Soon after being hired as an Operation Manager for an internet start-up company, I took a risk that could have gotten me fired — but instead catapulted me to near rock star status.

I applied the same formula many more times at this company which resulted in a kinship with the CEO and founding management team, access to lots more critical information, several thousand dollars in bonuses, company perks, a promotion, a higher salary, and more stock options.

My intention with this piece is to deconstruct the method and show you how to get the same types of results.

This is not a solution for the faint of heart or those who are adverse to challenges. This is a way, based on my own experiences, for the entrepreneur who is full of passion and willing to do anything to succeed, to GET THERE.

Let me start by saying that when I took the above-mentioned job, I had no experience as an operations manager and wondered if I could actually do the job I’d been hired for. Walking in, I had a healthy amount of confidence, but not a lot of experience in this particular area.

Lesson Learned #1: Don’t Be Wimpy When Setting Goals

Most of us know that we are supposed to set goals and some of us do. But are you setting goals that will really help you achieve your true potential? Are you selling yourself short by creating goals that are too conservative?

Back to the example, after I was hired I learned that the department was in major trouble and its largest challenge was an 80,000 email backlog that had been building up for more than a year. Several other people who had filled my new position before me had tried to tackle the problem and failed. As a result, they had either been fired or quit. Further, no one really thought it was possible to get these emails under control. I also found out the CEO had previously become so frustrated by the department’s failures that he threatened to fire every single person in the department (he had done this before with the software engineering team so this was a real threat!)

Without any particular plan of action, I took a risk and told my boss, “no problem. I’ll have this entire backlog cleared in 3 weeks.” Was I worried? You bet.

I had no idea how I would do this, but I figured if humans had the capability to put a rover on Mars and launch satellites into space, then there must be some way to clear out 80,000 emails in 3 weeks. If it is humanly possible, then it’s not impossible. It’s just a matter of figuring out a way to do it.

Take Away: Take risks when goal setting. When faced with a challenge, it is essential that you set your goals based on the ultimate goal of the challenge – not what you currently think you can accomplish.

I am convinced, based on some of my experiences, that the size of the goal is almost irrelevant. Whether you set a goal to do $100,000 a year in business or $1 million in business, you are capable of achieving that goal you set if you adamantly follow some certain action processes.

Is it humanly possible to make $1 million in a year? Of course. So why wouldn’t you be able to do it? If someone can, you certainly can too. It’s just a matter of figuring out a way to do it.

I have learned a little secret about people who are successful in business. They regularly take on challenges with confidence, even if they aren’t certain about how the challenge will be carried out. The difference between those who are successful and those who are not is that the successful people will tell you that they will meet the goal while others will not commit to the goal and only “hope” that they’ll achieve it.

Lesson Learned #2: Create Negative Consequences for Failure

This is where things get a little uncomfortable. By setting private stretch goals for yourself with no negative repercussions if you fail, it becomes easy to fail. In my situation, the risk of publicly setting this kind of goal walking into the company was either getting fired or being known as a failure for the remainder of my employment. Both were unacceptable in my mind.

As a self-employed person with no “boss” to be accountable to, it can be very tempting to continue playing it safe for the sake of remaining comfortable. We’ve got to create negative consequences for failing at our goals. This is easier said than done. For example, would you be willing to publicly state some very lofty goals on your blog and risk losing your reader’s respect if you fail?

Take Away: Take action to publicly hold yourself accountable to someone else for achieving your goals. Don’t choose a family member or someone who will forgive you if you fail. This might take the form of setting goals for a client that will leave you if you don’t deliver.

This might also take the form of sharing your goals with your blog readers and then giving updates on your progress. Lodewijkvdb at ‘How to Be an Original’ does a weekly goal update that I enjoy reading very much. It is inspiring to see others setting and achieving goals.

Lesson Learned #3: Create a Process to Achieve the Results

This is perhaps the most critical piece of this entire post and something that can help you to grow
your business tremendously. The reason that others had failed at the task of reducing the email backlog was that their strategy involved doing MORE of the same thing.

They had set goals for customer service people to handle 300 emails a day even though time and again, they had only been able to handle 100 each day. Another strategy that hadn’t worked in the past was to hire more people, but this proved very difficult considering the company’s very selective hiring process and low pay for CS reps. Clearly doing more of the same thing wasn’t working.

For example, if you’re a writer, a strategy to exponentially grow your business is NOT to write more. If you’re a graphic designer, a strategy to exponentially grow your business is NOT to get more clients.

If this is your strategy, you will very quickly run out of time, cap your income, and be trapped by your commitments.

In the example situation, I created a system analyzing the most common customer service questions, creating pre-made responses for each of the main types of questions, ran the 80,000 emails through a series of keyword-based filters to identify the topic of the email, separated them each into different “buckets,” and then had the CS team run these through a rigged up process that would send out back the correct auto response to each person.

In exactly 3 weeks, the backlog was cleared, the CS team felt powerful instead of like failures as they had felt like before, and the department went on to win an award that quarter for being one of the most effective departments in the company. For leading this change and several other similar projects, I even earned the company’s highest honor award for living the company’s 3 core values of winning, open communication, and “where there’s a will there’s a way” thinking.

Take Away: Setting growth goals does not mean doing more of the same old semi-profitable thing. It means creating systems that allow you to grow exponentially.

Here is a very real example of how a writer might apply this methodology:

Goal: Sell 250,000 pieces of written material in one year. Instead of writing 250,000 articles that you can sell once, find a company with an already large captive audience. An example might be landing a contract with a network marketing company with a million reps that would be highly motivated to buy a book on how to market their products laced with success stories of people within the company.

Negotiate a deal where they will market the book to their existing reps and send it out to all new reps when they join. Since the company already has influence and marketing channels, this is an easy way to make more sales from one writing job rather than finding more writing jobs.

An idea for selling products

If you sell products, can you connect with another company with a pre-existing marketing channel? For example, my company My College Fundraising is set up to sell 1,000 to 10,000 gift packages per year. Each one of those packages includes products. I’m doing all of the legwork with the marketing and promotion, but the company whose products I stock the buckets will make 1,000 to 10,000 sales per year by doing no extra work other than having gotten on my radar. Can you seek out companies like this that can use your products as part of a package that they sell?

How can you build a smarter “system” to increase your business or sales that don’t involve doing MORE of the work you’re doing now?

Lesson Learned #4: Devise an Action Plan

Once you’ve determined a goal, write it on paper. A strong goal will answer the question: “what by when?” If you’ve written a really good stretch goal, your first thought should be “how in the world could I possibly achieve that!?” However, I promise that if you commit that goal to paper and sit on it for a few days, you will begin formulating ideas about how to achieve it.

When coming up with ideas, you’ve got to be able to execute them using the resources that you have available to you right now. Resources = time, money, skills, influence, and the ability to attract talent among other things. If the next step in achieving your goal involves resources that you don’t have, you’ll probably procrastinate and feel ok about blaming your failure on the fact that you didn’t have the xyz you needed to make the end goal happen.

Next, work backward from the end goal to create ACTION STEPS and mini-deadlines necessary for achieving the end goal. Every action step along the way should answer the question “what by when?”
Take Away: Don’t get too caught up with complicated project planning software that comes with a bunch of bells and whistles. This in and of itself can slow down progress. Creating an action list for every one of your mini goals on a simple piece of will suffice.

A good project management form will have 2 essential elements:

  • Define a set of deliverables not actions (for example, secure 3 partnership deals vs. send out 200 emails asking for partnership deals)
  • Define how you will measure success

You’ll find bloated project management forms that ask for many more details, but in my opinion, these are only 2 that really matter.

Summing Things Up:

  • Set some crazy goals that are beyond which you think are achievable right now
  • Make yourself accountable for achieving these goals by posting publicly or setting yourself up for failure if you don’t meet them
  • Challenge yourself to think outside of your normal scope for a solution to achieve your goals
  • Create a solid action plan to get there
  • Pull the trigger

Even knowing these things, I have hindered my own success over the past year or so because I haven’t acted on these things that I know work. The reason is that I became “comfortable,” with my current situation. In 2008, I’m going to be making some major changes to dramatically improve my lifestyle and satisfaction and I hope that you will too!

photo credit: Connected, Höga Kusten, Sweden, July 2014 via photopin (license)

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