“If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster.” I love this quote by Stephen Covey. What a great visual. This ladder reference could easily speak to your organization, or to you personally.

This quote is referenced in Habit 2 in Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 2 states, “Begin with the end in mind.” Covey adds, “Sometimes people find themselves achieving victories that are empty.” It is so easy to get caught up with trying to accomplish some ‘thing’ that you don’t think about where you are going.

For our firm, there have been situations where the ladder was also leaning against the wrong wall. We took on work that was not a good match for us. We made the mistake of thinking that we should accept all work to make more money. In other cases, the budget was too tight for the scope of work, the perimeters of the project were not clear, or the work was not in our focus.

Here’s a classic example. Years ago, our firm took on a signage project for one of our nonprofit clients. The organization needed 20 hand-lettered signs for an event. It was back-breaking, boring and tedious work. We never should have accepted the project since we were not set up to do this type of work. We ignored all the red flags. We completed the project … but learned the hard way that sometimes you need to walk away from opportunities that are not a good fit. We’re much better now at recognizing these red flags, and are also better at saying “no.”  

In my personal life, I also got caught up with chasing an empty victory. Several years ago my husband and I started taking karate. Karate took a lot of time and energy, going to classes and practicing, but we stayed committed. After a couple years and many hours of practice, my husband achieved his first-degree back belt and I achieved my first-degree brown belt (one level below black). I kept plugging away, wanting that “victory” of a black belt despite the fact that I was not really passionate about karate. I took the “prelim” test for the black belt but failed it. I realized it was going to take many more hours of practice before I would be ready to retake the test. It was then that I took a step back and realized this is not what I wanted. My ladder was leaning against the wrong wall. There were many more important things in my life where I wanted to spend my time and energy. I walked away.

Life is made up of choices. God blessed us with a free will to make those choices. We make decisions and determine our direction and goals. Everyone imagines goals, but the difference between imagining a goal and accomplishing a goal is having the nerve and the discipline to take the necessary actions to move forward.

It takes many little actions to make a change, whether personally or organizationally. And just like the ladder analogy, you need to first make sure the ladder is leaning against the right wall. Not just any step is going to get you to the right goal. Only steps in the right direction. And frequently that takes courage to push on and move ahead.

Here are five tips for making sure your ladder is against the right wall:

1. Align your values with what you are doing. Both personally and organizationally, it’s motivating to be doing work that you feel good about. For me, focusing on developing more business with faith-based organizations felt like a good fit with my values, because I’m passionate about my religion and want to make it a bigger part of my life.

2. Revisit your mission and vision. Think about why you began on your path. Does it still hold true? On a personal level, sometimes doors open and you find yourself in a certain career choice or life choice. Is your path still fulfilling to you? Are you still growing and happy? I know there are the practicalities of paying the rent and getting food on the table, but don’t let life happen to you. Don’t simply go through the motions. Choose your steps carefully.

3. Establish goals to achieve your mission. Decide how you are going to get there. Take one step at a time. For your organization, this means figuring out goals carefully. Then pick tactics to achieve these goals. A popular mode of operation is to go after shiny new objects, without analyzing whether they accomplish your goals. But not every shiny new thing is a good idea.  

4. Don’t grab the wrong ladder. Be mindful of your direction, carefully choosing the rungs to move up. Here again it’s critical to remain focused on your positioning and mission. Each step/tactic is going to take you in a direction. You want to be sure that is the direction you want to go toward.

5. Be courageous. Courage means you might have to step out of your comfort zone and rise above whatever is stopping you from taking the next step. Change can be hard. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Whether it’s climbing Mt. Everest, choosing a new business focus, or something in between, courage helps you keep moving forward.

In his book, the Rhythm of Life, Matthew Kelley writes, “The measure of your life will be the measure of your courage. Courage animates us, brings us to life, and makes everything else possible. Fear stops more people from doing something with their lives than lack of ability, contacts, resources or any other single variable. Fear paralyzes the human sprit. Life takes courage.”

When my business was languishing, I went back to my roots to focus on faith-based organizations. I put my stake in the sand and revamped my identity and website to reflect my updated mission and vision of helping faith-based organizations with their fundraising, marketing and communications. It was scary to walk away from possible other work to focus on one area. That was 5 years ago. Now I am completely comfortable with our sharpened market focus.  

The Serenity Prayer wraps it up nicely for me. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”