White Space

Posted on April 19, 2015 by Josh Linkner

“It ain’t about the notes you play,” legendary trumpeter Miles Davis once proclaimed. “It’s about the notes you don’t play.”

In the art world, the unused space around a painted object is known as white space and is considered equally important to the image itself. The open space frames the work, providing the necessary contrast to allow the image to stand out. Think of those nearly blank print ads with a small Apple logo in the middle of a sea of white, and you’ll realize that great advertising also uses white space for impact.

If the white space creates better art, why do we pack our calendars with the same squeeze-it-all-in mentality as a game of Tetris? Our caffeine-gulping, type-A, grind-‘em-up-and-spit-‘em-out culture leaves about as much white space as a Times Square New Year’s Eve.

The challenge with this always-on approach is that we miss the most important opportunities to be creative. If you’re heads-down on your to-do list, you largely spend your hours on transactional work. Task-oriented. Focused on deliverables. Unfortunately, when you’re heads-down you aren’t able to notice the world around you. The opportunities to create. To advance your art. To explore the possibilities.

Compare this to heads-up time. When you lift your head up and give yourself permission to have unstructured time, you’re able to savor fresh patterns and ideas. By giving yourself some white space on the schedule, you’re not wasting time but rather putting it to a higher use. In the same way artists, musicians and poets would never clutter their work by squeezing in the maximum amount of brush strokes, notes or words, packing your schedule like a can of tuna confines rather than liberates.

In our always-on work culture, allowing for some white space is easier said than done. I suggest you start small, by taking a White Space Challenge. Try a 30-day experiment in which you carve out just 5% of your time (two hours from a 40-hour week). Schedule this time like an important, unchangeable meeting. But instead of being task-oriented, allow your mind to wander and explore. Go to a museum, take a walk, listen to music. Spend time reflecting instead of doing, just for a couple hours a week.

Miles Davis thought about musical notes as a pathway to connect periods of silence. Celebrate the holes in your schedule instead of shun them, and that white space will help you create beautiful music.

Learning and Unlearning

Posted on April 11, 2015 by Josh Linkner

When you study the best-of-the-best, they share a common trait across industries, age, geography, gender, and skill set. Top performers are lifetime learners. Instead of hanging up their studies upon completion of formal education, they embrace a love of learning for the long run. They devour books, lectures, and workshops to improve their game.

This isn’t a groundbreaking concept. “Duh,” you may proclaim. “Earners are Learners. I get it. I’ve heard that a thousand times.”

But here’s the twist… While you may have a plan for ongoing learning, have you ever plotted out what you want to unlearn?

Ongoing learning is a powerful practice, but only when accompanied by a game plan for unlearning. Many great companies and leaders have fallen by clinging to previously held beliefs, approaches, and strategies. In other words, once they learned something they expected that insight remain relevant and impactful forever. Institutional learning is especially dangerous, since concepts can easily outlive their shelf life.

In many organizations, people love to share best practices. By definition, these are tools and techniques that yielded a strong result in the past. But to assume they have the same staying power as a Newtonian law can lead to crushing setbacks. Instead of sharing best practices, it’s time to consider next practices. Learn from the past, but also have the courage to unlearn in order to keep up with our rapidly changing world.

The same applies with your leadership approach. The command-and-control, fear-based style that worked 15 years ago no longer carries the day. From the simple things such as the manner in which you run your Monday morning meetings, to larger issues such as attracting and retaining top talent, you may need to unlearn a thing or two in order to move forward.

We know that you can teach old dogs new tricks. The question for you – are you equally willing to unlearn? Challenge your previously held assumptions and establish an unlearning list to accompany your learning objectives. Embrace both learning and unlearning, and you’ll quickly leap to the head of the class.

Compasses Over Maps

Posted on April 5, 2015 by Josh Linkner

A map is certainly a handy tool to help you reach your destination. When the map is accurate, you can sit back and follow your course, no thinking required.

Your brain can really take a vacation if you’re using the GPS guidance in your car or from Google Maps. When the system tells you exactly how to navigate every twist and turn, you can focus elsewhere and simply comply.

But what if the map is wrong? When conditions change, such as roadwork or an accident, your GPS system no longer maximizes efficiency. Or when new roads are built before the system is updated, you find yourself relying on an outdated set of instructions.

Think about how you and your team navigate the work in your own organization. Do people require detailed, step-by-step instructions of exactly what to do at every moment (a map)? Management-by-operating-manuals worked fine back in the days when markets were local, customers were homogenous, product cycles occurred over decades, and complexity was minimal. Workers didn’t need to think all that much on their own, as long as following the map would ensure their safe arrival.

Boy, has the world changed.

With today’s furious speed and mind-numbing complexity, there’s no such thing as a map to success. Naïve bosses who still hand out maps don’t understand that the model no longer works. The cost to produce a map in the past may have been justified, since change was slow. But with a rate of change like none other in history, imagine trying to create a street map if the roadways completely changed five times an hour.

Not to mention, business victories now involve pioneering new ground, requiring the equivalent of off-roading through uncharted territory.

When teams or organizations turn off their brains and simply follow the map, progress shrivels. Issuing a compass, in contrast, is a far more effective approach to leadership. Provide a clear vision of your destination point, and give your team the tools to navigate their own path. Empower them to make decisions in the face of ambiguity.

Give them the target and resources, and then let them use their ingenuity and judgment to find the best route. Shifting terrain, unexpected roadblocks, and surprise attacks can be conquered only by travelers who can think and act without detailed instructions.

Creativity over compliance. Empowerment over control. Thinking over following. Compasses over maps.

The Six-Month Rule

Posted on March 29, 2015 by Josh Linkner

While studying jazz composition and performance at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a weathered professor taught me a valuable lesson. With the wisdom of a Tibetan Monk, this sage jazz cat whispered to me with understated confidence, “What you learn today, you’ll play in six months.”

He was referring to an idea gestation period, a natural time frame to go from initial learning to muscle memory. I may have understood the scale, riff or chord he happened to be teaching that day, but it took a good six months to internalize it and make it my own. If I wanted to perform something fresh, new and bold, I needed to begin the learning process six months prior.

As his purposeful words have echoed in my mind over the last 25 years, I realized this concept covers far more ground than just jazz guitar licks. The six-month rule applies to numerous aspects of business and life: What you learn today, you can fully apply in six months.

Think of health and fitness. For most people, six months of healthy eating and exercise will enable a stunning transformation in both looks and well-being. The decision to get in shape takes six months to manifest. If you want to become reasonably knowledgeable in Asian currency fluctuations, salmon fisheries, or assembly line logistics, a solid six months of study will bring you to point where you can hold a thoughtful conversation.

Six months of focused energy can transform broken relationships, reinvent sales and marketing practices, or establish new lifetime habits. While it doesn’t work for everything (brain surgery takes longer to master, learning to make a grilled cheese sandwich is shorter), the six-month rule applies to thousands of cases in our lives.

In just six months, you can achieve remarkable progress with this powerful framework. What you first learn today, you can internalize and master in just 180 days with consistent follow-through.

Unfortunately, this simple law backfires all too often in our quest for instant gratification. We want the results immediately, without putting in the work, sacrifice, and patience required to bring seeds of ideas to maturity. Farmers fully understand the gestation period between the planting and harvest of their crops; we need to do the same for our own progress.

Think of the person you want to be six months from now. The skills you want to possess, the knowledge you want to command. Think, too, of the business you want six months out. The clients. The deals. The team members. With this new six-month vision, reverse-engineer what you need to learn today in order to enable your vision to materialize. Six months at a time, you’ll consistently marshal yourself and your company to your own field of dreams — fully ready for harvest.

Decide what you want today, and enjoy the win six months out. Music to my ears.


Posted on March 22, 2015 by Josh Linkner

In just 60 seconds, Taylor Swift sold out all 18,200 seats at Madison Square Garden. Her music, and the experience she creates for fans, is irresistible.

Fistfights have broken out as eager customers battle it out to get a pair of Nike limited editions kicks.

In contrast, think about the cover band in the lobby of the nearby hotel, playing to a half-full room of apathetic listeners who offer neither money nor applause. Or the wide selection of athletic shoes available and readily in stock for under $30 at your local Walmart.

In nearly every industry, there are products and services that are bland, boring and basic. And then, there are the few that are irresistible. Bill Clinton has earned more than $100 million delivering speeches, yet most public speakers are lucky to earn a chicken dinner at the local Rotary Club.

So what makes Taylor Swift, Nike, and Bill Clinton irresistible, and how can you harness the same verve for your business? Here are four key ingredients:

■ Go to extremes. Irresistible products, services and people are typically extreme cases. They offer the absolute highest quality. Or lowest price. Or most extreme experience. They are the loudest or quietest; the biggest or smallest. Rarely do you find irresistibility in the middle of the pack.

■ Become unapologetic. Costco doesn’t try to be a plush retailer. Floyd Mayweather doesn’t pretend to be humble. Being irresistible means being authentic and unabashed. Take a stand, and never try to be all things to all people.

■ Tempt with exclusivity. The fear of missing out on something scarce boosts your irresistible factor. Limited editions, exclusive offers and scarce supply drive demand. The more rare, the more results.

■ Create emotional connections. Delivering on basic product or service expectations doesn’t create differentiation; being competent is merely the ante to play. Creating meaningful experiences with each interaction leads to being irresistible. Do you and your offering delight all five senses of your customers, audience or colleagues? If not, time to take it up a notch.

Even in challenging financial times, the Hermes Birkin bag is only available for the company’s most loyal customers. It’s so exclusive that mere mortals like us can’t walk into a store, plunk down $12,000-$20,000, and walk out with one of these purses.

The bags are so irresistible, that fashionistas often pay double (or more) to snag a used one on eBay.

What would it take to make you and your company just as irresistible? Instead of wasting money to market a mediocre product, make it irresistible. To advance in your career, make yourself irresistible to those you serve.

Alluring. Tempting. Desirable. When you amp up these factors, customers, investors and employers simply won’t be able to resist.

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A Surprisingly Simple Competitive Advantage

Posted on March 15, 2015 by Josh Linkner

My flight landed in Norfolk, Va., 45 minutes late. On that bright and sunny day, I’m told by the airline it was “Due to a delay from the inbound aircraft.” Oh thanks, that made me feel much better.

Anyway, I had a car service scheduled to meet me at baggage claim. They knew I was coming, could easily track my inbound aircraft, and yet … they don’t bother to show up for 20 minutes. Next, I’m scolded for having the nerve to even ask why they’re running late.

The next day, on a flight from Atlanta, we board on time and taxi to our takeoff position. Just before liftoff, the captain announces, “Folks, sorry about this but we need to go back to the gate to pick up some VIP crew members. Orders from the company.”

By the time we go back to pick up two pilots and get back to the runway, we waste a full hour. That’s right, this major airline wasted an hour of 234 paying customers’ time so they could reposition their own crew. The kicker? There was another flight leaving to the same destination that ended up arriving less than 10 minutes later than our delayed journey.

Think about the impact that wasting time has on customer preference and loyalty. I’m sure you’ve had dozens of moments when your blood boils as organizations that you patronize waste your precious time. Money is a replaceable asset, but you can’t earn more time. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Which makes the offense of wasting time all the more offensive.

We’re all looking to get ahead in our companies and careers. We seek out new ideas to gain competitive advantage; to produce better results. Here’s a simple approach to consider — deeply connect with the value of your customers’ time, and direct your energies toward preserving it. While it sounds stunningly obvious, common sense is not always common practice.

The question of “How can I save my customers time?” should remain front and center, whether you’re a grocery store, airline or accountant. Can you shorten lines? Reduce the number of online clicks when placing an order? Shorten customer service wait times? Get your customers back to their families faster? Cut down waiting room times in your medical practice?

In an era where we look for fancy ways to leverage technology or craft complex algorithms to influence buying patterns, let’s get back to good old-fashioned caring about our customers. If you think of your job not only as your functional role but also as the steward of your customer’s time, you’ll drive better outcomes for both of you.

The simple opportunity to win and keep customers: speed things up and demonstrate respect for the one thing they can never replenish — time.

Your Partner In Crime

Posted on March 8, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Batman and Robin. Ernie and Bert. Han Solo and Chewbacca. Powerful duos have been a success formula throughout history. Lennon and McCartney. The Wright Brothers. Sergey and Larry (Google founders). Progress often comes in pairs.

Batman and Robin

Today many of us are our own islands. We build our personal brands, focus on self-improvement, and remain staunchly loyal to our own goals. The challenge is that going at it alone can actually be a recipe for disappointing outcomes. In contrast, teaming up can be a powerful mechanism to reach higher levels of performance.

Both Rodgers and Hammerstein were individually talented musicians, but when they collaborated their creativity soared to a whole new level.  While already dedicated and talented, every Olympic athlete has a coach in order to optimize his or her performance. In nearly all areas of life – from business to scientific discovery to politics – the biggest breakthroughs often come as a combo meal.

As you look to take your game to the next level, you don’t have to make a permanent commitment to a partner for all aspects of your life.  Instead, think of the things you hope to improve and seek a partner in crime for each of them.  Want to improve your fitness level?  Studies show that having a workout partner will improve your results by up to 60% and reduce the likelihood you’ll drop out by over 300%. Want to read and learn more? Joining a study group or book club will provide the external accountability you need to get the job done and get more out of it.

You can harness the same impact of a workout buddy in your career. Big idea: select a trusted “success partner,” with whom you agree to meet regularly for six months.  In every meeting, review each other’s goals and commitments and hold each other accountable for follow though. Challenge each other and provide ideas and support to achieve more. Track and measure results, and you will be blown away with the impact after your six-month trial run. From there, you can choose to stay with that person or perhaps shift to a new partner for fresh perspectives.

Bonnie and Clyde. Spaghetti and Meatballs. Simon and Garfunkel. Pair up, and achieve more.

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Rising From Rejection

Posted on March 1, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Jack Ma is China’s richest man. He’s also the 12th-wealthiest person in the world, with a net worth of $29.7 billion, according to Forbes. Ma is the founder of Alibaba, an e-commerce company that’s the equivalent of Amazon.com in China.

He launched a multibillion-dollar company and became one of the most financially successful people alive, so you might imagine he was always a superstar. Not by a long shot. As a young man, Ma failed the college entrance exam three times in a row. He applied for 30 different jobs, getting turned down for all of them.

“I went for a job with the police; they said, ‘You’re no good,’ ” Ma told Charlie Rose in an interview. “I even went to KFC when it came to my city. Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy… .” Ma was also rejected by numerous banks for loans and didn’t turn a profit for his first three years in business.

How could someone who ended up so wildly successful have been rejected?

It turns out this is a common theme. J.K. Rowling, the billionaire author of the Harry Potter series of books and movies, saw her manuscript rejected by 12 different publishers before one took a risk on her. Steve Jobs was rejected by more than 20 venture capitalists when trying to raise money for Apple, which now is the most valuable company in the world, worth more than $700 billion.

We all get rejected, but the best-of-the-best are able to dust themselves off and rise from their setbacks, further emboldened to succeed. Imagine if Jobs, Ma or Rowling gave up, becoming discouraged and forfeiting their dreams. Not only would their potential have been squandered, but also the world would be worse off, having never benefited from their contributions.

If you are pursuing anything worthwhile, you will likely be met with resistance. Rather than internalizing negative feedback, rejections or setbacks as a life-sentence of failure, realize these judgments do not define you. You have the capacity to learn, grow and rise above those who would rather criticize from the sidelines than take a risk and create something of their own.

In life, rejection is highly likely. How you choose to respond is what will define you, not the setback itself. In the words of Vince Lombardi, “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.”

When you stumble, let it fuel your commitment to win rather than derail your mission. Don’t empower those who reject. Instead, muster up the strength to prove them wrong.

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Herds Are For Animals

Posted on February 22, 2015 by Josh Linkner

“Our company offers great service and affordable pricing.” 

“We really care about our customers.”

“One call does it all!”

Perhaps platitudes that lack specificity and depth worked 20 years ago.  But in our fist-fighting competitive arena, these flimsy claims say nothing at all.  Your customers and prospects want to know, need to know: What truly makes you different? In a world full of options, unless you can answer this question with precision, you may soon be in the very difficult position of systematically losing to your competition.

I ask the “what makes you different?” question constantly to people in a wide array of organizations – from financial planners to speaker bureaus, from personal trainers to universities.  Remarkably, I rarely hear a solid response. The most common reply is “Great question! We really need to come up with something better to say.”  The second most common is some characteristic that is just the ante to play such as great service, attention to detail, or high integrity.  Those qualities are important, but a competitive differentiator they are not.  Instead, I want to hear a sentence that starts with, “We’re the ONLY company that….”

With fickle consumers, dwindling loyalty, and over-the-top marketing, you can’t afford to blend in.  And being 3% different doesn’t cut it either.  You need to be able to clearly articulate why you are a one-of-a-kind, truly differentiated organization to win and keep customers.  Focus more on what makes you different instead of the things that are the industry norms.  Customers crave – and will pay handsomely for – originality, not conformity.

The super-smart folks at The Gartner Group came up with a simple diagnostic tool: the Competitive Swap Test.  Simply swap out your name for a competitor’s name while making a claim.  If the phrase still holds true, you haven’t said enough to stand out.  If you boast great response times, but could swap in three competitors’ names that also have similar responsiveness, you fail the test.  You need to find deeper, stronger points of differentiation to win the hearts and minds of your customers.

Think of your favorite brands or organizations, and you’ll likely see they stand apart from the pack in your mind, easily beating the Competitive Swap Test with their brand promise, features, and benefits.  To drive your own business – or even your career – start crafting the story of what makes you different.  When your answer is powerful, and you can deliver against the promise, you become unstoppable.

Herds are for animals.  Break away, and run free.

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15 Powerful Ideas

Posted on February 15, 2015 by Josh Linkner

“You cannot look in a new direction by looking harder in the same direction.”
~ Edward deBono

“Out there is an entrepreneur who’s forging a bullet with your company’s name on it. You’ve got only one option – to shoot first.”
~ Gary Hamel

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
~ Arthur Schopenhauer

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
~ Charles Mingus

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
~ John Steinbeck

“What would have drawn a “wow” fifteen years ago won’t draw a yawn today.”
~ Steve Wynn

“If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”
~ Ross Perot

“The mind is like a garden, plant flowers, you get flowers. Plant weeds, you get weeds. Plant nothing, you get weeds.”
~ Unknown

“Man who says it cannot be done should not interrupt man doing it.”
~ Chinese Proverb

“One can never truly savor success until first tasting adversity.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

 “Only the humble improve.”
~ Wynton Marsalis

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
~ General Erick Shinseki

“Children are happy because they don’t have a file in their minds called ‘All the Things That Could Go Wrong.’”
~ Marianne Williamson

“Don’t stumble over something behind you.”
~ Seneca

“Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn’t hear the music.”
~ Unknown

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