The 9 Circles of Success

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A man perhaps as well-known for his girlfriend as his own professional accomplishments had some advice for credit union volunteers when it comes to leadership.

In particular, the advice focused on how credit union volunteers could develop personally to become the best they could be and, in turn, then develop as effective board members.

Stedman Graham, CEO of S. Graham & Associates (SGA), a management and marketing consulting company that focuses on leadership development, and the author of a number of best-sellers on that same topic, told the Volunteer Leadership Institute's ninth annual meeting here that among life's "most interesting" questions is "how do you become the best of what you are."

Graham told the 250 credit union volunteers on hand that he believes he has an answer to that question, but it can only be arrived at after following his nine-step process to success. It's a process he has championed in a number of books, including You Can Make It Happen: A Nine-Step Plan for Success and Who Are You? A Success Process For Building Your Life's Foundation.

"We often limit our potential by living within our fears," Graham told his audience. "I didn't understand it at first; I didn't understand what it meant to let your freedom ring. The world is a collection of unlimited wealth and resources. Often we limit our potential by moving within our own small circles because of our fears. If we change the way we view the world, there is nothing we cannot accomplish."

Why A Daily Grind?

Graham asked his credit union volunteers to think about their own daily grinds, how each Monday through Friday is the same routine, broken up by weekends that are often very similar, before returning to doing the same things Monday through Friday. "We forget to T-H-I-N-K, think," he said, suggesting the reason in part is due to the routine of memorization and repetition that is learned in school.

Graham, who today travels the world and lists Fortune 500 companies as clients, shared the story of his own upbringing, growing up poor and African-American in a Southern town. He recalled how a sting from youth can be felt a lifetime, sharing the story of how after he earned a college scholarship to play basketball, he shared the news with a local proprietor who was influential in town. "You're not going to no college," the man told Graham. "You're family is too stupid."

"I went home and I got mad," he said. "I said to myself, 'I'm going to college and I'm going to get a degree and I'm going to show him."

Graham earned a bachelor's degree in social work from Hardin-Simmons University, and then went on to earn a master's degree in Education from Ball State University and an honorary doctorate in Humanities from Coker College, where he is also a distinguished visiting professor.

"If you don't know who you are," he exhorted, "the world will define you, by your house or by your race or by your gender. The world defines me by my relationship." He elicited great laughter from the credit union audience by then asking, "How many of you said 'I'm going to go listen to Stedman Graham' and how many of you said, 'I'm going to go listen to Oprah (Winfrey's) boyfriend?' "

Being viewed as the person attached to the arm of someone famous can be imposing if one doesn't know who one is, according to Graham. "You have to have a sense of who you are," he reiterated.

"It's all about alignment," Graham said. "If you don't know what you want, you don't know where you're going. Once you know who you are, only then can you brand yourself in the world. It's also critical for your credit union. It's what sets you apart in a crowd. The world gives you value based on how you see yourself."

Graham suggested that as both individuals and board members, innovation and creativity must remain ongoing processes. "You are either a leader or a follower; leadership is everything," he said.

There are nine steps to becoming such a leader, which Graham calls Circles of Success:

1) Check Your ID. "Self-awareness is where life begins," he said. "You must know your strengths and weaknesses, but I don't care about your weaknesses, tell me what you can DO. The most powerful word in the world is love, and you must know your passions. Focusing on what you love is what gives you energy. If you miss the passion in your life, the world owns you."

Graham said that often the biggest obstacles to success are those people put in their own paths. "Past hurts, business and career downfalls and negative attitudes are what hold you back."

2. Create Your Own Vision. "When there is no vision, people perish," he said. "Vision is your life's destination; it's what gives you purpose. Vision is everything in leadership. You outdistance your competition by having a bigger vision than they do."

A credit union, he said, must appeal to members and potential members by caring about what they care about.

3. Develop Your Travel Plan. "This is the action; this is what you are going to do with the time you have. Why is planning important? It saves time, it keeps you focused, and it builds confidence. How much time do you spend in your own organizations on this?"

4. Master the Rules of the Road. "These are your guiding principles," Graham said. "Honesty. Hard work. Determination and positive attitude. There must be a transformation of your authenticity to everyone in the organization. I've worked for years on having a positive attitude in a negative moment. Your job as leaders is to make people feel good about themselves, and you can't do that if you feel negative about who you are.

5. Step Into the Outer Limits. "You have to overcome your fears. You either live by fear or by love," he said. "Success is about taking small steps, one at a time. Fear of the unknown is one of the greatest risks, but risk is a natural part of life."

6. Pilot the Seasons of Change. In other words, he said, be flexible. "How deep is your internal capacity to deal with change?" Graham asked. "Challenges happen when the pace of change exceeds our ability to deal with change."

7. Build Your Dream Team. "No one makes it alone," Graham told his audience. "You need the help and encouragement of others. Trust in the team is necessary, and you become successful when they trust you. Real trust is established over time."

8. Win By A Decision. Graham defined this step as making good choices. "Success is predicated on good decisions," he said. Use research, know your customers and the goals of the organization, and learn from its experience."

9. Commit To Your Vision. Stay focused, Graham urged. "Enthusiasm and commitment generate excellence and results."

Once an individual has accomplished the nine Circles of Success, Graham said they are ready for the external component and focusing on a person's individual brand.

"Brand is how you advertise yourself, and you have control over that," he said. "Strong brands are consistent over the long term and show a commitment to quality. Branding is now where you work, it's what you do. People are looking for experts, and they will seek you out. The more value you have the more money you will make. People will pay for value."

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