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“How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus” with Erin Koss

I have lived long enough to have experienced a number of ups and downs. If it’s taught me one thing, it is that there are so many things I cannot control. Learning to live with and feel safe amidst uncertainty has been (and will continue to be) a life long journey. Creating good habits started […]

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I have lived long enough to have experienced a number of ups and downs. If it’s taught me one thing, it is that there are so many things I cannot control. Learning to live with and feel safe amidst uncertainty has been (and will continue to be) a life long journey. Creating good habits started out as a way to manage and control this uncertainty. For example, control what you eat and/or exercise regularly and you can manage your weight. Eventually, good habits started to serve more than the need for control. They prepared me to do hard things and weather storms.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Koss.

Erin Koss, CPA is the CEO of Syte Consulting Group, Inc. She is known for helping family-owned manufacturing companies scale with vision and integrity. Taking a people-first, process and technology readiness approach, Erin and the team at Syte ensure companies are ready to take on big change initiatives like ERP and technology upgrades before diving in head first. A native to the Pacific Northwest, she enjoys traveling, being outdoors, hiking, biking, rowing, and supporting the local culinary scene. Talk to Erin about preparing your company for sustainable growth.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born and raised in Eugene, OR in the 1970’s and 80’s by parent’s who with the exception of their passion for the culinary arts, were essentially opposites; one who was way left, the other way right politically which drove most of how they showed up in the world. They divorced when I was four; the significance of which was far reaching and involved watching my mom shift from stay-at-home to single, working mom. My dad started a small retail business for fly fisherman and grew the business during my growing up years. Eventually my mom remarried my step-father; a wonderful man (albeit more old school as he was 16 years her senior) with his own law firm. They eventually chose for my mom to make running their household her focus and in high school after taking herself from secretary to successful real estate agent, she quit working outside the home. Both of my parents’ choices resulted in a great deal of privilege for me; including access to a quality education via my mom and step-dad, entrepreneurship, business operations and a job via my dad. From both I learned first-hand the benefits and struggles that come from owning your own business. Both heavily influenced where I ultimately landed in the world.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I always loved listening, coaching and advising people when they were faced with personal challenges and as a result chose Psychology as a major when I first entered the University of Oregon in 1988. By then, I had spent many weekends working at my dad and step-mom’s retail store (The Caddis Fly Angling Shop); working my way up the ladder, so to speak. At 11, I was bagging fly tying materials and sneaking behind the cash register to ring up customer orders any time I saw an opportunity (much to the manager’s chagrin). In high school, I was helping women select tackle and clothing for their husbands’ favorite hobby. By the time I entered the university, I had started to help my step-mom in the back office; doing deposits and basic bookkeeping. By my second year in school, I thought, “maybe I should minor in business.” But when my step-mom was diagnosed with leukemia, everything changed. She started two long years of treatment and I eventually took over the back-office. Eventually, it was time to be “all in” and I switched my major to Business Administration with a focus on Accounting. She passed in 1991. We were devastated. And the business had to continue. That first year, I drank from a firehose trying to get my arms around the bigger picture and quickly realized if we were going to survive, we needed an accounting system that also had tools to help us manage inventory. We worked with our CPA firm who helped us select and implement the PC-based accounting solution of that time (the 1990’s version of QuickBooks; ProfitWise). I spent the next year getting it implemented and knew I had found the work I was meant to do. Problem solving, project management, putting the people, processes and systems in place to grow our business were my jam. I graduated in 1993 and chose to work for one of the “Big 5” national accounting firms at that time because they had a consulting practice that did process re-engineering and system implementation work for much larger companies in addition to the traditional audit and tax work. My dad supported my efforts to study for the CPA exam the Spring of my senior while continuing to run the back office. I passed the exam and started work that fall. Within a month, the consulting division leader wandered over to the audit department with a list of “the newbies” looking for someone who could jump onto a “network clean sweep” project that would eventually turn into the first Oracle Application/ERP implementation in the Pacific Northwest. Because of my background, my name was at the top of the list and I jumped over the fence and never looked back. Client-server, enterprise solutions (ERP) were just taking off for the largest publicly traded companies at that time and our group went from 6 to 126 in 5 years helping companies like Microsoft, Intel, In Focus Systems and Oberto put their first ERP solutions in.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

I think the story above covers must of this question. My dad. His model of entrepreneurial spirit, support and encouragement to follow my strengths and passion. I learned so much growing up at “the shop” about how to customer service, operations and financial management; not to mention how to navigate crucial and at times difficult conversations between family, employees and customers. As I mentioned, my dad was a big help as I studied for the CPA exam the spring of my last year in school. He continued to pay me my full wage and allowed me to work fewer hours so I could focus which resulted in passing it the first time (which is pretty unusual). This was meaningful in lots of ways, but practically speaking when many of my new colleagues that fall were trying to balance studying for this challenging exam with work (and as a result often having to retake all or parts of the exam), being done with it was a huge weight off my shoulders and allowed me to focus at work.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Truthfully, nothing spectacular comes to mind. What does come to mind is the reality there were many mistakes and blips (mostly little and some larger) along the way. That’s just life. The lesson for me has been learning to extend myself grace and compassion when mistakes occur. I could do this for others, but not as easily for myself. Like many of us, I am my biggest critic when I make mistakes or miss a target in some way. Over time, I learned to see it, feel and let it go more easily. Now I own it, speak it, make amends with others if necessary and recognize I am enough just because I am rather than because I performed in a certain way.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Fear is an ugly beast and can lead to making poor choices or missing life-changing opportunities for ourselves, those we love and/or lead. Fear keeps us from listening to ourselves. Overcoming fear requires us to notice it, feel it and then tell ourselves a different story; one that is actually true. Knowing ourselves, listening to our intuition and responding to what our heart, mind and spirit are telling us at any given moment are the greatest forms of self-love and affirmation there are. Treating ourselves in this way creates a conduit for overcoming fear and making smarter decisions. It is my experience (and I wish I had realized this earlier in my life and career), that it is only from this place of self-knowing, listening and responding that we gain the capability and capacity to love and serve others. It’s not selfish, it’s serving at the highest level. This is true both at home and at all levels of work.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Becoming by Michelle Obama — I read this at a time when I was learning to know, listen and love all of myself; not just the performing, achieving parts. Reading Michelle’s journey helped me to embrace my own success and also be less hard on myself when I struggled. As a result of this book, I created a three-part series for women leaders (viewing women inside and outside the home as leaders in this context) in the Spring of 2018 called, Awake, Aware, Alive — Becoming our Best Selves. The funny part was that although it was no doubt inspired by Michelle’s book; written in three parts, it wasn’t intended to be a “book club”. During our first night, many of the women thought that it was and had come in having read the book; prepared to discuss. They were surprised to learn that it was much deeper than that as the keynote speaker (me on the first night) shared her own waking up story and then proceeded to pull us all into a meaningful discussion of what being “awake” in our lives can mean for us and those around us. Despite the surprise, the event was well received and attendance rose for the subsequent nights in the series. It confirmed for me how important sharing our “Becoming….” stories and struggles in community really is. It was beautiful to behold.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

I have many and one that I share often is, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” — Eleanor Roosevelt.

It’s such a great reminder that we are enough, complete and matter just for being us and what others think of us doesn’t matter. It’s a reminder that when people do have opinions about how we show up or what we produce in the world, it’s coming almost always coming from a place of projection. It’s about them, not us.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

We are working on an enterprise solution implementation (ERP) for a mid-sized, family-owned manufacturing company who need new tools and tech in order to grow. This type of project is our bread and butter, but in this demographic, every client has their own unique qualities, strengths and struggles. Tuning into these and being intentional in our collaboration, communication and connection with people as we work together to execute this important change initiative is ultimately what ensures success. This isn’t to say we aren’t accountable for finishing on time and on budget; we are, of course. It’s just that the only way the processes, systems and tech come together is through understanding and meaningful engagement with people. This is just like life at home and at work in almost any context. From this lens, I believe success and even joy can be found almost anywhere.

After 25 years, we are working to grow our own company as well. It’s interesting (and humbling) to be doing the work internally that we do every day with our clients. We are investing heavily; financially and with our time in new ways of marketing. We are taking a more focused, intentional and personalized approach to our customer acquisition process. This is a little scary and makes me feel vulnerable as I work to go deeper and not wider within my network; asking for help, listening and trying to learn in new ways. I think back to earlier in our conversation about how to harness and transform fear through knowing our truth and making sure we tell ourselves that story. And that, we’ll be ok no matter how it turns out. Funny, as I look back and certainly in recent years, the “business” of Syte has always been my vehicle for personal development and growth; one that has helped me serve at work, home and in my community so much more freely. It’s also helped me to more effectively integrate and show up in the whole as a fully integrated human being; all of who I am wherever I go. I hope I’m helping others to do the same.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

I have lived long enough to have experienced a number of ups and downs. If it’s taught my one thing, there are so many things I cannot control. Learning to live with and feel safe amidst uncertainty has been (and will continue to be) a life long journey. Creating good habits started out as helping me to manage and control this uncertainty. For example, control what you eat and/or exercise regularly and you can manage how your weight. Eventually, good habits started to serve more than a need for control. They prepared me to do hard things and weather storms. For example, I started running in college to get in better shape and lose weight. 30 years later, exercise and the resulting endorphins have helped my mental, physical health and wellness in profound ways. I ran my first marathon in 2009 which was hard and I did it! During times of stress, trauma and tragedy, exercise has shored up my mental and physical health in ways that helped me to survive what I couldn’t control.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

As I mentioned above, regular exercise and (relatively) clean eating having contributed to my overall health and wellness and by extension my energy and stamina to grow a marriage, family and a business all at the same time. In more recent years, I’ve started a simple but consistent meditation practice which has served in many ways; including auguring down my monkey-mind, transitioning between strategic and tactical work, increasing my ability to be present and gaining clarity on what I want and need.

Another habit I started a few years ago was not scheduling meetings before 10 am. There are exceptions, but they are rare. This ensures I own the first and best part of my working day. I get a workout in, get into the office and while I’m the freshest can do my most strategic, creative and innovative work. Versus the remainder of the day which can be email, meetings and moving quickly from one thing to another to keep the engine moving. Think, “thinking slow” so we can move fast. It’s been a game changer. In the summer’s I’ve started taking as much of Friday’s off as possible; at least the second half. Finally, I’ve more recently started limited meetings on Monday to the second half of the day. Goal is to have time wrap up and kick off the week with intention. Also a game changer.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits? I have thought about this a lot over the years and I wish there was a magic formula for this and there doesn’t seem to be. That said, in my experience there is often a triggering event of some kind that propels us to start or stop a habit. Sadly, this can be a traumatic event. It can also be an accumulation of the same annoying, frustrating result and a tipping point is reached where “enough is enough” and a person makes a change for the better. This is so different for everyone, however. For a more “one size fits all” option, I think James Clear’s approach in “Atomic Habits”; whereby a good habit is created by taking the smallest or shortest first step possible is a method that has worked for me and many others I know. One other comment I’ll make with regard to “how to stop bad habits” is something I’ve been contemplating recently; I wonder if the things we often characterize as “bad” are maybe not necessarily. Now, if you’re binge drinking every night, this is probably a bad habit. But I’ve come to believe there are things we do habitually sometimes that we feel shame or guilt about because we think we shouldn’t be doing them; when instead “bad” is coming from feeling the struggle we’re having over not feeling in control. Instead, maybe rather than “bad”, we could be more gracious, loving and kind to ourselves; certainly less judgmental and consider that maybe the “bad” habit might be serving a need for now and that’s ok. For a personal example (and this is a vulnerable share for me), popcorn and a glass of wine make for my dinner most nights at home. Why? I love both and can’t afford from a calorie perspective to also eat of full, regular meal at dinner. I’ve felt shame and self-judgment about this because sometimes I don’t feel in control of the choice and have come to believe that this is ok. It’s serving a need for me in that moment; maybe it’s self-love or nurturing in the moment. I think leaders; people who are generally viewed as successful are used to being in control of most things (and desire to be) that when it’s not 100% possible, there can be a great deal of self-judgment. Maybe your actually caring for yourself in a way that you need right now. And maybe you just love a good glass of wine and bowl of popcorn more than the other options ;>).

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

I’m pretty sure my comments above cover this question. Holler if elaborating or additional examples would serve.

Moving my body every day and eating relatively clean has kept me very healthy in general. It’s not unusual for me to avoid the season flu or common cold for years at a time I believe because of these habits.

Being consistent in getting enough sleep, combined with an epic cup of coffee in the morning (the making of which is a total ritual in and of itself) and keeping the mornings intentionally slow have boosted my endurance and stamina over the short (weeks) and the long (years) haul as I’ve led my company, clients and our internal team. I’m not 25 anymore, so “just pushing through” or “muscling” things isn’t sustainable. I still try, don’t get me wrong. But, it doesn’t create long term results consistently.

For me focus has come from the ways I’ve changed up how I spend my time as discussed above with regard to meeting times and down time. It’s absolutely been a key success factor.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Answered above, I believe.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

Answered above, I believe.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Answered above, I believe.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

Answered above, I believe.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Answered above, I believe.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, creating a state of flow has come from knowing what my heart, mind and body need at a given time and over time to enter into this state. In general, I have found that the daily habit described above allow flow to happen more often than not; particularly in the first half of the day for me and between 530–7 pm. I have find myself in the flow much more often due to the consistency with which I perform the habits I’ve discussed above. Creating space for myself; listening to what my heart, mind and soul needs in the moment and executing the habits discussed above consistently have been critical to finding flow more often and more regularly.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I feel a little lame suggesting something so simple, but honestly it’s learning to take quiet, consistent space for ourselves so we can tune into ourselves. If everyone took 20 minutes each morning to do this, it could be life and world changing. Sounds a little crazy, I know. But, this has been my experience.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-).

Michelle Obama comes to mind. I love how she shows up in the world; how she lives, loves and serves. I aspire to be more like this every day.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The best place to find me is via our company blog or my personal LinkedIn Page.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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