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Leadership Thought #468 – The Biggest Mistake Leaders Make

The biggest mistake leaders make is to think it is all about them.   They believe that success or failure is a direct result of their own personal behavior rather than a team effort.  Show me a successful leader and I will show you a person surrounded by good people who each do their own jobs exceedingly well.  While it is common practice in this country to celebrate the individual, no one builds a high performing organization by themselves.  This doesn’t mean that the leader isn’t an essential ingredient; however, he/she needs other ingredients to complete the recipe.

We all have strengths and weaknesses.  There are situations in which we will naturally thrive and others where we will inevitably struggle.  A leader’s job is to maximize the organizational benefits of their talents while minimizing the impact of their weaknesses.  The best way to mitigate individual limitations is to seek out other people who supplement our own deficiencies. Visionary leaders often need colleagues who excel at focus and implementation.  Detail-oriented people often require team members who push them to be more decisive and think outside of the box.  Someone who has great people skills may lose sight of harsh business realities.  If you’ve worked for any considerable amount of time, you will notice that your favorite leaders often knew where they were lacking and made sure they dealt with this reality rather than ignored or overcompensated for it.

In addition, there are limits to what any one person can physically accomplish.  You can only personally sell so much or manage a finite number of clients.   No one person has the market cornered on good ideas.  As smart as you may be, you won’t have the requisite knowledge to effectively address every issue that pops up.  Moreover, there are only so many hours in a day. Anyone who pushes too hard for too long will burnout and start making bad decisions.   The first growth roadblock for most businesses is when they’ve exhausted the professional capability of the leader.  Sadly, many companies don’t get too far beyond this point due to ego issues and/or short-sightedness.

A leader’s job is not to be a superman or superwoman, who can personally overcome any obstacle strewn in their path.  Their job is to build organizational resilience through teamwork, shared commitment and sacrifice, building and leveraging the talent base available to the company, establishing critical operational redundancies, and maintaining the ongoing pursuit of common objectives (despite obstacles).  If you take a prolonged vacation, the business shouldn’t fall apart. Employees shouldn’t panic at the first sign of a crisis and look to your strong leadership to solve all the tough problems.  The biggest mistake is to place yourself at the center of the organizational universe and view others as simply inhabiting your orbit.  Instead see yourself as part of a constellation of stars serving a more important purpose.

 

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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 #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 #458 – Questions To Ask Your Potential Executive Coach

Regrettably, I am in a profession where there are minimal barriers to entry and just about anyone (within reason) can claim to do what I do.  Just about every week, I meet another person who is billing themselves as a business coach or executive coach and charging a considerable amount of money for something they have no business doing in the first place.  More often than not, it is someone who has been downsized from an existing position or exiting a failed business endeavor, an individual who has hit a career brick wall themselves, an academic with free time on his/her hands, an independent consultant looking to supplement their income, or a psychotherapist who has figured out they can charge more money if they change the title of what they do.  I shutter sometimes when I think about the bad advice which is regularly disseminated to executives and business owner by often well-intentioned, but under-skilled or poorly trained business coaches.  Here are a few questions I recommend you ask before working with someone in this capacity:

  • What events led them to pursue the executive coaching path?
  • How long have they been serving in a coaching capacity, how many clients do they have, and what have been some tangible business results they have achieved with their clients – always ask for and check on references?
  • Have they run a business themselves or at least had significant P&L responsibility within a larger entity? How did they perform in this role (ask for specifics)?
  • What is their level of formal business training/education?
  • What business books/periodicals/publications are they reading on a regular basis and what are some recent books/articles that resonated with them?
  • How have they trained to excel in their coaching role? How are they maintaining and sharpening their executive coaching skills on a regular basis?
  • Are they affiliated with a larger entity that offers support and guidance or are they simply a solo practitioner?
  • What is their approach to business/executive coaching and how did they form this opinion?
  • What are their coaching areas of expertise and when do they refer out to other professionals?
  • Will they leverage their coaching relationship to create other business opportunities for themselves with you? If so, what and why?
  • What else do they do professionally besides coaching and what percentage of their business is spent on non-coaching activities?
  • How successful is their coaching practice in terms of revenue growth and profitability?  What is their long term plan for their coaching business?
  • How long does their average client typically work with them? Why does the relationship usually end?
  • Do they use a coach and/or peer group themselves.  If no, why not?

Coaching relationships can become very personal and intimate as you reveal yourself to another person and begin to trust their confidence.  In some cases, especially with vulnerable leaders, the advice/counsel you are getting often becomes secondary to the growing professional and personal bond.   Because of this, it becomes very hard to exit the relationship, even if it isn’t serving you well.  I’ve seen many executives stick with a coach out of loyalty long after it has served their original purpose.  I advise you to be careful about whom you entrust with your leadership development and business future.  Just because someone says they can do something doesn’t mean they should be the one doing it.  Buyer beware!

 

Leadership Thought #457 – Eight Things You Can Do To End The Year On A High Note

Holiday Lights

Holiday Lights (Photo credit: ImageMD)

As we wind down another year, I thought it would be useful to share some best practices I have observed over the years by leaders who tend to end every year on a high note:

  1. Close as many big deals as you can before the Christmas vacation.  Redouble your efforts and offer incentives to get the deal done.  Put off tinkering with internal operational issues.  Nothing launches a new year better than a flurry of sales at the end of the previous one.  As a leader it makes you feel confident and secure;
  2. Personally reach out to your top 10 (or more) customers and thank them for their business.  Holiday cards and emails are a poor substitute for genuine relationship building;
  3. Say no to last minute unreasonable customer demands or at least negotiate more agreeable terms.  And, always walk away from a bad deal.  Some people, especially those who have somewhat one-dimensional lives will push just because they can.  It’s important to have professional boundaries and stick to them;
  4. Instead of procrastinating, have whatever difficult conversations you need to have and get them over with.  Don’t let the challenges of managing difficult people issues linger – they only get worse with time and occupy much needed mental bandwidth;
  5. Ensure you have a strong handle on your financial situation and make smart tax and cash flow decisions.  Don’t spend what you don’t have.  Do your best to avoid self-created financial crises;
  6. Spend the majority of your management time with your top performers making them feel appreciated and supported. No leader ever led an organization to greatness by getting distracted by his/her weakest links;
  7. Make sure there is an actual business/operational plan in place for the next year.  Hint: You shouldn’t be starting this just now.  It should have been months in the making.  Hit the ground running on January 2 and don’t look back;
  8. When you are spending time with family and friends during the holidays, be fully present in those moments.  Work will always be there when you get back.  If you execute on the previous seven actions and avoid unnecessary distractions, you should be in a good place personally to unwind, tend to close relationships, recharge your batteries, and count your blessings.

I have watched many a leader get stressed out in December and run around like a chicken with its head cut off.  Instead of focusing on the few things that actually matter, they try to get too much done in too little time.  There is too much stress and not enough enjoyment.  There are no business problems that took eleven months to create that will get resolved in one short month of work.  Do what you should doing to close out the year  in the most effective and efficient way possible and then focus on what truly is most important – your loved ones!

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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