This is a natural time of year to reflect back on where we’ve been and look at where we want to go. To help you do that, I asked a small, select group of people to share their key success habits and how that’s helped them in their careers.
The people I selected are ones who are very senior, have had great careers, and are having great careers. They are professionally successful based on any measurement. People like Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever; Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University; Craig Weatherup, former CEO of Pepsi-Cola, and another handful of select other people just like this.
In addition, what’s really important is I also chose them because they are all great people. They’re just good human beings. The reason I did that is because I want to make sure we remember that good guys to do not finish last. In fact, I’m a strong believer that being a great person helps you to have a great career and helps you to be a great leader.
Their key success habits are all below. These stand on their own and speak for themselves. What I want to do here is share with you some of the things that I took away from this.
Four Categories of Success Habits
First, looking at these key success habits I discovered that they really fall into four categories. In fact, most of the success habits fall into more than one of these categories.
The first category is about helping yourself stay grounded, as in being self aware and grounded, two feet on the ground. This success habit usually took the form of a “daily grounding”. For example, Craig Weatherup has three things he does every morning, which he says makes him a better person and more complete leader. Paul Polman has five steps that he takes every day.
In my experience, being grounded is key at all points of your career. It’s at the root of staying true to your own values and living a rewarding life. It’s also at the heart of building and keeping your self-confidence. The more you take care of yourself, the better you can be.
Focusing on What Matters the Most
The second category is focusing your time and attention on what matters the most. It’s also about keeping your plate clear so that you have the capacity to focus on those things.
It’s also about making sure that when you focus on something you drill all the way down, you look at the details as well as the big picture and you make sure you get it done.
This category can be tricky, especially for those of us who are easily distracted by new ideas and opportunities. Staying focused is critical to making sure you get the important things done instead of being so busy that you neglect to produce the crucial results.
And Joie Gregor’s success habit is also a great reminder that how you focus is important too. You need to still have an eye on the bigger picture even as you drill down on the problem at hand. Otherwise, you could be working away on a solution without realizing that the world around you has changed and a different approach is needed.
Openness and Reflection
The third category is about openness and reflection. This is summed up by words like curiosity, being open to new ideas, being willing to challenge your thinking.
It’s also about populating your mind with new and different pieces of information. It’s about reading veraciously about areas that are outside of your specialty so that you can get insights into, an understanding of, and empathy with the rest of society. That can help you to be much more successful.
It’s also about setting aside enough time to think, reflect and be strategic.
When I’m choosing partners and team members, I’ve found it pays huge dividends to find people who are open to new ways of thinking, doing and being. Of course, they need to have a moral compass and to have their own opinions. But they are not slaves to tradition and not tied to “the way we’ve always done things”. I find that this is at the root of innovation and creativity, and in this century we need more of both.
Respect for People
Then the fourth category is respect for people. This is all about how you communicate with people, how you treat people, and being a positive force when you’re with others.
Are you acknowledging others and recognizing them for their contributions? To what extent are you “other” focused rather than “self” focused? Are you treating people the way they want to be treated, and in a way that will bring out the very best in each of them?
So often, we get busy and stressed in our lives. And that’s when it feels like we don’t have time to be respectful of others. To say “please” and “thank you” as we were taught back in kindergarten. To consider how others are feeling and the pressures they may be under.
Yet, that’s precisely the time when it’s crucial to take a step back and create the time to do those things. It takes just seconds, but it has an outsized positive effect on others… and therefore, on the results your team can produce. The opposite is also true: when we don’t take the time to show respect for people, it’s the beginning of our downfall.
In reflecting on these success habits and the people who created and use them, three observations occur to me.
It comes down to three core areas
First, that these success habits all revolve around three core areas that we all need to have mastery of in order to be successful: how you work on your self, how you work on the business, and how you work with people.
These are foundational aspects of being a great leader who delivers great outcomes. Taken together, they underpin our ability to perform in our careers more broadly, as well as these success habits specifically.
It’s about putting it into practice
The second observation I would make is that these successful people put their success habits to use on a regular basis. They habitualize them. I guess that’s why it’s called a habit, right?
Indeed, it’s important to put things into practise. It’s like the adage “use it or lose it”. Successful people are the ones who are in the “use it” group. It’s all about taking action.
It’s got to be personal
Then, the third observation is that each of them were choosing habits linked to who they are and who they want to be. Each person’s success habit is very much tied to their own specific situations.
The personal aspect is what makes a habit engaging, energizing and “sticky”. And that makes it so much easier to keep going over long periods of time.
What does this mean for you?
Recognize that there’s no single “right” key success habit that works equally well for everyone. You have to come up with your key success habit that works for you.
I urge you to make it one that helps you to lean into your strengths and remind yourself of who you are at your best. And one that helps you to be that best self more of the time.
If you can take some of the key success habits below and adopt them, adapt them and make them work for you, then great. Definitely go for it.
The most important thing is that you take action. Identify your key success habit, whether you’ve been using it already and want to lean into it more, or you want to create a new one for the new year.
Either way, please let me know: What is your key success habit? Share it in the comments below.
The Success Habits of 8 Top Executives and Leaders
Global CFO, Chanel
Curiosity is what I would define as my “best success habit”.
Curiosity is what has made me accept and even seek “a priori” difficult professional challenges, intriguing overseas assignments, engage in challenging discussions and ultimately take difficult decisions.
Curiosity implies a certain degree of humility, of vulnerability, of respect as it basically means searching for the unknown, being open to new ideas, solutions, cultures, religions.
The main problem with curiosity is that this is not necessarily a quality you can acquire over time.
This is therefore the main behavioral trait I search for when I interview a candidate, at any level of the organization.
President of Arizona State University
Best success habit… read everything you can outside of your area of interest to gain insight, empathy and connective systems level understanding about society.
I have practiced this since I was in college and now it has proven to be the most important thing I have done. It makes a difference in terms of gaining understanding about why things are the way they are and how to adjust.
Former Chairman and CEO, PetSmart
It is my intent to go to bed each night with my electronic in box EMPTY. That means I deal somehow with everything, promptly.
I might now and then print something and do a follow up for 10 days later, so I do not decide on everything in the moment. I think the difference maker might be that I never slow down someone else.
One implication is that I use no capacity on “little stuff”. Time and capacity is available for the things which make the most difference. I am not vulnerable to the tyranny of the new and immediate, which might be meaningless.
Former Managing Director, Warburg Pincus
I would say “focus.” I am very detailed oriented but able to look “up and around.” I stay on a project or problem solving exercise until it is wrapped up but at the same time I am looking at what’s around the corner.
My former partners would tell you that I am able to anticipate impending storm clouds while driving a project and/or opportunity to closure. Generally, it takes incredible focus and energy to stay ahead of the game.
Former Chairman, President and CEO, ITT Corporation
Your question makes me think of a number of habits that we all develop over the years that work for us… the subject of a long conversation I am sure.
As I reflect on one particular habit, I credit part of my business success by being focused and persistent in trying to get things done. The biggest risk we all face in business is that the age old adage, “the urgent displaces the important”, is quite true, and most people go about their jobs spending far too much time responding to events, rather than proactively driving the outcome you wish.
So my habit, in this case, was that I had a process to constantly remind me what was important, what I was trying to do and what risks I was taking. My logic was that every executive, upon retirement or removal has an ‘epitaph’… the short version of what they did well and what they did not do.
My strategy was to predetermine ‘my epitaph’, and take it seriously in the course of daily actions.
Periodically, I wrote down on a small piece of paper the answers to three questions:
- What are the three most important strategic objectives I need to get done? (i.e., what am I really trying to do here?)
- What risks am I taking? (Serving as a sound source of paranoia and awareness about the difficulty, so I could ensure I did not get fired for overlooking some big issues.)
- How does the organization and people fit into the plan? (Did I have the right people in the right place, with the right incentives and processes to execute properly?)
It wasn’t a long list, but it represented a grounding for me as I went about my daily work. I updated the piece of paper every once in a while and I kept the piece of paper on top of my desk for thirty years as a constant reminder that no matter how the day was unfolding, that I was supposed to be working on a few important things, and that it was my obligation to ensure that I was working on the things on my piece of paper, and not what all the people who came into my office with a problem or idea that determined my time.
I figured that if I got a few high quality meaningful strategic objectives accomplished PER YEAR, and I properly worked the people side of the equation, and understood and dealt with risk in the process, I would feel proud of my career results.
Remember that an executive’s performance is all about schedule management, and spending time on the important things. It all worked extremely well.
Interestingly, I never shared the piece of paper with anyone, never told anyone that I religiously followed it, and no one ever asked me about it. But it was always there, on top of my desk and I always read it to myself every morning before I started the day. It worked as a compass for me in the execution of my job.
In addition, as a reminder of HOW I was supposed to behave as a leader, in about 1985 I read some list, which sounded good to me at the time, so I typed it out on an IBM electric typewriter, and taped it inside my top desk drawer. It’s pretty torn up, having been taped and re-taped to a couple dozen desks, but likewise, I read it often and it always helped me think about my behavior as a leader, in doing what was important. The last word, which is torn off was “LEAD”, but I knew what it meant!
I am sure I could share with you many other habits that worked for me, but in reflection, this one, along with a positive attitude, no fear of failure, tremendous self-confidence, and introspection, worked well for me.
My best success habit is this:
- Remind myself everyday that it’s my first day. This avoids complacency or celebrating the past.
- Remind myself that it’s about helping others. It’s not about me. Invest in others and they will invest in you.
- Stay humble. Respect and dignity for all.
- Never forget where you came from.
- Count your blessings.
Chairman, Xylem; former CEO, Kennametal
I am hard pressed to come up with “one” habit that helped me be successful. And habits are different from strategies, behaviors, learnings, etc.
If I were to have to choose one “habit” specifically, then it was taking one Monday off every month when I would shut my office door, did not take any calls or reviewed any mail or anything else.
All I did was, sit by myself to reflect and think about the major challenges, decisions or important topics whether they be strategy, people, technology or anything of major importance.
That’s it: a whole day without interruptions all alone, thinking, reading and reviewing relevant materials.
Former CEO, Pepsi-Cola Company
An easy question for me to answer, as this habit stands out above all others in my work and in my life.
My early morning “grounding” habit began in my mid-thirties. I had just gotten my first really significant leadership position and I had a very large organization. As I struggled with how I could lead and manage this huge group every day, and keep myself on track personally, I started my simple habit.
Each morning, no matter if I was at home or traveling, I would “ground” myself with three activities:
- A 30 to 45-minute run (even if it was 4:00 AM in the winter in Pittsburg) or some other workout,
- A 10-minute spiritual focus reading my Day by Day/Daily Word thoughts of the day, and
- As someone committed to trying to be a true Servant Leader, I would consciously plan/prepare to insure I very personally acknowledged/respected the individual human dignity of two people (and hopefully many more) that day – a fork lift driver/an accountant/a regional VP/etc.
As to how that habit helped in my career and life? I could list many, many ways.
I think most importantly it helped me be and appear to my organization as a complete human being; someone they could relate to, someone who cared about them. It also helped me stay calm (or at least calmer) as I dealt with the many challenges/crises of the day.
As a husband and as a father it without a doubt helped me maintain a positive and holistic approach to insure I had the right focus in my personal life and my career.