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“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” —Dwight Eisenhower
There’s a reason that the first of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “be proactive.” Proactivity means taking control of circumstances, recognizing that you alone are “response-able” for your own actions. Reactivity, on the other hand, means the opposite: Allowing circumstances to dictate your outcomes for you.
The idea of proactive response is rooted in military strategy, with one of the nine principles of war being to “seize, retain and exploit the initiative.” Seizing and holding the initiative affords you the freedom to act. But even if you don’t think of your company as an army waging an offensive against your competition, the underlying strategy still translates, as Covey points out.
So how do you turn your company from reactive to proactive? Read on.
Approach to-do lists with caution
To-do lists are wily creatures. Just when you think you’re finally reaching the bottom, more items mysteriously appear, creating an endless scroll of tasks you’re unlikely to finish in this lifetime.
Chasing the bottom of a to-do list is like running on a treadmill, minus the health benefits. In many cases, the items we list are simply diversions that we add to avoid doing what really needs to be done. But just because each task gets the same bullet point doesn’t mean that all tasks are created equal.
To cut out the filler, I recommend what I call the “hunter” strategy. Early man began each day with one main objective: Hunt for food. If he succeeded, his family got to eat. If not, they didn’t.
There’s a lot to love about modern conveniences (hello, ice cream), but there’s also value to the “one crucial task a day” mindset. If you spend your days combatting your inbox or replying to Slack messages, you’re probably not making much meaningful progress toward your actual goals: You’re reacting to externalities, rather than proactively creating the reality you want.
Sure, responding to emails and other housekeeping tasks are necessary, but not at the expense of more impactful work. Accomplish your one task first, and do the rest after.
Don’t wait for what you want. Go out and get it.
My company, Jotform, recently made an important sale. But the reason it was important wasn’t because it was especially huge or lucrative. What mattered was how we made it.
Jotform Enterprise is a digital workplace productivity tool that’s part of our suite of offerings. While we make an effort to ensure that Enterprise is clearly accessible on the Jotform site, our customers have typically come to us — they’re on Jotform’s page already, they see one of the Enterprise banners and click through. If they’re interested, they contact our sales team to learn more.
This sale happened differently. Members of our growth team created a lead qualification tool, which sorts our users into those who may be interested in Enterprise. Once this team generated a list of leads, they sent it to our sales development manager, who reached out to the organizations to gauge their interest. Those who wanted to know more were connected with our sales team. It was through this proactive system that we made this particular sale — one we likely wouldn’t have otherwise made.
Unlike our reactive approach, in which we waited for customers to come to us, our proactive approach is scalable. We can allocate more resources to reach more potential buyers, which will generate more sales. The reactive approach doesn’t scale nearly the same way.
Of course, not every lead we chase is going to result in a sale. That’s okay. What matters is taking concrete action instead of sitting back and waiting for success to happen.
Maintain a growth mindset
Complacency and reactivity go hand in hand. A proactive leader, however, is constantly seeking out new information, be it through reading books, blog posts and articles or listening to other peoples’ perspectives.
Proactivity requires a receptiveness to solutions that aren’t immediately obvious. Take John Lennon and Paul McCartney, both musical luminaries by almost any measure. But they weren’t geniuses in isolation: In Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, author Joshua Wolf Shenk writes that the two worked together to write their songs, with one composing and the other adding to it, and vice-versa.
The world is changing at a breakneck pace — what was cutting edge yesterday is obsolete today. Staying on top of what’s happening and keeping a mind that’s open to change is much easier than trying to play catch-up. By then, it’s usually too late anyway.
One helpful way of keeping a proactive mindset is taking a step back from the day-to-day and looking at the big picture. Entrepreneurs face short-term temptations all the time — cash injections, trends, fancy perks, etc. The appeal of these things is undeniable. I realize that as a bootstrapped founder I’m a little biased, but I chose a different path: One of slow, measured — but sustainable — growth. I knew what my goals were, and I decided to attain them my way, no VC required.
But thinking long-term doesn’t only apply to how you grow your business. It’s also how you maintain it. Back in the ‘90s, Nike was facing an image crisis due to increasing public awareness of the treatment of its factory workers. Instead of continuing to deny responsibility for these conditions, the company went the other way, creating a then-ground-breaking system of accountability. In 2005, it released a global database of 750 of its factories, setting a new precedent for manufacturing transparency. By thinking long-term, Nike not only managed to mitigate its bad press; it reinvented itself as a leader in responsible supply chain practices.
It’s not possible to be proactive 100 percent of the time. When you’re running a business, there will inevitably be things that happen that you could never have planned for — the Covid pandemic being a perfect example. Even so, having a proactive mindset will put you in a much better position to handle what comes your way.