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Posted June 5, 2019 by johnspence

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When I was named CEO of a Rockefeller foundation at the age of 26, Mr. Rockefeller knew that I needed a lot of help and assigned his right-hand man, Charlie Owen, to be my mentor.  Every Monday, Charlie would walk in my office and put a business book on my desk and say, “I’ll see you on Friday for lunch.”

At the end of each week, we would go to Em’s Home Cooking for chili, cornbread, and iced tea, where he would grill me on everything I had learned in the book.  What were the major themes?  Why do you think the author said this?  Do you agree with the author’s ideas on…?  How do you think this applies to the company you are running? He would ask me dozens of questions but in the end, he always asked the most important one:

“What are three specific action steps you are going to take in the business as a result of reading this book?” 

I would tell him what I planned to do, then he would write it down and say, “You will now be held accountable for doing those.”  Every Monday I got a book, every Friday I made a book report, and Charlie held me strictly accountable for implementing the ideas I was learning.

Several years ago I was doing a strategic planning retreat for a large company in Texas and was describing the three circles of the Hedgehog Concept from the famous book Good To Great by Jim Collins.  Just as I was beginning to explain the concept the CEO interrupted me and said, “John, you don’t need to cover that, we all read the book and went through a training course on it and I even hired Jim Collins to come in and teach it to us.”  I thought for a moment and then asked the CEO, “Then could you or anyone one else on your team explain the Hedgehog Concept to me, or the Stockdale Paradox, or the key characteristics of a Level 5 Leader?”  There was total silence.

It is one thing to read a book, attend a training session, watch a YouTube video or listen to a podcast… and a completely different thing to understand the ideas well enough to implement them.  To me, study without application is useless because it does not improve performance or results.

Because of Charlie, now when I study anything I constantly ask myself three questions:

  1. What does this mean to me?
  2. How can I apply this idea?
  3. What can I do right away?

By asking myself these questions, I have gained the invaluable ability to convert what I have learned into action. These questions have changed my life and career, I hope they do for you as well.

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