Know what you need to leave behind


This time of year is a perfect opportunity to reflect on life and identify aspects you want to change in 2016. Over the course of our life and each year we collect fond memories but also baggage that weighs us down from becoming the person we want to be or moving forward with the life we want.  My personal journey and reflection led to the definition of this “Know” principle a few years ago:

Know what you need to leave behind to make room for the new life you envision.

Continue reading “Know what you need to leave behind”

My One B1G Thing

James Gray - One Big ThingOver the last few years I have shared my passion for career strategy and management with many people within Microsoft.   While career strategy and mentoring others has always been an interest,  I really did not know if this was a special talent.  Even if I had something special nobody really knew what I was selling or the value given the pace of a typical business day.  I did not have a compelling event or situation that could launch my platform. I will share my example of how I applied the insight from the book “One B1G Thing” by Phil Cooke to refine and validate my passion.  It was only by putting myself out there with a captive audience that validated my One B1G Thing (OBT).  Ironically it was helping others find their career passion which led to the validation of my OBT.

My presentations typically include an overview of the Career Strategy Framework and the type of content that can be created to tell and execute your career story.  The concepts have more impact and are easily understood when I share my personal example.  A core deliverable produced by the framework  is the “Career Strategy Storytelling” deck that describes critical information to deliver your career message with a large audience.   My deck includes about ten slides including the slide in the picture above entitled “My One B1G Thing”.  It brings together the results of my reflection based on Phil Cooke’s book in an easy to consume view.   Over the last year  I have practiced putting myself out there with an “idea” about my OBT.  I was not 100% sure but I thought I would use my speaking events as a way to practice and refine it.   I highly recommend you do something similar otherwise your OBT may never be discovered.

Here is the journey that led to the validation of my OBT and I will relate them to key points reinforced by Phil Cooke.

Comes Easy to Me

Over the last year I have been asked to speak at multiple Microsoft events that have included over 100+ people.  While that may not seem very large, getting a group of Microsoft people for any hour event is difficult.  People who attended my presentations were complementary on what new insight they gained to approaching career strategy but I often discarded this given that this career management thing is a side hobby.  The more I spoke to employees and managers that needed help the more I realized there was a skill that had come easy to me.  I was helping employees take a journey to understand who they were, who they wanted to become and how to get there.   During my presentations and discussions I slowly realized that I was in an euphoric state that come not compare to anything else.  Many of my colleagues would ask when my book would be published but I often just laughed and discounted that.  I began to reconsider after thinking more about Phil Cooke’s quote “far too often we simply brush these complements aside, when they could be a critical key to our future calling” (One Big Thing, Phil Cooke).

I Love

My OBT was formed by a unique intersection of topics I love to learn and apply including management, marketing, analytics and technology.  The curiosity of using business theories and analytical models to predict the future is contagious. The ability to use those insights to drive human behavior is not only intellectually stimulating but it can lead to optimizing the one life we live.  My home office is filled with books and magazines on business theory, management practices and analytics.  This passion is what lead me to pursue an MBA at Haas-Berkeley and more recently as a graduate degree in predictive analytics at Northwestern University.   These topics shaped the creation of my framework and how I matured it over time.  Over the last few years I hosted talks within Microsoft on career strategy and small workshops for people who wanted to take control of their career.  Nobody told me to do this and I was not receiving extra compensation.  It is what I love to do.  I was helping people change their life by giving them a broader context and process how to plan and execute their career.  The people who landed new jobs or improved another aspect of their life was my reward.  I often found myself unconscious to time when creating new material or preparing for a workshop.   Creating new webcasts in my home office until late at night was common.   I was constantly thinking about how I could refine the framework and help people adopt it.

Drives Me Crazy

As a manager I hate to see people in the wrong jobs and unhappy people coming to work each day.  Life is really too short for all of that.  I am disappointed by the lost potential when a company says employees are the most important asset but they don’t back it up with tangible evidence.  I am fortunate to work for Microsoft that values employee contributions and helps them achieve their best. Like all large companies there will always be an opportunity to raise awareness and build a culture of mutual success.  The demands in the workplace have never been greater and the loss of consciousness to other important aspects of life including health and family can lead to big problems.  As a product of a divorced marriage, kids without parents and the pains that come with that drives me crazy.  I can remember some tough times as a kid and I don’t wish that on anyone.  We live one life and constant unhappiness is no way to live it.   My frustration to find the right job back in 2006 and need as a manager to help colleagues with their careers is what fueled my passion.  My theory was born that if I had a repeatable process that could help people define success and keep them on track using analytics then happiness would result.

Be Remembered For

I want to be remembered as someone who made others great.  A model husband that made my wife happy.  A father who guided, supported and encouraged his kids to pursue their dreams and achieve success in all aspects of their lives. In the workplace I want to be remembered as someone who created a culture for business results and employee happiness.   Someone who took time to mentor and develop others.  Someone who was driven to the highest levels of performance and inspiring others to do the same.   My experience is that I can achieve that by applying the 7 strategic processes of the framework.

The Intersection of a Need and a Passion


In early 2006, at a low-point in my career, I sketched a picture that would later become a framework for how I approached my career and life.  The approach I used would result in a great job at Microsoft and a happier life overall.  As a manager at Microsoft I shared this with my small team as a way to help them plan their next career move.  I kept this approach primarily to myself and the team until 2010 when I was asked to speak with an intern group and other small teams to share the framework.  In 2012 I was asked by a senior leader to create a short video on career planning and also offer a workshop as small beta test.  In the first half of 2013 I spoke to hundreds of people in Microsoft as these webcasts, workshops and brown-bags become my platform to share ideas.   It was my personal and original content on how I applied the framework that I believe is how people connected with my message.  I shared how I approached each day as an individual, husband, father and leader.   Perhaps it was how I described my approach as a whole person not just who I was in the workplace.

What I learned surprisingly by sharing my career and life challenges is that many other people were challenged how to plan and execute their career while balancing life even though numerous resources existed internally and externally.   They wanted to learn more and were inspired by my ideas.  I validated there was a real need to help people with their careers and to ensure their plan including other aspects of their life including health, family and financial success.  It was the basic idea that employees in the right jobs would drive higher performance for Microsoft.   It was my curiosity on how to execute a career strategy while also taking a balanced approach to life that created an intersection of a need with a passion.  What I learned over the last few years is that you may never know exactly who you are and where you are going unless you listen to the clues and put yourself out there.  Although I had been pursuing a passion for about six years now, Phil Cooke’s book was a great refresher to refine your focus.  We live one life and it’s not forever.  Find your One B1g Thing and don’t look back.


Walking the wheel of life one day at a time

Over the last few weeks I have shared the theory and examples of the Career Strategy Framework with hundreds of people of Microsoft.  It has been an amazing experience so I thought I would share one concept that appears to resonate with many people.

We all struggle to bring balance to our life and in most cases make tradeoffs unconsciously each day.   How do we make the “best” decisions to allocate our time, talent and treasure that drives the highest levels of happiness and career impact?  In this post I share a simple picture that changed my life and how the concepts of the Career Strategy Framework can be used to strategically achieve career goals and life happiness.

About seven years ago I was at a place in my career where I knew I needed to make a change.  I was not fulfilled in my job and the extensive business travel impacted the relationships with my family.  Life was good but I knew it could be even better.  My life had been running on auto-pilot for a few years as I attempted to balance the demands of my job and growing family.   After a few unsuccessful interviews I quickly became discouraged as my confidence hit a low.  My life lacked a clear sense of direction and passion.  There was so much more that I wanted to achieve as a father, husband and professional.   That is when I took a time-out one afternoon and sketched the simple picture below.  This strategic model now aligns all of my time and the meaning of success for my life.   Each day there are choices to be made that require a quick response and this is my mental model for making those choices.   This has become so second nature that all actions align to optimizing these outcomes.


Unlike most career strategy programs, the Career Strategy Framework takes a “life” approach by integrating a career into other aspects of life using a strategic model.  “Know” is the first Framework sub-process and this challenges people to “know” who you are, what is important and who you want to become.  I encourage people to create their own model that describes a life purpose (center) and the Critical Success Factors (CSF) that are required to deliver on that purpose.  In my example the five circles represent those critical success factors.  The model also describes the roles I play in life as well.  My experience is that people are challenged in “Know” since many of them really don’t know who they are or want to become.  They have approached planning life and career independently and struggle to fit these two concepts together in a typical day.

I will share a few examples of how this simple model you can serve as your north star to make the necessary changes in your life to optimize life and career success.

A Model for Change

#1 – Stay Healthy: This CSF is first since if I am not healthy and alive then nothing else quite matters.  First I decided to get off the world travel circuit that enabled a more balanced life.   The challenge was that I could never make time for exercise given the demands of work and family life after hours.  So I integrated this important event into my daily routine before the workday.   That was six years ago and today I can say I probably have the highest level of endurance and strength due to my training program.  All it took was a small adjustment to my schedule and knowing that I needed to do this first before all other activities of my day.  I bring a sense of accomplishment and energy as I start my work day at Microsoft.  Spiritual health is just as important to physical health and over the last few years my family and I have become more engaged in a new church in the community.

#2 – Build a Happy Family: This was probably my biggest opportunity area and in my heart I knew it.  I was so busy and focused on establishing career success that for years I had optimized #3 at the expense of my family.  I was unconscious to my broader life until a few signals that provided a wake up call.  For three years I had traveled to Chicago almost every week for an assignment and then one day a fellow colleague asked me a simple question that I did not have a good answer to:  “James, why do you do this?  What motivates you to travel here every week and be away from your family?”   The other signal was that when I returned for those days at home I noticed that my kids would always ask my wife a question when sometimes I would be right there too.  It came to me that my kids had become so conditioned for me not being there and that I was missing out on being a parent.  After #1 Stay Healthy, #2 Build a Happy Family was something that I always wanted given that I grew up in a divorced family.  The memories of challenging times during my childhood was enough for me to drive change that was needed.  This model helped me recognize that I needed to change my career path and live up to my expectations as father and husband.  My transition to Microsoft in 2006 made a world of difference.   I have also made other adjustments that have been energizing.  My wife and I now take a least one vacation a year together so that we have special time just for us.  Given all of the other demands in life it would be so easy to put this off and many years we did. But it’s important to enrich our marriage with special times we will always remember.   On the family front we had put off taking a vacation for so many years that we decided it was time to all get away from the normal routine with a holiday cruise.  As I sat each night at dinner with my wonderful family away from our normal routine I thought to myself that this is what twenty years of investing created – something that money can’t buy.

#3 – Manage Career:  For many years I did not truly manage my career because I was fortunate that most opportunities came my way.  I now use the Career Strategy Framework to actively manage and execute my career with a strong direction.  With the adjustments I made to #1 and #2 I am now bringing all of my energy to the workplace and the energy I generate at Microsoft back home.  My career plan has a direction and I actively manage this as part of my day.  I recently recognized that I needed to develop additional competencies to be a credible professional in my field so I am pursuing a Masters degree in Predictive Analytics.

#4 – Grow Net Worth: As much as I had always loved investing it became clear that I don’t have time to actively invest my money and that I will never be an expert.   A number of years ago I hired an investment management firm to steward my retirement nest egg so I could fully dedicate myself to the other critical success factors of my life.

#5 – Give to Others:  For years I always wanted to help others less fortunate but there was never any time.   I was so busy trying to get my life in order that taking out time to help others was not imaginable at the time.   The model was a catalyst to make some progress in this area and over the last few years our family has made dinners for the homeless and supported other giving events.   I remember a few years back when we served meals at Tent City one evening and there was man with the large block letters “LUCKY” across his sweatshirt.  This was a sign and reminder to me that many of us on a daily basis truly forget how blessed and lucky we are.  Helping someone else can be one of the most important and fulfilling things we do but most of us forget given the busy lives we lead.   Sometimes something small can mean a lot to someone who does not have a lot.   I am sure I would have not have made time for this had I not defined #5 and thought about what small thing I could do to make progress.


I hope the few examples above given you inspiration to create your “What’s Important” model.   Here are a few closing thoughts:

  • You may be living a good life but make it even more meaningful for you and others around you by taking a strategic perspective to each day.
  • Unfortunately life does not last forever so live each day as your last.   Don’t put off things thinking you will do them later in life.
  • Use a strategic model similar to this to align all of your time, talent and treasure.  You will be amazed by the energy and conviction you bring to your day.
  • Establish measures that define what is success and track progress toward you goals.   I wrote a post last summer on this topic so this can serve as a useful reference.

The intriguing part of this model is that it has completely re-focused how I look at life each day.   All of my actions and energy is devoted to delivering on these critical success factors and when I do that the energy is amazing!  I am fortunate to have recognized that I needed to make changes in my life before it was too late.   There are certainly things I would have done differently in my life but I can only look forward to make each day a success.  If you are feeling something in your life requires a change then I would recommend you take a time out to comes to terms with whatever that is before it’s too late.

If you enjoy reading books then I strongly recommend “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Clayton M. Christensen.  I have shared with book with fellow colleagues who attend my career workshops at Microsoft and this will likely drive you to reflect broadly on life.

Thanks for listening.

Follow Your Heart, Follow Your Passion to Happiness

Today is special day for me as is every July 31st.  It’s a day that on two occasions changed my life.  I share a story that I wrote a few years ago that I hope gives you inspiration to pursue your passions and happiness.   Sometimes life’s great treasures are unplanned and it’s up to you to seize the moment.  As the ultimate “planner” this was an experience where it was my heart and gut that led me to pursue my passion.  It was not a career passion but someone who fuels my happiness each and every day.

The Day That Changed My Life

It was July 31, 1991 and as I got on a plane from San Francisco to Dallas I had no idea that this would be the day that changed my life forever. This would be the story that I told everyone or no one at all. Victory or defeat at the most personal level. Luckily this became “our story” and I share this with you and the life lessons from that day.

Early in July 1991 I accepted a job with Chevron in San Francisco after a 14 month assignment at Chevron in Baton Rouge, LA. It was the telephone call that would change my life when Dave, a Chevron colleague, asked me to come back to Baton Rouge given some problems that the plant was experiencing with an automation system we had recently commissioned. It was flight #462 that landed at DFW in the early afternoon of July 31st 1991. As I waited in the crowded gate area for the trip to BTR, I found myself standing next to a beautiful young woman. She was stunning and dressed to a tee in typical Southern style. As we stood there a man approached and asked us a question about someone who may have gone into the women’s bathroom. We looked at each other and made a short comment to the gentleman. We engaged in short conversation while in the gate area and I was mesmerized by her smile and beautiful blue eyes. As I looked at her, I said to myself “how old do you think she is” ? She did look young and I thought about how commonplace it was for 15 or 16-year-old girls in Baton Rouge to look at least 21.

On flight #909 to Baton Rouge I walked down to her row and talked for a little while as well. We arrived in small Baton Rouge airport and I proceeded to the Hertz counter to get my car. It appeared that her Mom was here to pick her up as they waited by the baggage claim area. I needed to kill a little time waiting for the bags to arrive so I used the phone to check my messages. While on the phone our eyes met across the baggage claim area as she waved to me. What do I do now I thought? Do I go over there with her mom? So here it goes. I walk over to the baggage claim area and we started talking again. This young woman mentioned that she was here for the week to visit her family. I am thinking she is here, I am here what about getting together? The thought did cross my mind but I could feel her mom in close proximity behind me as she and others listened to our conversation. In the end I did not have the heart to go down in flames in front of the audience. So after my luggage had arrived, we shared goodbyes and I proceeded to leave the airport terminal. As the sliding glass doors opened the hot humid air hit me and I felt a sudden sensation that I regretted leaving her. As I proceeded to drive to my hotel I was kicking myself for not asking her for her number or if she wanted to get together during the week. This feeling would propel me to explore my ultimate creativity.

How Do I Find This Woman?

As I arrived at the hotel that night I remember thinking that I need to see her again. I could not stop thinking about her. The following evening after work I decided to kick-start my mission. I did have one piece of information that would prove to be invaluable. During our chat in Dallas I observed her name printed on her ticket.  Just call information and I am home free.  I had never heard of the name “Morvant” so how common could it be?  As the operator answered and asked for the last name I stated “Morvant”. This is going to be great I thought. The operator stated, “first name”? I said, “well how many Morvant’s are there in Lafayette? She said “about 50”. That plan came crashing down in hurry. Time for plan B which would turn out to be one of my greatest feats of all time.

As I sat at the desk in my room, I looked over and saw the Delta system timetable book. What I did know was her name, and that she was staying a week which I calculated out to be one day after I was to depart back to San Francisco. I called Delta reservations and asked if they could confirm her was on a particular flight. They declined to provide this information. So I used my trusty timetable and looked at all of the flights going through DFW with connections to Denver and San Francisco. I figured she wanted to maximize her time at home so I picked the last flight of the day. It was just a guess. I called Delta reservations back and requested assistance to change my flight. I asked the ticket agent to change my flight to the following day and the last flight of the day. The Delta agent asked “is there anything else I can do for you?” I replied, “Yes, there is I have a friend on that flight and I was wondering if you could sit us together”. At this point, I had no idea if she was really on this flight but I just gave it a try. I gave the Delta agent her name and she replied “oh yes, I see her”. I had just hit the jackpot. The Delta agent stated “You are sitting in first class and she is sitting in coach do you want to upgrade her”? I declined as I did not want to go overboard here and scare this woman who I didn’t really know if she was at least 18 years old or anything else about her.

Airport Connection

As the week ends the final day arrives. I could barely contain my laughter as I sat behind a Wall Street Journal waiting for her to exit the escalator in the gate area. There she was. She was with her mom again as they entered one of the small shops in the 6 gate airport. What am I going to say to this woman? Finally she and her mom exit the shop and they are walking directly toward me. I put my paper down and she looks at me with astonishment as exclaims, “what are you doing here”. I asked her and her mom to sit down and talk. As the flight begins to board, I head on as she said her goodbyes to her mother. We arrive in DFW and this time I am not going to lose the opportunity to exchange information. We walked through the terminal together towards our connecting flights and I gave her my contact information.  At this point I did not know really anything about her. We conversed by phone over the next few months and then one day I decided to call her to wish her a happy birthday. A guy answers the phone. Stake through the heart. The call is short and it appears this great story is about to end here.

International Connection

A few months passed and in early February 1992 I headed off to live in Perth, Australia on assignment with Chevron. I often thought about her and assumed that she found someone else. One afternoon I was relaxing in the large green lawn areas of downtown Perth next to the river and opened the package of personal mail that I would receive every week from San Francisco. It was a card and beautiful picture of this long-lost girl. Wow this story is not over. Coincidently I had also sent her a postcard from Perth that she would never get.

Baton Rouge Re-Connection

My assignment ended in late April as I traveled back to the US for a commitment I made to support work that needed to be done during a plant shutdown in Baton Rouge. I was in my San Francisco office for a few days when the phone rang. It was her. I was surprised to hear from her and we caught up on life over the past six months. Ironically in the previous weeks she had returned to live in Lafayette. I said “you are not going to believe this but I am heading down to Baton Rouge in a few days, let’s get together”. It was a date for two strangers that met about 9 months earlier.

I traveled to Baton Rouge and date night arrived. She was nervous but it was a great night. A few days later I was invited for dinner with her family. The family would now meet that mystery guy from the airport. I still remember that evening where I was on display and answering questions. We dated one night for putt-putt golf with my matchmaker friend Dave prior to my two-week stay ending. I agreed to travel back down to Louisiana for the long July 4th holiday.  I would now be staying with a woman who I had a few dates with.

We spent the July 4th holiday in New Orleans and attended a family party. After a few days I knew this was the one. I traveled back to San Francisco and we spoke often for a few weeks. We even spoke about marriage. Yes over the phone. I returned to New Orleans in early August and that evening we greeted by exchanging our commitment to each other. I gave my future wife a roll of cherry lifesavers and she gave me a roll of butter rum. Just like the commercial where a little boy asks a girl to marry him using a lifesaver for the ring. We still have these lifesavers today. I had just made the biggest decision in my life to marry a woman I had spent less than two weeks with. This was not typical for someone who was schooled to analyze and dissect all of the views before making a decision. A few weeks later I returned to New Orleans and over lunch in the French Quarter I asked her father for permission to marry his daughter. What a great day.  Exactly two years later on the day we met, July 31, 1993, we married in Lafayette, LA.

Life Lessons

I love telling this story and the life lessons from this experience:

  1. Never say “I wonder what would have happened if….” I have always been one to go for it as I never wanted to be in a position questioning myself later in life of what may have been. Take a chance, at least you will know the outcome and never second guess yourself.
  2. Follow your gut and your heart There will be many occasions where you will not have all of the answers or even time to analyze the situation. Trust your gut and let your heart lead you to achieve new heights.
  3. Reward is not possible without taking risk – while this is obvious, sometimes it’s easier said than done. Take a chance and sometimes you will get a reward you did not quite expect.
  4. Be aware of the environment around you – I always tell my kids to be aware of your surroundings. It was something as basic as seeing and remembering a name on an airplane ticket that changed my life.
  5. Don’t act on assumptions – When I called my future wife in October 1991 for her birthday, I had assumed that she was living with a guy and had just moved on. Little did I know this was not the case. Don’t always assume you know everything and act upon assumptions that may be devastating.
  6. Ask the right questions to get the answers you need – I knew the airline would not tell me if a person was on a specific flight so I asked the right questions to eventually get the answers I needed. Be smart and sometimes you will get all the answers you need without actually ever asking the direct question!
  7. Be brave enough to be vulnerable – It turned out that I was not brave enough to ask someone out for fear of going down in flames in front of a number of people. Sometimes being vulnerable let’s others truly know who you are and what you want. Take a chance.
  8. Work the system – My family knows this is one of my favorite statements: “you need to work the system!” The system to me is just life and the need to be resourceful to make things happen and overcome challenges you experience in all aspects of your life. Overcome what others can’t.
  9. Tell your story to inspire othersWe all have life stories that are special and can act as special motivators for others. Tell your story.
  10. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it – This is my personal motto as it inspires a sense of creativity and aspiration in everything I do. The only thing that limits the future is our mind and will.

As we look into the distance after 19 years of marriage the future could not be any brighter for us and our five kids. I know that some of the best days of our life are still ahead. Sometimes even though we try to plan every aspect of our life there can be a day that can truly change it forever. For us that day was July 31, 1991 and July 31, 1993.

Destiny is not a silver bullet for success as it takes commitment to work through life’s challenges and enrich your marriage every day.  I am not quite sure where I would be right now if I did not pursue what I felt in my heart that day.  I do know I would have missed out in life’s greatest treasure and the happiest 21 years of my life.

We are all in – forever. Happy Anniversary sweetheart.