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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 #428 – There Will Always Be Naysayers; Move Forward Anyway!

If I had a $100 for every time sometime told me something couldn’t be done by me or others, I’d be a rich man at this point in my life.  The cold reality of life is that most people are followers and more comfortable with the status quo than the prospect of changing anything.  There is also a big difference between rhetoric and action.  I’d be equally wealthy if I had a $100 for everyone I met who talked a good game but then failed to follow-up with any real action.  It seems as if a majority of people are content to sit on the sidelines of the game that is their own life and leave their fate to the decisions/actions of others and then complain about it.  Like most fans, people have strong opinions about what should or should not be happening, but then they don’t have the courage, talent or fortitude to play the game themselves.  It is a vicious circle and misery does love company.

Don’t ever let other people talk you into mediocrity and out of success.  Instead of just focusing on obvious obstacles such as time, money and talent, spend your energy on reaching your goal regardless of the inevitable constraints.  This doesn’t mean you become foolhardy and take silly or unwise risks.  However, depending on your risk profile as a person the definition of what this means is certainly open to individual interpretation.  What it does mean is that at some point you have the courage to bet on yourself and follow your passion and/or lead with your talent/ability.  Just because something hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.  Just look at the history of mankind and you will easily come to the conclusion this is not true.  If the world was run by naysayers we would still probably be living in caves and dying before we reach the age of 30.  The biggest obstacle to progress is our own thinking.

The next time you find yourself thinking about a better way of doing something or elevating your personal/professional status, go ahead and think through how to get it done, come up with a plan, and then do it.  Of course, you should solicit feedback from those around you, but filter this information based on who it is coming from.  Pay the closest attention to the input from others who have actually achieved something with their lives.  Don’t be unduly influenced by the always available crop of naysayers.  Do your best to surround yourself with “can do” people who will properly balance reality against opportunity and potential.    Listen hard to what the latter group has to say, then look in the mirror, check your gut, and move forward anyway, if it still makes any sense whatsoever. What’s the worst that could happen?  Even if things don’t always turn out as planned, you are building your character, learning from your mistakes and better equipped to be successful the next time.  It’s your life, live it proactively!  Avoid the naysayers….and move forward in the direction of your future happiness.

Leadership Thought #427 – Weakness Is Infectious (and Dangerous)

At the risk of sounding like an old codger (which I am not), I can’t believe how worked up people get up over common issues these days.  It’s almost as if any level of adversity is intolerable.  You would have thought the end the world was near the way everyone especially the media reacted to the recent winter storm.  We were bombarded with worst case scenarios and impending doom.  People raced to stores to stock up just in case they lost power for a few days. My goodness, can’t we handle a few days of discomfort if required?  As a friend said yesterday, “Why the huge interest in toilet paper, can families really not survive a few days without TP?” Are they that close to the edge of hygienic catastrophe?  I’ve seen it happen in families, businesses, schools, and communities: if you are not careful, weakness and worry is infectious.  Like all significant change, it all starts with small symbolic gestures and begins to gain momentum elsewhere.

As a parent of two children at impressionable ages, I am very concerned that our collective societal weakness is leaving an undesirable impression on the next generation.  Life isn’t always meant to be easy.   Character is built through navigating whatever difficulties emerge in your path and proving to yourself you are capable and resilient.  So what if it snows a bit, school takes place anyway and if you are an adult you are expected to show up at work.  Of course, there is some risk.  Life is full of risk.  Somehow my school system in New York managed to navigate much worse storms and not call off school anytime there was some threat of precipitation.  Missing school or work should be the exception not the norm.

We also need to be able to differentiate between real and perceived threats.  If everything is crisis then nothing truly is.  And, distractions minimize your focus on what truly is important.   I am often fascinated and a bit depressed when I have conversations with my peers and their many neuroses quickly rise to the surface.  Guess what, America is much safer than it used to be, contrary to popular opinion.  Our largest immigrant population tends to have very strong family values and a wonderful work ethic. They are not threats to the system; they keep it afloat (just like their predecessors). Our economic model depends upon immigration.   China is not a threat to our global economic security. They are, in fact, potentially the biggest market in the world for our goods and services and are the top purchasers of  U.S. debt.  Can our national budget really not weather single digit cuts without the economy tanking?  Wall Street is not the sole reason for your financial woes.  It is usually your own personal attitudes towards wealth, debt and money that make your economic life difficult.  When did it become okay to be a victim?  There are true victims out there and lumping yourself in that category only diminishes the severity of the real problems in this world.

I am not a historian but I would bet that the downfall of all the great nations partially started when the people became too comfortable with status quo and lost the edge that made them successful in the first place.  They started to look backward not forward.  Instead of setting an example for other nations to emulate, they ended up falling victim to their own vulnerabilities/insecurities and started substituting strong rhetoric for actual affirmative action.  They also spent a disproportionate amount of money defending what they already have rather than investing in their future.   Individual and collective strength of character is a prerequisite for healthy and vibrant society.  The history of mankind is that we have proven that we, as human beings, are up to any challenge.  However, the strong do survive and the weak will wither – this is also a fact of nature.

Leadership Thought #398 – You Need To Run The Race To Win It

There is a great song by the band Psychedelic Furs called “Love My Way.”  One of the lines goes, “you can never win or lose if you don’t run the race…”  Grammatical problems aside, it is a great thought.  One of the things I admire most about Olympic athletes is that they are committed to being the best in the world at something and then go about doing the hard work to make it happen.  They literally run the race or compete in the event that will define their athletic existence.  Most of us prefer to stay on the sidelines and watch others excel why we rationalize our own inability to do the same thing in our own lives.  So many people dream big but act small.

To win a race you have to be in it.  It makes no sense carp at the performance of others when we ourselves don’t have the courage to put ourselves on the line in a similar fashion.  This doesn’t mean we have to swim against Michael Phelps, but it does mean we need to find something of similar value to us and then go about making it happen.  Everyone has the capacity to be great at something.  We are all blessed with unique skills and abilities that make use special.  I don’t know what that is for you, but I do know it exists.  Half the battle is being will to “throw you hat in the ring” in the first place.  At minimum, we can be the best at something or give it our all trying.  Life tends to reward bravery and punish cowardice.

I remember reading an interview with Ronnie Wood from the Rolling Stones where they asked him about his predecessor in the band Mick Taylor.  He admitted that Mick was technically a superior player to him and very creative, but lacked the self-confidence to play live and accept superstar status.  Just when his career was about to take off, he gave it up because he couldn’t handle the pressure or increased expectations.  Ronnie jumped at the opportunity and the rest is history.  People get ahead of you in life not because they are necessarily better than you at something but because they are willing to take the chances and handle the scrutiny of putting themselves out there.  They believe in themselves, put in the requisite hard work and roll the dice to see what happens.

I know that not everyone likes sports or war metaphors but they are used for a reason. To a large degree life is about competition and each of us will also face our own metaphorical battles.  How we respond when this happens ends up defining the person we become.  We can wither and recoil at the prospect of stepping up and meeting the challenge or seize the moment and do the best we can to be our authentic selves.  To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, there is no reason to live a life of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in you….Put yourself out there and see what happens.

Leadership Thought #385 – The Importance of Succession Planning

Far too many organizations are dependent upon far too few people to be successful.  I often ask my clients, “What happens to your business if something happens to you?”  The answers more often than mot are less than satisfactory.  One of the key jobs of a leader is to mitigate risk and one of the biggest risks you have in any company is people risk – starting at the top.  It may feed your ego to be critically important to your company but it is no way to build an enduring successful organization. 

All leaders and managers at every level should be thinking about who succeeds them in their role.  You should take seriously the need to groom your successor as you move on to bigger and better things.  Unless you are the owner, you may also face the potential reality that there will be people beneath you in the chain of command who may pass you by one day.  Instead of resisting this dynamic, take pride in your ability to groom and mentor talented people.  If you put the interests of the company ahead of your own, the right decisions become much easier to make.

I do not like to see organizations held hostage due to the importance of any one employee.  I understand this can be a more difficult challenge for smaller businesses/non-profits especially where founders are concerned.  However, the problem must be addressed nonetheless.  If an important function/role is in the hands of one person, what do you do if they get sick, leave to take another job, or have some other major life issue distract their attention?  There must always be a Plan B.   Moreover, whenever an employee of this caliber threatens to leave for greener pastures, I say let them go and build better bench strength the next time around.

Our job as a leader is to create interdependence not dependence.  The good news is that people usually step up if you ask them to.  Most employees want to learn and grow and take on additional responsibilities.  As you long as your create a work environment where the only option isn’t “up or out” individuals will tend to stretch themselves when asked.  You also want to be wary about pitting people against one another and fostering a win-lose mindset.  Great teams always beat talented individuals.  Lastly, you should be constantly assessing the talents/skill sets of your employees and addressing any gaps proactively as needed. 

Never forget that as a business, you are your people and your future is literally in the hands of your newest recruit and latest employee promotion.

Leadership Thought #307 – Never Become Too Important To Your Business

I’ve met many business owners through the years who admit that if something happened to them the business would have a hard time continuing operations for any period of time. This always makes me nervous. Leadership isn’t about building dependency upon any one person. It is about getting a group of people working interdependently towards a common goal. Of course it’s much harder to do this when you are relatively small, but as you begin to grow and add staff, you should be constantly thinking about building operational redundancy and minimizing personnel/performance risk.

The best thing you can do for an employee is to teach him/her to think for themselves rather than do the work for them. People grow through solving their own problems and taking on additional responsibility. Everyone’s role and responsibilities should be clear to them and they should understand the big picture and how all the various part of the company fit together. In addition, training programs should be in place to ensure that all employees are regularly sharpening their skills and growing their business acumen. Your energy should be spent on creating an environment that encourages individual initiative rather than worrying if people are capable of doing their job.

It’s a hard thing for a leader to minimize and focus their own role while growing the role of others. There is a certain amount of personal validation that comes from being the main cog in the wheel. If everything runs through you there is this sense of control that initially feels comforting. However, you can’t successfully grow a business this way. Things will quickly get out of hand as you try and multi-task your way through every issue. If you build a culture of dependency, people will literally wait for your input before doing anything of significance and there is only ever so much of you to go around. A long-term strategy of individual leader hyper-performance only leads to increased stress, growing fatigue, reactive decision making and uneven accountability. If you are not careful, you will end up becoming the biggest obstacle to your own success.

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Leadership Thought #302 – Don’t Be Afraid Of Making Mistakes

Fear can be a destabilizing emotion in organizations.  It limits risk taking, inhibits action and worst of all creates a cover your a** (CYA) mentality which results in countless hours of wasted energy.   One the biggest fears we all grapple with is the fear of being wrong and/or making mistakes.   Far too many employees would rather do nothing or rigorously defend the status quo instead of going out a limb and trying something new or different.  As a result of these fears, most organizations are stuck in a survival mode because success almost always involves having courage and taking risks. 

All good leaders understand that one of their primary jobs is to address this fear.   They strive to create an environment where people push the envelope and take ownership of their work.  And, taking ownership means always looking for a better way to do things, even if this means failing at times.  However, not all failures are good.  Mistakes in the pursuit of improvement are usually manageable and almost always informative.  Mistakes made due to fear, ignorance or laziness are like a cancer that slowly grows to kill an organization.

I recommend the following actions for leaders who want to better leverage the benefits of making positive mistakes: 

  1. First and foremost, be public about the fact that you expect that there will be mistakes and that when this happens the only requirement is that the organization learns from the experience and doesn’t repeat the mistake.
  2. When you as the leader make a mistake (and you will) openly acknowledge it and let your people know how you intend to be smarter the next time.
  3. Make debriefing mistakes a formal management philosophy within the organization that is fully supported by administrative processes and procedures.
  4. Publicly acknowledge and promote people within the organization who are reasonable risk takers.  Risk for the sake of risk is never a good thing; however, risks taken after careful consideration and in correct proportion to the potential upside/downside should be rewarded.
  5. Walk around and constantly ask your people what they are learning and what interesting mistakes they are making – trust me it works.
  6. Create awards/acknowledgements for people who challenge the status quo and tackle tough challenges even when they fail.
  7. Carefully screen your managers/ supervisors to ensure they create a work environment that is safe and conducive to encouraging employee initiative.  When you have someone who is a roadblock in this regard, coach and ultimately remove them if they cannot change.
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