The smartest person I know­—my sister, Dorothy—has devoted her life to education and learning. She reads constantly, and I have never managed to bring up a subject in conversation that she doesn’t know something about. But even my brilliant sister would agree it’s all too easy for the pursuit of learning to interfere with the pursuit of action.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge champion of education and learning. I’m the chancellor of Cape Breton University, after all. But I have noticed that emerging leaders will sometimes opt for more training or seek more knowledge when a wiser choice might be to take a different course of action.

Take my experience at the Cape Breton Development Corp., where I started my career. I had gone as far as I could go in that organization. I was having trouble finding other work. I was 30 years old. What I see many people who discover themselves in a similar situation doing today is earning an MBA, hoping the education will open up new doors.

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This is a reasonable bet. And education is always valuable. But I have to wonder whether some of those people would benefit more from taking a few of the career-propelling actions: asking their network for introductions, seeking operational experience or switching sectors. Something else I see is people devoting too little time to strategic networking in favour of securing one certification after another. Again, degrees, diplomas and certifications are all wonderful, but they can also be tactics that take you away from the world of action and real results.

If you want to get more training, by all means pursue it. But augment your training with real-world action: networking, stretch assignments and good, old-fashioned hard work. These are the activities that deliver results for your team or organization. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more saleable, promotable or valuable than your ability to take massive action and produce a payoff.

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In a perfect world, everything happens in order. In the real world, the best you can do is try to pull things off in approximate order. I see a lot of startup companies led by inexperienced entrepreneurs get into trouble from overspending because they are trying to adhere to a brilliant strategy in which everything happens in perfect order.


Example: my startup situation at Michaels. The logical, ideal-world scenario would have been to invest right away in computerized inventory controls. After all, we had aggressive growth plans. By holding off on this investment, we knew we’d be creating headaches for ourselves later when it came time to overlay a new inventory-tracking system on an operating retail chain. And had we been committed to doing everything in perfect order, I would have spent a good chunk of time—weeks, if not months—searching for more capital to fund our startup. But in my mind, that would only hold us back from getting results. The results we needed were sales. And in order for sales to happen, we needed some stores in which people could actually buy something. If we had been focused on making the events happen in the perfect sequence, we might not have survived long enough to see our first sale.

If I ever find myself in a situation where something is taking longer than it should, I will always stop and ask myself if I’m waiting for one thing to happen in order for another thing to happen. For example, I might find myself waiting to book a meeting date with a prospective partner because we don’t yet have a finalized proposal we can show him. The mistaken belief here is that we need a finalized proposal before we arrange a meeting. But do we? In all likelihood, no. We can book the meeting first and finish the proposal second.

This is a simple example, but it’s illustrative of the many ways we slow down our progress because we’re attached to things unfolding in a specific sequence. My rule: Imperfect action is always better than order.

This article from the May 2016 issue of Canadian Business is excerpted from Bet on Me by Annette Verschuren © 2016. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.


Do you agree? How important have planning and execution been to the success of your business? Share your thoughts and experiences by commenting below.

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