Next Level Blog

Simple, practical, applicable

Mindful Mondays: Consider The People You’re Grateful For November 24 2014 one response

visit-holmesAs we approach Thanksgiving Day in the United States, I’m coming off an experience this past weekend that reminded me of what I’m most grateful for.  It’s the people and the experiences I’ve been blessed with in my life.

In the middle of doing a bunch of chores on Saturday, I got an email from Holmes Morrison saying he was in town and wondering if I could break away for a visit.  Holmes is on the very short list of the most influential people in my life.  I would have stopped doing almost anything to spend some time with him.  He was just five minutes away from where I live, so I walked over and spent the next hour talking with him and his son John.

Holmes and I first met back in 1989 in Charleston, West Virginia.  I was working for the state’s governor, Gaston Caperton, and Holmes was the president of the lead bank of a holding company called One Valley Bancorp.  I was young and had way more ambition than experience.  Holmes asked me to consider joining his bank but I was deep in to my work for Governor Caperton and didn’t want to leave.  He asked me again a year later and that time I said yes.

That was the beginning of a six year stint that opened up so many opportunities for me.  I worked closely with Holmes as he was promoted to be the CEO of the entire holding company.  He always gave me more to do than I had any reasonable expectation of doing.  He had me run a company wide quality improvement initiative, he got me involved in acquisitions of other banks, he asked me to make presentations to the company’s board of directors, he had me help him with his speeches and presentations, he made me responsible for the development and communications of the company’s annual strategic plan.

I think the most important opportunity I had with Holmes was all the hours we spent in the car together traveling to other banks talking about business and life.   It was such an incredible opportunity to learn how a CEO thought about things and viewed the world.  I also learned that Holmes is one of the most decent and gracious human beings I’ve ever known.  He truly shaped the rest of my career and life.

One of the main points that Steve Jobs made in his famous 2005 Stanford commencement speech was that you can never connect the dots prospectively, you can only connect them retrospectively.  It’s only from the perspective of the present day that you can look back and see how the mix of decisions, experiences and relationships over time have led to your life today.  When I connect the dots of my own life, there are a lot of blessings that have flowed from the years I spent with Holmes Morrison.  In this week of Thanksgiving, I’m particularly grateful for Holmes and the handful of other mentors that have helped shape my life.

Undoubtedly, you’ve had your own mentors in life.  During this week of Thanksgiving, why not take some time to think back on who they’ve been and how they’ve influenced you?  If they’re still alive, consider writing them a note, making a call or arranging a visit to tell them how important they are to you.  I’m pretty sure you’ll find the gratitude to be deep and overwhelming in the best possible way.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.  I’ll be taking a break from the blog over the next week or so.  See you back here soon.  Safe travels if you’re making them.

Which Matters Most? Ambition or Talent? November 20 2014 4 responses

fishbowlsOne of my favorite Saturday routines is spending an hour or so browsing through the weekend edition of the Financial Times on my iPad. There are often fascinating long interviews with newsmakers in a feature called “Lunch with the FT” and usually some interesting reviews of books I won’t read but am interested in learning a little bit about.  Without fail, though, my favorite feature is a short one called “The Inventory.”  Each week, the FT asks a person of note twenty questions, most of which are the same week after week.  Two of the most intriguing to me are, “Are you environmentally conscious?” immediately followed by “Do you own more than one home?”  Others I like include, “If your 20 year old self could see you now, what would he or she think?” “If you lost everything, what would you do?” and “Do you believe in an afterlife?”

My favorite question in “The Inventory”, though, is “Which matters most?  Ambition or talent?”

While the occasional few interviewee tries to fudge it by saying both or by redirecting the question, most come down squarely on one side or the other.  Of those with a clear point of view, it seems to be about evenly split between ambition and talent.

Lately, I’ve been asking colleagues and clients this question.  One of those folks spent close to ten years as a bat boy for two major league baseball teams when he was a kid.  One of those teams won the World Series.   This guy has seen a lot of talent in his life.  When I asked him the ambition or talent question, he immediately answered, “Ambition, no question about it.”  When I asked him to explain he told me he’d seen a ton of major leaguers with plenty of talent wash out after a year or two.  His observation is pretty much everyone at that level has a ton of talent.  The differentiator between the stars and the journeymen is ambition.  The stars work harder.  They put in the hours on the practice and the reps.  They block out the distractions.  They focus on what they’re there to do.  (Derek Jeter comes to mind as I write this.)

As I think about my own observational experience in business and other fields, I’m inclined to agree with my former bat boy friend – ambition matters most.  Sure you have to have a certain amount of talent to get in the game but the differentiator is ambition.  Another word for it might be relentlessness.

What’s your take? Which matters most? Ambition or talent? Would love to read your opinion and why you have it in the comments.

Mindful Mondays: What’s on Your De-Stress Checklist? November 17 2014 no responses

ChecklistIn a meeting with a group of CEO’s last week, we were talking about how to show up at your best under conditions of high stress. One of the group shared a checklist of that a wellness expert had given him. It was a list of activities you could do either indoors or outdoors that would lower your stress. Each activity has a point value assigned to it. The goal is to get in 100 point points worth of de-stressing activities a week.
Here are some examples of what was on the list and the point values assigned to them:
Activity Points
Massage 50 points
Meditation 50 points
Yoga 40 points
Warm Bath 30 points
Social Interaction 25 points
Swimming 25 points
Walk 25 points
Gardening 25 points
Music 15 points
Reading Fiction 15 points
So, I don’t have any research for you that explains how the points were assigned to these activities or why the goal is 100 points per week. Still, the idea is interesting. What if you had a personal list of activities that you knew would even out your fight or flight response with some rest and digest? And, what if you incorporated a few of those into your routines each day? Pretty soon, you’d have 100 points (or whatever the number should be) a week of activities that will make it more likely that you show up at your best.
Some of the items on my de-stress checklist include time with my family, yoga, reading, meditation, deep breaths and laughing and connecting with people.
What’s on your de-stress checklist? Which activities get the highest number of points?

Seven Things Leaders Can Learn from Bill Clinton About Connecting with People November 13 2014 9 responses

bill-clinton1Delivering his monologue after the midterm elections last week, David Letterman was talking about President Obama’s low approval ratings and landed a great line:

“Take a look at this: gas under $3 a gallon – under $3 a gallon. Unemployment under 6%, whoever thought? Stock market breaking records every day. No wonder the guy is so unpopular.”

As Letterman said, before delivering his punch line, being President of the United States is a “lonely, lonely gig.”

Being an ex-President of the United States? Not so much. According to Gallup, the most popular ex-Prez is Bill Clinton. His approval rating earlier this year was 64%. There are probably a lot of reasons for that. Most Presidents are more popular out of office than in. In Clinton’s case, he likely gets a lot of credit for the work he’s doing through his Foundation. He also does a lot of public appearances and is a master communicator and connector.

Earlier this week, I got to see exactly how much of a master he is when President Clinton spoke to a packed house for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. For just under 90 minutes, Clinton held an audience of 1,500 people rapt as he answered questions on everything from Ebola to education to Putin to what his most favorite thing was about being President (that last question was submitted by the moderator’s 4th grade son).

There were a lot of things I noticed Clinton doing that makes him world class at connecting with an audience. There were a lot of lessons that leaders can use to connect with their people. Here are seven of them:

Mindful Mondays: How to Relax Like a Baby November 10 2014 no responses

relaxed-babyOne of my guiding principles in life is to look for and act on the stuff that’s easy to do and likely to make a difference. Even the smallest mindful breaks can make a huge difference in reducing the overwork and overwhelm that comes with modern life.

If you are looking for a super simple way to get started, you’ll want to listen to my recent conversation with Mimi Sommers. Mimi is the author of a children’s book

called Relax a-bye Baby. Following the classic advice of write what you know, she wrote the book after she used what she had learned about body scan meditation to help her young son settle down, relax and go to sleep after a busy day. When he kept asking her to repeat the process every night, Mimi knew she had to write a bedtime book that other parents could read to their kids.


As I said in my conversation with Mimi, you don’t have to be the parent of young kids to benefit from this book. It’s a beautiful little introduction to a process that anyone can use to center themselves at the end of or in the midst of a busy day.

I think the best part of the conversation is when Mimi reads a few passages from the book. Enjoy this opportunity to relax like a baby!


Five Questions for Leaders Who Would Rather Be Effective Than Right November 5 2014 3 responses

sign-effectiveDuring the opening session of a new leadership development program last week, I asked the participants to share the biggest leadership lesson they’ve learned in their careers so far. There were a lot of interesting answers. One participant shared one that really stuck with me because I think it’s so true. The lesson was it’s not enough to have the right idea, you have to influence other people to believe that it’s the right idea.

The essence of the lesson that leader shared is captured in a behavior that we’ve been measuring in our Next Level Leadership® 360 Degree Assessment for the past eight years:

Chooses effectiveness as a more important outcome than “being right.”

You might have all the facts and logic on your side. The answer may be painfully obvious to you. That voice inside your head may be screaming, “What part of this do these people not understand?” You may be asking yourself, “Do I really have to keep explaining this?”

No, actually, you don’t.

Mindful Mondays: What You Can Learn About Focus from the World Series MVP November 3 2014 2 responses

bumgarnerIf I ever write another book, I want to interview Madison Bumgarner for it. That dude knows how to focus and I’d love to know more about how he does it. As you may have seen last week, the San Francisco Giants starting pitcher came on the mound in the 5th inning of game seven of the World Series and pitched for the rest of the game. The scene was set in Kansas City and the Giants had a 3-2 lead over the Royals when Bumgarner took over. He shut the Royals down pretty much exactly as he had when he pitched a nine inning shut-out just two days earlier in game five.

As reported in this summary, the World Series MVP pitched a record 52 innings in the postseason with a 1.03 ERA. He threw 32.7 of the innings in the Giants’ 17 postseason games and 34 percent of the innings in their World Series Games. In an era when starting pitchers typically work on a five game rotation, Bumgarner pitched in three of the seven games of the Series and allowed only one run.

Watching him pitch in game seven was mesmerizing. In a rocking stadium filled with a sea of Royals fans wearing blue, Bumgarner just kept doing what he was there to do – retiring batters. As I watched him between pitches, I was totally struck by how calm and focused he was. There was no psyching himself up between pitches. As he looked down at the mound, you could see him take a quiet breath through his nose and then turn to face the batter and release his pitch. Every time, it was the same thing. When the inning was over, he would quietly and deliberately walk back to the dugout, take his seat and fix his gaze on an indeterminate point in the distance.

Bumgarner is a man of few words and I’ve been unable to find any interviews where he talks about how he’s learned to focus like he does. This brief quote from an article in the New York Times offers a few clues:

“I was just concentrating on making pitches. I wasn’t thinking about how many innings I was going to go or how many pitches or any of that. Just thinking about getting outs.”

That’s pretty much it. Don’t focus on the distractions. Focus on what you’re there to do. In Bumgarner’s case, his focus was pitch by pitch leading to out by out. In the last half of game seven he got 15 of them. Little steps – pitch after pitch, out after out – led to a big result – the World Series championship.

What’s the takeaway if you don’t throw a 95 MPH fastball? For me, it’s focus on your breathing and then focus on what you have to do. What’s yours?

Getting Up to Speed on A World Gone Social October 31 2014 no responses


Whether you love it, hate it or are somewhere in the middle on it, social media can have a huge impact on your effectiveness as a leader. Whether you’re in the conversation or not, the chances are people are talking about your organization online. Why not search for your organization on Google, Yelp or Glassdoor and see what you find? The results might surprise you.

If you want to learn more about the social media game and how to play it, you’ll want to listen to my recent conversation with the Ted Coine’ and Mark Babbitt, the co-authors of a new book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive. They share success stories of leaders who get it and some horror stories of those who didn’t. They also share their one best piece of advice for leaders who know they need to operate differently in a radically transparent world but aren’t quite sure how to go about it.

It’s an interesting conversation that I think you’ll find valuable.


Three Short Videos for the Overworked and Overwhelmed October 29 2014 2 responses

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dave Summers and other great folks from the American Management Association to talk about Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative. The AMA has a really cool little video series called Three Questions where authors give short answers to questions in their wheelhouse.

If you’re feeling overworked and overwhelmed or know someone who is, these videos just might help. You can watch all three in under five minutes.




And a Big Shout Out…

I’m so grateful to so many people who have helped me let the world know about my new book. They’re great people that you should get to know. Here’s a partial list of some of the people on our launch team and the coordinates for where you can find them.

Name Website Twitter
Halelly Azulay TalentGrow @HalellyAzulay
Lyn Boyer @lyn_boyer
Mimi Darmstadter My Life’s Work Coaching
Working Mama Group
Lori Ermi, PCC, SPHR The Ermi Group @LoriErmi
Mark Fortier Fortier PR @Bizbookpr
Joel Garfinkle Garfinkle Executive Coaching @JoelGarfinkle
Terri Hughes
Terri Hughes – LinkedIn
Henry J. Lescault Untouchable Leadership  
Lawrence Levin Top Teaming
The Levin Group
Chris Perry Career Rocketeer @CareerRocketeer
Suzi Pomerantz @suzipomerantz
Rae Ringel The Ringel Group
Patricia Wheeler Leading News
The Levin Group

Mindful Mondays: Take the Time October 27 2014 one response

venice-fireWhen people ask me, as they often do, why my wife Diane and I moved from the Washington, DC suburbs to L.A., I tell them the truth. When Diane, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, was eight, her parents took her to Disneyland and she never got over it.  She’s wanted to live in Southern California for most of her life.  So, when we figured out how to do it, we moved. And, as I usually tell people, we moved in the most inefficient way imaginable.

We had been in our house in Virginia for 13 years and raised two boys there. Needless to say, there was a lot of stuff in there. Some of it we moved to our new apartment, some of it we sold, much of it we gave away and the rest we shipped to a storage complex in Venice, CA. Partially because we packed in a hurry and partially because the guys on the truck unloaded things really haphazardly, our storage units looked like they had been arranged by chimpanzees. It was a huge mess.

Months and months ago, we circled the third week of August as our vacation at the storage unit. We were going to conquer the mess, sort through stuff, find stuff and give more away.