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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The No-Compromise approach to building and protecting your BRAND

brand-1Every company has a vision of what it will become. That vision defines how big a company will grow, the markets it will serve, its commitment to excellence, its core values, its growth opportunities, its potential financial rewards and all those other lofty and worthy things that represent a well-crafted vision. Company visions are supposed to be enticing and empowering because they define the quest. But within those visions resides one of the most essential components to achieving any goal – your “brand.”

Envision a large funnel with an incredibly tiny opening at the bottom. You pour all those precious elements of your vision into the top of the funnel and stir it up a bit. What emerges from that tiny opening is a little encapsulated entity that represents the uniqueness, qualities, abilities, reputation and purpose of your company. It is simply called your brand. If you mix in all the right vision elements, your brand will be extremely valuable and precious. But what many leaders fail to realize is that their company brand is also extremely delicate and susceptible to damage from just about everything. Just as leaders are responsible for protecting a company’s culture, so too are they responsible for protecting the company’s brand.

Here are my No-Compromise strategies to building and protecting your brand:

  • It’s about protecting the promise: The essence of a brand is its consistency and dependability in delivering on its promise to the customer. If you promise quality, deliver it. If you promise being on time, be on time. If you promise a unique experience, provide it. The best brands are brands consumers and buyers can trust. It’s that “meeting and exceeding expectations” thing in real time. What’s your promise to the customer? Where and how often is that promise compromised?
  • Take the test: Stop reading and, out loud, describe your company’s brand. Did you get cool chills from its awesomeness? If not, you’ve got a lot of work to do. Again, I’m not talking about a vision statement here. I’m talking about your brand – the product, service, and experience you consistently and relentlessly deliver … and your company’s reputation. When you start to get those cool chills from the “describe your brand out loud” test, challenge the members of your leadership team to take the test as well. Then try it out on the people that are closest to your customers – your employees. If there isn’t at least some semblance of consistency in their responses, you’ve got work to do on defining your brand.
  • It’s unique and proprietary: If your brand description sounds a lot like your competition’s, you’ve got a brand identity problem. The best brands “own” a segment of the market. Why? Because if a consumer wants it, there’s only one place to get it – your company. Everything else is a knockoff and a compromise. The more unique and proprietary your brand, the less price matters. That’s why Apple can sell iPhones, iPads and Mac computers at premium prices that flat out kill the competition. That’s why my wife and I just bought a Tempur-Pedic mattress. We wanted the real deal and we were willing to pay for it. The more you “own” the process, technology, product and experience, the more unique, influential and valuable your brand becomes … and the more your competition is forced to compete on price.
  • Excellence is more than a choice: Target and Walmart may be value-based brands, but they do offer their version of “value-excellence.” Comparatively, Nordstrom is at the premium price level and offers its own version of “premium-excellence.” The key is that whatever your version of excellence is, it must be embedded in your brand and its identity. The more premium your price point, the higher the concentration of excellence in your brand should be. Tesla is the maker of “premium electric vehicles.” Everything about the Tesla brand speaks “excellence” to support their premium brand. Just visit one of their Tesla stores and you’ll experience branding at its very best. And by the way, Tesla not only builds truly amazing electric cars – they own the technology.
  • The bond of culture and brand: Logos, products and marketing support a brand, but it is the people that bring a brand to life. And the moment the human factor enters the brand conversation, so does the collective thinking and behavior of the company – better known as the company’s culture. To drive this point home, I always suggest replacing the term “culture” with “attitude.” What is your company’s collective attitude? When a customer enters your business, calls on the phone, or interacts one-on-one in any way with your company, what attitude do they experience? Simply put, great brands can and will be compromised if the collective thinking and behavior of your company – its culture – is not in sync with your intended brand.
  • The no-compromise brand: Leaders are the keepers and protectors of a company’s culture and its brand. It’s tough and relentless work to keep culture and brand components dialed in to the realities of economic trends and competitive threats. But the biggest threat to a brand resides within the company itself and begins with its leadership. No-compromise leadership is about creating dynamic cultures capable of supporting dynamic brands. Like excellence, growth and profitability, the no-compromise brand is an outcome.

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A NO-COMPROMISE LESSON: When it is time to shake things up

shake#1The body language of the employees I was about to address oozed negativity and resistance. You could cut the tension in the meeting room with a knife. As the business owner prepared to introduce me, my mind was in rapid creativity mode, crafting my opening for this launch of a major change initiative that included a new compensation system.

It was show time. “Good morning,” I began. “As your consultant, I have examined every conceivable aspect of your company, and I’m happy to announce that absolutely nothing needs to change.”

As I stood silently, allowing my words to sink in, almost in unison the employees responded with, “You’ve got to be kidding. Everything here needs to change!” With the ice broken and everyone in agreement that significant changes were needed, I was able to proceed.

There are two lessons to learn from this story. First, the owner waited too long to implement the tough changes the business truly needed. This “fear of change” caused deterioration in the business culture, which trashed morale and productivity. Second, employees are more ready and open for change than most leaders think. It doesn’t mean that all change will be welcomed with open arms. It means that, in general, employees know when change needs to happen.

I love change and the sense of urgency it ignites in a company. Change not only stirs the pot, it often gets people focused on a specific project, behavior, objective or goal. When necessary, change can snap a business out of its complacent stupor.
The question is: What do you need to change in your company? I’m not talking about little tweaks; I’m talking about that vision-driven, courageous, fearless, heart-pounding kind of change that transforms a company and offers unlimited possibilities.
I’ll bet you already know the answer. So what’s standing in your way?

Let’s get the fear-of-change thing out of the way. Get over it! Leading a company is not about you – it’s about ensuring the health, profitability and growth of the business. You are responsible and accountable for doing what needs to be done. When you allow your fears and leadership blockages to get in the way, you are compromising the company and its employees, suppliers, investors and customers. It’s the leader’s job to make tough decisions – even if they’re unpopular – if those decisions are right for the company as a whole. Get over it, or get out of the way.

It’s easy to get caught up in the daily mayhem of business and not be aware that your vision is getting stale. Companies with strong, inspiring and vibrant visions have a distinct bounce in their step. It’s as if the entire company is focused on and moving toward one laser dot on the horizon.

If your vision has become rusty, it’s time to get out the polish and work on it until it shines brightly enough to guide everyone in the company. Shake things up. Get your company moving until its heart is pumping at an invigorating rate.

At different points, change is the perfect prescription for every business. Change is simply part of the evolutionary process of creating an enduring company.

Change means identifying obstacles and opportunities on multiple levels that impact the behaviors and culture of a business. Change can be described on a scale that ranges from critically urgent (survival change) all the way to steady, incremental growth change. No matter where your company is on the scale, change is a non-negotiable part of business. Failure to change is an invitation to failure itself.

Here are some no-compromise strategies when it’s time to shake things up and initiate positive change:

  • Put everything on the table: Too many leaders fall into the trap of keeping individuals, groups, systems or elements of the business off limits to change. Be prepared to go all the way, or don’t change at all. Anything less is a compromise of the change process.
  • Stay true to your values: Don’t allow the need for results to compromise your values; those values must guide all change initiatives.
  • Go deep: If you’re going to begin a change initiative, don’t dance around the issues. Go deep enough to create positive change where it counts – in your business culture.
  • Think big, think long-term: There are times and conditions which call for big-thinking change that will prepare your company for the future. Evaluating what needs to change means out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Change takes collaboration: You can’t change a business all by yourself. The energy of change comes from collaborative innovation and the recruitment of change-friendly disciples.
  • Change takes time: Most change initiatives fail because of unrealistic expectations and timelines. Remember, basic system changes can take up to 18 months to stick, and major culture shifts can take years. Be tenacious and courageous.
  • Re-think strategic planning: Based on your growth rate, today’s strategic plan can quickly become obsolete. Do strategic planning as often as necessary to keep on top of change (quarterly, if that’s what it takes) and to stay realistic with your goals.

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Controlling your own chaos

chaos2In many ways, the work of leadership is the work of controlling chaos. It’s a given that change is relentless, but to embrace change is to embrace chaos. Likewise, if you resist and avoid change, you feed chaos, because holding on to status quo is unsustainable, short-term thinking, as current strategies and systems will wither over time.

It’s also a given that problems will occur, equipment will break, seemingly good decisions will backfire, and employees will come and go. For this discussion, I’m simply going to define chaos as a state of varying degrees of disorder and confusion.

Chaos may be inevitable, but to a large degree, it is also controllable. Why? Because much of the chaos that surrounds and stresses leaders is self-inflected. Avoid a problem too long and it spins off waves of chaos. Over-commit yourself and chaos ensues. Hit the launch button on a new initiative or project before it’s ready and there will be chaos. Give incomplete instructions and poorly defined expectations and rest assured, there will be chaos. Keep a toxic employee on payroll too long and there will be chaos. I’m sure you get what I’m saying here.

The problem with chaos is that leaders eventually build up a level of tolerance for it. They have to be able to cope with chaos in order to navigate through the daily stress of leading a company. It’s much like understanding and managing your heart rate zones in running and cycling. Zone 1 is easy for “recovery.” Zone 2 is an endurance pace for long distances. Zone 3 is a high level of aerobic activity. Zone 4 is pushing yourself to that point you can sustain without going anaerobic. Zone 5 is maximum anaerobic effort that is impossible to hold for very long. As a leader, you should be able to manage chaos in zones 1 – 3. Zone 4 chaos is a period of high stress that you can manage through – but not a level you want to stay in for an extended period. Zone 5 is where chaos becomes crisis. Living and leading in zone 5 is unsustainable and outright unhealthy.

Here are some no-compromise strategies to control your own chaos:

  • Chaos is an outcome: Chaos is the result of something that didn’t go right. All outcomes have drivers. As leader, it’s your job to find, isolate and eliminate the driver. The challenge with chaos drivers is that they are often rooted in the leader’s or the company’s collective thinking and behavior. The chaos driver may be a flaw in communication and/or information flow, a system that was broken or not followed, lack of training, double standards, leader wasn’t paying attention … the list goes on. As always, the forensic search for the chaos driver begins with the face in the mirror.
  • Rethink your chaos zones: If you’re that multi-tasker who thinks you can handle anything and everything, you’re wrong. Maybe you’re the micro-manager that has your tentacles wrapped around every project and decision. Maybe you just made some bad decisions. If you’ve been functioning for extended periods in chaos zones 4 or 5, chances are you’ve been having thoughts of throwing in the towel and getting out. Too often, I see leaders and owners so deep in chaos and stress that they’re stuck and afraid. Getting out of the extreme chaos zones requires a plan and taking action. This is where the services of a business coach are invaluable. Remember, chaos is a state of great disorder and confusion, which means you need expert guidance and coaching to show you the way out – and keep you out. And the only way coaching works is if you do the work and follow the plan. Too often, I see leaders begin with good intentions only to slip back into chaos-producing thinking and behavior.
  • Overwhelmed sucks: The byproduct of chaos is being overwhelmed. With fires burning all around you, you should feel overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed makes decision-making difficult and feeds the “what-ifing” things to death. If you equate being overwhelmed to starting a complex jigsaw puzzle, you begin by organizing the pieces into like colors and straight edges. You find a few pieces that fit and build on it. Before you know it, the puzzle is taking shape and the solution is within sight. There’s no magic pill to instantly cure being overwhelmed. Understanding the drivers, having a plan, and making strategic and steady progress will build confidence and momentum. You must attack and chip away at chaos until it’s gone – or contained in a chaos zone you can deal with.
  • Fix the big stuff: One of the essential tenets of No-Compromise Leadership is, “If it needs to be done – get it done.” If there is a toxic employee on your payroll, why are you still signing his or her paychecks? I just never understand reasons like, “I don’t want my unemployment rates to go up,” or, “We can’t afford to lose the revenue he/she brings in.” Is the minor increase in your unemployment anywhere close to the damage that the employee is doing to your culture and your stress level? If it were the loss of revenue you fear, what would you do if the employee quit effective immediately? You’d have to deal with and work through it. I’m not suggesting the carefree firing of problem employees. I am suggesting that when the chaos level passes into zone 4, it’s time to deal effectively with the problem. This goes for leadership, financial, operational and customer service problems as well.

It’s easy to say, “manage what’s on your plate” and “fix the big stuff.” But controlling and keeping chaos at bay will always be about your approach to leadership and taking action.

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Teamwork: Hard to get, easy to lose

teamwork3Business leaders toss the word “teamwork” around like some boundless, renewable resource. Well, it’s not. In fact, teamwork is a precious commodity revered by those who have achieved it and envied by those who want it. You can refer to employees as team members, use scoreboards and do huddles every day, but these exercises are no guarantee that teamwork will follow.

FACT: Teamwork is an outcome. It is the culmination of a multitude of complex forces, systems and accountabilities that merge into one truly dynamic state of being called teamwork. In this teamwork state of being, the collective energy of individuals harmoniously synchronizes to achieve the extraordinary. 
It’s much like achieving a true meditative state. One must learn to quiet the mind until a “oneness” with the world is achieved. This meditative state is difficult enough for individuals to master. Consider the added complexity of groups of individuals – all possessing unique personalities, ambitions and job functions – coming together to achieve that state of being we call teamwork.

Without question, teamwork is more work than most leaders and employees realize. By repositioning teamwork as a state of being, leaders gain a new appreciation for this often overused term. Suddenly, all claims of teamwork are put into question.
The test is simple. Is there a unified, shared vision in your company? If so, is it evident in the actions and performance of all employees in all departments? Is everyone pulling the company in the same direction?

Yes, even the best sports teams drop the ball and bungle plays every now and then. But those who possess that true teamwork state of being have the highest degree of execution. In business, the scorecards show high customer retention, fierce employee loyalty with low turnover, and financial performance that leaders are proud of.

Every successful company has a few fantastic stories of how everyone pulled together to overcome and achieve the impossible. In the heat of those quests, there existed a teamwork state of being. Such is the power of working together.

Given that teamwork is a state of being, it’s easier to comprehend its fragility. In business, change is relentless. And change is the ever-present nemesis of teamwork. In order for change to occur, new systems and behaviors need to be learned. It’s like a sports team learning new, more challenging plays. Change exerts pressure on teamwork. It disrupts its state of being.

Unforeseen changes, such as the loss of a key leader, team member or major customer, or a cash crisis forcing challenging cutbacks, can snap a business out of its teamwork state of being. A by-product of change, planned or not, is the toxic drama that can follow in its wake. Drama is a teamwork killer. Leaders who don’t have their finger on the pulse of the business can quickly find teamwork deteriorating into chaos.
 All teams have leaders, but few leaders do the work necessary to elevate individuals into a cohesive teamwork state. Inspiring, demanding, tenacious, compassionate, tough decision-making and pure “no compromise” describes leaders who create high-achievement teamwork environments.

Teamwork fizzle can happen in an instant. Follow these tried-and-true No-Compromise strategies to maintain team focus, energy and momentum:

  • Fuel it: Teamwork is fueled by vision, mission and objectives: Don’t expect teamwork if the challenge is vague or undefined. A neat idea may get teamwork out of the gate, but it won’t keep it going. Be specific.
  • Relentlessly communicate it: Communicate your vision, mission and objectives. Too many leaders stop communicating and wonder why teamwork deteriorates. Lack of communication can signal that the mission is over.
  • Track it: It’s hard to play to win when no one is keeping score. Scoreboards show progress and opportunities for improvement. When the answer to “How are we doing?” is “Not good enough,” you’re inviting fizzle.
  • Celebrate it: Celebrate progress and wins along the way. Doing so fuels teamwork energy and maintains momentum. Achieving incremental milestones is like climbing a ladder; each step brings you closer to the top.
  • Coach it: Coach teams and individuals. They will encounter those inevitable obstacles. This may require additional resources or mini-teams to brainstorm solutions. The key is getting back up to speed before fizzle sets in.
  • Just do it: Make tough decisions and move on. If you have to pull a weed or two from your team, do it. If coaching efforts fail, you must act to protect the integrity of the team. Laboring too long over a tough decision creates funk and slows everything down.
  • Reward it: Teams love rewards. There’s nothing like that surprise lunch or bonus celebration to power up teamwork. Sometimes simpler is better. Learn what motivates your team.
  • Enjoy it: Make it fun. Teamwork, games, winning and celebrating should have fun built in. Sure, there will be tough moments, but fun should be waiting when breakthroughs occur. Fun is contagious. Fun is empowering. Have fun.

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How to control your time bandits

time_banditYou worked hard all day on a bunch of stuff. There were emails, phone calls, tasks, interruptions – and some fires that would have burned out of control had you not stepped up to play fireman. You’ve had a busy day, but what meaningful work did you truly accomplish? How much progress did you make on those gotta-do projects scattered all over your plate? Fact: being “busy” does not translate into being productive and making forward progress. Being busy can mean you’re procrastinating on work you should be doing. Being busy can mean that you’re doing work that others can and should be doing. Lastly, being busy can mean that you’ve set yourself up to be an easy target for time bandits.

There are all sorts of time bandits just waiting to rob you of your precious time. And they don’t even need to pick a lock to rob tiny morsels or big chunks of your time. Leaders make it easy by leaving their time fully exposed and unprotected. The only way to protect your time is to manage and defend it. But managing your time is like going on a diet or strict workout program. It requires a system and the discipline to be steadfastly accountable to it. Only then will the time bandits be held at bay.

If you’re tired of being robbed by time bandits, lock on to the following No-Compromise Leadership time management disciplines:

  • It’s you against the time bandits: Managing and defending your time is a deeply personal commitment to get your work done while fulfilling your responsibilities as a leader to those you lead. Controlling your time and how you use it is a solo act that is 100% dependent on your thinking and behavior. You can hire someone that is highly organized to help you manage your time … but you’ll drive that organized person crazy if you continue to free-float through time by doing what you want, when you want. Time bandits will rob you blind while you bounce around your busy day accomplishing little to nothing.
  • Build a “Time-Flow Plan”: At Strategies, we are relentless when it comes to coaching owners and leaders on how to build and live a cash-flow plan. There’s little difference between planning expense allocations and planning how to allocate your time. You begin by determining how much time you have to allocate in a month, week and day. Begin with the gotta-do’s like meetings and high-value events that you must attend. Next, schedule time, even if it’s an hour or two every other day, to work on high-value projects. Essentially, you are booking time for yourself to work on new systems, innovations and growth projects. Just make sure the time you’re booking for yourself is the time of day that’s most productive for you. I like early morning for writing and projects. Live your time-flow plan. No compromise.
  • Deadlines and milestones: If a project or initiative lacks a deadline, it rarely crosses the finish line. If it does, it’s often over budget and a little too late for the party. Deadlines create urgency. Milestones are mini-deadlines that break up a project into manageable pieces. If you’re not using a project management system to structure and drive your projects through to completion, you’re leaving the door wide open for the time bandits. There are many powerful, affordable and easy to use web-based systems available – but they only work if you and your team are disciplined to stick with it. (Hint: Strategies is building a web-based system for you.)
  • Filter interruptions: Interruptions are part of leadership simply because you are a decision maker. People want and need you for advice, guidance and solutions. But in that flow of interruptions coming at you, some are essential and urgent. Likewise, there are interruptions that are non-essential and nothing more than cleverly disguised time bandits. Filtering interruptions can be as simple as asking how urgent the issue is. If it’s urgent, deal with it. If it’s not urgent and non-essential, you can either schedule a date and time to address it, or direct the person to someone that can. The rule in filtering interruptions is to be respectful without compromising your time commitments. And yes, there will be times when an issue or crisis can, and should, blow up your schedule.
  • Protect your plate by keeping other people’s stuff on theirs: Leaders are problem solvers. But a leader’s true role is to develop those they lead to achieve their full potential. If your open-door policy has a bright flashing “Problem Solver” sign over it, you are giving an open invitation to any and all time bandits to enter. Simply put, if you’re the self-proclaimed problem solver, you are enabling others to easily move problems from their plate to yours – problems that in most cases, can and should be solved on their own. The moment you say, “OK, I’ll take care of it,” the transfer to your already overflowing plate is complete. The best response is, “I understand, so what do you think your best options are?” Coach, guide and encourage the employee to find the solution on their own. That’s how you develop talent and innovative thinking … and keep other people’s stuff on their plates and off yours.
  • Never be your own time bandit: I keep using the terms discipline and commitment because that’s what it takes to control, manage and defend your time from the time bandits. But the worst time bandit of all can be you. As leader, it’s easy to fall into that entitlement thinking that you can do what you want. Quite the contrary, your boss is the company. Your job is to drive The Four Business Outcomes: productivity, profitability, staff retention and customer loyalty. Your job is to keep the company’s vision shining bright and it’s culture pure. Your job is to take the company and it’s people to a better place. There is little time left on your schedule for wasting time and goofing off. No compromise.

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Why the best business fix is rarely the first choice

potholeThe road to success is rarely a freshly paved superhighway. It’s more like an off-road trail that contrasts the easy stretches with obstacles, steep cliffs and, of course – lions and tigers and bears. Surviving the obstacles and hazards demands a good plan and the ability to adapt quickly should the plan go awry. And depending on the severity of the danger, sometimes the best plan is the toughest to execute. In do or die situations, you have to go with the best plan – no matter how tough it appears.

When things go wrong in business, decisions need to be made. Maybe it’s a crisis that’s been thrown at you, or a problem that has manifested over time into something big and ugly like excessive debt or payroll costs. The good news is that there is a fix for just about every business problem no matter how big and ugly it is. The bad news is that leaders often avoid the best and most thorough fix and run with the second best fix because it’s easier, faster, less controversial, will upset fewer people and will require less sacrifice. Translation: The second best fix is a quick fix that lacks the depth and potency to thoroughly rid the company of its big ugly problem. As a result, the problem resurfaces time and time again, as big and as ugly as ever.

Here are the four no-compromise leadership strategies to help you pick the best fix first:

  1. Shields-down objectivity: A business owner was talking to me about his company’s struggle with profitability and cash flow. It didn’t take long to discover that the elephant in the living room was his 60% payroll due to paying 50%+ commission rates. When I explained the need to install a new compensation system, like our Team-Based Pay, that will allow him to gradually get his payroll percentage under control, he said, “I don’t want to do that.” I said, “Ok, then you’re looking at adding service and/or product charges – or outright cutting commissions.” The problem with both fixes is that cutting commission will likely blow up the business and service/product charges don’t go deep enough to lower the payroll percentage to a manageable level. Big ugly problems require that all solutions be on the table. Usually the fix you want to do the least is the one you need to do the most. Put your resistance shields down and explore all options.
  2. Change is good: Big ugly problems in business are an indicator of broken and/or tired systems, complacency and disengaged leadership. Picking an easier, less potent fix for a problem to avoid rocking the boat is indicative of what’s ailing your company. Going for the fix that’s going to require planning, execution, training, coaching, engagement and accountability is just what your company needs. A controlled and thorough rocking of your boat is a good thing.
  3. Embrace action … not fear: Ignoring or hoping a big ugly problem will go away by itself is shortsighted and ultimately leads to further deterioration. Problems only get worse when left alone. Fear of the unknown is natural, but it’s not an excuse to avoid action. Fearing the best solution because it’s different or foreign to you severely limits your options. Don’t fear the solution – fear the big ugly problem that’s staring you in the face.
  4. Go “No Compromise”: No-Compromise Leadership means, “If it needs to get done…get it done.” It also means breaking through your leadership blockages that may include fear of confrontation, fear of numbers, or fear that some employees won’t like the change and leave. When problems get big and ugly, you need to get big and bold. You need to go with the best fix for your company, not the fix that will ruffle the fewest feathers.

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Why some succeed and others do not

loserI’ve been coaching business owners and leaders for 40 years. I’ve written four books, one of which is an award-winner, on No-Compromise Leadership and business growth. It is a joy and deeply fulfilling to see leaders transform their companies from “OK” to being productive, efficient, and profitable – and vision/purpose driven. It’s even more rewarding to see leaders tenaciously and courageously leading their companies out of the fiery pits of cultural and financial hell to the daylight of teamwork, profits and cash reserves.

But yet… there are those that just can’t seem to find success – even when provided with a map and directions.

You can’t do the work I do without understanding patterns of thinking and behavior. As I wrote at length in No-Compromise Leadership, a leader’s thinking and behavior is much like the operating system of a computer. The operating system sets the functionality and capability of the computer to exercise tasks. As human beings, we each have our own “operating system” that defines our learning and behavior styles as well as processing patterns (how we think). And just as your computer’s operating system requires periodic updates, so does yours.

Here are my TEN no-compromise “gotta do’s” for why some succeed and others don’t:

  1. Gotta have a purpose: Success is measured in many ways, not just by numbers. Success is about fighting for something that you believe in. Call it a vision, a goal or cause… it’s the purpose of what you’re seeking to achieve that pulls you toward success. Having a purpose is what pushes you to dig deep and find strength where you thought none existed. “I’m laying bricks” is about getting a paycheck. “I’m laying these bricks to build a cathedral” is about having a purpose. What’s your purpose?
  2. Gotta master the skills: Success in business takes more than great ideas and technical expertise – it demands achieving a level of mastery in guiding and controlling the Four Business Outcomes: Productivity, Profitability, Staff Retention and Customer Loyalty. It’s like being an orchestra leader where knowledge of music composition, instruments, leadership, consistency and, most importantly, emotion, must blend together seamlessly. Yes, you can surround yourself with masters of the various skills, but without personal mastery, neither the music nor the success will sound or look very good. What skills do you need to master?
  3. Gotta show up and do the work: Success stories in business and life are about people that showed up and did the work. They show up early and stay late. They don’t watch the clock waiting for work to be over. They not only take responsibility, they seek it out. Their nature is to become indispensible to the company. They can be counted on and trusted to be there. Those that wait around for success to be handed to them will be waiting a lifetime if they don’t upgrade their thinking and behavior – and they will always remain dispensable. Are you truly showing up to do the work? If not, get out of the way.
  4. Gotta do the tough stuff: Success in business and life comes from doing the tough stuff. By tough stuff, I’m referring to things like making deep cuts to pull your company out of a financial crisis, or having to fire someone you were close to because of poor performance or behavior. Difficult decisions and conversations are part of the voyage to success. Good judgment and integrity must prevail, but the tough stuff will always need to be done. What tough stuff is waiting on your plate?
  5. Gotta get uncomfortable: You can’t get physically fit without working out and feeling the burn. Likewise, you can’t achieve success kicking back and hanging out in the comfort zone. Success is about pushing the envelope and strategically rocking your boat. Simply put, getting to that elusive next level is going to require you and your team to break a sweat. What tasks and initiatives are you implementing to get uncomfortable?
  6. Gotta get back up: This one is easy; When you fall down… or get knocked down… you gotta get back up. Failures and losses are part of every great success story. Yes, serious blows can knock you down hard and take time to recover from, but recovery is not an option – it’s what successful people and companies do. Life lessons are often the hardest blows, but they’re the ones you truly learn from. What’s your “get back up” story?
  7. Gotta have a coach: Even though you’re surrounded by people, leadership can be lonely. There are always questions, strategies or second opinions on which you need objective guidance and insight. The best leaders have a coach to tell them not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. More importantly, a coach keeps you on task and accountable in ways that employees cannot. Do you have a business coach?
  8. Gotta believe in yourself: I do my fair share of doubting myself and the success I am capable of achieving. But in the end, I believe in myself. I’ve written an award-winning book that I wasn’t sure I could write. I’ve built a successful company that I wasn’t sure I could build. I’ve delivered speeches at conferences around the world that I wasn’t sure I could do. And I’ve completed many 100-mile plus bicycle rides that I wasn’t sure I could finish (and, at 64 years old, I’m doing another 150-mile ride again on June 28th and 29th). How much do you believe in yourself to go after what you really want?
  9. Gotta be true to yourself: Being true to yourself means never compromising your values, integrity and what you believe is right for you. It means walking away from opportunities and situations that don’t feel right. It also means respecting yourself and never allowing anyone to dictate what you can and cannot do – or to hold you hostage out of fear. When you stay true to yourself, you will always be on the path to success. How do you stay true to yourself?
  10. Gotta want it by a factor of TEN: As a leader, you must want success by a factor of TEN over those you lead. When you are that resolute, passionate and committed to achieving success, you create an undeniable sense of urgency and energy throughout your company. You become the leader that people want to follow, and your company becomes one that people want to fight for. Your vision becomes their vision. People quit leaders that aren’t going anywhere. Do you want success by a factor of TEN?

Consistency begins when Blown Plays stop

broken-play4In football, a “blown play” occurs when the original planned play fails to execute properly. The business equivalent of a “blown play” is when a system or procedure designed to create a specific outcome fails to come about the way it was planned. On the surface, blown plays are the result of inadequate training, preparation and communication. Go a little deeper and things like weak leadership, fragmented company culture and employee indifference add to the frequency and likelihood of blown plays.

The prime objective of leadership is consistency in execution. In my No-Compromise Leadership book, I give the following sequence:

No-Compromise Leadership = consistency in all Four Business Outcomes
(Productivity … Profitability … Staff Retention … Customer Loyalty)

Consistency = Predictability

Predictability = Accurate future mapping of the Four Business Outcomes

Accurate mapping of future outcomes = Sustainable growth

As the sequence above illustrates, the process from no-compromise leadership to sustainable growth is a continuous cycle. In order for sustainable growth to occur, no-compromise leadership must be the driving force in the process. It’s all about achieving consistency in execution by eliminating blown plays.

Here are some no-compromise strategies to banish blown plays from your company:

  • See without “average” filters: If you’ve been blowing a lot of big plays – you’d be out of business already. It’s the cumulative effect of repeatedly blowing small plays that keeps a company stuck in “average.” Take off the filters and really look at how your company is executing your current systems and procedures… especially in customer service. What you’re going to see is a whole lot of little blown plays that you’ve been tolerating for too long. Companies that consistently execute plays are the companies that you admire. They excel at the details and getting the little stuff right. Take off the “average” filters and you’ll overcome the obstacles to growth and consistency that need work.
  • Set and hold the “win bar” high: The reality of the “win bar” is that it’s pretty darn heavy. You need to be in shape to hold it at the highest levels where consistency and execution thrive and blown plays are rare occurrences. Yes, there will be times when things get tough, but lowering your win bar is a compromise. It’s also easy for complacency to get all over you… and therefore your team. Occasional rest stops are totally acceptable – but lowering your win bar is not. Why? Because lowering the win bar means you weren’t committed to going the distance in the first place. Teams stop believing in winning about a nanosecond after their leader stops believing. Blown plays define average. Consistency and execution define winning.
  • Mental telepathy blues: Employees cannot read your mind… so why do you continue to watch blown plays happen? I’m talking about that little voice in your head that keeps repeating things like, “What were they thinking?” and, “Can’t they just do their job?” The leading people part of leadership is about communication, engagement and coaching people to be the best at what they do. Being the best translates seamlessly into consistency. So the next time that little voice starts asking questions, recognize it as a signal for you to communicate, engage and coach people to achieve their full potential.
  • Train deeper: Training is preparation to play the game to win. A company’s defining commitment to consistently deliver excellence is a mirror image of its commitment to training and preparation. World-class companies are “world class” because they train deeper and harder than their competition. Too often, the rush to produce sales and revenue is done at the expense of training and preparation. Yes, blown plays are learning opportunities – but blown plays are not what “learning on the job” is about. Training is the essence of quality. Training deeper eliminates blown plays before they occur.
  • Accountability isn’t a stick: You’ll never create shared accountability and eliminate blown plays using a hit list of consequences. In business, accountability transcends the individual to include the team. Simply put, accountability is embedded in the thinking and behavior of a company and its culture. The beauty of teamwork is its shared accountability for consistency and execution. The only consequence in business is losing and knowing that you and the team could have played better… but didn’t.

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