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David Allen Interview

Top Productivity Guru Shares His Thoughts and Experiences About Entrepreneurship


David Allen

David Allen, author of "Getting Things Done" and "Ready for Anything"

Meet David Allen, the man Fast Company Magazine called "one of the world's most influential thinkers on productivity". He has coached top executives at Microsoft, New York Life, the World Bank, U.S. Navy, and more. He now travels the world speaking, coaching, and teaching public seminars on productivity.

We caught up with him on a rare weeknight at home, and he shared some particular insights for entrepreneurs, as well as the wisdom of own personal experience building a small business that functions on a global scale.

SA: Your book, Getting Things Done, covers skills that are beneficial to everyone from students to CEO's. What are some of the personal management issues that you see are a particular challenge for entrepreneurs?
DA: The main one is staying focused on both the big picture and the important details.

SA: So, in other words, you still have to do everything?
DA: Well, you have to wear all the hats that get distributed in larger organizations.

SA: Right. And as a result, many entrepreneurs end up as workaholics, not necessarily because that's their personality type, but out of a sense of necessity. How can they avoid that?
DA: What's a workaholic? DA: I ask because working long hours is part of the game...

SA: Fair question. I'd define it as someone who spends so much time at their work that it has a negative impact on other aspects of their life - family, spirituality, personal development. For some people, that may be at 50 hours a week, for others it may be at 80.
DA: Right, but only in the last 100 years in the whole history of the planet have people thought about "work" and "personal life" as separate things. Farmers never have.

SA: For many entrepreneurs, the ability to have flexible hours and to home office is part of the appeal. Many (like me) will see that as a trade-off for the long hours. There has to be some kind of balance you can achieve even when you're first starting out, though, isn't there?
DA: Obviously the balance among all the importances is critical for sustainability of the style of what you're doing. But it would be a mistake for entrepreneurs (or senior executives for that matter) to assume they're not going to have to heed the fire in the belly and all that entails.

SA: And for spouses and family - just hang on and try to enjoy the ride?
DA: Again, it's up to the importances. We must all constantly reevaluate and potentially renegotiate our agreements with ourselves, and many of those include other people.

SA: Your wife is your business partner, as well. I know a lot of our readers also work in husband-and-wife teams. What about that has been most rewarding?
DA: That we really are in this together. Saves a lot of updating and explaining...

SA: What about some of the challenges? How have you overcome them?
DA: We do a lot of work on ourselves, and we share a principle (which we use in our company as well): "we act as if we're all alone in this together."

SA: That's great - I haven't heard that one before. Expand a little more on how that bears out in practice...
DA: You handle yourself, I handle myself, then where two or more are gathered, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

SA: You've obviously got a really tight relationship with your team, which now consists of nine other coaches and two international affiliates working for you. With your reputation at stake, how did you find the right people and turn them into a team you could trust?
DA: They as much found me as I did them. But the key is regular regrouping and conversation at the 40,000-ft level - here's what's driving me, where I'm going. How about you? Does this fit for your path to get there? If not, how can we make it so? Or, how can we elegantly part ways so we're not limiting each other?

SA: You worked for many years just by yourself. What was the decision point to hire your first employee?
DA: Actually I worked with others in small partnerships for most of my career. Six years ago I restructured and put my name on the masthead, with just Kathryn working with me. Our first employee after that was a part-time admin person in the office to offload some of the phone and bookkeeping stuff.

SA: And now you've built a tremendous brand around your persona. How do you extend the power of that brand beyond just you?
DA: Everything that we do reflects the quality, standards, focus, and spin (ideally in the positive sense) of what the brand stands for. I found it was easier to sell a personality than a process, but we've tried to simply use the personality as a vehicle for the message, not an ego thing.

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