Stars and Stones

Stars and Stones

In every team you’ll have stars, who overachieve and improve the performance of your whole team. You’ll also have stones, who struggle to meet the minimum performance goals you’ve set for them, and who drag the team back. Managing these individuals is critical to maintaining and improving your department’s performance. As always measurement is vital, but when it comes to this kind of people management there are other intangibles to consider. If your stones are not meeting minimum performance requirements, you’ll need to manage that directly – work with them to ensure they’re trained and capable of meeting the standards you’ve set. If they can’t do the job, you’ll need to move them on – possibly to a different role, possibly out of the company altogether.

But if your stones are meeting the minimum requirements, they need a different focus. I recommend looking at how your team interacts. If your stones are bringing energy to the team, improving morale with their attitude and engagement, then you can accept their performance as long as it meets the minimum standards. They don’t need to outperform on your targets if they’re making your other staff enjoy coming in to work.

Your stars need to be challenged, and they need to feel like they’re both being recognized and that there is an opportunity to advance. They don’t outperform because they like you. They’re telling you they want more. Give them responsibility for documentation and training, to help your whole team gain the benefit of their experience and wisdom. Ask them to help you find ways to improve performance on areas that you’re struggling to improve. And make sure you’re thinking about what’s next for them – it’s possible they love the role they’re in, but it’s likely they’re already planning to move on. If you want to keep them, you need to have a plan of your own that will capture their interest.

In all situations, it’s vital to keep in mind that each person is completely unique. Treat each individual with respect and give them enough time to understand what they would like to achieve and what they’re working for.

How to Manage Anything

Sometimes I get asked how I can help people in industries and market areas in which I have no direct experience. The answer to this is surprisingly simple. I don’t need to have the expertise in a particular area to teach and assist in the management of that area, because management has nothing to do with technical ability.

The Management Mindset


Managing anything relies on one thing above everything else – the ability to “see” the process. What I mean by this is that you need to be able to think about things in terms of how something starts (inputs), how something is finished (outputs), and what happens between the start and finish (process). You don’t need to be able to DO the process, but you have to understand what the process looks like.

How to Measure


My training and experience as a project manager put rather concrete terms around measurement. In project management it’s the Triple Constraint: TIME, COST and QUALITY. In IT, there’s an old adage when building a system or selecting a vendor – “Fast, Cheap or Reliable: pick any two”. When you’re managing a business, and you’ve identified the key processes that you need to improve, you then need to measure your current performance. It’s important to get a good measurement on all three numbers, because otherwise it’s too easy to sacrifice something that’s important without realizing it.

Accuracy is important, but consistency is vital. Even if you’re only 80% confident the numbers you’ve produced are correct, you need to use the same methods to measure when you’re judging improvement as you did when you first looked at the “current performance” numbers. You can change the way you measure if you find a more accurate method, but when you do you’re essentially re-starting the whole improvement process, so think carefully about when you want to implement the new methods.

How to Manage


Once you have a good picture of your current performance, you can then start setting targets. Depending on the culture you’re working within, you could set improvement targets anywhere from 10% right through to 10x. But which areas are you going to work on?

The best method I’ve come across is to simply rank the three measurements. Often this needs to be done from a top level, rather than per-process, but you’ll usually find that there is a focus within your team already – you’ll want to make sure that you’re aligned and working towards the same goals here, otherwise you have some culture work to do. When you rank the three measurements in terms of importance, you will have one which is your key performance indicator (KPI), one which is your minimum requirement, and one which is your variable.

For example, you may have a client onboarding process that you need to manage. You will decide that the onboarding experience is vital to the long-term health of the business, and will set QUALITY as your key performance indicator. You’ll then look at TIME and COST. There will be an industry standard for how long things take to get moving, let’s say it’s usually a week. This is your minimum requirement for TIME. Your variable is COST. So you will accept a higher COST to ensure a higher QUALITY, provided you can still hit your minimum TIME requirement. You would not accept a higher COST to deliver faster (TIME) unless you weren’t able to hit the one week minimum requirement.

Each of these measurements can fall into any one of the categories, and although it’s common for a company to have a standard, often there will be some processes that will have their own prioritization.

It’s also important to understand that categorizing these measurements doesn’t mean that you have unlimited freedom – there are minimums and maximums that will apply to all areas. Setting and working within these boundaries is critical, have a look at the upcoming post on Setting Boundaries to see more on this.

How to Improve

time to improve.jpg

When it comes to actually achieving those targets, it’s all down to the people on the job. As the manager, you need to understand their constraints and concerns – what do they need to hit the targets you’ve set? Then you need to work together to identify steps in the process that are inefficient, or not required at all.

If you have an improvement budget, use that for training or for one-off costs to improve your key performance indicator. Make sure your budget considers both time and money – pulling your team away from their core responsibility for a day of training costs more than just the invoiced amount, otherwise you’re paying staff not to work in the hopes that they’ll be better equipped to perform in the future. Ask your team about what tools they’d need to perform at a higher level, or what jobs could be automated. Do your own research, speak to your vendors and their competitors, find out what others are doing in your space.

If you don’t have an improvement budget, start by looking at how your team is already performing. For every job or process they do, you will have someone on your team who simply does it better. Get them to document and train the rest of the team in that process.

Improvement is an ongoing concern, you’ll never have everything perfect. Look at your numbers, and identify where you’re seeing the biggest variance – that’s an opportunity. Look for where you are repeatedly spending the most time – even small improvements there can make a huge difference overall.

Set challenges for your team, and reward success. Recognize individual improvement as well as overall team performance. When they hit your targets, be ready with another challenge. If your team are losing motivation, let them choose their next challenge from a shortlist you’ve already prepared.

Myths: Manager vs Leader

For a while I would see regular posts, infographic style images, and other comments talking about how Leaders were better than Managers. Sometimes they would use different language (Boss vs. Leader), but in all cases there was this opposition created where you’d have a supportive, encouraging person on one side (the “leader”), and on the other side you’d have someone who was less involved, who was more directive and disciplinarian (the “boss” or “manager”).


You remember this picture right?

I probably spent too much time reading those articles, because it was clear from the start that there was a false dichotomy being set up. Disgruntled employees would like and share posts to validate their feeling of being poorly treated. Newly minted managers (who are rarely given much support or guidance in many organisations) would read the articles and panic that they were not “hands on” enough, and often wind up being just another contributor without providing the direction and feedback that they were employed to bring.

The truth is that we need both leaders and managers in our businesses, and vilifying one role does no benefit to anyone. In a well structured business, there are several roles that should be filled (sometimes by one person, but the role is always distinct).

The Visionary

A good business will usually start with a visionary who provides direction – someone who sees what could be and is able to inspire others to put in the work to make it happen. This role is extremely entrepreneurial, and requires a lot of creative freedom. There needs to be space given for researching market and industry trends, time discussing the problems and felt needs of existing customers, and looking for new and exciting ways to partner with others outside the core area of business.

The Operator

Unfortunately the visionary isn’t always the best at getting things done. This is where the operator comes in. A good business always has a senior position filled by someone who gets the businesses products and services. They are passionate about understanding how things work, why they work, and how they can become even more efficient. Although this role is often “in the trenches” with the team, they also need to challenge the team to perform at a higher standard. The best operators are smart and lazy – they are always looking for things that can be done with less work and less time, using tools, technology and automation, as well as cutting out things that are wasted effort.

The Promise Keeper

The Visionary seems to always want to be trying new things, and the Operator seems to be wanting to do things in new ways – but the Promise Keeper just wants to make sure the customers get what they expect. A well organized business will always have someone in a senior role who is there to protect the reputation and the brand of the company. Someone who makes sure that the public image of the business is positive, and that customers are getting what they’re paying for. They’re often the ones who are out there selling, making promises to people that they fervently hope the business will uphold. This role often gets a bad rap from inside the business, because they are usually the ones holding back change, challenging new methods and generally trying to keep things the way they were. What exacerbates this is that this role is usually filled by the least technical member, who spends the least time “in the trenches” actually delivering the products or services.

Good Business

A good business will include each of these three roles, and will validate the work done in each area. So next time you read one of those articles suggesting that bosses and managers are the source of all evil in your company, try to take a step back and think about how necessary those roles are, and what the motivation is for the people who need to fill them.

How do you see this in your own business? Do you have all three of these roles filled? Did I miss another critical role? Let me know in the comments below.


Referral Networking

I’m not what you’d call a natural sales person. I present well enough, and I’m confident and well spoken, but there’s something that top sales people have that I seem to be missing. Maybe it’s something that will come with experience.

When I  started Strategic Ventures, I had grand ideas of how I would be working with lots of different people in their businesses, driving change and improvement, making things clearer and more efficient. But the early stages of my business have conspired to put me into a deeper sales role than I’ve experienced before. So I did what I do – I started researching, reading and asking questions of people who have succeeded where I’m learning.

One thing that came up fairly consistently was the use of business networks – particularly referral networks like BNI. Although I’d had some understanding of what it was, I’d never attended a networking event like this until recently when I was invited by my local BNI chapter president to visit and see how it all works.

Watching 30(ish) business owners talking about their business, their ideal clients and their successful referrals was interesting, but what fascinated me was the relationships that had clearly been built over time in the group. In my research, I’d found several articles which had a rather negative view on BNI and similar referral networking groups, with a running theme of “They demand too much time, and don’t ensure quality referrals” and “You don’t get any access to high end decision makers which we need for our business”. One article in particular pointed out that the only successful referral network the author had been involved in was built on long term relationships without forced quotas. But I wonder if maybe the author missed the point. Too much focus on the referral quotas, and not enough time spent building real relationships. Maybe those referrals he was looking for were available in the group, but weren’t being given due to a lack of trust. There’s a reputational risk involved in referrals and introductions – if they don’t work out well the relationship can be damaged.

I’m still checking out some other groups and systems to see if I can find one that suits my business, but I have to say that even with the one visit I was able to sharpen my own focus on how I present what Strategic Ventures does, and who we’d love to do it for. I also got to meet some great people who work in all kinds of related fields that I can (and will) be able to refer business on to.

I’d love to hear about your experience with referral networks and business networking groups. Leave a comment below and tell us what you learned when you visited for the first time.

Applied Learning

My daughter recently started in an advanced literacy class in her primary school – and I love the fact that one of the first things they did was to hand out workbooks for each child. These books were to be used for reflection on the stories they read – from Tom Sawyer to the Jungle Book, there are opportunities for learning available. But the thing is that we don’t learn the lesson from reading the book.

We learn the lesson by taking the story in, and considering how we would behave in similar situations. We learn by looking at similarities and differences to our own life. We look for words and concepts we don’t understand and attempt to extend our vocabulary and comprehension. We practice using these new thoughts and concepts to communicate with one another, learning as we go.

It’s easy to think that we are learning as we gain experience, but the truth is very often the opposite. Instead of being able to identify new and creative solutions based on our experience, we too easily mis-identify situations and problems as being the same as what we’ve seen before. We jump to conclusions and allow our biases to prevent us from thinking things through in any detail.

In your business practice, you will come across new situations that seem familiar, but if you haven’t taken the time to reflect on and absorb the lessons along the way, it’s likely that you will wind up missing out on some great opportunities.

What is the number one habit you have in your life to reflect, learn and grow?

How Much Did That Cost?

It’s always been somehow impolite to talk about money in most of the circles I mixed in growing up. But even then there was a cost awareness that crept into the conversation. People wouldn’t directly ask about things like that, but they’d come in from a side angle “where did you get that from?”

This cost awareness is deeply ingrained in all of us. In every case, we look for the ways to achieve our goals with the minimum expense. The biggest problem is that we often don’t think about how to manage our resources, or even which resources we are choosing to prioritize.

Think about one of those mobile games everyone gets sucked into. They always have two kinds of resource – the “gold” and the “gems” or something like that. You know you’ll always be able to get more gold easily, but the gems are hard to come by. And those gems are the ones that you’re tempted to go spending money on – even though you know you’re going to delete the game in a few weeks anyway. We get that concept immediately.

Scarcity teaches us what to value.

If you grew up playing games in the 90’s, you may remember something of a strategy game boom period. We saw games like Age of Empires, Alpha Centauri and Civilization. In these games, we managed multiple types of resource and would easily switch focus to the resources that we needed to unlock a new technology, to move past whatever was holding us back from advancing in our quest for world domination.

Strategy teaches us what to pursue.

Life isn’t so different from these games. In fact, these games can be a powerful tool for learning if we take the time to apply the lessons. But applied learning is another post altogether. The lesson we can take from these games is to be particular about what we pursue – things that are valuable for our cause as well as for their scarcity.

There’s this wonderful model raised in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People which is simply two circles one within the other. They’re called the circle of concern, and the circle of influence.


This model is used to help people understand that there are some things they care about, but which are outside of their control. In this case we have very limited influence on scarcity (there will always be competitors offering similar products and services that you offer), but we can control the strategy.

Scarcity is often in our circle of concern, but Strategy is always in our circle of influence.

What this means for us is that our cost controls – especially in small, growing businesses – need to be focused first on strategy. This is more than just thinking about how you “spend” your time (although that’s also part of it). This is primarily about how we plan our strategy to pursue our organizational goals and objectives.

Measure twice, cut once.

One difference between these games and our personal and business lives is that the games limit our options, and display (prominently) exactly what we have, and what we need. It’s easy to develop a strategy when your options are limited. Play Noughts and Crosses for 10m and let me know if you’re able to work that one out. But as more options are made available to us, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine the best course of action – or even to get a clear picture of your current position. Watch a few games of grandmaster level chess, and compare that to your noughts and crosses session.

The point of this is that it’s vital for your success that you get a good sense of measurement – both what you currently have and what’s available to you with some effort. You can use this to develop a limited set of strategies that you can implement – go-to choices that enable you to make well considered decisions in a moment. Develop real plans around how you will break into that new vertical, or how you will make use of the new social platform to connect with new and existing customers. Allocate those resources you have to those plans so you know what it will cost you to execute on them. How much time do you need to put in to start seeing results? How does that change when you bring in a 3rd party or delegate some responsibility to your team? Can you call in favours, and is it the best option to do so for this opportunity?

The best part of this kind of planning is that once you’re prepared, you can take advantage of those moments that come up. And you’ll start seeing opportunities everywhere, because you now know what they look like.

Planning out how you will manage your resources is key to victory in many games. Planning out how you will manage your resources is key to success in life.

Learn from the game you love the most, and figure out how to apply that to your business, your investing, and your personal success.

What game have you learnt the most about life from? Add a comment below and let us know what the lesson was for you.

Be inspired. Be inspiring.

There are a lot of different points of view out there about how life began. The prevailing thought today is that life began billions of years ago through a random combination of chemicals followed by a sequence of events that resulted in a physical universe, with organisms that developed into something like you.

Other thoughts we’ve held to across our history tend towards life being created by a supreme being, a god who had some intention for creation. In some of these stories, the creator god stayed invested in this creation, in others the god just got bored or something and isn’t really interested in us any more.

You are unique

The most important part of this is of course that you are alive today. How life began, when and where it happened – none of that changes the fact that you DO exist here and now.

And you are incredibly fortunate to be who you are. You are unique in the universe. And even the person who is actually the least fortunate, your very existence as a human being in the 21st century is a privilege that is truly astounding when you stop to think about the alternatives.

You have access

And if you’re reading this article, it’s because you are even more fortunate again. You have access to a world of information. You can communicate with people across the planet, and you can learn from people who inspire you in ways that we would have only dreamed of in years gone by.

You have opportunities

There are so many opportunities today that we just take for granted. Opportunities to create meaningful connections, to learn and to grow. Opportunities to create art, to build understanding, and to establish a foundation that will serve our children into the future.

Sometimes we worry that if we share our good ideas, someone else will get the benefit and we’ll miss out. The truth is more often that when you share your good idea, you will become more motivated to take action on it, and you’ll have someone out there who will ask you about how you’re progressing. Most of the time, our good ideas aren’t even that good yet. We need to work on them, build them up, and bounce them around with someone else to gain perspective. By sharing your idea, you will be the one taking advantage.

So get excited

Today, I would challenge you to identify at least two things you can be grateful for in your own life – anything from the fact of your existence today to a brand new idea or thought of an opportunity you could pursue. Then I want you to share your joy with someone else. Give it as much as you can – because joy shared is doubled. Be inspired. Be inspiring.

Five levels of leadership

One of the great challenges of leadership – be it in the context of one’s career, one’s community commitments, or one’s ministry – is the balance of finding contentment and fulfilment in your role, tempered with a healthy drive to progress to the next stage. Maxwell’s conception of the ‘five levels of leadership’ puts a healthy and helpful framework around this desire to progress.

Leadership, he notes, is stratified into five fairly distinct levels:

Level one (the bottom of the pile): Position

At level one, leadership is about rights – people follow because they have to. Leaders lead within a very limited sphere – the confines of their job description. It is a place of beginnings – but leaders who become stuck here have decreasing morale and will probably leave. (more…)

The Problem of Talent

We tend to idolize talented individuals. We celebrate their success with awards and trophies, and develop fan clubs that follow along on their journey to feel like we are a part of it. Athletes, Movie Stars – even YouTubers and Instagram Influencers have a following of loyal groupies. In business, we celebrate names like Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates – and a host of others.

We idolize and mimic their habits, behaviours and attitudes because we want to feel closer to them, and we want to achieve some of their success. But we face a problem in doing this – the problem of talent.

The truth is most people have some talent that they have passionately pursued, and they have developed a high level of skill because of this. Unfortunately, the majority of us are (obviously) not in this select minority of worldwide success and fame, and (honestly) not even close to the level of skill showed by our celebrities.

My research suggests that a lot of people become “stuck” in their development once they have established a level of confidence and reputation within their community. But why does this happen?

Flagging Motivation

One reason is that our motivation gradually fails as we approach our goals. If we actually achieve what we first set out to do, it takes a special effort to set out new goals that are worthy of our time and effort. Many people simply decide to “rest” for a while, and often wind up becoming stale in their area of passion – leading to a situation where their confidence is greater than their actual skill.

The biggest key here is to look for a new goal. Make the effort to identify something else worthy of your pursuit – even if it’s in a different realm altogether. I recently heard someone say “every performance aids every performance”. The point of that quote was to show that practicing in different arenas would build your skill in your main area of interest. Opening up to new learning experiences, becoming a learner again, and looking for new connections with fresh eyes can all lead to an increased energy and vitality, a motivation to continue your own growth and development once again.

Limited Learning Opportunities

As we develop our understanding, we can find ourselves in a situation where our learning resources are “tapped out” and we need to find a new way to learn. A new approach, and likely new people to challenge us. Often people feel like they’re at the end of this road long before they are actually there. It’s often just a matter of re-thinking the approach to learning, and looking for resources and opportunities to learn and develop that are different from what you’ve used in the past.

The biggest key here is to recognize that even if you are the most informed and experienced individual in a particular area (and you’re almost certainly not), there are still new experiences that you could pursue that will inform you and develop you beyond where you are now. You have not yet reached your potential.

Difficulty Teaching

I was considering leaving this one out, but I believe it’s a common enough phenomenon, and it is vital to anyone pursuing expertise in any given area. Teaching is one of the best ways for an individual to develop their own understanding of a given topic. The practice of finding ways to communicate principles and concepts based on simpler concepts pushes us to understand the connections between what we know and what we do.

James Altucher regularly references a learning model he picked up from a martial arts instructor, which he describes as “plus, minus, equal”. The concept is that we need to have a teacher who knows more than us (plus), someone we are teaching (minus), and one or more peers who challenge us to maintain a competitive rate of progress.


If you’re feeling stuck for any of these reasons, shake things up today. Try something different. Push yourself in a new direction and see what you can apply to your learning and development.


Do you have any other strategies for when you get stuck? Leave a comment below and let me know what works best for you.

Habit Seven: Sharpen the Saw

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four hours sharpening my axe. – Abraham Lincoln

One of the most critical habits that a person can develop is this one. In fact, if you completely screw up every other habit but get this one right, I’d almost guarantee you will find success. But this one habit is also the one that I’ve seen ignored in almost every work environment I’ve been in. It is commonly left up to the individual to determine whether or not they will implement a saw sharpening habit in their own life, usually outside work hours.

If you’ve been living under a rock and still haven’t read this book, but have somehow stumbled onto this article – I suggest you get a hold of the book here, and go back to read the first article in this series here.

What this habit boils down to is to take care to maintain your most important tool to influence this world – your self. Not just your body, but your mind, your relationships, your emotions. All of these things have a deep impact on your ability to achieve success.

One of the most important management lessons I’ve learnt is that you can’t manage what you won’t measure. Imagine driving a car without any of the instrument panel. You’d have to guess how fast you were going, how much fuel you had remaining, and whether or not you had enough oil pressure to keep things moving smoothly. You’d find out pretty quickly when things went wrong, but you’d have no way to actually prevent those issues from becoming real problems.

Your life is similar in many ways, but you don’t have an instrument panel built in. You need to develop tools to allow yourself to take stock regularly and track your progress. There are hundreds of methods available to help you “measure” yourself in this regard, but here are a few tips that could honestly change your whole life if you implement them deliberately.

  1. Journal Daily
  2. Set Health Goals for yourself
  3. Make Time to learn and improve
  4. Celebrate your success

It’s not rocket science, but a consistent habit life with these building blocks will allow you to make incredible progress. I’ve broken out each step here to further explain the benefits.

1. Journal Daily

Journalling is one of those habits that we should all have, a daily practice that allows for real self assessment and reflection, as well as a way to process our thoughts, feelings and goals for the future. It might sound a bit “fluffy” for your average bloke, but think of it as a tool you can use to sharpen your mind, clarify your strategy and develop a deeper awareness of your capacity. I’ve spoken before about morning pages, which is a great method for clearing your mind at the start of the day. You can take things further with a good journalling habit to also intentionally track your progress against your health goals.

2. Set Health Goals for Yourself

Sleep. Eat. Work. Rest. Play. All of these are vital to a full experience of life, and we need to be intentional about them to get the most out of our lives. Those of you who are more competitive by nature will already have a good idea of how well you do in terms of work and play, and possibly your eating habits. But how many of you have tracked your performance at resting? Or at sleeping? We regularly track progress throughout our school years because others are giving us feedback all the time. But when was the last time you sought out feedback on your performance if it wasn’t related to a pay increase? To operate at your best, you should pay attention to what you’re already doing. You cannot develop a strategy for progress if you don’t have clarity around where you are as well as where you want to be.

3. Make Time to Learn and Improve

This is where many workplaces fall down. When your staff are left to their own devices, they are unlikely to be pursuing development in their ability to do the job you want them to do. The more driven individuals will be putting time into development, but they are likely pursuing goals outside your organization, so it’s important to provide a clear pathway for advancement, and to provide the tools and training for your team to pursue their goals within your organization. For you as an individual, don’t accept any excuses you may come up with about being too busy. Remember the quote from Abraham Lincoln – you need to sharpen your axe to get the results you’re looking for.

square wheels

4. Celebrate your Success

Another one that is often missing in workplaces, especially when the workplace is populated with Type A go-getters who just want to hit the next target. But even for these individuals, it’s important to recognize growth, success, and progress wherever we can see it. When you hit a target in your personal development, make sure you have a great way to enjoy that moment. That doesn’t mean you should eat a family pizza on your own after you hit your goal weight, but there are a lot of different ways to celebrate success. Be creative, and set your celebration early. You’ll be able to use it as a reward that you’re aiming for whenever your motivation starts flagging.

If you are able to implement these habits in your life, you will soon find that the other habits will follow. You’ll start to gravitate towards systems and tools that will assist you in your quest for personal growth, not for a nice feeling of understanding, but to actually implement and improve your life and the lives of those you love.

I’d love to hear your feedback on how you implement this habit in your own life. What works for you? What have you tried that doesn’t work? What other advice would you give someone who is pursuing a high performance life?