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How’s Your Balance Sheet?

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the late Stephen Covey introduced the concept of “sharpening the saw.” According to Covey, we often get so involved in “sawing”—the day-to-day activity of producing result —that we forget to take time to “sharpen the saw” before we begin, making our work much harder and less productive than it needs to be. We “sharpen the saw” when we take time for those activities that allow us to maintain or increase results in the future. David Maister, author of Managing the Professional Service Firm, calls this “asset building.”

According to Maister, each project we complete, each client we serve, each idea we sell, each program or campaign we develop represents an asset spent. Unfortunately, the busier we are, the faster we spend and the less time we have to think about building our assets. When we fail to make new deposits to our assets—by learning something new, taking on new challenges, building new skills, or adding new relationships—we run the risk of depleting our assets entirely. According to Maister, “What you know now and are able to do now, what your current success is built on, will unavoidably depreciate in value unless you actively work on learning new things and building new skills.”

Take, for example, my painter friend, Dan. Dan is more than a routine interior house painter. Dan is a skilled professional with a deep regard for his craft and a good eye for color and design. He not only provides traditional painting services, but also does wallpapering and a few faux-paint finishes. Over the years, Dan has built up a loyal client base, which means lots of great referrals and a steady stream of repeat business. With no marketing effort at all, his schedule has been booked four to six months out for the past three years, and he frequently has to refer work to other painters because he can’t fit it into his schedule.

Dan could be content with the success of his current business—he could continue spending his talent and knowledge—his assets—to maximize his current income. He could, as the saying goes, “Make hay while the sun shines.” But Dan recognizes the importance of continuing to add to his asset base. He told me recently that he has noticed a change in his workflow. A year or two ago, he spent some of most every month installing wallpaper. Today, requests for wallpapering have dropped to two or three a year. At the same time, more and more of his clients are inquiring about different faux finishes. In fact, some are even asking him to prep walls for faux finishes that will be applied by other painters. Dan recognizes that he needs to continue to grow if he wants to be the best, so he’s taking time now to enroll in classes to add a wider range of faux finishes to his offerings. The time he spends in class may mean less “billable” time in the present, but it represents an important investment. He’s banking assets for the future.

How is the balance sheet of your organization? Why not take a few minutes to examine your assets? Here are some steps to take to get a clear picture of the assets of your role of the organization you serve:

1. List the skills, relationships and activities that account for the greatest portion of your current success.

2. When did you learn each skill, form each relationship, begin each activity (How long ago did you first add that asset to your balance sheet?) If a considerable percentage of your success comes from assets that are three or more years old, you could be in danger.

3. What will happen if demand for that asset declines? If that skill is replaced by technology? If that relationship ends?

4. What skills are likely to become more important to your success in the future?

5. How could you go about learning those new skills?

6. When is the last time you added a new relationship? What are you doing today to attract new relationships?

7. On the whole, how is your balance sheet?

Take time now to sharpen your saw. Of course, you could keep right on sawing away, but think how much more you might accomplish if you take just a few minutes to sharpen that saw first!

Join the Discussion in the Comments Section Below

Do you have a great way to “sharpen your saw”? If so, what did you do, and how have you benefited from the time your spent?

Relevant Quotes

“The minute you start thinking you know how things work, you’re dead.”

--David Maister, Managing the Professional Service Firm.

"Learning time is not a respected part of the work environment. But you can't be so busy that you allow yourself to get stupid." --Tom Kelley, Cisco Systems (Fast Company, October 2000)

“Even if you're on the right track, you can still get run over if you just sit there.” -Will Rogers


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