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Profound Change Begins with a Single Step

I have the privilege of working with so many wonderful clients and I am grateful each day for the many lessons they have taught me. One of the most profound is the power of a single habit conscientiously cultivated to create positive change in unexpected ways and places. I’ve seen this happen so many times that I now encourage clients to pick one single thing to work on and to see what happens. Almost invariably, the habit produces ripples that spread into sometimes unrelated areas.

For example, one client decided that an important change for him was to reach out to members of his family he had been out of touch with for years. He set up a schedule of phone calls and each week talked to a different member of his family. For many reasons, this was a risk for him, but the effort turned out to be tremendously rewarding personally. The unexpected consequence, however, was how this habit influenced his behavior at work. Generally cautious in his decision making, he was sometimes a bottleneck as he looked at things from every angle before deciding. After reaching out to his family, he became more willing to take a risk at work, to make a decision without knowing for certain it was the right one.

Another client determined that he needed to get out of his office more and connect with the people who worked for him on their turf. He was a very hard-charging executive and spent a lot of time in his office tackling a very large workload. Initially he had been skeptical about spending time out of the office, afraid it would take too much time. What he found, however, was that the interchanges with his staff turned out to be a lot of fun. They not only energized him, but staff members started making suggestions for ways to get things done faster or they were eager to take on some of the tasks the executive hated. Bottom line, this executive saved time by wandering around. So much so that for the first time, he saw the possibility of a better work/life balance than he had ever dreamed would be possible.

In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg demonstrates how habits can transform people or entire companies. He calls these habits "keystone habits." "One of the characteristics of a keystone habit is that it creates a culture. That's why it seems to have such a profound influence on other patterns in our lives," Duhigg said in a recent interview on NPR’s “Marketplace” http://www.npr.org/2012/02/27/147296743/how-you-can-harness-the-power-of-habit.

Duhigg cited Paul O’Neill’s ascension as CEO of Alcoa as an example. At the time, labor/management relations had soured after a number of strikes. O’Neill made his number one priority not profits or efficiency, but “’ transforming worker safety habits within this company, so that we have zero injuries.’” By focusing on an area where labor and management could agree, O’Neill transformed the culture and made Alcoa more efficient and profitable in the process.

Today’s executives face an overwhelming number of challenges. But the lesson from my clients is clear. Eat the elephant one bite at a time. Find a single habit to develop that speaks to your core goal. Stick to that habit faithfully. Observe the results. And watch for the ripples. Change may not be so hard after all.

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