Benjamin Disraeli once said: "The secret of success in life is ... to be ready for opportunity when it comes." My staff and I have discovered that there are 10 basic requirements for success as a professional:
- You must have a solid, marketable idea and the commitment to do whatever it takes to make it work.
- You must have the skills and expertise to translate that idea into concrete action.
- You must have a clear vision as to where you want to go — both personally and professionally.
- You must have a solid plan of action that is based on workable strategies.
- You must have or be able to create the resources to implement that plan.
- You must be willing and able to motivate and guide the people who can help you put your plan and ideas into action.
- You must be able to always see the big picture, yet be willing to get your hands dirty in the day-to-day activities — to become involved in both the macro and micro dimensions of running a successful practice.
- You must develop the systems that make the right things happen at the right times.
- You must exercise the disciplines to constantly be doing the right things, at the right times, and in the right ways.
- You must be able to measure your success in tangible terms and predetermined timetables.
To make it easier to grasp and remember, I’ve broken it down into four simple statements: (a) Success grows out of a clear vision, (b) Success results from a solid strategy, (c) Success revolves around practical systems, and (d) Success comes through consistent execution.
Success grows out of a clear vision. A vision is defined as "an object of the imagination." It starts as an idea in the mind of an individual and grows into a dream — maybe even an obsession. To provide the central focus needed to anchor a successful professional practice, it must meet several criteria:
- Your vision must be clear. Vague visions lead to confused activities and lost motion. Be able to state the central, unique premise of your practice in 12 words or less. The more specific your vision is, the better your chances of success are.
- Your vision must be practical and workable. Most of us can come up with more ideas before noon each day than we can implement in a lifetime. The secret is to find the right idea — the one that we can make work for us.
- It must be a vision that will capture your enthusiasm and enable you to inspire others. The key to all motivation is desire — we have to want it before we can make it happen. Money is seldom a strong enough motivator over the long haul.
- Your vision must fit your skills, your resources, and your strengths. I’ve seen many professionals fail because they were chasing the wrong dreams. Finding the right niche for your unique skills and resources may be your greatest challenge.
- Your vision must be an idea you can communicate effectively to others. People must be able to easily understand it and to need or want it, and must be willing to pay enough for it to be profitable for you.
- Your vision must be adaptable enough to survive the changes that will occur over the years. To have staying power, you must be able to constantly adjust your vision to meet new conditions.
- Your vision must be marketable. The perceived value of an idea lies in its rarity — the more people there are who can do what you do, the less value it has. If you want a real revelation, look in a professional directory and see how many professionals there are who describe themselves exactly as you do. What gives you differential advantage in the marketplace?
Now, an idea (or vision) doesn’t have to be new to work or to be very profitable. For example, Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, or even the assembly line — as many people think. Those ideas had both been around for decades. He took someone’s ideas and adapted them to his own purpose — to build large numbers of automobiles that the masses of people could afford to buy. And, the rest is history!
Management legend Peter Drucker once said, "The most important question my company can ask is: ‘What is our business?’ " Probably the greatest reason professionals fail or don’t become as successful as they could is that they lack a clear and specific vision of what they hope to achieve.
Success results from a solid strategy. Even the greatest ideas are of little value unless they are backed up by a practical and workable plan of action. The word strategy comes from an ancient Greek term, which literally means "to be a general leading troops into battle." Setting up a good strategic plan for a professional practice involves five steps:
The first step is to translate your vision into measurable goals.
- You decide specifically what you want to accomplish during the next five to 10 years — those are your long-range goals.
- Next, you break those goals down into intermediate goals — things you wish to accomplish during the following six months or year.
- Then you break them down further into short-term goals covering the next month or six weeks.
The second step is to break your goals down into achievable objectives. Dr. Robert Schuller says, "Yard by yard life is hard, inch by inch it’s a cinch." Working on obtaining objectives helps you concentrate on what’s important, instead of spinning your wheels on those things that seem urgent but don’t lead to your long-term goals. Objectives add purpose and direction to all your activities.
The third step is to set up your strategies for accomplishing your objectives. Strategies are the specific ways you will go about achieving your objectives. The more clearly they are thought out, the more effective they will be.
Fourth, you choose each task you must complete each day to achieve your goals. This is where most planning breaks down. We tend to leave it vague — thinking that, as long as we are working hard all the time, we are achieving our goals. Most professionals I talk with are extremely busy — and most of them are working hard to do things right. The problem is, they are not doing enough of the right things — the things that will help them achieve their goals.
It is not enough to merely list each task you need to do; you need to build it into your schedule — so that many hours every day you are working on specific actions that will lead to accomplishing your definite objectives.
And, finally, step number five: Build in the monitoring mechanisms that will help you keep track of your progress toward implementing your plan.
It’s one thing to have a "gut-level feeling" that you must be doing something right because you are always working hard. But it is far better to design simple mechanisms to let you know precisely how much progress you are making.
Look for a few key indicators that will help you stay on track, and monitor those as a doctor would monitor the vital signs of a patient. It doesn’t matter how much activity is going on. What matters most is how well you are doing at achieving your objectives.
One good example is that you will target to contact three people each day to generate new business. At the end of the day, you’ll know whether you have achieved that goal.
That plan is not complete until it has been communicated satisfactorily to every person in your organization who must help to implement it. Here are some guidelines to help you communicate your vision and plan to your staff, associates, and others:
- Involve others in formulating the plan. People tend to understand and support plans they help to create.
- Clearly identify roles and expectations. Every person needs to know clearly what you expect and understand the basis on which his or her performance is to be judged.
- Make sure everyone understands all deadlines and schedules. A good plan has teeth in it, and the only way to give it those teeth is to set definite deadlines for specific actions.
- Count on the plan for intrinsic motivation rather than seeking to motivate people with gimmicks. If the plan is built around the strengths and personal motivations of the people who must execute it, and it has its own built-in rewards, motivation will take care of itself. If not, you cannot come up with enough gimmicks to make it work.
- Get feedback to make sure people understand exactly what you expect. It’s not very helpful to ask, "Does everyone understand the plan?" A far better approach is to say, "Tell me what you understand the plan to be and how you see yourself fitting into it."
Success revolves around practical systems. Take a systems-approach to operating your practice. Professionals operate around simple systems that consistently produce desired results. For example, attorneys have an orderly process for preparing briefs or contracts, doctors use standard procedures for diagnosing and treating illnesses, and accountants use generally acceptable methods of doing an audit. It’s the only way to keep from reinventing the wheel every time you want a ride.
Interestingly, most professionals make very little use of systems in operating their practices. Therefore, they are working far too hard to accomplish things that should happen automatically.
Here are some examples of functions that should be simplified and systematized:
- All types of client contact.
- Routine functions like answering mail, shipping, inventory control, and filling simple requests for information.
- Drawing up and executing agreements and contracts.
- Obtaining and setting up new accounts.
- Orienting and training new employees.
Systems can become burdensome and add to the normal confusion of running a successful practice. They should be well designed with guidance from experts. They should be constantly reviewed to make sure they are understood, are operating effectively, and are up to date. They should be designed to implement your goals — not merely to keep people busy or to keep you away from the routine of running the business.
Success comes through consistent execution. The best-laid plans will not work unless we make them work. I’ve counseled with many professionals who had elaborate plans but never got anything done with them. They had good intentions, but they were too busy to get around to executing their plans. Most of us practice the "Pareto Principle." We spend 80% of time on those actions that bring 20% of our results.
It is wasteful to design elaborate plans but then fail to implement them. It is devastating to morale and all future planning efforts. It is better to adopt the belief that any plan that results from an orderly process is better than a plan that you make up as you go along. We have to discipline ourselves to be proactive rather than reactive and to pay close attention to the four elements of effective execution:
- Always knowing what to do and when to do it. There is a law that states that an urgent matter will always arise to fill any time that is not irrevocably committed to some important action. The most important question at any given moment is "What should I do next?" Knowing what to do next is the best safeguard against wasted motion.
- Having the knowledge and skills to do it well. As we have seen, most professionals have plenty of knowledge and skills in their areas of expertise — what they lack is the knowledge and skills to do what they spend most of their time doing: running a business. We need to build into our plans plenty of time and resources for learning and teaching business acumen. Find out what the most successful people do and follow their example.
- Being motivated to do whatever it takes to get the job done. The appropriate question is never "How hard did you work?" but "Did you accomplish your objective?" It’s a lot easier to talk about self-discipline than it is to exercise it. The key to all self-discipline is desire. Make sure your plans call for you to be constantly doing what you enjoy most and are best suited to do. If they don’t, self-discipline is drudgery at its best, and almost impossible at its worst.
- Consistency. The soul of execution is taking the appropriate actions with a high degree of consistency. There is no magic in operating a successful independent business — only the consistent execution of well-thought-out actions.
If your plan does not produce the results you desire, don’t just abandon or quit doing what you had planned. Come up with a new plan you can implement consistently. Habits are nothing but actions taken so many times that they become automatic — you can do them without thinking. Make sure the business habits you develop are the ones you’ve laid out in your action plan.
Nido Qubein is an international speaker and accomplished author on sales, communication, and leadership. He is president of High Point University, which has an enrollment of more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students. Dr. Qubein serves on several national and local boards and is the recipient of numerous awards. He is also chairman of Great Harvest Bread Company, with 220 stores in 43 states. His Nightingale-Conant program How to Be a Great Communicator continues to be one of the company’s all-time bestsellers.