#011 - If it's true that we are what we repeatedly do, then let's build Habits of Excellence. Join Dr. Charles Boyer for a discussion of what it takes to build good habits and establish a standard of Excellence.
Hello there! Welcome to Keys for New Leaders, a podcast just for YOU. This is your host, Dr. Charles Boyer, but please call me Charlie, my friend. I’m so glad you’re here! I enjoy doing these podcasts, and I’m pleased that so many have downloaded an episode or two. If you haven’t done so yet, please take a minute to subscribe to the podcast – or “follow” if you’re on Apple Podcasts. Toward the end of each episode, I’ll include three questions to help coach you on this week’s topic.
This is Episode #11, and we’ll focus on Habits of Excellence. There is a famous quote attributed to Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Whether it was really Aristotle or someone else, there is a lot of truth in that statement, and it’s a good guide as we work to make EXCELLENCE a HABIT.
Why Excellence? Well, to put it plainly, whatever you set out to do, especially as a new leader, do it very well, and then some! It’s up to YOU to set the standard. Your team looks to YOU to set clear expectations, to communicate with them, develop good working relationships, and to be the good example they will follow. When we accept less than EXCELLENCE, then MEDIOCRITY jumps in to take its place. Think about that 75% Rule we talked about in a previous episode. Three out of four – or 75% - may be a passing grade in middle school, but that standard doesn’t serve us well in our adult lives. What that says is: just OK is good enough – and just OK is NOT good enough in today’s world.
We’ve mentioned TRUST a number of times in previous episodes, and I’m repeating it again here because it is vital to your success as a leader. Build TRUST and you also build CREDIBILITY. Lose one and you lose them both. TRUST doesn’t just happen. You must demonstrate – again, again, and again, that you will do what you say you will do, clearly, consistently, and continuously, and that you expect the same from everyone else.
You also show that you are working toward EXCELLENCE when you take the time and trouble to LISTEN to others. We talked about LISTENING in a previous episode, and here are a few more points to keep in mind and practice. If you’ve established TRUST, people will want to share their thoughts, ideas and opinions with you. To put it bluntly, people want you to listen to THEM, and they’re not so anxious to listen to you if you don’t pay attention to them. Take the time – whatever it takes – to LISTEN intently to what your team tells you. Listen openly and without your own filters or judgments. Ask open-ended questions, not ones that can be answered with a yes or no, and really listen intently to what is being said to you. LISTEN – you’ll be amazed at what you hear!
If you’ve established and maintained TRUST, and people know you will LISTEN to them, you’ll get all sorts of ideas and opinions. How do you sort out all those and decide what’s best? You can easily lose your way among all the various opinions you hear. That’s where the importance of a PLAN or GOAL comes in, and YOUR judgment about the best way to get there. Of course, you want to take into consideration all the various ideas and opinions. But you can’t ride off in all directions at once. You are the leader, and you’re getting paid the big bucks (so to speak) to draw your own conclusions and communicate those conclusions clearly and openly to your team. Your team is a lot more likely to trust you and follow your lead if they know that they’ve been listened to, and that you have acted with authenticity.
All these are steps to achieving EXCELLENCE. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes lots of time and patience and determination to make consistent progress toward excellence. Think of a spiral learning model. This time around the spiral is the way it is now. Next time the same or similar event occurs, aim for BETTER, and EVEN BETTER the time after that. Aim for PERFECTION and you’ll fall short. Aim for BETTER and you’ll get to EXCELLENCE.
Let me give you an example. When I went to a university as a new leader, the standards for passing a particular proficiency exam, required of all students, were much too low. Obviously, it wasn’t possible to raise the standards all at once. We began to raise the standards a bit for each successive class, and eventually got to a much better performance level. It took first a commitment to improve the standards, time to implement the changes, patience as the higher standards began to be implemented, and determination to achieve the higher standards.
Excellence can be achieved – but why Habits? Because those standards of EXCELLENCE must be so ingrained in you and your team that the expectation of EXCELLENCE becomes very nearly automatic. You expect EXCELLENCE for yourself, and before long, your team begins to expect EXCELLENCE of themselves, AND of one another. HABITS are those behavior patterns we follow so often that those behaviors become almost involuntary. One study reported that nearly 45% of everything we do on a daily basis is driven by HABITS. Think of that – 45%, nearly half of everything we do every day! Think about your habits, your daily routines, and how much you go through them every day without thinking much about them. Why not develop work-related habits that move you and your team toward EXCELLENCE?
If we are what we repeatedly do, then let’s set about building a good, strong HABIT of EXCELLENCE. Let’s start by reviewing the steps that go with establishing a new HABIT. I’ve heard that it takes 21 days to build a new habit, but it’s not the number of days that are important, it’s a combination of having a strong commitment to establishing a new (and good) habit, creating an excellent plan on how to establish the habit, the motivation to keep going, and plenty of repetitions to grow toward a near automatic action. Whether it’s 21 days or 21 weeks doesn’t matter, it’s whatever it takes to establish the habit, not how much time has passed. When I was a boy taking piano lessons, I had to practice so many minutes a day. Many times I’d watch the clock rather than the keyboard. What I know now is that it really doesn’t matter how much time on task you spend, it’s the number of tries it takes to learn the task correctly. It’s not the flimsy excuse of “I spent two hours on this project,” but rather “I got this done all right!”
Sometimes we develop habits by accident, not really trying to do so. It’s all too easy to find ourselves with a habit or two that becomes well ingrained in us. When you repeat the habit for a long time, that habit becomes nearly automatic. You don’t need a lot of extra effort to maintain a habit once it’s established – and let’s hope it’s a good habit!
You and I both know that people resist change. We all do it! So, deliberately developing a new habit – the startup phase – needs a lot of extra effort. Let’s build a sequence of tasks to help you.
FIRST – you must make a commitment – and a very firm commitment at that – to establish that new habit, whatever it is. Then, create your plan to succeed – what will your life be like when you have this new habit in place, what steps must you take to develop that habit, what can possibly get in your way and how to get around it, and what is the first step you must take to get started? That’s a lot of steps – take them one at a time. And take your time. You can’t rush some things.
SECOND – start with small steps. What’s the first step you must take to get started? And the next? And the next? Keep your expectations small – you can’t take it on all at once. Focus on what you want to do, and create a routine for yourself to help you start and keep going. Then, celebrate in some good way, each successful step you take. It’s so important to notice the small steps of your progress along the way. There is a lot of inertia to overcome! Remember the childhood story of the Little Engine that Could? I think I can, I think I can, I think I can … and then it became I thought I could … I thought I could!
Interruptions do happen sometimes. If you fall back or have to stop building that habit, get back on track as soon as possible. For example, I got a little too rambunctious on the treadmill and strained a muscle in my foot. I had to let it heal for almost a week, and then had to start slowly to get back to the level I was before the injury. I’m still not quite there yet, but I’m getting closer. Literally, I’m taking small steps to regain the momentum I lost.
THIRD – keep your eye on the prize! Look ahead to reaching your goal, that Habit of Excellence that you have committed to. Keep clear on what you want to accomplish and clear out all the underbrush of distractions. Keep that commitment you made to yourself to developing that good habit. Ask for support from your friends and family. Give yourself time, and most of all, permission to succeed! Focus on your wins and let go of your inner critic. Negative self-talk can undo lots of progress. Think about this - change one letter in the word “Don’t” and it becomes “Do it!”
If some of what I’ve just said sounds to you like SMART goals, that’s good! These techniques work, no matter how you spell them. I encourage you to work with the SMART goals model to develop your Habits of Excellence. Think about the development of a good habit – it’s SPECIFIC, it’s MEASURABLE, it’s ATTAINABLE, it’s REALISTIC, and it’s TIMELY.
One of the best books I’ve seen about building habits is James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits.” By ATOMIC, Clear means very small, the size of ATOMS. Start small and take small steps to build a habit. Clear states that all habits proceed through 4 stages in the same order: Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward.
By CUE, he means to make it obvious – it being the subject of the habit. Over time, he states, is that the cues become so obvious that they are essentially invisible. Along with that, you must overpower your natural tendency to quit.
By CRAVING, Clear means to make the habit attractive. It’s almost like a gambling habit – the expectations of a reward drive us to act. He states that positive self-talk is most important. For example, if you want to establish the habit of running each day, say to yourself that “It’s time to build endurance…” rather than “I need to run this morning.”
RESPONSE means making it easy. He draws a comparison between Motion, which is a lot of movement without progress, and Action, that delivers an outcome. I know a lot of people who are in motion. They are very busy and always appear to be doing something. But what are their Actions? What are the outcomes? Repetition of Actions is most important here. Putting in reps is key to success, not time or the appearance of getting something done.
And REWARD – making the habit satisfying. Basically, what is rewarded tends to be repeated. Simply doing something is a huge accomplishment! And you must keep at it! No skips, or if you do miss a repetition, get back on track right away and keep building that good habit. I practice this with my treadmill walks. I put “treadmill” on my schedule twice each day. When I’m tempted to get lazy and miss a session, my phone dings and reminds me. And I most often get up off my blessed assurance and get walking.
Also, I recommend using the “spiral” image – each time, commit to making the task or the habit BETTER the next time, and the next. After awhile, it all seems like it was there with you all the time. It’s become a habit, and a good one at that!
Here are some questions for you to think about and answer just for yourself. Nope, not a test – just some questions for reflection.
1. What good habit do you really feel compelled to develop?
2. Why is that most important to you at this time?
3. What one step can you take – right now – to get started on building that habit? When WILL you take that step?
And here’s that Special Key: the Key of E for Excellence. Excellence can become your standard, rather than the mediocrity that is all too prevalent these days. Aim for Excellence – and I know you’ll get there!
I’m pleased to announce that we will have a special guest on our next episode, a good friend of mine whom I’ve never met in person (and I’ll explain that better next time), Deb Chisholm, who has developed an amazing program called ME POWER. I think it has all sorts of implications especially for new leaders. Join us next week won’t you? Until then, stay safe and well, my friend.