Want to be a successful investigator?
Learn to say “no.” Stop micromanaging. Don’t pin your hopes on specific outcomes.
Over the years that I’ve been a professional investigator, I’ve had plenty of people in the business give me advice about how to run my practice or how to be a better investigator and forensic examiner.
But some of the most useful advice didn’t come from folks in the business. It didn’t come from my buddy Don, who’s been a criminal defense investigator for more than 20 years. He keeps doing the same types of case over and over, year-in and year-out. How he keeps it fresh and interesting is a mystery I’ve yet to unlock.
Nor did it come from my friend and mentor Kelly, who made a truly inspired transition from law enforcement to financial crime investigation and has steadily built a practice as the nation’s foremost expert on women embezzlers.
No, some of the most useful advice I’ve gotten came in the form of lessons from industry outsiders, lessons about the dangers of overcommitting and of being attached to particular outcomes.
Just say “no.”
I wouldn’t identify myself as a black-belt just yet, but I’ve gained a lot of experience on my way to being a Master in the Art of the (qualified) “No, sorry I can’t do that.” For too many years, as many of my peers did, I said yes to every opportunity, every commitment that came my way. I invariably ended up being stretched too thin and stressed out by competing deadlines.
Workplaces of all kinds have a natural tendency to move tasks and projects to the person who’s the “Yes, sure, I can take that on” go-getter. Instead, fostering a workplace team culture of healthy boundaries and nobody overcommitting takes real work. That boundary-setting culture shift can take even more work when you’re your own boss, running your own practice, alone in your office most of the time.
The people who taught me this had nothing to do with the investigations field. Those lessons came from folks like David Allen, the father of the “Getting Things Done” practice, and from productivity nerd extraordinaire Merlin Mann, whose Inbox Zero and other brilliant mind hacks have been so useful.
But they also came from direct experience.
In my practice, saying no to a new case or opportunity (or saying “Sure, let me help you facilitate that project, by introducing you to someone else who can do it…”) has so often opened up time and space for me to do a truly quality job on the tasks in front of me. This smart Stanford business school guy Greg McKeown’s video on “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” sums it up pretty nicely: Successful people, so often, are successful not because they say yes to everything, but because they say no.
Successful people, so often, are successful not because they say yes to everything, but because they say no.
Let it go, bro.
Sari de la Motte is way more than an expert on non-verbal communication; she’s the foremost shepherdess of brilliant insights into the importance of presence in the courtroom (and elsewhere). In her recent “Power of Presence” seminar, she drove home the zen notion that you become less and less effective as you are increasingly attached to particular outcomes. This advice resonated with my experience in recent years of building my practice—in a few particularly strong ways:
1. Losses are just more experience.
If one needs opportunities to practice not being attached to outcomes, a good place to start would be to work as a criminal defense investigator. First, there’s the fact that if you’re only goal is ensuring something other than a conviction, you’ll be “defeated” pretty much most of the time. (In the civil world, going to trial is also a rarity indeed).
Second, your most common experience is operating under crushing deadlines, digging deep to uncover reams of seemingly useful facts and generating eye-popping professional materials, most of which (or none of which) ever end up seeing the light of day (beyond perhaps a harried, last-minute team meeting).
The first couple of times this happens it might be mildly disappointing or even a huge career-stalling letdown. After a while, however, you come to see it as part of how the process works. (I think this is likely what my buddy Don has gotten so good at over all these years.) For those not as familiar with this phenomenon, I’ve made a helpful Venn Diagram:
It’s especially important to recall that one cannot become attached to a client’s receiving a particular verdict or your subject getting a certain treatment as a result of your investigation. Your job as a professional investigator is to tease out facts, to sift through the noise to reach the signal, and to present that information in a coherent and useful way.
This certainly does not mean one should operate as an automaton, never getting passionate about your work, only that it’s best to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, and to not hang all those hopes on this naughty person getting fired or that good person who deserves a break ever getting one.
Upshot: it’s not about you, so don’t take it personally. Get the facts, wish them well, and move on.
Get the facts, wish them well, and move on.
As a small business owner, there are countless times in your day-to-day work where getting attached to particular outcomes can derail your best efforts.
The Employee Who Doesn’t Perform
When that employee, contractor, or co-worker who seems so promising but fails to deliver and doesn’t own up to it, it’s terribly frustrating… but getting stuck on it doesn’t help. Keep working to build trusting relationships and strong ties to a community of competent practitioners, and the letdowns will be fewer and further between.
Networking for Naught
Of all those efforts to reach out to potential clients (cards, letters, schmoozing at events, making LinkedIn connections, tabling at conferences, taking prospects to lunch, etc.), only a slim few will yield actual work. Refrain from attaching yourself too dearly to a particular lead, and don’t get too disappointed when the phone doesn’t ring or they don’t reply to your email. It’s like my mom told me in 6th grade, when Liza broke my heart into a dozen pieces (and then ripped the pieces up and burned them): “There are other fish in the sea.”
The Social Media Blues
Social media has become a go-to method for so many of us to promote our professional services. Yet it would be hard to find a more potent medium for letdowns. That awesome Facebook post with a great image and a funny tag-line? Three likes and one comment. Blah. That perfect tweet you composed with just the right links and hashtags? One lonely retweet and two favorites, from your followers that favorite all your stuff anyway. Blah again.
Social media channels aren’t just a fad; they’re likely to be an integral part of how we communicate and brand ourselves for the foreseeable future. But to the extent that we get hung up on the numbers game of “likes” and links, we lose sight of the bigger picture: Lasting recognition for excellence in your field comes from excelling in the actual work you deliver, not from a snappy tweet or clever Facebook post.
Lasting recognition for excellence in your field comes from excelling in the actual work you deliver, not from a snappy tweet or clever Facebook post.
3. Choosing your battles, or “You’re going out dressed in THAT?”
One of the best ways of all to practice not being attached to particular outcomes is found in some of life’s most challenging and rewarding work—being a parent. Contrary to the stereotype of the lone wolf, most professional investigators I know are parents, and their infants, toddlers, and teenagers keep them running.
As a parent, the number of times each day when one absolutely needs to “just let go” of particular outcomes is far too large to enumerate here, so I’ll just highlight some of my favorites that I think are most applicable:
Letting Go of Micromanagement
Kids are their own people and will frequently dress up in, listen to, and speak in the lingo of the latest seemingly bizarre pop-culture phenomena. Sure, it’s important to have rules and general dos and don’ts, but if you hold on too tightly to a particular style or aesthetic you want for you child, it is certain to backfire.
The corollary here is that if you micromanage those working with or for you, it’s sure to bite you back later. Give them clear guidelines, but let them do the good work you brought them in for in the first place…without second-guessing their every move.
Children of all ages learn at different paces, and I find myself constantly re-adjusting my idea of what I can and should expect (especially in terms of how many times I’ll need to ask for something to be done before it becomes a pattern—you know what I’m talking about moms and dads…). It’s helpful to recall that kids are bombarded by all kinds of messages and are constantly soaking up strange, new, and often conflicting information about the world around them.
As in your practice, expecting perfection the first time out the gate is a recipe for disaster.
Got activities? Soccer, tap dancing, piano lessons, gymnastics, chess, Lego club, martial arts, scouting, and on and on—the things at which kids can excel come in a truly mind-boggling variety. As much as we might raise our hopes for one particular path, our kids will end up choosing their own. We can only give them love, support, and an environment in which it’s safe to explore. Enthusiastic encouragement is essential of course, but the moment we push too hard for the particular path we ourselves have gotten invested in, that’s the moment we’re lost to them, disconnected.
Similarly, your practice, if tended with care and given room to breathe, may take an unexpected turn. It may sound trite, but it’s never been more true: To be ready to shift direction and take advantage of new opportunities, one needs to not have too tight of a grip on one particular discipline or set of goals.
So do like Elsa in “Frozen,” and let it go!
About the Author:
Eli Rosenblatt is an investigator, CFE, and forensics expert in Portland, Oregon. He owns Eli Rosenblatt Investigations and Core Service, LLC and has, quite possibly, the best-designed business card in all the world.