Category Archives: Executive Coaching

Maximum vs Optimum

Much of what drives us points towards the maximum. We’re looking for more, and acting to get the most.

But sometimes we notice that maximising isn’t always in our best interest. 

As it happens, a lot of the coaching work I do is to help people untangle knots that have arisen from prioritising maximum over optimum.

Often, we chase the maximum based on external (unhelpful) influences, largely unconsciously. This also can work in tandem with primal motivation, driven by fear or greed (again, unconsciously).

When we assess our options from a wiser perspective, we almost always reset the pointer towards the optimum.

It’s worth spending more time finding that wiser perspective.

Optimising for what?

The good news: we’ve never been more capable, never had more resources available to us, never before had so many platforms to go do great work.

The bad news: we’re tripping over ourselves with opportunity.

We can do this, or that, or this other very cool thing. Or we can do all of that and this new latest shiny thing over there.

When it comes to activities and aspirations, we have become experts in addition (it’s fun, makes us feel good, less mortal) but we tend to avoid subtraction (it’s painful, requires tough choices, reminds us of our vulnerability).

This tendency manifests in what is known as ‘priority creep’, where our list of priorities grows over time, thus negating the value of the concept of a priority.

Faced with this bountiful overwhelm, a question I often ask in coaching is “For what are you optimising?” Put another way, what one value stands above all others?

We’ve learned from science that it’s near impossible to optimise for multiple variables i.e. you can change the formula to optimise either x or y, but not both. Sometimes you can improve both (sometimes a rising tide *does* lift all boats) but you can only optimise for one.

So, that’s the hard question for us: what do we optimise for?

Is it health? Is it wealth? Is it security? Is it status? Is it impact? Is it power?

There may well be no one ‘right’ answer for you here, but there is an answer if you’re willing to be brave enough to ask.

Every decision and action you take is positively or negatively impacting every one of the above variables. Only when we’re clear on what we’re optimising for can those decisions and actions align most effectively.

What are you optimising for?

Why courage trumps pride

In the multiple domains of our complicated professional lives, it’s perfectly normal that some aspects are working better than others.

That’s a very polite way of saying we tend to have areas where we’re struggling.

But in a world where the expected answer to “How are you?” is a version of Great!/Good/Grand, is it any surprise that our pride blinds us from admitting where those struggles lie?

So much of our unnecessary suffering in life comes from our denial of struggle, our refusal to accept or acknowledge that which is unpleasant to us.

That can change.

Just a tiny bit of courage can allow us to take the first step, to allow ourselves to open to the discomfort, and to express that in our own way with someone we trust.

You already know it’s never as bad as you fear, don’t you?


The work ‘You’ and the real ‘You’

Every now and again, you encounter something that helps you clarify your thoughts.

Today, I was fortunate to listen to a piece of audio that helped me clarify a problem that I’ve seen develop for some of my clients, people in my broader network, and at times, myself.

The clarity has emerged around the question of who is the real ‘you’? Is it the person at work or the person at home? Are they the one and the same or are there different personalities in play?

This isn’t a study in schizophrenia. This is an examination of the tendency of people to compartmentalise their life into “work”, “home”, “personal” and other boxes.

This notion can be alluring. You can take on the required persona in your work domain and then be a nicer/kinder/stricter/whatever person outside of work. You can work in wildly different circumstances and behave accordingly.

This audio is part of a series from Paul O’Mahony (@omaniblog) exploring areas of confusion about his business. Paul’s work is unique but his challenges are common to many of us.

Paul makes reference to Twitter. Social media platforms have become so important to so many people in business. And it’s here that the question of the authentic self comes into sharpest focus.

The fantasy of compartmentalisation falls apart when the personal brand is embedded in the business brand. This is a rather fancy way of saying that when you’re selling yourself as well as the business products/services, then you’ve got to accept that you’re visible on the stage.

So many people believe they can separate their personal and business accounts on Twitter, Facebook etc. It ends up being something of a mess. People aren’t as stupid as we might sometimes like to think. If they’re interested in you and/or your products and services, they’ll have a good look at you online. And Google doesn’t care about the delineations within your own head.

Twitter is Twitter. Facebook is Facebook. Platforms like these can be a useful part of your marketing mix but unless you’re selling apps or downloads with one or two clicks, then they are not your business.

Here’s my take:

If you’re in, be all in. Don’t try to bullshit yourself or others. You are what you are, you are what you do. Rather than wasting time trying to portray a version of yourself that you think you should be portraying or that you think others expect of someone like you, get busy doing the stuff that allows you sing with pride “This is what I do”.


(And thanks Paul for the clarity! Full disclosure: Paul has participated in previous Smarter Egg programmes and is active in the ‘community’ around the existing circles and groups.)

Is it effectiveness or happiness we’re looking for?

Happiness is....

I’ve been working a lot recently with the concept of effectiveness and especially on ways of focusing or prioritising our efforts.

Looking again at the morning ritual of asking a clarifying question, it’s interesting to see what changes when you adjust the focus more on to the concept of happiness.

What would be different if you finished this sentence:

I’m likely to be happier at the end of the day if…

Both questions are looking ahead to the end of the day. Both are trying to identify some form of ideal state. So, should the answers be the same, or at least similar?

Some people have no clear association with the concept of happiness and their work. Work is work. It’s there to be done. Happiness is a different gig.

A lot of self-employed people tend to think they’re happier because they don’t have the obligations of a ‘job’. They work at what they want to do and therefore expect to be happier. (My observation of self-employed people is that they absolutely have a job but many haven’t realised it yet. And they’re not necessarily happier either.)

And how is the concept of happiness relevant for someone who works in the corporate world, doing the best they can five days a week? Do they start the day by having a conversation with their boss about their happiness?

And yet, research suggests that happy workers are more productive workers. Misery, angst and sorrow may be great sources of art, poetry and song but rarely help the daily worker get things done.

Are happiness and effectiveness interconnected then? Is it feasible to develop this Effectiveness Project without also exploring the impact of happiness? Can you have one without the other?


Is there an effectiveness equation?

Mathematical equations are a wonderful thing. They are elegant and help us explain relationships in the physical world.

So, I was fascinated to read of Chip Conley’s new book ‘Emotional Equations‘. I had heard about it recently but was captivated yesterday by Bob Sutton’s review of it. It’s on my list of books I want to read now. This list is longer than it’s ever been!

It also got me thinking about the application of equations to the area of effectiveness and especially if there is, at the elemental level, an effectiveness equation. I think there is. And I think it’s the relationship between our desired outcome and what we actually achieve.

One thing still grates with me. I’ve written before about how it makes no sense to have effectiveness greater than 100%. This equation seems to suggest it’s possible to ‘over achieve’.

Just goes to show how difficult it is to whittle down our complex world into self-standing equations.

Knowing what to do when the game changes

I believe knowing what to do is as important as knowing how to do it when it comes to effectiveness.

David Allen, of GTD fame, often uses the image of the martial artist when speaking of the ideal state of mind and of preparation for tackling the world of work. I’ve never practiced any form of martial arts (although I do have a black belt in Lean Six Sigma – how wonderfully geeky of me!) but yet I get exactly what he’s talking about.

It’s about knowing what moves make sense in response to a particular challenge and it’s about having the presence of mind to respond appropriately.

For example, today I have a number of meetings arranged and got a late message this morning asking for one to be deferred. On another day, I might have been pissed off about this and focused on the likely waste of time that the postponement had caused. I may even have jumped onto Twitter and asked if anyone was up for a cuppa.

But, today, I was fine with it. That’s because I am clear on exactly what I need to be doing for the next few days work-wise and I had all the necessary tools with me (phone, laptop, notes, book etc.). It was just a fast, seamless change of focus and no real loss of time or energy.

So next time a change of plan causes you to have either a negative reaction or derails your productivity, stop and think about it. It probably means that you have work to do on figuring out what is the best use of your time and ensuring that you have the capability to act on it at a moment’s notice.

Do you think you’re not resilient or do you have an egg/basket design problem?

There are many traits that combine to determine our effectiveness and one such critical trait is resilience.

When I think of resilience, I think of our capability to bounce back from adversity. I think of an appropriate response to failure, and success. I think of our ability to persist when there are plenty of reasonable excuses to quit.

I used to think that resilience was a function of character. Some people are resilient, others aren’t. But now I’m not so sure. I’ve come to learn that our ability to cope is as much a function of how we design our approach to our work as any other factor.

If we let ourselves get into a situation where proverbially all our eggs are in one basket, then we may have a problem. If we’re over-dependent on winning a single client, or landing a particular job, or being assigned to a certain project, then it will be tough to handle the situation if it doesn’t work out.

The alternative is to distribute our ‘risk’ across multiple opportunities. If the client doesn’t sign up, then we can work with others. If we don’t get this job, then we can look at other options. If we’re not on this project, then we’ll prepare for a better one.

This is very much common sense. But we often lose sight of it. Experts in happiness speak of the importance of having a balanced approach to life. If we have strength in our work, our relationships, our family, our friends, our activities, then difficulties in any one of these at any time can be supported by the others. When people become overly focused in one area, then they are less resilient in times of crisis.

The same principle applies to our work. If we allow ourselves to get into a position of scarcity, where it’s all or nothing, then we’re at risk. Many gurus talk about abundance and the belief that there’s always potentially enough for everyone. And I think they’re right.

We will be more resilient, and likely more successful, if we develop our capability to work with multiple clients, if we grow our skills so that we’re capable of different roles and if we develop the reputation that will have us in demand for many different projects. This is often a conscious choice, a careful design rather than an accidental characteristic.

But, but, but…

It is possible to take this to an extreme. Some are guilty of hiding away from difficult decisions and clear thinking by pursuing so many opportunities that they have the convenient excuse of not having the time to do anything different. Try to avoid having all your eggs in one basket but equally, don’t keep endlessly adding to your collection of baskets.

Can it really be that simple?

When it comes to setting goals and objectives and developing a system to help achieve them, it appears that the best advice can be whittled down to a few key points.

  • Be clear, specific and tangible in setting the desired outcome
  • Ensure your goal has a bit of ‘stretch’ but not too much
  • Break the work down into small, achievable steps (not all at once!)
  • Work on it and move the thing forward every day
  • Build in some accountability by going public or enlisting the support/challenge of others


Is that it? Can it be that simple? If we do all of those things, then can we guarantee success?

I’m not sure you can ever guarantee success (even though many will try to sell you that) but I think following this advice will certainly allow you to make progress.



I often recoil from the ‘simple’. I tend to equate simple with basic, with common, with mediocre. I tend to think, “well if it was that simple, wouldn’t we all be doing it”. I tend to look for a more elegant, sophisticated solution.

And, you know, a lot of the time, I’m doing the wrong thing. We often over-complicate our lives. There are tons of reasons why we do so. One that recurs for me is to prove that I’m a deep thinker and an innovator by hanging on for the ultimate solution. How can I use basic stuff with all my fancy-shmancy education and my work with famous companies? Of course, this is classic ‘fixed mindset’ thinking, as defined by Carol Dweck. It’s not helping.

There’s a time for simple and a time for complexity. I often get them mixed up. (Seth Godin talks here about simple, complicated and nuance).


Is your daily commute affecting the quality of your work?

Driving to work can be a pain in the ass.

You can spend all that time in your car and at the end of it feel frustrated, angry and demotivated. The perfect way to begin your day’s work!

Here’s a different way to look at the daily commute. Before you start the engine, ask yourself how you would like to feel when you arrive at your destination. Do you want to feel calm? Relaxed? Focused? Do you want to feel energised? Enthusiastic? Motivated? Or do you want to feel angry? Does it suit you to feel annoyed and flustered?

It turns out we have a lot more influence on this outcome than we might think. Even with the realities of dropping/collecting children, heavy traffic and the insane behaviour of our fellow drivers, we can actually get better at choosing our responses to those situations. Stay focused on the outcome – how do I want to feel when I arrive at my destination?

Do you listen to the radio in your car? Do you listen to music? Or take or make phone calls? All of these will influence how you feel at your destination. Do you think that listening to the news or current affairs chatter excites or depresses you? How does soothing music make you feel? How does high-energy music make you feel? How would listening to podcasts or audiobooks make you feel?

Next time you sit in your car, ask yourself how you would like to feel when you arrive at your destination.