Small Steps

William Clement Stone, was a US businessman that built an insurance empire from humble beginnings. His financial wealth was the by-product of a richly lived life. He died in the year he celebrated his hundredth birthday. During the last 40 years of his life his efforts resulted in charitable contributions of almost $300 million dollars through his private foundation. He was born with anything but a silver spoon in his mouth. His father died when Stone was only three years old. Stone internalized initiative by necessity, learning at an early age that no one was waiting to jump in and help him out. If he wanted to succeed in life, it was up to him and his efforts. By the time he was six, he was selling newspapers on the street to help the family out. By the age of sixteen, after quitting high school, he joined his mother who had taken over an insurance agency.

Like many of us that have found our way to the insurance industry, Stone didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a broker. He wandered into this work world drawn by family. He didn’t find work that he loved, he was more driven by loving to work. At 16, in his second year of high school, Stone spent the summer working with his mother. His wasn’t a filing job. He was sent out into the field to sell policies. His initiative served him again. He realized he would accomplish nothing without action. He didn’t need to know the answers. Just try something and be attentive to what happens. If an approach worked, then adopt. If it didn’t, then either discard or adapt. By the time Stone was 20 years old, he owned his own Agency. His ambition exceeded his experience. Nonetheless, his work ethic was unmatched. Inexperience or lack of a pedigree wasn’t a showstopper for Stone. He relished responsibility and searched for levers which were within his reach to push and pull. His drive for improvement and willingness to work led to rapid growth of his business. Well before he turned 30, Stone’s agency employed 1,000 agents. Stone shared his sales process with agents within his business. From Stone’s personal process the entire organization’s sales process was developed.

Stone fell in love with insurance. He saw its value to the economy. He recognized risk taking that led to innovation and economic growth depended on being able to insure assets. Without insurance, those that wanted to create and build wouldn’t step forward to take these risks. Builders and leaders needed the safety net of insurance to step out. Moreover, Stone loved that insurance offered a path to prosperity for those that invested their energies to the industry. Stone also realized that insurance was largely a recession proof industry. Anything but depressed, during the Great Depression Stone strode forward building his business. Stone’s agency expanded over the coming decades becoming a public entity in 1980. Ultimately, it became Aon Corp in the late 80s which continues today boasting several billion in annual revenues.

Stone’s story resonates not just as an exemplar of the American Dream, but more so because his life represents one that was long and lived with possibility. Certainly, Stone was relentless in his pursuit of growth. However, he was human in his approach. He led with kindness and belief in those that worked with him. He loved the ideas expressed in Napoleon Hill’s early self-improvement book, Think and Grow Rich. Stone sought to introduce these ideas to his organization at every opportunity. Optimism orchestrated his efforts and Stone embraced doing and acting on his world. He brought us the quote, “Big doors swing on little hinges.” It seems Stone understood that possibilities and progress weren’t predicated upon earth shattering efforts. It wasn’t worrying about big things that led to success. Embracing the little things led to leadership in his industry. Stone built his insurance empire around piling up modest action upon modest action, day after day, year after year. He diligently dug up little things that made a big difference. He wasn’t following business trends. He focused on treating his staff well. Stone spent time helping his staff develop self-belief. He helped them see a world of greater possibilities for themselves which led to them bringing their best efforts to build the organization. The big doors of Stone’s business empire swung upon the little hinges of daily disciplines. Stone taught his sales staff to develop daily practices which served to keep them on track. He encouraged them to take care of themselves physically and mentally. His personal sales system became that of his organization’s. From there, Stone shared it with the world writing several books. In one, The Success System That Never Fails, Stone notes that “the system works, if you work the system.” There wasn’t rocket science or magic behind making progress. It was diligent application of small practices day in and day out that leads to success.

The COVID pandemic has created challenges. Some people’s lives have been turned upside down more than others though we’ve all been touched in some way. The COVID challenge has created choices. Choices on how we feel. Choices for how we react. And, choices related to how we choose to spend our time. These choices could have been constructive. We were each faced with a slightly less stark but binary decision like that presented by Tim Robbins’ character in The Shawshank Redemption. We could either get busy living or get busy dying. We could wallow in our reduced freedoms while swallowing chips and candy packing on a quarantine fifteen or we could adapt an exercise program to do at home. We could sit around consuming social media, news, and Netflix or we could pick up a book or sign up for an online course. We could feel sorry for ourselves and the social events we were missing or we could find new way to interact. We could either focus on what was lost and being missed or what was within our control to change constructively. We have each been asking ourselves how we can use our time or we’ve let ourselves be used by it. Have we sat around waiting lockdowns out or accepted where we are and now do what we can to create constructive changes? Have we viewed the pandemic as an excuse to be bitter or can we personally apply a tag phrase some of our governments are pandering and build back better?

For myself, I didn’t leap into productivity or a pursuit of improvement at the outset. I didn’t rush to adapt and adopt the new world. I sat stunned and shell shocked as I watched our world grind to a halt. As lockdowns lingered, I realized I wasn’t going to be in a position to travel to visit clients for a while. This resulted in quite a bit of extra time on my hands. I realized we can be passive and wait and see how things will affect us or we can be purposeful and pursue a program that is intentional. We could choose to see what we’ve all been presented with as an opportunity to be seized. Perhaps it was time to adopt an observation made by Henry Ford, “Most people get ahead during the time that others waste.” Many of us may have had a little more time on our hands because of the pandemic. Commutes have disappeared. Our needs to spend as much time getting prim and proper for work may have been reduced as well. What have we done with our time over the last two years? What positive changes have we made? As the late American author, Mignon McLaughlin noted, “Every day of our lives we are on the verge of making those slight changes that would make all the difference.”

Ryan Holiday in his book, Courage is Calling, references a French idea of “petites actions.” Holiday offers that these small actions are “those small steps, the builders of momentum, the little things that add up.” The time granted during lockdowns could be used to explore some simple but small steps that could allow us to come out the other side a new and improved version of ourselves. In 2013, Chris Froome was a British cyclist riding for Team Sky in the Tour de France. He was the team leader, and all other athletes and support team were committed to helping him succeed. With the team effort, Froome ended up winning the Tour. After never having a rider from the UK win the Tour de France since its inception in 1903, 2013 became the second consecutive year a Brit won. David Brailsford was one of the brains behind the beasts riding. He served as the team manager and was tasked with coming up with ways to improve. They were searching for modest, tiny changes that others weren’t considering. In an interview with Matthew Syed that’s part of Syed’s book The Greatest, Brailsford offers, “We are all about honest, systematic improvement. That is what the last 12 months were all about. We were building, finding slight improvements. None of them were decisive. But when you added them all up, it gave us confidence that we could regain the yellow jersey.”

Small Steps is about harnessing some helpful habits for yourself. Instead of worrying about making massive changes, are there some small steps you can take that cost little other than a modest investment of time? Just like Stone built a business on the basics and Brailsford sewed the seeds of success by mastering modest improvements, in Small Steps you’ll be introduced to time tested and proven practices which will help you help yourself feel better and perform better. No, these practices won’t take you from the sofa to the top of the podium in the Tour de France, but they will make you more valuable in your workplace. B.J. Fogg is a Professor at Stanford. His work revolves around understanding how habits are formed. He wrote the book Tiny Habits. In it Fogg notes three characteristics of successful habits. These three qualities are that you have the capability to perform the act, you want to do it, and the behavior makes a difference. Each tactic offered in Small Steps embraces the ideas of Professor Fogg. We’re each more than capable of doing the practices offered and each can make a difference to your day. It’s up to you to determine if you will connect with one or more of these practices and bring Fogg’s third factor of wanting to do it.

The practices cover four pillars of progress: Controlling attention, learning, managing emotions, and physical health. The practices presented aren’t intended to be either an exclusive or exhaustive list. As you read these, you may come up with others on your own. Additionally, this book’s contents need not be read from start to finish. If there’s an area that’s of more interest to you, start there. Pick one practice and read about it. You could then move right to the last section of the book which offers suggestions for how to implement your own Small Steps practice. In a world that seems full of restrictions, we hope that Small Steps helps you see that there are lots of things you can still do. As Napoleon Hill, friend and inspiration to Stone wrote, “If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.”

A post from the folk at Admired Leadership in August of 2021 captures the concept clearly, “For leaders who strive to achieve excellence, doing simple things well is critically important. Excellence in anything requires us to do common things uncommonly well. As one writer suggests, ‘Only those who have the patience to do the simple things perfectly will acquire the skill to do difficult things easily.’” Small Steps is about offering suggestions which will serve as little hinges intended to swing the big doors of ambition in your life. Getting good at the little things will help gain consideration for bigger opportunities. Consider Small Steps as a call to encourage you to become a maven of minutiae.

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