06/02/2010 01:42 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Simplifying Life: Toss Out, Look Out, Live Out

How many times have you found an old pair of pants (the ones that still fit), and discovered a clump of lint that had accumulated in the pockets? Those small leftovers of life accumulate in forgotten corners, but their discovery reminds us that we have to always clean up, follow up and shape up.

In part because I spend much of my life, as do my partners, with ambitious senior leaders, I am sensitive to what we all need to clear up to achieve any level of breakthrough for our intentions, our wishes and our hopes. Too often we're just exhausted by life's daily demands. I find myself awash in daily lists ... from auto maintenance and banking, to simple shopping lists, scheduling and the things that fall off the desktop. Today I discovered that a favorite pair of "home office shoes" needed new heels. Add one more to the weekend list.

We are all victims of more and more lint, some liabilities, and the "little murders" of daily life.
That said, our clients have to cut through all of that to get work done.

Leaders have to frame a future that is compelling and clear for the people who trust and follow them. A key first step for leaders of any venture is to confirm the core values they see as essential to growing the enterprise. We all deserve to know what is expected of us in our daily behavior and performance -- in work, in marriage, in friendships, in life. Ambiguity is not your friend.

Many studies confirm that employees are "dropping out" daily, and their level of engagement is eroding. In 2007, Towers Perrin surveyed nearly 90,000 employees worldwide. They found that only 21% felt fully engaged at work, and nearly 40% were disengaged or disenchanted.

We often help enterprising leaders launch a Vision and Values process, not as a "feel good" exercise, but as a tough, courageous conversation with the future. Too many of these processes are flabby and flatulent. Doing it right means engaging many constituencies, and testing the core, animating assumptions and beliefs. Sometimes it surfaces big, painful gaps. But it's essential, and we often don't do it right, or at all. Instead, we surface copies of prior work, seal them in Lucite bookmarks or pocket cards, and move on.

But, sometimes folks get it right. They find the lint and bring it to the light.

I recently participated in an exceptional CEO summit in New York. One of our speakers reminded us of GE's values for growth: Imagine, Solve, Build and Lead. GE framed them in 2003 and shared them in their Annual Report that year. The effort to shape them grew out of serious discussions with their leaders who shared the frustration that the company needed a better framework to tackle GE's growth with speed, gusto and grit. They wanted values to lead and live by, not limp statements on a page.

They wrote:

"We reshaped GE values around four core actions: Imagine, Solve, Build and Lead. Imagine at GE is the freedom to dream and the power to make it real. This requires the values of passion and curiosity. Solve reflects GE's unique ability to tackle the world's toughest problems and expresses our values of resourcefulness and accountability. Build requires a performance culture that creates customer and shareholder value, and the word captures our values of teamwork and commitment. Lead reflects our spirit of optimism that embraces change, and our values of openness and energy; it's what it will take to win."

Many of our CEO and Board clients struggle with the same challenge. How can they define the future -- in performance and behavior -- and cascade a process of courageous conversations to calibrate the reality, to say nothing of the individual appetite, for some new rules of the road?

I really like GE's aspirational values. Don't we all have to imagine a future before we can march toward it? I've written often of how we must set dreams with deadlines, and discover mentors and partners to push us along a path to our Next.

That often means solving problems that inevitably poke us as we try something new. Change pinches, pals don't like the "new" you, and changing old patterns, tossing out the clutter and coming face to face with our old choices, requires us to confront ourselves with courage, and solve what isn't working anymore.

That often means new daily practices and systems, things that we must build to support our intentions and sustain our commitments.

Leading -- in our life and our enterprises -- can then occur with clarity and gusto.

But first, dig into your "pockets". Get rid of what's old and unnecessary. Then, get started.