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Leadership Thought #466 – Do You Have A Plan?

I am regularly surprised by how many business owners/leaders operate without a plan.  They simply make it up as they go along.  I guess if you don’t know where you are going; any road will take you there.  I sometimes wonder if this mindset is purposeful.  It’s hard to hold someone accountable (including yourself) if there are no real markers for success.  You can also apply any possible excuse to explain why the business isn’t more successful. 

Without a plan your business is a like a tumbleweed blowing in the wind. You don’t know where it will end up and the course it takes to get there is subject to the whims of other forces.  Unfocused effort only ever leads to frustration, miscommunication, wasted effort, poor financial decision making, unnecessary stress and less than optimal results.

As a leader, you need to plan for the following:

  • How you will stay on top of industry trends and changes;
  • How your business will compete in your market in both the short and long term;
  • How you will stay connected to your existing clients and anticipate/meet their needs;
  • Who you will target with your marketing and sales efforts and how you will make this happen;
  • What constitutes financial success and how you will manage to these outcomes;
  • How you will manage the natural risks inherent to your business/industry;
  • How you will manage growth while maintaining consistent effective operations;
  • How you will attract and retain the talent required to staff your business;
  • How you will plan for contingencies should you greatly exceed or fall below your business expectations.

Leadership is hard work.  You are paid to think not just do.  Your people look to you for focus and direction. Without a plan they will stumble about and fill in the blanks on their own.  Each person will have their own definition of what’s important and don’t be surprised if this is often different from what you want.  The first person you need to hold accountable is yourself.  Success is rarely ever an accident.  You need to have a plan on where you want to go, if you want to have a decent chance of getting there.

Leadership Thought #465 – Everyone Is A Critic

When you lead others, everyone is a critic to some degree.  It’s next to impossible to be fully aligned with another person 100% of the time.  As a leader, knowing this, you can’t fall into the trap of listening to every dissenting voice. The path to mediocrity is littered with individuals who gave up their leadership power unnecessarily and allowed themselves to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others.  This doesn’t mean you avoid soliciting feedback, quite the contrary, but you need to be able to filter this feedback and trust your own judgment.  The world looks much different when you are actually accountable for your decisions.  It’s easy to be an expert when you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your actions.

You can’t browse the internet, pick-up a newspaper, watch TV or listen to radio without being bombarded by the opinions of so called experts.  In an office environment, you can multiply this by the number of one-off conversations that take place during the course of any given day.   In my line of work, I’ve encountered many middle managers, stuck in their careers, who often believe they are the brightest person in the room.   While they may in fact be highly intelligent (not always the case), they often lack the true courage of their convictions.  It is much easier to be an expert on the sidelines or in the stands than run the risk of actually competing on the field.  It takes minimal energy to snipe behind someone’s back as opposed to thoughtfully advocating for your position and effectively dealing with alternative points of view.

This morning I listened or read many different opinions on how President Obama should deal with Russia’s incursion into the Crimea.  Of course, many of these people aren’t foreign policy experts or have any real inside understanding of the current geopolitical power dynamics involved.  Have you every noticed that most talking heads haven’t actually ever run anything or achieved any significant level of significant professional accomplishment in the field they are commenting on?  They often stalled within the system they are now commenting on.  Even worse are the journalists/media personalities who wax and wane on every topic as they are actually qualified to do so.  They never miss an opportunity to stir up discontent and/or tell us everything wrong with what the leader or institution in question is doing.  Rarely, if ever, do they provide a thoughtful or realistic alternative.  If you are not accountable you can say anything.  We, the public, love this because it validates our own predisposition to form strong opinions without the facts or a selective understanding of only the facts that support our own often ideological position.  Thinking before acting is hard work and many of us prefer shortcuts instead.

Don’t get me wrong; some level of criticism is healthy.  No one is above reproach especially in a free and democratic society.  Weak leaders crush dissent.  They feel threatened when someone disagrees with them.  Just look at Putin. To confuse his weakness with strength is a mistake.  Leaders should welcome different opinions and perspectives. Feedback is essential for innovation and growth.  However, leaders also need to be able to separate the good ideas from the bad ones; the informed thoughts from the misinformed ones; those positions that have the best interest of the organization/institution at heart versus those are personally motivated.  Making the right decision isn’t always easy.  Standing your ground in the face of opposition will test your professional mettle.  Everyone is a critic.  But also remember, that only a much smaller number of us ever risk the criticism in the first place.

Leadership Thought #464 – Embrace What Makes You Special

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to be what you are not.  There are a lot of books out there that tell you that you can be anything you want to be, but this simply is not true.  No matter how hard I try, there are certain things I just can’t do or won’t be able to do well.  It has saddened me to watch so many people regularly set themselves up for failure with unrealistic expectations about what is possible for them and others.  Instead of trying to force yourself into a role/career/opportunity that isn’t right for you, why not embrace who you are and what makes you special and tap into that?

I firmly believe that each one of us is born with gifts and unique talents we can share with others and excel at. Unfortunately, at an early age we are thrust into an educational/social system that pushes us to conform and defines what success within this system should look like.  And like most ingrained systems, the model is outdated and serving the purpose of prior generations. Very early on life we are taught that there are winners and losers and that winning requires certain characteristics and attributes that only a select few possess.  Moreover, the path towards achievement is narrowly defined and more often than not materialistic in nature.  I believe this partially explains our dysfunctional societal obsession with celebrity and wealth.  Don’t buy into it!

One of things I marvel at in life is how different we all are from one another.  Sure, there are obvious physical similarities, but in the course of any given day I meet people who blow me away with their individuality.  Some people can fix anything with little guidance; others can solve complex mathematical problems in their head, while others are quick on their feet and handle any social situation.  I’ve witnessed creative minds that operate on a level I can’t even fathom.  Some people thrive under stress while others fall apart.  Science is fun for some people and a bore for others.  There are people who are so physically gifted they make any athletic activity look smooth and easy while others stumble attempting the most basic physical task.  There are people who look for the spotlight and others who run from it.  Some people like to lead while many more want nothing to do with it.  Our differences are vast and wonderful. None of the above is good or bad; it just makes you who you are.  And, the more we try and put ourselves in situations where we are pre-programmed to thrive, the happier we will be.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively about a state of being called “flow” where you feel perfectly aligned with what you are doing.  Time seems to stand still, you feel an innate sense of joy and your efforts feel almost effortless.  At this moment you are one with nature and your own being.  We’ve all experienced these moments, but sadly they are usually few and far between.  Reality quickly returns and we are back on the treadmill of life, trying to survive our own existence by doing what we feel we should be doing.  I’ve never like the word “should.”  Of course there are family and civic responsibilities we must attend to, however, this is only part of who we are, not all of it.  I’ve been privileged to experience a number of people who have followed what Joseph Campbell termed their “bliss” and lived wonderful lives doing unique things that an objective outside person couldn’t imagine would lead to any level of success, but it did. Never forget that true success is an individual definition.   Happy people make better spouses, parents, siblings, friends and bosses.

Shakespeare stated it perfectly centuries ago, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”  To be of maximum service and value to others we must first be true to ourselves.  Please don’t spend a lifetime trying to be someone you are not.  Instead, celebrate and tap into what is great about you already.  Pay attention to the positive signals the world is giving you.  Look for and be open to the “flow” of life and it will find you…

Leadership Thought #462 – The Need To Step Back and Reflect

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.

We’ve all heard the saying many times that “what got you here, won’t get you where you are going.”  I agree to an extent, but also believe that self-reflection is healthy and some patterns are worth reproducing while others are not.  There are situations where each of us thrive and struggle and the interesting thing in life is that this varies by individual.  Your first responsibility as a leader is to set yourself up for success.  Don’t try to morph into what the current popular leadership text books tell you to be, instead be the best YOU that you can be.  To accomplish this you need to fully understand your own strengths and limitations; you need to be honest about where you add value and where you create unnecessary difficulty.  Sometimes we get in over our heads and the last thing we want to do is flail about embracing change for the sake of change when this happens.  Slow down and be more deliberative in your decisions and actions as the risks go up. 

The leadership journey requires you to constantly reflect on the role you and others should be playing.  As you achieve some level of success, your business may challenge your capabilities to lead it.   This is okay as long as you do something positive about it.  You will need to challenge your own preconceptions about what’s possible and why.  Chances are you will outgrow some of your people, which is sometimes sad but should be expected.  You will need to recruit new talent with new skills to manage the additional complexity.  You will need to delegate more and tolerate less.  You will need to say “no” to things you are accustomed to saying “yes” to.  You will need to remove the organizational dependence upon you and create a business model that fosters functional interdependence and process driven self-correction.  All of this requires both personal and professional growth.  You will need to THINK and act differently.  There are no shortcuts to success, but there’s no reason to make it harder than it needs to be either…

Leadership Thought #461 – Success Must Be Earned

I’ve witnessed a disturbing trend lately amongst many entrepreneurs.  They want to work the hours of a successful person without yet attaining actual business success.  I think all this talk of work-life balance has people a bit confused.  It you want to run a business that supports a flexible lifestyle, you can certainly choose working for yourself as an option, but financial success usually requires very hard work especially at the beginning.  You can’t enjoy the experience of having climbed the mountain without having done the hard work to climb it in the first place. You can’t be all things to all people including yourself; you must make some tough choices about how you spend your time.

You can’t have a business fraught with cash flow and sales problems and leave work early to coach soccer practice. You can’t volunteer for multiple boards if your own company is lacking direction itself.  You can’t give yourself a raise or distribution to cover increased living expenses if you can already barely make payroll.  You can’t have a policy of not working weekends or being home for dinner every night when you can barely keep the doors open.  You can’t regularly show up to work late when your customers typically arrive early.   You can’t limit your client geography because of commuting headaches if your clients exist beyond your travel comfort boundaries. You can’t take long vacations if your business requires you to have an active daily presence.  You have to be honest with your spouse about networking responsibilities and pressing deadlines rather than attempting to meet unrealistic family expectations during the work week.

There is a big difference between starting a lifestyle business and running real business.  The former is more of a personal job program where you prioritize quality of life over economic benefits.   Many people do this and are happy, but they know their economic limitations and do their best to live with in them.    Most of these businesses at best only employ a handful of people.  The latter has the potential for great economic benefit but more often than not requires significant personal sacrifice, significant risk taking and delayed gratification.  You are building something over time and as with most construction projects there is a lot of design and build work at the front end.  Delays and problems will inevitably happen, but if you stay focused, follow the plan and work hard, the rewards can be great at the back-end.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but they are few are far between, this is why we call them exceptions. I am very worried that our society is becoming addicted to short cuts, personal convenience and unrealistic expectations. We want what we want and we want it now with minimal sacrifice on our end.  America was not built on this mindset. We got to where we are by hard work and personal sacrifice.  We outworked our competition and did our best to consistently grow our capabilities and network of contacts.  We pushed economic boundaries and raised the bar on what was possible through sheer determination and effort.  We prioritized progress and success over personal self-exploration and leisure time.  We did what was necessary to get the job done and didn’t complain about how hard this was to accomplish.  You can’t have it all despite what some supposed experts try to tell you – no one can, but you can always prioritize what’s most important at a given point and time and then live with the consequences.  Success must be earned and you can never take for granted what it takes to get there.

Leadership Thought #460 – As A Leader, You Set The Tone in Your Organization

The leader of an organization always sets the tone.  Never forget this fact.  I am often slightly bemused when I hear a leader complain about the state of things in their organization.  It’s almost as if they remove themselves from the equation.  They wonder how things have devolved to this point as if it is some deep mystery when all they have to do is look in the mirror.  Your people are a reflection of your hiring decisions; the quality of your meetings is directly related to how you lead them and model this behavior for others;  missing deadlines is a reflection of what you are willing to tolerate in others and yourself; a lack of focus almost always starts at the top; teamwork only ever happens when the coach sets the expectations and creates the conditions for this to happen; optimistic or pessimistic cultures are usually a reflection of leader’s point of view; etc.

When confronting difficult situations or problems that you are unhappy with in your business or nonprofit, look inside yourself first, before passing the blame to others.  If you are willing to take FULL responsibility for what’s taking place in the environment that YOU have created, then you have a fighting chance of making positive changes.  The bottom line is that organizational culture is a direct reflection of the characteristics and behaviors of the leader.  Dysfunctional work environments are the product of dysfunctional leadership performance.  Cultural change requires leadership behavioral change.  You can complain all you want, but the truth is that it all starts and ends with you.

I encourage you to think about how you are showing up each day.  Are you a motivating force or de-motivating force? Do you smile and create positive energy or walk around with the weight of the world on your shoulders?  Do you successfully engage in honest difficult conversations or are you a master at passive aggressive behavior?  Do you visibly enjoy the people you work with or is it clear to those around you that you merely tolerate them?  Are you excited about customer service and doing good work or are you simply in it for the money?  Are you staying focused on what’s most important or constantly being distracted and diverted by things of lesser importance?  Have your surrounded yourself with sycophants who regurgitate what you want to hear or are you open to alternative points of view and new thinking?

Leadership is first and foremost about personal responsibility.  Your organization is only ever a reflection your behaviors and decision-making.  You get to set the tone: good, bad or otherwise. Then you have to live with the consequences.

Leadership Thought #455 – There Is No Business Without Sales

There is no business without sales.  It sounds like a pretty easy concept to embrace, but I can’t tell you how often I regularly see leaders focus on everything else but selling.  It’s almost as if it is an afterthought as they tinker under the hood trying to build the perfect internal product/service delivery engine.  In addition, when it comes to making discretionary investments in sales staff or marketing/advertising activities, they are often “penny wise and pound foolish.”  Sure, we would all like to have a company where customers line up to buy from us because of how wonderful we are, however, business just doesn’t work that way.  The best product or service almost never wins on those merits alone.

Word of mouth growth is great and it will also only ever get you so far.  Eventually you will have to convince people who don’t even know who you are, that you are the preferred alternative in an inevitably crowded marketplace.  You will have to overcome price objections and proactively respond to ever-changing quality expectations.  You will need to regularly ask for customer referrals and explore new market opportunities.  You will need to understand how to best compete for the business and differentiate your marketing efforts accordingly.  Moreover, you may even have to get individuals to buy something they don’t even know they need.  All of this requires a focused and well-coordinated business development infrastructure.

I certainly understand and empathize with the idea that career in sales isn’t for everyone, but CEOs/business owners have no choice but to make sales happen.  It will stretch even the most confident leaders beyond their comfort zone at times.   By its very nature, selling comes with a lot of disappointment and rejection.  Customers are increasingly pushing back and are becoming more educated about their options.  You will need to be flexible, have thick skin, and bounce back quickly.  As you hire others to sell, you will become frustrated with their slow progress. You will second guess your organizational ability to identify, hire, train and manage business development talent. Building and maintaining an effective sales infrastructure will take more time and cost more money than you ever expected – accept rather than resist this reality.

There is a certain amount of selling which is a numbers game where you have to apply the right resources against the right activities to increase your probability of short and long-term success.  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.  All companies must limit their dependence on individuals, products/services, markets, and processes.   The business development target is always moving.  Keep your overhead low and continually funnel resources towards customer/market diversification and growth.

Let others tinker under the operational hood.  As the leader you are by default the Chief Sales Officer.  Your job is stress the organization from the outside in not inside out.  Never forget that there is no business without sales.

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