How Decluttering Changed My Life

declutteringOver the past 35 years I’ve moved my family from a 1400 sq. ft. home to a 3000 sq. ft. home and then to a 4000 sq. ft. home. During that time we started as a couple, added four kids, and launched them from our nest. Because each house was bigger, decluttering our “stuff” was never an issue. Now we are selling our house in Sugar Land (tour the house here) and moving to the Dallas – Fort Worth area to be closer to our kids and first grandbaby.

How do I let go of 35 years’ worth of accumulated memories, mementos, and stuff?  My first approach was similar what many executives do: talk about the challenges in hopes that someone else would fix it. That cost me a month.

So I used a few methods from my consulting toolkit and came up with a new approach: briefly reflect about the failure of the first approach, and then create a vision, mission, and action steps for a new project called “Operation Declutter”. That cost me another month.

And then something amazing happened.


Goodwill Receipts

One evening I decided to invest 10 minutes and tackle one small section of my closet. I pulled some old dusty polo shirts off their hangers and put them in a plastic trash bag for Goodwill. That was fairly painless so I did another section, and two hours later my closet was transformed. I felt like a genius, and like a fool. I had avoided this simple task for months, dreading the effort, the personal decisions, and letting go.

Freshly energized, I dedicated every spare moment to decluttering the entire house. Raising four kids meant four bedrooms with closets stuffed with parts from a dozen video game systems, hundreds of VHS tapes, music CDs,  DVD and Blu-ray movies, board games, and more. After 3 months of effort, renting a  10 foot square storage space, and many trips to Goodwill, we finally got our house ready to sell.

Let me share 3 quick learnings about decluttering that changed my life for the good, and that may change your business for the good:

1. Decluttering requires active leadership.What is decluttering

No matter how elegantly and passionately I talked about a perfect world where every closet was empty and every garage had space to park cars, my wife simply wouldn’t jump into action. Her inability to read my mind and find the energy to do what I didn’t want to do is completely understandable.  What I learned was that by getting myself involved in the work, my wife was far more willing to face the challenge too. Together we accomplished a lot by decluttering our home, and we had fun doing it together.

What do I mean by ‘active leadership’? Recall that Peter F. Drucker said “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”  While the cute part is flipping those words around, don’t gloss over the word “doing”. Active leadership requires personal involvement to meet the needs of employees and customers (recall Robert K. Greenleaf’s servant as leader model). Actions really do speak louder than words (even when words come from well-meaning management).  Sometimes it’s better to be engaged than to motivate engagement.  “Lead by example” is worth remembering at home and at work.

2. Decluttering is a never-ending process.

While it’s true that decluttering your house every 10 years can be transformational, why not take time once a year (a.k.a. spring cleaning) and gain the benefits of decluttering all year long every year. The benefits of a cabinet in the garage filled with items that might be used sometime over the next decade can hide those go-to items that you really will need within a year or two.  The effort required to put those tools back in their proper place, rather than stacking them on the floor, can also go a long way to keeping things manageable.

In the workplace, why not declare a day of spring cleaning by brainstorming a list of bottlenecks or time-wasters? Focus some energy on how to rebuild the business process around an ideal approach and see just how close you can get. Consider building a work culture that seeks to simplify processes and procedures, and consider the positive impact you can make on customers and partners too. A little self-discipline every day will pay off all year long and allow you to avoid those ‘special projects’ to unravel a pile of complex ‘stuff’.

3. Decluttering promotes innovation.

My closet was crammed with so many shirts, pants, suits, and sweaters patiently hanging around to be worn that I couldn’t figure out which items were long out of style or too tight for me to wear.  After decluttering, every single article of clothing that hangs in my closet today fits me just fine, and I can quickly select the right attire for any occasion.  I can once again park my car in the garage, protected from the sun and rain.

Complexity at work is never a good thing. Once you strip down work processes and procedures to their bare bones, you may well discover new ways to dramatically reduce bottlenecks, accelerate product delivery, and improve the quality of services. If you want ideas on how to simply the workplace, view the 2013 TED video where Yves Morieux shares 6 rules to simply complex work.  When employees can brainstorm ways to declutter their jobs, not only are you creating streamlined processes, you are engaging employee and building a culture where organic change can thrive.

If you need help, I’m just a phone call away.

So You Want to be a Leader?

Act like leaderAs a 22 year old starting my first professional job as a petroleum engineer, I was surprised that while my boss was in his 50s, his manager was only 26 years old. Talking to other engineers in my department, I discovered that the young hotshot manager barely made the grades to graduate from high school, and had only so-so grades while in college. How did this rather average guy rise so quickly in the organization?

Now 35 years into my career, I look back on that college genius buddy who helped me survive many college assignments, mid-terms, and finals. He could read a chapter just once and fully understand all of the technical nuances. Where is he at his career today? He never made it into a management position. In fact, he never made it out of the lower engineering technical ranks.  What does it really take to do well in the business world?

Do smart people make great leaders?
Good grades will open the door of opportunity for a better job, so emphasizing good grades will help college-bound students. Employees also feel the pressure to be an expert as they compete for promotion opportunities and bigger paychecks. But be warned: too much of a focus on being smart comes at the expense of other rather important factors that drive career success.

Think about Leonard and Sheldon, the socially awkward physicists from CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” comedy show.  Yes, they are both funny and endearing, but is that what you want for your own kid’s career? There’s nothing wrong with being smart, but focusing on learning to the extent that social skills are stunted is a very costly mistake. You don’t want to raise the party animal, but you do want a child who knows how to engage and motivate the people around them. Certainly that’s what the business world wants, so let’s take a look at that aspect.

What makes someone a leader?
Why do some people rise in the organization despite their technical brilliance? And why are some people organizationally at the top, but not a true leader? Advice from top leadership experts reveals several common attributes that can make a difference in your career:

Kouzes / Posner3 Stephen
Character Teamwork Find your voice (values) Be proactive Visionary
Commitment Manage conflict Model desired behaviors Begin with the end in mind Teamwork (buy-in)
Competence Shared accountability Visionary Put first things first Coach / mentor
Discernment Visionary Engage others Think win-win Communication
Focus Organizational behaviors Search for opportunities Understand others first Empathy
Initiative Communication Take intelligent risks Synergize -teamwork Integrity / Values
Passion Reward & recognize Encourage collaboration Sharpen the saw (re-energize) Empowerment
Positive Attitude
Problem Solving Trustworthiness Strengthen others Find your voice and inspire others
Responsibility Commitment Recognize contributions Build relationship trust
Self-Discipline Focus Celebrate the values, victories

1 The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow
2 The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive
3 The Leadership Challenge
4 The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, and The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything
5 The Heart of a Leader

The secret to leadership.
A thoughtful study of the above table reveals that leadership attributes are more about empathy and less about ego. Reading books about leadership will improve your understanding of what it looks like, but knowing what to do and actually doing it are two very different things.  Here’s the secret to becoming a leader: start acting like one. That’s the hard part holding most people back.

If you’re in high school or college, get involved in projects, volunteer work, and other worthy activities where you interact with other people. If you are an employee, take every opportunity to serve on a team and hone your leadership skills while improving your behavior and character. When the opportunity for informal or volunteer leadership roles appear, raise your hand high and step up. Don’t fear failure, because that’s a great way to discover what doesn’t work, and what attributes you need to work on harder.

The surprising benefit of leadership
If you follow the advice from the right people, then you will receive a huge bonus that many people overlook. Take another look at the list of leadership attributes, but think about your personal relationships (spouse, friends, and family). Imagine the positive impact you can make with those who you love.  Remember that true leadership isn’t about “being in charge of others”, but “inspiring others into taking action they otherwise wouldn’t take”.