Delivering excellence is more than a choice

excellence_choiceExcellence is a beautiful thing to behold, but what is it? It is that rare state when all things converge flawlessly into a product, service or experience. It is the culmination of innovation, fierce attention to detail, finely honed systems, discipline and accountability to a desired end result. And once achieved, that state of excellence is admired, respected and sought after.

In business, excellence is coveted by many but only earned by few. It is much like the Lexus tagline, “The relentless pursuit of excellence,” where the word “relentless” defines the extent of the company’s commitment to chasing the extraordinary. Without “relentless”, the word “pursuit” becomes highly suspect in its meaning and intent. A company can easily give lip service to its pursuit of excellence without ever channeling the resources, commitment and leadership necessary to achieve it. Simply put, you may want excellence … but how far are you willing to go, and what are you prepared to sacrifice to get it?

Here are some No-Compromise Leadership insights into delivering excellence:

  • Actions over words: To employees, talking about delivering excellence eventually just sounds like, “Blah, blah, blah.” It’s talking about going to the gym to workout but never showing up to feel the pain of gain. It’s talking about losing weight but never sticking to a diet. The worst occurs when a leader starts to believe his or her own hype, viewing their flawed version of excellence as something that it truly is not. Achieving and delivering excellence is about taking action and the commitment to do the tough work of getting it right. Excellence is like a vision statement. If you and your company don’t earn and live it every day … it’s just words.
  • Leaders take it there: Delivering excellence is a journey filled with breakthroughs and setbacks, wins and losses. It takes a No-Compromise Leader to guide, push and inspire the people and the company to move towards excellence. That’s why so many companies get stuck at ordinary rather than extraordinary. It’s not the people that stopped pursuing excellence – it’s the leader who hit the auto-pilot button and then stepped away to take a nap. No-Compromise Leaders must want excellence at least ten times more than those they lead. That’s where the urgency and energy that fuels the journey comes from. Followers will lift up a No-Compromise Leader when he or she falls down because they know it is a rare occurrence, but followers will eventually tire of picking up a leader that naps too much, talks too much and plays the blame game too often.
  • Look, feel, originality: Hold something excellent in your hand and you know it, feel it and experience its excellence and originality. Service excellence is something you can see and experience because it is honed to a state where it appears to happen effortlessly. Jonathan Ive is Apple’s long-time engineering designer. In a recent interview, he was asked, “If imitation is the highest form of compliment, are you flattered at how others copied your iPhone design?” Ive’s response, an emphatic “No.” He said, “Those that copy didn’t do the work to achieve their breakthroughs. They didn’t sacrifice the late nights and time away from family. They didn’t create something amazing that never existed before.” FACT: Excellence is an outcome.
  • Imperfections seed compromise: Imperfections cannot be trusted. Imperfections are impending points of failure. Everything about delivering excellence is about No-Compromise Leadership, whether it’s delivering a fine dining experience, building a product, providing excellent customer service or even just executing a haircut. Allowing the slightest imperfection in one chain link will compromise the integrity of the entire chain to the point where it cannot be trusted. Excellence demands an investment in skill development, relentless testing, systems design and execution … and the discipline to weed out any known imperfections. Anything less than that, and imperfections become acceptable … sometimes even friends. And once imperfections settle in, they are hard to evict. This is especially so with people.
  • Evolution and sustainability: Excellence must evolve to be sustainable. Today’s version of excellence is simply a template that must adapt and evolve to remain relevant tomorrow. Each rendition is worthy of celebration as long as work begins on its next iteration … or a completely new and innovative design or approach. No-Compromise Leaders understand that excellence is a perpetual series of stepping stones. Get too comfortable on one stone for too long and your hard-earned excellence can become irrelevant.

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Anatomy of a cash crisis

hurricaneFor entrepreneurs, there is nothing more dreaded and stressful then going through a cash crisis. Much like the “battle stations” siren on a warship under attack, a company experiencing a cash crisis instantly goes into reaction mode to batten down the hatches and plug the leaks. The truly tough work is keeping a “business as usual” demeanor to avoid freaking out employees and exposing customers to the crisis that is occurring just behind the curtain. Unfortunately, the more critical a cash crisis gets, the more it impacts employees and the company’s ability to deliver its standard of excellence to its customers.

A cash crisis follows a very predictable path. First, new purchases are cut back to only the “gotta have” items. Then, current expenses are evaluated and trimmed. Travel expenses and perks are slashed or eliminated. Advertising and marketing costs are scaled back or tossed out. Eventually, payroll costs are reduced by trimming hours, implementing layoffs, or resorting to the culture-crushing tactic of payroll reductions. Depending on the severity of the cash crisis, the company’s owners may be forced to significantly reduce their salary – or sacrifice their paychecks entirely so employees can continue to get paid. All of this is extremely stressful and falls under the heading of “making tough decisions” to get out of the fiery pit of hell.

If it hasn’t already, sooner or later your company is going to experience some degree of a cash crisis. Here are some No-Compromise strategies to remain vigilant, identify and possibly avert a cash crisis in your company:

  • Early warning signs: Many entrepreneurs make the dangerous assumption that being hit by a cash crisis is much like being hit by a tornado in a strike with little to no warning. In reality, a cash crisis is more like the evolution of a hurricane that begins as a tropical depression and intensifies in stages into what can be a killer storm. Unlike a tornado, a hurricane can be tracked with predictions on its path, point of impact, expected damage and essential evacuation warnings. Simply put, you know the hurricane is coming and have time to prepare. A cash crisis festers and intensifies over time. The early warning signs appear on your Balance Sheet in the form of decreasing cash, increasing accounts payable and increasing debt (usually from credit cards). If you’re not paying weekly and monthly attention to these two financial reports … your cash crisis will feel like a tornado when it strikes.
  • Unjustified “justified” expenses: I’ve never met an entrepreneur that couldn’t conjure up some hair-brained “justification” for spending money the company cannot afford. Most often, it’s the, “We need to do this,” high-risk impulse decisions that seed the cash crisis. Sometimes it’s the result of over-confidence, ego and invincibility feeding these high-risk decisions. It can be embarking on a major expansion the company has neither the resources nor the capabilities to manage, or it can be hiring a hotshot with a big-shot salary that fails to perform the expected miracles and instead saps cash by driving payroll through the roof. If it feels high-risk … it is high-risk. If any business decision is going to stretch your cash and your financial position into the high-risk zone, you need to put the brakes on and deeply contemplate the downside of the risk. Hey, maybe your hair-brained idea is pure genius and will guarantee you entry into the “I bet the ranch and won” Hall of Fame, but are you willing to bet your company, home and personal assets on it?
  • Duration is controllable: Yes, being in a cash crisis is painful and stressful. However, the duration of a cash crisis largely depends on you and your leadership. The first absolute to remember is that a cash crisis doesn’t just go away or fix itself. Performance behaviors, spending decisions and not paying attention to your financials and cash-flow management are what got you into the cash crisis. Therefore, changing your company’s performance behaviors and spending decisions … and giving intense attention to your financial reports and cash-flow management … is a non-negotiable when it comes to pulling yourself out of a cash crisis. Translation: The sooner you read and understand the warning signs and adjust accordingly, the shorter the cash crisis. Another way to look at this is that the corrective decisions made at the very early stages of a cash crisis are significantly easier than those made when the cash crisis evolves into a fiery pit of hell.
  • It’s about balance and discipline: Avoiding a cash crisis, or working through one, is more about leadership and fiscal discipline and less about your entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, your entrepreneurial spirit is the culprit responsible for most cash-crisis situations. Think of your entrepreneurial spirit as the creative, innovative and passionate side of your work. Now, think of your leadership and fiscal discipline responsibilities as the “manage risk and keep out of trouble” side of your work. If your entrepreneurial spirit is in charge all of the time … you’re in for an exciting, edge of your seat, business thrill ride. If your leadership and fiscal discipline side is in charge … you’re tight with cash and risk averse. Find your balance in both and you’ll also find yourself willing to take calculated risks … risks that don’t compromise the company’s cash position.

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2014: Home-stretch thoughts

home_stretchToday is the first day of the last month of 2014. So far, you have eleven months of business in the history book this year. You’ve eaten your Thanksgiving feast. The craziness of the Holiday season is officially underway. The time for implementing change and course corrections is behind you. Your company is either prepared to make the most of this final month, or it is not. All you can see ahead of you is the mad dash to New Year’s Eve and the welcoming of a fresh new year of opportunity called 2015.

This is a transitional time of year, good for both reflection and forward thinking. At this point, you’ve had your successes and failures. You’ve had initiatives that went sideways. You’ve said “good bye” to some old employees and welcomed in some new ones. You’ve hit your goals and missed your goals. You’ve loved your job … and there were times when you’ve hated your job. And on January 1, 2015, your Profit & Loss Statement revenues will revert back to zero and the endless process of leading your business will start all over again. The question to ponder now is … what do you want to change in 2015?

Here are my ten No-Compromise home-stretch thoughts:

  1. Managing your batteries: Running a company can drain your physical and emotional batteries to the point where you feel leadership fatigue … or even worse – total burnout. You’re not a superhero with superpowers; you’re a human being with real life limitations. Stress is a part of leadership, and comes in the form of making tough decisions, doing work that pushes you outside of your comfort zones, dealing with employee stuff, and feeling the weight of ever-present financial pressures. THOUGHTS: What do you need to change in your leadership work and workload? If you had to focus your attention on only high value work, what work would you have to let go?
  2. Evict the elephant: Every company has an elephant or two hanging around and getting in the way. Making friends with your elephant is a compromise and only gives you a bigger, tougher elephant that you will eventually be forced to evict. It’s gotta go. THOUGHTS: What is it costing you to feed the elephant in terms of drama, culture contamination and lost revenue? What’s the worst that could happen if you evicted the elephant? What opportunities would an elephant eviction create? When are you going to serve the eviction notice?
  3. Deal with debt: Debt is 100% super-concentrated business drag. A company simply cannot gain speed or progress to a goal when it’s dragging a load of debt. Credit card debt is the worst. THOUGHTS: If your debt load is too heavy (meaning your monthly payments are draining your cash reserves), what’s your plan to get your debt to a manageable level? If your payroll costs are too high, what’s your plan to fix them? If spending is out of control and inventory purchases are not within budget, what’s the plan to reign it all in? If you’re not sure how to get your expenses and your debt under control, ask for help.
  4. Get your “balance”: If you’re all work and no play, you really need to rethink how you manage your time. Personal time management is a discipline. I’ve coached many leaders that work 60 to 100 hours a week being grossly inefficient and wasting time at the expense of both their family and personal wellbeing. THOUGHTS: Leaders should be working on high value items – not low-level stuff that could be delegated. What’s your plan to work more efficiently and effectively to recapture time for you? What’s your plan to prevent others from putting their “monkeys” on your back?
  5. Tune-up your “voice”: When employees start saying, “All you care about are the numbers,” or, “Whatever we do is never good enough,” your leadership voice needs a tune-up. As a leader, your voice is the voice of the company. How you communicate, both verbally and through body language, speaks volumes about your state of mind, sense of urgency and stress level. In your effort to make sales, cut expenses, boost productivity and improve quality, your “leadership voice” could actually be wrecking morale and fragmenting your culture. THOUGHTS: What disciplines are you practicing to ensure your intent is clear? What disciplines are you practicing to ensure that the best leader in you is showing up every day … and not someone that resembles Darth Vader, leader of the Dark Side?
  6. Passion’s spark: If there is one thing I hope I never lose, it is my passion for the work I do. I love what I do, and yes, there are times when frustration tries to get the best of me … but my passion quickly regains the upper hand. The day “work becomes work”, I will retire. All entrepreneurial leaders have a little spark of passion in their eyes that keeps them going when others quit. Passion’s spark is precious and you must always protect it from being extinguished. THOUGHTS: If your spark is threatened and your passion is hanging on by a thread, what’s your plan to get back on track? What exactly is snuffing out your spark and sapping your enthusiasm? What are you going to do today, tomorrow, this month … and next year … to fuel your passion?
  7. Clarity takes work: The first tenet of No-Compromise Leadership is to have absolute clarity on where you are taking your company. No one fights for a vision that sounds like, “Do more,” or, “We’re heading in that general direction.” People fight for and bring their best game to achieve an objective that is worthy and specific. If you can’t describe your vision, goals, objectives and change initiatives in high-definition detail … then you haven’t put the effort in to achieving absolute clarity. THOUGHTS: Can you describe where you’re taking your company in a way that inspires others to go on that journey with you? If not, you’ve got work to do.
  8. Live your hype: It is dangerous for any company to buy so heavily into its own hype that it can no longer see its flaws, inconsistencies and compromises. Think of it as your company’s “promise to the customer” in terms of attention to detail, excellence and consistency. You either deliver on your promise or you don’t. Hype is like whiffle dust – it has little substance and disappears with a puff of air. THOUGHTS: What are you doing to reconnect with your values and commitment to excellence? When was the last time you and your team defined … with absolute clarity … your company’s promise to the customer?
  9. Everyone wants to win: When a leader becomes cynical, the company’s culture begins its slide into mediocrity. THOUGHTS: What makes you think your employees don’t want to win as badly as you? What makes you think they don’t care? As the leader, what do you own in this toxic mess?
  10. Twelve months from now: 2015 will arrive in 31 days. It will only contain 12 months … 52 weeks … 365 days. It can be a year of extraordinary growth, seized opportunities and the euphoria that comes with success … or, you can drag everything you don’t like from 2014 into the New Year and squander your opportunities. THOUGHTS: Where do you want your company to be on December 31, 2015?

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My BIG No-Compromise Project

Command_Center_Marquee2This Monday Morning Wake Up is a little departure from my usual rants on leadership and more about sharing a very special project that I’ve spent almost a year building. I’m very proud of the results and hope you appreciate what it took to make my BIG no-compromise project a reality.

The idea had been kicking around in my head for years. It was one of those infamous “game changing” projects that act as the missing link in connecting accountability to application, urgency to strategy and focus to vision. This is high-level leadership strategy distilled down to no-compromise, “If it needs to be done, get it done” leadership thinking, behavior and execution. It is 21+ years of Strategies’ training, systems and methodology at your fingertips 24/7/365. In the early days of 2014, it was time to bring my idea to life, and we began building what we now call the “Strategies Command Center.”

cc_milestone

So what exactly is the Strategies Command Center? It is our very own, built from the ground up, cloud-based coaching system. The Command Center finally overcomes the inherent limitations of phone coaching that too often turn into conversations or drift from the original objectives and goals. Coaching is about achieving milestones, improving performance and that big spooky thing called accountability. We have built a system that has both the coaching client and the coach focused and looking at the same computer screen with access to an array of Strategies’ coaching tools, project management and planning templates. More importantly, we built in seamless communication and interaction between coaches and clients.

And just last week, our amazing team of Strategies Coaches began coaching clients on the Strategies Command Center … and the feedback could not be better.

Here are just some of the features of the Strategies Command Center:

  • Complete project management: … including Milestones, deadlines, Task Lists, progress status, file uploads, reminder notices and calendar syncing to your computer and devices. Your Coaching Dashboard always shows you the days left until each deadline, a detailed activity list, and of course, your Milestones and Tasks that are due (or late and by how many days).
  • Coach communications: Other than your coaching calls, the Messages feature provides email communication with your coach directly from the Command Center. Emails can be tagged to a specific Milestone or Task, or can be labeled as just a general question for your coach. They can even contain file attachments, and every email thread is stored for later reference.
  • Templates and planning spreadsheets: Everything from revenue projections to cash flow plans, monthly scoreboards to a payroll projector, Broadband Pay Scales to a cost per hour calculator and more resides on the Command Center. No more managing, fixing or losing Excel files. We’ve even built in a digital version of the “Four Business Outcomes” and “Eight Drivers” charts.
  • Dashboard and progress stats: Enter your critical numbers in the Critical Number Dashboard once a month and use our Comparison Stats tool to monitor your progress by percentage gain or loss for any date range.
  • Essential files and resources: We’ve built in a file storage feature with folders to upload any kind of document or file you need to share with your coach. There’s a special “Financials” folder to upload your monthly Balance Sheet and Profit & Loss Statements for review. There’s even a Strategies Resource folder pre-stocked with downloadable Strategies Benchmarks, Happiness System, Four Business Outcome charts and other reference materials.
  • Secure and Password protected: We give you a username … but you set and change your password as you wish. You and your Strategies Coach are the only people who can view your information.

cc_cash-flow-projection

Coaching is about developing leadership skills, accountability, and focus. That’s why we built the Strategies Command Center – to achieve the right outcomes and to help you grow your company. It represents the No-Compromise approach to leadership and business that I have been teaching, coaching and preaching for over 40 years.

I am proud to say that Version 1.0 of the Strategies Command Center is pretty darn awesome. And, as expected, the wish list for Version 2.0 is already growing to make it even more powerful and effective.

If you would like a guided tour of the Command Center, email me at neil@strategies.com. I’d love to personally show you my BIG No-Compromise project.

The Strategies Command Center is only available to active coaching clients.

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When your Financials speak

ListeningIf you were your company’s financial reports, would you feel ignored and disrespected? Or even worse, would you feel irrelevant? This may sound weird, but your financial reports have “feelings” too. They can feel strong, healthy and full of vitality. Likewise, they can feel sick, anemic, and in extreme cases, near death. And just as when your child is not feeling well, all you have to do is pay attention, understand the signs, and “listen” to what your financials are telling you about their past, current and probable future condition.

Entrepreneurs tend to view themselves as visionaries with the passion and drive to chase their dreams and build a company. It doesn’t matter if that company is a one-person enterprise or a multi-location behemoth with hundreds (or even thousands) of employees … all financials speak the same language and share the same vital signs.

Consumed with the passion and drive to grow a company, too many entrepreneurs simply ignore or avoid their financials. Some say they’re just too busy and that there is no time. Some claim “numbers phobia” as if reading financial reports is some form of mental torture. Many simply never had the proper training to understand the very simple language that financials speak. The fact is, when it comes to your company’s financial reports, sooner or later what you don’t know or understand IS going to hurt you.

Over the years, I’ve met many extremely bright and talented entrepreneurs that live in a perpetual cash crisis simply because they refuse to listen to and understand their financial reports. Forcing a business to live on the brink of insolvency and financial disaster is the most stressful, debilitating and depressing way to run a company. The good news is that such an existence is completely avoidable. All it takes is some financial literacy training and discipline.

Here are some No-Compromise insights on financial reports and how to truly listen and understand what they’re saying:

  • It’s about stuff: All financials speak in terms of assets, liabilities, equity, income, expenses, profit and the increase or decrease in cash. Your company owns stuff, owes money on stuff, has equity in stuff, sells stuff (products and/or services), and spends money on stuff – all with the intent of making profit on that stuff. The objective is to accumulate stuff (assets in the form of cash, inventory, equipment, etc.), manage your liabilities (payables, credit card debt, loans, etc.), and create equity (when assets are greater than your liabilities). The profit part is easy – spend less than the income your company generates. Okay, you’re probably thinking, “Neil, you just told me the obvious.” My response is, “If it’s so obvious, show me your double-digit profit and impressive cash reserves.” Knowing financial discipline and living it are two entirely different things.
  • Financials tell the truth: You’re either making profit or you’re not. You’re either creating equity or you’re not. Your payroll is either manageable or it’s not. Your cost of goods sold is either within benchmark or it’s not. Either you can pay yourself or you can’t. All it takes for your company to be profitable and financially healthy is understanding and controlling a couple of critical numbers. If you don’t know what your critical numbers are, you’re driving your company financially blind. It doesn’t matter how big and impressive your company appears to others if just behind the curtain is a financial train wreck burdened with debt. Listen to and understand the truth your company’s financials are trying to tell you.
  • Perpetual numeric readout: Your financials are a perpetual numeric readout of your company from its birth to present day. That means you have a wealth of historic financial data that allows you to identify problems and potential problems with extreme accuracy. With today’s technology and applications like QuickBooks, there is no reason or excuse not to have accurate and timely financial reports in the form of a current Balance Sheet (Assets = Liabilities + Equity) and Profit & Loss Statement (Income – Expenses = Net Profit). At Strategies, we run a full set of financial reports every Thursday … and we’ve been doing this for 21+ years. It only takes a few minutes of each week to identify which numbers are heading in the right direction and which numbers are not. If you’re waiting weeks to receive the previous month’s financial reports, you’re waiting too long.
  • Cash is more than king: Managing cash and building cash reserves isn’t luck … it’s 100% discipline. Every day, every month, your company experiences an increase or decrease in available cash. In addition to your operating checking account, the simplest set up is to have a savings or cash-reserve account. Set aside a certain percentage of weekly or monthly revenues and squirrel it away in the reserve account. Start with 5% of income and see how you do. In more profitable months, keep feeding your reserve account by transferring cash that exceeds your operating expenses. This is especially necessary if seasonal gift card sales are a factor in your business. Spending incoming gift card cash today can set you up for a cash crisis when the redemptions come in and the cash is already gone. The cash management game is all about discipline.
  • The insanity of checking checkbook balances: The fact is that money in your checking account is rarely “available cash” because of checks written that haven’t yet cleared. If you are constantly online checking how much cash is in your checking account in order to decide which bills to pay…your company is already deep in financial crisis. Checking account balances are for reconciling your checkbook – not for financial decision-making. If this describes anything close to how your company operates, you need immediate help in the form of financial coaching.
  • The infamous “Cash-Flow Plan”: At Strategies, we’ve been teaching and coaching owners on how to create and live a cash-flow plan. Unlike your financials that are historical reports, your cash-flow plan is a forward-looking monthly projection of revenues and expenses. We fondly call it your “Boss.” Some owners call it “Flow” … as in, “I need to ask Flow if I can afford it.” And after 21+ years of teaching and coaching cash-flow plans, it is still the one discipline with which too many owners wrestle. Those that embrace the cash-flow plan turn losses into profit and cash into cash reserves.

When your financials speak … listen. No Compromise!

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If there were nothing but green lights

green_lights-#1There are specific milestones in our lives when vision, determination, ambition, self-confidence and opportunity collide in ways that explode all the fears and obstacles that seemingly lay before you. These are the transformative moments when you step willingly into the unknown and take responsibility for your own success. It’s like driving to a destination with nothing but green lights before you. You become so positively charged that you overcome and break through the negative resistance that accompanies all bold journeys. And when you encounter the inevitable setbacks, you simply push harder until you’re back on your intended course.

The truth about these milestones is that you have total control over when and how often they occur in your life. Your current reality … better known as your life … is what keeps milestone moments at bay. You don’t have the time or money. You give the risks more energy than they deserve. The goal you want to chase will meet resistance from those you lead so you discount its value. The confidence busting “what if it doesn’t work?” question eventually starts changing all of your green lights red.

I’m not suggesting that you charge off to conquer every potential opportunity set before you. There are many opportunities I’m thankful I didn’t chase … and some bad ones that I wish I never did. But there are certain opportunities you know are right and yet you allow them to fizzle for all the wrong reasons. Usually it’s due to fear of failure, overwhelming self-doubt and natural resistance to change.

Here are some No-Compromise strategies to create more growth milestones for yourself and those you lead:

  • Create your own “perfect storm”: You don’t have to wait for a crystalized vision, or for determination, ambition, self-confidence and opportunity to collide. Some people wait a lifetime for that perfect storm to happen – if it ever does. If you want a better tomorrow and greater success, make your own perfect storm. Begin by focusing on the outcome or opportunity … not the endless list of excuses of why you can’t and why it won’t work. Excuses are red lights that stop progress entirely, killing necessary changes and opportunity initiatives.
  • Let it bake a little: New opportunities and ideas need time to bake in order to see and understand them clearly. Simply put, trying to communicate a half-baked idea is a sure-fire way to have it picked apart and shot down. New ideas and opportunities all begin with a desired outcome. That’s the easy part. The “let it bake” part means crafting the strategy for your goal in order to articulate it to others so they understand and buy into your thinking. Achieving buy in gives your opportunity traction.
  • “Green light” thinking: What would you change in your company right now if you could count on no resistance or push back from your team? What would you do if the naysayers were forever banished from your world? The short answer is that you would become a fearless leader with a level of momentum that nothing could slow down. The fact remains that resistance and push back are a part of every change initiative. And like duck hunters, the naysayers are just waiting to shoot your idea down. Green light thinking is about not getting stuck or shot down when you encounter resistance and negative “that won’t work” feedback. Yes, you must listen to and process the caution tape … but you will never achieve a transformational career, business or life milestone if your commitment to achieving your goals is not rock solid.
  • There are no do-overs in life: We all get one shot at creating our own growth and opportunity milestones. I’d rather rack up a collection of milestones that I can look back on and be proud of than end up a grumpy old man mumbling, “Should-a, could-a, would-a”. Make your own green lights to clear the way toward achieving your full potential. Make your own green lights to instill the confidence and determination to do whatever it takes to be the leader you are capable of being. Make your own green lights, and you will inspire others to believe in your vision and go the distance with you.

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Leaders are always a work in progress

work_in_progressOver twenty-one years ago, I founded Strategies to coach and train business owners in the disciplines of leadership, performance and growth. I am proud beyond words of my company. In 2008, I wrote a book called No-Compromise Leadership. It won the 2010 IPPY Award for business and leadership. I am also proud beyond words of that book. Guess what? After 40+ years of doing classes, keynotes, countless articles, three books, and coaching leaders … not to mention writing 354 Monday Morning Wake-Ups … I am proud to say that as a leader, I am still a work in progress. I still have much to learn and many disciplines to master.

One of the most challenging aspects of coaching leaders is getting them to lower their “shields” and objectively assess their leadership abilities. Most often, a leadership coach is hired to “fix” problems, which typically means that the leader wants us to fix people (the culture), financial challenges and performance issues. But all business challenges occur on the leader’s watch. The leader is always the common denominator – the one constant in every situation. That’s what I try to explain to a potential client when he or she says, “I’ve hired coaches before and nothing ever changes.” My response is always, “You are correct. Nothing will change until you, the leader, change first.”

It’s revitalizing to be a work in progress because it opens up a world of opportunities that cannot exist when a leader’s shields are up and closed. Every leader has a unique collection of beliefs and behaviors. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for upgrading who you are as a leader to No-Compromise status. Some leaders are open to new ideas, systems and concepts. There are leaders who recognize that their skills and abilities need improvement, and these leaders seek out the best education, mentors or coaches to help achieve that end. In contrast, there are leaders who are extremely closed off to new ideas and reject any attempts to change their thinking. Their minds are locked and inaccessible … and they prefer to keep it that way.

For leaders, few challenges eclipse the need to objectively examine one’s basic beliefs about leading people. Leaders must do this in order to harness and organize collective efforts and achieve the right outcomes. Beliefs act like an internal guidance system. It doesn’t matter if you’re headed in the right or wrong direction; your beliefs are what keep you on course. For a leader to change his or her beliefs requires an extremely high level of openness and contemplation. But, I caution you – no matter how open you perceive yourself to be, your beliefs will continue to filter and reject conflicting input and data unless you truly allow your mental shields to come down.

To become a No-Compromise Leader (and stay a work in progress), you must unlearn many of your past practices.

  • You must find innovative ways of challenging your beliefs, so you can be open to new ideas and opportunities.
  • You must create your own compelling value proposition for change. Begin by answering two simple questions.
    1. If you continue your current leadership thinking and behavior, will you ever achieve the results you seek?
    2. If you change and adopt new leadership thinking and behavior, what would the possibilities look like?
  • You must avoid resisting new ideas, concepts and points of view that differ from those that supported your past successes. What got you here could be obsolete tomorrow.
  • You must adopt a mindset that helps foster more fulfilling relationships in your organization. Lead to serve. Lead to win.
  • You must believe that it’s not only possible to find a more enlightened path as a No-Compromise Leader – it’s your responsibility to your company, your employees, your customers and yourself.

Knowledge can be defined as information organized in a framework that renders that information useful. Simply put, it might be that your context for viewing information about leadership is significantly reducing, or even preventing, its effective use. Very often, your mindset stands as an invisible shield to innovation and learning. Your mindset can make you informed, but not knowledgeable. To become more knowledgeable, you will have to accelerate a process of self-examination and resist the temptation to seek simple answers. To accomplish that, the No-Compromise Leader must keep his or her ego in check. Otherwise, any attempt at self-examination will be pointless.

CONCLUSION: “Open” leaders are receptive to the perspectives and points of view of those they lead. Not everything you hear may fit in with what you want for your company, but there are always new insights to be gained by listening. “Closed” leaders are just that – closed to the opinions, perspectives and points of view of those they lead. Closed leaders are more “command and control” … and therefore are inflexible and resistant to change.

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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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