The past eight years have been tough on lots of lawyers and those who support them. The recession strained finances and kicked off a sea change in client expectations. New categories of competition emerge almost daily. Clients' BigData investments mean they often know much more about your performance than you do. It can feel like a struggle, just when you thought you'd be at a stage of your career when things should be getting easier.

Today's guest post is for anyone in a leadership position. It was written in 2005 for the Entrepreneur of the Year edition of Smart Business by Bob Reffner, in private practice at the time, now General Counsel of FirstEnergy. I had the privilege of coaching Bob for many years, and have always found him to be a reliable source of wisdom. Here are his words to leaders:

Do any of these scenarios describe you?

1. You’re successful, yet somewhere along the way you’ve hit a wall. You feel bored, burned out, unchallenged. Family, friends and relationships are less rewarding. You’re maintaining rather than creating. Your plate is full, and the thought of a bigger plate is depressing.

2. You’re a seasoned executive or owner asking yourself, “What’s next?” You’re driven by a strong sense of “I’m not finished yet,” and you reject the status quo. You’re unsure of where you’re going.

3. You’re a high achiever, but you or your team has failed, maybe in a big way, and it’s gnawing at you in ways you cannot shake. It hangs like a dark cloud over you and your organization.

4. You’re in charge. It’s lonely at the top. The pace and stakes are high; the future uncertain; the demands are unrelenting. There’s not enough of you to go around. You don’t have all the answers.

The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.
— Edward Gibbon

If you’re feeling lost at sea, here are a few navigation aids that can help you find your course and get back to enjoying your career and your life.

Learn to embrace failure. If you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried. As Maxwell in Failing Forward points out, failure contains the raw material for future success. Learn its lessons. Embrace it. Don’t be deterred. If you do not run, you cannot win. Addressing root causes is your ticket to admission to the next level. Learn early; the lessons only get harder.   

Achievement is not possible with a negative mindset. Ever. You become your dominant thought, good or bad. It’s a rule of life: sooner or later, you get what you expect. Reframe and stay positive. Only missions and goals that excite can sustain.  

You’ve been successful for a reason. But along the way, your days became full of “stuff”. Time to focus. Eliminate the non-essential. Build the team. Address the root causes of clutter. Pump the bilge. Rediscover and restore what you enjoy and do best.

It’s about focus and fundamentals. Consider the difference of 1°: 211°F makes tea; 212°F powers a battleship. Do you want to sip or to win?

Perfectionists, beware: best is the enemy of better. It’s about the pursuit of excellence, not perfection. Take Olympic athletes. The goal is growth, achievement and progress. Commit to take small imperfect steps to build momentum. Try, learn, adjust, retry. A constant state of uncertainty is the norm.

At this level of performance, it’s not about subject matter expertise but about leadership. Leaders say “no” to maintenance and focus on transformation. To what? How? If you make all the decisions, you’re going to get the job of making all of them. Mobilize resources to get answers. The intelligence of the organization resides in the conversations of its people. Create an atmosphere where they can be effective. Engage people not like you. Diverse people and perspectives provide solutions that endure (Frans Johansson, The Medici Effect).  

God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Trust is your company’s immune system. A leader too far ahead of the troops is seen as the enemy.

As a seasoned executive, you ask "what’s next?” Why stop now? You planned your first career, now plan your second. Take advantage of experience and wisdom. Build something that endures. The best use of a life is to spend it on something that outlasts it (Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life, quoting William James).

Here’s to business and to life. If you’re going to spend the rest of your life in the future, why not create the one you desire? Business is a tool to enable you to accomplish what you want to do in your life. What do you want to accomplish?  


Bob said, "If you make all the decisions, you’re going to get the job of making all of them." He means don't allow yourself to be Dad or Mom to a cadre of professional "kids." Fire yourself from every job that can be done by someone else.

He also reminded us of the adage, "It's lonely at the top." Many lawyers find it hugely helpful to have a professional coach who serves as confidant, helping you define and think through the strategic challenges in front of you.

If you think that would help you, schedule a free consultation to see if we're a fit.