The Differentiator

How education, environment and practice is the differentiator.

Are you moving forward? Have you been trying to change the way that you do things to get different results? Do you need help in finding answers as you seek to advance? Research and experience have shown that many factors lead to success, but that education, environment, and practice stand at the top of the list. Looking at these three areas in a unique way will give you the understanding needed to alter your direction and begin to see definite results. As you complete the exercises, note the evolution of your ideas as they take shape into transforming truths.


The successful person is a lifelong learner. If you are not pushing forward in your quest for knowledge, someone else most certainly is. Could it be your competition? Knowledge comes in many forms and from many sources. Consider these different resources for knowledge that can help you to advance.

When launching ideas for products or services, or modifying your current offerings:

1. Communicate with your customers and ask what you can do to most effectively service their needs. Be specific. Be flexible. Be attentive. Fact: understanding what your customer desires will be the key to providing the product or service that is truly desired. Imagine how much more effective deal-making would be if you already knew what clients wanted and how much they were willing to pay for it. Begin by asking a few open questions to your most-trusted clients. Benefit: you strengthen your relationships with your customers by demonstrating that you value their opinion and engaging with them. A 2008 study by Aberdeen Research confirmed that customer feedback was crucial to customer satisfaction and retention, increasing both by 26% over 12 months. List a few questions that you could ask your top clients.

2. Other valuable sources for information are your contractors and employees. What are they hearing (or perceiving) as a need in the marketplace? An all-hands-on-deck meeting is unnecessary and can be exhausting for everyone. Rather, create an ongoing environment that encourages phone calls, e-mails and idea submissions as daily protocol. Valuable bits of knowledge will begin to be fed to you with regularity. Fact: your team members will feel valued, and you will receive critical information from the front lines on what is working and what is not. Benefit: create a culture of contribution and you tap into one of the greatest natural desires in us all: the desire to be heard by others. An Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Texas, Ethan Burris, showed in his 2009 study that employees who do not feel engaged by their bosses tend to withdraw from work, are more disgruntled and could cause the company to lose the next great business innovation. Such fears about interacting with superiors, Burris noted, are much more common than previously thought. List a few action steps that you can take and questions you can ask to engage your contractors and employees:

3. A third group to mine for information about what is working and what can be improved consists of your strategic partners and suppliers. Is your service area regional or international? Fact: if global, you may be surprised to learn what is working effectively in other areas, how your successes and challenges affect them, and how theirs affect your bottom line. Benefit: One of the best ways to expand your knowledge base is to harness the brainpower of people with expertise who intimately understand your challenges. Your sphere of connection is powerful. It is in your best interest to harness that energy for bigger, better results. Who can you call?

Finally, your personal acquisition of general knowledge is critical for your growth and well-being. Read every day for stimulation. Surround yourself with resources from various media that overflow with wisdom. The subject matter need not be related to your business. The integral step is to digest how you can apply your newfound knowledge to create impact in the life around you. Document, test and evaluate the new ideas that blossom as you consume knowledge from a variety of sources. Such ideas may stand on their own or they may work in tandem with other ideas to create a beautiful hybrid. Track why your new ideas are effective, or ineffective, and test-drive the reactions to them by your in-house experts as well as your customers. Fact: gaining even general knowledge makes you a much better business person as your mind is continually stimulated. Benefit: you become a more well-rounded, intellectual person, as well as a cutting-edge player. The Career Resource Network says that the American worker needs to be constantly updating his skills and education because the average worker will change jobs 10-12 times in a career and employers demand a broader set of skills than ever before, among other reasons. List a few ideas that you gain from personal reading or other media input.


Your environment plays a major role in your success or lack thereof. Here we will explore several key environmental factors in a quest to increase success and reduce risk of failure. Learning to identify barriers upfront will help reduce false starts and, more importantly, emotional business-model changes. When you better understand the connection between environment and personal performance, you will be better equipped to assemble your key pieces in a favorable way. Your physical environment at work is linked more closely to your mental state. A 2010 study by Brother International Corporation, for instance, found that 87% of employees felt less efficient in a cluttered workspace because their minds were cluttered as well.

1. How powerful would you feel if you could generate solutions at the speed of thought? How much more impact can you make when your mind is clear, nourished and rested? For most people, life clutters their mental capacity with elements that have relatively little meaning or importance. If you are having a hard time pulling the trigger on decisions, something (or someone) may be littering your mind and robbing you of your ability to decide. This lack of mental clarity carries over into your sleep patterns, which can rob you of rest, muddle your mind and have other serious consequences. Fact: when people are tired their judgment is impaired Dr. Timothy Roehrs, a director of research at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, found in a 2004 study that sleep-deprived people had significant problems making decisions as they completed simple computer tasks. A lack of sleep, and other culprits that cloud your mind, prohibit the creation of an environment which allows you to process decisions with clarity. Think about the growing pile of half-made, or unmade, decisions cluttering the recesses of your mind, unresolved matters that compound daily. The pressure builds, higher and higher, until your progress is sabotaged when the dam bursts. Take a moment today to focus on how such pressure can be reduced and how you can improve your mental environment. Benefit: the well-rested, mentally clear business person is much better equipped to make outstanding decisions. Is there something you can control to improve your physical and emotional well-being? For instance, can you get improved sleep? Can you choose to disengage from mentally disturbing drama around you? Write down one or more actions you can take to reclaim your capacity to focus mentally. You owe it to yourself to regain control of the thoughts that impact your life. Please reward yourself by focusing on this exercise, right now.

2. Now that you have created space mentally, let’s focus on your physical environment, that area immediately surrounding you. Many studies have demonstrated how the state of one’s desk can affect one’s work performance. According to consumer psychologist Dr. David Lewis, a messy desktop reduces efficiency and impairs performance because it: 1) leads to wasted time, 2) causes a loss of motivation, and, 3) acts as a significant barrier to the important psychological process of closure. Fact: a messy desk does indeed reduce your work performance. Stacks of paper on a desk can be viewed as decisions that have not been made, which then pile up on one another, from ‘later today’ to ‘tomorrow’, to ‘by next week’ to ‘someday’…and eventually to the recycle bin. One simple exercise I learned many years ago taught to simply decide, in the moment, take hold of the item and not let go until it is completed. I understand that this may not seem possible for all situations, but most of the time it is. You may surprise yourself by employing the ‘one thing at a time until it’s done’ method: do it, file it or toss it away. Benefit: you will have increased physical space that then leads to greater clarity, creativity and production. If your workspace is limited, this type of decisive action reinforces the need to stay organized. Is your mind clouded by the physical clutter of your work area? Do you think if your mind wasn’t trapped by all this “stuff”, it would have room and space for the how? What are three things that you can do, beginning today, which will improve your physical work environment? Think clean. Think simple. Think Zen.

3. Now, let’s talk about the team around you, the colleagues that form your personnel environment. Unlike the elementary school playground, in an office we cannot always choose every person we wish to have on our side, but it is important to observe and understand the strengths and weaknesses of everyone (including your own). As teams work together, good can become great. Throughout one’s professional life, one can see individuals and entire staffs of companies stunned in disbelief after witnessing the accomplishments of a well-chosen team. Fact: a team’s strengths often combine to create results far exceeding what leadership ever thought possible. The sum of the parts is often far greater than the whole. Life rarely works as a one-person show. If you wish to ascend to the pinnacle of success, you must be able to harness the contributions of others, blended with your own drive. Benefit: the right people in your inner circle can power you to far greater success than you would achieve as an individual. In a recent article on the Harvard Business Review website, Maggie Craddock cites a fascinating case study that showed when people work together they all get promoted more quickly. Her article “The Power of Teamwork” demonstrates what can happen when a group works together well and pushes management for team wide promotion. Think of your personal dream team who would you select and why? Are there people currently around you who drag you down, serving only as a dead weight as you climb the path to prosperity? Please take a few moments and be brutally honest with yourself: do you need to make changes in your circle of influence? Write those changes down now, along with a powerful why. You may be surprised by the energy you will gain by removing the drag on your progression, much like cutting the rope that tethers a large balloon to the ground.


Practice may not always make perfect, but it certainly is a differentiator. It is vital for creating confidence, energy, and movement. Let’s move ahead and explore how practice can become the secret ingredient for the success you desire and are capable of achieving. When combined with all the other items in your personal mix, it can have an exponential effect on your success, and the best part is: you alone control your level of commitment.

1. Confidence is described as a state of being certain that a chosen course of action is the best, or most effective. Fact: the more you practice the more confident you become. Talk to customers every day and you will eventually know the questions they are going to ask as well as the ones you need to ask. Unfortunately, many people remain in a personal holding pattern because they think that they must delay practicing such dialogue until they are already great. Don’t believe that misguided thinking. If you start with the desired outcome and understand what practice needs to occur to arrive there, you can move with confidence knowing that you are taking steps toward the desired goal. Benefit: as you begin to practice whatever task you need in your business, you will quickly notice that you are gaining confidence and energy. When we are moving, we channel energy. As we repeat our actions this energy morphs into belief, and the more belief we possess, the more movement in a positive direction we create. To begin, we must let go of anything that we are clinging to and take action. You are not going to get stronger every day without practice. Start with your desired outcome and work your way back, focusing on the steps or actions that need to be practiced to get you to your next stepping stone. Take a few minutes and jot down your desired outcomes, then work backward to the necessary action steps for their achievement. Then write down why you believe this process will work and the impact it will have on your life.

2. Repetition of a reverse-engineered action repeated over and over again is a key to building confidence and attaining expertise. Have you ever seen someone do everything except what works? For instance, they think that they are shortening a given process by not practicing when, in reality, they are lengthening it because they never get it right. Fact: The key to excellence in any pursuit is repetition. Research has shown recently that what can be seen as boring repetition is actually the gateway to success. In his bestselling book Outliers, noted author Malcom Gladwell highlights several case studies that prove that 10,000 hours of practice of any skill will make a person an expert at that skill and that such repetition has been the key to success for many of the elite athletes, artists and businesspeople. Benefit: As you put in hour after hour of repetition, you are mastering skills that will lead to greatness. To encourage you as you practice, track your progress and analyze your results. . Repetition has a compounding effect that separates the great from the good

3. In addition to repetition, follow-through is crucial to achieving your maximum potential. Follow-through is the carrying out of some project or intention to full completion. Your practice needs to be joined with such follow-through as you keep the commitments you’ve made to yourself and others, being sure to be someone that others can count on when projects are undertaken. All of the goals and good intentions in the world will not help you or your team much without this vital component. Fact: Experts including business writer Chris Cooper note that follow-through is “not a natural process; instead it is one which you must learn and become very skilled at.” Benefit: The process of follow-through will ensure that you are taking the action steps needed to reach your goals. Better yet, if someone else holds you accountable for follow-through, you will further deepen relationships on your team. Follow-through ensures that you are practicing as you should, which will naturally lead to more confidence and increased success.


In closing I want to share the idea of these tools being harnessed to raise the platform from which you stand to share your thoughts, ideas and energy to contribute. Fact: it will serve you powerfully to surround yourself with a team of supporters and strategic partners. Very few people make it to the top by themselves. To reach your maximum potential we need to understand how our partners contribute, and how they each fit into their roles appropriately. I classify these partners into two groups: contributors and producers. In the previous exercise you described what it would take to reach a desired outcome. That basic framework now takes on greater meaning as you align a team of contributors and producers to accomplish these tasks. Benefit: a well-composed team of contributors and producers will enable you to meet your personal goals. Although many in your platform can do both, you will find that most will shine brightest by focusing on one or the other, either contributing or producing. Who are your strategic contributors and producers? Where do they fit in your success framework and why?

Thank yourself for giving the energy and time to think about these powerful tools you need to take on your journey. May you be challenged and encouraged as you give yourself the gifts of clarity and space as you plan actions to accomplish your goals.

Remember to celebrate even the smallest victories along the way. This is one of the most crucial steps required to sustain momentum, confidence and energy as you build toward your next great success story.

Consistent education, the feeding of the mind, will lead to results. The right environment, carefully regulating our mental life and our physical surroundings, will lead to results. A reverse-engineered pattern of practice, crucial repetitions that build confidence, will lead to results.

I ask you to share this with one purpose and one purpose only: to help you reach your desired result, achieve your long term vision and then, to surpass it.

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