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Falling off a cliff: how to go from trainee to CEO by setting and achieving goals  

In 2001 I was in the best shape of my life, regularly skiing, climbing, and running. Then, the day before my 29th birthday, I fell off a 100-foot cliff while skiing in Canada, suffering injuries that included a crushed skull and brain, multiple broken bones, collapsed lungs, and a lacerated kidney. Luckily, I was operated on immediately by one of Canada’s top brain surgeons. Today, the only sign that I was so badly injured is a slight loss of hand-eye coordination and a diminished sense of taste!

The months I spent recuperating from this injury shaped the course of the next 20 years in terms of my professional life and my approach to my personal life.

With plenty of time to think, I found myself returning to the same core idea over and over again. I realised that I was passionate about Australia and about young Australians but that I felt that young Australians didn’t have the same opportunities that I had when I was younger. They were aspiring for less and experiencing less that was positive. I had a perception that people were less active, dreaming smaller, and facing new challenges such as growing drug use, technology addiction and obesity, for example.

This led to a vague goal of positively influencing young Australians.

With little basis on which to achieve this goal, I needed to do some deep thinking and planning around the actions I would need to take. This set the scene for what would become a tried and tested framework for business and life success.

The first step was to turn a vague dream—to help young Australians—into a more specific goal. I decided that I would aim to help one million Australians aged between 15 and 25 in the next 20 years strive for and achieve a better life.

I chose the 15- to 25-year age group for three reasons. First, this age is an important phase in the evolution of young people from childhood to adulthood and encompasses many of life’s biggest transitions. Second, there are many challenges throughout this phase of life. Third, my own experience translated most closely to this age group.

To achieve this goal, I realised I would need to know more people in relevant industries and roles, have some capital, and learn quite a few new skills. Since professional sport was no longer an option, I decided that the most likely way forward was through business. Therefore, the next milestone I set was to be running a billion-dollar company after 10 years. To achieve that, I knew I’d need to be running some kind of business after five years. And, since I didn’t know much about business at that point, I knew I’d better learn. So, I set a short-term goal of achieving an MBA from a reputable school.

My research showed that INSEAD, a graduate business school in France, was one of the best in the world. However, entry to this prestigious program required students to speak three languages. As I already spoke English and French, I chose to learn Chinese as my third language.

The moment I clarified these goals, wrote them down, and shared them with other people, opportunities began to present themselves. For example, while I was learning Chinese, a job opportunity came up in China.

With clarity and direction, I was able to earn my MBA and was running a $300 million-dollar business in the UK within four years of the accident, well within my five-year goal. A couple of years later, I took over another business that we soon grew to $2 billion-dollars in sales, achieving my 10-year milestone within seven years of the accident.

To date, I estimate that I’ve been able to help approximately 600,000 young Australians through various actions such as coaching and mentoring, working directly with youth leaders, and undertaking specific initiatives. For example, I worked with the Wesley Mission in Sydney to create a program helping young people leaving foster care to transition to more meaningful lives. The work we do is about helping people increase their expectations regardless of their starting point and to give them something tangible that will help them to achieve that higher set of goals.

This process has taught me the enormous value of setting goals by starting with the end in mind. It’s essential to start with dreams that inspire and motivate you. The ultimate dream can be a little vague but it should be big and meaningful to you. While I set a time horizon of 20 years on my goal, it’s usually more practical to set a 10-year horizon, then break that down into manageable milestones.

There are then five key steps to achieving a big dream:

1. Distil the dream into specific goals with measurable milestones and deadlines.
2. Be clear on what you need to learn to achieve these goals, then do what it takes to learn.
3. Build a strong plan that will get you to those goals.
4. Have the discipline to act on, and implement, the plan.
5. Become the person that you need to be by creating an identity in yourself that will give you the tools to implement the plans and fulfil those dreams.

This formula has been proven to work but I didn’t have this formula when I had my accident. However, the accident gave me time to think. It also provided the impetus to do something useful and, like many people who experience a near-death event, it brought home to me that time is precious and it’s essential to make the most of it.

To be successful in business and life it’s important to appreciate the value of time. It’s the only asset that can never be replaced and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Time management skills are, therefore, essential. Life doesn’t have to be all about achievement in a particular sphere. As well as achieving goals in business, I’ve managed to cram in huge amounts of skiing, sailing, cricket, family, friends, holidays, and charity work. It’s important to value your time highly, invest it intentionally, and make the most of it.

Falling off a cliff: how to go from trainee to CEO by setting and achieving goals  

Andrew Laurie is a CEO, entrepreneur and executive coach.

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Andrew Laurie

Andrew Laurie

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