I was walking the other morning with a small business owner, lamenting an email reply they had received in response to a job offer for an admin position. The reply contained several caveats to the offer. “I will work only between these hours. I would highly prefer to work in this location. Etc.” Of course the business owner was incredulous. “I can’t believe people these days! Imagine the gall of prospective employees these days!” However, the larger issue in my mind was that this small business owner hadn’t immediately replied with a “Thanks, but no thanks!” What were they thinking?
On reflection, I can empathize with this small business owner. They’d spent countless hours in the candidate search including some expense in advertising. Nothing through the interview process had sent up any red flags and the individual had been very personable with good experience. There was an immediate and ever-increasing need to fill the hole as work was going undone and the load, spread out over others including the business owner was putting a strain on the organization. The thought of renewing the whole process and starting again was daunting and could well hurt the business in the short term. There was quite the impetus to move beyond this annoyance and try to make things work out.
In some ways, I’ll bet we’ve all been in similar situations. It’s easy to deal with the problem employees. The incompetent or toxic are a slam dunk! They usually show their spots early so exorcising them isn’t a big deal from an emotional or cost standpoint. It’s the “tweeners” that are the issue. The employee that, every once in a blue moon, shows themselves to be somewhat useful, or even helpful. How do you pull the trigger on someone that shows some promise, sometimes? In retrospect and with years of siding with and trying to prop up questionable employees, I’ve come to my most important business lesson.
It’s about the people, stupid!
Good people are worth their weight in gold. They solve issues before they become problems. They are self-motivated. They make everyone’s job easy. The effect on customers, other employees and reputation has a multiplying effect! They provide value well beyond their compensation. The reverse is also true!
I know this is not new news to any of us. People make and break companies. Why is it then that we have to learn and re-learn this important lesson. Because I work by and large, with companies that have been built from the ground up, the issue is compounded. Those who sacrificed and bled for the company in the early years are often not well suited to help drive the company forward in later years. They’ve reached their Peter principle. Who wants to reward a loyal, dedicated employee with either a move sideways or out? Not many. Many businesses are sold at exactly this point in their lifetime to help avoid that very unpleasant task for the owner.
The Viet Cong employed an interesting strategy to weaken the American forces which ultimately saw the U.S pull out of Viet Nam. Rather than employing tactics to kill American soldiers, they focused on weapons designed to maim. If you kill someone, you remove one person from the war effort. Maim somebody and it takes many to respond to the injured. A weak employee in your company works exactly the same way. The effect of a weak employee is a tremendous drain on the organization’s emotional and professional resources.
Do this quick exercise.
Write down the names of those who report to you. Taking no more than 1 minute, assign either a “six” or a “nine” out of ten beside their name using whatever criteria you feel important. Be honest about your evaluation. Now deal with those you’ve assigned a six. Nobody can afford “sixes” in their organization. Reassign them or get rid of them. Simple as that. The effect will be transformative!
In the Star Trek prequel of 2009, we were introduced to James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock in their early days at the Star Fleet Academy. Far from demonstrating the fast friendship and companionship that they would develop in later years, the two start off on a decidedly frosty, adversarial foot. Kirk, then a recruit, is attempting to take his third shot at defeating a leadership simulation test known as the “Kobayashi Maru”. This apparently “unwinnable” test created in part by Spock, is defeated by Kirk who decides to play outside the box and reprogram the simulation to assure his success. Spock, always one to play by the rules, lodges a formal complaint to have Kirk removed from the academy for cheating. Kirk takes the opposite view. He argues that the only way he could have “won” the exercise was to go outside the rules. Two more different people one couldn’t imagine. And yet, time will reveal that their complementary leadership styles are exactly what’s needed to succeed.
One of the most common errors we see with any type of business leader…be they Entrepreneur or Executive is the propensity to hire in their own image. It’s not surprising. After all, what’s not to like? They’re hiring themselves. The candidate is immediately attractive because they speak the same language, see the problems the same way and quite possibly have shared leadership characteristics. Of course it’s not long before what attracted initially becomes unattractive and problematic. The two often end up fighting for the same space as leaders, creating animosity and distrust. The more effective route in the longer term is to hire a complement.
The first step is one of introspection and self-knowledge. You have to brutally honest with where you shine, and of course, where you don’t. The right hire is the person that will protect your back and fill in your leadership gaps. A trusted advisor or significant other can be a useful mirror.
The next step is to determine in broad terms, the type of individual (leadership characteristics and skills) that would form a complement to your own. The following provides several alternative roles that I’ve adapted from “Second in command. The misunderstood role of the COO” by Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles. As you read through each description, think about the individual that you believe would provide the strongest complement to your leadership style.
• The Executor.
Has their “head down” to the business, focused on the operational details necessary for today’s success (vs. the role of the CEO to be “heads up” and designing the future success of the organization). Is very strong in the execution of strategies developed by the leadership team. Willingly shoulders the responsibility for delivering the results on a day to day, quarter to quarter basis.
• The Change Agent.
Is specifically sought to bring new skills to the organization and to lead a strategic imperative like a turnaround, a major organizational change or a planned rapid expansion.
• The Mentor.
Someone who has broad business experience and has most likely played a key leadership role. Is comfortable with being brought on board to mentor a young or inexperienced CEO (often a founder or family member of a private firm). A rapidly growing entrepreneurial venture might seek an industry vet with seasoning, wisdom and a rich network.
• The Foil.
Individual brought in to specifically address a gap in leadership skills or persona. Bill Gates and two of his previous COO’s are examples. Jon Shirley provided a calm, self-effacing balance to Gate’s brilliant and often intimidating style.
• The Partner.
A co-leader. Just as there are doubles specialists in tennis, some executives are more effective when paired with “equals” with complementary skills.
• The Heir Apparent.
The position and individual is brought in to groom or test a CEO.
The variation in individuals and roles are as varied as the leadership competencies and styles of those with whom they will work.
I love to read stories about survival. Lost on the open sea. Surviving a prison camp. Post-holocaust Earth. The people in these stories are inspirational. Doggedly persistent. Full of Optimism. Resilient and resourceful. The big question that goes through my mind is how I would stack up. Would I be as resourceful or would I be a casualty? How long would or could I hold out against seemingly insurmountable odds? Hopefully, I’ll never have to find out. I’d like to think I would be among the few that survive but until you are faced with the situation, you never know. I do know however, that people with this quality are exactly who you’d like to have on your team or working alongside you. Do you have enough of these folks on your team?
I was doing some research on the psychological traits of the Entrepreneur for a new book the other day. Without going into great detail, there are a number of studies that focus on the “Big Five” traits associated more highly with Entrepreneurs than the general populace. Extroversion. Tolerance of Risk. Curiosity. Self-orientation and Persistence. While researching, a newsletter from Mike Fox of Brightlights Inc. arrived which focused on additional research being carried out on the subject of “Grit”. Professor Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania has been carrying out a number of studies to determine the correlation of Grit and success in jobs and education. Her studies found that people with higher “grit” scores had higher GPA scores and success in several other pursuits. Another author, Paul Tough has just completed a book also studying the trait defined as: perseverance and passion for long-term goals among children in inner-city environments. “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character” cites these traits as being instrumental in children surviving and later prospering outside of that environment.
The biggest business challenge I hear from CEOs and business owners is about people. Call it ownership thinking, initiative, stick-to-it-ness, leadership. They long for more people on their team that have the right skills and will step up and take accountability and leadership. They’re looking for more people with Grit. Unfortunately, most make do with the people they have, hoping these employees will somehow magically transform. In the majority they don’t. As a leader, it’s your first responsibility to put the right team on the field. The biggest learning I’ve heard from these leaders over the years is this. “I wish I’d made the move to upgrade my team earlier. The better the people we’re had, the faster we’ve improved as an organization.” How does your team stack up? You may need a few more with “Grit”.
6’s and 9’s Exercise: Do A Quick Review of Your Team.
Try this in no more than 5 minutes. Write down the names of the people in the most important leadership positions in your company. Thinking about each, assign them either a “6” or a “9” out of ten as it relates to the value they are providing or could provide.
What are the scores you’re looking at? Are you leveraging the folks you scored “9” strongly enough? Any “6’s”? Why are you tolerating any? Sometimes this very quick exercise can bring clarity to people decisions to the benefit of all.
A friend and I were walking the other day solving the problems of the universe when we hit upon a recurring subject…our kids. The stories we’d shared about our kids over the years had a familiar and consistent theme. “Why can’t they shoulder a little more responsibility?” The evidence was compelling.
• Piles of clothes left exactly where they were dropped in the haste of coming in the door.
• Dishes left out after use, sometimes for days.
• Bedrooms and washrooms that looked like the aftermath of an A-bomb drop.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll stop there. If you have kids, you’ll no doubt be able to expand greatly on the list I’ve started. Of course the culprit ultimately responsible for their behaviour was also clear. We were.
As a generation, we’ve become very closely connected with our kids, their lives and many of us feel responsible for their success. In shouldering that responsibility (well beyond that shared by a previous generation I might add) we’ve taught our kids to abdicate theirs. They’ve learned that if they wait long enough, someone will intervene on their behalf. Rather than rely on themselves, we’ve taught them to rely on us. We’ve figuratively pushed them aside and piggy-backed their monkey.
So what’s different in business? How often have you heard or thought this yourself? “Why can’t my employees shoulder more responsibility and own the problem? Why are they putting the problem on my back?”
Who is really to blame? The dirty little secret is that it’s a problem of our own doing. Have a look in the mirror and you’ll find the real perpetrator. It’s no secret that the toughest thing anyone can do is put trust in another.
Remember the first time you tried to teach someone a new skill? It’s tough to see someone struggle through the process when it’s so easy for you. Commensurately tougher when there’s a lot on the line. A quick story of someone that got it right.
A client of mine had just hired on a new account representative. The employee was new to the business and the company had just picked up an account that was to have the first client/agency meeting the following day. A lot was on the line. My client handed the responsibility for the meeting and agenda to the new employee as they would be the lead on the account. At five o’clock a meeting had been called to preview the agenda and content. Needless to say, it was not a “ready for prime time” document. It fact, it was a mess!
Here’s where the “getting it right” part came in. To his credit, my client didn’t take over the process. The natural reaction would be to save the situation by inserting themselves and their experience. Rather, he offered feedback and some key points that needed to be made and left the employee to rework the document prior to the meeting. My client then departed the office and didn’t see the output from the revision until the meeting with the client the following day. The monkey had been up for grabs and he’d steadfastly refused to give it a ride. Wow! How many of us would have moved to “save the day” ourselves. A few I’m sure, including myself.
Here are some simple steps to create an ownership culture:
1. Provide situational clarity, context and candour. Treat employees as adults and they’ll give you the same back. The more they know, the better they’ll be able to help.
2. Build a common understanding of underlying purpose. You’ve got to share the same goal line.
3. Make sure the expectations and respective roles are crystal clear. Ambiguity means dropped balls.
4. Track and review performance. What gets measured gets done (and improved upon).
5. Work “on” not “in” the process. Your value comes in direction, not the doing.
The movie “Network” which opened in 1976 to great acclaim, had within it, the most penetrating rant that has ever existed on film.
Howard Beale, a Network newscaster entered the studio building. A security officer opened the door for him. Beale mumbled, “I must make my witness” and proceeded to the studio stage. As the countdown to air ended, he began…
“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. A dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and nobody seems to know what to do and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. We sit watching our news while some newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 643 violent crimes as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
All I know is that first you’ve got to get MAD!
You’ve got to say, “I’m a human being god damn it! My life has value! “So I want you to get up now. I want you to get up out of your chairs! I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it and stick your head out the window and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
“So”, you may be asking yourself, “Where’s this going?”
My question to you is this. “What is your rant for your business?”
Call it purpose. Call it your “one thing”. Call it a rallying cry. Every business started with an idea. A gleam in the eye of the entrepreneur who set out to either right a wrong or saw an unfilled opportunity in the marketplace. That idea had passion behind it. Rediscovering that idea or identifying a new idea and the passion which fuels it has the power to reboot you and your business.
We’ve worked with hundreds of businesses and business leaders over the past few years. One thing has become abundantly clear with each. Those that are consumed by a rant, a passionate belief that anchors their businesses, are by far the most vibrant and successful. The reverse is also true.
We sat with a business owner a few years ago which bears testament to the power of a rant. This particular firm was conceived in the early days of the internet and email. (Yes it’s an old story but remember, I’ve just quoted from a movie from 1976!). At the time many, if not most, marketing service firms had jumped on the bandwagon that spoke to the ability to measure email blast effectiveness. Send out hundreds of email and you can measure, to a very discreet number, that campaign’s effectiveness. That was a huge benefit to those marketers trying to defend shrinking marketing budgets in the face of a tougher economy. The easiest and possibly the safest solution for our business owner would have been to play the game the way others had begun to play. Except for one thing. He had a rant! He believed that all of these companies had missed one important thing. They’d forgotten that customer value starts with the customer, not in measurement. His rant and that core idea permeated his company, his employees, his business pitches and keynotes. “Start with creating true value for the customer as the first step and work backwards toward you.” The company flourished and was eventually sold for a nosebleed price. It was built around a rant and a passion which differentiated and created value.
Here’s the unfortunate postscript. The company had been bought by a company monolith seeking to kick start its own growth. Over the course of several years it strangulated the rant and the business suffered. The passion turned to pain and just last month it closed its doors.
So, to use Howard Beale’s words…”First you’ve got to get mad!” What’s the rant for your business?
Jack Palance and Billy Crystal in the movie “City Slickers” spent no more than 30 seconds on-screen to provide the best advice you could ever receive about your personal or business life. Here is that exchange.
Jack Palance: “Do you know what the secret of life is?”
Billy Crystal: “No, what?”
Jack with one finger raised: “This!”
Billy: “Your finger?”
Jack: “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”
Billy: “That’s great but what’s the one thing?”
Jack: “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”
Absolutely brilliant! I would have altered the question slightly. “What’s your one thing?” It is the simplest, most difficult question in the world to answer…for yourself or your business. Why? Because it takes about a nano-second to start adding new things - all the while thinking we are adding value. The concept is far from new. Literature abounds with advice on sticking to one thing and the inherent benefit of focus. “Differentiate or Die”; “Blue Ocean Strategy”; “Made to Stick” and almost any book on branding and marketing extols its’ virtue. Personal branding and the concept of the “Elevator Pitch” also have roots in the question.
In my former position as VP marketing for one of the largest Consumer Packaged Goods companies, I had occasion to get advice and counsel from some of advertising’s best and brightest creatives (the people writing the ad copy). In advance of setting out to create an advertising campaign, the client and agency would detail a Creative strategy. The core of that document was to answer the “one thing” question. “What is the problem our product or service is solving for our target group?” Then, what are three “reasons” why or points of proof we can provide to the consumer/customer that will help convince them of that brand benefit.
It was in one of those meetings that I was first taught about the “one thing”. The head creative was seated beside me and was listening to both of our teams discuss the creative strategy. Finally he let a small groan of frustration out and leaned over. Under his breath he said, “Oh to have the freedom of a tightly written strategy.”
“What do you mean?” His answer helped me understand the power of one thing.
“It sounds easy when we all sit here in this room pontificating about the benefits of the product, the customers and the tremendous insight we’ve got about them. However, when we turn off the lights and my team and I are back at the office we just get confused if the brief isn’t focused. Think about it. WE have to figure out what’s important and what’s not? What takes priority? How much time and energy should we dedicate to communicating the messaging? What messaging? The list goes on. More means less.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in the people I meet often (and unfortunately) going through what’s politely called “Transition”. A change in career that’s usually not of one’s choosing. Virtually all suffer from the fatal flaw of not communicating clearly their “one thing”. Truth be told, I’m just as guilty. Meet someone for the first time and I find myself spitting out a paragraph when asked what I do. Ideally, the answer should be mind-numbingly simple and arresting. It’s the lightning bolt.
One of the CEOs with whom I work, gave me one of the best examples of a “lightning bolt” the other day. Having survived the hallowed halls of corporate life, he was now the head of a smaller organization trying to grow. They definitely needed a plan so he sat down and did the natural thing. Being from a larger company, he outlined the Vision, Mission and Values of the company and proceeded to share those for input with his staff. After two hours it was clear he wasn’t hitting the ball out of the park. Thankfully, one of his hourly workers provided the lightning bolt.
“I don’t know about you” said he, “but all I want to do is get big enough to move out of this place!” To his credit, my CEO ran with this input and the focus of the “Vision” was “Big enough to move!” Now, everyone got it and they then spent the time talking about what needed to happen and where to focus to be “Big enough to move.” Simple. Motivating.
Finding your “one thing.
Most people feel that the discovery process starts with self-reflection. I disagree. It starts with an outside-in perspective from those who know you. Perception is reality.
For those trying to understand their personal “one thing” ask your closest friends and family. Get them to answer a couple of questions on your behalf.
“If you had to sum me up in one word, what would that word be and why?”
“What do you value most about me?”
“What’s my strongest quality?”
At minimum, you’re going to get some great and sometimes surprising feedback. On the other side, the feedback is going to help focus you on what your “market” believes you do best.
For those of you that are trying to answer the question for your business, the questions work virtually the same way.
A Jack Palance said it so eloquently, “One thing. Just one thing. Stick to that and everything else is just shit.” So what’s your “one thing”?
I was presenting to a group of Business owners in Quebec recently, outlining a major study’s findings that had summarized the fundamental and profound differences between the psychology of the entrepreneur and the “executive”. The stereotypes, which I’m sure you can describe, hold true. Entrepreneurs are “action Jackson’s”. Full of energy, quick and responsive to market place changes, engaged 24/7 with their businesses, resilient and risk tolerant, sometimes autocratic and self-oriented. In short, they are largely self-reliant and self-made. Executives, are a different beast. Team oriented, wisdom-seeking, strategists, process-driven and sometimes bureaucratic.
Following the discussion, one of the business owners leapt to his feet and exclaimed, “My God! Now I understand why I’ve been having all this pain the last three years.” He went on to explain…”Three years ago my company was bought by a much larger company. They have been trying to get me to look and act like those people you’ve described as executives. I DON’T EVEN LIKE PEOPLE LIKE THAT!”
Oil and water.
Risking the stereotype, entrepreneurs see executives as diplomatic, talk-a lot, bureaucratic do-nothings that sit around talking all day putting on airs. Executives, on the other hand, see entrepreneurs as loose cannons, with no sense of decorum, me-oriented, non-strategic autocrats. An interesting mix. No wonder there’s an Entrepreneurial Divide.
They’re both right.
The skills needed to transform an idea into a company are very different from those needed to drive it forward. I was asked one day by a 35 year “in the trenches” coaching veteran whether I believed an Entrepreneur could take his/her company across that divide. After careful consideration, I answered him this way….
“I wish I could play Tony Robbins and tell you that I believe the Entrepreneur could do it. The simple answer is that they can’t. It’s not that they’re not smart enough to do it. They are. It’s how they’re built. They abhor process. They are action and growth junkies. They are also smart and self-reliant. Unfortunately, what’s needed is to build predictability into the organization through process and procedure. Metrics trump anecdotes. And the two can’t live in the same environment if the Entrepreneur holds the power. It’s like having a Japanese fighting fish trying to live with a goldfish. Guess who’ll survive?”
Gates, Jobs and Ellison are examples of founders who were able to achieve the transformation of their companies. They also were able to give up control of the “process” to focus on where they excelled…providing the vision for growth while ceding control of the day to day to those with a different skill base.
Crossing the Divide.
1. Start with hiring a Sherpa(s).
The most important step will be to hire either an individual or individuals who will provide the outside-in perspective for both you and your organization. They must be people with the experience and confidence to help you “know what you don’t know”. These are trusted advisors who have your best interests at heart but will not shirk or be bullied into giving you answers you want to hear.
2. Next..hire Spock.
Specifically, a CFO or someone with CFO skills. You most likely need someone to ask as your right hand when it comes to process, metrics and managing the detail. The important thing is that this is NOT your bookkeeper! This is well beyond that. They are going to form much of the bedrock for the “new” company and culture.
3. Create a roadmap and the discipline to execute it.
Planning. A four letter word to most Entrepreneurs I know. The entrepreneur that offers some of his company up to Private Equity gets this in large doses…and very quickly after the honeymoon period. Much better to drive the process yourself and get the added benefit of a higher buy-in or multiple.
4. Redefine your role.
Up to this point, you’ve been working “in” the business. Not only do you have to make a move from an owner to an investor mindset, you’ve got to get the buy-in and understanding from your employees. Many, if not most have been with you from the outset, so just as you need guidance in changing your role, they do as well. This is tough stuff…for you and them. It won’t happen without a lot of communication and discussion. They’ve relied on your direction for many, many years. They will need some hand-holding to take on higher responsibility and accountability. Be prepared. Some will make it some not.
5. Put transformation into someone else’s hands.
To grow, you’ve got to let go. Focus on the things in which you excel and that you enjoy doing. Identifying new opportunities and competitive insights. Building your external contacts. Thinking about new businesses to create and which to buy. Turn the job of creating process, metrics, rules and guidelines to those with a penchant for those things. Get back to what you really enjoy!