As we roll into a new fiscal quarter here at Microsoft, I’ve had a question stuck in my mind: What’s the most important thing? Is it family? Well, yes. A job well done? Sure. Billable utilization? No doubt. Taking care of others? Yes again. Satisfaction from designing or deploying an elegant enterprise technology solution? Yeah, another good one.
As a member of a Professional Services organization, all of these are important. In our current situation, where every customer dollar is being pursued as aggressively as every non-essential dollar we’re trying to save, these are not only important but critical. It’s impossible to only focus on one thing, though, and still be truly successful in the broadest sense of the word. There’s got to be a single thing – the most important thing – that I can pour all of myself into so as to somehow become a great provider, a trusted advisor to my customers, a loving husband and dad at home, and a more valuable asset to my company. There’s got to be something out there that will give me real satisfaction and at the same time make a real difference. What’s the single factor or characteristic that embodies all the above?
Strong, ethical, and transparent Character. The kind of character that’s not afraid to admit a mistake or own up to a missed target. The kind of character that’s willing to go the extra mile to exceed a customer’s expectation while still showing up just in time to see their kid’s piano recital. The kind of character that roams the customer’s halls after hours in pursuit of the next big deal and still manages to carve out quality time to spend with friends and loved ones. The kind of character that sets an example others are eager to follow. Contagious character.
If you focus on your character – which to me embodies attitude, respect, trustworthiness, honesty, and courage – you’ll be that rare consultant, architect, or manager who can effectively pull off the balancing act we’re asked to pull off every day. I played with the first letters in each of these words and came up pretty quickly with the acronym C H A R T. I like it.
The acronym CHART implies order and strategy, i.e. charting a path, or creating a plan, or bringing together a bunch of stuff and making sense out of it. This all relates pretty well to how we should nurture and grow our character – purposefully and with direction, in a way that removes the random and replaces it with resolve, tenacity, and above all guidance. Done any other way, your character at the end of the day will only reflect the stuff around you or the events that took place nearby. You don’t want that. You want your character to reflect YOU and the steps you purposely walked and chose from to develop it.
So how can we gain the guidance we need to develop the kind of character that’ll prove most beneficial to us, our family, and our employer? The list is long, and in my book starts with who I put my trust in (in my case, The Lord), what I believe, and what I want or am asked to achieve. Next I look to who I spend my time with, how I spend that time, and whether there’s something that needs to change. Like all of you, I’ve got friends and colleagues that can lift me up and friends and colleagues that tend to pull me down. If I’m interested in building character, the choice should be obvious – spend more time with the first group! CHART a course to the former and away from the latter. Spend time with your mentors (not just at work, but your volunteer and civic group mentors, church mentors, and other personal mentors; have you called them lately?). Further, develop purposeful relationships with colleagues, friends, and others who also seek to build strong character. Develop a CHART of attributes you wish to strengthen, and others you’d like to see diminished. CHART a plan that describes how you will build character by serving others; do this in the same way you would do for your customers – develop a simple plan and goals, execute against them, and chart (there it is again) your progress. Hey, if it’s good enough for your work world, then why not for your personal benefit?
Finally, I think we need to look at the end game. If I want to develop my character, I need to do the right thing, make the right choices, and be the example. Generally speaking, I believe this means we need to put others ahead of ourselves. Look at the greatest leaders in history – the ones you would actually follow – and you’ll probably agree it’s hard to argue about their character. Of course, being the example is not always easy. Like many of you I’m still working on it and have a long way to go. I make occasional missteps. But the thing about character that we have to remember is that it takes time. Read that again: Building strong character takes time. This is necessary to give the good choices I’ve made an opportunity to cover up my old choices (and poor attitude, and misdirected attention, etc). If it were easy, or only took a couple of days, most everyone could be described as having great character.
Maybe that fact underscores why character is the most important thing: it’s as rare as it is desirable. Fortunately it is indeed achievable. Start today by making the kind of choices that will help you chart out a legacy of personal courage, honesty, positive attitude, respect, and trustworthiness, and in doing so build a legacy of great character – the kind of legacy your colleagues, your customers, and your family alike will benefit from.
And as always let me know what I can do to help.
PS: I just heard this old military adage again recently, a great reminder to those of us in leadership positions: If you think you're leading but no one is following, you're probably only taking a hike....