Best Advice: Focus on What You Can Control

This year, I turned 63. I was a love child from the Woodstock generation. I believed that I could change the world. I wore Birkenstocks and bell-bottom jeans at the first Earth Day and had the Beatles Revolution poster taped to my bedroom wall. Impatience ran deep in my veins as I entered the corporate world of manufacturing and distribution. I quickly learned that it was a clash of my creative dreams and can-do spirit. I wanted change to happen quickly, I strove to break down barriers and use new forms of technologies, and I asked “Why, why, why?” all the time. I was seen as a misguided missile.

Being a young female in an all-male world did not help. My can-do spirit got me through engineering classes where I was the only woman. My spunk carried me through adverse situations of sexual harassment, and men openly questioning that they could work for a female manager. It was a harsh environment, and I fought for acceptance. Unfortunately, I fought many of the wrong battles and interpreted many of the organizational struggles as being associated with the fact that I was female in a male world. I failed to see that it was how I was handling the challenge. My biggest learning was being able to manage myself. Here is how it happened.

When I was 30, one of my managers gave me a great gift. He asked me to draw three concentric circles. He then asked me to label the first one as my area of control. We identified this as all of the things that I could directly control. He advised me to get really good at these things and to make myself invaluable to the organization.

He then asked me to label the next circle as my circle of influence. He advised me to get really good at what I was directly responsible for and then widen my circle of influence by giving to others that cared about what I was doing. He challenged me to drop my aggressive style and listen with empathy and try to influence others to think about business problems differently based upon my unique perspective. He asked me to listen before judging and to understand before acting.

He then asked me to label the third circle, my “circle of concern.” His caution was that any time that I entered the circle of concern, I should give myself a red flag, and ask why I was moving into this dangerous area. We colored this circle red. He asked me to place this model near my phone and to work on three things:

1) Become invaluable to others in the areas that I was directly responsible for. His advice was to get so good and so broad in these direct responsibilities that everyone could agree that Lora was an invaluable asset to the organization.

 

2) He then challenged me to think hard about all the ways I could widen my circle of influence. We brainstormed a list of behaviors. They included active listening, understanding before judging, and giving an invaluable service to my internal customers. Helping others and being less judgmental were fundamental to my ability to build influence skills. I also had to build patience to understand the value of those with complementary skills. I am a broad big-picture thinker. I miss critical details. I needed to surround myself with people that had complementary styles and manage my own frustration in conversations with people of differing skill sets. I needed to value the relationships and build bridges.

 

3) His third word of advice was to stay out of my circle of concern. He cautioned me that I might win battles in this area, but I had a high likelihood to lose the war and do damage to my career.

 

He was right. I still have this model on my desk. Coming out of school, we may have high aspirations, but we have to earn our stripes within the greater organization. My lofty goals and wide ambitions would often find me in my circle of concern. I even got fired once by fighting the wrong battles. Building influence skills and getting good at what we do should be job one. The focus here made me a much happier, successful employee. For that, I give him thanks. I hope that it helps you as well.

 

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