Overcoming Obstacles (written March, 2013)

Everyone faces personal and professional obstacles throughout their life – whether the obstacles are financial, physical, emotional, or based on gender, class or race. Sometimes you are your own biggest obstacle when you allow your fears and self-doubt get in the way of your success.

Obstacles are like mountains – they’re not going to move themselves. You have to scale the mountain, or go around it, reduce it to a molehill with dynamite or dig a tunnel straight through it. You must take action to overcome it, not sit at the foot of the mountain passively hoping it will suddenly vanish so you can get on your way.

Obstacles are more than just giant problems. Problems will “occur,” whereas obstacles are “there.” Obstacles may have always been there or they may crop up. A problem is more finite than an obstacle. Rarely does a problem last forever. You seek to solve problems to achieve the best possible outcome, but even if you take no action, a problem will reach some resolution eventually, though it may not be the outcome you’d like. An obstacle won’t change itself or go away unless you do something about it.

Steps to conquer the mountain: No one has a magical formula to deal with obstacles (no dynamite except in metaphors), but you can adopt and implement some good practices when you’re faced with obstacles that can help to reduce a daunting mountain into stepping stones to success.

#1) Believe in yourself. The great Norman Vincent Peale said it best: “Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture. Do not build up obstacles in your imagination.” The first step to conquering obstacles is to realize that the answer lies within you. Maturity and experience will give you the confidence that you can overcome any impediment. In the same way, when you and your team encounter an obstacle, you must lead the team to believe its ability to overcome it.

#2) Seek help. Ask for guidance and support from a mentor, team, classmate or teacher. You don’t have to overcome any obstacle solo. If a key executive leaves your organization at a crucial time – even if the loss is devastating – you should realize that you have many resources that will help you to overcome the obstacle – within and outside the organization. Whether you are a member or a leader of a team, you can bring together everyone you can think of – people in your organization, among your colleagues, throughout your sphere of influence – and form a sort of task force to overcome the obstacle together.

#3) Be Like Mike. Remove the emotion from the situation as soon as possible and remain rational. Basketball great Michael Jordan said, “If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it or work around it.” Use your rational mind to “figure out” what you’re up against. If a competitor beats you to market with a new product, a short period of rage and confusion may be appropriate. When “disaster” initially hits, it may seem larger than life, but if you can step back and look at it realistically, often the solution becomes apparent to you. In this case, you need to remove your emotion and set your team in motion to quickly and creatively differentiate why your product is better than the competition’s.

#4) Setback? Or catastrophe? When you encounter an obstacle, seek perspective and stability. How big is the obstacle, really? When you calmly and thoroughly examine the problem, you may find you are imagining the obstacle to be larger than it actually is. I may only seem immovable. For example, if an important, long term customer is dissatisfied with your organization and making noises that they might defect to the competition, you may have a lot of work to do to keep them. Nevertheless it’s not a catastrophe unless you don’t do anything and you end up losing that valuable customer. On the other hand, you may assess the magnitude of the obstacle and determine that it is exactly as overwhelming as it first seemed. If you discover that your VP of Finance has left the country with millions, such a big obstacle may tempt you to turn tail and run yourself. Instead consider the obstacle’s potential impact: What’s the worst case scenario and what’s the time frame in which that scenario is likely to occur? An enormous obstacle will require time for stabilization before you can even hope to remedy it, so immediately take whatever steps you deem necessary to firm up the situation until you and your team can determine how to deal with it.

#5) Break it down. When you know the real dimensions of the obstacle, begin looking for ways to break it down, dividing it into parts or steps that you can do one at a time. Assign those steps to different people on your team or different groups in your organization so each can work to solve a part of it. If you’ve been brought on as a new CEO in an organization with an entrenched and possibly resistant culture, you know that the people and problems you’ve inherited are not going to fix themselves, no matter how long you wait. You’ll need to retrain, reorient and engage your people one step at a time. The other side of the mountain: Thomas Paine said, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly; ‘Tis dearness only that gives everything its value.” In the thick of the fight to overcome an obstacle, you may not believe it, but the more obstacles you conquer, the easier the process becomes. Your confidence will be self-penetrating and you may come to believe that you can conquer a whole range of “mountains.”

The author of this article is Larry Costello, President of All-American Print & Mail, 2200 Wilson Blvd #102-57, Arlington, VA 22201.