Added On: Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Don't Panic

When you focus on what needs to be done today and just do it,
you stop being afraid of what might happen tomorrow.
-Bob Eckert, CEO and Chairman, Mattel

Bob Eckert, the CEO of Mattel, Inc., told me the story of a time when panic nearly overtook him. It was Sunday afternoon in 1990, and the 35-year old Eckert, then a division president at Kraft Foods, stared at the NFL game on television. He felt like a deer in the headlights of a career disaster.

Kraft had been accused of price gauging in the Chicago Tribune. The outcries against the company and Eckert were immediate and strong. “Legislators were talking about coming down on Kraft as a monopoly and multiple trade rags said that heads were going to roll,” he recalls. “And the head that would roll first would no doubt be mine. My fear of failure was palpable.” Watching the game, he felt like he was about to be massively and injuriously tackled.

Bob Eckert kept staring at the television and listened to an interview with the innovative Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche. The Bengals – who had won the Super Bowl the previous year — had just lost their ninth game of the season. Wyche had been called on the carpet; it was common knowledge that he was about to lose his job.

A reporter approached him and said: “Coach, you’re going to get fired on Tuesday. Tell me about it.” Wyche responded directly to the camera: “You know I’m going to get fired Tuesday and I know. But that’s not important. What is important is to help this team get better up until I’m let go.”

Eckert felt stunned. “It seemed like he was talking directly to me,” he said. The next morning, he went back to work accepting that he would be fired, but determined to help the company do better in the meantime. Instead of continuing to feel like Chicken Little worrying about the sky falling, he applied himself to important tasks that pulled Kraft through the crisis.

Needless to say, Eckert wasn’t fired. He stayed on at Kraft, became its President and CEO, and moved on to the top job at Mattel, Inc.(where he has continued to heed this advice through the recalls of many Mattel products using lead paint).

“Of all the advice I’ve ever received and followed, Wyche’s is pre-eminent,” Eckert told me later. “Maybe it’s because when you’re alone in self-doubt it can escalate rapidly until you can’t move. But when someone who’s in the hot seat shows such determination, it can inspire you to develop your own resolve. Wyche’s advice helped me to overcome being afraid to fail. It guides me still.”

The above was excerpted from“Chapter 16: Panicking” Get Out of Your Own Way at Work …and Help Others Do the Same, by Mark Goulston, M.D. Perigee Books, $14.95).

Of additional interest on the topic of this blog in the same book is “Chapter 9: Lacking Self-Discipline.” The essence of that chapter is that life is not about self-discipline, it is about habits. Successful people have different habits than unsuccessful people AND people who panic have different habits than those who remain calm. A habit is a routine behavior that you do regularly that requires little to no effort to maintain, because it has become internalized.

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