There’s an old Vaudeville gag where a patient goes into a doctor’s office and exclaims: “Doctor, Doctor, it hurts when I do that.” The doctor replies: “So, don’t do that.” Almost any senior executive has heard of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. A copy is probably propping up a desk somewhere in the office. Any Type A personality can tell you that breaking a habit can be far more difficult than acquiring new skills. A habit is an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary. How you acquire a skill – basically how you were taught – can make change very difficult.
Take for example Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York City. “I used to edit every single document, often slowing down the process,” said Heintz. “Now I try to focus on getting the content right and leaving the line editing to others. I still have the urge, however, and my colleagues would probably say old habits die hard.” For Heintz, it was taught early on. “Good writing was drilled into me but I came to see that the perfect could be the enemy of the good, delay the process and leave people frustrated,” he said. Taking a deep breath and ignoring the outside world can be therapeutic. However, therapy often involves pain. “I think it was when I started leaving my briefcase in the trunk of my car on the weekend…which was very painful,” said Sonya Campion, president of the Campion
Advocacy Fund in Seattle, Wash. “In the nonprofit sector, there is always ‘a little more I need to do;’ ‘just a few minutes honey and I will be done and we can do something together so that you remembered why you married me;’ ‘I am sorry, I thought it would only be a few minutes,’ and then ‘I don’t know where the last eight hours went.’” There comes a tipping point. “Once I put limits on my time and realized that it wasn’t just a new-age mantra about the real need to refuel yourself, my success and productivity soared. I had to give some thought as to what really refueled me (which wasn’t just collapsing in exhaustion), which helped me prioritize my time, values and activities,” she said. “I got outside more and have gone through a lot of hiking boots. I keep family and friends close and bring to my work a more balanced and happier person. With a family history of heart disease, I have probably avoided a heart attack, too. This is a good question and one I wish I had known about 30 years ago.”
For Bill Novelli, marketer extraordinaire and former top boss at AARP, it was about not pounding on his desk. “In my early years (at Unilever, where I started my career) I worked for a brilliant marketing vice president who, unfortunately, was a tyrant. He used fear and intimidation as his motivating tools.
Marketing people were the high priests there and everyone else (sales, manufacturing, R & D, etc.) was at a second level,” recalls Novelli, who is now distinguished professor of the practice of the Global Social Enterprise Initiative at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “He stopped in my office and said I was late with monthly projections. I apologized and said I had new info and was reducing my sales projections. He said (very loudly, to be heard across the floor), ‘I can hire a monkey to take the projections down. Your job is to bring them up!’,” he said. “I took on too much of the VP’s style, and while not a tyrant, I was too dictatorial. It took a while, but I realized that wasn’t how one managed effectively.
Once I ditched that approach and substituted other motivators I have managed effectively and well,” he said. “The best one, I discovered and practiced ever since, is inspiration.” Technology can be a cross to bear, even for people who work in technology and are of a generation supposedly addicted to it. “One thing I had to do was stop checking my email,” said Wendy L. Harman, director of Information Management and Situational Awareness at the American Red Cross. “I am a people pleaser by nature.
Making my superiors beam with pride motivates me. It’s disgusting. It made me successful in my year-end review, but wasn’t at all effective in making big changes in humanitarian work,” she said. “I enjoy working at the edges of new business models, new technology, and new ideas. My effectiveness soared when I learned to ditch the people-pleasing habit. I had more time to concentrate on clearing the weeds and showing a path forward for my colleagues and team members at these edges,” she said. “My motivations became centered around how much easier I could make it for those around me to achieve their goals,” said Harman. “Finding my motivation in making creative connections and enabling new outcomes helped me build a network of people who have mutual trust and who are much more effective than I am by myself. Plus, it’s personally liberating to not be looking for affirmations in the wrong places.”
The equality push in the United States is of recent vintage, including the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as experienced by Yolanda Soto, president and CEO of the Borderlands Food Bank (BFB). It can leave a few scars and tendencies. “As a Mexican woman, two minorities right off, and growing up in a culture and era that dictated dependency on men and others, not believing in myself was a hard habit to have to break,” said Soto. “Dependence on others for help is vital to all. No one can go it alone, but the not believing in yourself 100 percent is a hard habit to break,” she said. “I allowed the major decisions for the distribution of BFB’s produce to be made by others because I trusted that the right decisions were being made instead of having listened to my heart and trusted in myself.
Once I broke that habit, which came with age and experience, I became so much more effective in my personal and work life,” she said. Believing that being part of larger organizations would be more advantageous than going it alone, Soto became part of a chain of distribution run by other organizations to distribute the produce BFB received. “These organizations had strict rules to follow to use their services. While complying with these rules, I discovered that the very people who needed my help weren’t able to receive it. I broke away from the restrictions and the organizations and concentrated on working directly with the communities I needed to reach — those in the greatest need for fresh nutritious produce.” Michael Chatman, senior vice president of philanthropy at the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, didn’t have a confidence issue. “I had to break the habit of relying strictly on my own limited knowledge and way of thinking about philanthropy,” he said. “In the early stages of my career in the for-profit sector, I relied heavily on my own entrepreneurial instinct, gut reaction and personal strategy to solve problems.
As a result, I alienated people and was viewed as a maverick who did not value working together.” Switching to the charitable sector was a wake-up call. “When I made the transition to the nonprofit sector, I realized quickly that I needed to be more collaborative, less competitive; connecting people and resources to solve problems and improving systems that could change the lives of people. After all, it is the reason why I’m in the field of philanthropy, to improve the quality of life for people,” said Chatman. “Today, because I’ve learned to become a better connector and collaborator, I’m better equipped to lead our organization’s network of 46 community foundations and 540 program and fundraising volunteers.” Data is often better than intuition. Sometimes you have to learn that the hard way.
Michael Brown, founder and CEO of City Year, said he had to “stop making decisions by anecdote — use data to make decisions but make sure they live up to your values.” In the early days of City Year, “we always sought to make careful, thoughtful decisions, but too often based them primarily on largely anecdotal information, or even gut instinct,” said Brown “As the organization has evolved and grown in size, scope and geography, we have become very focused on making data-driven decisions, and ensuring we have good data to make decisions,” he said. There is one caveat, according to Brown. “You can’t let data alone guide decision making.
Data is a tremendously powerful tool when it comes to helping an organization maximize its impact. But, data can’t stand alone. We look at the data and then we ask ourselves if we are making decisions that are in keeping with our organizational culture and values. If not, we go back to the drawing board: values and culture trump data every time.” Monica Wofford, CEO of training firm Contagious Companies, said that whether it’s belief in one’s self, control issues, or even perfectionism, many behaviors “originate from what comes most naturally to us…that we then learn to cover up because we think we should.
The act of covering our own authenticity creates stress and this stress provokes habits consisting of the negative versions of our natural gifts.” Habits can be broken, as the effective executives have told. Just don’t expect it to be easy. NPT