I love the start of the new year. It’s pristine territory.

Like being the first one to make footprints in freshly fallen snow. Or being the first person in the household to crack open the Sunday paper (and yes, I still love reading the Sunday newspaper even though I get most of my news digitally these days).

What matters, though, is turning this fresh start into a year that fulfills its promise.

With that in mind, I asked a handful of highly successful people who I know and respect to answer the following question:

“What are the most important things you do at the start of the new year to set yourself up for your best year ever?”

Here are the executives and leaders I asked and what they said.


Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University

Michael Crow

President of Arizona State University
Office of the President ASU | Twitter | Facebook

President Crow is one of the most visionary and innovative leaders I know. Named one of TIME’s Top 10 College Presidents, he is guiding the transformation of America’s largest public research university into a new model for higher education.

His answer demonstrates yet again that he is about innovating, getting things done, and breaking new ground… not simply making sure the trains run on time.

Michael's answer:

“I outline a specific unique objective for the year… like a fresh start.  2014 is done.  2015 is here.  What can be accomplished this year that we would not have pursued in 2014 because either circumstances have changed or new things can be done. Otherwise we are all just running railroads on metal tracks and on a strict schedule.”


Phil Francis, former Chairman and CEO of PetSmart, Inc.

Phil Francis

Former Chairman and CEO of PetSmart, Inc.
Forbes profile

Phil rose from humble beginnings (he grew up on a farm in rural Illinois) to turnaround and lead a Fortune 500 company to great success as CEO and Chairman.

I respect Phil tremendously for his candor and common sense.  And he has retained his humility throughout his business success.  As such, it is unsurprising that his business card and LinkedIn profile currently read, “Community Volunteer” and that his new year preparation focuses on ethics.

Like Phil, we all have those pivotal moments of deep learning that are useful to remind ourselves of each year to make sure we stay on track.  What are yours?

Phil's answer:

“Re-read on Jan 1 lecture notes from the best class ever in grad school. It was Business, Ethics, and Public Policy. This in 1970 before every one had such a course title. We read 10 varied paperbacks, and wrote a paper. I funded a lecture series in the profs honor.”


Joie Gregor, Managing Director, Warburg Pincus

Joie Gregor

Managing Director, Warburg Pincus
Warburg Pincus | The Miles Group

Joie is remarkable on many fronts, and particularly for her superb judgment and acumen about people and opportunities.  Throughout her tenure at IBM, as Vice Chairman of search firm Heidrick & Struggles, during her time at the White House and today at Warburg Pincus, Joie is the consummate professional.

Not only is she expert at identifying leadership talent, she is a role model for great leadership as well.  And it is no surprise that her new year planning begins early and with rigor.

Joie's answer:

“I start thinking about the New Year in August and start executing my plan in October. As crazy as it sounds, my year-end is well a head of everyone else’s. I came up with this idea when I was a rookie IBM sales/marketing person and I wanted to be the very best at my trade.  I have never altered this my approach, but have refined it over time. To be really honest, I actually become obsessed on the New Year in January of the previous year!

So, what does that mean? As an individual, I intensely focus on the quality of my work and how I am finishing up any client projects while writing down my goals for the following year. Typically, I have made my personal goals by end of September, October would be very late for me.

I ask my clients how they feel about work to date and things they would like me to change. In turn, I push them very hard on decisions they may have put off. I characterize the last three months of the year as client satisfaction time – it is when I do my most thoughtful BD work. It is about personal touch. Actually, by early November I am well into the process of teeing up my entire first quarter and beyond for success.

As a leader of teams, it is much the same. Encourage them to get out a head of the field. Never count on the 4th quarter to make your numbers! Hit them early and use the end of year to seal up customer/client relationship. Finish strong but with a keen eye on sustaining relationships. I believe great businesses and leadership teams are in it for the long haul. Creating value never stops. So, you have to listen, learn and plan while executing. The art of multitasking.

However, develop a plan that is realistic but a stretch. As you know, you must “reach” for a new level each year. Helping teams visualize new and creative ways of going to the market is so important.  It has to be exciting yet hard! The drive for excellence is just plain hard. That is what keeps you coming back…”


Markos Tambakeras, former CEO of Kennametal Inc.

Markos Tambakeras

Former CEO of Kennametal Inc.
Forbes profile

Markos brings a truly global perspective, having more than 30 years’ experience in managing global manufacturing, sales and technology companies across Asia, Europe, South Africa and the US.  He has put his business savvy and relationship building abilities to work across a variety of organizations, whether managing turnarounds or growing domestic companies into global players.

But what I most admire about Markos as a leader is that while he is capable of the “iron fist”, it is always accompanied by the “velvet glove”.

Markos' answer:

“The answer to your question is influenced by the stage of my life. These days I approach the new year differently from my 30's, 40's or 50's. I am now 64, so at the start of a new year I spend time reflecting on the past year, but also my life so far… the good, bad, ugly and unfinished. Time has become a factor. However, while my priorities have changed, the approach has not changed much over the years.

I try to set three goals. I try to make them meaningful and not easy to accomplish. One goal is personal for myself. One for what I will try to do for or with my family. One for what I will try to do for others. I also set deadlines and I do not let myself off the hook.”


Gary Tooker, former CEO of Motorola

Gary Tooker

Former CEO of Motorola
Forbes profile | Wikipedia article

Gary is someone I can count on to tell me what he honestly thinks, even (and perhaps especially!) when I don’t want to hear it.  That has saved me from many a potential disaster, for which I will always be grateful.

In addition to rising to the top ranks as a business leader, Gary was also elected to the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest U.S. academic endorsements.  Gary’s courage and wisdom are time tested and his years of experience have not tempered by even one bit his positive and encouraging approach to life.  Long may it continue!

Gary's answer:

“I am not much for New Year’s resolutions, but more for a philosophy of life.  (And it has got stronger through the years!)

It goes something like this:  As my kids and everyone close to me knows, my glass is always half FULL, never half EMPTY!

I learned at the young age of 12 when my Dad took off with another woman and left Mom (who had debilitating arthritis and had never worked outside our home) and I to basically make it on our own, that life is what you make of it.  Mom said, “We are going to make it and you are going to graduate from college!”  She never wavered from that, even as I wanted to quit school a number of times and go get a higher paying job to do more to pay the bills and let her quit work.  She worked until she was 62 and lived until she was 89.

I had a much better role model growing up than my Dad would have been. He was the owner of a small grocery store here in Phoenix that I worked for from age 13 to 20 all the way through high school and engineering school at ASU and full time all summers.

Everything, meeting Diane by total accident, and particularly those things that seemed very negative at the time, i.e. losing our first baby (ectopic pregnancy), not getting an early promotion I deserved and expected, prostate cancer at 54, heart attack five days after retiring, etc., etc. have been positives in the long term.  If you work hard and have a positive attitude, life turns out fine thank you, regardless of what comes.

My life has had so many, many great years that I could not even expect this next one to “be the best one ever” but it doesn’t matter, since whatever it brings I/we’ll deal with it and things will turn out just fine in the long run!

To let you know how much people understand this about my attitude, Diane’s older sister got the biggest kick out finding two bar glasses for me this Christmas.  They have a line across them halfway up.  Below the line is the word PESSIMIST and above the line it says OPTIMIST!”


Craig Weatherup, former CEO of the Pepsi-Cola Company

Craig Weatherup

Former CEO of the Pepsi-Cola Company
Forbes profile | Businessweek profile

Craig is, simply put, a person of integrity and a great human being.  Back in my corporate days, we urged people to “do the right thing”, and it’s wonderful to watch a leader like Craig consistently living by that credo.

While Craig’s marketing prowess is well documented through his success in the ‘Cola wars’, it is his wisdom and humanity in working with people that stands out, whether in business, non-profit or spiritual fields.

Craig's answer:

“I start every year by sitting down and getting on paper my goals for the year. These are the goals that I feel will make me the most complete human being I can be, and therefore the best leader I can be.

Given there are no “time outs” for leaders, I look for goals that make me complete from an (a) intellectual, (b) physical, and (c) spiritual standpoint. I found over many years on my journey to CEO that by focusing on my completeness as a human being my career took care of itself. The one caveat is that success requires a commitment to living very intentionally into those goals.

My other practice, again recognizing you have “to be on” every day as the leader, was/is to reaffirm the practice I would use to insure that I was grounded and ready for the day. In my case an intellectual, physical, and spiritual routine.”


Dr. Shu Chien, Professor of Bioengineering at University of California, San Diego (UCSD)

Dr. Shu Chien

Professor of Bioengineering at University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and recipient of the National Medal of Science, the highest honor bestowed by the US on scientists and engineers
Chien Lab

Dr. Chien is one of the founders of the field of Biomedical Engineering, an inter-disciplinary field that came to its own about 30 years ago, but is now one of the most popular college majors.  Under his leadership, UCSD has become #1 in the field.

He is that unusual combination of great research scientist and great people leader, and one of only 11 scholars who are members of all three U.S. national academies: the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

Dr. Chien is also a great father – yes, he’s my Dad – and one of the wisest people I know!

Dr. Chien's answer:

“At the start of each new year, I make realistic goals that are achievable and yet challenging, i.e., goals that need efforts to accomplish and will yield results that are meaningful.

This is with regards to the profession. There are also goals for the family and for oneself, including health and wellbeing. I am not too big on New Year resolutions. While this is a landmark time for each year, we should constantly review the situation and set ourselves up for our best time for the day, the week, the month, the year, and beyond.

There is a Chinese saying: ‘Plan the day in the morning. Plan the year in the spring’, with the spring representing the start of the four seasons and hence the year (一日之计在于晨, 一年之计在于春).”

May you have a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year, and one that is further inspired by the insights shared by these highly successful people who have been there, done it, and continue to advance.

My thanks to Michael Crow, Phil Francis, Joie Gregor, Markos Tambakeras, Gary Tooker, Craig Weatherup and my father Dr. Shu Chien for sharing their wisdom. It is my privilege to learn from you all year long.