Founders Fatigue Epilogue: To become reinvigorated

invigorateMy Founders Fatigue MMWU of a few weeks ago not only hit its mark, it pushed some owners to recognize that they have Founder’s Fatigue and inspired them to do something about it. I was glowing as I read one such email from a husband and wife team that own a wildly successful, six million dollar company. They attended a Strategies Incubator prior to opening in 2003 and have grown a model Team-Based Pay company ever since. Their words were inspiring because no matter how successful a company may be, owners and leaders are always susceptible to Founder’s Fatigue.

Their email said, “We were suffering from Founder’s Fatigue and badly needed the shot in the arm we received at your recent Team-Based Pay Conference. We returned reinvigorated and ready to improve our company’s culture. Yes, we have drifted over the past few years … but now we are working hard at getting back on track. It’s amazing how liberating it feels when you finally make the tough decisions and move forward. Almost feels like it did when we first set out on our entrepreneurial journey – only we’re much more profitable. :)”

I’m writing this epilogue on Founder’s Fatigue because I too know what it’s like to experience it. My company, Strategies, is 21 years old. You can’t run your own company for that long without acquiring the occasional case of Founder’s Fatigue. I guess because I spend the better part of my day coaching owners and leaders through all sorts of issues and challenges, I have a heightened awareness to the possible presence of Founder’s Fatigue in my own company. As a coach, my job is to offer everything from leadership insights and problem solving, to talking leaders off the ledge when they find themselves on the verge of losing it. The one constant I have learned is that the cure for Founder’s Fatigue always – and I mean always – begins with a tough decision that has lingered for far too long.

Here are four no-compromise leadership strategies to “reinvigorate” you should you acquire a case of Founder’s Fatigue:

  1. It’s OK: You are not invincible. You are not a super hero. You are an individual with the vision, desire, tenacity … and just the right amount of craziness … to chase your dream of building your own company. It’s OK if you lose your momentum and drive every now and then. It’s OK that the pressure of leadership occasionally surpasses your tolerance level. It’s OK to step back for a bit to regain your perspective on where you are and where you’re going. It’s OK to take time to focus on yourself so you can better focus on your company.
  2. Visions are ALWAYS subject to change: I started Strategies in 1993 with a vision to publish a monthly magazine that was all business and no advertising. Strategies magazine was a great project, but after fourteen years and 168 issues, it was time for a new vision for Strategies to move forward as a coaching and training company – not as a magazine publisher. That was a seriously tough decision for me, and I had let it linger for a bit too long … but I finally made the call. My primary passion was always for teaching, speaking and writing about business and leadership. I didn’t need a magazine to do that. What I needed was to make a tough decision – which I did. I was reinvigorated and my company was reinvigorated because its leader got unstuck. If you’re not willing to change or modify your company’s vision when necessary, expect a case of Founder’s Fatigue that can and will spread throughout your entire company. Change is the constant. Visions are not.
  3. Seize the moment: For the husband and wife team I mentioned above, the moment happened at our Team-Based Pay Conference and again with my Founder’s Fatigue MMWU. They acquired a renewed vision of where to take their company and were given a name for the funk they were feeling. They seized the moment to break out of their Founder’s Fatigue funk. They made that tough decision to implement change and move forward. They recognized that their funk had become the company’s funk, and that it had gotten all over everyone. Had they not seized the moment and stepped into the daylight to see new opportunities, their extraordinary company would have degraded into the realm of the ordinary.
  4. Work with a mapmaker: It’s hard to plot a destination if you can’t see the map. I coach leaders. Strategies coaches many leaders. In a lot of ways, business coaches are like mapmakers. We help you find the best route to your destination and our job is to get you there safer and faster. I am not attempting to sell coaching here – I am simply making the point that having someone outside of your company that you can talk through your ideas, challenges and objectives with … and that will hold you accountable for those things … is a necessity in business today. Find the right coaching company and team of coaches to guide you and keep you reinvigorated. Maybe it’s Strategies, or maybe it’s some other company or individual out there. What’s important is finding one that fits you and your company. Do that and you’ll have the best deterrent for Founder’s Fatigue.

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The Conversation

conversation#1As a business coach, much of my work centers on guiding leaders through the wonderful, wacky world of human thinking and behavior, both of those they lead and their own. Dealing with financial stuff is easy. It’s math. Spend less than you bring in and there will be profit. Revenue projections and budgets are mathematical assumptions that we fondly refer to as “wild-ass guesses.” But it’s the leader’s thinking and behavior that brings the numbers and profits to life. System and procedure design is easy too, but it’s getting people to buy into and live the change that tests one’s ability to lead. And to truly become a No-Compromise Leader, you must master and engage in “the conversation.”

The dictionary defines the word “conversation” as the informal exchange of ideas by spoken word. Ah … the spoken word. People, one on one or in groups, exchanging their ideas, points of view, excitement, concerns and frustrations. There is a sense of shared liberation to be able to put everything on the table for discussion and resolution. In every way, the conversation is the single most powerful tool in every leader’s toolbox.

Here are ten no-compromise lessons to master and engage in the conversation:

  1. It’s about understanding: Leadership is about guiding people to a better tomorrow. But your definition of a better tomorrow may not be right for everyone. Engaging in conversation means acquiring a deeper understanding of the dreams and motivations of those you lead. Simultaneously, in the process of conversation you provide deeper understanding of your own dreams and motivations to your people. The deeper this mutual understanding goes, the deeper the mutual trust becomes. A leader that puts constraints on conversation – or avoids it entirely – is more of a dictator and taskmaster than a leader of people.
  2. Vision drift: Visions are pretty awesome and empowering when they’re new and fresh. But visions can and will drift as time passes and the inevitable obstacles pop up. People begin to question the journey, even if they’re on the right path, and if the vision is really achievable in the first place. Conversations are the most effective deterrent for vision drift.
  3. Clarity and clarification: People support and fight for what they understand and believe in. In almost every case, achieving that level of clarity requires consistent and often repeated conversations on the “why, what, how and when” of what needs to occur. The more conversations you have, the more focused your team becomes on achieving the right outcomes. You can refer to conversations as meetings, huddles or one on one’s … it doesn’t matter – just as long as the “exchange of ideas” element exists. Remember, engaging people doesn’t mean pummeling them with instructions, goals and to-do’s.
  4. It’s happening anyway: If you’ve been avoiding conversations, here is a little dose of reality – they’re happening anyway. The problem is that you’re not included and the content of those conversations is likely headed in the wrong direction or, even worse, feeding toxicity and dysfunction. Leaders lead and orchestrate the conversation. If you’re spending too much time working in your business, chances are you have lost control of the conversations … and that’s probably why your company is springing leaks.
  5. Tough will only get tougher: Avoiding a tough conversation today only gives you a tougher conversation to deal with tomorrow. Every leader has one of those tough conversations just waiting to happen. Take a deep breath and get it off your plate so you can move forward. Remember, tough conversations mean there is “drag” in your company. Your job is to create “lift”, leaving room for your business to grow.
  6. Keeping it open: Exchanging ideas means being open and respectful to the ideas and points of view of those that you lead. In listening to your employees, you may even discover a better way to accomplish a task or goal. But you will never have an open conversation and exchange of ideas if you DO NOT listen. People need to trust that their voices will be heard. It’s not a conversation if your voice is the only one sounding out. Listen. Learn. Understand. Appreciate.
  7. Keeping it safe: Tough conversations only achieve resolution if it is safe for the employee to get his or her concerns on the table. Tough conversations are tough enough. Adding fear of confrontation into the already stressful mix can blow up the conversation and lead to a bad ending. The best strategy is to ask permission to address some tough stuff. I’ve never had an employee say, “No, I prefer you don’t.” Doing so sets the seriousness of the conversation. You also want to keep assuring the employee that the intent is to end the conversation with a resolution that both parties can live with and feel good about.
  8. Leadership boundaries: As the leader, you are in a different place with different responsibilities than your employees. Simply put, it’s difficult to be both a friend and a leader at the same time. If you venture too far into being a friend, it can blur your effectiveness when you need your leadership voice to be heard. It can also cloud your judgment when tough decisions need to be made that you know will not be received well by your “friends.” This is often the cause of unintentional, culture-damaging “double standards.” I’m not suggesting that you can’t be friends with your employees. I am merely emphasizing that you must retain your perspective – you ARE the leader and there are certain lines that are dangerous to cross.
  9. Never too late: If there is anyone in your company that is long overdue for some appreciation directly from you … have that conversation. If there is an employee that seems to have defected to the dark side … have that conversation. If someone on your team feels that he or she was overlooked for an opportunity or took the blame for something that was not entirely his or her fault … have that conversation. It’s never too late to acknowledge, appreciate, give explanation, regain trust or apologize.
  10. Relentlessly communicate: Relentless communication is the responsibility of all leaders. You are the voice of the company. Your company speaks through you. You are the keeper and protector of the vision. When your voice goes silent or is seldom heard, your people and your company are leaderless. Chaos replaces clarity. Dysfunction infects your culture. It’s amazing that something as simple as a conversation can prevent all that. All you have to do is let “the informal exchange of ideas” that we call “conversation” transform ordinary into extraordinary.

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Founders Fatigue and what to do about it

fatigueI was doing a coaching call with an owner. We were discussing strategic changes he would like to implement that could dramatically increase revenues, address customer needs more quickly and efficiently, improve customer retention rates and provide his employees with significant income growth. His company was already quite successful and actively encouraged employee engagement through open-book management, team bonuses and profit sharing. His proposed strategic changes made perfect sense. I could hear the commitment and passion in his voice – until he began talking about his people and their reaction to his ideas. His tone changed as he shared employee resistance to expanding roles and new opportunities. And then he said, “I have owner’s fatigue.”

He didn’t say, “I’m burnt out”; he simply used the term “fatigue” to describe his current state as a company founder that is facing yet another uphill battle to take his company – and his employees – to a better place. Being burnt out is a dismal state where leaders barely have the strength to raise the surrender flag. Founder’s fatigue is a condition that owner’s experience after years of pushing and pulling their companies up all of those “next levels” and through all of those inevitable challenges. Founder’s fatigue is what owners feel as they stare up that steep slope to the next level of success. The question is: how long will you stare at that next level before saying, “Lets do this”?

Here are some no-compromise leadership insights into preventing and overcoming founder’s fatigue:

  • You’ve been here before: When you started your company, you were in high-risk mode. Everything was on the table to win or lose. You pushed yourself and your team to achieve hard-earned breakthroughs and successes. Every next level effort tested your tenacity and ability to lead through adversity. You became a veteran of business by having fought the hard battles, experiencing many victories among your share of losses. Here you are about to engage in yet another business battle that you know your company must fight. Founder’s fatigue is simply what you feel because you know and understand the task before you. It’s natural to feel founder’s fatigue. You also know that it’s your responsibility to initiate the command to move forward. You know the way.
  • Stop feeding the parking meter: The big danger of founder’s fatigue is when owners keep feeding the parking meter to avoid moving forward. Eventually you’ll run out of coins. Eventually your team will get tired of watching you feed the meter and talking about great things that will happen. There’s nothing wrong with parking for a while to rest, regroup, plan and gather the necessary resources, but as the leader, it’s up to you to hit the launch button and initiate change. Your team will not hang around indefinitely waiting for you to decide if you want a relationship with the parking meter or the opportunities that are waiting beyond the horizon.
  • When the train leaves the station: It’s amazing how founder’s fatigue seems to mysteriously evaporate when the leader finally hits the launch button. Wheels start to turn, engines begin to hum and excitement builds once the journey begins. Muscles warm up and the pace gets faster and easier to sustain. Getting your train out of the station is the fastest and most efficient way to overcome founder’s fatigue. All aboard!
  • Relentless communication: All change requires relentless communication and information flow. That’s the only way to achieve synergy. Relentless communication is the responsibility of leadership. Relentless communication reinforces the importance of reaching the destination and what it’s going to take to get there. Relentless communication allows for quick adjustments to the obstacles you are sure to encounter. Founder’s fatigue cannot take hold and survive in a leader that is on task and engaged. Pick up that megaphone and make your voice heard.
  • Fearless leader factor: One of the prime feeders of founder’s fatigue is dealing with diehard change resisters. Over time, it’s natural for people to settle into “their work” to the point where any change is regarded as trespassing on their turf. Of course long-term employees deserve respect for their loyalty, but when they become a roadblock to progress, you need to help them decide whether they want to move forward or get off the train. Yes, it can be emotionally draining to get change resisters onboard, but it is even more draining to allow change resisters to remain steadfast as roadblocks to your initiative. The fearless leader factor must be used to resolve the stalemate so the company can move forward. Friendships may be lost and feelings may be hurt, but this is about protecting the company and the team. It’s the tough work of leadership.

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Reigniting your leadership passion

passionLast July I completed the 77-mile Prouty Ride in New Hampshire. There were hills-a-plenty and I turned in an average speed that was so slow I don’t even want to share it. I have a top-of-the-line Specialized S-Works road bike, so it wasn’t my equipment that was lacking. What was lacking was the ability of the bike’s engine – me. My growing frustration with my slow performance finally got to me. I may be 64 years old, but I know I’m physically capable of developing more power and speed – and reigniting my passion for cycling. So I hired Tracey Drews, a Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) coach, to kick my butt into shape. In two months, I increased my average speed almost two miles per hour and lost 10 pounds in the process. I feel great. I’m proud of my improvements. I got my passion for cycling back.

In recent weeks, I’ve talked to a number of owners/leaders who admitted to having lost the passion to push their companies forward. The most common statement sounded like, “I’m just going through the motions.” That’s what I was doing on my bike … just pedaling away miles and not doing the type of training that produces gains and breakthroughs. And just for the record, you can’t achieve gains and breakthroughs in business and life without pushing and challenging your abilities – without taking decisive action to snap out of your funk.

Here are my no-compromise, “kick your own butt” strategies to reignite your passion for leadership and push your company forward:

  • Clean your plate: A leader’s plate is where projects and problems tend to land – yours and everyone else’s. If you don’t pay attention and manage what’s taking up residence on your plate, you can find yourself stressed and overextended. Take control of your plate by cleaning off all of the non-essentials and time-sappers. Most importantly, redirect all those projects and problems back to the people that originally owned them. Leadership team members will never learn and grow if you keep finishing or fixing their stuff.
  • Find your BHAG: A “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” is the kind of worthy and lofty challenge that wakes up both leaders and their companies. BHAGs are bold. BHAGs are grand visions that inspire and motivate. BHAGs are worth fighting for. More than anything, finding and chasing a BHAG always reignites a leader’s passion and energy for the work of leadership.
  • Put a pin on the map: The first thing my cycling coach asked me to do was define my goals and timelines so we could make a training plan. The training plan was a guideline that would take me to my goals. A goal without a deadline is a “maybe,” but putting a pin on the map sets the destination. Define your BHAG, take a deep breath, and put the pin on the map.
  • Blow up the blockage: A leadership blockage is nothing more than a fear of the unknown. Guess what? The worst that could happen seldom, if ever, happens. And guess what? Not everyone is going to be happy with change. But … guess what? Giving in to your fear of confrontation by remaining stuck is the fast track to everything you don’t want to happen. No one follows a leader that is stuck, or too timid and afraid to tackle a worthy challenge.
  • Read No-Compromise Leadership: My book is a game plan for achieving a higher standard of leadership thinking and behavior. So far, every leader that has read the book thinks I wrote it just for them. Learn about the Four Business Outcomes. Learn how to use and balance the BIG Eight Drivers. Learn what it really takes to successfully navigate a company-wide culture shift to the “No Compromise” zone. It’s a damn powerful book that will get you back into the leadership game.
  • Get a coach: The right leadership and business coach can take you farther and faster than if you go it alone. The most important component is to have someone that will hold you accountable and not buy into excuses. And it really helps to have a coach to talk to when your leadership flame needs an extra spark.

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The Team-Based business model ROCKS

TBPC_groupOn September 21st-22nd, Strategies held our first annual Team-Based Pay (TBP) Conference in Chicago, IL. It’s amazing that 158 business owners and leaders gathered to learn, to be inspired and to celebrate this thing called “Team-Based Pay.” Heck, it’s just a pay system. But labeling it “just a pay system” is a shortsighted conclusion that discounts what a company can achieve by rewarding the right overall individual and team performance. Team-Based Pay isn’t about the “pay” … it’s about achieving excellence by defining and rewarding excellence. It’s about building a team-based business model that is void of the “I/me/mine” commission mindset.

The intent of the TBP Conference was to bring together our community of TBP companies to network and share knowledge of the team-based business model. From the owners on the panel discussion to success story upon success story told by attendees, there was one common denominator essential to each experience – company culture. Our closing keynote speaker, Jack Stack, CEO of SRC Holding Corp. and author of bestseller, The Great Game of Business, said it best, “Create Leaders. Create business people who think and act like owners. Become a successful business of business people.” Jack offered the following three essentials to building a team-based company.

  1. Recognition: People need to be recognized for their contributions and their talents. They don’t want to be treated as irrelevant or disposable.
  2. Career Opportunities: Believe that everyone can go somewhere.
  3. A Stake in the Outcome: Believe in creating wealth for those you work with while you create wealth for yourself.

Strategies Coach Robin Gribbin delivered the following 12 No-Compromise Strategies to keep commission thinking from creeping back into a team-based culture:

  1. Stop talking about and comparing commission to TBP: Too often, owners/leaders keep the commission conversation going when there is no need to continue the debate. If you’re a TBP company … you don’t pay commission. Why keep the conversation on the table?
  2. Thinking and behavior drive the numbers you want: You can tell employees to “get their numbers up” all day long, but the fact of the matter is that numbers are an outcome. Focus on getting “Culture & Teamwork” and “Individual Strengths” right and the numbers will amaze you. The more these two critical areas shift to TBP thinking and behavior, the better “Performance & Critical Numbers” and “Skills Requirements” will get.
  3. Stop tracking “Request Rate”: Request rate is 100% super-concentrated “I/me/mine” thinking. The power is in tracking client retention and loyalty to the company.
  4. Column vision is “I/me/mine”: Coach employees to think WIDE, not narrow. “Column vision” cannot compete with “Everyone is responsible for every hour the company has available for sale” team thinking and behavior.
  5. For “top producers” and “senior staff”: Their future earning potential resides on all the columns on the appointment book – not just their own.
  6. It’s about managing your “Service Payroll %”: Once set, commission, including sliding scales, is inflexible. Simply put, you can’t control your payroll percentage as long as payroll is a fixed percent of revenue. Any change or adjustment in commission rates instantly turns into a full-blown pay conversion. Because TBP is hourly, not commission based, it can be controlled to adjust to changes in operating costs and cash flow.
  7. Never ever: Don’t use “cutting hours” as an everyday means to control your TBP payroll costs. If you have too many hours for sale, it’s a symptom that your productivity rate systems need attention and that you’re not following your cash-flow plan. Keep cutting hours and you’ll demoralize employees that want to work.
  8. I repeat: If you believe that employees won’t be motivated to work without the incentive of “commission,” why are so many leaders complaining about unmotivated commission employees? Leadership, clarified expectations, rewarding the right behaviors, systems, accountability, teamwork and culture are all where motivation is derived.
  9. Busier isn’t always better: The more you drive revenues in a commission-based business, the more you drive up your payroll costs. Make payroll a fixed expense and you can manage payroll costs just like any other cost.
  10. Watch your words: Commission has its own vocabulary that speaks “I/me/mine.” Build your request rate. Build your book. Your client/my client. That’s my sale … I should get the credit. It’s hard to build a team-based culture when your terminology does not match what it means to be a team.
  11. Love/hate relationship: Too many owners and leaders hold themselves hostage because they “love the money but hate the employee.” The longer you continue to pay an employee for performance and behavior that drives you crazy, the more toxic and contaminated your culture becomes. Make the tough decision and get it over with.
  12. Double trouble: Double standards in any company will wreck your culture. Reread number 11.

I want to personally thank my Strategies team for making our first TBP Conference an outstanding success for everyone. Eric Ducoff and the corporate office team planned and executed the entire event without a hitch. My team of Strategies Coaches delivered powerful content in the breakout sessions … and, when it came to customer service … they truly practiced what we coach and teach at Strategies every day.

We hope you join us at the 2015 TBP Conference next September.

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Keeping your business in balance

in-balanceI was boarding a 20-seat commuter plane with six other passengers. We took our assigned seats, most of which were toward the front of the plane. Just before the captain started up the engines, he came into the cabin and asked a few of us to take seats further to the rear. “We need to balance out the plane,” he explained. Given the explanation, I was happy to move to an aft seat. In the process, I found it interesting how immune we frequent flyers on commercial jets have become to flight dynamics. I know I never give it a thought.

But on that tiny plane, I was reminded how performance and safety depend on the proper balance. That captain knew that had he not balanced the weight, he would have had to over-compensate on the controls to keep the plane flying straight and true – especially during takeoff and landing. As captain of your business, how often do you find yourself trying to overcompensate when things are out of balance? You know exactly what I’m talking about.

It’s when you’re trying to fire up your team while their sense of urgency is stuck in a funky comfort zone. It’s when you take your eyes off the financial controls and expenses get out of hand. It’s when team morale and motivation turn into a toxic stew that contaminates a once-vibrant culture. Simply put, when the symptoms indicating that a business is even slightly out of balance begin to appear, it’s imperative for the leader to engage and restore balance.

But before you can do that, you must look at your own life. Do you have a sense of balance in your life? Are you calm? Happy? Have a clear sense of priorities? You need to have your personal house in order. If not, your staff will sense a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude that will further degrade your business culture.

Everyone has a different interpretation of what a great business culture is. A balanced business has a culture that fuels a sense of energy and momentum. The different departments synchronize, with everyone coming together for a common purpose.

So what does balance look like in business? That’s an interesting question, as balance can’t be seen. However, you can experience it and measure it. Consider these points:

  • It’s capable, confident and aggressive: Employees of a balanced business enjoy pushing the envelope. They do so because when there’s a state of balance, the natural tendency is to compete and drive forward. An unbalanced business gets bogged down in its own internal issues.
  • The pace is fast and steady: If you exercise regularly and take care of your body, you know what balance feels like: you feel energized and have the endurance to go the distance toward whatever goal you’ve set for yourself. A business that can consistently function at a fast and steady pace is balanced. An unbalanced business always seems to be running out of gas and having engine problems.
  • Execution at its best: Balance is like a football team that makes it to the Super Bowl. Every player and every coach is there to work together and win. A balanced business is disciplined yet flexible enough to be self-correcting when things go awry. A balanced business is impressive to observe and do business with, and consistently outpaces the competition.
  • The results are measurable: When a business is in balance, it’s evident in the numbers … from revenues, profits and a healthy Balance Sheet to high productivity rates, customer and employee retention.

If you want your business to fly high and fast, it’s your job to get it, and keep it, in balance. Flying any other way is dangerous. No compromise.

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What you need to know but do not know

need_to_know2Being a truly effective leader means being in the know about everything that is going on in and around your company. But being in the know about “everything” is impossible and would probably cause your head to explode. Yet, every day there are forces at work that could impede growth, hinder productivity, drain cash flow, degrade your brand or cause you to miss a major opportunity. By forces, I’m referring to the people side of your company where decisions are made and where thinking and behavior deviates from the company’s vision and core values. This is where personal or collective compromise can throw a wrench in what should be your well-oiled machine.

In business, believing in the old adage, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” is like avoiding reality by sticking your head in the sand. If you’re having cash-flow problems and you’re not paying attention to – or can’t read – your financial reports, and you don’t have a cash-flow plan/budget … then you don’t know what you need to know. If you’re having productivity issues and pushback on much needed changes, but do little to change your “I don’t like structure” leadership style … then what you don’t know – you need to know. If you’ve ever discovered a major problem and uttered the words, “How was this happening right under my nose?” … then you don’t know what you need to know. Got it?

Since it’s impossible for any leader to know and do everything, here are some no-compromise strategies to keep you in the know more effectively than ever before:

  • Myopia” isn’t a Greek island: In business, the term myopia refers to that very narrow field of sight we fondly call “tunnel vision”. A leader may see what’s directly in front of him, but be oblivious to hazards and threats coming at him from the sides or behind. So often, what leaders need to know is readily available, but they’re “too busy” or preoccupied to really see or even be aware of it. Even with the best intentions, some leaders shut themselves off from what they don’t want or care to know – or believe that others are paying attention for them. Strategy: Schedule time to come up for air so you can pay attention to and check in on what’s going on in your company. All it takes is asking a few questions and setting aside the time to really listen to the answers. The intent is not to catch people doing something wrong – it’s to ensure that they’re doing their jobs right … and to coach them where needed. Avoiding myopia is the best strategy to avoid problems before they occur.
  • Upgrade U: You can stick to the business and leadership skills you have and are comfortable with, but it is unlikely that your current skill set will keep pace with the growing complexity of your company. The problem is that a leader’s pre-ordained obsolescence creeps up almost unnoticeably until time and circumstance takes the leader to task. Yes, you have unique skills and talents that got you to this point … but that’s no guarantee that those skills can or will take you any further. Strategy: Make a plan to upgrade your skill set at least once a year. Challenge yourself to get better. And guess what? It will actually feel good and broaden your leadership horizons.
  • OK, stop avoiding it: We each have natural skills and interests that we build our careers on. But when leading a business, there are skills you need to know that are beyond your interests, abilities, and comfort zone. Nevertheless, there are specific skills that your leadership position requires you to learn and know – but not necessarily master. For example, the need to know and understand your financials and practice financial disciplines is a non-negotiable for all leaders. You can delegate the bookkeeping and accounting – but you cannot delegate the knowledge of what your financials are telling you. You may have a low tolerance for confrontation, but knowing how to navigate tough conversations that must take place is non-negotiable. Strategy: I bet you have a couple of non-negotiable skills that you’ve been avoiding like the plague. Well, it’s time to make peace with these imaginary monsters because in this case, you know exactly what you don’t know and it’s time to do something about it.
  • Every company has ick: It’s that festering, toxic stuff that lurks in dark places with names like “resistance”, “resentment”, “attitude problems”, “egos”, “entitlement”, “laziness” and “indifference”, to name a few. No one aspires to be a leader because they want to deal with ick … but it’s part of the job. What’s interesting and remarkably clear is that as ick accumulates over time, it does so right under the very noses of the leaders that build the company structures, layers and levels that feed the ick. Ick feeds on stagnation, lack of information flow, lack of opportunity – and lack of appreciation. The point here is that what you need to know is all around you. Strategy: The best way to know and prevent ick is by involving all employees in the process of business growth. Contrary to popular belief, people want to be a part of something that’s worthy of their effort. People want to contribute. That’s why I believe in open companies with open leadership and cultures. That’s why I believe in transparency and open-book management. What you need to know resides in the hearts and minds of those you lead. Tap into the knowledge of your people and you will know more than you could ever imagine.

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Perfect teams are like fuzzy benchmarks

fuzzy_numbers2Every leader has a story of that “perfect team” of people. The stories are always about a shared passion to achieve the near impossible – to overcome all obstacles. There’s camaraderie, mutual support and knowing that everyone has your back. And then there’s that sprinkle of magic that gives each and every team member the belief that, together, they are unstoppable. But gradually over time, members of the team move on and replacements are brought in. The legacy of greatness remains, but that magic and electricity is different … or else absent entirely.

For leaders, it is a privilege to lead such a perfect team. But how does such a team come together? Is it by chance or by design? Perhaps the real question is, can such a team be persistently and consistently replicated? Perfect teams are like fuzzy benchmarks. You know the stats they’re capable of producing. You know the required skills and can articulate how all the players should seamlessly interact. You think you know all the ingredients … but it’s getting that mixture just right that eludes you.

Here are some no-compromise leadership insights to make perfect teams more of a constant as opposed to just a legacy moment:

  • The state of YOU matters: As a leader, you are not invincible. You are subject to all the stresses and trials that life can throw at you. Think back to your state of being when you led that perfect team. You were on your game. You were focused and driven. You were decisive and bold. You brought out the best in your people. That’s the leader your team experienced. That’s the leader that inspired and pushed them. I always tell leaders that they must want success by a factor of ten over those they lead. Yes, there are times when your team will pick you up when you fall. But when picking you up becomes a job … or when the team senses that you’re stuck in burnt-out mode … believing in you is no longer a good investment. Resentment and distrust festers on both sides of the relationship. Be vigilant about your state of being. Don’t blame others for your funk. Do something like hire a leadership coach.
  • Vision erosion: The very first tenet of No-Compromise Leadership is to “have absolute clarity on where you are taking the company.” Grand visions may be inspiring, but it is absolute clarity that establishes the foundation that supports all visions. Absolute clarity means defining exactly what’s required to achieve the vision in terms of commitment, time, hard work, innovation, skill requirements, sacrifice, potential hazards and more. Without a foundation of absolute clarity, visions erode over time. And once your vision begins to erode … so too will your perfect team or your hopes of achieving one.
  • Sense of urgency dial: Sense of urgency is the energy that drives growth. As a leader, you control your company’s sense of urgency dial. If your personal sense of urgency dial is redlined at ten and your team’s sense of urgency dial is set at a comatose two … you and your leadership team are not paying attention to information flow, systems, accountability, quality, performance, productivity, deadlines, customer loyalty, cash flow and other components that keep both leadership and team sense of urgency dials synced at high performance levels. The moment the dials fall out of sync … so too does the opportunity to create a perfect team.
  • Lost in legacy: If you keep talking about that one-time perfect team that achieved the extraordinary, today’s team will do nothing but become tired and resentful of the story. They’ll wonder why “what was” can’t happen today. Monuments and ruins of once great civilizations are facts and content for history books – it’s not for today’s business that changes as fast as a thought flowing through a brain. Leaders build the present to measure against the past. Got that?
  • Believe in people: I recently read a story written by a leader that had an awakening. He wrote about how he finally found the courage to look in the mirror and have that tough conversation with himself, confronting the fact that all the good and bad in his business is what he created. He wrote about how, as the years passed, his belief in people deteriorated into “me against them” resentment and distrust. His story was about acknowledging the truth about his leadership and how he created the dysfunction that caused stress in everyone. Most importantly, he laid out his plan to change and re-launch his career as the leader he knew he was capable of being. He is now prepared to retake his company and lead it through a long overdue culture shift. And he’s prepared for the pushback and possible employee defections that may occur. You can only regain your belief in people when you first acknowledge that you’ve lost it.

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How to lead through numbers. Not by them

Numbers_collageIt is true that numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the complete story either. The best example is “Net Profit” on a Profit & Loss Statement. You can get all excited when you see a nice net profit – but having net profit doesn’t mean you have cash in the bank. You can check your bank balance – but that balance doesn’t reflect checks that were written but have yet to clear. If you understand how to read your Profit & Loss Statement, Balance Sheet and Statement of Cash Flows…and how all three reports work together…then you know they will tell you a more complete story. If you don’t, you’ll be making decisions on very incomplete data.

Numbers speak to people in different ways according to their depth of understanding about what those numbers mean. There are those “left brain”, analytical people that love to process every morsel of the story numbers tell – but this doesn’t guarantee that the story will be interpreted correctly. Likewise, there are those creative, “right brain” folks that just can’t stop their eyes from rolling back in their heads when looking at financial or analytical reports. For them, the story is a painful documentary on the origins of Algebra.

Because numbers communicate how your company and employees are performing, many leaders fall into the trap of leading by the numbers. Every meeting, every huddle, every memo and every one-on-one is about the numbers. As I stated above, not everyone can figure out what systems, skills, behaviors or approaches must change in order to move specific numbers in the right direction. As a result, frustration and stress can spread through a company’s culture.

Here are four no-compromise leadership strategies that will help you lead through the numbers – not by them:

  1. Share the whole story: Numbers are like laser pointer dots. They illuminate one incredibly tiny piece of data, leaving the bulk of the story that created it untold. Yes, you want your productivity rate to improve…but why and where is it struggling now? You want profits to improve…but where and what are the potential profit leaks? Too many leaders throw out commands like, “Get your client retention rate up,” or, “Get your retail numbers up.” Without knowing the whole story, your commands may have your employees trying harder with a system or approach that simply doesn’t work. Slow down. Give your team the possible “why” and “how” behind a number that needs to improve.
  2. Feed both brains: If your approach is to constantly hammer away at the numbers, you’re likely doing more damage than good. The right brains may understand the importance of a problem…but they don’t possess the creativity to figure out a solution to fix it. On the flip side, all the left brains hear when confronted with too much analytical talk is, “blah, blah, blah.” Both brains need to be fed a balanced diet of inspiration, motivation and celebration in order to digest and address the hard facts and data. Simply put, the left and right brain thinkers depend on each other to perform at their best and deliver the outcomes you seek. Put the numbers aside for bit and share where the company is going and how it’s going to get there. Celebrate the right behaviors that you observe. Celebrate the small wins because it’s the small wins that inspire the big wins.
  3. Analysis paralysis: There may be numbers and reports that are important to you and only you. I’ve seen leaders sap the time energy of their managers and staff by having them compile daily/weekly/monthly reports that have little or no impact on performance. Even worse is when leaders don’t even look at, acknowledge or provide feedback on those “what the heck” reports. The key is to isolate and focus on a specific and limited set of critical numbers and move them in the right direction. Channeling your team’s efforts on three or four critical numbers can and will have a profound effect on performance and growth. Focusing on a laundry list of numbers creates dysfunction and stress.
  4. Financial literacy: Profit and positive cash flow are outcomes that cannot be achieved in the vacuum of “I can’t control what I don’t understand.” I have long been a believer in the need for financial literacy at all levels of a company. It’s amazing what happens when everyone understands the impacts of driving revenue, controlling costs, eliminating waste and increasing productivity. The basic premise of open-book management is that if you want your people to think and make decisions like an owner…they need to understand your Profit & Loss Statement and Balance Sheet. I’m not suggesting that you call a meeting and pass your financials around the proverbial table. That doesn’t work. What I am suggesting is that you begin a process of teaching financial literacy to all team members and embed financial literacy into your company’s culture. Designing an open-book approach that fits your company is a process that takes time. Warning: Teaching financial literacy and going open book will force many leaders to “clean up” their act. If you don’t understand “clean up” your act…email me at neil@strategies.com and I’ll explain it.

TEN No-Compromise Leadership Disciplines

leadership_disciplines2No leader is a complete package of thinking and behavior disciplines. For most leaders, being that complete package is best defined as a quest to becoming as near complete as one can get. Just how hard are you willing to work at it? Just how open are you to making profound changes in your own thinking and behavior? If you’re truly committed to becoming an authentic No-Compromise Leader, you will need to embrace the following ten No-Compromise Leadership disciplines:

  1. It’s not about you: Being a leader is innately personal. It’s about achieving your full potential by coaching others to achieve theirs … all in a singular effort to achieve the company’s vision. People fight for and are loyal to a leader’s fairness, integrity, compassion and courage in accomplishing something great and worthy. But a leader is simply a guide to a better place. When a leader devolves into “all about me” thinking, an egotistical and selfish dictator takes over. No-Compromise Leadership is never about you. It’s about the people you lead and where you are taking the company.
  2. Strive for absolute clarity: It’s hard for people to put their best efforts into an abstraction they don’t understand. No-Compromise Leaders take extreme care to communicate the company’s vision, objectives and tasks with absolute clarity. I use the term “absolute clarity” because it eliminates the wiggle room that gets many leaders into trouble and pushes leaders to thoroughly define their desired outcomes. Make a practice of embedding “absolute clarity” into your approach to communication.
  3. Orchestra leader: This discipline is for all those leaders that meddle and attempt to micro-manage just about everything. It’s an exhausting leadership pattern that fuels frustration in everyone – including the leader doing it. The role of a leader is like that of an orchestra conductor. The conductor leads the way through the musical score, keeping all the musicians and sections in sync. The conductor creates urgency, boldness and order to bring emotion to the score. But … the conductor never touches an instrument. Leadership means guiding and coaching others – and never touching their work. It’s about achieving the right outcomes through others.
  4. Respect levels of authority: This means that each member of your leadership team should be prepared and empowered to make decisions and guide operations that adhere to the company’s objectives and visions. The moment you bypass levels of authority by making or overriding the decisions of your leaders, you de-power that leader. Work with and through your leaders by providing the training, coaching and resources they need to fulfill the requirements of their position.
  5. Brain and heart balance: It’s great to be compassionate. It’s prudent to make decisions based on facts, analysis and probabilities. However, both brain and heart decisions must be properly balanced. Too much heart can have you tolerating intolerable behavior and performance, which often leads to double standards and contamination of your company’s culture. Too much brain and people become numbers and statistics. No-compromise Leaders strive to have a balance of both.
  6. Voice of the company: Companies have vital signs just like humans do. When a company is sick or encounters challenges, it needs its leader to speak on its behalf. That’s why No-Compromise Leaders always speak as “we” … not “me.” Leaders monitor their company’s vital signs and performance. Leaders plot the future of the company. Leaders address challenges with decisive action. In every way, the leader must always be the voice of the company.
  7. Measure what matters: There’s a reason they call “critical numbers” critical. If they’re not heading in the right direction, there’s a problem. No-Compromise Leaders have a set of critical numbers that are relentlessly monitored; numbers like gross profit margin, net profit, cash, client retention and productivity rate, among others. Leaders get into trouble when they don’t pay attention to their critical numbers – and even more serious trouble arises when they don’t know what the critical numbers mean. The most important part of monitoring critical numbers is in how they shape the company’s performance and culture. “What gets measured gets repeated” isn’t just some clever saying … it communicates how people and teams improve performance in order to push critical numbers in the right direction. What critical numbers are you measuring?
  8. Lift or drag: This is such a simple and powerful leadership process. If a person, system or project isn’t creating lift…then it’s creating drag. There is no middle ground. Lift is good. Drag is bad. Lift is fast. Drag is slow. Got it? No-Compromise Leaders have little tolerance for drag. If they can’t find a way to turn drag into lift – they eliminate the drag. For example: If you have a team of “A” players, allowing a “C” player to remain on that team is drag and will eventually degrade one or more of the “A” players into “B” players. That’s how cultures become contaminated.
  9. Urgency of the unknown: No-Compromise Leaders know all too well that comfort zones are merely “rest stops.” Getting trapped in a comfort zone means all forward progress stops and status quo officially becomes the accepted normal. The future is going to happen no matter what; leaders can either prepare and control as much of the future as possible … or allow the future to render them irrelevant. The future is an exciting place that is full of opportunity. It is the leader’s job to create a sense of urgency to embrace the future – not to fear it.
  10. Let go of the reins: This is the most difficult part of leadership. No-Compromise Leaders surround themselves with an inner circle of leaders that are in total sync with the objectives and vision of the company. Letting go of the reins is a natural and necessary part of leadership that ensures the company can live beyond its leader’s lifespan. Simply put, leaders that can’t let go of the reins by preparing and empowering emerging leaders are essentially forcing the company to live and die with the leader. Got it?

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