Work the plan

May 14, 2010

Jim Pascale was just 27 when we hopped into my car and took off for Iowa. It was our first market outside Minnesota, and I’d just promoted Jim to Iowa regional manager.

Speeding out of Minneapolis and down I-35, I asked to see his schedule. Gripping the wheel with one hand, Jim grabbed his planner from the backseat and handed it over. I was a little shocked by what I saw.

“Do you have a copy of your goals with you?” I asked.  Jim froze and shot me a deer-in-the-headlights look.

“Pull over,” I said. “I’m driving.”

Back on the interstate, I told Jim to write down everything he wanted to accomplish for the year, from career and financial goals to travel, health and relationships. He listed the categories and wrote things like, “Hit my bonus target,” “Pay off personal debt,” “Visit my parents in Chicago.” Then I told him to list the action steps they required. Finally, I asked him to set deadlines.

When Jim finished, I congratulated him, but cautioned that it was only the first step. I told him to rewrite his monthly schedule by finding homes on his calendar for what was personally important. Next, he added mandatory work meetings. Then he added other high-priority tasks and appointments.

“As I entered each item,” Jim recalled, “I began connecting the dots between my goals and my daily activities. To hit my personal financial goals, I had to hit my bonus targets. To hit my bonus, I had to fix up my stores and hire good people. It was obvious those things were related, but I hadn’t been working toward specific, measurable goals in such a step-by-step way.”  

By the time we hit Iowa, I sensed something in Jim had shifted. In the months that followed, he was more purposeful and disciplined. Two years later, he was named vice president of franchise operations, and had doubled his salary.

Do what you’ve always done and you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. You can conquer the summit of any mountain — if you set your mission in motion with action plans.

Eloquent mission statements and lofty goals are a good start. But without deliberate deeds, they fade like yesterday’s paper. The last trace is a vague sense that you’d once been at the doorstep of something big. As Will Rogers said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

[PAGEBREAK]First create, then integrate

An action plan is just what it sounds like — a list of what must be done to change a goal’s status from “To do” to “Ta-daaa!”

In 1998, I renewed my commitment to deepen my relationship with my parents, who are divorced and live far from my Minneapolis home. My mother, Elizabeth, lives in southern Indiana, and my father, Bill, who now lives in an Indiana nursing home, lived for years in Southern California.

Here’s how I linked that goal — and its action steps — to my mission. (The same drill works for business goals.)

Personal Mission Statement (relevant portion): To build nurturing environments which contribute to the growth of family and friends.

Goal Category: Family.

Goal: To enhance my relationship with my mother (I created a separate plan for my relationship with my father).

Action plan:

1. Call Mom three times a week.

2. Take a week-long vacation with her wherever she wants to go.

3. Spend six long weekends at her Indiana home.

4. Host her in Minneapolis from Christmas to New Year’s.

5. Send cards on her birthday, Mother’s Day, and other holidays.

6. Financially assist her so she lives a comfortable, active life.

7. Consistently check in on her feelings and her life, and leave nothing unsaid. Regularly express that I love her and appreciate all the love she’s given me.

Writing action plans is invigorating but, like your mission and goals, they’re still just words on paper. Transferring your action plans over to your schedule and to-do list is the critical link. Just be sure to mind your priorities — schedule your personal life first and plan business around it.

Meeting personal goals paves the way to success at work.

Lay important family dates on your calendar like primary coats of paint — birthdays, Little League, family outings, vacations. Sure, something will come up at work; you may have to miss a game or two. The point is, if you don’t schedule them, you’ll miss a whole lot more.

It’s actually easy to integrate action plans into daily life. After calling my mother to discuss what dates worked for her, I typed everything — the week-long vacation, long weekends, holidays, annual financial review — into my Microsoft Outlook calendar. I also added send-a-card reminders three days ahead of each birthday and holiday. As always, “Call mom” anchors the top of my Task

List. It’s a joy to lace my action plans — business objectives, financial planning, physical exercise, spiritual growth — into my daily life. I know it improves the chances that I’ll do what it takes to hit my goals.


Scheduling breeds spontaneity

I can hear the snickering: “Whoa, does this guy’s calendar tell him when to brush his teeth? If I wanted that much structure, I’d join the military. Where’s the flexibility?”

Look, I’m not suggesting you become a lean, mean scheduling machine. Block out plenty of breathers and get spontaneous within the boundaries of your schedule. It’s foolish to pass on serendipitous opportunities simply because you’ve got an appointment, especially one you could easily reschedule. Enjoy the freedom to improvise; just don’t put off things you made high priority.

Productivity gets cranked up by connecting the dots between your mission, goals, action plans, and schedule. You’ll find you’re more relaxed and spontaneous because the parts of your life that really matter are (generally) on track and accounted for. For me, that means I’m free to live fully in the moment. With everything in sync, my mind isn’t cluttered with the debris of a million to- dos:

“Oh, no! I was supposed to see George for our one-on-one meeting two hours ago! I forgot to send a birthday card to my brother!” That kind of spontaneity I can do without.

Think of action plans as suggestions and reminders. Be careful not to pack them in too tight. Time was when my days were wound so tightly I made every meeting only if my schedule worked like a

Swiss watch and I didn’t hit an ill-timed red light. No matter how much I rushed for the next meeting or the next flight, I was like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner.

After tiring of the adrenaline rushes that produced, I finally built some cushion between appointments. That gave me time for a few deep breaths and let me catch up on minor tasks. I still find myself in an occasional tight spot, but now it’s an exception rather than the rule. Bottom line: Schedule your time or it will schedule you.

Keep in mind Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s tried-and-truism:  “Work expands (or contracts) so as to fill the time available for its completion.”  That is, the more air you build into your schedule, and the more time you allocate for doing something, the longer it will take. That limits the number of goals you hit. Eventually, if you’re discipline-challenged, you’ll feel like a helpless bystander watching your life pass by with nothing to show for it but gray hair and regret.

The solution?  A middle ground where scheduling is less an obligation than an art. It takes practice to find just the right blend of flexibility and structure. But once you’re in the zone, you’ll sense when you can push off appointments without causing too many ripples.


Take your eyes off the prize

As I work toward a goal, I often visualize what achieving it will feel like. But to actually get there, I need to focus on a series of short, easy steps. As poet M. C. Richards wrote: “Knowledge of the path cannot be substituted for putting one foot in front of the other.”

Let’s say you want to land the big Acme account. Sure, it’s fun and inspirational to visualize the handshake in Technicolor detail-whooping it up at signing, pumping up the team, adding it to your portfolio, and watching things snowball. But the lion’s share of your focus must shift to what it takes to accomplish the goal. That calls for an action plan.

Ask yourself, “What’s the smallest step I can take right now toward my goal?” Then ask, “What’s the next smallest step?” Then look for the one after that. Keep going until you’ve written down every step you can imagine. Perhaps your list will look like this:

Goal: Land the Acme account.

Action plan:

1. Research the company.

2. Hone sales skills by reviewing refresher course and scanning sales books.

3. Ask colleagues why previous shots at Acme had fizzled.

4. Prepare for upcoming sales call by analyzing the fizzle’s cause and spelling out our company’s enhanced pricing package and service commitment.

5. Introduce myself via a letter to the decision maker at the parent company.

6. Follow up a week later with a phone call to set up an appointment.

Now weave the steps through your schedule and to-do list, and start crossing them off.

Take five minutes each morning and 15 minutes at week’s end to review progress and priorities — with market conditions in flux, a goal that seemed essential six weeks ago might be meaningless today.

If you think of other steps, update your action plan, schedule and to-do list accordingly.
Then dig in again, and keep shoveling until you hit pay dirt.    ■

This article is one of a series from “The Big Book of Small Business” by Tom Gegax with Phil Bolsta. Copyright 2005, 2006 by Tom Gegax. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company’s chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue.

Thanks to Tom’s warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management, and his team’s relentless focus on customer service, the company’s turnover rate ranked among the industry’s lowest, and its guest enthusiasm index reached 98%.

He was named Modern Tire Dealer ’s Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998 and a Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine.

In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems ( to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance.

About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.