Improve execution and accountability with a Daily Huddle

I’m in a terrific new program that networking guru Keith Ferrazzi (Never Eat Alone, Who’s Got Your Back) is running and a recent exercise asked participants to describe ways they’ve kept their teams (and themselves) accountable.  My submission got some positive feedback and it’s pretty simple, so I thought I’d share it.

I had a team of account executives in remote offices, each of whom managed a number of alumni-association partners. We weren’t always their highest priority so executing on a long list of initiatives wasn’t always easy. I started a 20-minute Daily Huddle (first thing in the AM-if you couldn’t make it, no problem) and gave each person two minutes to list their biggest accomplishment of the previous day, what they wanted to accomplish that day, and what they needed from me or someone else on the call.   I kept track of what each person wanted to accomplish and asked the next day (and for a number of days after, if need be) what was getting in the way of completing that task.  One benefit of the daily call was that other team members often  offered advice based on having dealt with a similar problem with another school and very often someone would volunteer to role-play or help in some way to get the goal accomplished.   In addition, having to outline your goals in front of others led to more tangible goals that would have a real impact on the team’s results.

As a result of this and some other execution-focused  initiatives, we renewed 100+ relationships (with no losses), protecting $250 million in revenues and significantly reducing the sponsorship fees we were paying, while increasing group-satisfaction scores by 20%.  We also surpassed our goals for launching our Affinity Checking product by 200% (endorsements and accounts).  All because we spent a little bit of time every day focusing on initiatives that would move the needle.

Interestingly, someone in the class responded to my submission with the observation that people probably worked that much harder to complete tasks and come up with good objectives for the day because they didn’t want theirs to pale by comparison to other team members.  I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s probably true

To be effective: Keep it short. Keep it focused. And try to have it at the same time every day — first thing in the AM.

How do you help your teams — or yourself — be more accountable and execute more effectively.  Please share!

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Embrace your daemon: Write the next chapter of your life story

A few years back, I led a change to the way MBNA America — at the time the world’s largest affinity credit-card lender — negotiated with its partners (and ultimately with each other inside the bank).  At the heart of it, we learned to prepare more effectively and taught people that the best way to get what they wanted was to help the other side get what it wanted (for both internal and external stakeholders).  It’s my primary accomplishment…and a key component of my professional narrative. 

Since being laid off 15 months ago, I’ve focused on consulting while still looking for a challenging full-time position.  The reality is the job market is awful and there’s a growing trend toward building a portfolio career of 1099/consulting projects.  I’ve been helping companies sharpen their brand and strategic messages, primarily through the creation and/or refining of value propositions, RFP responses, and annual reports.  But I keep running into executive-level job seekers — many of them terrific, talented former peers — who are worried that their biggest success is behind them…and feeling their self-esteem slipping away in the absence of traction in their own job searches.

I invite you to watch this video in its entirety — it’s about 20 minutes and talks about dealing with these kinds of concerns, about wondering whether your best is behind you and about channeling your creativity in a positive way.

I’ve long believed that one thing that distinguishes successful people is their ability to consistently “show up.”  I also generally believe in the “daemons” that Elizabeth Gilbert describes.  I do believe you need to put distance between yourself and your creativity — partly because believing in daemons makes it difficult to give yourself  too much credit) and partly because I don’t want to run the risk of alienating them.

Over at, Chris is talking about the importance of story in people’s lives, urging readers to read Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  For me, I harken back to A Chorus Line: “I’m a dancer…And a dancer dances.”  The foundation of my story is my ability to communicate quickly and clearly (my ongoing challenges to simplify my own personal brand notwithstanding).  Blogging — something I never had the time to do before leaving the bank — enables me to do what I love…and the research and effort to generate ideas helps me work through my angst.  On my professional side, it can be challenging (but gratifying) to create for someone else, to capture their true voice and deliver something that the client can “hear” and feel as if they could have written or said it.  And yet the thing that led me away from business journalism in the first place was my sense that I could be just as effective in business as the people whose lives I was chronicling.

But how do you keep delivering?  How do you surpass your past successes? If I didn’t appreciate one thing before the past 15 months, I certainly do now:  Creativity takes order and process.  You need to eliminate distractions to give the “daemon” room to enter your consciousness.

There are times when I miss the hermetically sealed corporate offices where I used to work.  As I sit at home today, it’s 80 degrees, sunny, with a nice breeze flowing through my home office.  I’m resisting the urge to stop typing to go shoot some baskets or kick a soccer ball with my kids because I have deliverables.

The truth is, I probably will not resist those urges.  But that break will enable me to create something better this afternoon because I freed my mind and let the daemon in.  I now keep a little notebook to write down ideas when they hit.  In my current situation, I don’t sit through long, pointless meetings and I can try to turn neat ideas into business opportunities (although that poses its own sort of distraction away from the dual goals of feeding my family and doing something meaningful).

I have always worked in a world of real-life deadlines, budgets, and conflicting goals.  I’ve always been successful at balancing multiple priorities and executing on great ideas.  But life is different today than it was 15 months ago and I have a much greater respect for the process.  I thank Elizabeth Gilbert for reminding me that my greatest successes are not behind me…that the path to even greater ones requires me to keep showing up, respecting my daemon, and seeing them when I see them.

How about you?  How do you maintain your confidence that your next great success is just around the corner?

What’s your one thing?

I have a great film clip I use when I’m talking about simplicity.

I was reminded of this clip as I read Peter Bregman’s terrific post in his How We Work blog on the Harvard Business site.  Bregman uses his recent weight loss to illustrate — in very simple terms — a similar principle to the one that “Curly” uses in City Slickers.

Take a look at the video, and then ask yourself, What’s your one thing?

What’s the one thing you can do to achieve your biggest remaining 2009 goal before year-end?

What’s the one thing you can do to eliminate your biggest barrier to success?

What’s the one thing you can do to make your home life happier?

In a world of To Do lists and constant distractions, we need to spend a bit more time trying to figure out what that one thing is.  For me, I’ve had more success lately when I Eat the Frog.  It may not be my one thing.  But it’s a start.

What’s your one thing?

Respect the tomato

The Pomodoro requires 25 minutes of focus
The Pomodoro requires 25 minutes of focus

I get distracted easily.  I haven’t gotten to the point where I can turn off my e-mail notifications while I’m working.  I worry this will be the biggest challenge in striking out on my own.

But I’m trying a time-management technique named for a tomato as a way to work through my own personal game of Whack-A-Mole with an increasing number of projects.

Simply put, the Pomodoro technique asks you to work on a specific task — and that task alone — for 25 straight minutes.  Then you get a five-minute break before you move on to your next Pomodoro.  Shut everything else off.  Turn off your e-mail, unless you’re expecting something that’s absolutely critical.

The “system” includes a To Do Sheet, an Activity Inventory Sheet, and a Record Sheet that you can get from the Pomodoro website.  You put all the things you need to accomplish on the Activity Inventory Sheet.  At the beginning of each day, you put the specific tasks you need to complete on the To Do Sheet, prioritizing them where possible.  Then you just work through the sheet.  If you’re interrupted, you capture the reasons why.

I could see someone deciding not to do the paperwork and just focusing on the 25-minute segments.  But the important thing is the effort to focus, to “get the checkmarks” if you will.  How often do we try to juggle a number of different projects, jumping back and forth as input arrives via e-mail or a visit to your office or cube?  This technique offers a different way to compartmentalize your day-to-day tasks.  There’s even an application to let you put a Pomodoro clock on your desktop.

What do you do to fight all the distractions that rear their heads during the day?

Time management: More than the check marks?

I ate a frog this week.

I’ve always been very disciplined about my To Do list.  I have one of those two-page-per-day Daytimers  and take time every night to list everything I want to get done, moving the items I didn’t get done forward and adding new ones.  My family jokes about my pride in getting check marks as I finish items.

I read a time-management book this week called Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy, who quotes Mark Twain as saying if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that’s probably the worst thing that will happen to you all day.  Your “frog,” of course, is the big task you’re most likely to put off  all day if you don’t do something about it early.

The book is a lot more than that, but each evening for the past four evenings I’ve spent a couple of extra minutes identifying my frog for the next day and putting a star next to it.  I’ve found a couple of frogs twice but, as Tracy says, “if you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.”

I ate my frog three out of four days and found I was much more productive the rest of the day.  Give it a try.

GAIN can simplify your execution

I joined a struggling business area a few years ago that had a small team of terrific people who managed hundreds of relationships with alumni associations, athletic departments, and universities, each of whom wanted individual attention.   It didn’t take long to figure out that all the team needed was someone to focus on execution and prioritization.

We launched daily early-morning “huddles” where each person got 1-2 minutes to talk about their goals for the day and what help they needed to accomplish them.  For the most part, we were in and out in 20 minutes.  Every day.

Then we created a simple acronym — GAIN — to define our strategy.  We used it for internal audiences, but also included it in every group presentation using an equally simple theme of Grow…Retain…Delight. 

This was Bulldog Simplicity at its best despite the volume of groups under management.  If the initiative or action didn’t fall into one of the four areas, we deprioritized it.  The four GAIN areas were:

  • Group Strategies.  Find initiatives to move the needle with our largest programs.
  • Activation.  Focus on getting customers to use their accounts and stop them from closing their accounts.
  • Integration.  Work with other business areas to offer new products, reduce risk, and deepen relationships with our Collegiate partners.
  • New Channels.  Find cost-effective ways to improve portfolio metrics and revitalize tired approaches.

The beauty of this acronym-based approach was that we could design our reporting and our presentations around the four key elements to let everyone know exactly how we were doing and it got everyone on the same page using the same language.