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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 #347 – You Must Have A Vision Of The Future

It is surprising and frustrating how many business leaders simply make it up as they go along.  Entrepreneurs typically start with a core idea and then if they are lucky have some initial success which requires them to actually build a business delivery model.  Many of them then get bogged down in the day to day operation and fulfilling their product/service promise to their customers.  Since most companies typically start out undercapitalized and growth eats cash, they also get caught up in basic financial issues which can be a major leadership distraction.  Next thing they know they have a company on their hands and employees who expect to have a boss with a clue about the future and a strategic plan of action.  It can all be very challenging and easy to fall into a survival rather than success mode.

However, successful companies don’t get that way by accident.  They live in three horizons: the present, tomorrow and the future.  In my opinion it is always preferable to work from the future backward.  You need to have a clear picture of where you are going (and why) and a roadmap on how to get there.  Today is for managers.  Leaders need to think bigger and longer term.  Leadership without vision is like trying to navigate a dense forest without a compass.  It’s easy to get lost and lose your bearings. The road may be bumpy at times and the route can change but the destination should remain fixed and constant.  Everyone should know what success looks like in granular terms today, but they also should have a broader understanding of the overall impact of their work towards creating a better more secure future.

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.  You end up in reactive mode and yield the future to more proactive and thoughtful competitors.  Markets have a cruel way of weeding out non-performers and/or myopic thinkers.  Talented people also usually know when to jump ship.  The historic business landscape is littered with once high flying companies who became complacent and too deeply mired in the past or present.   On the contrary, the future is open to interpretation and ripe for initiative.

The best leaders instinctively know that it’s not just what they do but where they are going that matters.  You should constantly be in a design and build mode.   Never rest on your laurels or assume the solutions of the past will solve the problems of tomorrow.  It’s important to be responsive, agile and flexible but only as it serves your vision of the future.  Try your best not to get sidetracked by the urgency of now or obstacles of tomorrow.  Get the operational and financial fundamentals right, keep true to your core values, hire good people, and let them do their job.  Leadership destiny is rarely a matter of chance and almost always a question of choice. You create your future or it ultimately defines you.  Make sure you keep your eye on the road and what lies ahead not just what you’re driving and whether or not you have enough gas to get there.

Leadership Thought #204 – Your Business GPA

I’ve always believed that the fundamentals of business are pretty simple and that people complicate things.  As with most issues in life, we can be our own worst enemy.  We lose focus; get excited by the new rather than seeing things though; procrastinate on challenging yet necessary tasks we don’t like; take an optimistic rather than pragmatic approach when it comes to our finances; struggle with holding others accountable; practice avoidance when it comes to addressing difficult issues; wait until the last minute on important deadlines; neglect critical relationships; bet on the wrong people; etc.

In my experience, five key fundamentals have emerged as the most important areas of focus for any business:

  1. You must identify and sell to new customers
  2. You must maximize revenue opportunities from existing customers
  3. You must manage your operations effectively and efficiently to maximize the bottom
  4. You must first meet and then ultimately strive to exceed the expectations of your customers
  5. You must recruit and retain talented employees

I often ask my clients to think of this as their business Grade Point Average (GPA). Their goal should be to achieve 4.0 GPA which is the equivalent of an A grade on each item.  Put another way, the ultimate goal of any business should be to have high quality employees who are focused on providing value-added services to a loyal and growing client base in an efficient and profitable manner.  Anything else is a distraction.  And, the workplace is full of distractions.

Many leaders rationalize that achieving these 5 objectives at a consistently high level is not possible.   They reference people, financial, operational, technological and market realities as obstacles strewn in their pathway to success.  While many of these issues may be true (in a relative context), I’ve always been able to identify organizations that figure out a way to succeed despite these very same pressures. Why, because they confront their own challenges head on and get back to basic business fundamentals.

Your people will make or break you.  Growth is not an option, it’s a business imperative. Diversification of client/market/product risk is key to your long term survival.  The economics of your business model have to work at the end of the day.  You must also deliver on your product/service promise and satisfy the needs of your clients or someone else will.  It truly is this simple.  If a senior management team or leader of a small organization can stay focused and committed to these five areas, good things will happen – it’s inevitable!

Daily Leadership Thought #182 – Focus First on the “What” and “Why”

It’s always interesting to me how many self-proclaimed “perfectionists” exist in the workplace.  One would think that with so many people so attuned to doing their jobs well, there would be minimal occurrence of error and high levels of customer and employee satisfaction.  However, what we often see is individuals using this attribute as a crutch for missing deadlines or not getting things done at all.  Ironically, the very people who claim to care the most, end up accomplishing the least or acting as bottlenecks for others.  Why is this, especially if you believe as I do that most employees want to do their jobs well, they just need the direction and support to get there?  It is because they end up becoming overwhelmed and focused on the wrong things.

Life is a constant balance between doing things well and achieving results in a timely manner.  We need to be able to distinguish between what is truly important and what is not.  If we cannot do this, then we end up exhausting our internal resources and ultimately yielding opportunities to others who manage their time and energy better. Perfection is more of an ideal than a destination – you will never get there.  However, what you can do is get incrementally better each day on the things that matter most in your business (and life).  As referenced by Jim Collins in his groundbreaking book, Good to Great, positive momentum will only beget further positive momentum and this will predictably accelerate with time.   You ever notice how successful people and organizations accomplish much more with their time and energy than their peer groups?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s results that matter not activities.  If you find yourself bogged down in the unimportant, mired in details or always rationalizing why things can’t happen or are behind schedule, then there is a problem.  The problem is you – your inability to focus and prioritize on the very things that will make you successful.  All things are not equally important – “get out of the weeds”!

When it comes to building positive momentum, start first with the high priority needs of your clients and then your employees/colleagues.  You would not be in business (or employed) without either group.  Next, focus diligently on making wise economic decisions that only increase your capacity to invest in meeting these needs.  Build quality win-win relationships and the rewards will follow.  It is this simple.  True success in business and life is not about how great you are, but rather on how significant your impact is on those around you!

Daily Leadership Thought #144 – Beware Of the Start-Stop-Different Syndrome

Just about every leader I meet has good intentions.  They want to be competent in their role as boss and make solid decisions.  Every single one of them understands the importance of managing to both the top and bottom line.  There is usually a passion for the product/service or at least an interest in building a high performing business model.  No one starts a company to fail, but many do end up failing.  Why?  In my experience, many leaders fall victim to the Start-Stop-Different Syndrome.

It’s easy to have a new idea.  It’s much more difficult to see an existing initiative through to completion.  People get bored.  Results take longer than expected and cost more money than planned.   Unforeseen obstacles are strewn in your path.  Execution can be tedious work.  Employees may want clear direction but often struggle with managing multiple responsibilities and deadlines.  As a result, most organizations end up using an ad hoc management style of putting out fires and responding to external events or internal pressures as needed.  They take very little control of their own destiny.

Seeing an idea through from planning to implementation is hard work.  It’s easy to get distracted and discouraged.  However, high performing leaders and companies understand the importance of focus, commitment, perseverance and accountability.  They usually start fewer things than their peers but always complete most of what they say they are going to do (when they say they are going to do it).   The leader isn’t afflicted with the idea of the day mentality and doesn’t bombard his/her employees with mixed messages and/or moving targets.

I’ve always believed that business success isn’t all that complicated to achieve, but the people who make up the business are complex individuals.  And, as always, it all starts with the leader.  When I interview employees I always get the same complaints about focus and direction.  Very few of them can articulate where the company is going, why it’s the right destination and the best way to get there.  Instead I typically get muddled responses and confusion about organizational priorities.  A key role of any leader is to provide clarity around direction in a consistent and thoughtful manner. The good ones also understand the value of simplicity and don’t burden their people with every idea or vision that pops into their head.  Once you start something make sure you see it through to completion. Do your best not to get sidetracked by distractions or what may seem to be more grandiose or interesting ideas.

Daily Leadership Thought #113 – The Importance of Role Models

Everyone needs positive role models in their life and this experience shouldn’t end with childhood.  As we go through our lives we will often stumble across unchartered territory.  There will be times when there are no easy answers or doing the right thing won’t be as easy as it sounds.  It is during moments like this we need to have something or someone to fall back on.   My belief is that the best life lessons come from experienced teachers and teaching isn’t limited to the classroom.

The individuals we turn to can be personal references from our own lives or historical figures.  I would recommend both.  The former may resonate more in a situational context because we’ve actually experienced these individual in an up close and personal manner.  We know what they would do because we’ve seen them in action or can actually ask them for their advice if they are still accessible.  They also seem to be more realistic and relevant guides to our everyday life.  I have one past boss in particular who is a great example of strong character and sound judgment.  The latter group works more in a broader context.  George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are legendary figures who are literally unique to any time period and as a result their lives will be studied for many generations to come.  Their greatness may be hard to imitate, but it shines as an example of what’s possible especially when dealing with larger issues.

Life is hard enough without making it up as we go along.  All of us have people we can and should turn to for direction and inspiration.  I encourage you to reflect on who has been a positive force in your life to date and why?  What can you learn from them?  Write it down, continue to reach out to them if you can, and appreciate their presence in your life for the gift that it is or was.  In addition, learn more about the lives of historical figures who inspire you – whoever that may be.   Why do they inspire you and how can you apply this knowledge to your own life experience?   Lastly, always keep in mind that you may be a role model to someone else.

Daily Leadership Thought #95 – Life Is Meant To Have Meaning

Going through life without a core purpose is like trying to navigate a boat without a rudder or take a hike without a compass.  If you are not careful, you will get lost and struggle to reach your destination.  There are many things that can happen to a person that will take them off course.  There will be trials and tribulations.  There will temptations and distractions.   We all need to be grounded in something more important and significant than ourselves to guide us when things get confusing or tough.  Every life is meant to have meaning.

I’ve observed that people who live their life without core principles and values become less happy and disenchanted with their lives.  No matter how much money they end up having or power and prestige they achieve, it all becomes empty after awhile.  Inevitably they find that success can be a double edged sword and you need to careful what you wish for.  They also get trapped in their expectations of what should make them happy and get increasingly frustrated when this formula no longer works. 

Once you have a sense of core purpose and meaning, life starts to have more clarity.  You begin to understand why you exist and what you want to accomplish.  You can rightfully gauge your life in terms of impact rather than material rewards.  You find emotional reserves and character within yourself you didn’t realize existed. 

I don’t claim to know what this core purpose should be for anyone besides me.  I certainly have opinions on the topic  and feel that at its core life is about making sense of where you fit in the world, the impact you have on other people, and your ability to tap into whatever personal gifts make you unique and special, but each individual needs to figure this out for himself/herself.  The sooner you strive to achieve this clarity, the easier and more full of grace your life will be.

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