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A Lesson On How Successful People Achieve Their Goals

A simple exercise from Warren Buffett reveals a powerful lesson on how leaders can help their employees to successfully achieve their goals.

For many of us, the month of September presents the perfect opportunity to look back on the goals we set out for ourselves earlier this year and to assess how well we are doing in achieving those goals and more specifically, what should we be doing from this point forward to ensure that we successfully attain them.

But if we truly want to feel successful in what we do, there’s another question we should be asking ourselves: are we focusing on those goals that really matter? Are we putting our best efforts and initiatives towards measures that will help us to live the life we were meant to live?

To help illustrate what I mean by this, I’d like to share this story about a conversation between Warren Buffett – one of the most successful people in the world today – and his pilot, and how a simple exercise helped his employee to appreciate how to focus on what matters.

For 10 years, Mike Flint had served as the personal airplane pilot for Warren Buffett. One day Buffett goes up to his pilot and tells him “the fact that you’re still working for me tells me I’m not doing my job. You should be out there going after more of your goals and dreams”.

So Buffett asked Mike to write down a list of the 25 goals Mike wanted to accomplish over the course of his career, whether it be something Mike wanted to do in the next few years or sometime down the road.

After Mike created his list, Buffett then asked Mike to review his list of 25 goals and to circle the top 5 most important goals; the things that more than anything Mike wanted to know he’d achieve in his lifetime.

Not surprisingly, Mike admitted to Buffett that this was hard to do because he really wanted to achieve all of these 25 goals he’d written out in his list. But Buffett was adamant that Mike draw a circle around what he would consider to be his 5 most important goals from this list of 25 goals, and to write these down in a new list of his 5 most important goals.

So after much time and effort, Mike was able to pick out 5 goals from his original list and he found himself looking at two different lists – one that had what he chose as his 5 most important goals and another one which had the other 20 goals that Mike wanted to achieve.

At this point, Mike understood that he should start working on achieving those 5 goals in his important goal list and he told Buffett that he would start working on those right away.

Buffett then asked Mike about his second list with those 20 other goals and asked him what was he going to do about those goals.

Mike told Buffett that while they are not on his most important list of goals, they were things he still wanted to achieve and so he planned on working on those other goals when he had the time to do so. As Mike told Buffett, “they are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort”.

Buffett then gave Mike a stern look and told him that he got it wrong. He went on to tell Mike how “everything you didn’t circle just became your avoid-at-all-cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

This last piece of advice that Buffett gave his pilot Mike reveals a critical truth to understanding how successful people achieve their goals.

For most of us, when it comes to goal attainment, we tend to create lists that allow us to triage our workday in terms of the things we need to do, the things we want to do, and the things we can get done later.

And yet, what this story about Buffett and his pilot Mike reveals is that if we want to succeed in life, we need to focus on what really matters to us and nothing else [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. And this lesson is especially important for leaders to apply through their leadership if they are to succeed in bringing out the best from those under their care.

As many of us know, the manner in which we have to lead now requires us to deal with not only increasing demands on our time and resources, but also a greater need to operate at a faster and faster pace. Faced with such circumstances, simply responding to what gets your attention has become in many ways the path of least resistance to feeling like we’re getting something done.

While this might create the impression that we’re accomplishing something and fostering some sort of forward momentum, as Buffett’s example points out, what we’re really doing is expending efforts on goals that we should be avoiding at all costs because it takes away from our working on tasks that will have the greatest impact on our vision and shared purpose.

But perhaps most importantly, taking this route allows us to renege on our biggest responsibility – of helping our employees to understand how their efforts matter to our shared purpose by connecting what they do with why we do what we do.

Indeed, if we can’t limit our focus and effort to what matters most, how can we expect our employees to? [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter] How can we expect them to know what they should be dedicating their talents, creativity, and insights to in order to help us to achieve our shared purpose?

This conversation Buffett has with his pilot is a cogent reminder that our job as leaders is not simply to ensure that our employees get things done. Rather, it’s that we support them to focus on what really matters, to know that their contributions are vital to our organization’s shared purpose, and that in being a member of our organization’s community, they are able to do their life’s work.

I’ve written before about how we can overcome the various distractions that are now a daily aspect of working in our digital age. But Buffett’s strategy allows us to take things one step further in helping us to sharpen our focus to ensure that we ultimately succeed in achieving those goals that truly matter to our shared purpose. Those objectives that speak to that universal need to understand why we do what we do and why we should care.

Most of us are familiar with that saying about how our actions become our habits which lead to the behaviours we exhibit on a regular basis. And it’s the same truth that applies to what we decide as leaders is worth expending our time, energy, and the best part of ourselves on: what we choose to focus on tells our employees what we care about; what we think is important [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

Granted, there’s no denying the ever-increasing number of demands we face – for our time, for our resources, and even for what we focus on. But the lesson Buffett reveals to us is that this is a reality all of us face and that the true difference between those who succeed and those who are just trying to keep their heads above water comes down to what we’re willing to commit to on our To-Do lists.

Of whether it’s simply the tasks we need to get through our day. Or whether it’s those tasks that will help us to ultimately succeed in doing work that matters, work that’s fulfilling, and work that defines our life’s purpose.

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