Listen, Please

As leaders, we are problem solvers. Problem-solving is a crucial strength required in a leader. And yet, sometimes, the best solution is to simply listen.

When I first began working as an executive coach, I believed that my role was always to motivate my client toward action. While I still believe action is required to achieve results, I have also learned that, and often have to remind myself, that sometimes, it’s best to just listen.

Sometimes all a person wants is the opportunity to think out loud. And for us, as the listener, to do just that. To simply listen, not offer advice, perhaps ask a question or two and then allow them to sit with their own questions, their own reflections, and come to their own answers. 

Sometimes being heard is enough. Perhaps at a later date, it’s time for action.

Optimize vs. Maximize

When I googled optimize vs maximize, I found this comparison “Maximize is about raw return, about getting maximum revenues and profits. Optimize is about ROI—seeking results relative to the investment required.

So why would we ever choose to maximize? Yet some of us default to the maximize choice without even thinking about the difference.

  • How often do we notice something, point it out, and then regret it later, wishing we had kept quiet? 
  • How often do we wait for more or better information and miss an opportunity?

There is both a time factor and a human factor to optimizing ROI. We often wait too long and strive for that final 5%, hoping to have perfect info upon which to base our decision. 

Or, instead of building up the confidence of the person doing the job, we ask for one more change, one more fix, and lose the opportunity to show appreciation for what the person has already accomplished.

In our quest for excellence, we sometimes forget that perfection and excellence are not the same, that excellence can be knowing what to accept as good enough and what to overlook.

Here’s an idea.

Today, instead of looking around and noticing what is missing, what if:

  • You look instead for what is right?
  • You see a critical item that is working and give someone specific, positive feedback?
  • You decide to overlook something that may be good enough given its relative importance, even if it isn’t exactly what you wanted?

We Need Tools to Build

I’ve had more conversations about stress management in the last couple of weeks than ever. Is it perhaps the turmoil in the world? Turmoil in our government? Fears about a coming recession?

Whatever the reason, what I do know is…. We acknowledge that we need tools to build a house or a car or any physical object. Do we have that same conviction about tools to build our psychic well being?

Every person I know who achieves consistent success, consistently uses a tool to manage stress and achieve well being.

In the beginning, it was all about positive “thinking”.  Norman Vincent Peale achieved a legacy with his book, The Power of Positive Thinking. While positive thinking certainly works for some, and perhaps is enough for some, it doesn’t work for everyone. What we have come to realize today, is we are all wired differently. Therefore, the tools we need vary based upon our personalities, our backgrounds and our life experiences.

Recently two speakers have addressed this topic during my Vistage CEO advisory board meetings.

The first, Dr. Srikumar Rao, talked about Plugging In to Your Hardwired Happiness. 

The second, Dr. Rebecca Heiss, talked about Breaking Through Blind Spots With Brain Science.

Both are scientists who talk about brain science, and both talk about the value of meditation, a scientifically proven value, to achieve happiness and break through blind spots.

Again, while scientifically proven, meditation may not be for you. And, there are other tools as well. Taking a walk, yoga, running, fishing, talking to a counselor, to name a few.  The challenge for each of us is to find the one(s) that works for us and then, here’s the tough part, incorporate it into our daily lives.

January is now behind us.

If managing stress was one of your New Year’s resolutions, which tool have you incorporated into your daily life? And, if you haven’t found one yet, perhaps try one of the ones mentioned here.

Elisa K Spain

You can read more of my blogs here 

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.

Why Do We Make Mistakes?

To close out 2018, I’ve asked Dr. Andrea Simon, Vistage Speaker and corporate anthropologist, to write the following guest blog, “Why Do We Make Mistakes?”

This blog seemed a fitting conclusion to my recent series on habits.

We’ve all been told since childhood to learn from our mistakes. In this blog, Dr. Simon offers us her perspective on the science of making mistakes. We learn why making mistakes makes us smarter and our brains bigger. And why, despite our efforts to learn from them, we continue to make them throughout our lives.

See you in the new year.

Elisa K Spain

You can read more of my blogs and leadership quotes here.


Mistakes are a natural part of life – there is no way around that. There is no person, alive or dead, who hasn’t made any mistakes throughout their life. The most significant difference, however, is between those who can learn from their mistakes and those who can’t. We may try to even go as far as saying that the secret to success is knowing how to handle errors and failure by treating them as the foundation for future achievements. And the sooner people learn to do that, the better.

But before we can go into more detail about that, let’s take a look at why we make mistakes, in the first place. One of the primary reasons is that life is unpredictable, thus the phrase trial and error. None of us were handed a life guidebook on how to run our lives, and we need to make our way as we go along.

Hopefully, after a series of several mistakes, we begin to learn to stop repeating them. But by this logic, however, we should stop making more errors by the time we reach adulthood – which is not the case. The reason – life is unpredictable and filled with unknown variables. It is even more uncertain in the 21st century. Today’s world is nothing if not fast-paced and the many technological advancements made over the past two decades have seen to that.

It is for this reason why traditional business models are not as viable as they once were. Ironically enough, it would be more of a mistake in the conventional sense of the word, to keep doing things the same instead of employing a bit of trial and error as a means of finding better ways of doing things.

What Can Mistakes Teach Us?

At their core, mistakes teach us things. It is why mistakes are sometimes called life’s lessons. In other words, mistakes teach us how not to do things, and it is up to each of us to realize that. If we look at scientific research, the failure to prove something through an experiment is still regarded as a success since it shows how two things are not connected.

When scientific research can prove a connection, it provides us with some genuinely fascinating insight. Based on a study conducted by, Dr. Michael Kilgard and his team from the University of Texas at Dallas, it was revealed that our brain goes through some significant changes every time we err.

During the learning process, the brain starts compiling the information, and it becomes enlarged. Over time, it begins returning to its original size but keeps the new neural pathways that the mistake generated. In other words, making mistakes makes us smarter by creating more efficient synapses and fundamentally altered neurons.

Encouraging the Right Mistakes in the Workplace

Though it may seem counterintuitive at first, a business will only stand to gain if it encourages mistakes in the workplace. Do please keep in mind that we are not talking about errors that are a result of inattention to detail or sloppiness. We are, of course, talking about the kind of mistakes that are a result of calculated risks.

By embracing these mistakes, employees will gain the necessary confidence to try out new things and not feel bad when they don’t work out as planned. It’s important to remember that many marketers today are employing this strategy. They are continually trying out new ideas (trial and error), figuring out what works and what doesn’t, as a means of driving innovation and remain competitive in the market.

For better or worse, today’s technological revolution demands more mistakes to occur, otherwise risk becoming obsolete. Employ the same mentality on a business management level, not only marketing. Innovation has a sizable chance of happening, and employees are also happier as a consequence.

Nevertheless, making the transition from a company culture where mistakes were traditionally penalized to one that encourages them, does not happen overnight. So, what can be done to facilitate this change?

Leading by Example

In most cases, it’s not enough to send a company-wide memo telling employees that it’s okay to take more risks and that failure is accepted. Old habits die hard, after all, and your staff will be skeptical at first. To counteract this phenomenon, it’s advised that you lead by example.

It’s a generally accepted fact that employees will take most of their cues from their leaders, meaning that management needs to showcase the importance of trying out new solutions. This top-down shift in mentality will not only act as an example, but it will also show that it’s okay for others to do the same.

Encouraging Feedback and Transparency

Feedback and transparency will also play a crucial role in this transition. Your employees should feel comfortable to present their ideas and should not be ashamed of the mistakes that they may encounter along the way. You will quickly come to realize that when everyone feels comfortable to share their ideas and failures, efficiency also increases.

When people are not constrained by fear of shame, they will be more open with each other, which, in turn, leads to closer relationships and better overall communication. Likewise, the free exchange of ideas and mishaps also increases the chance of innovation.

Fast Failure

The concept of fast failure isn’t something new, but it is a product of the 21st century. The idea, in and of itself, is more of a state of mind than anything else. It is based on the idea that mistakes are natural and accepted. So, when they do happen, mistakes shouldn’t be taken to heart. When something doesn’t work as expected, you quickly learn from them and move on to the next idea.

The more efficient use of fast failure is by applying it on a micro level. So, instead of trying an entirely new idea, it’s better to break it up into smaller parts and brainstorm at every stage of the process. It increases the likelihood of success of the original idea while still making mistakes along the way.


The point is that mistakes have a lot to teach us as long as we are willing. The biggest hurdle, however, is to change the heavily entrenched idea that errors are a terrible thing and people should be reprimanded for them.


Another Form of Diversification, Expectation Diversity

Last week I wrote about ego diversification. And it reminded me of another sort of diversification, that of diversity of expectations. Whether in a personal situation, or a business situation, expecting one person to fulfill all our needs is usually a recipe for disappointment.

Most of us long ago realized that if we spend 100% of our time with our life partner, the probability that they, or we, would get to have, do or be everything we want, is pretty close to zero.

And yet in business, we often get caught up in looking for that ideal person. The one who has the style we want, the people skills we want and can perform all the functions we want. This is especially true of entrepreneur leaders because they themselves have such a diverse set of talents and strengths.

Most entrepreneurs have a wide range of skills and abilities, and can do a wide range of things themselves. This diversity is what enabled them to start a business. And because of this, they believe that most others have this too. And like with any other genius, what comes easy to us, we tend to believe is easy for others. And yet in my experience, this genius is rare and unique to entrepreneurs. Most of us tend to have strengths in a few areas, and if allowed to focus primarily in these areas, we will excel.

Recently I was talking with one of my entrepreneur clients about this very subject. When she first started her business, she had a partner. They worked quite well together, each contributing their expertise to the business and most importantly they collaborated well. The partner left the business several years ago and since then, my client has been seeking someone to replace her.

During the time we have been working together, she has been focused on growing her team so that she can focus on the business, rather than just working in the business. During this conversation she told me “I am still looking for that person who I can trust the way I did my partner”. As we dug into this desire, we began to realize that there were 3 or 4 key functions her partner had fulfilled and it worked. The thing was, the skill set required for each was quite different and rare to find in one person.

With that in mind, she decided to identify the functions that are truly essential and see how they could be split up. She began by identifying the responsibilities that can be handled by current staff, what can be outsourced and what she needs to hire. Importantly, she is no longer looking for one person to do it all.

Once the roles and responsibilities were clearly defined, she realized, for example, that her collaboration need can be filled by her external advisors. Next, she identified a person on her team that can take on additional responsibilities, and she has begun to narrow and more clearly define the expectations of a key outside hire.

  • Who do you have on your team with whom you are frustrated because they can’t do it all?
  • Are they strong at some things that matter to your business?
  • What would be the impact on your business if you allowed them to focus on those things and moved the rest to someone else?

Elisa K Spain

You can read more of my blogs and leadership quotes here.



The Second Arrow

Last week my Vistage CEO group had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Srikumar Rao who presented his Creativity and Personal Mastery Workshop. Dr. Rao has been one of the top-rated and popular professors at many top Business Schools – including Columbia, Kellogg, Berkeley, London Business School and Imperial College.

The message in Dr. Rao’s presentation: we create our own happiness. Some call it mindset, he calls it creating and living an alternate reality.

One of the most powerful stories he told was one from Buddhist teachings.

It is said the Buddha once asked a student:

  • If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?
  • If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?
  • The Buddha then asks, Then why did you shoot the second arrow?

Most of us react to this statement with “huh?”

Dr. Rao illustrated the second arrow with this story. A woman goes on a date with a man she met online. They were both looking forward to the date after their positive correspondence. The date ends abruptly with the man leaving and saying he is not interested. Brokenhearted, she calls a friend who tells her, “why did you think it would work out, you are uninteresting and have fat thighs”. What friend would say that, we ask? No one. The friend was herself.

In short, the second arrow is our negative self-talk.

So next time you don’t win the business you want, or a key employee leaves or, or, or… Perhaps we can learn from Dr. Rao and the Buddha, and instead of piling on with negative self-talk, create an alternative reality that looks for the opportunity in what appears to be a loss.

On November 14, my Vistage CEO group is hosting one of our semi-annual guest days. If you or someone you know would like to learn more about Vistage, this is a low-key way to meet our members and hear a great speaker, Andrea Simon, who asks “Who will be your customers in three years?” Please contact me directly for an invite: Elisa K Spain.

For more about the members of the group click here

For more about the speaker on November 14, click here

You can read more of my blogs and leadership quotes here.


The Power of Habit, Avoiding Decision Fatigue

How many times during the day do we pause and ask ourselves what was I intending to accomplish today, how did I end up here?

According to one study, the cause of this is decision fatigue. Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.

Conversely, the more of our key behaviors we can put under the automatic and more efficient control of habit, the more likely we are to accomplish the things that truly matter to us.

How different would your life be, after all, if you could get yourself to sleep 8 hours at night, exercise every day, eat healthy foods in the right portions, take time for reflection and renewal, remain calm and positive under stress, focus without interruption for sustained periods of time, and prioritize the work that matters most?

Research says, the solution is to make fewer decisions each day. We can do this by learning to co-opt the more primitive habit-forming regions of our brains, so that rather than reinforcing our negative impulses, they become the soil in which we build positive rituals that serve our long term interests.

So how do you get started? Begin, by slowing down. Speed is the enemy of reflection, understanding and intentionality. When we slow down, we can take the time to examine the things we do each day and decide which of these merit daily decisions and which perhaps could be given up to habit.

Repetitive decisions are perhaps the easiest to “automate” by making them a habit. Yet, for some of us, we find joy in making these simple decisions each day. The choice is ours to make with the goal simply being to make fewer decisions each day.

Here are a few examples that we all share: eating, dressing and getting to our morning destination.

I enjoy choosing what to wear, so that is a decision, albeit a frivolous one, I choose to make daily. Breakfast, on the other hand is simply sustenance, so I generally make a smoothie. And, I let Google Maps guide me to my destination for the day even if it is a route I know, just so I don’t have to think about it.

What daily decisions are you making that you could give up to habit? For inspiration, Jeff Bezos’ daily routine here.

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

You can read more of my blogs and leadership quotes here.


Healthy CEO, Healthy Business

I recently heard a CEO say, “when I am healthy, my business is healthy”.  I have been thinking about this CEO’s statement in the context of CEOs I have known or observed over the years. My reflective observation is, he is right; there is a strong correlation between the health of the leader and the health of the business.

In the public company arena, we see the impact on stock prices when the CEO becomes physically ill.

In the private company arena, where most of the CEOs I work with reside, those that focus on their health and fitness are the ones that lead successful companies. I have watched CEOs move from poor mental and/or physical health to good health and back again and observed the company performance move in tandem.

Years ago, I worked with a CEO whose company growth had stalled. He brought me in as an advisor to help him get the company back on a growth track. While certainly there were some operational and structural changes needed, what I discovered was holding the company back was the CEO’s lack of engagement. He had suffered a series of injuries that kept him away from work, followed by a serious issue with his son. Once we put the infrastructure in place that he needed to take the company forward AND he got well and found a way to deal with his son’s issues, the company began to prosper. In fact, it was he that I was quoting in the first sentence of this post.

While a component of health is genetic and beyond our control, and life happens beyond our control, research continues to show that lifestyle and exercise are directly related to emotional and physical health.

So, as we go through our daily lives, what can each of us do to pause, reflect and recognize we have a fiduciary responsibility as leaders to care for our physical and mental well-being?

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain

Celebrate Your Gift


Each year at this gift-giving time, I am reminded that we all have natural gifts.

Our challenge is to notice our strengths and work to enhance them. In my Vistage work, and as a leadership coach,  I refer to this as discovering and working in our genius.

While personal growth and development are part of living a full life, and after all this is what Vistage is all about, the successful CEOs and executives I know are the ones who work to become excellent at what they are already good at. And… these same successful people surround themselves with people who bring their own strengths, filling in the gaps.

As you reflect on your accomplishments for 2014, and think about 2015, take a moment and ask yourself:

  • What are my gifts? How did they serve me this year? How will they serve me next year?
  • What am I striving for that I could instead delegate to someone else?
  • What can I accept simply not doing?

Once we know and understand our strengths, and focus on them, we not only become more effective, we become more satisfied, and ultimately become better leaders.

Elisa K. Spain

P.S. This is the last post for 2014. Happy Holidays to all!  See you in the New Year.

Sometimes Things Are Not As They Appear

Sometimes Things Are Not As They Appear

Opt 4 June 15 (2)

We make assumptions daily, mostly about other people. These assumptions enable us to take shortcuts and keep us moving forward. Or so we think.

  • We assume a person attended or didn’t attend an event because…
  • We assume a person responded to us a certain way, because…
  • We assume a person took an action or didn’t take an action because…

What if instead of assuming, we, as CEO’s and leaders, paused and asked:

  • What is the reason you made this choice or took this action?
  • When your customer complains about “service”, do you probe to understand what is really going on?
  • When we see something, as the TSA reminds us, do we say something?
  • When an employee behaves a certain way, do we ask what is going on?

When I was a young driver, I learned this leadership lesson from a police officer who pulled me over for passing him on the right, when he and another officer were stopped – blocking both sides of the road. He asked me why I passed him. My response was “I assumed you were going to be there for a while and I wanted to get to my destination”. His reply, “When you assume, you make an ass-u-me”.

I often think of this encounter when I rush to judgement.

Elisa K. Spain