In small business settings once you get past the obvious knowledge and competency screens, success decisions are most often a matter of personal choice.
In our society that rewards constant action, it is often hard to step back and reflect about where you have been, what you have learned, and where you should be going. However, leadership requires thinking and reflection as much as it is supposed to stimulate action. Many people I know are busy at doing the wrong things. They are working hard but not smart. Every day is just one more attempt to push the boulder up the hill and hope that at some point positive sustained momentum will push them over the top. Unfortunately as the slope of their climb increases the weight of their responsibilities also increases and the path they are treading becomes less predictable and stable. You can’t push forward into unchartered territory and not expect to learn some tough lessons along the way. If you are not careful, you may slip or fall and the boulder will roll right back over you.
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 other key decision off a cliff. Pride almost always gets in the way as he/she thinks that changing course would represent failure or unnecessary pain. Usually there is a difficult decision that has to be made about people, finances or the current business model (sometimes all three). The inability to make these types of decisions tends to lead to one outcome – failure. A reasonably competent leader may delay the timing but the end result is inevitable.
In my line of work, I am constantly on the lookout for life lessons and what leads to happiness and success. Fortunately, I have been blessed to work with some wonderful people who provide me with excellent fodder for my learning. While most of my time is spent on the business leadership front, I do get a larger picture view at times. I have never believed in compartmentalizing important life issues and prefer to take a multidimensional approach to my work since there are no one dimensional human beings. Over the years I found that how you answer the following 12 questions will have a big impact on your overall quality of life:
Business ownership has never been for the faint of heart. On-going change and adaptability is part of the success equation. Even when things go well there are problems you will have to navigate. As you grow, your company and you should be prepared to experience many if not all of the following issues:
Most people I know aren’t good listeners. They are more focused on what they think and what they have to say about something rather than actually listening to what’s being said. I have a colleague who states that as a leader you need to “listen until it hurts” and I completely agree with him. It’s basic human nature that the level of satisfaction any of us have with a given conversation is directly related to how well we feel the other party was actually listening to what we had to say. Except when we are in a classroom no one actually enjoys being lectured to or talked at.
I appreciate the fact that there are a lot of “grey” areas in life. Not everything is black and white. Sometimes there are mitigating circumstances and/or good reasons why people act they way they do. Everything doesn’t always fits into a neat little box of appropriate behavior; however there are some things that are almost always unacceptable despite the circumstances. There is a reason why all religions are typically based on a foundation of common morality and expected ethical behavior. Whether the leaders of these religions actually they live up to their own principles is another issue altogether.
Leaders should never surround themselves with people who only tell them what they want to hear. Even though it’s tempting to exist in a positive feedback bubble, you need to fight this inclination and encourage independent thinking by others. If you are always the smartest person in the room and your opinions are largely left unchallenged then something is wrong. Sometimes the truth hurts, but it’s better to deal with reality than ignore it. In addition, it’s been proven that a group regularly makes better decisions than any one individual.
When in doubt ask good questions and leverage the knowledge and experience of other people. There are few things less attractive about a leader than someone who acts like they know the answer when they don’t. Confidence can be a good attribute but hubris is not. People ultimately see through your words and pick up pretty quickly if you simply make it up as you go along. More importantly, those around you who do have the answers lose respect for you and begin to question everything you say.
There is nothing wrong with having strong opinions but always remember this doesn’t mean you are right. There is a difference between a fact based opinion and experiential opinion. In one case you are actually using hard facts and objective data to state you position. In the other case, you are relying more on subjective experience and personal beliefs to make your point. The dangerous thing about experiential opinions is that they are grounded solely on the personal filters of the advocate. They are also based on a singular and usually somewhat stunted view of reality. Being louder and more passionate about something will certainly garner attention, however, once again this doesn’t mean you are right and very often means you are rude, close-minded and/or a poor listener.
Bottom line is that to be successful in business you need still to be willing to take risk and make strategic investments. Simply following and succumbing to market norms is for losers. Industries and markets are often too slow to react to significant events/trends and take far too long to recover. Business rewards those leaders who are proactive about their destiny and make the conscious decision to lead rather than follow. Be different, it pays off in the long run.
There are way too many things competing for our time as adults. It’s easy to get lost in the fog of responsibility and fall behind. If we are honest with ourself, we end up using our time very inefficiently and often make it up as we go along. As a result, there is usually some level of imbalance in our life as we prioritize what is most pressing or convenient. The problem is that gaps unattended only grow with time and at some point the chasm becomes too difficult to navigate. The very thing we value most, our own independence and freedom, becomes victim to the personal stress created by not being disciplined about our decisions, time and activities. Paradoxically, we end up with the outcomes we most wanted to avoid.
In business and life it is important to understand what motivates you. There are good motivators and bad ones. Striving to make a positive difference in the world and/or building a great company is a much healthier objective than simply accumulating personal wealth or power. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reap the rewards of your efforts. There are few things more valuable than a person working hard and doing well at something they consider to be meaningful and important. However, be wary of seeking money just for the sake of it. Wealth should be the outcome not the objective.
The problem is that life is complex not simple. There are many reasons why things do or do not happen. At some point we all are faced with difficult choices with no clear answers. Very often we make these decisions under some level of duress and/or with imperfect information or unclear guidelines. Life does just happen sometimes and navigating it can be as much of an art as a science.
There seems to be a dearth of good strong corporate values these days (and basic common sense). While the objective of any business should be to make a good profit, it should also be to build long term sustaining economic value that accurately reflects the risks inherent in their internal and external environments. The best way to navigate these risks is to have a strong sense of who you are and what you will and will not do.
It is impossible to be truly happy and successful in life without a strong sense of priorities. There will no shortage of distractions competing for your attention. It is easy to get out of balance and sidetracked by issues that are comparatively unimportant in the wide scheme of things. Sadly, we often taken for granted people we shouldn’t and have a tendency to lose our perspective when we need it most. Many people I meet struggle with guilt and regret over what they wish they would have done differently in certain areas of their life. More often than not they are unhappy with how they prioritized their time, energy and attention.
There is certainly a place for being impulsive and trusting your intuition. We’ve all have examples of being forced to make tough decisions with limited information and time. However, more often than not this pressure is self-inflicted.
I recommend that in business or life before taking on anything important, step back and consult with the affected parties. Solicit their feedback not just on whether or not it’s a good idea or what steps are necessary for execution, but also what could make it fail.
One of a leader’s primary roles is to make the important decisions. Of course, these decisions should not be made without the input of the affected parties and/or others with expertise in a given area. It is also important that these decisions are made with an appreciation of the risks and benefits related to a given situation. And, the bigger the risks or potential benefits the more thoughtful the decision making process should be.
Learn from your failures, otherwise they come back to haunt you
When you are wrong, admit it, knowingly jumping off a cliff is rarely courageous, but always dangerous…