Mike Figliuolo is an executive coach, consultant, author, and former U.S. Army officer. He is currently the Managing Director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC, a professional services firm that offers instruction, coaching, and consulting on the subjects of leadership, communications, strategy, and operations. Figliuolo is the author of three books – One Piece of Paper, Lead Inside the Box, and The Elegant Pitch. He’s also one of the most-viewed authors on LinkedIn Learning where he has 30 courses on a variety of leadership and management topics.

Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?

I grew up in New Jersey just outside New York City. I had a normal suburban kid life. I was entrepreneurial from a very young age. Started by selling painted pencils at school. I’d use about $0.10 of materials and charge $1.00 a piece. After that, it was a paper route. Then my comic book collecting/selling business where I actually ran comic book conventions at hotels at the age of 14. I cleared $1,000 in a day (and for a 14-year-old in 1984 that was a lot of cash). My entrepreneurial background has really been something that has enabled me to succeed in running my own business for the last 16 years.

What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?

I wish I had been more active in tax planning and understanding all the options available to small business owners as far as retirement savings and tax deferment go. It’s a huge difference-maker if you understand all the tax avoidance/deferral options at your disposal and if you take full advantage of them. The power of compounding is real and if you can do it with tax-deferred dollars, even better. Talk with a good small-business retirement planner sooner rather than later.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

I run a training firm. When I hear people say all training should be customized with custom examples and case studies from the client organization, I just shake my head. That’s a terrible idea on multiple fronts. First, participants in class will focus on everything that’s inaccurate about the case study versus learning the tools and methods being taught. Second, participants will try to crack the case and solve the business problem – again at the expense of learning the tools being taught. Third, from a business model standpoint, customizing your work every time you deliver it isn’t scalable and you can rarely charge for it so you do extra work for no value. Bad idea.

Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?

I’ve had several health issues over the years. I’ve burned out badly a few times all because I wasn’t practicing good self-care. I learned it’s not sustainable to work as hard as I was. I’ve learned to enjoy and take advantage of the slow times as well as to fit better self-care into my routine (diet, exercise, stress management, etc.). You can’t lead if you’re dead. You can’t run a business from a hospital bed. Self-care has to come first no matter what.

What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?

Always betting on myself. I don’t take many risks but when I do, they tend to be larger. I tend not to bet when I’m not a key determinant in the outcome. But for bets where I can have a disproportionate effect on how things go, I always make that bet. It drives me to make whatever the venture is successful. I’m not always successful and when I fail, I fail reasonably large. That said, when I succeed, it’s usually a big success and I get a disproportionate share of the reward because I drove the success.

What is your morning routine?

Up at 5:25 am (unless the dog wakes me earlier). Read the news (I don’t watch TV – too biased). Check and update my financials/bank accounts/financial software. Shower, shave, and get some green tea with honey and maybe a buttered wheat English muffin. Hit the email for an hour or so and then meetings, classes, and calls usually come up on the schedule. On Mondays, I try to spend as much of the day as I can on my sales pipeline and chasing leads.

What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Taking better care of myself. Exercising more and being more mindful of my food intake. I had a couple of heart attacks (2013 and 2015). Those were huge wake-up calls that my lifestyle wasn’t sustainable. I’m not perfect when it comes to diet and exercise but I have gotten a lot better on that front and do a better job of stress management. The fact that I have a life, let alone a better one, is largely a result of making those changes.

What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?

Try to touch an email only once. The options after reading it are delete/file immediately, respond immediately then delete/file, or, if you don’t have time to properly respond at that moment, schedule a calendar appointment with yourself to handle that email and don’t touch it again until the appointment comes up. This approach reduces a TON of wasted time constantly opening/closing the same emails as well as working your way through the clutter of your inbox. My inbox is routinely 20 emails or less at any given time. I also “stack” my work. I’ll do all my client calls back-to-back, coaching calls back-to-back, sales calls back-to-back, etc. Combining “like” work keeps you in the groove on that topic or mindset. It also minimizes unproductive blocks of slack time on your calendar. By time blocking I end up with larger blocks of available time to properly address bigger projects or issues.

What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway: The quote “But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” has served as a touchstone for me during challenging times. It reminds me that defeat is a choice – it’s saying “I give up.” But as Hemingway states, man is not made to make that choice therefore defeat has never been an option for me.

Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?

“In case of doubt, attack!” General George S. Patton. You can’t just sit there during times of uncertainty. You must take action. Deciding not to decide means you’re letting the world make the decision for you. Even if you make an incorrect decision, you’ll have learned something that you can apply to your next decision. Act.