You have to have A system!

I learned early on in my career (and probably before that, while in school) that a major determinant of success is “the system“. This is the methodology and associated tools that a person uses to remember stuff. To track details. To know when something is due. To ensure you get back to people when you say you will get back to them. To collate, organize, parse and make sense of both connected and disparate bits of information in ways that become meaningful and informative over time and as needed. Back in the day, we called this getting organized. Today, specialists abound who describe this as “personal knowledge management” and “creating your second brain”.

It’s important. It’s really important. But before your roll your eyes and declare this as a trivial statement-of-the-obvious, I interject that even after all these years, I still encounter many professional executives and managers who don’t have a system. They have tools. They try. But they don’t have a system.

A system is something you are committed to using, religiously. This takes discipline and clarity of thought. You have to use the system over time. It must become integrated into your life such that you will feel lost without it. That’s a system. That’s YOUR system.

I once worked with a COO who had a small steno pad of paper. This was her system and it was bullet-proof. That was not because of the sophistication of the tool but rater because of her devotion to it. Every day, while at meetings, on a phone call, or alone and just thinking, she would jot notes into the pad. We never talked about it specifically, but I always observed her making marks in the margin which I presumed were codes or keys to things like: “this is a to do” or “make sure I remember to schedule this”, etc. She never forgot anything. When we met and she told me that at our next meeting, she would have X, Y, and Z, I knew that I’d be staring into the face of X, Y, and Z at our next meeting. Bullet-proof.

I’ve also worked with people who had the latest computer-based apps. These synched across their computers, iPads and Apple Watches. More often than not, these individuals were enamored by the tools themselves, even swapping them out whenever anything new arrived on the scene. Sometimes these individuals succeeded and sometimes they didn’t. Typically, these systems were not more effective than the one used by the COO with the steno pad.

You have to have a system. A system. One you develop and use consistently. Again, I have been surprised by the number of people I meet who are deep into their careers and who clearly do not utilize such a system. Some of them are high ranking leaders who walk into meetings without paper or an electronic means of taking notes. They view their role as being a thinker who can lead with their words, decisions, and rhetorical wizardry. Well, I’m sorry… even the highest level people need to take notes, jot down reminders, and remember things. I once worked for a system CEO who never used agendas and who rarely, if ever, took down a note. Over time, I came to realize that his promises might never be fulfilled – not due to bad intentions but rather because of forgetfulness – and even worse, I felt little pressure to deliver on my own promises because I understood that he would not hold me accountable for them. Bad.

So, if you are early on in your career… develop a system and stick to it. If you are later on in yours… it’s not too late to start using one. And again, it’s not about the sophistication of the tool, it’s about the devotion to it.

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