Tony Stubblebine, CEO and talented leadership coach, shares the story of a friend who instinctively read all of her books before her classes even started. She planned ahead to have more time for homework and clarifying parts she didn’t understand. She graduated with the top GPA at one of the top schools in the country.

Let that strategy sink in for a moment.

Reading books in advance doesn’t take much time or effort. However, it does make a significant impact. Preparation is powerful.

The secret to reaching next level leadership is to start on your own terms. Don’t let someone else’s timeline dictate your journey. If you a get a head start, you’re already ahead of the pack.

Make Pre-Work a Habit

Think about what it takes to make a gourmet dinner. Before going to the kitchen, the chef decides what dish to prepare (the goal). Then the chef has to create a list of ingredients, buy them, and prepare the meal (the path).

Even though those steps may seem trivial, they are essential to the success of the meal. What if the chef just walked into the kitchen and just decided to make a dish without checking if the ingredients were stocked? Gourmet might become gour-mess.

Now think about a runner. Before a race, the runner puts on her running shoes, stretches, and makes sure she has the proper nourishment in hand. That’s all before she even sets foot on the track. The goal is to win the race, but the path is taking care of the body so it can keep running.

What if the runner didn’t stretch? Or forgot to tie a shoelace? She may never see the finish line.

Starting to see a pattern?

Think Small and Think Ahead

Pre-work is the conscious effort to do a little planning before you dive in. The secret to being a great leader is to think small and think ahead.

In ‘The First 90 Days,’ Michael Watkins says that your transition to a new role “begins the moment you know you are being considered for a new job.” This mindset works for any change or growth area.

  • Before you even begin your journey, take a few moments to consider what the first steps will be. “What tools and support system will I need on Day 1? What do I want to accomplish the first week?”
  • Consider what obstacles you may encounter. “Who might discourage me? What if I slip up?”

Let’s say that you decide your goal is lose weight.

  • Get specific with your goal. How much weight? By what date?
  • What obstacles might you encounter? “There’s a big pot-luck dinner this week. How will I navigate it?”
  • How do you measure achievement? “What if I eat well, but don’t lose weight very fast? How will I stay focused?”

If you plan your goal in smaller steps, you’ll start creating the proper mindset in advance. By the time you actually start on your path, you’ll already be comfortable with the transition. There won’t be any scrambling to put the pieces together. You’ve already laid out your road map, complete with twists, turns, road blocks, and detours.

Get Started Now

January is the time when most people start on their annual journeys. They make New Year’s Resolutions and jump right in without thinking about the path ahead. The really dedicated ones usually give up by March. (If you’re like me, you’re raising your hand right about now.)

You, however, now know the secret to great leadership; preparation is powerful. You can get a head start and create a smooth path for the future. If you start thinking now about your goals, you’ll already have momentum when January comes around.

Don’t wait. Remember, leaders make their own timeline.