Look around you right now, wherever you are reading this. Look around you and see how many things are unfinished. If you are in your office, are there reports or dashboards that represent lists of projects or initiatives that remain undone? If you are at home, do you see things around the house that have yet to be completed? At a coffee shop, unless there is construction, there is hopefully nothing there that reminds you of things to be completed, except the list now forming in your head as you are reading this. Darren Hardy says it best in The Compound Effect, “Each and every incomplete thing in your life exerts a draining force on you, sucking the energy of accomplishment and success out of you as surely as a vampire stealing your blood!”
As I type this in my living room I look around and see the results of renovation — well, at least some of the results. The rest of the results are hidden as incomplete projects. The hardest one for me is the kitchen table. I may have been a little ambitious by telling my wife that I could build a 46” by 65” butcher block-style kitchen table. The table sits in two parts in my garage, one part finished, one part not. I have to take it to a shop in town where it can be properly glued together and planed. This unfinished project is holding up three other projects that depend on this one being done. Each day that goes by weakens me and my ability to finish things.
Additionally, it slowly erodes at my credibility, and although it is difficult to think about, decreases the respect my family has for me as a man who sticks to his word, someone with integrity. Seriously? The kitchen table isn’t done and you lose credibility and lack integrity? I am just being hard on myself, right? I wish it were true. As a leader, I know I am being watched, and I know I am instilling principles into my children by my actions — far more than I can do with my words. Make no mistake about it, that table will get finished, and my family will see that I can finish what I start and I will regain respect and credibility. But in the meantime, I can show them how to live with integrity and respect, in the midst of unfinished business.
This concept goes far beyond the walls of our homes and seeps right into our teams at work. Every unfinished initiative erodes respect for the leader. We all have examples of this. The boss starts an initiative, and for whatever reason, it dies on the vine. There may even be a good reason. Financial situations change, team members change, and customers change, causing leadership to shift directions. If this happens enough times, the team will lose heart. How does a leader avoid creating a culture of unfinished business in a fast paced and changing environment? I think there are a few things that can be done to create a culture that finishes strong even if not everything that gets started is finished.
- Have a clearly defined mission
Having a clearly defined mission may not prevent you from starting something, but hopefully it will make sure that what you start is important to your mission. If what gets started is tied to the mission, no one will be able to question your heart. Before you start any initiative, ensure it is tied to your mission. And remember, in a mission-driven environment, what to say no to is sometimes more important than what to say yes to.
- Understand your limitations
The kitchen table story fits well here. What made me think that I could build a 46” wide table? It was definitely part of the mission and will end up saving us money, but it is far beyond my limitations. Stretch projects are good, but the tasks have to be balanced with capabilities of the team. My wife is very gracious and has not put me on the couch, but what will she say the next time I volunteer to build something? Same thing with your team. If they feel like the project is far beyond their capabilities, leadership should balance that sentiment with the ultimate goals of the initiative and see if it is worth the risk to start something that may not get finished.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
Never leave your team guessing why a project or initiative has stalled out. Whatever the reason, tell it like it is. This will help reduce integrity erosion. Without information, human nature will build negative assumptions and go down from there. Maybe not at first, but after several stalled initiatives the team will lose respect and move into future projects half-heartedly waiting for the inevitable stall.
Perseverance is a character trait that separates the successful from the mediocre. The microwave mentality reigns supreme in our culture. We want it, and we want it now. When problems come up, it is too easy to cast the effort aside and start something new. Everyone can start something but few people finish as strong as they start. If what you are doing is tied to the mission, relatively within your limits of achievement, and you have communicated well, then use obstacles and challenges to teach perseverance.
Why you are doing something has to be so much more powerful than how you are doing something. A very important ‘why’ will propel a project forward, even through difficult times. Communicate to all stakeholders the why, and keep pushing forward through adversity and watch your credibility reach new heights and your integrity solidify. The kitchen table will get done, and after that, the old kitchen table will get repurposed to the living room and the re-upholstered chairs can be placed nicely next to a brand new homemade butcher block kitchen table, just like my wife saw on Pinterest. My credibility will strengthen and my integrity will solidify. Most importantly, my children will learn how to persevere, even when pushed against the ropes.