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.

Here are a few dimensions to reflect on and determine what you need to leave behind to move forward:

Failure – All of us have experienced failure and we often hold on to it so tightly.  I remember a job that I did not get that I really wanted and how I spent cycles in my head processing that.  There was nothing I could do to change to the result unless I let it go to focus on the future.  Failures in our relationships can also create heavy burdens on our soul.  Failure is a learning opportunity and once we have captured the nugget for our self-improvement we must let it go otherwise it can consume us.

Guilt – A feeling of guilt may also weigh on our mind and consume valuable time.  As I looked back at my career there were years when jobs required travel all over the world.  I often felt a sense of guilt when I was not there for my family.  It was that reflection that led me to make career changes and leave a job behind.  It was acknowledging this sensation with family members and coming to terms that those times could not be changed.  That enabled me to leave the sense of guilt behind and free myself to looking forward.  I have heard similar stories from people who have gone through the self-introspective principles and questions of the “Know” step during my workshops at Microsoft.

Forgiveness – Think about a time when you hurt or disappointed someone.  One of the most powerful things you can do is to say you are sorry and ask for forgiveness.   This acknowledges the sincerity of your poor choice and the forgiveness received  leaves the baggage on the roadside for everybody.  The courage for us to also proactively forgive can also free grudges we hold onto that may cloud our judgement and consume unproductive energy.  Pain and sorrow can sometimes be hard to leave behind but the emotional weight only slows us down from realizing a happy life.  Is there someone who deserves an overdue apology?

Habit – What are the unconscious and routine behaviors that are negatively impacting your relationships, career success and happiness?  It’s easy for these automated behaviors to go unnoticed by us individually so it’s helpful to be vulnerable and ask others what habits you should leave behind.  These people may be the support you need to be the cues of the habit and breaking it.

Behavior – Is there a behavior you exhibit in particular circumstances that you or someone else have identified that conflicts with your personal brand, expectations of a relationship or achieving success?  What behavior would you leave behind to make room for the behavior you want to develop in 2016?

Previous successful identity – Our co-workers typically see us in a particular light based on past achievements and success.  Our future success may be limited by the mental models of how others perceive us.   In these cases we need to leave a previous identity behind and develop a new one in order to be seen as someone who is capable for new growth or responsibility.  What is your next professional identity?

Current job – Remaining in your current job may be holding you back from achieving greater impact and fulfillment.  I can remember cases where it was my particular manager or organization that did not align with my career strategy or create the best environment for success.  It was in those cases where I need to leave the job behind to grow professionally and realize a sense of accomplishment.

Relationship – Research shows that we are heavily influenced by the people we interact and surround our self with.  Our success and happiness is significantly dependent on these relationships.   Is there a relationship that is holding you back, creating undo conflict or exhibits behaviors that do not align with your values?  It’s never easy saying goodbye but sometimes change is not possible without it.

Time allocation – Inspecting how you spend time each day and over the course of week can be an interesting exercise to determine if it aligns with your priorities.  What meaningless or low impact activities can you leave behind to make room for your 2016 goals?   I recently gave this more thought and determined that occasionally I get onto email or the web to take a break and then get preoccupied with content that ate into my precious time.

This past November I spoke at a Microsoft career development event and later reflected on the slide where I discussed this principle.  As I went down the list above I could think of specific things I could leave behind going into 2016.  They became tangible as I thought about how they consumed time and did not contribute to my life strategy and goals.   Sometimes it’s what we need to leave behind to become a more successful and fulfilled person at home and work.

What are you leaving behind to make room for personal change in 2016?

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.

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