it turns out there’s a lot of value in letting our minds just wander.

Daniel Goleman calls this “open awareness” and says when our minds wander we’re free to:

  • constructively envision our future – essential for planning and goal setting
  • reflect on our thoughts and actions – central to living intentionally
  • make fresh and creative associations between ideas – key to problem solving

I often feel unproductive in these moments. But that’s the point. Our brains aren’t designed to go nonstop. When we drop things into neutral ideas flow on their own, memories sort themselves out, and we give ourselves a chance to rest.

If you read music at all, you are familiar with the various notations that signal rest. The marks on the sheet music tell the musician when to stop. The weekend is a signal to rest, and the symphonic life is one that pays attention to the signals.

Do you cheat your rejuvenation by trying to cram in more work into the weekends? What could happen for your creativity, energy, and attitude if you took the time your body needs to rest?


mentor (2)

I’ve worked with several executive assistants over the years, and I have found it is a make-or-break relationship when it comes to my success.

Think about it: None of us can do it all on our own. We need to bring others into our work to help us succeed in it. And the bigger the dream, the more help we usually need.

In my corporate days, I had some very effective executive assistants, and I couldn’t imagine doing the work without them. The same has been true since going on my own again in 2011, though at first I thought I could just operate as a one-man show. I was wrong. I couldn’t.

It wasn’t long before I was completely buried in email, speaking requests, travel details, calendar complications, expense reports, and more. I knew I needed help. Fortunately, I found a virtual executive assistant who enabled me to dig out of my pile, offload the stuff I hated, and get back to the essentials.

I now have two virtual executive assistants working on my team, and I can’t imagine it functioning without them. But that doesn’t mean an executive assistant is a silver bullet for all our big hairy problems. An executive assistant is only as good as the working relationship.

There are a lot of ways to blow it with your executive assistant, and I have identified the top-ten mistakes leaders make with their executive assistants, regardless of whether they’re virtual or sitting right outside your office. If we can avoid these, we can amplify our chances for success:

1b30– We undervalue our true worth. How valuable is your time? Most of us don’t know, which is why we keep wasting so much of it on activities that don’t really matter. Without a doubt this is the No. 1 mistake people make with their executive assistants.

Take your total compensation and divide it across your available work hours. Now ask yourself: Is mailing that package, scheduling that meeting, or processing those invoices really worth that much? I bet not. If we really understood how much we’re worth, we’d hand off far more to our executive assistants.

2- We undervalue our executive assistants’ true worth. Some of us don’t appreciate the competence, talents, and skills of our executive assistants. We don’t trust them enough to delegate the important but time-consuming tasks that take us off mission. It’s like we’re stuck in an old­-school “secretary” paradigm. The truth is that an executive assistant is really a full partner in achieving our goals.

3- We don’t communicate enough. Communication is key to working with an executive assistant, and yet I constantly see executive assistant relationships that suffer because leaders fail to provide necessary details about their work and even their private lives. If an executive assistant is a partner in achieving our goals, they will only be as effective as they are dialed into what’s happening. Keeping them in the dark only hurts our ability to succeed.

4- We don’t give the why behind the what. No. 4 is related to No. 3. A good executive assistants can fill ­in the blanks of tasks and projects if they know the rationale behind a task or project. When we don’t communicate adequate background and reasoning, we’re hampering our executive assistants’ ability to help us win.

5- We just don’t know how to delegate. If there’s a magic sauce to leadership, it’s delegation. Nothing will sink a leader faster than the inability to assign priorities and responsibilities.

But many of us don’t properly delegate to the one person working closest to us, our executive assistants. That’s a recipe for disaster. One executive assistant was straightforward about the problem: “If you don’t ask for something to be done and then explain how you’d like it accomplished, I’m no good to you!”

b256- We refuse to surrender our email and calendars. Some of us actually like managing our inboxes and schedules; others are just control freaks. Either way, it sucks up tons of time. Leaders who don’t delegate these two functions are killing their productivity.

7- We don’t open up. Some of us don’t share our lives enough with our executive assistants, but we could delegate so much more if we were more transparent about both our work and home life.

A good executive assistant will see where they can plug in and take things off our plates we’re not even aware of – but that only happens if we give them access. How many unnecessary tasks and low-payoff activities could you offload if you only gave your executive assistant permission?

8- We don’t play fair. Executive assistants get used to extraordinary requests; it’s sometimes part of the job. But if we are hypocritical about things, we can really undermine respect. For instance, to demand that your executive assistant be hyper responsive and then sit on a request ruins your credibility. We have to work toward the same standard we expect from our teammates.

9- We’re lousy about feedback. It’s easy to get caught up in the grind and miss opportunities to give our executive assistant insight into how they’re doing or what they could do to improve. Not only does this hurt our working relationship, but it’s also like shooting ourselves in the foot. Who benefits if our executive assistant improves? Who suffers if they don’t? Regular feedback is a must.

10- We expect too much access. As leaders, most of us are always on. We’re thinking about our business all the time – probably too much, actually. And we assume that everyone on the team should be on as well. The result is that we assume 24/7 service from our executive assistant is reasonable. It’s not. Especially if you’re working with a virtual executive assistant who is giving a set number of hours, going beyond that strains the working relationship. In the end, the executive assistant will be less effective, not more.businessman-in-boardroom1

Our work it too important to go it alone. It’s also too important to undermine the very people responsible for helping us reach our goals. Having an effective working relationship with your executive assistant will enable you to achieve your core objectives while minimizing the clutter and distractions that sets you back.

What goals could you accomplish if you could make the most of your relationship?