What do you think of when you hear the phrase “The Rule of Three”? Almost every field or discipline has its own “Rule of Three”: aviation, chemistry, computer programming, economics, mathematics, statistics, even witchcraft! The most striking “Rule of Three” I ever came across is this one for survival: the average person can live for three minutes without air; three days without water; and three weeks without food.
Someone who knows a lot about survival is my friend “Spider” Marks. Properly addressed as Major General James A. Marks (Ret.), Spider is an Army Ranger whose military career spanned 30 years during which he held every command position from infantry platoon leader to commanding general. You may have seen him as a military analyst on CNN or on the faculty at Georgetown University.
In a recent conversation Spider shared a different Rule of Three, one he created to ensure productive meetings with, as he described them, his “routinely distracted multi-tasking bosses.” You may recognize those kinds of bosses, but keep in mind that Spider’s bosses included Presidents, Cabinet Members, and Joint Chiefs of Staff!
Here is Spider’s Rule of Three:
Always have on the tip of your tongue the top three most important items you need decisions on. With a busy boss, you never know when the opportunity will present itself: walking down the hall, in the elevator, on the way to the airport. The responsibility is yours to seize the moment. You should be well-rehearsed, but you want to come across as casual and confident. Your boss may perceive your attempt to guide the conversation as an intellectual ambush, and it may well be, but it’s the best way to get what you need: timely decisions on critical issues.
Grab your boss’s attention within three seconds. Think of effective engagement with your boss as a “friendly” ambush. When you’re the target of an ambush your body flashes into a panic response: blood pressure rises, heartbeat accelerates, vision narrows, and defensive barriers go up. So make the opportunity count! You’ve rocked your boss back on her heels; she’s vulnerable and she knows it; so don’t let her fall. Offer a hand, show your vulnerability and your need for her input and the wisdom of her experience. She’ll gladly “save” you, and you’ll get what you need.
Be prepared to walk away in three minutes. You’ve intentionally decided to interrupt your boss’s day—or at least her train of thought. Perhaps you’ll get the decisions you’re looking for, and if so you’ll walk away victorious. If not, live to fight another day! If your foray doesn’t get what you want, create a plan to re-engage. Remember the warrior’s ethos: never quit, never accept defeat.
I love Spider’s Rule of Three because it’s fun and memorable. (In addition to his experience, you can see his sense of humor in the above.) And his Rule of Three applies equally well to routine interactions with peers, colleagues, business partners, or your team. This approach is a superb way to ensure the right kind of focused conversation about the most important topics.