What’s the Secret to Your Success?

As a CEO, I get asked this a lot. And, I’m always a little embarrassed by it. For the most part, I get the question from people who are in their twenties. They want to know “the secret path to the top.”

Hand Holding a Boomerang - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/jeu, Image #490867

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/jeu

This past weekend, I received an email from one of my readers. He started, “I have an MBA, but I must have missed the course on Fast-Tracking My Career. If you had to boil it down to one thing, Mr. Hyatt, what would you recommend to a young, aspiring person such as myself?”

I’m not sure I could boil it down to one thing. Life isn’t usually that simple. But if I really, really had to boil it down to one thing, I would say this: responsiveness.

So many people I meet are unresponsive. They don’t return their phone calls promptly. They don’t answer their emails quickly. They don’t complete their assignments on time. They promise to do something and never follow through. They have to be reminded, prodded, and nagged. This behavior creates work for everyone else and eats into their own productivity. Sadly, they seem oblivious to it.

When I was a kid, we used to play “Tag.” The objective was simple: keep from becoming “It.” If someone tagged you (touched you), you became “it” until you tagged someone else. Whoever was “it” when the game ended, lost.

Business is very similar. People “tag” us in countless ways every day. They place calls. They send emails. They mention something to us in a meeting. Suddenly, we are “it.” And, just like the game, if you stay “it” too long, you lose. The only winning strategy is to respond quickly and make someone else “it.”

Reality is that we live in an “instant world.” People want instant results. They don’t want to wait. And if they have to wait on you, their frustration and resentment grows. They begin to see you as an obstacle to getting their work done. If that happens, it will begin to impact your reputation. Pretty soon people start saying, “I can never get a timely response from him,” or “When I send her an email, I feel like it goes into a black hole,” or worse, your colleagues just roll their eyes and sigh at the mention of your name.

Yet, these are the very people who will push you up or pull you down. You cannot succeed without the support of your peers and subordinates. (Go back and re-read that sentence again.)

As I was making my way to the top, my former boss, Sam Moore, used to ask everyone I worked with, “What’s it like to work with Mike?” “How’s he really doing?” “Do you think he could take on more responsibility?” In responding to him, all they had was their experience with me. If I hadn’t been responsive to them, how do you think they would have responded to his questions? “More responsibility? Are you kidding me? He can’t handle what he has now!” It wouldn’t take too many candid responses like that to tank my career.

And yet this happens to people all the time. I can’t tell you how many meetings I have sat in where people are complaining about someone else’s work habits. “He always waits until the last minute.” “She never plans ahead.” “I can never get him to respond to my emails.” You may think that the people who are making these comments are too far down the food chain to matter. I can assure you they aren’t. They have a way of bubbling to the top where the decisions about your career are made.

The truth is, you are building your reputation—your brand—one response at a time. People are shaping their view of you by how you respond to them. If you are slow, they assume you are incompetent and over your head. If you respond quickly, they assume you are competent and on top of your work. Their perception, whether you realize it or not, will determine how fast your career advances and how high you go. You can’t afford to be unresponsive. It is a career-killer.

My basic rule is this: respond immediately unless there is a good reason to wait. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, especially since I spend so much time in meetings. Nevertheless, I rarely let messages sit longer than a day. Twenty-four hours is the outside edge. If you can’t respond now, then at least acknowledge that you have received the message: “I received your message. I don’t have time to give it the attention it deserves right now, but you can expect to hear from me before the end of the day tomorrow.”

The great thing about being responsive is that it will quickly differentiate you from your peers. People love doing business with responsive people. Nothing will advance your career faster than this.

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  • http://www.altongansky.typepad.com Alton Gansky

    Great to see you posting again. I know things have probably been a little hectic over there. You’re post about responsiveness struck a note with me–it is a dying art.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for reading my mind and saying what I’ve been screaming forever! I face this problem with people (even within my own company) on a daily basis. I feel like it hinders my effectiveness and I despise that!

  • Just Someone

    I was just recently was told by my boss, to slow down and not expect others to respond as fast I do to them…I kind of tilted my head in the notion of that can’t be right. Then now your blog comes out and comments different. I want to move out of my ‘too far down the food chain to matter’ position, but my boss tells me to slow down. If I slow down, I don’t feel as if I am giving the company, my best. If I don’t give my best, how can I expect to move up the food chain to a position that does matter?

  • Bob Cooper

    I hope everyone here reads this. For one thing, it would make my job much easier, and all of us more productive if so much time wasn’t spent going back and asking the same questions over and over; as well as having to send the same information over and over because the one you sent it to “lost” it. I hope your article has a “trickle down” effect and we all become better at responding quickly, even if it’s as you say “I received your message. I don’t have time to give it the attention it deserves right now, but you can expect to hear from me before the end of the day tomorrow.”

  • Roberto Rivas

    I really liked your post – it really makes a difference to be acknowledged by your boss, your peers – it shows that you care on what you do and what you are.

    I would go a little farther by saying, by responding you show also that you love what you do – and loving what you do is really important. Love for your work, for your company, for your industry is shown with quality responses and actions!

  • http://www.wmarkwhitlock.com W. Mark Whitlock

    Perhaps we should redefine and respell the word responsibility as response-ability.

    One big question–how do you find time for the really important stuff? I could spend my entire day (every day) JUST responding to email and voice mail. Meanwhile, large, complicated tasks can go undone for days. I see the need for solid, faithful communication. I just struggle to get both sides of the job done.

  • Tod Shuttleworth

    Great insight. It is an undeniable fact that the world, and our ability to compete in it, is continually picking up speed. Thus response time is always a critical component. Think back 20 years ago, or even 5 years ago and how fast we could respond versus today. Capitalism drives better, faster, cheaper. Technology has been built to help us keep speed, thus embracing it is important.

    The American Dream is at least partially built on hustle. One form of hustle is getting the issue resolved more quickly, which also drives productivity. Productivity allows you to make more money for your boss, and that makes him/her look good. Perhaps more importantly, you have contributed to making the world a better place to live. Yet, I think some (perhaps many) wish that it would slow down. That is like hoping that change will somehow not happen.

  • Natalie Hanemann

    Thanks for putting this down! Not only will it help remind me to respond more quickly(I’m going to print out the article and pin it on the board in front of me!), but it helps me be able to articulate some of the frustrations I’ve experienced at work.
    Mike, what valuable information this is. Thank you for being our role model!

  • http://www.shared-spaces.com/blog/2006/03/quick_links_feb.html Shared Spaces Research

    Quick Links, Feb 28

    Positions Groupware 2.0 Startups … Scott writes about the SF Tech Session last week, at which Kerio, Joyent and Zimbra presented their wares. Scott was most impressed with the Joyent product. Scott McMullan The Secret of Professional Success in One

  • Heather McCulloch

    All I can say is AMEN! This is what I felt throughout your article. It is great to work for someone who understands the importance of responsiveness, and how much it contributes to the level of success you are able to acheieve. Responsiveness = loyalty with customers, and I definately agree that it is an edge you can get on your competition if you are able to respond quickly.

  • http://arvindatwork.com Arvind

    Thats great post. I will remember this and use this.

  • http://www.holisticlearningcenter.com/Secret-DVD.html The Secret DVD

    I knew that responsiveness was key, but your description makes it pivotal! I take to heart the suggestions imposed here. Thank you.

  • jana

    great article – it sums up what i have been thinking and hopefully doing myself.

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  • http://cheapflightsusa.info/blogs/ Elane Mikels

    Thanks to you for this useful article

    Thanks again


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  • Lennon

    This is excellent. How do you keep from becoming a slave to email or your phone, though? Does it ever become overwhelming to try to focus on the task or people in front of you And yet still be as accessable as you talk about here?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I need to blog about this. I simply schedule times for responding.

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  • Lukinuptchindwn

    How do you handle task delegation by those who choose to show up but not work?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Why would you employ people who won’t work?

  • http://www.forward-living.com W. Mark Thompson

    Being responsive is an understated & underused idea. I agree. It’s frustrating not getting the feedback, answers, and/or response you ask for in a timely manner.

    Can also impact a business’ profits if done (or not done as it were) consistently. It helps everyone involved to be responsive.

    Makes me reflect on my own habits as well.


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  • http://levittmike.wordpress.com levittmike

    Responsive and respect both start with RES.  Being responsive to others shows respect for their needs, as well as the needs of the organization.