“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”
Part Three: It Takes Vision
If you ask the average employee of the typical company why the company exists, what sets it apart from its competition, what its core values are, and where it is going, you’ll often get a blank stare or confused answer.
Jack Welch is famous for saying that he would repeat the vision, values, and direction of the company so often that he would often feel sick at the sound of his own voice saying the same thing—but it worked. People knew where the company was going and why, what it stood for, and how they fit into the culture and big picture.
Remember, successful companies do not get that way by accident. They live in three horizons: today, tomorrow, and the future. Today is for managers and supervisors. Leaders need to think bigger and in the longer term.
Tomorrow will not take care of itself. If you take your eye off the ball, then you leave your company vulnerable to the vagaries of the marketplace.
It is critical that you have a destination but also that you have developed a road map outlining how to get there.
Planning is not a luxury but a requirement if you want to win at life or business. Otherwise, you are subjecting your employees and yourself to the whims of chance, and trust me, the odds aren’t in your favor.
In decision-making and negotiating situations, it is advisable to have a plan B that will allow you to adjust for shifting circumstances or differing points of view. You need to be able to prioritize your objectives and know where you have some room for movement. It’s critical to build flexibility into any response strategy.
Leadership is about reinvention. The typical leader needs to reinvent himself/herself every five to seven years to tackle the new responsibilities of the role. You will also be forced to make difficult yet necessary decisions if you want to maintain a trajectory of success.
I have found that answering the following five questions can be a useful process before embarking on anything of significance:
- Why am I doing this? It is always a good idea to check in on your motivations for doing something. Be wary of doing things just to keep you busy or make you feel important.
- What else could I be doing with my time? Busy people all know that time is a precious commodity. You rarely have more of it and usually have to give up something to take on anything new (if you want to do it right). Life is all about making tradeoffs.
- What does a successful outcome look like, and will it warrant the time and energy spent on this project given other considerations? In essence, what is the return on investment (ROI)? In the end, the benefits should always clearly outweigh the costs.
- Who else will benefit from me doing this, and will they truly appreciate my efforts? The more people who benefit from your decisions/actions, the However, never forget that they also need to understand and agree that what you are doing actually benefits them. With rare exception, try and avoid things that just benefit you.
- Am I excited and energized about doing the work required to complete this project? Passion does matter. Very often, you can delegate tasks that move you toward your objective, but in the end, you actually need to care about the outcome and want to pitch in and participate as needed. Do your best to avoid projects that you view as drudgery or find uninspiring.
I always get concerned when I interact with a business leader who has a zero-sum game mentality. Markets aren’t an all-or-nothing proposition. There will always be competition, and that is a good thing not only for customers but also for the competing parties. Competition forces innovation, focus, and discipline. Instead of resenting the moves of your competitors and constantly badmouthing them, you should thank them for pushing you to be better.
In organizations, as in democracies, the inability to foster constructive conflict is a troubling development. To grow and get better, there needs to be disagreement about how best to do things and where to find new answers to old problems.
Not all change is obvious; sometimes you will get caught off guard. However, this should be the exception, not the rule. In most cases, if you are honest with yourself, the signals are obvious that you need to act.
The problem many of us experience is that we anchor ourselves to too many things. If everything is considered important, then nothing truly is. We need to be more thoughtful and selective about the battles we choose to fight. It is not just about winning. It is also about how you win and what your motivations were for winning in the first place.
Leadership is very rarely about doing what is easy. If the decision ends up on your desk, it typically means no one else can or should be making it.
A leader has to be ahead of the market curve and see things others don’t see. Today’s opportunities could be tomorrow’s nightmares. Saying no actually becomes more important than saying yes. Your business model will require constant refinement and can grow stale quickly.
All decisions and actions have consequences. The more people affected by your decisions, the more carefully they must be made. You should weigh the pros and cons and consider the inherent risks. Profit is good, healthy balance sheets are good, positive cash flow is good. Lacking basic ethics and fundamental common sense is bad. It is never advisable to win on the cheap or at the expense of someone else’s personal well-being. You can do well by doing good!
Our job as a leader is to create interdependence, not dependence…As you long as you create a work environment where the only option isn’t up or out, individuals will stretch themselves when asked. Just be wary about pitting people against one another and fostering a win-lose mind-set.
If you simply ask the following questions before making any important decision, I guarantee you will end up with better decisions:
- Is this a good fit with the mission and vision of the company?
- Is this aligned with our organizational values?
- Does it meet our economic objectives?
- Is it a good fit with our core skills and competencies?
- Do we have the requisite level of passion and enthusiasm in-house to be successful?
We all reach a point where we have to make decisions based on imperfect and sometimes even contradictory information. There is no perfect decision. Whether it is who we hire, when we enter new markets, how much to invest in new products and technologies, when to expand or contract a business relationship, or any other issue, leadership ultimately comes down to judgment. There is always the risk you may make the wrong decision, but you try to mitigate this risk through sound judgment… Judgment is something built over time. It is based on the sum total of both the good and bad decisions you have made up to a given point and what you’ve learned from these situations.
Thinking can be hard work. It requires effort and a willingness to fight situational impulses. At a time when our brain just wants to deal with the instantaneous reality of the here and now, we are asking it to slow down, consider multiple alternatives, and use a contextual filter. As a leader, you have to continually challenge your own assumptions and be open to new ideas. Sometimes, you need to solicit contrary feedback and view things from many different angles.
Part Four: People, People, People
I am in and out of many businesses on a regular basis, and the one characteristic all high-performing organizations have is good people. You can feel it in the atmosphere. There is a certain way the employees interact with one another and hold themselves. There is a sense of confidence but not arrogance. If you are a guest, you are treated that way, and random people will interact with you to make sure you are being taken care of. It’s one of those things you clearly notice about the work environment when it is missing. Sadly, this is usually the case.
You are your people—it is that simple. Whom you hire and promote is an obvious reflection of your own ability to judge talent and gauge cultural fit. When you lower the bar for one person, you lower it for everyone else.
Unless you are a solo practitioner, you need to achieve success with and through other people. There is no magic formula on how to do this except to understand that people are individuals, and it is best to meet them where they are rather than try and turn them into what they are not.
For another person to have a true connection with you, they need to feel like you care about what they have to say. No one likes being lectured. This does not mean that all opinions are created equal or that facts don’t matter. However, never discount how stubbornly someone will cling to a position if they feel attacked or threatened.
As a leader, it is incumbent upon you to make sure your people have the job clarity, tools, resources, and training to be successful. You are supposed to set people up for success, not push them toward failure. Darwinian logic misapplied to the work environment is professional malpractice.
…your job as a supervisor or manager is to never knowingly put someone in a situation that plays to his or her weaknesses and leaves them unnecessarily vulnerable.
We all know people who when they speak, everyone else immediately listens. From my experience, these people never talk just to talk. They are willing to yield the floor to others when they don’t have comparable expertise. They are agreeable and supportive when it makes sense and generally seek to build on the ideas of others. When they do communicate a differing opinion, they respectfully back up the position they take with logic, facts, and relevant experience. They never argue just for the sake of arguing, and neither should you.
It never ceases to amaze me how much a group of people can accomplish if no one individual cares too much about who gets the credit. However, in most organizations, there is far too much wasted energy on ego-related issues and worrying about the wrong things. This often starts at the top of the organization.
What we often do today is pit people against one another through either material rewards or limited advancement opportunities. Survival of the fittest may be a good biological theory, but it’s a tough way to run an organization and lead people. We have fallen victim to the special-person mindset of management, thinking everyone can and should be A players, when this is not a realistic objective.
Many leaders are penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to leveraging the skills of others. Surround yourself with bright, hardworking people who have the right complementary abilities and common values and then let them do their job. Pay for talent now rather than to clean up mistakes later.
Everyone likes to be acknowledged and appreciated. It is basic human nature. Hard work, determination, and skill should be recognized. It’s been proven by many studies that top performers in all walks of life like it when you keep score. It is not so much to feed their ego but more about being transparent about results and progress.
Unhappy, divisive, and mean-spirited people will always exist in life. The good news is that strong cultures tend to surface and eject these people out relatively quickly.
People tend to respect leaders who are available and approachable. The simple act of management by walking around the office or jobsite makes you visible and indicates that you care about what is going on. You will get a lot of traction by asking basic questions like the following:
- What have you learned lately?
- What could we improve around here?
- What’s the biggest obstacle to our success right now?
- What opportunities are we missing?
- What’s working well?
- What do you like (or not like) about working here?
Communication with someone is an interpersonal activity, and you can’t take the personal out of it.
Without exception, my most successful clients and colleagues have an innate ability to stay focused on one thing at a time, treat others with basic dignity and respect, listen intentionally so they don’t miss anything important, and are fairly good at reading nonverbal cues and keeping the energy in the room upbeat and positive. You almost always leave your interactions with them feeling good about the encounter and the relationship.
When individuals are feeling overwhelmed or confused, they want simplicity. The more words you use, the harder this becomes. It is not about proving how smart you are on a given topic; it’s about ensuring that what you are communicating is registering. I’ve seen quite a few speakers lose track of their point when they get too verbose or abstract and then stumble trying to get back on track. Not everything needs simplification to appeal to the lowest common denominator; however, if you want something to resonate, you must balance being extemporaneous with being clear and focused in your communication.
I always see two traits in exceptional leaders. One is an above-average ability to listen to what someone else is saying. The second is a great aptitude for asking follow-up questions. The best leaders intuitively know that success most often lies in identifying and asking the right questions rather than jumping to quick conclusions based on personal hunches or faulty assumptions.
…smart people, who have a lot to share with an audience, kill their credibility with unwise or unnecessary controversial statements. You have to know when to use your personal censor button.
The goal of all business leaders should be to become an employer of choice that attracts top-notch people. You want to create a positive work environment that makes it a difficult professional choice for talent to leave. However, they will still depart—just at a slower pace.
Part Five: The Basics
Always remember that the majority of your employees prefer consistency. They are also prone to change fatigue and skepticism rather quickly. Change for the sake of change is never advisable. All change should be rooted in some obvious reality that requires a shift in the status quo. When you have something that is working, stick with it!
One of the most frustrating and disheartening things that someone in my position has to deal with are leaders who have a tendency to ignore reality and follow a flawed strategy or bad decision off a cliff. Pride usually gets in the way as the leader thinks that changing course would represent failure or unnecessary pain.
I have witnessed the following areas where business leaders are stuck far too often:
- embracing old market paradigms of doing business when things have irrevocably changed;
- holding on to technological solutions that are no longer responsive to industry or market needs;
- not rethinking the product or marketing strategy, when sales trends are flat or trending downward;
- getting too comfortable with existing market dynamics and being too slow to expand and diversify;
- underinvesting in sales capacity and putting the business development burden on too few people;
- undercapitalizing the business given your growth strategy (you cannot consistently grow on the cheap);
- using a pricing model that no longer reflects market realities;
- treating variable expenses like fixed expenses especially when it comes to labor costs;
- continually growing in-house administrative capacity and expenses without properly vetting outsourcing options;
- offering employee benefit packages the business can’t really afford due to profit margin realities;
- a regular pattern of maximizing debt burdens and keeping it that way, allowing no margin for financial error;
- going into more debt when you are already losing considerable money;
- an unwillingness to confront problem employees who are doing damage to your culture and adversely affecting customer relationships;
- sticking with a vendor that you have outgrown, and who cannot get you to the next level out of personal loyalty;
- hiring and promoting family members or friends who are unqualified for the job and making everyone else cover up for their nonperformance;
- saving the jobs of a few at the expense of the many;
- and listening to only those people who validate what you are doing rather than actively encouraging constructive feedback.
The landscape of business history is littered with failed business leaders who were either unwilling or too slow to change their thinking. As a business leader, you must be willing to adjust to changing circumstances or risk the consequences.
You can never take success for granted. It is often hard to accept that what got you here won’t get you where you need to go.
The simple fact is that introducing organizational change is hard, and there is often a low probability of success. Most people do not like change. They prefer what they know to what they don’t know. There is always an element of fear when you are dealing with uncertainty. For some reason, our first reaction is that we will end up losing something or end up being worse off. Our defensive mechanisms kick in, and we resist the new order of things… A leader’s job is to understand this reality and manage it accordingly. Instead of being frustrated or angry when people don’t get it, we need to be more patient and deliberate in our approach.
I believe that business and nonprofit leaders need to think differently about what constitutes success. Besides the quality of their people, what differentiates most high-performing companies is their vision, focus, and discipline. Culturally, there is a palpable sense that everyone is striving to be on the same page in terms of priorities and what is ultimately important. These organizations understand it is also the synergy of their activities that separates them from the pack, not just the activities themselves. Instead of simply working harder than their competition, they work smarter than them too.
There is no business without sales. It sounds like an easy concept to embrace, but I can’t tell you how often I regularly see leaders focus on everything else but selling.
My professional observation would lead me to believe that most organizations aren’t very good at creating effective sales processes to achieve consistent business growth. And the leader will quickly hit a ceiling on what he/she can accomplish personally through individual talent or sheer force of will. This is why you need to continually invest in, leverage, and challenge your sales efforts.
Risk-taking is an essential part of business. Without it, we would be confined to the comfort zone of low-hanging fruit and incremental change. Instead of redefining market boundaries, pushing innovation, and challenging the status quo, our leaders are in danger of becoming content with making reactive decisions based on their current business limitations and/or past misfortunes. Markets, companies, communities, and people don’t grow effectively this way.
Being wise and responsible does not mean avoiding risk altogether. In fact, it requires embracing risk, the right risks at the right time with the required investment in resources.
Markets are dynamic, not static and, as a result, are constantly reinventing themselves. What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work tomorrow. Especially in the current economic environment, you need to keep your options open and flexible and be opportunistic as needed.
There is a great benefit to working with a wide variety of clients for a number of years. You start to recognize patterns, seeing what works and what gets organizations in trouble. I have compiled the following list of common business mistakes (many of which I have made myself):
- Hoping for different results using the same strategy and/or tactic that isn’t working.
- Ignoring your business or marketing plan once it is completed; even worse, not having a plan to begin with.
- Not developing and managing to key performance indicators (KPIs) and failing to make sure that everyone in the organization is on the same page as to what success looks like.
- Not planning and managing to multiple financial scenarios (and knowing which way you are trending): best case, expected case, and worst-case scenarios.
- Not realizing that there are no real expense reduction strategies that will properly address a sales issue; you can’t just cut your way out of a business development problem.
- Not fully respecting the fact that “cash is king,” and that it will often erode more quickly than you can replace it; cash reserves are a requirement, not a luxury, if you want to be able to weather any storm or embrace any major opportunity.
- Treating your profit center(s) like a cost center, spending money faster than you earn it (both personally and professionally).
- Failing to understand that debt, properly managed, creates leverage, and that debt improperly managed creates a burden that only compounds as time goes on.
- Viewing business development as an expense rather than investment; reaching new customers and/or markets requires dollars.
- Hiring or keeping substandard talent who play a key role in the business, forgetting that you are your people.
- Failing to become knowledgeable about the competition (including your competitive advantage) and staying that way; market ignorance is never bliss.
- Failing to measure and understand the importance and interrelationship of both employee and customer satisfaction. Happy employees and customers aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, the opposite is usually true.
- That the leaders(s) of the organization don’t see it as part of their responsibility to get smarter and better at their job every day; thinking and learning is more important than just doing as you grow the business and take on more responsibility.
- Explaining away poor results rather than taking them seriously and/or not responding aggressively enough; the performance-improvement curve only ever gets steeper over time.
- Not appreciating the fact that the answer isn’t always to work harder and longer; a long-term lack of work-life balance will ultimately affect everyone in our lives negatively and will tend to lead us to less than optimal decision-making.
The best thing you can do as a leader is to surround your good people with other good people and remove their barriers to performance. Have high expectations and reward these results when they happen. When it comes to nonperformers and toxic people, move them out as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Once you scale the mountain, start looking for the next peak/challenge. Do not spend too long enjoying the view from the top. I see it all the time: leaders who once had high standards and big dreams start lowering their expectations and/or getting distracted by other things. They start to spend more time enjoying the fruits of their success than planting the next crop to harvest. Of course, you should bask in the glow of your accomplishments and take some time to appreciate what winning feels like. However, never forget what it took to get you there.
Leaders always need to maintain their edge. There is a big difference between 85 percent and 100 percent of your best effort.
Hope is not a strategy. It is an emotion that more often than not leads to disappointment. You can’t will yourself to success if what you are doing won’t work or can’t sustain the results necessary to maintain your business.
Stubbornness is very rarely a leadership virtue. Be persistent but also be smart. “Know when to hold em’ and know when to fold em’.” Don’t defend or rationalize bad decisions because of your pride or ego. Strive to be intelligent and mature enough to absorb the data, ask and answer the tough questions, learn the lessons, adjust your actions accordingly, and move on.
You can’t fly in the face of reality for too long. Inevitably, the lack of real thought, logic, or understanding ends up catching up with you. Some leaders do go a long time before this happens, but they often don’t see or choose to ignore the cracks in the foundation as they are occurring… Being a perpetual optimist only works if you have the necessary time to act and the actions have some chance of working. If you are not careful, you end up with minimal options when this happens.
Leadership is not rocket science. Creating the conditions for business success is actually pretty basic:
- be clear about where you are going and why,
- define what success looks like and track performance,
- make sure all of your key people are on the same page,
- don’t wing it when it comes to important decisions,
- ensure that every single employee knows how they fit in the big picture and what they are supposed to be doing,
- create a process for providing ongoing performance feedback,
- hold people accountable for results,
- be careful about who you hire and put in supervisory roles,
- provide extensive training and support,
- never stop communicating with your customers,
- make sure everyone shares in the success of the business but also feels the pinch of nonperformance.
…get the basic business math right, don’t become too reliant on debt, work toward positive cash flow, manage to the numbers that matter, make good people decisions, commit to high-quality customer service, and good things will happen.