Lisa Robbin Young

The Problem with Being "One Step Ahead"

[10 years ago, I blogged regularly at businessactionhero.com. While I still own that domain, it's redirected here for years. That means many of the posts I had there haven't seen the light of day in a decade. I'm bringing back some of these posts with new thoughts since I'm 10 years older (and hopefully wiser) than I was back in the day.]

This post talks about the problem with following leaders who are only one step ahead of you. It was a problem then and it's still a problem in the online world, only exacerbated by the fact that there are now many more so-called leaders in the online space.

Add to that the number of people that bang the drum "done is better than perfect!" and you have a recipe for the problems I see every day with folks applying to the Creative Freedom Incubator - they trusted some guru enough to follow them down a rabbit hole that turned out to be a waste of their resources (time, money, effort, attention, etc.).

Like my friend and former client Les McKeown points out in the original post, there's a time and a place for peer-led or one-step-ahead coaching, but it needs to be framed as such, and you need to be willing to accept the consequences. Most of the time, though, it's not, and you THINK you're getting years of leadership and experience, only to find out, they're barely any further along on the success path than you and really can't help you get the results you need. What did you get yourself into?!

An edited version of the original blog post is below. Vetting your leaders is both harder and easier now. Listen to people you trust. Don't rely on "success by association" to see you through. - Lisa


Imagine an incredible labyrinth, something along the lines of the hedge maze from Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.

You’ve started into this maze, and there are dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands behind you. Following your lead.

You’re doing pretty well, until you get about half way into this thing… and you realize…

  • you’re lost
  • you’re not sure where to turn
  • you’re not sure what the next step is
  • you feel like you’d be better off starting over

You feel like you’ve got to know the answer because people are counting on you. And then someone else in your cadre shouts from the middle of the pack…

“Hey! I think I see something to the left! Maybe we should go left?”

Your confidence is shaking. Your followers can sense it. Half of them decide to follow the left turn leader, while the rest remain loyal to you.

You decide to press on – and find yourself a little further along in the maze – and facing a dead end.

Now what? All those people that were following you have followed right behind you. You’re cornered.

If you’re lucky, those folks will be compassionate, forgiving, and let you pass, so that you can “lead” them again.

Some of them will grumble and complain, walking back past all those folks  -that were 20 or 30 steps behind you – who are still so grateful to have a leader pointing the way, that they won’t realize you hit a dead end and are backtracking. Besides, new people are coming into the maze all the time that may never hear about your missteps, right?

But what if this was your business?

This is a common mantra of today’s “gurus” – particularly those in the internet marketing world.

“I’ll show you how to make a six or seven figure business – you only need to be one step ahead of your target market.”

“You don’t need to know everything. You just need to be one or two steps ahead of your audience.”

“As long as you can stay a step ahead of your clients, they’ll continue to look to you for guidance.”

You’re leading these entrepreneurs down a dangerous path – encouraging them that they only need to be “one step ahead” of their clients. What happens when you find yourself at a dead end?

What have you done?

I confess that for years, I was a subscriber to this “one step ahead” notion. I looked to people a step or two ahead of me on the “success trail” and thought they must have their poop in a tighter group than I did. Then, I found myself “behind the veil” – working on projects for these folks, and seeing the reality of their businesses.  I also interview a lot of people, and I’ve heard horror stories that would make your head spin. One industry leader told me that her guru friend complained to her that she was keeping the guru on their toes, forcing them to create better content for their top-tier coaching group.

What the…?

Here’s the problem: At no point along the line did anyone in “the lineage” stop to ask a valuable and important question:

“Does this stuff really work?”

I fell victim to this myself, so I speak from experience. I got guidance from a leader and never questioned if it actually worked. It was one of the more expensive lessons of my career. I was also mortified to learn I was not the only person who was led down this dead end path. It was, in fact, the same advice my leader had gotten from their leader.

YEOUCH!

We trust our leaders to keep us on a profitable path, that their time-tested knowledge actually works. Why would they recommend that we do something that wouldn’t produce results?

Because some coaches and mentors regurgitate the same trickle-down pablum that their gurus have fed them, without questioning the results.

And then, just like the economic theory, something breaks down in the system. It stops working. And the “house of cards” starts to topple.

Where did this nonsense come from?

The intention behind being “one step ahead” is a good one – to encourage you to get moving, to stop waiting until everything is perfect before you get going.

But let’s be clear. One step ahead is a slippery slope to business failure.

What if you slip? What if you “lead” your people down a dead end road? You have no opportunity to recover safely, secure your footing, and keep moving forward.

Chances are good, you’ll lose their respect, their trust, and their business – probably forever.

What if one of your own is more ambitious, more clever, or just plain smarter than you? What if they have a faster pace than you?

Yes, it’s true you’ll probably lose them as a client, but as I’ve witnessed at least two times in each of the past 4 years, those people not only surpass you, they strip you of the very clients that were travelling with you (much like that voice from the middle of the maze pack).

I have a friend who likes to remind me that as I’m standing here, pointing ahead to where I want to be, there are people behind me, pointing to where I already am standing. On one hand, it makes for great potential to lead and make big bucks. It also comes with a responsibility: to think things through before you try to pass along your “once off success” as a roadmap to riches.

Think of it this way: would you rather follow someone inside the maze who’s only one or two steps ahead of you, or someone that’s already made it through the maze and knows the traps, corners, and has, essentially, debugged the system?

Yeah, me too.

When I launched Home Party Solution, it was only after months of trial and error in my own business. I was my own guinea pig. I developed a process that works, shared it with my own team first, shared it with friends, then launched the website and the book. The system had a lot of testing behind it before I ever charge people a dime for it. I even joined multiple companies to test my theories in other product lines. I don’t believe in being irresponsible with other people’s dreams.

Les McKeown launched (and helped launch) scores of businesses, and continued testing and tweaking his Predictable Success model before he unleashed it on the world.

And let’s not forget the countless hours Michael Jordan spent honing his craft to make the NBA – after he was cut from teams in his school days.

Yes, when you hit a dead end, you can regroup, you can stage a comeback, you can be bigger, and better than before. But if you’re taking people with you on that journey, you’ve got to be careful what you’re promising along the way.

People are counting on you to lead them. You must do so with care. You have earned their trust. Violating it is a one-way ticket to the end of the line.

Has this been your experience, too, or am I up in the night?

I posed this question on twitter and had some brilliant peers play along with some great thoughts:

“Working on a blog post about the problem with the ‘one step ahead’ concept so many gurus are touting today. What’s your take on it? I’m talking about the idea that all you need to do is ‘be one step ahead of your clients’ in order to help them.”

The first major takeaway was a concept brought up by my smarty pants friend, Ted. He mentioned that someone can still be headed down a dead end road if they’re 5 or 6 steps ahead of us.

While it gives them time to recover, what about us? Is there a way to get started on your journey to building a successful business if you’re not already an expert, or is that a myth?

It’s The Emperor’s New Business Model: say you’re a master because you’re a step or two ahead in the maze, and hope you can keep yourself a step or two ahead until you cash flow, or really master something.

But then Les McKeown offered up an idea equally as brilliant (did I expect any less?):

“1 step ahead is fine-can be great, even. Same with peer coaching (0 steps ahead) – so long as it’s labeled as such.”

And it would seem there’s the rub. Even Les admitted that coaches today are up against a wall to earn income, which causes at least a small (if not egregious) amount of puffery. Pricing is also relative to the quality of your product, your comfort level and what the market is willing to pay.

How refreshing. To admit that you’re on a journey, just like they are. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting, learning (and earning) as you go – so long as we’re all being honest and not drinking our own Kool-aid.

To “label a program as such” means admitting you aren’t a guru, that you don’t know everything, and that you may not be able to promise success (and you should charge accordingly).

Another very solid solution offered: develop proficiency as a side gig, not your primary source of income, and as your skill set increases, then you can charge more.

Seems entirely logical to me.

What about you?

What are your thoughts on this concept? Have you felt a bit singed by a “one-step guru” in your life? What were your lessons? How did you/they handle it? How do you think expertise should be evaluated/priced? I know this could open a huge can of worms, but I’d love to dig deeper into this discussion and not be the only voice in the wind!

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