It is my belief that even the briefest interactions wield limitless potential. The power of a few well-timed and sincerely delivered words can have life-changing impact. I’ve seen it firsthand, and benefited immensely from the advice delivered to me in pivotal moments throughout my life and leadership journey.
I’ve written about the many resounding interactions with mentors, colleagues, family, and friends that have influenced my behavior; their words have meant so much to me, and left an indelible imprint. I’ve also spoken about the TouchPoints that have defined my work and life trajectory in keynote speeches, and I’ve celebrated the infinite capacity of brief interactions to leave a positive imprint, in my book co-authored with Mette Norgaard, TouchPoints
But of all the moments — of all the helpful, indispensable words spoken to me — I think the one that cast the most memorable light on my life was a call-to-action from a revered mentor, which challenged me to reach beyond my current capabilities.
I was a first-year graduate student at the J.L Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Renowned leadership thinker, Ram Charan was teaching my Management Policy class. Although my educational intentions were good, I was taking a full load of classes and working two jobs. Eventually, faced with the challenges of a busy schedule, my school work began to slip. One day in Ram’s class, I was called on, not having completed the required preparation for class. I stumbled through an unconvincing response. On my way out, Ram called me aside. The four words he earnestly shared with me then have influenced my attitude toward life and leadership ever since. “You can do better” he said. And he was right.
I can still hear Ram’s words, spoken over 35 years ago, as if he uttered them yesterday. His verbal nudge reminds me to this day that we always have a choice. We can remain mired in excuses — that we’re busy, teetering on the overwhelmed, working two jobs — or we can choose to stretch ourselves and embrace our full capability. We can rise to the challenge. We can lean in to our work with greater intensity. In fact, we have a choice how we react to each and every circumstance. Ram saw a student who was choosing not to fulfill his potential when the going got momentarily tough. And, you can bet I turned that choice around when faced with the stark candor of his comments, delivered ever so caringly.
We can choose to stretch ourselves and embrace our full capability. We can rise to the challenge.
It is noteworthy that the effectiveness of Ram’s words was not due only to their content, but to how they were delivered. His advice to me was deftly deployed because it came from an abundant place of genuine caring and high expectations. I knew undoubtedly that he wanted the best for me but also that he held me to a high standard and expected excellence. This attitude is deeply aligned with my belief that effective leaders must be tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people. Not either, or. Both. Now, I strive to embody the aspirational spirit of “you can do better” in all my pursuits, and I ask the same of the people with whom I live and work. I hope to maneuver these expectations with the same grace as Ram — always pushing for better performance while also demonstrating I’m sincerely committed to helping others succeed.
We owe it to people to set high standards and hold them accountable.
Just as we can’t allow ourselves to drift into the path of least resistance, just as we must continually challenge ourselves to transcend complacence and reach for excellence — so too must we ask the same of our colleagues, employees, and peers. We owe it to people to respectfully set high standards and hold them accountable. Setting the bar ever-higher is not a way of tightening a noose, but rather it is a way of saying, “I believe in you. I have faith in your ability to accomplish great things.” And if you support the expectation with an earnest offer to help them contribute meaningfully, then you can begin to build an enduring high-performance relationship.
I know I remain grateful that Ram held me accountable for my performance that day. I encourage everyone to help build a better world by boldly asking the same thing of ourselves and the people around us — that we always do better. The choice is ours.
What is the #BestAdvice you’ve ever received?
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of a series in which professionals share the words of wisdom that made all the difference in their lives.