The Fresh Start Effect

Temporal landmarks inspire us to reflect on our lives in a big-picture way motivating us to set goals for better behavior. 

Researchers describe this phenomenon as the fresh-start effectAccording to the fresh-start effect, people are likelier to take action toward a goal after temporal landmarks. Psychologists studying the fresh-start effect show that it works because highlighting meaningful occasions creates a clean slate for people to make better decisions. 

This week is one of those important temporal landmarks. A new year, a new beginning, an opportunity to choose:

  • What matters to me? What am I willing to change or stop so that what matters to me gets my attention?
  • What important thing have I been neglecting? Health perhaps?
  • What actions am I willing to take to turn my resolutions into actions and my actions into habits that extend beyond Valentine’s Day?

It’s That Time Again…

For many, perhaps most of us, the end of a year is a time for reflection. Last week I posed some questions to consider while Sitting By The Fire

This week, as my last story of the year, let’s talk about resolutions. In business, we call it goal-setting, and in our personal lives, we call them “new year’s resolutions.”

Here’s how Webster’s defines each of these:

  • Resolution: to make a definite and serious decision to do something.
  • Goal: something that you are trying to do or achieve

Resolution sounds much more committed, but common lore is that most of us break our resolutions soon after making them. 

Why is that?

Here’s the process most follow for business goals:

  • we set goals for the period
  • we prioritize the goals and focus on the most important
  • we identify the steps we, and our team, need to take 
  • we identify the dependencies that exist and order the process accordingly
  • we establish monitoring systems and milestones so we know how we are progressing toward the goal

In short, for business goals, we have a process, and for those who follow the process, results follow.

In my experience working with business leaders, some follow a similar process for personal goals, and many do not.

For some, a health scare reminds us that life is short and our families depend on us, which leads to getting serious about health and fitness goals, for example.

While most of us require a catalyst to inspire change, I wonder what other, perhaps less severe, motivation we can each find to inspire personal goals or resolutions that are definite and serious and treat them with the same level of importance as our business goals?

Perhaps this is the first resolution to consider for the new year.

Happy Holidays. Thank you for honoring me by reading my Sunday Stories each week. See you in the new year. 

What Are You Willing To Give Up?

I frequently ask my clients, What are you willing to give up to get what you want? 

One of my favorite marketing books, admittedly an old one, is Ries and Trout’s 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. For me, many of these 22 laws are relevant to life as well as marketing. Law #13, The Law of Sacrifice, resonates for me for making life choices: You have to give up something to get something.

What I notice in my conversations is those who are willing to let go of something move forward. They invent the new products, hire the person who will free them up to do what only they can do, take the next job or start the next business. These people are willing to give up something to get what they want.

The ‘give up’ may be something we believe. It may be fear (of failing, being wrong), or simply comfort with what we have or what we know. The ‘give up’ may be tangible, dollars that may end up as a sunk cost, or accepting that a long-term loyal employee will not be the one to take the company forward.

In short, when we are talking about giving up something to get what we want, the key questions are these:

  • How much do I want the “something” I say I want?
  • What am I willing to give up to get it?

Better, Better, Maybe Not?

The notion that we can constantly make ourselves and our companies better, in theory, is a great idea. But when does it become too much?

For me, the best way to answer this question is to notice our strengths and work to enhance them. As an executive life coach, I refer to this as discovering and working in our genius.

Sometimes we become so focused on achieving that we cannot appreciate who we are or what we have already accomplished. When we are constantly reaching, it’s a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction. 

What? Wasn’t I just quoting Florence Nightingale a few weeks ago, who said discontent leads to innovation? Yup. It is indeed a delicate balance, isn’t it?

For me, the subtle difference between striving to make the world a better place and pausing to celebrate accomplishment comes with self-awareness. The stoics said it well. We must be careful not to become reactionary or to accept, without question, the status quo. We must know ourselves, know our geniuses, and recognize where and when we can make a difference and where and when we cannot.  

Once we understand and act within our genius consistently, we become more effective, more satisfied, and ultimately better leaders. 

Boundaries Do Have Consequences

As leaders in the 24×7 culture of the 21st century, we all must set boundaries. And they are different for each of us. Some of us like to stay at the office until the work for the day is complete and separate work time from family or playtime. Some of us want to be connected all the time, handling things as they come up. These folks prefer a more integrated life rather than a separation. Still, others want to be home in the early evening and choose to “catch up” later on when everyone in their family has gone to bed.

There is no right or wrong; some of it is generational, some of it is just personal desire. And, what I have noticed, in the years I have been coaching executives, is that regardless of preference, setting boundaries is something many people struggle with. And people with young children struggle the most. People with families often agree to boundaries rather than establish their own. They often forget to set aside time for themselves or conform to boundaries imposed upon them.

The topic of boundaries is not a new subject; it is talked about and written about a lot. What I don’t hear discussed as much is the consequences of setting boundaries. For the sake of our loved ones, our health, or emotional health, we all must set boundaries that meet our needs. And, what I have come to realize is with very few exceptions, these boundaries have consequences. Sometimes the work doesn’t get done, and sometimes our families are hurt or disappointed. Sometimes the cost is economic, the customer goes elsewhere, or we must leave our position and take one that allows us to live the boundaries we want, perhaps with lower compensation.

The question is, can we be intentional about choosing so that we knowingly pay a price we are willing to pay, rather than suffer a price that we were neither expecting nor prepared to pay?

Now That We Are Here

Business is good for most companies and has been for quite some time.  And yet, the economic signals are there; we are nearing the end (are perhaps at the end?) of this long economic recovery.

Your industry may have more runway, or you may be in an industry that is a leading indicator. Regardless of your industry position, an equal perhaps more important question to ask is, what percentage of your customers fall into each of these categories and those in-between?

In short, are we diversified?

Anyone who has hired an investment advisor knows, all of them advise first and foremost, to build a diversified portfolio. And, despite all the data supporting the long term benefit of diversification, some investors believe they can pick the winner or time the market. There are LOTS of stories in the investment press about the risks and consequences of these choices.

Those of you who are frequent readers know that my background is in financial services and investments and I often compare running a business to managing an investment portfolio. And, as with some stock market investors, when it comes to our companies, we frequently ignore our advisors and the diversification advice they give. We have a great product or service; our biggest client is giving us more and more business; we are making money, we think “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”.

Over the years, I have worked with a number of businesses and watched this process unfold…

Business is good, there are industry measures that indicate the product, service or economic cycle is maturing, perhaps margins are tightening, but revenue remains strong. Then suddenly (one could argue it wasn’t suddenly), it isn’t strong anymore, in fact, the business has gone from significant profits to losses, seemingly overnight.

The thing about income statements is they are lagging indicators. If we ignore other key indicators, especially the external industry trends, it is easy to be lulled into market timing behavior. And as with market timers, by the time the CEO realizes the market has turned, it is often too late to adjust without incurring significant losses.

As you continue your planning for 2019 strategic actions, I encourage you to pause and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the trends in our industry; where is our industry in its business life cycle and in the economic cycle?
  • How does our product/service compare to others in the industry; are we a leader or a follower?
  • What is our current level of product/service/customer diversification; where would we like it to be?
  • What new product or service can we start developing now that will replace our core offerings in the future?

Elisa K Spain

Are You a CEO or President of a Privately Held Business? If you are also a lifetime learner and want to learn more about my Vistage Group, click here

Can You Forgive Yourself for Not Being Beethoven?

In interviews with Rolling Stone and CBS last year, Billy Joel shares why he stopped writing songs. “I just wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. It was driving me crazy. And it was wrecking my personal life too, just not being able to be satisfied.” That frustration led to a bout of drinking, he added.

He went on to share that he once read a quote from Neil Diamond in which Diamond said he had “forgiven himself for not being Beethoven.” In that moment, Joel realized, “my issue is,  I haven’t forgiven myself for not being Beethoven.”

Am I enough? No matter how accomplished, this question often plagues those of us who are driven. Is it the asking of this question that is behind this word: drive? Without it, perhaps we would accomplish less.

And yet, the question of how much is enough – money, legacy, career advancement, businesses, and stuff – is a personal one that each of us must answer for ourselves.

The message for me in Billy Joel’s interview is to recognize what is behind our drive for these things. And then ask ourselves what is it we truly want and are we moving toward that?

If we set high goals for ourselves, as most ambitious people do, what will we say to ourselves when the inevitable failures happen?

Will we forgive ourselves for not being Beethoven as Neil Diamond as done?  Or beat ourselves up as Billy Joel did for so long? The choice is ours.

Elisa K Spain

Are You a CEO or President of a Privately Held Business? If you are also a lifetime learner and want to learn more about my Vistage Group, click here


I Me Mine

This blog, by guest blogger, Greg Bustin, business advisor, author, and fellow Vistage chair, tells the poignant story of the Beatles breakup. 

This story is a wonderful reminder of the importance of aligning our values and goals with our purpose, and most importantly our relationships.  And, it also reminds us that while values seldom change, goals and purpose evolve and therefore so must our relationships.

Elisa K Spain

Are You a CEO or President of a Privately Held Business? If you are also a lifetime learner and want to learn more about my Vistage Group, click here


As 1968 became 1969, George Harrison felt as if the Beatles “were reaching the end of the line.”

While it may have been twenty years ago that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, in the 16 months since that landmark album’s release, the Beatles had morphed from collaborative colleagues into bickering bandmates barely able to stomach studio sessions together.

“Sgt. Pepper was our grandest endeavor,” Ringo remembered. “It gave everybody—including me—a lot of leeway to come up with ideas and to try different material.…The great thing about the band was that whoever had the best idea—it didn’t matter who—that was the one we’d use.…Anything could happen.”

And anything did.

While recording their ninth studio album—The Beatles (known also as the White Album)—the creative forces that propelled Sgt. Pepper to the top of UK and U.S. album charts for 27 weeks and earned the group four Grammy awards boiled over into acrimony.

 Songs written collaboratively earlier that year were recorded without all four of the Beatles present. The presence of John’s new partner Yoko Ono created a divisive distraction that violated previous agreements among the Beatles that wives and girlfriends would not attend recording sessions.

 As the tension mounted, producer George Martin took a sudden leave of absence and engineer Geoff Emerick quit abruptly. Ringo left the band briefly around this time, and three of the album’s songs were recorded without him.

 The finished album reflects this developing discord, and some tracks are little more than fillers between higher quality songs. And yet The Beatles reached number one in the UK and US and contains some of the group’s best material.

How can we rise above pettiness, selfishness and genuine differences of opinion to come together to produce a worthwhile or significant result?

Of the album’s 30 tracks, only 16 include all four of the Beatles performing together.

 On three tracks, Paul played bass, drums, piano, and guitar, overdubbing tracks to create the final song. John worked alone on one song. As did Ringo. Of the 14 songs on which only some of the Beatles played, nearly half were performed by only two of the four group members.

The Beatles were a group in name only. And a bad sign of things to come.

High-performing teams share five characteristics, and the Beatles were challenged by all five

  1. Clear common goals
  2. Clear roles
  3. Clear deadlines
  4. Trust + Respect
  5. Fun or Fulfillment in accomplishing something significant together

Which of these five critical success factors must we enhance in our organization?

The group gathered in January 1969 to make another album.

Paul hoped playing together live in the studio might lead to resuming touring. George hated the idea—he was worn out from that experience.  

It didn’t take long for old tensions to surface. George and Ringo resented Paul’s constant critiquing of their playing. John had disengaged from the group, having grown weary of battling Paul and fed up with over-engineered and over-produced recordings.

On January 6, George walked out of the studio, went to his home in Surrey and wrote “Wah-Wah,” reflecting his frustration with the group.

George was coaxed back the next week but the damage was done—and caught on film. The group’s dysfunction is plainly visible in the film Let It Be. Rather than documenting the making of an album, the film became famous for showcasing “the break-up of a band.”

 George’s “I Me Mine” became the final song recorded by the band before its split.

 In his autobiography, George recalled his own self-centered focus, seeing everything “relative to my ego, like ‘that’s my piece of paper’ and ‘that’s my flannel’ or ‘give it to me’ or ‘I am.’ It drove me crackers, I hated everything about my ego. It was a flash of everything false and impermanent, which I disliked. But later, I learned from it, to realize that there is somebody else in here apart from old blabbermouth. Who am ‘I’ became the order of the day. Anyway, that’s what came out of it, ‘I Me Mine.’”

 Perhaps subconsciously, the song also reflects the clash of egos in the studio as the Beatles moved toward their split.

“‘I Me Mine’ is the ego problem,” George explained. “There are two ‘I’s: the little ‘i’ when people say ‘I am this’, and the big ‘I’ – is duality and ego. There is nothing that isn’t part of the complete whole. When the little ‘i’ merges into the big ‘I’ then you are really smiling!”

George’s epiphany offers insight for us as a New Year dawns.

 “The truth within us has to be realized,” George said. “When you realize that, everything else that you see and do and touch and smell isn’t real, then you may know what reality is, and can answer the question ‘Who am I?’”

 What kind of person do you want to be?  What obstacles are in your way? 

Two of the hardest questions any of us must answer for ourselves are “Who am I?” and “What do I want?”  Here’s to your clarity. 

The Power of Not Knowing

Many of us as leaders, especially new leaders, feel we must have all the answers. Some even feel a sense of shame when asked a question, by a client or an employee, and they don’t have the answer.

And, despite these feelings of inadequacy most of us have felt at one time or another, I also hear stories of the magic of saying “I don’t know”.

One of my favorite stories came from one of my clients who grew up in his family business.

I met this man ten years ago and before I knew him, he had worked every job in the company and truly had all the answers. In fact, he was the answer man. Everyone came to him when they needed help figuring out what to do next. This worked fine when he was on the line and even when he was the operations manager.

By the time I met him, he was president of the company and being the answer man wasn’t working so well. He was so focused on solving everyone’s problems and making sure everything was done right in the factory, that he was not doing the job of President. He wasn’t focused on strategy, nor was he meeting with customers, nor was he innovating or coaching (answering folks questions ≠ coaching).

One day after we had talked about his frustration in one of our coaching sessions, he had an idea. He decided starting today, when folks came to his office, he would begin saying “I don’t know”. At first his team became annoyed with him. Over time, they stopped asking.

Today his company is filled with competent executives that run their operations effectively. So effectively that the company has doubled in size and he works fewer hours than he did when the company was half its size.

For some of us, we actually don’t know, others, like this man, do.

In either case, what are we giving up by wanting to, trying to, have all the answers rather than allowing others discover the answers themselves?

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain

Begin At The Very Beginning

I am often in conversation with people I coach where the person is focused on action. I hear things like…

  • I am experiencing turnover, what can I do to stop or reduce it?
  • Not sure if my people feel valued or are contributing to their full potential?
  • We have a diverse group, wondering how do I get them to bond and behave like a team?

Much has been written including various techniques to answer these questions. While these are important questions, and I am sure techniques for monitoring and evaluating these challenges are valuable, for me, it is difficult to address these issues without a pause. For me, asking these questions is starting in the middle rather than starting at the beginning.

If we were to start at the beginning, these are questions I would ask:

  • What is the purpose of this team or workgroup?
  • What do I as the leader expect, what is my vision of success?
  • Do I and the team have a shared vision of success?

Once these questions are answered, then we can begin to address the questions above. For example,

  • Does each member of the team understand and support the team purpose?
  • Does the team feel ownership for the project or work effort?
  • Did the people who exited fit the team purpose? If so, did they understand it?
  • Do the team members need each other to succeed, or are they actually a workgroup with individual expectations?

There are many more questions to add to the second list, and the answers only become useful when we begin at the very beginning.

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain