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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.



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 #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 #454 – Be Careful About Taking On Too Much

There is a wise old saying that “if you want to get something done, then give it to a busy person.” In my experience this is a pretty accurate depiction of how families, organizations and communities work.  They “Type A” person will always assume the most responsibility and be the hub of critical activity.  Other people tend to rely on them and their boundless energy for execution.  Unfortunately, if you are not careful, this dynamic also ends up becoming somewhat dysfunctional and unhealthy as time goes on.

There is a point of diminishing returns when someone extends themselves beyond their individual capability to do well what needs to get done.  All of us only have so much bandwidth to apply to our personal and/or professional responsibilities.  What starts out as a good idea ends up becoming a burden for the responsible party and creates an unrealistic expectation for those dependent upon his/her efforts.   The energy and focus gravitates towards what’s not getting done and who is to blame rather how to best move forward.  Sadly, we end up becoming disconnected and resentful over what connected us in the first place.

Most of us in leadership positions need to say “no” more often than we currently do.  Instead of always taking on more, we need to learn to let go and take on less.  I’ve seen many talented individuals buckle under the weight of their own self-imposed pressures.  There is always a price to pay for over-commitment.  Ironically the people and things that require our most attention end up taking a backseat to lesser priorities and other distractions.  The gap between what we want and what we are getting only widens and eventually some form of a breakdown usually occurs.

It is always advisable to do a few things well rather than doing too many things in an okay or mediocre fashion.  Activity is never a good substitute for results.  We are ultimately defined not just by what we do, but what we achieve and how this aligns with what we truly value.  Be careful about taking on too much and losing sight of what’s most important in the process.


Leadership Thought #446 – Focus on The Conversation Not The Distractions

I spend a majority of my work life in meetings or one on one conversations.  It never ceases to amaze me the different attitudes people have about basic communication and meeting etiquette.  We’ve all read countless articles about the importance of “being present” and minimizing distractions, but I’m not sure the message is sticking.  Moreover, I haven’t seen one article that supports the premise that multi-tasking makes you more effective as a leader. In fact, it is quite the contrary.

I’d like to offer some basic reasons for you to turn off your cell phone, iPad, and whatever else is competing for your attention and focus on the actual meeting or conversation you are participating in:

  • You may miss something important that is being said, even those of you who think nothing ever gets past your keen ability to listen while doing something else;
  • When asked to contribute, you may find yourself at a loss for words as you try to realign with the conversation or without a proper sense of context which only lessens your professional credibility;
  • When you want others to listen to what you have to say they may follow your lead and extend the same lack of professional courtesy towards you;
  • Everyone wants to feel valued as a fellow human being and if your attention towards an individual is divided they get the message that you place less value on your time with them.  This may be true, but it can also backfire if you need their support and attention later;
  • If you are always interruptible and immediately responding to text or email messages then you may set expectations that become hard to live up to. It also discourages people to think for themselves;
  • Never underestimate the value of eye contact and positive body language when striving to connect with another individual.  People will quickly will jump to quick conclusions about your character  if you give them negative signals whether they are intended or not;
  • Finally, it is simply rude to divert your attention away from what a colleague or friend is trying to communicate with you.  None of us live in a professional vacuum that is devoid of the need for interaction with other people.  Basic manners lubricate the gears of human interaction. A lack of etiquette only makes this harder than it needs to be.

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 non-verbal cues and keeping the energy the room upbeat and positive.  You almost always leave your interactions with them feeling good about the encounter and the relationship.   I highly encourage you to focus on the conversations in your life not the distractions…

Leadership Thought #431 – FOCUS, Focus, focus

If I had to pick one thing that inhibits success the most amongst small business and nonprofit leaders I would say it is a lack of sustained focus.  By the very nature of them being entrepreneurs, they tend to be very opportunistic.  It is common for entrepreneurs to see a business opportunity around every corner.  Their mindset is that every problem has a solution and the only obstacle to progress is a lack of effort. Unfortunately, this is only partially true.  Yes, every problem does have a solution, but the effort needs to be put forth by the right people with the right plan.  It is not merely a question of resources, attention and willingness to put forth effort.  Great leaders and strong businesses focused on the wrong opportunities/problems typically only achieve mediocrity at best.  At worst, this distracts their true potential for greatness by limiting their attention on what they should be doing in the first place and creates business vulnerabilities that should never have existed.

If everything becomes a priority or if priorities are constantly shifting, then nothing truly is a priority.  No one business or individual is a capable of being effective at everything.  Time is also finite and how we allocate our resources within this universal constraint is critical.  Often, our biggest asset is our people, and most employees are easily distracted and/or overwhelmed on a daily basis.   One of the primary responsibilities of a leader is to keep his/her people focused on what’s most important.  In his famous book, Good To Great, Jim Collin’s talks about success being an intersection of three things: your passion, your talent, and a clear understanding of your economic denominator.  I’ve always liked this mode of thinking.  To be able to something well, you need to have a passion for doing it in the first place, your need to have the skill set to get it done well, and it must fit effectively in your economic model.   There are many things we could do that satisfy one or maybe even two of these criteria, but to be truly great at something you need to nail all three. 

I encourage my clients to minimize their number of organizational priorities using carefully thought through screening criteria that are consistently applied.  The goal is to keep the organization diligently focused on these few important items through successful completion.  Making good decisions and then ensuring effective execution is what leadership is all about.  One of my colleagues used to advise his clients to focus on their “Big Three,” I prefer no more than 5-7 key business initiatives taking place at any one time.  And, the smaller the company, the fewer priorities it can handle. 

As a leader, you should always be striving to build a solid foundation upon which the organization can thrive and grow.  A foundation is only ever as good as its engineering.  The most important decisions leaders have to make are what to say “no” to.  By doing this, you allow the organization to build the breadth and depth of requisite capacity to share the load and distribute the weight of responsibility evenly.  Unfortunately, it’s much easier for the typical entrepreneur to say “yes” much more often than he/she should.  It is almost a knee jerk reaction.  As a result, their foundation begins to exhibit cracks and they end struggling to maintain performance under a weight of their own making. 

When properly applied, focus is actually liberating.  The best way to combat complexity is always with simplicity.  Far too many leaders unnecessarily complicate their business model.  Success shouldn’t always be about the struggle.  When things are going right it does and should feel comparatively easy.  I tell my clients this all the time and they don’t believe me until they actually begin to operate with sustained focus and it inevitably happens.  Another colleague of mine who has a remarkable business track record regularly tells me that one of the first signs of an underperforming leader is that he/she is working too hard at too many things and their life is completely out of balance.  These individuals sadly end up becoming activity junkies jumping in multiple and different directions with very little rhyme nor reason.  The struggle has become what defines them rather than the result. 

If history has proven anything to us it is the potential power of a small group of focused, dedicated and aligned individuals who believe in a shared common purpose.  Focus, focus, focus, especially when it is hard and good things will happen.

Leadership Thought #420 – 7 Common Traits Of A Winner

I always like this time of year.  After a great football weekend, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and watch the inauguration of our President. It is a very proud time to be an American. As I was reflecting on this experience it dawned on me that there are several characteristics of winners whether they are sports teams, civil rights leaders or presidents.  Several common traits emerge:

  1. Courage – most people dream about being winners but don’t have the intestinal fortitude to take the risks necessary to achieve excellence including subjecting themselves to the glare of the public spotlight and all that entails.
  2. Resiliency – if you look back at the history of any winner you typically find points where they needed to be resilient despite the many obstacles and odds against them.  Success doesn’t come cheap or easy.  Most people tend to stumble or wither under this pressure; winners simply strengthen their resolve and move forward.
  3. Self-Belief – at some point you have look yourself in the mirror and fully believe in yourself and your ability to do what needs to get done especially when few people have proven they are capable of doing it. 
  4. Focus – as you climb the success ladder it is easy to get distracted by the increased public scrutiny, trappings of success and demands on your time.  Winners tend to have a laser like focus and block out impediments to their success.
  5. Strong Work Ethic – you never outwork a winner.  When everyone else is tired or exhausted, they put in that extra effort that separates them from the pack.  They always do their homework and leave it all on the field.
  6. Passion – to be great at something you need to genuinely care deeply about it.  The world is full of talented smart people who lack a passion for their work/calling and as a result never reach their true potential.
  7. Commitment To Higher Purpose – It is never just about winning but winning for an ideal or something more important that yourself. Great teams pull together for each other. Great leaders tend to make big sacrifices for the common good or advancement of the human condition.

In our society we place a great emphasis on winning (maybe too much).  When we witness an individual or team scale the heights of greatness and do it in a way befitting the accomplishment it is fun to watch and worth acknowledging.  Sadly, there will always be naysayers or people embittered by their own lack of accomplishment and/or fears who begrudge the moment and in the case of Martin Luther King Jr. spoil it for everyone else.  We all know intuitively what makes a winner.  Our struggle is the gap between that knowledge and our own reality.  I encourage you to take these cues and become the hero of your own life.

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