The 4 R’s of Executing Change

Posted on August 30, 2015 by Josh Linkner

The new, bold vision is revealed with dramatic fanfare. This year, the CEO boasts, we will reach new heights, delight customers, improve profits, and preserve the environment. The newcomers in the room feel a sense of excitement and relish the vivid picture of success, but you just roll your eyes and sulk back to your desk.

You’ve heard this kind of hype before and know that these proclamations of change rarely amount to anything more than executive blabber. If you have to suffer through one more empty-promise platitude, you may lose it. Your cynicism is justified, having seen dozens of failed change initiatives over the years.

Unfortunately, most well-intentioned efforts quickly loose steam when the daily grind kicks back in. The problem at hand may not be with the vision at all, but with the system (or lack thereof) of executing the dream. In grade school, teachers drilled the “4 R’s” into your growing mind. Now there’s a new set of 4 R’s, specifically designed to help you actually effectuate the change you seek:

Reinforcements: Issuing a directive rarely drives meaningful change. If you want to change the way you or your team thinks and behaves, the message has to be reinforced constantly. Both the need for change and the new concept must be top-of-mind for it to stick. Reinforcements can take the form of weekly checkpoints, signs around the office, screen-savers, daily emails, team rallies, guest speakers, or printed reminders. The key point is that the new message must land with high frequency if you want it to sink in.

Rituals: If the change effort is to improve performance throughout the sales team, doing sales drills every morning at 8 a.m. may be a productive ritual to launch. Rituals help build muscle memory. Over time, these rituals become habit, requiring far less effort to enact the desired change.

Rewards: As the change you seek comes to life, reward yourself or those around you to further push toward permanence. Public recognition, contests, spot bonuses, extra time off, or fun experiences can all be tools to celebrate — and fortify — progress.

Refinements: To fully realize your vision, tweaks and adaptations will likely be required. Even detailed architectural plans require changes in the field. Establish a rhythmic cadence to review progress, measure results, and adapt to changing circumstances. Small, regular refinements will help boost your ability to ultimately reach your desired outcome.

Change is hard, and getting it to stick is even harder. But in these challenging times, we don’t have the luxury to sit still. To enjoy lasting, meaningful change in your company, career, or community, embrace the 4 R’s of change. When you increase confidence in execution, the big ideas become exciting again and you’ll regain your lost enthusiasm. That bold new vision is possible. It’s time to embrace a system to grasp it.

Fall in Love with the Problem, Not the Solution

Posted on August 23, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Imagine you have a brilliant idea to start a company. A lightning-bolt of inspiration led you to invent a razor blade for daily shaving that pivots more gently with special blades that last longer. You’re totally focused on this product idea as you raise money and launch your business.  Unfortunately, you’re complete focus on your new solution leads you to running the company into the ground. All your effort, time, and money… gone.

How could this happen? Where did you go wrong? You thought the product was exceptional, and expected customers to beat a path to your door. Perhaps you fell so deeply in love with your solution that you lacked flexibility to adapt and evolve, ultimately leading to your downfall.

On the other hand, imagine you became obsessed with the problem of shaving. Instead of inventing a single, rigid solution, you continue to explore dozens of different approaches to improve shaving from every perspective. Could you improve distribution? Packaging? Maybe you reimagine the entire experience of shaving altogether.  That’s how The Art of Shaving became one of the hottest retail brands in the U.S.

The leaders at the software company Intuit have an internal catchphrase: “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” By staying focused on your customers and the challenges they face, you’ll generate a steady stream of innovations rather than betting it all on a one-and-done invention.

As I build my next company, Fuel Leadership, our team obsesses over the problem of helping organizations and individuals perform better.  We set out to elevate and transform leaders to reach their full potential.

The company launched with a single solution – reimagining leadership events. Our first solution involves the fusion of a rock concert and a business conference by flying in celebrity business leaders to share their strategies and secrets with audiences around the world. A single-day experience that arms business leaders to perform better.

While we think this is a cool solution, we remain fixated on the problem we’re solving for our customers (how to become a more effective leader). As such, we’re rolling out dozens of new concepts – from online communities to digital learning – to help our customers improve.  We’re also open-minded enough to tweak and adapt our current offering to deliver an increasingly better solution.

In your case, do you focus on your current solution(s) or are you always seeking new, creative approaches to solve the most pressing problems facing your customers? Getting pigeonholed into a single approach can become a Fast Pass to obsolescence. As they say, customers don’t have a need for a 12mm drill bit. They have the need for a 12mm hole.

How can you remain relevant in these rapidly changing and fiercely competitive times? Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.

What’s Missing?

Posted on August 16, 2015 by Josh Linkner

The ultra-quiet, high speed fan that’s missing an on/off switch. The gorgeous print ad in a national magazine that’s missing a website address. The sales pitch that dumps facts yet never inspires action.

What’s missing?

Much of modern business work involves either creating something new (writing a news story, preparing a legal brief, designing a brochure) or editing others’ work (fixing grammatical errors, adjusting colors to match, leveling an uneven floor). An often overlooked, yet wildly important step, is to consider what’s not on the page.

Failing to take this third pass can be the difference between shoddy and brilliant work. This is how houses get built with no coat closets.

We evaluate what political candidates say, but often overlook what’s not said. In a world of photo-finish victories and losses, value is often created (or lost) in the margins.

What’s missing?

It’s an important question to ask yourself when leaving the house, ending a phone call with your significant other, or preparing for a Board meeting. This simple mantra can unleash creative thinking and take your work product to the next level.

What’s missing?

In our combative business world, competitors may appear to always be one step ahead. As you closely examine their product or service, ask yourself… what’s missing? The simple question could unlock a new opportunity for competitive differentiation. It could be your opening to turn the tides. What are they missing that you could exploit?

What’s missing?

Whatever your art may be – from spoken word poetry to insurance sales to industrial cleaning supplies – run your work past this important filter to ensure you’re delivering something outstanding instead of something bland and uninspired.

What’s missing?

Finally, this magical question isn’t always about squeezing in something extra at the last minute. What may be missing in your work is clarity, space, or focus. The question may actually drive you to remove aspects of your work; to remove noise and de-clutter the message in order to leave only the most essential elements. This thinking may help you refine; saying fewer words in order to deliver more.

Just because something is simple, doesn’t mean it isn’t bold and powerful. So I ask you…

What’s missing?

The Long Shot (ASAE Edition)

Posted on August 9, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Yesterday, the annual meeting & expo for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) kicked off with much anticipation and fanfare.  While you may not be familiar with this organization, they represent 21,000 members in over 9,000 organizations in 50+ countries.  These are the folks that hold those big conventions, bringing millions of dollars of business to destinations around the world.asae

In other words, if your city gets to host this amazing annual event, it’s like hosting the Super Bowl…but better. It is forecasted that in just a few years following an ASAE annual event, more than $500 million of convention business befalls the host city.

So where did yesterday’s meeting launch?  Las Vegas?  New York?  Orlando?

Try Detroit.

The good folks at the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau had a dream.  Landing the mighty ASAE was more than a long shot, considering all the challenges and setbacks Motown has faced over the years.  Undeterred, Detroiters rallied together and went for it.  They made a thoughtful decision to pursue the biggest possible outcome, not shoot for a second-rate win.  Once committed, the team leapt into action and became totally focused on what it would take to land the whale.  After more than a year of world-famous Detroit hustle, they achieved the impossible. Detroit scored the long shot.


Unfortunately, many organizations and individuals quit before even trying. The big, game-changing outcomes they seek appear so distant and unachievable they don’t even give it a shot at all.  It’s a tragedy when potential is squandered by fear, laziness, or lack of confidence. Too often, we settle rather than climb. Years later, we then become overwhelmed with regret for the long shots we never summoned the courage to take.

Don’t fall into the trap of only pursing the chip shots of life. Instead, let your imagination soar while envisioning the ultimate long shot for your company, career, or community. Once that vision is crafted, spend every drop of energy pursuing it with the ferocity of a prizefighter. Redirect fear into action. Timidness into tenacity. Indifference into grit.

Pursuing the long shot may not yield victory every time, and if the goal is missed after an honest effort, we need to harness resiliency – instead of resignation – from our setbacks. Even if the outcome misses the mark, it’s certainly better to have taken the shot.

What’s the long shot that’s calling for you?  While it may seem like a stretch, the goal line may be closer than you think. The greatest achievements always appear farfetched at first, but those obstacles can be overcome when attacked with vigor.

Take a lesson from my brother and sisters in the City of Detroit, who are enjoying the delicious fruits of seizing an unlikely victory.

Take yourself to task. Take the long shot.asae3

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How Bureaucracy Can Kill

Posted on August 2, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Last week, 154 people came within minutes of losing their lives. The cause of this near-death experience? Bureaucracy.

On July 23, Allegiant Airlines Flight 426 radioed to air traffic control in Fargo, N.D., upon approach. The pilot told the tower he was critically low on fuel and needed clearance to land within the next five minutes.

Air traffic control (ATC) denied the request since a Blue Angels air show rehearsal was underway. ATC suggested the plane land elsewhere. Here’s how the conversation unfolded (transcript from

PILOT: “We don’t have enough fuel to go anywhere else.” 

ATC: “There’ll be a window of opening in about 20 minutes for landing.”

PILOT: “Yeah, I don’t have 20 minutes.”

ATC: “There’s an airport about 70 miles away that could work.”

PILOT: “Listen,” the pilot said, “We’re at bingo (pilot lingo for “zero”) fuel here in about, probably three or four minutes. I gotta come in and land.”

ATC: “I’d have to have you declare an emergency for that,” ATC responded, “and we would coordinate to get you in.

The pilot declared an air emergency and the plane landed safely. The whole dialogue, however, illustrates what can happen when rules and regulations overpower common sense. After the scare, finger pointing and blame ensued. The tower blamed the airline — they should have known the runway was in use and should have had extra fuel. The airline blamed procedure — they were delayed 90 minutes out of their origin city and had followed FAA guidelines. Everyone was quick to find fault, but slow to craft better solutions for the future.

The “shoulds” overpowered the “coulds.”

It’s easy to hide behind senseless policies in the moment, but the negative crater left behind can be catastrophic. The fallout of broken relationships, lost customers, burnt opportunities, damaged companies, or in this case… even loss of life are just not worth it. Simply put — bureaucracy kills.

As you lead, commit to a policy of thoughtfulness rather than blind compliance. Proven processes certainly play an important role in organizations but they can’t override common sense. The Ritz Carlton empowers any employee at any level to solve a customer problem on the spot at a cost of up to $1,000. They trust their employees and care enough about their customers to let human judgment trump paper-pushing checklists. How does that compare to paragraph 3, subsection A12 of your operating manual?

To enjoy long-term, sustainable success, craft your policies to have enough flexibility so that your team can do the right thing, not just the easy thing. In the words of Ross Perot, “If you see a snake just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”

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You’re FIRED!

Posted on July 26, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Your boss walks into your office and quietly shuts the door behind her. She sits down at your desk in a most somber manner. After taking a deep breath, she coldly releases the words you dreaded all your life: “You’re fired.”

Think of the emotional tornado now racing through your mind. Fear. Regret. Sadness. Shame. And then your internal chatter goes into overdrive with repetitive messages blasting in your head: “If I’d only done more. Why didn’t I take my job seriously? I wish I shared my big, creative ideas instead of held them back. I know I could do better if I only had a second chance. I’d do anything for the opportunity to prove that I can truly be a top performer. I just know I can transform. I’ll put in the extra time; I’ll over-deliver.”

So why wait to get fired?

Getting cut from the team, dismissed from a job, rejected by a spouse, or replaced from your nonprofit volunteer post are all examples of a stinging and painful wake-up call. But we don’t need to be discharged to make long-overdue change. Instead of coasting until that crushing defeat occurs, why not taking it upon yourself to proactively avoid it?

Customers fire suppliers all the time when a better alternative appears. Consumers change toothpaste and cereal brands with stunning regularity. Insurance agents get fired when a more compelling, service-oriented option enters the fold.

If you think about it, we are all only a few bad moves (or stagnant non-moves) away from getting fired in our companies, careers and communities.

This is actually a great thing, not a sentence to live in fear. Knowing that coasting is never an option pushes us to achieve more, to better serve others. The urgency of pushing our organizations and ourselves to the next level to avoid being dislodged by a competitor has driven peak performance in all aspects of life since the beginning of time.

My challenge to you: Fire yourself. Give your old self the boot, and replace it with a new and improved version. Embrace the same promise to do your best as if you were actually fired while avoiding the hassle of cleaning out your desk.

If you were fired, what would the ideal replacement do differently? How would they add more value? Build better relationships? Serve customers more effectively? Drive more impact in the community?

Don’t wait for catastrophe to strike. Fire yourself … early and often. In turn, you’ll create a strong company, brand, career, and community. It will create urgency, drive creativity, and allow you to embrace a fresh, bold, new perspective.

You’re fired. You’re welcome.

The Nine Questions of Breakthrough Achievement

Posted on July 19, 2015 by Josh Linkner

From discovering new drug therapies to winning triathlons, the capacity for human achievement is humbling. NASA scientists reached Pluto this week, beaming back stunning imagery of the distant planet. Brian Acton and Jam Koum, who founded WhatsApp in 2009, sold their startup to Google for $19 billion just five years later. Easton LaChapelle built a robotic hand out of Legos and fishing wire in his bedroom at age 14, and his invention is now helping amputees around the world.

Triumphs take many forms, but the greatest achievers ask themselves nine critical questions to help map their path to success. As you embark on your own mission, these same questions can provide an effective strategy for achieving just about anything you can imagine:

  1. Why am I doing it? Starting with a clear understanding of the purpose is critical. Make sure you are crystal clear as to why your efforts are needed and important.
  1. What is my big vision? Craft a vivid, 3-D, Technicolor image of exactly what you want to achieve. The more specific the better. This serves as your North Star, your guide.
  1. What’s my realistic starting point? You can’t chart a course without truly understanding where to begin. Get clear on your current strengths and weaknesses (both internal and external) so you can forge a thoughtful plan of attack.
  1. Who (or what) is my enemy? Identifying the obstacles up front will allow you to see them clearly along the journey. Think who or what could derail your efforts, and build a strategy to overcome. Know thy enemy.
  1. What resources do I need? Mountain climbers need gear. Politicians need voters. Startups need capital. Make a detailed resource list so you don’t run out of gas along the way.
  1. Who needs to help me? Even seemingly individual sports like boxing and tennis require coaches, trainers, and promoters. While individuals may take the credit, nearly every major human achievement is a team effort. Identify the critical roles that will help you accelerate growth, avoid risk, and provide needed support.
  1. How will I measure it? The old adage, “what gets measured gets improved,” is spot on if you’re looking to drive big results. Measure and track each input and output to understand – and then optimize – your model.
  1. How can I break it into manageable tasks? Enormous projects, such as mapping the human genome, are always accomplished by tackling a long series of sub-tasks. Slice up the work in to small, bite-size chunks.
  2. When can I begin? Greatness starts today, not next week, if you have time, or when convenient. A sense of urgency is far more important than waiting for that perfect time.

We each have our own calling in life, but asking yourself these universal nine questions will help propel you to achieving your mission. Put these nine questions to the test; the answers will make you unstoppable.

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The Wizard’s Downfall

Posted on July 12, 2015 by Josh Linkner

“Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and a representative will be with you shortly.”

Twenty-eight minutes later, an apathetic, poorly trained call center drone clarified through her actions what her company actually meant: “Your call is really not important to us at all. If it were, we’d staff more customer service specialists, train them better, answer quickly, be respectful of your time, and genuinely want to help. However, we are focused on maximizing profit and since you have no better alternatives, we’re going to treat you however we want. We don’t actually value our customers since they are replaceable numbers to us.”

I would have preferred the later explanation; at least it would have been honest. Too often organizations spout empty platitudes without any intent to deliver. Business executives, politicians, community leaders, and even parents regularly make substance-free claims and believe just saying something is enough.

As we learned long ago, actions speak far louder than words and there’s just no substitute for walking the walk.

In the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz,” we all remember that dramatic moment when the man behind the curtain was revealed to be an impostor. In the end, the all-knowing, controlling, and harshly judgmental wizard had no power at all. His credibility was shot, and all respect was lost. His career was over when this inconsistency was exposed; yet so many companies and leaders today are moments away from such a tragic fate. I call this disconnect “The Wizard’s Downfall.”

Posting a sign in your lobby claiming “Innovation is priority #1,” but then sharply criticizing all new ideas is an example of the Wizard’s Downfall. Boasting that you value diversity but then only hiring those that look, act, and dress like you is a Wizard’s Downfall. Pounding your fist on the table to voters with righteous indignation, but then later getting ousted in a sex scandal is a most disturbing Wizard’s Downfall.

As savvy consumers, we all have highly developed BS detectors and each little inconsistency we experience undermines the relationship among people, organizations and officials. If you’re looking to grow your company, hollow claims will create more problems than good. If your airline encourages people to “fly the friendly skies,” you’d better be prepared to back that up in a big way. If you tell people your company runs “at the speed of business,” anything other than rapid responsiveness is a disastrous miss.

Take a look at your messaging and brand promise, and work hard to remove any hint of the Wizard’s Downfall. Being authentic and truthful will build deeper client relationships than any empty campaign slogan could ever accomplish.

At the end of the 1939 classic, harmony was restored when the characters’ true identities conquered fear and false promises. To take your business to the next level, follow your own yellow brick road by embracing that same sense of authenticity, consistency and truth.


Posted on June 28, 2015 by Josh Linkner

As someone who has played guitar for more than 30 years, I can tell you that the secret to regular practice isn’t teeth-grinding discipline. It isn’t external rewards or penalties. It isn’t even the dream of rocking a stadium for adoring fans.

The truth is, the regularity of practice — and the progress than ensues — is often driven by convenience. Simply put, the easier it is to pick up my ax, the more I play. If my guitar is leaning against the living room couch, I’ll pick it up regularly and wail away.

On the other hand, if my guitar is upstairs in a case, the seemingly painless act of going to grab it has a marked impact on my amount of practice. When it’s easy to grab, I grab it. When there’s an extra step or two (even small ones), performance suffers.

Think of the short walk upstairs and the six seconds to open a guitar case as “friction.” Not a gigantic barrier, but that small amount of friction has a dramatic impact on results.

We all work so hard in both our business and personal lives to achieve significant results, but often fall short by failing to recognize and utilize friction to our advantage.

If you sell a product or service, think about all the steps your customers must go through to do business with you. Every extra choice, document, meeting, phone call, click, or decision in the sales process creates friction. And for every single point of friction, your batting average and closing speeds decrease. If your competitor has a worse product at a higher cost, yet makes the buying process simple, you may be losing customers that should be yours.

What about internal friction in your organization? Every extra step, needed approval and unwarranted meeting creates friction that slows you down, diminishes productivity, and damages morale. In business — and life — the less friction that exists, the better the results will be.

You can also use friction as a driver to avoid doing impulsive behavior. If you put your pack of cigarettes inside five different Tupperware containers and leave them in a closet in the basement, you’ll be far less likely to grab a smoke than if the cigarettes are in your front pocket.

If you’re getting distracted at work by checking Facebook too often, install free software that requires you to enter a complicated password every time you have the urge to log on. If you want to stop doing something, add some friction and you’re in-the-moment decisions will be much easier.

Think of friction as a lever that you can move up or down depending on your desired outcome. If you want more of something, remove friction and make it easy. If you want less, add extra steps.

It’s as simple as that.

The Frequency Factor

Posted on June 21, 2015 by Josh Linkner

If you ask an advertising guru what it takes to inform consumers and ultimately move them to action, they’ll instantly spout out their golden formula: Reach + Frequency.

This marketing truism has been captivating customers since the days of Henry Ford, and has carried its weight through every technology advance, product launch and celebrity endorsement over the last 100 years.

Decoding this recipe, Reach refers to reaching the right audience with the right message at the right time. This is how most people think of marketing. But equally important is Frequency, the lesser-known but critically important ingredient. If you saw the classic “teach the world to sing” ad from Coca-Cola only once, it might beckon a smile but you’d never remember the words 40 years later. The indelible message became part of our collective psyche due to its frequency.

Frequency is a powerful force that transcends the field of advertising. Frequency of message elects presidents, drives social change, and hoists pop stars to deity status. It’s also a critical — yet often overlooked — factor in driving organizational change.

If you lead a team or company and you’re frustrated that your folks “aren’t getting it,” examine your frequency factor. Listing off your 12-point plan at a single team meeting won’t fully deliver the message without some repetition, unless you lead a team of savants. You can’t expect people to truly embrace changes in strategy or philosophy unless they have repeated exposure to the message.

As the person who crafted the new plan, cultural values, sales pitch or recruiting strategy, you spent hours refining every word to make it perfect. So holding a single team meeting to roll out the new approach won’t carry the day. A message sent is not a message heard. The snazzy launch must be followed by the constant drip of repetition in order to effectuate meaningful change.

The same principle applies to our customers, investors, interpersonal relationships, and strategic partners. If you want people to absorb your message, they’ll need to hear it more than once. Reinforce key themes with consistency and your message will fully sink in over time.

We can learn more than just proper martini etiquette from the mad men of advertising. The content of your message is the first step, but the frequency brings it to life. If you remain skeptical, list the ingredients of a McDonald’s Big Mac in your mind. I bet you nailed it; 20 years after those memorable ads peppered the airways.

Frequency delivers.

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