The Hardest Assignment I Ever Gave an Executive

This week I found myself in a meeting with a client who told me that 15 years ago, I had given him the hardest assignment of his career. This assignment had such a powerful impact that he shared it with others over the years and, in fact, had just recommended it to an entire group of executives during a Q&A session last week. Talk about piquing my interest! Has it piqued yours? O.k., let’s see what it is.

The assignment is to pick just one thing you’ll intentionally get a B on this week, and do it exactly to a B standard.

Yes, seriously. That’s the assignment. What I mean by this is that you must plan to do the work to a level that would get a B grade if you were giving yourself a grade on your work. Don’t target an A, and then settle for a B if you don’t make it. Target a B grade and execute to a B grade.

Sounds easy. Why is it so hard?

It seems counterintuitive that executing B-quality work instead of A-quality work would be harder, not easier. After all, B-quality work takes considerably less time, which should make you a lot more productive, right?

However, this assignment brings up an incredible level of emotional discomfort, even pain. By targeting a B grade, you will be taking all of the following actions either directly or indirectly, and at least one of them is going to be mighty uncomfortable:

  1. Putting a project at risk, admittedly relatively little risk, but if you’ve been burned on a risk you took recently or in a big way, you’re going to feel that nervous, edgy energy come roaring back
  2. Admitting that you can’t do it all
  3. Admitting that you can’t excel at everything in your job
  4. Entering the murky waters of the tough judgment calls that are part and parcel of leading a complex business
  5. Signaling to a person or team that their project is not as important as someone else’s project. (Extra pain points if the person with the B-effort project is a great person to work with, while the person whose project gets your A work is a jerk who will stab you in the back the moment you turn around)

If you really want to take yourself on a white-knuckle ride, include your whole life, not just your work life. If a project for your spouse, child, or parent turns out to be the winner of the B-level effort, you might find yourself thinking twice about how often this has been happening. Ditto that for a project to maintain your mental and physical health.

So, if it’s painful and risky, why do it?

There’s really only one reason to do this executive coaching assignment, and it’s to make more conscious and better-informed decisions. You can only do this by bringing into daylight what you otherwise would keep doing unconsciously in the back of your mind.

The current reality, hard as it may be to accept, is that you’re probably not excelling at everything, someone’s disappointed in you or mad at you, and you’re putting projects at some degree of risk. These are part of the day-to-day reality of being in a leadership role.

But there’s a big difference between consciously and courageously aligning your actions with your real priorities versus assuming you’ll do it all and letting your priorities show after the fact, by what you do well vs. what got your B-level effort.

By actively, consciously deciding what is most important for you to do, and therefore deserving of your Grade A effort, you put a stake in the ground as a leader and gain greater control over your time, your life, and your sanity.

If anything in this article resonates with you, please do this tough assignment this week, and let me know how it goes in the comments below.

 


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