Whether you realize it or not, there are always obstacles in some shape or form standing between you and what you want to achieve.

If obstacles didn’t exist, it would be a breeze to accomplish just about anything. Hiring (and retaining) great people, improving profitability, increasing sales, retaining customers, building the culture you want, raising capital, and creating partnerships would be easy!

Yet all of these are massively challenging to achieve. The obstacles are the challenge!

Looking through this lens, when you identify an objective to accomplish, you’re really stating that you intend to overcome the obstacles between where you sit today and where you’ll be when you’ve achieved the desired outcome.

But you and most leaders don’t typically think of it that way. You probably create a plan delineating the steps and actions needed to achieve the objective and hope these get you where you want to be, roughly on time.

“Obstacles are the challenge.”

In reality, obstacles you’ve never considered loom in front of you and your team, and you’ll need to deal with them before you can make it to the finish line. The discipline to identify and systematically solve them from the beginning is an underappreciated and little-discussed attribute of effective leaders. Incorporating potential obstacle identification into your goal planning process is one of the most important things you can do to set yourself up for success.

With that in mind, let’s consider the four most common types of potential obstacles you should be thinking about as you plan.

1. Mindset Obstacles

Whenever you’re aiming to accomplish something important, start your planning process by identifying potential obstacles of the mind: The thoughts preventing you and your people from attaining the objective. Let’s say you’re trying to reduce discounting behaviors in your sales organization. The belief system supporting discounting behaviors is a huge potential obstacle to achieving this and it’s not necessarily limited to your salespeople—everyone involved including you, sales managers, sales support staff, and your accounting team can influence the outcome. For success, everyone must believe the value of what you provide to your customers is greater than the standard asking price before you can make the change stick.

Mindset obstacles are stealthy and ubiquitous, so start with them first and be honest with yourself about which beliefs, biases, attitudes, and assumptions have the potential to delay or derail the desired outcome.

2. Structural Obstacles

Every organization has structures, processes, procedures, and systems—or lack of thereof—with potential to prevent leaders from growing their business. Your goal planning process must identify the potential structural obstacles that you’ll need to overcome to achieve the results you want. For example, one of my coaching clients has an objective to improve the profitability of their customer relationships while simultaneously maintaining an exceptional customer experience. Together, we identified a structural obstacle to achieving this: Accountability for project profitability wasn’t possible at the project manager level in the current organization structure. They’re working to solve this and several other obstacles, as they must, to achieve their goal.

Which structures, processes, procedures, or systems are potential obstacles to your objectives?

3. Knowledge & Skill Obstacles

I’ve never seen a business with a sustained growth rate that exceeds the personal growth rate of the people running it. This phenomenon sets the stage for another common potential obstacle to achievement: A lack of skills and knowledge. How many times have you tried to accomplish something you’ve never done before? Just that notion should be enough to trigger the potential obstacle warning sign! Yet I see leaders routinely and confidently charge into the unknown with a plan to build, fix, or enhance something they lack the skills and knowledge to accomplish only to be frustrated months or years down the road when they find themselves working to solve the same problem time and time again.

Sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know, especially if you’re trying something no one on your team has accomplished before. Find the discipline to identify the skill and knowledge obstacles that could stand between you and your goals. To overcome these learning- or awareness-based obstacles, consider hiring an expert (in hindsight often the best investment my clients have ever made!), consulting with more seasoned colleagues, taking a course, or finding other credible sources of learning to close the skills and knowledge gap to accelerate your progress.

4. External Obstacles

Potential obstacles to achievement also lurk outside your organization. These external obstacles might relate to client expectations, limitations associated with suppliers (think turnaround time, pricing, or logistics), governmental regulation, acts of nature, or anything else you don’t directly control. Although not in your direct control, you likely have influence to move these potential impediments to lower downside risk. And even if you can’t exert influence—for example, preventing a hurricane from making landfall on the day your new product line ships to customers—you’ll certainly identify risks, enabling thoughtful mitigation or contingency plans.

Which external obstacles pose potential risks to your goals?

Don’t Become Blinded by the Bright Side

By now you might be tempted to think, “I’m an optimist and it seems awfully pessimistic to focus so much time and energy on obstacles. I don’t want to concentrate on what could go wrong. I’d rather power through to get things done—after all, it’s gotten me this far.”

Here’s the thing: As a leader, your job is to be neither an optimist nor a pessimist. It is to discern reality and then create the actions that yield predictable results. The pursuit of reality requires you to do the thoughtful, critical work of identifying potential obstacles before planning to achieve your goals because the only thing I can guarantee is a non-zero probability they’ll slow or derail your progress.

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Masterclass – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with an accountable culture execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build an accountable culture.
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Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

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After more than two decades of coaching leaders across industries and around the globe, I’ve come to the following inescapable conclusion: It’s exceedingly rare to not have a business outgrow its Founder.

Scaling successfully requires recognizing this reality in order to adjust your perspective, mindset, and behaviors to do what’s best to support the business. More often than not, however, businesses stagnate, struggle, or fail altogether because the Founder / CEO refuses to admit and/or act on the fact that their organization’s needs have exceeded their capabilities.

Let’s explore why your business will most likely outgrow you in your current role, learn what you can do to avoid getting stuck, and discover how a change in perspective can transform both your potential and your organization’s growth trajectory.

Why Entrepreneurs Don’t Scale

To realize why most firms inevitably outgrow their founder, it’s critical to acknowledge that the qualifications to start a business are very different from those necessary to operate one at scale.

Imagine playing a game of word association with someone you know. If you were to say the word “entrepreneur” and ask them what comes to mind, they would likely respond with terms including “scrappy,” “fast-paced,” “risk-taker,” “unstructured,” etc.—all traits that allow Entrepreneurs to throw caution to the wind and lean into launching their big idea.

The qualifications to start a business are very different from those necessary to operate one at scale.

While those attributes are both necessary and ideal to get things up and running, they don’t align with the qualifications required to keep an established, profitable business on track and growing at scale. That’s why savvy founders seeking continuous growth hire an operator.

It’s certainly an Ego stroke to retain the Founder / CEO title, but it’s quite another thing to hand your growing toddler or preteen “baby” to a professional operator—typically a president or chief operating officer—who replaces you to run the operational day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, quarter-to-quarter, and annual rhythms of the firm. That said, I’ve had multiple clients over the years who, with coaching, have done this with tremendous success. In hindsight, all of them report that it was the best thing they ever did to drive their aspirations, financial returns, and quality of life.

But making the decision and preparing for the transition is universally challenging. Here’s why: If your self-image is “Founder and CEO,” you’ll likely feel threatened by the idea of hiring someone to operate the business, because you’re already that person. This perspective reveals the primary obstacle Founders face as the firm outgrows their managerial and leadership capabilities: The decision to hire an operator conflicts with their self-image—who they believe they are!

Sadly, this is why it’s so darn hard to grow any business into significance. This can be observed statistically by taking a peek at the US Small Business Association’s (US SBA’s) grim survival data, which indicate that 96 percent of all business starts fail to grow beyond $1 million in revenue.

The Entrepreneur’s self-image is commonly in the way! But why is this so pervasive?

It’s highly unusual for Founders to be self-aware and willing to do something about it. Common obstacles to letting go include ego (fear of losing status), scarcity (fear of not being “fully” in control of the business), misunderstanding the very different roles of Owner and Manager, and resistance to funding an experienced hand to accelerate the firm. Your self-image is enmeshed in each of these obstacles, which is why they are so challenging to overcome. But there’s good news in the form of a path forward:

I’ve found there are three phases to every Founder’s self-image that evolve and progress for those willing and able to release one phase to reach the next for the benefit of themselves and their firm. They are the Entrepreneur, Builder, and Investor.

Transitioning from Entrepreneur to Builder

The first evolution of the Founder’s self-image advances them from “Entrepreneur” to “Builder.” Builders realize they’ve created something meaningful and understand that continuing to develop it demands discipline, process, and rigor.

Let’s consider the term “Builder” and play word association again. What words and phrases would your friends associate with the term “Builder?” You may find yourself thinking of some of the following:

  • Firm foundation
  • Right pieces in the right place
  • Process
  • Following a plan
  • Growing

The “Builder” self-image is a seismic shift from your self-image as an “Entrepreneur” and, in fact, is essential for survival as your firm grows into adolescence. Yet those with a “Builder” self-image also struggle to replace themselves as the business outgrows them. This is because they still perceive themselves as critical to the operation. The “Builder’s” self-image, just like the “Entrepreneur’s” self-image, doesn’t align with hiring an operator largely due to the same set of fears and obstacles preventing them from taking action.

Becoming an Investor — Where the Magic Happens

The third phase of the Founder’s journey is where the magic happens: Your self-image shifts yet again! This time, it’s from “Builder” to “Investor.”

Investors place bets on others to do things that generate a return. With the self-image of an “Investor,” it becomes much easier to see the obvious answer that will drive a higher return from your business: hiring an expert to run and continue scaling the operation. In fact, you must invest in others at some point to achieve the kind of return you seek. It’s the only way to move beyond your current position and contribute to the meaningful development of something bigger than yourself.

You must invest in others at some point to achieve the kind of return you seek.

Of course, none of these transitions are easy or low stakes. The Founder’s self-image journey from “Entrepreneur” to “Builder” and then, hopefully, to “Investor” represents a tremendous shift in identity, mindset, and behavior. But if you think back and remember the earliest days of your venture, you might realize that at inception, an “Entrepreneur” is actually an “Investor” in disguise. After all, when you launched your firm you chose to invest in yourself and fund your idea. The irony of the entrepreneurial self-image journey is that it’s about figuring out how to return to your roots as an investor in people and ideas!

Conclusion

As your self-image advances through this rarely traveled full progression, you’ll be better positioned to make hard decisions, including the one to step aside when the business almost inevitably outgrows your capability to operate and grow at scale. The ability to transition makes you that much more likely to breathe the rarefied air not only of the 4 percent of businesses that scale past $1 million in revenue, but also of the 0.4 percent who scale past $10 million in revenue (US SBA data). When you evolve your self-image to align with the real needs of your business, your business evolves in response–not the other way around.

Think about your current self-image—are you an “Entrepreneur,” a “Builder,” or an “Investor?”—and what (or who) can help you transition to the next phase? Yes, all meaningful change is uncomfortable at first, but rest assured that moving through this progression will be well worth it. Remember–every one of my “Investor” clients say it was the best thing they ever did to drive their aspirations, financial returns, and quality of life.

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“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.” – Jerzy Gregorek

In every domain, the more data points you collect, the more insight you gain. This is because more information makes pattern identification easier. As a coach, I’ve built a unique perspective across years, economies, industries, clients, and scenarios that enables me to discern patterns most leaders struggle to spot.

One of the most challenging patterns for leaders to detect is the connection between their decisions and the ensuing long-term outcomes. Decisions that drive immediate results—say, choosing a scoop of mocha chip ice cream rather than strawberry—come easily and with very little noise because the effects are right there in front of you (Mocha Chip! Yum!). Decisions with bigger implications for your business and your life, however (like the cumulative effect of choosing between ice cream and an apple every night after dinner) require taking a step back to analyze the pattern correlating the daily choice with the probability of a long-term outcome. But in a business context this can be extremely difficult, if not impossible to spot from the trenches as you operate your organization on any given day, week, or month. The time delay between your decisions and the outcomes, which may span months or even years with all sorts of other noise along the way prevents you from seeing what works and what doesn’t.

As I wrote in my first book Activators, we are masters of procrastination and avoidance, usually to the detriment of what we want to accomplish. With the accrual of pattern recognition over the past twenty years as a coach, I’ve concluded that when leaders face a decision and choose to pursue the “easy” option, it’s far more likely to present future challenges than choosing the more “difficult” alternative instead.

To illustrate and to encourage you to select the more “difficult” path more often, let’s explore the five most common areas where I see leaders choose the “easy” route to the detriment of their team, their firm, and themselves.

1. Providing Hard Feedback

Providing hard feedback is challenging even for seasoned, experienced leaders. One of the leaders on a client executive team I coach oversees a group of professional managers. There’s a manager on his team (we’ll call him Burt) whose ego is in the way of his ability to relate to clients, staff, and peers, diminishing his ability to do his job effectively. The other managers in the group feel like Burt isn’t a team player; instead, it’s always all about him.

On a recent call, I asked my client, “Have you ever had this conversation with Burt?” “Well,” he said sheepishly, “I’ve danced around it, but I haven’t ever delivered the feedback directly.”

My client has avoided providing meaningful feedback to Burt. He dreads the discomfort of sharing his and others’ observations, and worries that Burt—who has massive potential in his role—may choose to leave. He’s made the easy decision so far (avoidance), and the problem has grown worse over time.

The good news is that my client is very receptive to feedback and change. I coached him on how to provide caring, very direct, hard feedback to Burt. There’s no doubt in my mind that the conversation will occur, and that there will be one of two outcomes:

The first possibility is that Burt will be upset about the feedback and refuse to improve, ultimately creating a different kind of problem to be resolved. Based on everything I know about him, that’s unlikely. The second, more probable outcome is that Burt will be receptive to the coaching and work to change his behavior.

By making the hard choice today – confronting his fear and embarking on a direct and difficult conversation – the team, the firm, Burt, and my client will all experience a better future.

2. Removing Non-Fit and Underperforming Staff

Of course, not every employee relationship can be salvaged with a tough conversation. Occasionally, the hardest and best decision is the one to say goodbye.

Another client of mine employs an extremely senior and high-performing sales professional (we’ll call her Lisa) who has struggled for years to collaborate with others. Because Lisa is so senior, she’s been placed in numerous roles, managing teams over the past eight years and every time it’s ended poorly for the company and for her personally. Sure enough, she’s managing yet another team now and things are not heading in the right direction. In fact, her management—or lack thereof—is creating irritation and inflammation in an organization that is otherwise performing at an extremely high level.

Just the other day, I once again raised this recurring issue with my CEO client. “At some point, you’re going to get tired of being on the treadmill with Lisa, and you’re going to need to do something about it. There’s no scenario in which she’s going to change.”

My client was afraid; Lisa generates a significant amount of business. And yet, by making the easy decision to retain a non-fit employee, the CEO has created continual headaches for himself and his team over nearly a decade. The hard decision to remove Lisa from the firm will yield a much brighter set of outcomes all around. Although the jury’s still out on this matter, I’m confident my client will come around and make the hard, right choice for the sake of the rest of his team.

If you’ve been avoiding a similar decision, consider this your sign to move forward and take the harder path.

3. Upgrading the Team

As any business scales, it becomes increasingly likely that the people who helped the business reach its current state won’t be the right ones to advance it to continually higher levels of sophistication and performance. It’s not because they’re underperforming or even because they’re a poor fit for their roles; it’s because the demands of a scaling business are likely to eventually exceed their prior experience and capabilities. In other words, the business outgrows them.

In this situation, many leaders take the easy route. They feel loyal to those who have been with them from the beginning, unconsciously deny reality, and convince themselves that the person currently in the role will figure it out. But the reality is that failing to acquire more seasoned talent denies the firm and rest of the staff the opportunity to accelerate and grow.

I’ve seen leaders take this particular easy route time and time again, keeping their current team and sacrificing the firm’s potential in the process. I’ve also seen others make the hard choice to acquire highly seasoned leaders and experience an absolute transformation as a result. They achieve more, more rapidly than they ever thought possible!

By making the hard decision to upgrade their team and taking some relationship risk to do it, leaders create an easier and brighter future than those who don’t.

4. Holding Others Accountable

Sometimes the hardest decisions come in the form of holding others accountable. I began working with a client several years ago immediately after their organization had merged with another large entity, resulting in two very different cultures that were smashed together rather than thoughtfully integrated.

I was hired by the CEO to help the leadership team gel and develop a culture that would enable the firm to grow and scale. The team played along and, among other things, defined their core values and the specific behaviors that would be required in the new culture. However, the senior leaders were fearful of holding people accountable to the new standard.

They were grappling with the usual factors that influence us to choose the easier route: fear of broaching the conversation itself or that top performers would quit if they told them the behavioral expectations were shifting. Ultimately, the leaders realized they didn’t have a choice, thanks to the CEO’s leadership and non-negotiable stance on the direction of the firm.

The hard decision was made.

I coached them to use several methods and processes to hold their people accountable and they began doing the difficult work with the knowledge that their efforts would lead to vastly different and better outcomes for the business. As expected, most employees accepted the new cultural norms and a minority of others refused. Over time, they either left on their own or were asked to leave.

By forcing the issue, the culture—and work—became easier and more harmonious firmwide. Today, this company is significantly larger than when I began working with them, their culture is a significant differentiator in their industry that helps attract top tier talent, and they’ve built one of the strongest and most successful cultures of all the clients in my coaching portfolio.

5. Selecting Priorities

Hard decisions aren’t limited to personnel.

Fortune favors the focused: If you have more than one or two priorities for your business this year, you have too many. You might make progress on many different fronts, but the odds are you won’t fully complete the one or two things that are essential to accelerate profitability and growth.

This concept comes with a learning curve. I’ve never met a new client who wasn’t challenged by having too many things on their plate. There are a host of reasons as to why too many priorities make it onto their list, including failing to make other hard decisions from a misplaced sense of loyalty to others, to over-weighting the input of people who are out of their depth relative to the sophistication of the organization.

When you acquiesce and say “yes” to six or four or ten (!) different priorities, you’re probably not going to get any of them done because you’re diluting the organization’s ability to focus and execute. Meanwhile, when you make the hard decision to focus on just one or two, putting aside what seems pressing to make sure the truly vital priorities get your full attention, you ultimately accomplish a lot more and accelerate the progress of the business.

Conclusion: Choose Wisely

“Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.”  – John C. Maxwell

The patterns linking easy decisions to challenging outcomes and hard decisions to better outcomes are unmistakable and universal.

While identifying your organization’s patterns while you’re enmeshed in the day-to-day may be beyond the realm of possibility without the perspective of a mentor, a peer group, or a coach, the following keep-it-simple approach will work for most:

Listen to your emotions and begin leaning into hard things more deliberately.

If you don’t, you’ll continue to gain the small, immediate rewards that come with letting yourself off the hook today at the expense of a more difficult road ahead. If you do, you’ll experience both personal growth and some short term adversity in exchange for a much better tomorrow for days, weeks, and years to come.

The decisions are yours. Make them wisely.

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“Effective teamwork begins and ends with communication”  – Coach Mike Krzyzewski

During World War II, militaries began relying on two-way radio technology to communicate more effectively across land, sea, and air. But the radios were often unreliable and difficult to hear, so shorthand language was devised to increase reliability and understanding.

This is how the term “Roger Wilco” originated. It’s shorthand for, “I’ve received your message, I understand it, and I will comply with it.” The phrase became a way for pilots and ground troops to quickly affirm important instructions and make more rapid decisions when lives were at stake.

While I hope lives aren’t at stake as you operate your business, ensuring your messages are understood is just as important whether by phone, Zoom, or in person as it is on the battlefield. Yet, communication is the number one blindspot and weakness I encounter while coaching business leaders. Even worse, many leaders lament that their people don’t make the “right” decisions often enough which, in fact, is a direct consequence of their own shortcomings as communicators.

Leaders often under communicate because communication isn’t a priority to them (it should be) or because they think something is so obvious (to them) they assume it doesn’t need stating. In other instances, leaders think they’ll appear foolish repeating themselves to their team.

A factor contributing to these situations is the cognitive bias known as “the curse of knowledge.” This bias is in full effect when we (often unconsciously) presume others possess the same knowledge, outlook, and background we do. As a result, we overestimate how much others grasp or relate to our thoughts and feelings. Here’s the thing: More often than not, they don’t have the same information or context we do!

If you’ve ever had a friend tell you a story that didn’t make sense because they omitted a critical detail, you’ve experienced the curse of knowledge firsthand. In a social situation, an omission like this isn’t a big deal. You would simply ask your friend to back up and explain the part of the story you didn’t understand. In a business context, though, nobody’s going to tell the CEO, department head, or team leader in front of a room full of people what they just said doesn’t make sense.

This is why every leader must be ever conscious that there’s a sizable gap between what’s in their head and what’s in everyone else’s. Your job as a responsible communicator is to build a bridge, meet them where they are, and then lead them across it so that they share the information and context you possess at any given moment. In other words, what’s on your mind should be on their minds too.

The question is: How do you make that happen?

Here are five ways:

1.  Recurring Meeting Cadence

Information is the lifeblood of every firm. The steady, predictable heartbeat that pumps life throughout is your communication rhythm—daily, weekly, and monthly meetings.

I recently met with a client who was struggling to make his executive team’s daily huddles work. “Nobody can think of what to say in the huddle,” he lamented.

Since the daily huddle’s purpose is synchronization, I coached this executive team to think about the information they possessed that would be helpful for others on their team to know. I suggested that they prepare for their huddle by asking themselves, “What do I know that my team NEEDS to know?” After all, that’s the definition of synchronizing—to align understanding and get on the same page.

Synchronization items for your daily huddle can be personal, cultural, and business, client, or supplier related. Nothing is off limits as you and your team strive to share information and synchronize.

Other meeting rhythms are Weekly, Monthly, and Quarterly (WMQ) and focus more on assessing results, troubleshooting, problem solving, brainstorming, debating, planning, and overall team cohesion. The challenge for most teams here is articulating the right topics to discuss and clarifying the intended outcome of the conversation. Is your team engaging in the right conversations during your WMQ meetings?

To make this easier, I have my coaching clients use an IDS framework to conduct their WMQ meetings, where they Identify, Discuss, and Solve issues at hand. Not all items that are identified are discussed, and not all items that are discussed are solved during the meeting. This is okay, because naming the “elephant in the room” is often equally as important as solving it.

And remember: Just because YOU can see the elephant doesn’t mean anyone else does!

2. Passive Communication Mechanisms

Not all communication has to be verbal. In fact, it shouldn’t be!

Relying purely on speaking or email can become exhausting for both you AND your team. Use more passive methods to share and reinforce the information in your head as well.

For instance, several of my clients use computer screensavers and laminated reference cards on conference tables that list their firm’s core values, purpose, and priorities. Others adorn their hallways and meeting rooms with posters or murals sharing important information. Artifacts—like stress balls or desk stationary—with, for example,  your firm’s brand promise emblazoned on them might also serve as constant visual reminders of what’s important.

These passive methods are quite effective because they’re always in plain sight and being absorbed by the people who view them. Just remember that passive communication mechanisms augment the other things you’re doing to share what’s in your head. They are NOT a stand-alone solution!

3. Repeatable Processes to Reinforce Most Important Things

This is another method that doesn’t require you to constantly expend energy. Repeatable processes can also reinforce the information your team needs to know.

For instance, several of my clients have a rule that any time an internal meeting has more than eight attendees, they must begin by reciting their company’s strategic cascade: core purpose, core values, three-year objectives, and current year priorities.

The process takes all of two minutes, constantly reinforcing what matters most to the organization and ensuring top-of-mind alignment during the meetings that follow.

What simple, repeatable process can you implement firmwide to reinforce what matters most?

4. The Drive-By

A “drive-by” is when you use a casual conversation, perhaps while passing someone in the hallway, as an opportunity to share what’s in your head with others. You can open the dialog with a statement like “I’ve been thinking a lot about…”, or you can ask a simple question.

For example, you might ask an employee to state your company’s Core Purpose while you’re both waiting for the morning coffee to finish brewing. If they know the answer, that’s great! But if they don’t, that’s okay too, because it presents an opening to make a friendly agreement. You could say something like: “Can we make a deal? The next time I ask you to recite our Core Purpose, I need you to have the answer. Will you have the answer for me the next time I ask you?”

There’s no brow-beating, no punishment, just an expectation that the employee internalizes whatever it is you’ve asked of them. It’s another mechanism to help transplant what’s in your head into theirs.

5. One-to-Many Communication

While one-on-one meetings and drive bys are excellent means to convey information, they’re not particularly scalable for senior leaders in large firms. If scale is an obstacle for you to communicate effectively, augment your more intimate conversations with one-to-many communication tools such as newsletters or personal video updates.

Consider the one-to-many construct your version of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “fireside chats,” in which he delivered a regular evening radio broadcast to the American public. Roosevelt conducted these mostly during the height of the Great Depression and during the early years of World War II—times when the public required reassurance and leadership.

The communication doesn’t need to be “commander-in-chief worthy,” though.

For example, one of my CEO clients sends a video update to his entire company via Slack every week. It’s never rigid or formal, just a short, three-minute video where he talks about what’s been on his mind. Sometimes it’s about something that caught his attention that week, an interesting person he met, or an important milestone in the business. Those weekly videos also give the CEO a public platform to recognize deserving employees who did a particularly good job or helped secure a new client.

It’s a wonderful tool to share what’s on your mind with your team and to get more people thinking more like you over time. You’ll be surprised how grateful your staff will be to hear from you regularly in a one-to-many format!

Conclusion

“Do not assume the orderly soldiers standing before you fully comprehend the larger mission and why their role matters.” – James Stavridis

Used regularly and in balance, these five communication methods will improve the alignment of your team and their understanding of your thoughts, ideas, and priorities. But a word of caution as you begin to deploy them:

As a leader, you’re likely accustomed to operating at a strategic level. But the language and terms of communication at 30,000 feet differ from the language and terms those with boots on the ground understand. Be aware of this—and be prepared to translate.

Here’s a useful rule of thumb: If you can’t explain any element of your plan, strategy, or business and its operations to the least-educated, lowest salaried position in your firm, then you don’t understand it well enough yourself. In other words, if you speak French and your team speaks Chinese, it’s not their problem to understand you—it’s YOURS. You have to meet people where they are and bring them to where you want them to be.

This is difficult for many leaders to identify and improve because it’s rare they receive meaningful feedback about their communication shortcomings. The greater the power gradient—that is, the further up the organizational ladder you are from your audience—the less likely people are to question you.

Simplify your message so it can be easily understood by everyone, then use the five communication methods described here to get the job done constantly and consistently over time.

In short order, you’ll build the bridge, closing the gap between the information in your head and the information possessed by your team. You’ll also hear a resounding “Roger Wilco” much more often.

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“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”  – Margaret J. Wheatley

As the year comes to a close, it’s natural to look forward to a bit of a break and the promise of a fresh start in January. But too often we proceed without looking back to appreciate where we’ve been and to reflect on the weakest links in our leadership.

This process doesn’t cost a penny and only takes a couple of hours to thoughtfully complete.

The psychological benefits of reflecting on past events are well-documented. For example, A University of Zurich study found that reflecting on past challenges aids in processing future negative experiences, boosting both self-efficacy and resilience.

Indeed, there’s a tremendous value to pausing, reflecting, and taking stock of what worked and what didn’t work for you, your team, and your organization over the past year.

Before you rush into 2024, use the waning weeks of 2023 wisely to look back and assess. This reflection will help you derive meaning, value, and actionable next steps from both accomplishments and shortcomings of the past year.

To guide you in this important process, here are 10 key questions to ask yourself that set the stage for a thoughtful and productive assessment.

  1. Where did I miss the mark as a leader this past year? (Be brutally honest with yourself here.) Based on this reflection, what behaviors do I need to change in the coming year?
  2. What is one behavior that I will stop tolerating in others next year?
  3. What is one behavior that I will stop tolerating in myself next year?
  4. How clearly have I defined and communicated the direction, strategy, and priorities of the business to employees?
  5. Who in my personal and/or professional life do I need to deliberately distance myself from?
  6. Who in my personal and/or professional life do I need to move closer to?
  7. Which members of my external professional team (accountant, financial adviser, legal counsel, coach, etc.) are no longer the right fit, given where I am in my personal and professional life right now?
  8. Where in my life am I creating an unhealthy codependency? What must change?
  9. Where do I need to define or strengthen a boundary to help me achieve something important?
  10. Which client, supplier, and/or partner relationships should I upgrade / replace to accelerate the business?

Conclusion

“Self-reflection is a humbling process. It’s essential to find out why you think, say, and do certain things…then better yourself.” —Sonya Teclai

Although there are certainly additional questions you can ask to plumb the depths of your leadership, I’ve purposefully kept the list short to encourage you to think deeply rather than broadly.

As you contemplate these with the level of thought and sincerity they require, you’ll uncover answers that make you uncomfortable. Lean into that discomfort, because it’s the indicator of the way toward a better future.

If you’re feeling brave and open to feedback, engage others who you respect and trust. They’ll provide input and feedback to overcome blind spots in your own thinking, helping you answer the questions more rigorously.

While each new year brings the excitement of a fresh start, reflecting on the prior year’s challenges and accomplishments yields valuable insights to help you improve as a leader. May your reflection on this past year help you set the stage for accelerated growth in 2024.

All the best for a healthy, fulfilling, and prosperous new year!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Albert Einstein

It’s annual planning time!

This is the season when the vast majority of teams gather to take stock, look ahead, discuss, debate, and choose their goals and priorities for the coming business year.

The problem is, most teams debate the wrong things.

In my experience, business leaders spend very little—if any—time identifying and clarifying the challenges they’re facing. Rather, they gravitate toward the more comfortable process of discussing which initiatives and projects they should prioritize in the coming year.

This is a huge mistake. If you’re having conversations about solutions and you haven’t clearly identified the significant, addressable challenges you’re facing, the odds are high that your priorities won’t solve the root causes.

The instinct to jump into action is not totally surprising. Our bias to move is hard-wired, dating back millennia to when our ancestors huddled around fires in caves. Your 50x great grandparents didn’t have the luxury of time to think—if they didn’t move, they would have either starved to death or become some predator’s dinner.

The modern-day version of this innate bias to act exists in the can-do entrepreneurial spirit, where founders and leaders feel compelled to “take action or risk failure.” Spoiler alert: This is a false choice!

A thoughtful analysis of your situation a few times a year does not reduce your momentum. In fact, it accomplishes the opposite. If you ask, and thoughtfully answer, the right questions during your planning process, you will accelerate your progress.

Here’s the question that should dominate the conversation during your team’s annual planning session: “What is our firm’s #1 Addressable Challenge in 2024?”

Use this 4-step structured approach to thoughtfully identify, clarify, and articulate your firm’s #1 Addressable Challenge for next year and to transform the value of your annual planning session.

What is an Addressable Challenge?

Let’s begin by defining the term Addressable Challenge.

The word “addressable” implies something that is within your control to resolve or change. For example, “the high interest rate environment” is not an Addressable Challenge because this is not something you can control. Dig deeper however, and you may see that high rates could be causing other challenges in your firm that you CAN control.

One way or another, be sure to identify potential challenges you can manage and control, and filter out the ones you can’t.

My use of the term “challenge” also warrants some explanation. It’s easy to think of the word “challenge” as synonymous with “problem.” But it’s also a challenge to successfully pursue an opportunity! Opportunities might include opening new locations, launching a new product, or executing on an aggressive growth plan. After all, the pursuit of a truly worthy opportunity is always a challenge.

When you think about potential Addressable Challenges, be sure to consider your worthiest pursuits, not only your biggest problems.

Step 1: Identify Your #1 Addressable Challenge

Now that you’re clear on what an Addressable Challenge is, take the time to identify the top two or three in your firm.

This is the most difficult step in the process. I’ve found that when I ask my clients to identify Addressable Challenges—even after we’ve clearly defined the term—they rarely come back with actual challenges on the first try. Instead, most suggest projects and initiatives disguised as challenges.

For example, just last week at a client annual planning meeting, the firm’s President suggested: “Our number one Addressable Challenge next year is to replace our ‘XYZ’ software.”

No, it’s not! The software replacement is the SOLUTION to some other challenge, not the challenge itself. What’s more, it might not be the only solution to the root causes of the challenge!

Significant challenges typically require a multitude of changes across an organization. That’s why it’s critical to articulate the challenge as clearly as possible and not get sucked into the simplicity of prioritizing a single component.

A proper Addressable Challenge starts with phrases like “we can’t,” “we don’t,” “we haven’t,” and “it’s been difficult to.” If you can’t put those words in front of your challenge statement, you probably have a solution, not a challenge, on your hands.

Once you and your team have identified the firm’s top two or three challenges for the coming year, force rank them to determine which is the #1 Addressable Challenge by asking: “If we could only resolve ONE of these next year, which would we choose?”

Finally, ensure that your challenge statement is in the form of a complete sentence.

Here’s an example of a well-formed Addressable Challenge statement:

We cannot reliably deliver on our operational and growth commitments.”

Step 2: Identify the Contributing Factors

Now that  you’ve articulated the #1 Addressable Challenge in the form of a sentence, the next step is to identify the contributing factors.

There are always a number of contributing factors or root causes associated with every Addressable Challenge. If you’ve been intellectually honest about your challenge, the contributing factors are going to be quite uncomfortable to name and contemplate.

Root cause contributing factors might include leadership issues like tolerating the wrong people on your team, boundary issues like saying “yes” to every client’s demand, execution issues like getting distracted from priorities with “flavor of the week” fire drills, and process issues like a lack of standardized procedures.

Do your best to thoughtfully identify as many contributing factors as possible with your team, then narrow the list to the most significant three items by asking: “Which THREE of these contribute to 80-90% of our Addressable Challenge?”

Finally, as in the previous step, assemble the contributing factors into a complete sentence.

Here’s our Addressable Challenge statement with a well-formed contributing factors sentence that follows:

We cannot reliably deliver on our operational and growth commitments. Contributing factors include a culture of “doership” not leadership, a lack of sales leadership, and failing to address project,  technical and financial risks.

Step 3: Articulate the Effect on the Business

Every Addressable Challenge has implications affecting your firm which exact a price (or an opportunity cost) today and in the future.

To move the specificity and rationale of your firm’s challenge to an even deeper level, the next step is to articulate the impact on your business. I urge you to go deep here and uncover the effects that resonate with emotion. While it’s ok to name something like “slow growth” as an impact, it’s more powerful to dig deeper and name the effect of slow growth like “demotivated employees” as the true impact.

Do your best to thoughtfully identify as many effects as possible with your team, then narrow the list to the most significant three items. Finally, as in the two previous steps, assemble them into a complete sentence.

Here’s what a well-formed effects sentence looks like when combined with our example Addressable Challenge and contributing factors:

We cannot reliably deliver on our operational and growth commitments. Contributing factors include a culture of “doership” not leadership, a lack of sales leadership, and failing to address project, technical and financial risks. The effects on the business include a damaged reputation, rushed work leading to poor decision-making, and frustrated employees.

Now that you’ve created a complete, three-sentence Addressable Challenge statement, notice how this level of thinking is a far cry from “We need to replace our ‘XYZ’ software next year!” It’s meaningful, it’s specific, and it’s actionable.

Steps 1-3 (75% of this process) clarify the challenge. In the final step, we’ll advance to identify the solution.

Step 4: Identify the Initiatives Required to Solve the Challenge

I’ve found it’s useful to think of the solution as a series of work streams or initiatives that, taken together, resolve your #1 Addressable Challenge. Consider the challenge and identify the two-to-four high-level initiatives that must be executed during the year to get you to an acceptable end-state. These initiatives should sound like more “normal” annual priorities and are the levers you and your team believe must be pulled to fully address the challenge.

For example, here are the initiatives required to solve the Addressable Challenge statement we’ve built through the article:

  • Improve Sales Leadership
  • Create a More Scalable Services Business
  • Ensure Excellent Project Execution
  • Increase Leadership Discipline

The final step in this process is to assign single point accountability for each initiative. From there, you can assemble teams, plan and manage them for the year ahead. I suggest that my clients name solving the #1 Addressable Challenge as their sole annual priority, then note the 3 or 4 key initiatives that comprise the solution.

Conclusion

“The ancestor to every action is a thought.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

When executed with discipline, these four steps yield a crystal clear description of the most important challenge your company faces and the work required to effect meaningful resolution. Each time I’ve used this powerful process with a client, there’s some version of utter amazement at the rigor and depth of the challenge, the fit of the solutions, and the motivation to see it all through.

The specificity, clarity, and intellectual honesty this evokes illuminates a path forward and adds both structure and meaning to the annual planning session. Resist the well-worn path and your instinct to jump to solutions before you carefully and clearly identify the challenge at hand.

You’ll find it’s well worth the restraint and investment.

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.

Class Date: December 7, 2023

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Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with an accountable culture execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build an accountable culture.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: December 7, 2023

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

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Please welcome my new sponsor HabitStack, a platform that helps teams

focus on important goals even though they’re busy.

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I have marveled often at the thin line that divides success from failure and the sudden turn that leads from apparently certain disaster to comparative safety.” – Ernest Shackleton

Even on a great day, leadership is full of challenges.

As obvious as that may seem, many of us act surprised whenever the going gets tough. I think it’s because we’re conditioned to erroneously envision the road to success as a straight path. We see or hear about people just getting started (point A) and see or hear about others who’ve made it (point B), then mistakenly extrapolate a straight line of progress from A to B. How easy their journey must have been!

In reality, the path to success looks more like a seismograph measuring an earthquake. It’s erratic, messy, and loaded with peaks and deep valleys along the way. In his book, This is a Book, comedian Demetri Martin aptly illustrated it like this:

Why is the path to success so helter-skelter? It’s because hard things are inevitably challenging, and no matter how experienced or well-prepared you are, you can’t ever accurately predict what lies ahead.

In 1914 as he attempted to reach the South Pole, explorer Ernest Shackleton and his 28-person crew were less than a day’s journey from the Antarctic coast when ice trapped their ship, Endurance (point A). They drifted with the ice for more than two years before being rescued and returned to England in 1916. Miraculously, everyone survived (point B).

Here’s the mess in-between we tend to gloss over: The crew’s safe return required a superhuman level of courage and leadership from Shackelton, who later downplayed his heroism in his memoir, South. “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all,” he wrote.

What Shackleton understood and what all capable leaders understand is that adversity is inevitable. It’s how we respond that makes the difference.

One of the privileges of my role as a coach is to witness the challenging, amazing things my clients accomplish and experience as they grow. I see victories, defeats, good, bad, and ugly, tears of joy and sorrow—and everything in between—from multiple organizations spanning industries and geographies, each run by very different people.

No matter how diverse these firms may appear on the surface, they all face adversity one way or another, all the time.

As a leader, it’s important to normalize your perception of adversity, because the more you expect it, the better prepared you’ll be to face it when it inevitably knocks on your front door. To help normalize and illustrate the inevitability and constancy of adversity, today’s article features four of-the-moment client scenarios, each of which occurred within the past 90 days. All these firms are solidly in the middle-market ($100 M+ revenues), are well led, and are profitable.

After the stories, we’ll outline five actions to improve resilience so you and your team can lessen adversity’s unavoidable sting.

Client Story #1: Supply Chain Snarl

This client sells and maintains heavy equipment and machinery, and they’ve run into significant supply issues with one of the manufacturers they represent. If you sell things for a living and can’t get the things you sell, it’s a big deal!

Although many companies experienced some level of supply chain challenge over the past few years due to Covid, this manufacturer isn’t solely dealing with a post-pandemic hangover. Not only has it been unable to recover from the pandemic, but it was also recently acquired by a firm whose business practices don’t align as well with my client’s needs.

My client has several hundred machines on backorder with the manufacturer and very little guidance on when to expect inventory. In short, they’re unable to sell these high-demand, highly profitable machines, to their customers. There’s no end in sight, nor is there any confidence the manufacturer will resolve the issues in any reasonable way.

As a result, my client’s business is operating below their intended plan. They need to decide how to continue operating and meet their goals despite the effective loss of this manufacturer’s product line.

At the scale with which my client operates, this manufacturer’s post-acquisition failure to deliver isn’t something that could have been predicted. And yet, here they are. They’ve had to shift gears significantly and accept that they’re going to endure some short-and medium-term pain to get back on track. They have a plan that’s viable and they’re going to be fine, but the journey won’t be without additional discomfort and disruption.

Client Story #2: Credit Line Crunch

This long-standing client is in an industry that relies heavily upon lines of credit to operate as part of the business model. A few weeks ago, the bank holding my client’s (large!) credit line sold their loan portfolio to another firm—which, in and of itself, isn’t unusual.

The problem is the new loan-holder is extremely risk-averse and has no experience working with firms in my client’s niche.

As a result, they froze the credit line and informed my client they would not be able to renew it at term. The frozen line of credit effectively limits a portion of the firm to operate at about 25% of its capacity, severely handicapping a growing, profitable, well-managed, and properly leveraged company.

No one without a magic crystal ball could have reasonably predicted this scenario.

Rather than focusing on pursuing their strategic agenda, they now have to shop for a new lender. It’s a big distraction for senior leadership.

The good news is this problem isn’t existential—they’re extremely credit-worthy and will find a lender—but they’re essentially running a fire drill at a very large scale. Their story is a painful example of how adversity can—and will—strike even when you’re doing everything right.

Client Story #3: Sneaky Salesperson

This client is a tech firm with an impressive, well-led sales team driving their growth. About a month ago, one of their more senior, accomplished account managers independently decided to fraudulently overbill a client.

The project the account manager was running came in significantly under the hours budgeted, but he billed it for the full amount in the original estimate. When leadership realized what happened, they acted swiftly and decisively, firing the employee within 24 hours.

Although this was absolutely the right decision, they were immediately put in the position of salvaging a large, growing, profitable client relationship and backfilling the senior account manager role.

As with the previous stories, this scenario couldn’t have been reasonably predicted. The account manager didn’t have any history of unethical behavior or poor decision making. Quite the opposite: They were a tenured, trusted, high-performing team member.

The firm is going to take a hit as they rebuild trust with their client and replace the account manager’s capacity on the team. They’ll recover, but it’s an unexpected, frustrating, and painful setback.

Client Story #4: Parent Company Problems

This client provides professional and project management services around the globe and is an independently operated subsidiary of a larger firm.

Earlier this year, the parent company made some business decisions that resulted in the enterprise becoming undercapitalized—that is, they didn’t have enough cash on hand to manage the normal operating flow of the business. This condition is similar to my other client’s frozen line of credit, but resulting from a very different (and self-inflicted) cause.

When a business struggles with cash flow, they often “rob Peter to pay Paul” to keep themselves afloat, which—through no fault of their own—is exactly what my client (the subsidiary) had to do. They have good-faith relationships with contractors and suppliers all around the world, and suddenly they found themselves unable to pay and having to manage through the crisis—while still keeping their projects on track.

True to the pattern, there’s no way my client could have reasonably predicted this disruption to their business. Nevertheless, they’ve found themselves dealing with it.

This too shall pass, as the parent company is re-working their banking relationships and will soon be properly capitalized once again.

Five Actions to Improve Resilience

Although none of the misfortune in the stories above could have been anticipated or predicted, you don’t need clairvoyance to buffer adversity’s inevitable impact. This is why each of my clients is moving past their business disruption enduring only short-term pain rather than an existential threat.

Like my clients, you can build resilience in advance of needing it. Each of the following five actions will improve your resilience through the ups and downs of your firm’s journey from point A to point B.

1. Carry Extra Oxygen

This is a concept outlined by Jim Collins in his book, Good To Great. The message is to avoid operating your business too close to the margins. Ask yourself: How much do we have in reserve for when something goes wrong?

This isn’t just about having a financial emergency fund—it extends to all domains of your business, including risk management, staffing, overreliance on certain customers, and more. Cash in the bank won’t help much, for example, if your top salesperson quits tomorrow. Instead, you need a reliable talent pipeline or perhaps even someone waiting in the wings to fill that role.

Where in your business do you need spare oxygen?

2. Refuse to Be a Victim

It’s relatively easy to play the “woe is me” game—especially when your adversity comes from a factor out of your control (as was the case in all of my clients’ scenarios). But you cannot allow yourself to be a victim.

The moment you start feeling sorry for yourself or blame others, you hinder your ability to drive forward to a solution. The best perspective is to view any adversity as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Take some responsibility—regardless of the circumstances—and use that as motivation to improve.

3. Think With “Productive Paranoia”

This is another concept coined by Jim Collins. Big tech leaders like Steve Ballmer at Microsoft and Andy Grove at Intel were notorious for actively looking out for what could go wrong.

Entrepreneurs and leaders are often told to have a positive mindset, and although this certainly has its place, it isn’t universally sound advice. Yes, optimism can serve you, but leaders should avoid being overly optimistic. The reality is that everything is not always great, there are risks associated with every decision, and as we saw above, bad things happen due to uncontrollable circumstances.

There’s nothing non-entrepreneurial about being productively paranoid!

4. Surround Yourself with A-Players

Be cognizant of the company you keep, both internal and external to the firm. This necessarily includes your professional advisory team and your professional networks.

Here’s why: When things go wrong—and they will—you need to have the right people around you to help you figure it out and recover. You never want to be in a position where the spotlight finds you and there’s an audience looking up expectantly at you alone to solve an existential problem.

When adversity rears its ugly head, put yourself in a position when you can circle the wagons with smart people and figure it out together.

5. Have Someone Safe In Your Corner

It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of a billion-dollar firm or an entrepreneur with one employee; all of us are personally vulnerable when enough things go wrong. We’re only human, and if you add enough weight to anyone’s shoulders, they’ll eventually break.

I’ve seen this type of overwhelm lead to some pretty dark places, including family issues, substance abuse, and even suicidal thoughts.

It’s important to realize that struggling to handle the pressures of leadership is NOT a marker of inadequacy. Some of the most impressive leaders I know have someone who’s completely disconnected from the business on speed dial for their mental well-being.

As a coach, I can support my clients to an extent, but over the years I’ve referred more than a few to psychologists who provide an additional, highly qualified layer of support.

When the weight of your leadership moves beyond the norm, find the help you need.

Conclusion

“It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself that determines how your life’s story will develop.” – Dieter F. Uchtdorf

Fortunately, none of the scenarios I shared jeopardize the ongoing viability of my clients’ businesses. But the potential was certainly there if not for their resilience!

It’s likely the adversity you’re experiencing in your business at this moment isn’t going to ruin you either. But tomorrow, next month, or next year it could. Without the proper mindset and actions to improve resilience, the inevitable speed bumps of adversity can feel like mountains standing between you and your goals.

Normalize your perception of adversity, which is inevitable in any worthy and challenging endeavor.  Then focus on the antidote: resilience, which is among the most valuable traits you can possess as a leader and build within your firm.

As you pursue the five actions to improve resilience, you and your team—like my clients—will be better positioned to overcome any challenge you face.

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.

Class Date: December 7, 2023

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good [people] to do what [they want] done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” – Theodore Roosevelt

 Delegation is one of the most valuable management tools at our disposal. Properly deployed, it empowers employees to feel ownership and personal satisfaction in their roles and, statistically, makes organizations more productive and successful.

A Gallup poll found that companies led by CEOs with high delegator talent posted higher growth rates, greater revenue, and more jobs created than those run by CEOs with limited or low delegation abilities.

But learning to strike an effective balance when delegating is easier said than done. For many, delegation feels like a wild roller coaster ride with a peak and two deep valleys on either side.

Productive delegation occurs at the peak, where leaders balance between the two valleys. 

On one side is the valley of micromanagement, where leaders frustrate their teams by meddling, over-directing, and questioning their decisions and actions. On the other is the valley of abdication, where leaders throw projects and tasks at their team and assume things will get done without meaningful oversight or follow-up.

Micromanaging results in a non-scalable, unhealthy codependency between a leader and their team. This results in what I call the “genius with a thousand arms and legs” or hub-and-spoke organization structure, where the leader is like a puppeteer and employees essentially do their boss’s bidding. This structure repels top performers and is frustrating to everyone involved, including the leader!

Abdication, on the other hand, produces inconsistent execution, erratic work quality, and an inability to predictably achieve performance targets. You can’t assume that because you’ve asked someone–even a top performer–to do something, it’s going to magically be done correctly and on time!

It’s critical to overcome whatever prevents you from finding the balance point on the delegation roller coaster, lest you resign yourself to a frustrating, less profitable road ahead. 

Here are four common obstacles that prevent entrepreneurs and leaders from getting out of the delegation dips—and four solutions to find and stay at the balance point.

The Obstacles

Obstacle #1: You Enjoy Doing Shallow Work

Although shallow work—writing reports, creating spreadsheets, organizing calendars, making phone calls—is ripe for delegation, we often shy away from handing it off because it’s comfortable and easy.

In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,  author Cal Newport defines shallow workas tasks that are logistical and not cognitively demanding. To our detriment, shallow work is often at the bullseye of our comfort zone. These tasks can be quite seductive because they make us feel like we’re accomplishing things! In reality, they pull us away from more strategic, more cognitively demanding, more important work that advances the firm.

Obstacle #2: You Don’t Do the Math

Have you ever refrained from delegating a task because the upfront time commitment to show or teach someone how to do something seemed too high? If so, you’re a victim of a psychological concept called “hyperbolic discounting.”

In short, our brains are wired to value short-term rewards over long term gains. It’s the reason we choose a cookie today over a beach body three months from now. 

The same thinking affects your leadership! Sure, you could spend an hour teaching someone how to complete a report—OR you could do it yourself in 15 minutes. But the long-term math on a scenario like this rarely results in any gain!

Let’s imagine the report needs to be completed once per week, and now let’s do the math.

While investing an hour in training someone seems costly in the present, you’ll break even on your time investment in three more weeks and then gain 15 minutes per week in perpetuity. And that’s just from delegating one report!

Obstacle #3: You’re Afraid

Fear is often a primary factor preventing leaders from escaping the valleys of the delegation roller coaster, and it frequently results in overcompensation. 

If you’re afraid of being perceived as a micromanager—perhaps because you worked for one in the past—you’ll either not delegate as much as you should or not follow up appropriately and dive into the valley of abdication.

I’ve found this to be a very common scenario. When I speak about Creating a Culture of Accountability—in particular,  how to use the building blocks of accountability—I’m routinely asked, quite specifically, how to avoid veering into micromanager territory.

Creating accountability without micromanaging is quite straightforward, but if you’re focused on the fear of being perceived as a micromanager, you’re prevented from doing even reasonable things that are part of delegating and following up properly.

At the other end of the spectrum, you might have a fear of letting go. For example, if you’re afraid a team member isn’t going to perform a task as well as you can, it could prevent you from delegating. Ironically, that team member doesn’t necessarily HAVE to perform the task as well as you do in order to be effective, but that’s a difficult barrier for leaders to overcome.

Obstacle #4: You’ve Hired Poorly

Poor hiring is the last of the four obstacles for a reason. There’s a tendency for leaders to blame people first when examining delegation roadblocks. But if you’ve examined the first three obstacles within yourself and your organization and you still have an issue delegating, the root cause may be a people problem.

The wrong people are those who can’t—or won’t—learn, who ask the same questions repeatedly, and who make the same mistakes over and over again. I learned this lesson the hard way as a coach: You cannot coach or train people who have no desire or capacity to learn and change.

The Solutions

Solution #1: Invest Time and Energy

You can’t reasonably expect a return in the absence of an investment.  

When it comes to delegation, your investment consists of time and energy. You have to make sure that the people to whom you’re delegating have the context, knowledge, and capacity to execute what you need them to do the way you need them to do it. Your investment ensures that happens.

It also prevents the “genius with a thousand arms and legs” organizational structure I mentioned earlier, where the leader is the only person who understands the context and process of certain tasks.

Consider investing in your team the same way you might justify the purchase of a tool or piece of equipment that automates something to be faster and more reliable. There’s always an up-front cost, but the payback over time makes it worthwhile. Do the math by asking: How will my up-front investment of time and energy pay off in the future?

Solution #2: Create More Staff Independence and Autonomy

In his book Turn The Ship Around, David Marquet outlines a series of statements called the “Ladder of Leadership” that evolves from “Tell me what to do” (which is what employees expect from leaders who have the answers) through seven incremental steps to “Here’s what I’ve been doing” (which is how highly empowered employees communicate to leadership). This tool helps to engage your team more deeply in what they’re doing and take more ownership of the process and the outcomes.

The trick is to learn how to answer a question with a question before simply providing an answer.

For example, when a team member asks you some version of “what should I do?” respond with:

“What do you think you should do?”

This type of interaction creates learning, and as that learning progresses, it builds autonomy.

Not getting this right is definitely an obstacle to finding the balance point on delegation, because it’s frustrating to have people constantly asking how they should do their job. But consider: The reason they keep asking is because you keep giving them answers! Indeed, even with good intentions, we can create our own monsters.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you stop answering questions. It’s also unfair to assume that 100 percent of the time your staff will know the right answer. But if employees are never in a position where they’re challenged to figure something out on their own, they’ll continue to depend on you for solutions.

Solution #3: Delegate Using The Building Blocks of Accountability

The three building blocks of accountability—expectations, context, and attention—help business leaders find the delegation balance point and gain traction via more accountability from their team.

When delegating something, first communicate your belief in that person or team. The simplest way to say it is “I believe in you,” but you can use any number of variations: “I know this project is a stretch, but you’re more than capable of meeting the challenge,” or “I have no doubt you’re ready to take this on.”

Then, communicate WHY the task is important. Context is a critical component of accountability because it provides important information that helps your team appreciate the bigger picture beyond the work on their desk. Take the time to explain why a role or assignment matters to the firm, to the team, and even to you personally as the leader.

Finally, ensure they know you’re paying attention. Although attention might seem like the most difficult step to implement because it’s more abstract and ongoing than the first two, it doesn’t have to be. It can be a repeatable process, like a three-minute weekly sync, or a quick question/comment in the hallway: “How’s that report coming along? I’ll have it on my desk by Thursday, right?”

By establishing clear, high expectations (I believe in you), thoroughly explaining the context (This is important to me), and paying attention over time (I’m watching), you’ll find the balance point on the delegation roller coaster.

Solution #4: Create Frequent Checkpoints

If you’re still a little nervous about delegation, a good way to combat that anxiety is to create  frequent checkpoints early in the process.

For example, if you’re delegating a 30-day project to someone, you might choose to schedule a check-in after two days where the employee will present their thinking and plan for how they’re going to execute the project.

This interaction will allow you to gain an early understanding of whether they “get it” and are on the right track. It’s also an opportunity for you to offer course correction as warranted, before they are actually off course!

If the early checkpoint goes well, you could choose to schedule the next checkpoint a week later. If, on the other hand, your team member is off the mark, perhaps you could aim to regroup in another day or two after they’ve incorporated your feedback.

Consider these more frequent, early checkpoints an investment, because it’s likely your employee won’t need as much up-front guidance and structure the next time you delegate a similar project.

Conclusion

“If you really want to grow as an entrepreneur, you’ve got to learn to delegate.” — Richard Branson

As you reflect on the four obstacles and the four solutions I’ve provided, it’s important to note that, like relationship statuses on Facebook, delegation is sometimes “complicated.”

Although you might not necessarily experience any one of these obstacles in the extreme, it’s very likely you face two or three of them at a low level. It’s when they act in concert with each other that  you’re unable to escape the dips in the delegation roller coaster.

Take time to consider:

  • Where are you micromanaging and afraid to relinquish control?
  • Where are you abdicating your responsibilities to put structure in place and follow up?
  • Where aren’t you doing the math and thinking like an investor?
  • Where are you creating an unhealthy codependency?

After you identify the obstacles in your way and as you begin to implement the solutions, you’ll escape the delegation valleys and appreciate a more pleasant, less stressful, more profitable view from the peak. 

Importantly, your team will appreciate it too!

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with an accountable culture execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build an accountable culture.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: October 16, 2023

==============================================

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Date: December 7, 2023

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

“Keep it simple.”

Although it’s a phrase even children understand, the irony is that it’s not always easy to achieve.

Have you ever wondered why the creep of complication is a constant in our personal and professional lives? It’s because we tend to value complexity! For example, we think people who talk about complicated things are experts (they’re often not), we favor complicated products over simple ones (they’re not necessarily better or more effective), and we believe it’s worth paying more for complicated features (it’s often not).

Business leaders often exhibit a dulled sense of how growth begets complexity, which springs a trap that slows growth, dilutes cultures, and breeds mediocrity.  This growth trap captures those who can’t or won’t adjust to the reality that as any organization becomes larger, its complexity increases at a rate that’s exponentially faster than its linear rate of growth.

A scaling business works exactly in this way. In your mind, your firm grows in a linear fashion—adding one client, one employee, or even one store or office location at a time. But in reality, with each unit of growth, you add multiple layers of complexity to accommodate communications, processes, required materials, resources, and more.

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This is one of the main reasons that businesses struggle at scale. At the extreme, complexity swamps organizations and destroys value. 

It’s up to leaders to understand that linear growth is an illusion and that the inevitable complexity must be incorporated into the planning, structure, and execution of the firm.

In other words, it’s your job to keep things simple!

Before I share a few techniques to simplify your organization, it’s important to distinguish between simplicity and being simplistic. By saying you should strive for simplicity, I’m not suggesting every facet of your organization can or should be elementary. Every industry requires a deep understanding of certain technical aspects and nuances.

For example, consider the engine in your car. Internal combustion engines are quite simple—they convert air and fuel into mechanical energy—but designing an engine to do that reliably for 100,000-plus miles is anything but simplistic!

What follows are three key areas where your business may become unnecessarily complicated as you scale—and questions you can ask to simplify your operation. Although the questions themselves are quite simple, the thought processes required to produce the answers will be anything but.

Key Area #1: Business Model and Strategy

When you don’t have a clear business model and strategy, business can feel very complicated and stressful. You might be doing too many things at once or trying to please too many different types of customers. Even worse, if your business model isn’t solid, you’ll be trying to build your firm on a shaky foundation.

These three questions will help simplify your thinking about both business model and strategy:

Who is Our Core Customer?

An ideal or core customer must meet all three of the following criteria:

  1. They are a real person with wants, needs, and fears;
  2. They will buy for optimal profit; and
  3. They pay on time, are loyal, and refer others.

Leaders often mistakenly identify their core customers as those who bring in the most revenue or have been with the firm the longest. But just because they’re big or long-standing doesn’t necessarily mean they fit all three criteria! In fact, misidentified core customers are most likely to be eroding your profit and making your strategy more complicated.

Use this process to create a simple, clear statement that identifies your core customer:

  • Name 5-10 of your current customers who meet all three core customer criteria as described above. Name PEOPLE, not companies!
  • Consider those people specifically and identify a handful of common demographic patterns among them. Demographics are concrete and verifiable attributes like age, marital status, income, etc.
  • Next, consider those people again and identify a handful of common psychographic patterns among them. Psychographics are subjective and non-verifiable attributes like wants, fears, motivations, likes, dislikes, etc.
  • Create a short statement that describes your core customer using the most relevant demographic and psychographic characteristics.

Here’s how these elements came together to describe a residential painting contractor’s core customer:

“A central New Jersey homeowner with $100k+ household income who is active in their community and proud of their home.”

Now that you’ve identified your core customer, it’s time to ensure that all marketing and selling activities are optimized to find, attract, and win their business. Don’t continue trying to be all things to all people (and firms)!  Rather, become a fantastic fit for your core customer and focus your resources on them.

What is the value we create for our customers?

Just because you can describe your core customer doesn’t necessarily mean you understand or create optimal value for them. Consider: people don’t pay thousands of dollars for Louis Vuitton luggage because they need a place to pack their socks! Rather, LV’s value to their core customer is prestige and exclusivity.

Go beyond the obvious here. For example, is your value Convenience? Quality? Affordability? Time savings? Prestige? Or something else?

Thinking more deeply about your core customer’s wants and needs, and answering this question thoughtfully will simplify your firm’s strategy.

Now that you’ve identified the value you create for your core customer, you can ensure that all communication, design, and operational activities are optimized to deliver it.

How do we deliver our value and make a profit?

The answer to this “How” question is the essence of strategy. Clarity here enables better decision-making, more productive prioritization, and more effective allocation of resources.

There are countless options and trade-offs to consider here, including:

  • Direct to consumer vs. retail or channel sales?
  • Product vs. service—or both?
  • One-time purchases vs. subscription offerings?
  • And more!

Of course, there are important operational implications for each of these choices, which is why it’s so critical to clarify and articulate your “How.”

Key Area #2: People

Although most firms rely on staff to operate and scale, people can be challenging to lead and manage, particularly as organizations grow.

Answer these three questions to simplify the job of scaling your team while reducing the potential for people-induced headaches and drama.

Would I enthusiastically rehire every member of my team?

I pose this question to leaders because it forces them to take a brutally honest look at their team. Note the key word in the question: enthusiastically.

Considering this instantly shines a light on people who aren’t a good fit, people you’ve been tolerating, and people who are underperforming. Whenever your answer is anything less than an emphatic YES, pay attention! There’s something going on that is making your business more complicated than it should be.

You are only as good as your weakest link. But it’s often difficult to identify a weak link, acknowledge the problem, and/or make the decision to remove someone from the organization. 

Here’s the embedded complexity: You accept mediocrity because you’re busy, people are hard to find and hire, you’re unwilling to accept a hard truth, you’re emotionally entangled with some of your staff, or—let’s be honest here—you’re overly dependent on some of your worst offenders. So you tolerate the weak links.

Stop tolerating mediocrity and get the right people on your team. Click here for a deeper dive on this topic.

Does every role in the firm have clear outcomes?

It’s on you, the leader, to clearly communicate to every employee what is expected of their role. After all, if your people don’t understand what they are expected to produce, how can you reasonably expect them to deliver?

Creating a Role Accountability card with the three most important outcomes for every role in your firm simplifies and documents expectations. Notice I said outcomes, not activities. Most organizations I’ve encountered are activity-focused—for example, a salesperson calls prospective clients, qualifies prospects, and closes deals. But we pay salespeople to produce outcomes like signed contracts, revenue, and gross margin.

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Sample Role Accountability Card for a COO / Operations Leader

The same activity vs. outcome issue applies to every role in your organization. Activities are verbs; outcomes are nouns—simple and clear. If you don’t have role accountability cards for each position in your organization, you should create them now. This article shows you how.

Has our firm’s culture been clearly defined with specific behaviors?

Your organization has a culture whether you’ve purposefully defined it or not. Is yours “accidental,” or has it been intentionally created and cultivated?

A small number of Core Values are the building blocks of culture, but the values themselves aren’t enough. They’re of limited utility until you link each of them to specific behaviors, commonly supplied as a one-to-two sentence description that accompanies each Core Value. Those specific behaviors provide clarity around what is expected and serve as a coaching tool for managers.

Productive cultures don’t typically happen by accident. Expend the time and energy to define and create yours with clarity and intention. You’ll hire better fit staff, improve overall esprit de corps, and retain more top performers–keeping things simple as you scale.

Key Area #3: Execution

The measure of great execution is consistent growth and profitability, as well as drama-free day-to-day operations. These three questions will help simplify and improve your execution:

What are our 1-3 priorities for the year?

This is a super simple question and a great way to streamline your thinking about the business. I’ve always said that if everything’s a priority, nothing is, and if you have 10 priorities or chase shiny objects, you’ll make things far more complicated than necessary.

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Vilfredo Pareto

To get clear on priorities, use a principle from 19th century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto was the brains behind the 80-20 Rule, the idea that a small fraction of things exert an influence on the vast majority of outcomes. 

That’s certainly true when we think about prioritization. You want to identify the one-to-three things that produce maximum value and propel you in the direction you want to go. Each priority, of course, should have a single point of accountability, and you should make sure you’re communicating and engaging the company around your priorities throughout the year.

Does every employee attend a daily huddle and a weekly team meeting?

Communication is one of the areas where the complexity bug bites the hardest. As the organization scales, you have more clients, employees, and/or locations, and the task of effectively communicating across those channels grows exponentially more complicated. Suddenly, it feels like nobody knows what’s going on!

It’s likely you’ve been on the receiving end of poor communication at some point in your career. It’s not fun, it’s stressful, and you can literally see the wasted time, energy, and resources all around you.

To combat this, put every employee in a daily huddle with their team. Huddles should be just 10-15 minutes maximum with the singular purpose of synchronization. You don’t debate, you don’t solve problems; you just make sure the team is in sync for the day. Consistency is important, so conduct the huddles every day!

Every employee should also attend a weekly meeting with their team. This one is longer (30-60 minutes), replaces the daily huddle that day, and it gives everyone time and space to dig into how the team is doing. The weekly meeting is where people can identify, discuss, and solve the right questions to continually improve.

Do each of our core processes have a single point of accountability?

Every organization has two-to-four core processes that are the guts of your operation. For example, most firms have some form of a client acquisition process—a combination of marketing and sales. Then there are core processes typically involving design, production, delivery, and more.

The problem is, while most organizational action is vertical in nature (think departments and teams), core processes tend to run horizontally across different departments and teams. As a result, core processes can get sloppy over time! It’s also easy to lose sight of the need for a single accountable person for each core process. Clarifying your two-to-four core processes and single point accountability for each helps keep things simple, even as your organization continues to grow.

Conclusion

“Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”  – Steve Jobs

Your company is a factory. Regardless of whether you produce goods or services, you convert raw materials and processes into value for your customers.

But as your factory grows, it’s increasingly susceptible to the growth trap and will become exponentially more complex unless you’ve actively and consistently worked to simplify things.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a “one-and-done” process! If your company is gaining ground—and I hope it is—each new milestone of growth will introduce new problems and complexities that must be addressed to continue your journey.

Review these questions annually with your team to continually assess and evolve your approach to Business Model and Strategy, People, and Execution. Done right, you’ll stay ahead of the complexity curve by arriving at the simple, powerful answers clearing the way to the future you envision.

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Date: Dates for Fall 2023 Classing Coming Soon!

==============================================

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with an accountable culture execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build an accountable culture.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: Dates for Fall 2023 Classes Coming Soon!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”
— Tim Hiller

When was the last time you thought about how you compare to others? The context may have been as an entrepreneur, a business leader, a homeowner, a spouse, or a parent.

For most, it’s within the past 24 hours—but more likely, it was within the last 60 minutes!

Comparisons are inevitable. In fact, we perpetually assess our personal and social value by measuring ourselves against others. This is a function of Ego—our judging and comparing self. Studies suggest approximately 10 percent of our daily thoughts are comparisons. We use them to evaluate our actions, our accomplishments, and our opinions.

Your Ego cranked up at a relatively young age, as you began noticing some of your peers could run faster on the playground, others had more friends, and perhaps more than a few performed better on spelling tests. Through comparison, your Ego creates your psychological immune system, which helps justify your “rightness” in the world and protects your sense of “self.”

As we become adults and business leaders, our comparisons become more complex. We’re constantly comparing our circumstances and status to others to assess how we’re doing. Sometimes these comparisons are overt—for example, analyzing performance data from firms in your industry. But often, our comparisons are unconscious: Maybe you’re angry or upset about certain results or a lost deal, so you peek over the metaphorical fence to see how others are doing.

Your Ego compares and judges, but ultimately, fabricates conclusions to justify your feelings (and sense of “self”).

On one hand, comparison (dressed up professionally as the term “benchmarking”) is important for any business because you don’t ever want to operate in a vacuum. On the other hand, it can have serious operational consequences because of two potential pitfalls:

  1. Comparisons are rarely apples-to-apples. You may be benchmarking against a metric or a set of conditions you don’t fully understand, which creates a false impression of your position relative to the benchmark (Fact: “We just lost another deal to X-Corp because of price.” Assumption: “They’re profitable at a lower price, therefore we need to be profitable at lower price to compete!”).
  2. Your interpretation of benchmark data leads you to create a false ceiling that diminishes creativity, momentum, and performance (“The best margins in our industry are 18 percent, so it’s great that we’re almost there.”).

Regardless of whether you’re setting the bar too high or too low, the results of professional comparison can be more dangerous than value-generating if you don’t do it correctly.

Here are four areas where you should be careful and deliberate about how you benchmark:

Employee Performance

Employee benchmarking tends to be internal. For example, if you’re running a sales organization, you likely have some staff who are very high performers, some who are moderate performers, and (hopefully) a small number who aren’t very good at all.

If your highest performer is producing $3 million a year, and your average performer is producing $1.4 million a year, the tendency is to look at the high performer as your benchmark for what should be achievable for everybody on the team.

There’s logic to this thinking—but the problem is, how do you know $3 million is a good benchmark? What if another person came in and produced $5 million? How would you look at the production of your $3 million earner?

Unless your top performer is the best in the world—and odds are they aren’t—there’s a huge risk in internally benchmarking against them.

When you benchmark against your own internal high performer, you create an artificial ceiling and an expectation of “this is as good as it gets.” It’s the same belief that played out in the 1952 Olympics when Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes. At the time, experts believed that running a sub-four-minute mile was physically impossible, but once Bannister broke through, it took just 46 days for another runner to cross the four-minute threshold. As of June 6, 2022, 1,755 athletes have run a mile in less than four minutes!

Unless your top performer is the best in the world—and odds are they aren’t—there’s a huge risk in internally benchmarking against them.

Rather, make sure you’re continually challenging top performers in every area of your business. Believe that there is always more potential and that something’s being left on the table. Don’t ever label employee performance ceilings. Push them!

Peer Group Members

Forums and peer groups have become ubiquitous fixtures in the global business community, including Entrepreneur’s Organization (EO), Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and countless practitioner-facilitated and industry groups. There are two common benchmarking problems here: Lack of context and false ceilings.

Most leaders show up to these peer groups with their Egos and internal narratives in overdrive: “How do I stack up? Where are we better? Where do we lag?” 

I work with a client who meets with and benchmarks against numerous peers in their industry (non-competitively, because they’re in different geographic markets). During one of our monthly meetings, the CFO shared rolling 12-month benchmarked profitability data from one of their more profitable peers. On paper, the peer firm looked ridiculously profitable, which the leadership team found rather demoralizing!

I challenged them on their wholesale acceptance of the data, pointing out they had no idea what was actually happening behind the other firm’s spreadsheet. As it turned out, my hunch was correct. The peer company had included their Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) funds in their operational results, inflating their profits. The PPP was a pandemic-era US government forgivable loan given to qualified businesses that, when forgiven, created a windfall profit. My client was benchmarking against an unachievable target because they’d rightly excluded their PPP funds from their own operational performance data. 

You could spend all day beating yourself up about a comparison scenario like this, but the reality is, if you don’t understand the context of what you’re benchmarking against, it doesn’t work.

The second problem with comparing yourself to peer groups is that it’s also relatively easy to construct false ceilings.

There’s a double-edged sword here: By nature, peers are equals. That’s a good thing, because you’re with others who experience similar problems, challenges, and opportunities. The risk, though, is that your peers also likely share your fears, bad habits, and anxieties. When you compare yourself to them too closely, you’re liable to create artificial ceilings for yourself (“Bob and his team can’t solve their staffing problems, so maybe it’s okay that we haven’t solved ours yet either.”).

If you don’t understand the context of what you’re benchmarking against, it doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe peer groups are beneficial and it’s certainly nice to have others with you in the same boat. But you have to ensure your peers challenge you and add to your growth because overly sympathetic peers, even with the best intentions, will reinforce and reward your status quo.

The remedy here is to ensure diversity in your professional neighborhood by including people several steps (or more!) beyond your level of sophistication and success. They’ll call out your BS, challenge you, and help you elevate your game.

Industry Data

No matter your industry, there’s plenty of data out there about it—from consulting groups like McKinsey or Gartner, government agencies, trade publications, and more. And while external data is critical to consider as you formulate strategy and plan, it can be a serious handicap if you don’t use it correctly.

For example, just because industry data shows you’re being outperformed in a particular area doesn’t necessarily mean you have a problem. It could mean you have a different strategy, or there are outside factors baked into the data that you aren’t seeing. The result is, like Miguel de Cervantes’ famous character Don Quixote, you risk fighting windmills you mistake for giants, which can distract you from your true priorities.

Of course, the inverse of this scenario can also be true. A particular set of data might indicate you’re performing well in comparison to your industry, which can cause you to mentally set a ceiling for your success. The data validates your progress, so you stop pushing or asking yourself how you can improve. 

Rather than let data draw the finish line, ask yourself how you can keep going. Remember: Don’t label performance ceilings. Push them!

Economic Indicators

In my 25 years as a coach, I’ve been through all manner of economic seasons: up cycles, down cycles; bull and bear markets; recessions and surpluses. What I’ve learned during these times is that there’s a significant element of self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to economic forecasts. If people believe it’s happening, they’ll somehow make it happen.

Too many leaders automatically assume, absent any rigorous thinking, that macroeconomic factors will impact their business. The truth is that those factors may play a role in your firm’s outlook, but there are plenty of situations where your “individual economy” can be vastly different from the economy of your country or region.

If people believe it’s happening, they’ll somehow make it happen.

John D. Rockefeller’s empire was built not during prosperous times in the United States, but in times of economic fear: the Civil War, the panics of 1873 and 1907, and the stock market crash of 1929. While others retreated in fear, Rockefeller approached each of these economic downturns with logic and self-discipline, which enabled him to spot opportunities where others saw none.

Similarly, I have a client that has shattered almost every possible performance record this year, despite the doomsday prognosticators warning of a recession. To be clear, I’m not advocating you ignore economic data and take irresponsible risks, but you should be aware of the assumptions you make when you over-weigh it. 

Conversely, you shouldn’t use economic indicators as an excuse to let off the gas, either. Settling for mediocre metrics and blaming it on the economy is victim-based thinking, which is dangerous in any season.

Don’t let your perception of broad economic conditions shape your perception of your capabilities. Set your course and keep pushing.

Conclusion

“We won’t be distracted by comparison if we are captivated with purpose.”
– Bob Goff

One of the most important things you can control as a leader is your perspective. It’s inevitable that your brain will push you to make comparisons between your firm and others, but it’s critical for you to appropriately challenge this default setting. Absent that, ill-informed benchmarking can do you far more harm than good.

Remember:

  1. Comparisons are rarely apples-to-apples. Looking at something or someone  seemingly outperforming you can set a false and perhaps unachievable standard when you don’t have the full context behind the data.
  2. It’s easy to establish false ceilings for performance when you benchmark through a very narrow lens of comparison and focus on what you (or those around you) think is possible.

Although comparisons are inevitable and an essential part of being human, it’s critical for leaders to utilize every possible method and precaution to benchmark deliberately, logically, and with care. 

In other words, be sure to keep your eyes on your own prize more so than on the achievements of others.

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Date: August 2, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with an accountable culture execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build an accountable culture.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: Dates for Fall 2023 Classes Coming Soon!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“The best defense is a good offense, and I intend to start offending right now.” — Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek

For millennia, leaders have known that the best defense is a good offense. Among others, these sentiments have been attributed to George Washington, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Mao Zedong, each of whom certainly knew his way around a war.

Yet in business and in life it’s surprisingly easy to default to a defensive mindset, despite the fact we know playing too conservatively can undermine our achievements. For instance, when you worry about limited resources or a general lack of something you need, it’s almost impossible to make the hard, right decisions to advance because everything feels too risky.

Psychologists call this state of mind scarcity-based thinking. We develop a scarcity mindset when we focus on what we lack—or think we’ll be lacking. This can include time, money, relationships, or just about any other resource. Due to its ubiquity and damaging impact, scarcity is one of the “big three” fears I addressed in my first book, Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done. 

We develop a scarcity mindset when we focus on what we lack—or think we’ll be lacking.

A scarcity mindset served humans well when our day-to-day survival was less assured than it is today. We’re much less concerned now about starving or lacking shelter, but the wiring remains in our brains. For instance, politicians manipulate this instinct by invoking fear via scarcity thinking to rally voters against their rivals.

Fear is a tremendous driver of human behavior and chances are somehow, somewhere, scarcity-based thinking is influencing your decision-making as a leader. Here are four pitfalls of scarcity-based thinking in leadership and three tools to help overcome them.

Scarcity Thinking Undermines Right People, Right Seats

As a leader, the most critical question you can ask is who? Putting the Right People in the Right Seats is the most fundamental, critical ongoing decision process any leader will ever face. But scarcity-based thinking can prevent us from making hard, right choices around people.

Let’s say you have an employee who’s a good producer, but they’re a poor cultural fit and toxic to your team. You know you should show them the door, but you worry about the loss of revenue (or profit) that would result from their dismissal, or the time and resources required to find, hire, and train their replacement. And even then, what if the new hire doesn’t work out?

The fear of lacking resources in this all-too-common scenario causes even the most seasoned leaders to take pause—or even justify retaining a problematic person who is likely making their coworkers miserable most days of the week.

On the other hand, I’ve never had a business leader fire a problem employee and say, “You know, we should have kept them on for another six months.” Rather, they usually come to me with a sheepish look on their face and say, “I should have done that a year ago.”

Key Question for Leaders: Are you justifying your staffing choices with what if scenarios or making the hard, right decisions to build your team?

Scarcity Thinking Prolongs Unprofitable Relationships

Similar to its effect on Right People, Right Seats decision making, scarcity-based thinking also affects relationships in other areas of your business.

I periodically challenge my coaching clients to examine their relationships with clients, suppliers, partners, etc. and ask who they’d like to “fire.” Most leaders easily identify these unprofitable and/or energy sapping relationships, but when it comes to actually cutting the ties, they balk.

Here again, we observe the scarcity mindset hard at work. Leaders rationalize maintaining those relationships because they worry about the consequences of lack. Yes, they acknowledge that Client A is borderline abusive to their employees and a huge time suck, but how will they replace their revenue? Or yes, they acknowledge Supplier B has a quality problem that costs time and money, but how much time will it take to bring a new supplier online?

Avoiding those hard, right actions out of fear drains time, profits, and positive emotions from your firm. Just like firing a problematic employee, you’ll never look back and wish you’d held onto an unprofitable relationship for longer.

Key Question for Leaders: Which client/supplier/partner relationships should you upgrade and replace to improve your business?

Scarcity Thinking Nullifies Prioritization

Scarcity-based thinking also diminishes leadership efficacy in prioritization. A small number of thoughtfully conceived priorities informs resource allocation. Put another way, your priorities guide what you and your team should say “yes” and “no” to, improving your firm’s focus and accelerating the accomplishment of “most important” things.

But with a scarcity mindset, leaders tend to worry that the priorities they selected aren’t the right ones or that by defining explicit and precise priorities they might miss opportunities that fall just outside of their chosen path. The scarcity fear here manifests as classic FOMO—the Fear of Missing Out.

This FOMO causes leaders to chase other ventures or projects that don’t align with their focus. They effectively say “yes” to things beyond the bounds of their agreed upon priorities and justify this “shiny object syndrome” as a way to mitigate the risk of losing out.

Key Question for Leaders: What “shiny objects” are distracting you and your team due to your FOMO?

Scarcity Thinking Promotes Underinvestment in Growth

Whether you’re a leader with a big plan or an entrepreneur aiming to scale your business, you have to take smart risks to get there. I’m not talking about betting everything, but rather a willingness to make investments likely to pay off with growth.

Growth-minded leaders take calculated risks because they understand that growing requires a certain amount of risk and associated discomfort. But as I mentioned earlier, scarcity-based thinkers tend to be risk averse for fear of losing or not being able to replace resources.

Studies show that leaders with a scarcity mindset make choices based solely on the potential of catastrophe—no matter how unlikely. In other words, they habitually overestimate risk.

As a result, they underinvest, pinch pennies, and stretch their existing resources—including people—to the limit. It’s the exact opposite of the success formula for growth!

Key Question for Leaders: What calculated risks are you avoiding due to a fear of lack?

Three Tools (and a Bonus Strategy!) to Reduce Scarcity-Based Thinking

Here’s the good news: You can actively combat a scarcity mindset and shift your thinking from fear (moving away from what you don’t want) to inspiration (moving toward what you want). Here are a handful of easy-to-use tools to help get you there:

Fear Reduction Tool

The Fear Reduction Tool will help you reduce the emotion that fuels scarcity-based thinking while also increasing the logic supporting something you’d like to accomplish. Access the Fear Reduction Tool here.

Know Your Why Tool

Increasing inspiration is an analogous but inverted process to reducing fear, and it is of equal importance. Here, we’re looking to increase emotional involvement and decrease logical thinking to inspire action. Access the Know Your Why Tool here.

New Neighborhood Tool

When was the last time you deliberately put yourself in a position to be challenged by others more accomplished than you? 

The people with whom you surround yourself—your neighborhood—have a massive impact on your mindset. If you spend most of your time with others who are at or below your current level of success, odds are they share many of your fears, biases, and blindspots. Accordingly, although knowing that others have the same issues as you can be comforting, they’re not the right people to challenge your motivators, habits, and beliefs! The New Neighborhood Tool helps you identify those best positioned to help you stretch, learn, grow, plan, and execute in your business. Access the New Neighborhood Tool here.

Bonus Strategy: Lean Into Gratitude

By definition, a scarcity-based mindset focuses on lack—what you don’t have. Gratitude, on the other hand, highlights what you already have. This isn’t “woo woo” stuff, so stick with me here—the brain science supporting gratitude is rock solid. Over time, focusing on gratitude puts your mind into a place where you have a firmer foundation and it helps you become more willing to take the right kind of risks.

Here’s the simple, time-efficient way I help my clients lean into gratitude: They begin every weekly leadership team meeting with a round of appreciation. Every team member states one personal and one professional thing they have appreciation for. Try it and stick with it. You’ll be amazed at how it improves relationships on your teams and the results of your time together.

Conclusion

“What drives innovation is abundance and ease, not the pressure of scarcity.” — Adam Gopnik 

The desire to get more of something “good” or less of something “bad” lies at the root of every human thought and behavior. The “good” includes thoughts about expansion, abundance, growth, and possibility. This is inspiration. The “bad” encompasses anxieties about contraction, scarcity, and the urge to protect ourselves. This is fear.

Evaluate your default leadership mindset with the following questions:

  • How often do I tend to move away from loss rather than toward gains?
  • How often do I procrastinate on making good, hard decisions for fear of their consequences?
  • How often do I flip-flop on decisions after being swayed by outside influences?
  • How often do I choose to give up potential good things in order to maintain what I have—even if there are significant downsides?

With your answers and the tools outlined above, you have a much better chance of reducing the costly impact of scarcity-based thinking on your leadership and your results. You’ll move from defense to offense more often, which will accelerate progress toward your aspirations.

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with an accountable culture execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build an accountable culture.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: July 20, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Date: August 2, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“You are rich if and only if money you refuse tastes better than money you accept.”Nassim Taleb

Anyone who’s raised or been around young children is all too familiar with the word “no.” 

“Noes” begin when toddlers take agency over their lives and make choices based on their preferences. “No, I don’t want to go to bed. No, I don’t want to pick up my toys. No, I don’t want peas with dinner. No, I don’t want to wear any clothing today!” Sound familiar?

Reflecting on my own personal experience, the endless and relentless flow of “noes” can be supremely frustrating for parents and other adults!

But if you’re willing to be curious and stick with me, there’s a high-stakes lesson here for leaders:

What our toddlers seem to understand is that every time they say “no” to one thing, they are able to say “yes” to something else they deem more valuable.

As adults and as leaders, we often lose sight of this profoundly powerful concept! 

What our toddlers seem to understand is that every time they say “no” to one thing, they are able to say “yes” to something else they deem more valuable.

We say “yes” to please others. We say “yes” because we want to be well-liked. We say “yes” to keep up with competitors or out of fear that if we don’t, we could miss out on a big opportunity. In other words, we say “yes” more than we say “no” and routinely occupy ourselves (and our teams) with less valuable pursuits.

Although many of these choices might seem reasonable at the moment, all they really do is move you away from other, more valuable options—including your goals and aspirations!

Here’s the hard truth: There are both apparent and hidden costs associated with every “yes” choice you make. You invest in those choices financially, physically, emotionally, or with the most valuable commodity of all: Time.

Where are you saying “yes” when you should be saying “no?” And even more critically, do your “noes” really mean “no?”

Here are four areas where high performing leaders embrace their inner toddler:

Growing People

Let’s open with a classic dilemma for leaders and managers: Should I fix a problem myself, or teach someone else to do it?

If you aspire to grow and scale, it’s imperative to elevate yourself above the day-to-day to a more strategic level. To get there, you and all of the leaders in your organization must actively build capability among the next level of leadership (or future leaders). Intellectually, this makes sense, yet when a real-world problem arises and alarm bells are ringing, your natural instinct is to fix things yourself.

In that moment, you’ll likely reason it will be more efficient or effective (or both) to do it yourself. You’ll also probably make a mental note that you really ought to show others how to handle issues like this when you have more time. And there’s the rub: You never make the time.

By saying “yes” to solving the problem, you’re actually saying “no” to scaling your business and helping your employees grow.

I get it—the math often makes these types of decisions daunting. It’s much easier to spend 15 minutes taking care of something than it is to find an hour to properly teach someone. But in six months, when you’re frustrated that your next-level leadership can’t do anything by themselves, you’ll regret it. It’s not that they’re incompetent—it’s that you said “no” repeatedly to investing the time it takes to scale your business properly and sustainably. 

By saying “yes” to solving the problem, you’re actually saying “no” to scaling your business and helping your employees grow.

Key Takeaway for Leaders: Say “no” to doing things yourself so you can say “yes” to growing your people and creating a more scalable organization. Ensure your extended leadership team does the same.

Business Strategy

Your Strategy captures HOW you intend to attain the WHAT, defined by your goals. As such, strategy directly informs choices and actions that need to occur—and in some cases not occur—to achieve your aspirations.

The data is pretty clear that a narrow business strategy is far more effective than a broad one. For example, trying to be many things to many people is not nearly as effective as trying to be one thing to a lot of people or a robust package of things to a small group of people.

But as you taste success and as your business grows, it becomes tempting to chase “shiny objects.”

When you say “yes” to the distraction, you say “no” to your strategy.

These projects or opportunities aren’t consistent with your strategy, but you rationalize your way into them. You think “we could make a lot of money doing this,” or “this isn’t that far off from what we said we wanted to do,” or my favorite, “it won’t take much time or effort.”

When you say “yes” to the distraction, you say “no” to your strategy.

Leaders with shiny object syndrome completely demoralize their hard-working teams. I’ve been in rooms with CEOs who have directed employees to chase distractions, and you can see the light drain from their team’s eyes when they say something like “it’ll barely take any time and the potential upside is massive!”

To the contrary, as a leader, you should be the one constantly aligning everyone to your vision. You should be the one saying “no” to keep everyone else on track.

Key Takeaway For Leaders: Say “no” to distractions and shiny objects so you can say “yes” to your business strategy.

Company Culture

Company culture is defined through core values—or “cultural commitments,” as one of my clients calls them. Although your cultural commitments are specific behaviors you’ve agreed to say “yes” to, I frequently see leaders underinvesting in building their culture while simultaneously tolerating non-compliant behaviors.

As with shiny object syndrome, leaders often rationalize non-compliant cultural commitment behaviors by pointing out unrelated virtues possessed by the violators. Here’s what that sounds like: “Yes, I know that Bobby in sales is a bully and a jerk, but he’s the highest-performing salesperson we have.” This mode of rationalization places all of the focus on the cost of potentially firing Bobby, with zero weight on the ongoing damage he’s inflicting on the rest of your team which, in these cases, is typically horrible. 

These behavioral concessions are a slippery slope. By allowing non-compliant behavior to occur, even if you never utter a spoken word, you say “yes” to that behavior and “no” to your cultural commitments in full view of every employee! 

By extension, you’re effectively saying “no” to building the right culture, “no” to attracting and retaining the right people, and “no” to feeling good about the type of business you’re building.

By allowing non-compliant behavior to occur, even if you never utter a spoken word, you say “yes” to that behavior and “no” to your cultural commitments in full view of every employee.

You might not realize this at the time, but by not correcting off-culture behaviors—or occasionally showing an employee the exit—you forfeit all of those things.

Key Takeaway For Leaders: Say “no” to culturally non-compliant behaviors so you can say “yes” to building the organization you really want to run.

Prioritization

You’ve heard the old saying a million times: “If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Yet this is one of the primary reasons I see businesses struggling to grow.

You and each leader on your team should have a very short list of one, two, or three priorities at any moment in time. This list denotes the guidelines for what you should say “yes” to and how you should allocate your resources. Anything outside of your priorities should be an automatic “no” unless the priorities are on track and on time.

At the leadership level, saying “yes” to non-priorities slows everything down.

Not only should you say “no” to new things that come up for yourself, but you should also not tolerate your people focusing their time and attention on non-priorities. Unclear priorities weaken the company’s execution and demoralize staff, as everyone is working hard but meaningful progress seems elusive.

At the leadership level, saying “yes” to non-priorities slows everything down. You wonder why you’re not growing the way you should be, or why things aren’t getting easier. It’s all because you’re saying “yes” to the things you should be saying “no” to.

Key Takeaway For Leaders: Say “no” to non-priorities and distractions so you can say “yes” to the most important things that will advance your firm.

Conclusion

“What you don’t do determines what you can do.” — Tim Ferriss

Leadership can feel like being on a medieval torture rack—you’re constantly being stretched in a thousand directions by the pull of others. Without a clear understanding of your “yeses” and your “noes,” you’ll be ripped apart. 

In other words, if you don’t choose the “yeses” and “noes” for yourself, others will “choose” them for you:

  • The middle manager on your team single-handedly solving problems as the rest of their staff stagnate in their roles.
  • The Inc. Magazine writer’s shiny new idea cannibalizes traction from your business strategy.
  • The toxic, high performer stays employed and erodes your culture.
  • Personal agendas arising from unclear priorities erode execution, slow results, and exhaust your hard-working staff.

Channel your inner toddler

Get clear on your “yeses:” Your commitment to growing people, your business strategy, your cultural commitments, and your priorities.

Then, stay true to them no matter what. Your “yeses” must mean “yes,” and your “noes” must mean “no,” in both words and deeds.

Channel your inner toddler, stay true to the highest value prizes in your sights, and don’t let anyone divert you from remaining relentlessly focused on the things that are the most important to your success.

=============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Date: May 25, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with an accountable culture execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build an accountable culture.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: May 31, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Whatever you are willing to put up with is exactly what you will have.” – Anonymous

Introduction

In 1987, the New Jersey State Police received a report that a hunter had died on a small patch of land jutting into the Delaware River called Finns Point, however they refused to retrieve the body.

Their reasoning? It was outside of their jurisdiction.

As it turned out, neither New Jersey nor its neighboring state Delaware were sure within which state’s boundaries the Finns Point peninsula belonged. Because neither state claimed the land, it was unmonitored and unpatrolled.

Over 30 years later, the ownership of Finns Point remains unresolved. As a result, the area has become a magnet for abandoned vehicles, garbage, and illegal activity. While this no-man’s land between the two states has become somewhat of a joke to state legislators and geography buffs, the unclear boundary has essentially rendered the land useless.

Boundaries matter!

I recently met the CEO of a $100+ million firm who was having trouble achieving his goals. His problem: no boundaries. He and his team weren’t singularly focused on their execution plan because he entertained numerous distractions in the form of “shiny new projects” that seemed important but weren’t driving the business forward. This CEO had neither defined nor enforced a clear line delineating what he and his team should say “no” to.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of a boundary is “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.” Clearly, they’re not only for maps! 

A boundary is an expectation of when, where, and how you say “yes” or “no.” For example, the New Jersey State Police say “no” to recover a body from land outside the defined boundary of the state. As a business leader you can create boundaries that clarify how and when you expect your team to act, the scope of products and services you offer, your business model, your availability to the team, and more.

Boundaries can also be personal. For instance, consider a boundary that states you’re not going to miss any of your daughter’s softball games this season. This is a boundary of your time designed to compel you to leave the office early enough to make each game without exception.

Clear boundaries make us and our organizations better.

They can apply to you, your team, staff, customers, partners, and suppliers. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to set and enforce the right boundaries to help you achieve your goals.

Here are five areas where adding boundaries will accelerate your progress:

Time and Availability

“Boundaries are a part of self-care. They are healthy, normal, and necessary.” – Doreen Virtue

When I launched my coaching practice, I established several boundaries around my time and availability. For example, I made a rule that I don’t schedule client time on weekends. Ever.

As a result, my coaching clients know not to ask me to schedule time on weekends. They also don’t call me on weekends unless there is an existential emergency. Has that happened on occasion? Of course. But because my clients are so clear on the boundary, if a client calls me at 5 p.m. on a Saturday I’m going to answer immediately, because I know it’s a real emergency.

This simple time-based boundary allows me to live my life my way. I can enjoy every weekend and not think about client commitments. What’s more, I return to the office every Monday refreshed and focused because my work and personal time are clearly delineated.

To set boundaries in this domain, you might make yourself available for questions during a designated chunk of time but make it clear to your staff that outside of those office hours, you are doing focused work and should not be disturbed.

Likewise, you might set boundaries with your team about working outside of business hours. The tech company Slack, for example, forbids its employees from sending any communication on nights and weekends. Its unofficial company motto is, “Work Hard and Go Home.”  

If you’re not setting boundaries around your or your team’s time, other people will run your life. And likely, it won’t be in the direction you want it to run.

Strategy

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘No’ to almost everything.” — Warren Buffet

Although most leaders understand the importance of a good business strategy, they don’t necessarily know what strategy is. Strategy is essentially a stated commitment of HOW you intend to execute to achieve your organization’s goals.

As such, strategy is a boundary. It delineates which activities and decisions are acceptable and, by omission, which aren’t.

The beauty of a good strategy is that it should cause you to say NO far more than you say YES. As I mentioned in the opening CEO story, leaders with unclear strategic boundaries tend to fall victim to what I call “Shiny Object Syndrome,” where they pursue new and “exciting” opportunities that arise.

Although leaders with this syndrome feel good because they’re acting “entrepreneurially,” seeing opportunities, and taking action, this approach dilutes their ability to achieve the organization’s stated objectives.

Once your firm develops a well-thought strategy, it’s your responsibility to enforce its boundaries. When new, shiny opportunities arise, evaluate whether they fit the activities articulated in your strategy.

If not, it’s a hard “no.” 

Terms & Conditions

“It is necessary, and even vital, to set standards for your life and the people you allow in it.” – Mandy Hale

I’ve written in the past about establishing non-negotiable terms and conditions for you and your firm. These are also boundaries that help accelerate your firm’s progress.

A leader’s number one responsibility is to point to the things that matter most. This creates clear expectations that help employees understand where to focus and how to act.

Your leadership terms and conditions might, for example, include:

  • Not listening to a problem unless the team member also brings at least one idea for a potential solution to the table; or
  • Setting the boundary that if a meeting organizer doesn’t circulate an agenda 24+ hours before a meeting, you won’t attend; or
  • The requirement that your customers treat your staff with dignity, or risk being asked to find another supplier.

Terms and conditions like these make your firm a better place to work while simultaneously improving operations and efficiency.

Role Accountability

“[Boundaries] define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.” – Henry Cloud 

Role accountability is one of the murkiest areas I observe in almost every business. This is why I wrote an entire book on the topic.

When the boundaries of your organization’s roles aren’t clearly defined, all sorts of things can fall between the cracks. I often see role accountability so poorly defined—even in large firms—that no single person is accountable for revenue until you get to the CEO. And when you’re running a 300-person organization that’s doing north of $100 million in revenue, that’s a huge problem!

Think about your business and answer the following simple questions: 

  • What role is accountable for revenue?
  • What role is accountable for operating profit?
  • What role is accountable for generating leads?
  • What role is accountable for the number of initial meetings scheduled with prospective customers?
  • What role is accountable for the quality of your products and/or services?

If you and your leadership team can’t answer each question with a single role, you have work to do!

Clear boundaries around role accountability are essential to create sustainable scale in any business. To get more clarity surrounding the roles in your firm, I recommend creating role accountability cards for every person in your firm, division, group, or team. This article shows you how. 

Behaviors

“Your boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.” — Gerard Manley Hopkins

The final area where you should consider establishing boundaries is around behavior.

The primary method to shape behavior should be establishing your company’s core values, which are the behavioral rules leaders and managers use to establish and maintain a desired culture. This article will help you create core values for your company.

Beyond core values, some businesses also create additional behavioral boundaries in the form of an “our way” type of manifesto, outlining standard operating procedures for how the company should run. For example, an “our way” document typically includes expectations around how to communicate with each other, with customers, and with suppliers.

All of these behavioral rules and norms are boundaries because they’re expectations of behavior that you require of your staff. In the absence of that guidance, you leave everyone on the team to determine their own way of behaving, which isn’t scalable and can be extremely frustrating to managers and high performers alike.

Conclusion

Boundaries make us and our organizations better. But where should you begin? How do you know where you should draw your personal and organizational borders?

Start by identifying your metaphorical Finns Point. As officials in New Jersey and Delaware learned, areas of friction and conflict often highlight ill-defined boundaries.

Think about your firm and name the areas where you’re frustrated by a level of performance or certain behaviors or conditions that annoyingly persist without ever being resolved. Then consider which boundaries are missing at the root of the conflict. Odds are, they lie in one or more of the five areas I’ve outlined above.

Draw your boundaries, then communicate and enforce them, and watch as the improved clarity propels your team and your firm forward.

=============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with an accountable culture execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build an accountable culture.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: May 31, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Date: May 25, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.” – Nikos Kazantzakis

In the 1999 film The Matrix, Keanu Reeves’s character Neo is given a choice to take a blue or red pill. The blue pill will allow him to continue his life on its current course, while the red one will wake him up to the reality of his situation. Neo chooses the red pill and, as a result, gains a more accurate view of reality as he discovers he’s spent his whole life living in a simulation.

Though business leaders don’t live in a sci-fi fantasy, I’ve found many to be unknowingly blind to the reality of their circumstances just like Neo. While it’s easy to say and understand that the role of a leader is to assess and clarify reality to make decisions, in practice, it’s quite challenging because your reality is influenced by biases, habits, assumptions, past experiences, and all sorts of other baggage you carry around every day.

For example, your interpretation of events or circumstances might be shaped by your ego, preconceived notions about your team, a lack of prior relevant experience, or perhaps insufficient data and information. All of these elements (and more!) fog the lens you use to assess situations, circumstances, and results—that is, they prevent you from creating an accurate view of reality.

It’s second nature for start-up and early stage entrepreneurs to make rapid decisions by trusting their gut. Those decisions are usually okay when the stakes are relatively low because it’s better to keep moving than get bogged down by incessant deliberation.

But beyond the early stages, when your organization is scaling and making meaningful progress, you must apply more rigor to clarifying reality before making decisions—particularly high-stakes calls involving investment and/or risk.

Your role requires you to overcome inherent biases, tendencies, and preconceived notions to assess and define reality as objectively as possible. Here are four mechanisms that will help:

Use Data

If you’re not making decisions backed—at least in part—by data, you’re operating the business like a blindfolded archer: You know the target is somewhere in front of you and you know how to shoot the arrows, but everything else is up to chance. Although I’m not a gambler, if I was, I’d never bet on a blindfolded archer to hit their target!

Without data, you can’t discern reality.

The first things that come to mind when we refer to data are numbers and statistics. But quantitative data is only one element. The other, qualitative data is just as important. This data might measure product quality, team morale, or suggestions to diagnose a problem—whatever can help give you an accurate picture of the reality you need for a particular decision. For example, periodic check-ins and conversations with your team to collect anecdotal data offers nearly as much insight as a performance dashboard. I call anecdotal data “color commentary,” as it adds significant color, depth, and value to otherwise “black and white” quantitative data.

Data should come from OUTSIDE your firm as well. Leaders should collect and reference information on the markets, economic activity, competitors, investment capital, and interest rate trends—all of which may play a role in determining the reality of your situation.

Key Questions for Leaders:

  • What data do you need within and outside of your business to clarify the reality of your situation and plans?
  • How can you improve the collection and incorporation of “color commentary” into your assessment of reality?
  • If you were stuck on a desert island and had to continue operating your firm, but you could only receive 10 pieces of information each month, which metrics would you choose?

Crowdsource Perspective

Even if you feel like you have a strong grasp of internal and external data at your firm, the inherent biases I mentioned in the introduction will inevitably color how you perceive things. One way to combat this is through crowdsourcing, wherein you collect diverse opinions about a topic and piece together a mosaic of reality. 

One of my coaching clients in the financial sector crowdsources a rolling 12-month macroeconomic forecast each quarter. It’s a tool they use to clarify the reality of their operating environment and their assumptions. Each quarter, they produce an updated consensus forecast of the macroeconomic environment for the next 4 quarters—a version of reality that the executive team uses to make decisions.

When you tap into the crowd, you gain insights and perspectives that are impossible for you to perceive—or offer—yourself. This process fosters discussion and constructive debate that helps overcome individual biases and blind spots.

Key Questions for Leaders:

  • Who are you involving in the process of determining reality?
  • Are they the right people with the right expertise?
  • Are you asking them the right questions?

Ask More and Better Questions

As I’ve written about previously, most leaders don’t ask anywhere nearly enough questions. Even when they do, I see many fail to dig deeper by asking follow-up questions that generate the most value.

One mantra I instill in my coaching clients is to “ask one more question.” More often than not, that extra “one” is the key to determining reality. 

For example, one of my favorite things to do as a coach is ask leaders who they think is best suited to serve as their successor. Most balk at the question and say there are a couple of potential candidates. When you ask a question and the other person doesn’t know or provide a satisfactory answer, your natural instinct is to let it go and move on.

But the “one more question” mantra leads us to keep digging. In this case, I follow up by asking, “If you DID know your successor, who would it be?” Ninety percent of the time, they answer that follow-up question in a heartbeat!

Part of asking good questions is accepting that you don’t know what you don’t know. By asking that extra question, you’re allowing yourself to be inquisitive and curious. As a result, you shine a light on areas that would have otherwise remained in the dark.

By asking more and better questions, you’ll ascertain a clearer view of reality.

Key Questions for Leaders:

  • Are you asking enough questions?
  • How can you develop the habit of asking “one more question?”

Run Experiments

There’s no doubt that when you’ve embraced and implemented the first three mechanisms I’ve outlined, you’ll have a clearer sense of the reality that lies before you. But in some sense, using data, crowdsourcing, and asking more and better questions only gives you a hypothetical picture of reality.

The only way to truly clarify and solidify that reality is to test it by running experiments. Experiments are effective because they test your hypotheses of reality before you place big bets.

In his book, Great By Choice, Jim Collins brilliantly captured this concept with his maxim to “fire bullets, then cannonballs.” The thinking here is that results from rapid, low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments help calibrate reality. Based on the findings, determine the path forward and consider concentrating your resources into firing that big cannonball (bet).

For example, let’s say your firm is considering opening a satellite office in Geneva. Rather than diving in headfirst and incurring all of the costs associated with opening a new office in a new country, think about the ways you can test the reality of your assumptions using experiments over the next 90 days. Here are three ideas: You could remotely interview prospective clients living in Geneva, you could speak with a friendly competitor already in the market, and you could contact your suppliers and ask them to simulate the effect of a Geneva office on your relationship.

All three of these potential experiments would cost very little in terms of both money and time. The more you run, the more useful information—and view of reality—you’ll have to help you make the best, right decision for your firm.

Key Question for Leaders:

  • What rapid, low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments can you run in the next 90 days to test your hypothesis of reality?
  • Where else could an experiment be useful to improve your view of reality?

Conclusion

“The leader’s role is to define reality, then give hope.” — Napoleon

It’s your job as a leader to clarify and define reality as objectively as possible as a precursor to decision-making, which sounds a lot easier in theory than it is to accomplish in practice.

Your version of events and circumstances is shaped by ego, preconceived notions, experience, information, and whatever other mental baggage you carry with you every day. ALL of these can fog the lens you use to interpret situations, conditions, and results, preventing you from accurately assessing and determining reality.

Use these four mechanisms to overcome your fog-inducing inherent biases, tendencies, and preconceptions to assemble a more accurate view of reality:

  • Use Data
  • Crowdsource Perspective
  • Ask More and Better Questions
  • Run Experiments

Lastly, for even greater effect, surround yourself with people who point out your weaknesses and provide direct, constructive feedback. Author, social scientist, and self-awareness expert Tasha Eurich aptly calls these folks “loving critics;” they care about you deeply and are able to confront you with the brutal realities you need to hear.  

Just like Neo in The Matrix, it’s your choice to take the red pill!

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Building a More Accountable Culture

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with an accountable culture execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build an accountable culture.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: April18, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Date: April19, 2023. Learn more and register!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Change does not occur by merely willing it any more than behavior changes simply through insight.” — Leo Buscaglia

Now that we’re a month into 2023, you’ve probably identified at least a few goals and priorities you aim to accomplish this year. But how will you achieve them?

Goals aren’t achieved because you will them into being. Rather, they manifest as the result of thousands—if not millions—of decisions you and your team make over time. 

The problem is, while making many of these choices, it’s easy to become distracted by short-term rewards while failing to contemplate long-term consequences. One by one, the decisions you make slowly steer you away from the course to achieve your goal. Over time, they compound with the same unhappy result as an airline pilot steering just one degree off course as she flies from New York to Madrid: you miss the destination.

Too often, I see leaders focus so much on the finish line they lose sight of the path or paralyze themselves while obsessing over the process to get there. In both cases, they aren’t acknowledging the imperative that they must change themselves to achieve what they desire.

Here’s a new, behaviorally realistic way to think about achievement: A goal isn’t a goal—it’s the SYMPTOM of the changes you make over time. For example, if your goal is to achieve annual revenues of $15 million in three years, that result will be a symptom—an outcome—of how you changed your behavior along the way.

In other words, to achieve different results, you MUST change your behavior!

Here are three research-based behavior change techniques that will accelerate your progress.

Be Your Way Into Thinking

“Behavior is the mirror in which everyone shows their image.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The quickest way to modify a behavior is to just do it. Being your way into thinking is more colloquially expressed as “fake it ‘til you make it.” With this technique, you’ll emulate the desired behavior and course correct over time until it becomes both natural and effective.

Fear is often the obstacle to being your way into thinking. I observe this consistently in many of the coaches I mentor. They complete their initial training and return home, but rather than picking up the phone to network and contact potential clients, they read manuals, work on their website, and occupy themselves with other things they justify as prerequisites to get started. They’re afraid they’re not ready, they’re afraid they’re not good enough (yet), and they’re afraid they’re going to embarrass themselves.

Many believe that once they learn and master everything, they’ll feel like the professionals they hope to become, enabling them to make the calls. Instead, their efforts just delay the process. In this case, the way to learn—and learn quickly—is to emulate someone you know, dial the first number on your list, and say hello.

Here’s how to make this method work for you: Let’s imagine you decide you need to have more direct conversations with your team—a behavior you’re not very good at that makes you uncomfortable. 

To start, you might reach out to a friend or colleague who is great at giving feedback and ask her about what she does when one of her direct reports needs direct feedback. You might inquire about what she thinks when she walks through the door, or how she opens the conversation when they sit down. 

Perhaps you worry in these situations that you’ll ruin someone’s day. You might learn that your friend thinks differently: “I’m about to do this person a great service because, without this feedback on their performance, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to get better and reach their potential.” It’s the same situation, the same conversation, but with two very different beliefs driving—and thus determining—the leader’s behavior. 

Next, instead of just thinking about her insights, try emulating her feedback beliefs and behaviors immediately. Of course, it will feel uncomfortable at the beginning, but you’ll learn from the process and improve over time. 

If / When, Then

“Most bad behavior comes from insecurity.” — Debra Winger

Human behavior is governed by a rule of consistency—we behave in a manner that aligns with our conception of ourselves. If someone prompts you to consider your altruistic tendencies by asking whether you imagine yourself to be a generous person and then later that day someone else asks you to support a worthy charity, you’re more likely to donate than someone who wasn’t primed to think about their willingness to give.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many CEOs who were not formally trained in critical parts of their business, like accounting and finance for example. Though they ran a successful business, some remained overwhelmed by the numbers, and they avoided financial information and reports. This behavior created active ignorance, further reinforcing and magnifying the problem over time.

To change behaviors like this, I coach my clients to utilize “if/when, then” statements. An “if/when, then” statement names a cue and the behavior it will provoke. The financially unsure CEO, for example, might create this statement: “When I receive our monthly financials, then I will sit down that day for a minimum of 30 minutes with my Controller to understand them.”

While these words won’t turn anyone into a finance whiz overnight, they will cue you to do the thing you know you should do.

Studies show that humans crave structure. If you structure your thinking around a trigger, you’re far more likely to complete the attached behavior because you’ve made a commitment to do it.

The results are astounding. “If/when, then” statements are far superior to simple intentions because they prepare you to notice the cue and allow you to capitalize on the behavioral rule of consistency.

Know When To Say No

“Life is hard. Life is difficult. Life is going to punch you in the gut. But when you change your attitude, you change your behavior. When your behavior changes, so do your results.” — Will Hurd

Most CEOs I know consider themselves to be givers. They believe they need to give to build the organization they want.Although this is mostly true, I’ve found that giving too much can have negative consequences. 

When you say yes to something, you sacrifice attention, time, and resources for other things. Do it too often, and your own performance will suffer. In other words, when you give too much, you become a low performer!

The propensity to give without limits is often connected to fears about ego, scarcity, and failure. This is a mechanism by which many leaders justify their importance (ego) or act on their fear that if they don’t handle things directly, their business, group, or team will fail. It’s exhausting, it’s not scalable, and—ironically—it’s a significant cause of failure!

Time is a more valuable commodity than money. You can make more money, but you can never make more time. As such, it’s important to honor your priorities and protect your time by learning to say “no” more often.

But how do you get started? Use the word “don’t.”

Tell yourself: “I don’t accept tasks that can be done by others,” or “I don’t commit to anything that doesn’t serve my goals.” Then apply that belief to your decisions and watch your “yes-to-no ratio” improve.

Conclusion

Yes, it’s still important to create goals and priorities for yourself and for your business. But it’s a fool’s errand to fixate on the goal itself rather than how you need to change to make it happen.

Remember: A goal isn’t a goal—it’s the SYMPTOM of the changes you make over time.

Focus instead on making better decisions and becoming who you need to become in order to have what you want. You do that by changing how you think and how you behave.

A word of caution: Installing new behaviors doesn’t happen overnight. You may try one of the methods I’ve described here, and then slip back under stress.

That’s okay!

Think of it this way: If you were a parent who picked up your toddler every time he reached for you, he’d never learn to walk. Humans learn from doing, not from thinking. For instance, you didn’t learn to ride a bike by reading a book about it! You had to get on the bike, fall off, and get back on again until you figured it out.

Changing your behavior as a leader is the same. It can take multiple tries with multiple models but starting and actually DOING something is the first step toward meaningful change.

Which behaviors must you change to make 2023 the year you want it to be?

=============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with a culture of accountability execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build a culture of accountability.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: March 13, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Date: March 14, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

Three weeks ago, 20 million people witnessed a horrific sports medicine emergency on live television. Buffalo Bills NFL football player Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field and required nine minutes of CPR to keep him alive.

The on-site medical staff had done everything in their power to be prepared for such an event. They had the necessary equipment—including an AED—and they’d rehearsed emergency action plans multiple times prior to and during the season. The medical professionals met before the game to review channels of communication and the procedures necessary to respond to any on field emergency.

They were the right people with the right expertise, in the right place at the right time. And they saved Hamlin’s life.

Experts and expertise matter. 

Yet for many entrepreneurs and business leaders, expertise is often deprioritized in favor of an “I can do it myself” approach. On the one hand, I’ve always admired moxy and the entrepreneurial spirit. On the other hand, scaling a profitable firm isn’t ever time for amateur hour! Further, why expend the time, energy and opportunity ($$$) cost to figure things out when you can access expertise to show you the way?

This leads to an important and often overlooked question for leaders: What expertise is required on or around your team to achieve your goals over the next three-to-five years?

To help you derive an answer, here are four critical areas for you to consider:

Management Expertise

“If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.”

– Red Adair

Entrepreneurs tend to take a DIY approach to management, even as their business scales. After all, in most cases, they bootstrapped their way to viability, so they figure this will continue to work for them. But as you scale a firm, you reach a point of diminishing returns on status quo leadership, where the size and complexity of the business catch up with you very quickly.

For example, as a firm’s employee headcount grows, it’s common to tap a top performer and promote them to a supervisory role. But just because someone is a superstar individual contributor doesn’t mean they’re cut out for managing people. I’ve seen this happen many times, and quite often, it doesn’t end well despite everyone’s good intentions.

Entrepreneurs often balk at paying more for expertise because up to this point, their bootstrap mentality has forced them to figure things out on their own through trial and error. The tricky part lies in the cost/benefit math of hiring highly qualified people with the expertise you need. Yes, buying expertise will cost you, but consider the potential return and the opportunity costs of figuring things out on your own (or not!). 

As you scale, this opportunity cost becomes more and more expensive. By bringing someone in who already knows how to manage a team of your size and scale it to the next level, you’re paying for that expertise, and you’ll end up saving.

The same principle applies to larger organizations as well. If you’re running a $50 million firm and want to scale it to $250 million, think about your current head of sales. Yes, they’ve gotten you to this point, but do they have the knowledge and skills to build and operate a quarter billion dollar high-performing sales force? Are you willing to take the risk that your current sales leader can get you there?

Financial Expertise

“If you talk to a top accountant about his field of expertise, it’s mind boggling.”

– Vincent Kompany

Most business leaders don’t come from a financial background. And yet, your job as CEO or senior leader is to drive financial results.

Consider the inception of the financial function in a small firm: When the entrepreneur decides to take the accounting function off of their plate, they typically hire or outsource a bookkeeper. It’s not uncommon over time for the same person to wind up in a Controller or even a default, if highly underqualified, CFO role.

Of course it’s admirable that your original bookkeeper has gotten you to where you are, but they’re rarely equipped to advise and lead the increasingly complicated financial function in your scaling firm. There are serious short- and  long-term implications to your financial decision-making whether you realize it or not, which can put even your future personal financial security at risk.

More timely and more accurate information that supports better decision-making and data-driven outcomes is another benefit of expert financial leadership. Entrepreneurs tend to fly by the seat of their pants when making decisions, but as their firms scale so do the risks. An expert CFO uses data to ask the right questions that frame more productive conversations and decisions.

Over the years, I’ve had several coaching clients who spent lots of money to acquire the right financial expert to help scale their firms. In every case, about six months later, the CEO said to me: “I should have made this investment much sooner.”

You should too!

Operational Expertise

“Chess masters don’t evaluate all the possible moves. They know how to discard 98 percent of the ones they could make and then focus on the best choice of the remaining lot. That’s the way expertise works in other fields, too. Wise practitioners recognize familiar patterns and put their creativity, improvisation, and skill toward the marginal cases.” – John Dickerson

Operations is the business of your business—whether you run a product or a service firm, it’s how the proverbial sausage is made. And at scale, it’s an area where entrepreneurs rarely have the right expertise.

An operations expert is able to cut through the noise. Instead of chasing down every aspect of the business and trying to improve it, the expert can separate the operational red herrings from the right levers to pull.

For example, I have a client in the technology sector who decided three years ago to step out of operations and hire a president to run the firm. He made the decision because he disliked running operations and because he knew he didn’t have the expertise to scale the firm operationally to facilitate an eventual, highly profitable exit.

As CEO, my client still charts the course, but he brought in an expert to make the right operational moves. It’s working: the firm’s growth has accelerated and, more importantly, they’ve consistently hit their profitability targets, which they weren’t able to do before.

How could high-level operations expertise transform your firm’s results?

Learning and Development Expertise

“Never become so much of an expert that you stop gaining expertise. View life as a continuous learning experience.”

– Denis Waitley

What are you doing to integrate learning into the operation of your business?

I’ve never seen an organization whose growth exceeds the personal growth rate of its people. But for many firms, accountability for continuous learning and development is disbursed and embedded within the roles of the senior leadership team who, by the way,  usually have very little knowledge or experience about professional development.

To facilitate growth, you must invest in it. Are you? Or are you talking about how important learning is and then leaving it to your underqualified team to figure out how to execute?

I have a coaching client who trains their staff extensively. To their credit, they hired a head of learning and development, but that person wasn’t the right fit. Once they hired the right expert to lead learning and development, everything changed. Line managers were able to stop stressing out about curricula and learning, and the employees became better trained and more effective in their roles.

The costs of not having an expert who can run a successful development program can be devastating, including the loss of top performers and the stagnation of your team.

Whether in-house or outsourced, how can you acquire the expertise to accelerate your team’s learning and development?

Conclusion

The price you pay for settling in lieu of acquiring the right expertise for your firm is invisible: It only becomes clear in hindsight—like getting a new pair of glasses and only then realizing how poor your vision was before. 

But be careful to not allow someone’s expertise to overshadow their cultural fit with your firm. Yes, experts matter, but if they don’t fit your culture, they will end up doing more harm than good. I’ve seen this play out also—usually at very high levels—and it never ends well. If anything, you must apply MORE emphasis on fit than normal when screening for an expert.

There is no substitute for expertise to accelerate the profitable growth of your firm. You can only bootstrap for so long before the diminishing returns become a stealthy drag on performance and results.

Each client I’ve coached who decided to invest in the right expertise for their business ultimately had the same reaction after the fact. They said they wished they made the decision and investment much sooner.

Now it’s your turn.

Which of the four areas of expertise–Management, Financial, Operations, and Learning and Development–are required to achieve your goals over the next three-to-five years?

=============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with a culture of accountability execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build a culture of accountability.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: January 30, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Nothing is predestined. The obstacles of your past can become the gateways that lead to new beginnings.” — Ralph Blum

The end of the year is a natural time to reflect and then to plan ahead. Accordingly, I facilitate reflective conversations with my clients during our annual planning sessions to help them look back on the previous twelve months, acknowledge their accomplishments, and affirm the lessons learned.

I begin the process by asking the following questions:

  • What were your most significant accomplishments, both as individual leaders and as a team?
  • Where did you miss the mark?
  • What leadership lessons did you learn or have reinforced this past year?

Seven lessons emerged from the dialogue with my clients this year. The leaders I coach clearly learned and benefitted from them; it’s my hope you can too.

1. Be Flexible

A reporter once asked heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson before a title bout if he was worried about his opponent’s plan for the fight. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Tyson replied.

This wisdom applies to the business world as well. In order to succeed, you must remain flexible and roll with the punches. Being flexible doesn’t imply you’ll abandon your plan when the going gets tough. Rather, it involves adjusting to reality by continually course correcting along the way. To do this, you need to have a clear view of reality—the objective truth of your situation. The objective truth is easier to find when you check your cognitive biases, use hard data, and pay close attention to others who possess the most relevant experience with the matter at hand.

How can you become more flexible?

Start by relying on smart structures like meeting rhythms, prioritization, and a culture of accountability to operate your organization. These structures somewhat counterintuitively increase your ability to be flexible on demand by reducing the cognitive and behavioral demands of running and working in the business. Like having extra money in the bank during a recession or spare oxygen tanks during a high-altitude climb, those with the most cognitive and behavioral resources at their disposal have more options to exhibit flexibility when it counts.

Key Question for Leaders: How can you become more flexible in the coming year?

2. Improve Prioritization

The primary role of a leader is to point to what matters most. To do that, you must create clarity and focus on a small number of very important things.

Here’s the problem: most leaders I meet have a priority list that’s a mile long! As the old saying goes, when everything’s a priority, NOTHING is a priority. When you lack focus, you cannot point to what matters most, and your team lacks critical guidance regarding how to make decisions, allocate their time, and expend other resources of the firm.

My advice is to pare your priorities down to a maximum of three. From there, assign one person to be accountable for each priority and have them complete my Priority Planning Tool to ensure you’re on the same page with regard to the scope and a clear measure of success for each initiative.

After that, you must honor your priorities in execution—that is, actually treating your priorities as priorities! Make their achievement a non-negotiable—what I call a “dogmatic zone” of your leadership. Read more about dogmatic zones here.

Key Question for Leaders: How can you more effectively narrow your priorities and then truly honor them as you execute?

3. Be a Broken Record

Information is the lifeblood of your organization. Think of your organization’s communication structures as your circulatory system and think of yourself as the heart. If you are not constantly pumping information throughout the firm, it cannot operate anywhere near its full potential. Just as your heart pumps blood throughout your body with a predictable, steady beat, you need to be as reliable with communication rhythms including daily huddles, weekly and monthly meetings.

Don’t be afraid of feeling like a broken record with your messaging. This is one of the most difficult lessons I help my coaching clients learn! This is challenging because we often fear sounding “stupid” when we think we are repeating ourselves.

Don’t be afraid of feeling like a broken record with your messaging.

But effective communication is never a “one and done” affair! The consequences of “one and done” communication are FAR worse than any fears about repetition. If you are not repeating yourself, you’re not giving your team a chance to learn and internalize what you’re saying.

For a more detailed explanation of how leaders can communicate more effectively, read my article on the topic here.

Key Question for Leaders: How can you improve communication rhythms and repetition in the coming year?

4. Assume Positive Intent

Very few people get out of bed in the morning with the intention of ruining someone else’s day. And yet, when we’re faced with conflict or a problem, our default assumption is often to question the intentions of those involved!

Failing to assume positive intent is one of the most drama-inducing, costly human behaviors out there. Here’s why: Context overpowers content.

When we question someone’s motives (context), the content of their message is reduced to near-zero value as we focus on the newly apparent threat to our ego, project, business, livelihood, relationships, etc. And of course, in the moment, all of this is simply a story we make up for ourselves without any concrete basis or evidence.

The good news is that it’s just as easy to concoct a story that assumes positive intent instead! Assuming positive intent means handling situations with the assumption that others are just like you: they do the best they can at any given moment with the resources they have available to them. 

This simple reframing—that everyone has positive intentions, regardless of the outcome they’ve produced—will lead to more productive relationships, less drama, better execution, and greater accountability. It’s also quite contagious!

Key Question for Leaders: How can you begin assuming positive intent?

5. Build Bench Strength

As coaches and leaders in every domain know, successful teams require a deep bench and a succession-focused mentality. In a business context, this involves cultivating next-level leaders both internally and externally so that when (not if!) the time comes, they’re prepared to step up and/or into a new role.

You can do this by creating growth opportunities for your team. Raise your expectations of them by assigning “stretch” projects that challenge them to learn and grow.

It’s also wise to consistently invest in networking with outside talent to develop a “virtual bench”—a short list of prequalified, talented people you can call when the need arises.

The benefits are clear: just imagine if every manager in your firm maintained a short list of talented external people who’d be a good fit for your firm—regardless of your current staffing needs.

Although these steps don’t guarantee you’ll ever necessarily have the next hire in-hand, they do stack the deck in favor of finding higher-quality, more qualified candidates more quickly.

Key Question for Leaders: What are the right moves for you to build more bench strength in the coming year?

6. Break Down Barriers

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of conflict within groups and among teams, and the source is often a lack of understanding where everyone is personally coming from. Simply put, these groups and teams lack empathy.

Empathy is at the core of deep relationships and high-functioning teams. Here’s why: The way you show up today is the sum of your entire life’s experiences. The same is true of everyone else—how they show up is the sum of THEIR life experiences. So, unless you more deeply understand someone’s life experience, you can’t understand why they show up the way that they do.

Empathy is at the core of deep relationships and high-functioning teams.

You must make a deliberate effort to break down the barriers of your differences by understanding one another’s stories and experiences. This always includes making time to talk about non-business things. I’ve found team cohesion exercises very helpful to accelerate this important process.

One team cohesion exercise I use with my coaching clients is to gather the team in a circle and go around the room answering one question at a time. You’ll find the questions I ask here.

The things you’ll discover about your team through deliberate cohesion work deepens your understanding of why each person looks at the world the way they do. They’ll see you and one another differently as well, which builds empathy and more effectiveness as a team.

Key Question for Leaders: How can you build more empathy and improve team cohesion?

7. Move Faster on Non-Fit Employees

Tolerating mediocrity has devastating effects on any organization over time. It repels top performers, poisons work environments, burns out managers, and slows (or kills!) growth. Yet I often see clients who continually justify keeping low performers or non-fit staff around much longer than they should.

Deep down, most leaders know these individuals need to be sent packing, but the details of how and when dominate and delay the process. Even worse, leaders justify the delays with reasons (excuses) they manufacture to convince themselves why firing low performers or non-fit staff isn’t a good idea. Trust me, I’ve heard them all!

As a result, hard questions remain unaddressed, and your culture (and employees) continue to suffer at the hands of toxic or underperforming colleagues. In these situations, you must compartmentalize the elements of your decision and start with the WHAT—determine the right action to take without regard to how or when to act.

Make the decision. Then tackle the logistics of WHEN and HOW you’ll execute over time.

It’s critical for leadership teams to constantly talk about and calibrate on the quality of their people. My coaching clients and I have this conversation in a deep, deliberate manner each quarter. You should too.

Key Question for Leaders: How can your team improve the rigor and timeliness of their people decisions?

Conclusion

“Wisdom doesn’t come from experience. It comes from reflecting on experience.”
– Adam Grant

Periodic reflection, learning, and realignment are critical to the success of your business, and now is as good a time as any to begin. You can look back on your wins, losses, and lessons learned and use them to construct a roadmap for your future journey. The wins identify the processes you want to repeat; the losses shine a light on the pain points that need to be addressed; and the lessons serve as a reminder that no matter how successful you become, there’s always room for growth and improvement.

As you close out the year, consider which of the seven lessons from my clients will help you become a more capable leader. You’ll be set to begin the new year with a fresh outlook and a new set of objectives to accomplish on the road ahead.

As French novelist Marcel Proust once said: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.”

Here’s to clearer vision and continued success in the new year!

=============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Date: December 21. 2022. Learn more and register!

==============================================

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with a culture of accountability execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build a culture of accountability.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: January 30, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

What are your non-negotiable leadership lines in the sand?

American country music superstar Kenny Rogers had a long and storied career, but he will forever be known for “The Gambler,” his song that asserts you’ve got to “know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”

While it’s good advice for the poker table, I think it’s even better advice for leading your team, group, division, or firm.

You’re not leading if you don’t provide direction, clarity, and structure. Accordingly, your employees rely on you to continually clarify and answer two questions:

  • What matters most in terms of strategy, objectives, goals, targets, and metrics?
  • How are we expected to act, execute, interact, and behave in our roles?

One especially effective way to provide answers to these questions is through dogma: lines in the sand defining and sharing non-negotiable expectations of your team. The dictionary definition of dogma is “a set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” Dogma often has a negative connotation because it’s associated with religion, politics, and other topics that are typically off-limits during your family’s holiday time together. But when used the right way and in specific areas, dogma is incredibly effective in providing the clarity, structure, and behavioral guidance your team requires to be successful.

You may not be aware, but you’ve likely been guided by leadership dogma at some point in your career. You’ve probably worked for at least one fantastic manager—someone who challenged you, engaged you, and helped you grow. Think about your experience with them. What was one thing you knew you absolutely HAD to do while working for them? Was it making sure you were never one second late to a meeting? Or answering the phone in a certain way? Or how you and your colleagues were expected to treat one another? Or perhaps how you had to format certain documents?

I’m betting you’ll be able to think of several specific things—big and small—that this leader required of you to advance or remain employed. Why did you do these things? Because you had to. They were non-negotiable lines in the sand!

And if you peel those behaviors all the way back, it’s because each was one of your manager’s dogmatic zones. They were the ways of thinking and doing things that your manager determined were the best and right way for the team.

When used the right way and in specific areas, dogma is incredibly effective in providing the clarity, structure, and behavioral guidance your team requires to be successful.

I use dogmatic zones in my coaching practice because I know there are certain moves that are required to position a client leadership team for success. Some examples of my non-negotiable coaching zones include how to build a sustainable culture, how to implement change, how to create priorities, and how to implement firm-wide communication rhythms. I’m fairly flexible about how my clients choose to execute the vast majority of my coaching, but when it comes to these areas, there’s only one way to do it—my way. 

Of course, not everything can be a dogmatic zone. If that was the case, which is certainly extreme, you’d be a tyrant ruling every decision, which leads to a one brain with 1,000 hands structure that’s neither effective nor scalable. It’s important to acknowledge that the most thoughtful and deliberate dogmatic zones are employee-friendly and affirming, rather than restricting and oppressive.

So where and how does it make sense for leaders to identify their non-negotiable dogmatic zones?

Here are three areas to consider. 

Boundaries

Boundaries are limits pertaining to things like time, access, schedules, and even how people are treated. 

A good example of this is work-life balance, which has become increasingly important to many people in the post-pandemic world. A Forbes Health-Ipsos survey found 90% of respondents felt work-life balance was an important factor when considering a position. As a result, some leaders have chosen to create dogma and set hard boundaries around work time. This type of dogma might include requiring employees to leave the office at a regular hour each day or insisting that staff refrain from sending email outside of business hours unless there’s a true emergency.

Others create dogmatic boundaries around how customers treat their employees. I’ve seen this scenario play out both ways—where leaders have no boundaries and certain clients treat staff horribly while the boss shrugs and tells the team they can’t do anything. On the other hand, I’ve seen leaders step in and tell customers that if they continue to treat the staff poorly, they’ll terminate the relationship. A supremely dogmatic move!

At a more personal level, I’ve also seen leaders create dogmatic boundaries that limit how and when they are willing to be interrupted during the workday. Some announce an “open door policy” that allows workers to share concerns or ask questions at any time. Others set specific office hours for access. Both methods work—it’s a matter of personal preference.

How you choose your boundaries is completely up to you and what you believe creates the right environment for your group, team, division, or firm. The important part is that you identify which boundaries matter most, set your dogmatic standards, and then reinforce them as non-negotiable.

Key Question for Leaders: Where would clearer boundaries benefit me, my team, and my firm?

Priorities

Many leaders I know suffer from the “everything is a priority” trap. The trap, of course, is that when “everything is a priority,” in reality, nothing is a priority. It is CRITICAL to be clear about a small number of priorities. You must decide what’s important at the expense of other things. This makes prioritization and how priorities are executed excellent candidates for well-thought leadership dogma.

As I mentioned earlier, setting priorities is one of my personal dogmatic zones as a coach.  Here’s what it looks like: My clients can select one, two, or three priorities—but no more than that. For me, that’s non-negotiable.

Some leaders also choose to create a dogmatic zone around priority planning. They require a clear plan, containing outcomes and actions, before allowing work to begin. Another potential dogmatic zone is how priorities are monitored and communicated to the broader team.

I’m a fan of creating communication rhythms for priorities and processes. This ensures more real-time transparency and opportunities for problem solving and course correction in response to inevitable problems and delays. Identifying and executing the right priorities correlates to profitable, scalable growth. This makes priorities an ideal dogmatic zone for leaders to clearly define how they expect their team to operate.

Key Question for Leaders: How can I tighten expectations for how our priorities are selected, planned, executed, and communicated?

Behavioral Norms

Whether deliberately created or not, your organization is full of established behavioral norms. This might include how people treat one another, how phones and emails are answered, when people arrive at the office, how people act in meetings—and much more!

As a coach, I frequently speak and write about core values and how critical they are to build a sustainable, scalable culture. Without a doubt, your firm’s core values should be a non-negotiable standard and dogmatic zone. In fact, the process I use to help clients create and operationalize their core values is designed with this in mind.

But beyond the “core,” there are plenty of other opportunities for leaders to define dogma around behavioral expectations. I have several clients whose dogma requires the most senior person in a meeting to speak last, particularly during debates and brainstorming sessions. This seemingly minor detail is critical to preventing groupthink and maximizing the contributions of each member of the team.

I’ve seen others create behavioral dogma around how people are expected to show up to meetings (on time and prepared), how meetings are scheduled (no agenda, no meeting), how promptly staff answer their phones, when staff are required to be in the office versus working remotely, and when and how people report on their critical metrics.

Beyond your core values, one way to be really clear about behavioral norms is to create a manifesto of sorts that defines your firm’s “way” of doing things. In other words, your dogmatic zones! An “our way” document can provide crystal clear guidance and expectations for both staff and management. It’s also quite useful to accelerate onboarding new employees because it sets the expectation from day one: To work here, you must adhere to our defined standards.

Key Question for Leaders: Which behavioral norms, if defined as non-negotiable ways of doing things, would accelerate our growth?

Conclusion

“Strong convictions precede great actions.” — James Freeman Clarke

While there is no right or wrong way to select a dogmatic zone, most leaders fail to establish enough deliberate, clear, and overt guidance for their teams. They miss a valuable opportunity to shape their team’s thinking and behavior where it matters most. 

Follow your beliefs, convictions, and experience to identify your dogmatic leadership zones. Although there are plenty of areas and activities in your business where your team can, within reason, do things their own way, there should be some that are non-negotiable. Identify them, clarify your expectations, and then communicate and institutionalize your dogma over time.

If you’ve read this far and are still thinking that dogma implies micro-managing (best case) or dictatorship (worst case), I’ll remind you that, correctly applied, dogmatic zones represent an extremely thin slice of the actions and behaviors inside your firm. What’s more, well-thought dogmatic zones are employee friendly and affirming, not restrictive and oppressive. 

When used in the right way and in specific areas, dogma is an effective means to provide the clarity, structure, and behavioral guidance your team needs to be successful. Outside those zones, allow your team the agency and autonomy to achieve their goals and results for the business.

In other words, take Kenny Rogers’ advice: Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.

=============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Date: December 21. 2022. Learn more and register!

==============================================

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with a culture of accountability execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build a culture of accountability.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Date: January 30, 2023. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy” 
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

Our culture is dominated by images of heroes. We see them everywhere—the athlete who makes a game-winning play, the movie character who saves the city with seconds to spare, and our fire, rescue, police, and military just about every day.

One of man’s oldest storytelling structures is the Hero’s Journey—where the hero is called to adventure from the ordinary world, is guided through trials and tribulations by a mentor, and then emerges victorious against a final and most dangerous foe.

Sound familiar? It’s a powerful pattern so ingrained in us, we use it to unconsciously craft our narratives about the world. We are conditioned to applaud and reward heroes.

In the business realm, for example, entrepreneurs are lauded for their “hustle mentality” when starting a venture. “When you adopt and embrace the many facets of the hustle mentality, you’ll set yourself up to succeed beyond your wildest dreams,” writes co-founder Sujan Patel in Entrepreneur magazine. Indeed, startups tend to be “all hands on deck,” because if you don’t ship the order or ink the next deal, your firm might not survive to see another day. Even in large firms, stories of heroic behaviors to “save the big account” or “ship the order on time” often become legend.

Although there are certainly a few scenarios where heroics are necessary at work, when your business model takes hold and you begin to scale, you have to think about operating differently.

Here’s why: Heroic behaviors are neither scalable nor sustainable.

Imagine you have an employee who works until 2:30 a.m. to meet a deadline and submit a large proposal for a new account. The next morning, tired and bleary-eyed, they’ll bask in their colleagues’ heroic praises. It seems as if their sacrifice was worth it.

But was it really? What’s going to happen the NEXT time the business demands a late night? They probably won’t be quite as enthusiastic about doing it again, despite the praise! What’s worse, as the heroic behavior becomes more normalized, employees receive fewer accolades the second time around—and even fewer on the third, fourth, etc. Eventually, they become bitter and resentful about having to constantly be a “hero” just to keep the business running, which is one of several reasons I hold leaders accountable for “quiet quitting” and “the great resignation,” which you can explore more deeply in this article.

People and teams should certainly be recognized for going above and beyond. But structuring your firm to require heroic behavior doesn’t work. Systems must be put in place to allow the business to scale—sustainably—over time.

Here are three approaches to drastically reduce the need for heroic behaviors in your organization.

Strive For Casual Success

When it comes to scaling your firm, you should aim for what organizational design experts call “casual success.” While the term itself may evoke images of employees lounging on couches eating grapes, rest assured that’s not the case at all.

Casual success looks like an employee showing up for work, working all day, going home at a reasonable time, and accomplishing everything they need to do. Their hair isn’t on fire, they aren’t interrupted 25 times with emergencies, and their stress levels don’t require blood pressure medication. The need for heroics to operate is almost zero.

The problem is, business models often aren’t built to scale around the idea of casual success. Consider this scenario: When your company was a small operation, you had two employees on each client account. As you scale, you naturally assume each client will require two employees, so you form all aspects of your business model—service pricing, hiring, etc.—around this structure.

The need for heroics to operate is almost zero.

But as the firm grows, you add more variables like new services and deeper, more complicated client relationships—all of which consume additional resources to execute well. Suddenly, you realize that two employees per client isn’t enough to meet the demand. But since that’s the way you structured your business model and priced your services, you don’t have the financial resources to hire additional employees.

Now, the only way you can maintain the operation is through frequent heroic acts. In effect, you’ve asked two people to do the work of three because the structure of your firm isn’t designed to scale. Employees burn out, become frustrated, and the quality of their work drops, which results in the employees, the clients—or both—going elsewhere. Everyone loses!

The trick here is to anticipate these issues and account for them in your business model. Though you may not know exactly what your company will look like in the future—and you may have to go through some trial and error to figure things out—it’s imperative to create scalable structures, processes, and the right financial model to fuel the people and other resources you need. The sooner you can bake casual success into your business model, the higher your odds of scaling without heroics.

Refine Process Execution

Good processes also contribute to creating scale without heroics. Your business processes may have worked effectively three years ago, but they could be outdated due to your firm’s current size and complexity. This is an easy item for leaders to ignore, tolerate, or outright deprioritize, because most suboptimal processes still, mostly, work. But at what cost?

Try to avoid being stuck in the “this is how we’ve always done it” mental model I see derail many leaders. If your business is different than it was three years ago, your processes should be too!

To determine which processes within your firm need to be revamped, ask: Where’s the drama? What aspects of execution are colored by confusion, frustration, delays, added costs, panicked phone calls and/or fires to extinguish? If any of those symptoms are present inside your operation, the odds are that you have a process to improve.

Process accountability is often a factor here as well. In this case, the process itself might be sufficient, but the accountability for the outcomes isn’t clear. My go-to question when I hear about process-related execution drama is, “Who is accountable for the process?” Because most organizational processes cut horizontally across organizational silos–think about an order, for example, moving from sales to manufacturing to shipping to customer service to accounting–process accountability is often unclear.

Check your firm’s three to five core processes to ensure that there is single point accountability (i.e. ONE PERSON) for the outcome. Just like you use meeting rhythms to synchronize and communicate within your divisions, groups, and teams, begin using them for your core processes as well.

Think about it this way—effective processes with clear accountability are usually quite boring to watch because there’s rarely any drama, and certainly no room for heroic behaviors!

Examine Behavioral Norms

Another way to reduce heroics is ensuring that you don’t encourage it in the first place. When my coaching clients codify their culture via Core Values or Cultural Commitments, I ask them to name people in the firm who embody culturally consistent behaviors in a positive way. Inevitably, my clients name their internal heroes.

You cannot build a sustainable culture by either intentionally or unintentionally rewarding heroic behavior!

For example, I have a client with a Core Value of “Do The Work.” Although the underlying message of this Core Value is sound, over time both leadership and staff lost track of its intended and defined meaning. Every “Do The Work” story in the business became about someone going “above and beyond” to get the work done. In other words, the stories and behavioral norms shifted the value’s meaning to heroism.

You cannot build a sustainable culture by either intentionally or unintentionally rewarding heroic behavior!

After I pointed out that the company’s leaders were unintentionally encouraging heroism, they chose to rename and clarify the value. Now, the Core Value is called “Own It,” and it is defined with great accountability—but no heroics. The stories and behavioral norms have changed as a result.

Yes, defining the right Core Values is important, but this is not enough on its own. Leaders need to encourage staff to share non-heroic examples of Core Value behaviors. The simplest, most effective way to do this is to ensure that at least one Core Value story is told within each daily huddle to reinforce the right behaviors without heroics.

That doesn’t imply you should punish heroic behaviors if and when they occur (and, yes, they will!). To the contrary, you should appreciate employees who, when the circumstances require, go above and beyond in a heroic manner. It’s what you do next that makes all the difference!

Speak with them 1-on-1 the next day and ask, “How do we figure out a way to never have to do this again?” This conversation helps solve the structural problem, improves execution, and actively discourages heroic behavior.

Conclusion

“Being a hero is about the shortest-lived profession on earth.” – Will Rogers

Heroics will inevitably play a part to launch and establish just about every business. But as your business model gains traction, you have to start thinking about how to eliminate the need for heroic behavior.

In most situations, the sooner you can move from a heroic model to one of casual success, the better. One indicator of when to start looking at systems and processes is when heroic actions start shifting from a feeling of excitement to frustration.

In the formative stages of a company, an act of heroism is met with high fives and cheers. But once those celebrations transform into questions like “Jim pulled another all-nighter? Is he okay?”—that’s when you know it’s time to start making some cultural and structural changes.

Any firm will have some heroic stories, but they can’t be the norm. Start scaling your models and systems early, and make sure your Core Values are crafted in a way that they don’t unintentionally encourage heroics. Finally, give necessary heroes due credit, but be sure to follow-through to remedy the root cause. Remember, heroic behaviors usually indicate that something within your firm needs to change.

Leave the heroics to athletes, movie characters, and first responders! Your staff, your customers, your suppliers, your shareholders, and your family will thank you.

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Employees join companies but leave managers.” – Brigette Hyacinth

Although I don’t spend much time on TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter, it’s been impossible to avoid one of social media’s more recent trends: “quiet quitting.”

Employees who “quiet quit,” frustrated with a growing plate of responsibilities and demands, perform the bare minimum in their jobs. The concept was popularized by a 24-year-old engineer from New York City named Zaid Khan, who explained in a short video that subscribing to the “hustle-culture mentality” isn’t worth the payoff. His video has netted more than 490,000 likes.

But as the LA Times recently pointed out, social and popular media trends like “quiet quitting” can be dangerous because they imply a situation is more novel or widespread than it really is. This was exactly the case last year, for example, when “the great resignation” swept the globe. Yes, it’s true that quit rates hit an all-time high in 2021, but they’ve come down significantly since then. Experts say this type of volatility is to be expected after ANY major event—like a pandemic. “Historical data on the quits rate [demonstrates] this is not an anomaly, but instead fits the pattern of many past rapid recoveries,” writes economist Bart Hobijn.

Social media, pop culture, and macro-trends aside, there’s absolutely nothing new here.

“Quiet quitting” is caused by the same disengaging factors that induce people to call out of work when they’re not really sick, which has probably been occurring since the beginning of employment as we know it.  Further,  as Gallup studies have reported for years, only around 35 percent of US managers are engaged in theirjobs.

What’s most disturbing about this for me is that trendy labels like “quiet quitting” and “the great resignation” give leaders license to blame external factors while ignoring the real, underlying problem: their own leadership.

Here’s reality: people don’t quit their companies or their jobs. Aside from pure, no-brainer financial plays, people quit their bosses, people quit unhealthy cultures their bosses create and tolerate, and people quit being overworked and underappreciated. 

Let’s get to the root of the problem, review the three research-based keys to improving employee engagement (all of which leaders can control), and then reinforce why it’s critical to lead by example.

Denial and Blind Spots

I have a client in a very competitive industry in a very competitive geography whose staff turnover numbers are spectacular (i.e. very low). They’ve had no problems with either “quiet quitting” or “the great resignation” over the past year.

With all the buzz around these “trends,” how do you explain that?

People want to work at this particular firm because the leaders have created an environment where people feel valued and appreciated. Meanwhile, I see leaders in other firms hemorrhaging employees, shrugging their shoulders in denial, saying “It’s the environment. There’s nothing we can do.”

We use logic to justify our decisions, but our logic is often flawed—and it betrays us. One tendency all humans exhibit is confirmation bias: the unconscious inclination to seek, interpret, and remember information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. Confirmation bias influences the way you interpret the world around you. If you see a LinkedIn post about “quiet quitting,” for example, it helps you justify why your employees are leaving and, at the same time, let yourself off the hook as a leader. 

You seek confirming evidence both consciously and unconsciously because it’s psychologically difficult for us to admit we’re wrong. Further, we tend to selectively pay attention to information that confirms what we already believe. “Most of what happens in the brain is not evident to the brain itself, and thus people are better at playing these sorts of tricks on themselves than at catching themselves in the act,” writes Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert in The New York Times. Confirmation bias is a massive blind spot.

If you see a LinkedIn post about “quiet quitting,” for example, it helps you justify why your employees are leaving and, at the same time, let yourself off the hook as a leader.

This explains how trending social media topics become mainstream beliefs, without regard to the reality or veracity of the claim.

How do you overcome confirmation bias? Start by acknowledging you are flawed and strive to approach situations with a conscious and deliberate openness to explore possibilities. It pays to lean into challenges like this: A study by Carol Dweck found a group of students who actively sought difficult problems as learning opportunities, despite making more errors due to the challenge, consistently outperformed other students who avoided difficult problems.

In addition, here are a few questions to ask yourself to keep your confirmation bias in check:

  • What are the facts here?
  • What are my assumptions about this?
  • If I hired an unbiased consultant to make this decision for me, how would they be looking at the problem?

For even more rigor as you strive to keep your biases in check, use a trusted colleague, mentor, or coach to give you honest feedback about your leadership. Author, social scientist, and self-awareness expert Tasha Eurich aptly calls these people “loving critics;” they care about you deeply but are able to tell you the brutal truths you need to hear. External perspectives like these are invaluable to help you become more self-aware, to identify things you’d never otherwise realize about yourself, and to make better choices as a leader.

Building Engagement

Once you’ve taken a hard look in the mirror and made adjustments to your mindset and biases, it’s time to employ proven tactics that will engage (and therefore retain) your team.

Decades of research have consistently identified three factors that correlate to employee engagement. They are:

  • Autonomy: Self-directedness and latitude regarding how to get work done.
  • Mastery: Ability to learn and gain expertise.
  • Purpose: Feeling a part of something larger than oneself.

Think about each element and how you can improve it within your team, group, division, or firm. For example, I’ve found the simple act of asking someone for their recommendation before telling them what to do drives both autonomy and purpose!

The technique of coaching for growth improves feelings of both autonomy and mastery. But most leaders coach for results instead and, with good intentions, they give employees answers about how to overcome the problems they face. A classic example is the sales manager telling a salesperson, step by step, how to close the deal they’re working. Leaders typically feel great about coaching for results because it generally works! When someone does what you suggest and it works, it reinforces telling them what to do. Plus, coaching for results is easy and comfortable for leaders, as they generally know what to do and there’s nothing particularly challenging about giving someone instructions.

Here’s the huge problem with coaching for results: it builds each employee’s dependence on YOU to think for them and solve their problems. While this might be acceptable or even a plus in the mind of your more marginal performers, top performers see this as highly disengaging.  Further, you’re not growing your team’s capacity to be more independent and accomplish things on their own. Coaching for results is neither scalable nor engaging and actually diminishes both autonomy and mastery.

Coaching for growth, on the other hand, shifts the focus to behavioral patterns that stand in the way of each employee’s growth and development. For example, here are several patterns I’ve observed to be common in the workplace: consistently disorganized, unreliable, late to meetings, prone to argue non-essential points, slow to ask for help, too soft in negotiations, and being more problem than solution focused.

Instead of telling your employee what to do, question a pattern you’ve observed in their behavior that’s preventing them from being more effective in their role. Give them specific examples of the behavior(s) that establish the pattern and why it’s in their interest to change them. It may feel uncomfortable to speak so candidly to your staff at first, but it will result in growth, independence, and more engagement over time.

As an added bonus, A-players LOVE being coached for growth, B-players tolerate it, and C-players HATE it!

At first, it will take more time and energy to empower your employees than it does to tell them what to do. Resist the urge to give instructions. Your investments now will be repaid handsomely over time because you’ve built a more capable, engaged, and scalable team.

Walk Your Own Talk

If you’ve ever worked for a leader who embodied the phrase “do as I say, not as I do,” you are painfully aware of how disengaging it is for staff. This is why it’s critical for you to lead by example with your own behavior: you must walk your own talk.

Your entire team constantly looks to you for cues about how to behave—what you do, say, and tolerate, as well as how you make decisions and what you prioritize. Everyone watches everything you say and do!

But before you check off the “walk my own talk box,” consider that this is often quite challenging in practice. For example, if you insist that meetings start on time but occasionally show up 3-5 minutes late, regardless of the reason, your team is likely to discount what you say and emulate what you do.

Consider for a moment how effectively you’re walking your own talk. Are you:

  • Living your own values?
  • Honoring your own priorities?
  • Accountable for your own decisions and outcomes?
  • Holding yourself to the same standards and expectations you hold for others?

Before answering these, I challenge you to solicit outside opinions from the “loving critics” we identified earlier. Ask them for their honest feedback, some of which might surprise you. Listen, learn, and improve.

Conclusion

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader” 

– John Quincy Adams

Whether it’s about “quiet quitting” or “the great resignation” or some other popular media buzz-phrase du jour, there will always be some external force to blame for the difficulties you face as a leader. This is made even more challenging by your unconscious cognitive biases, particularly your confirmation bias. But if you choose to focus on what you can control, including the three levers of engagement–autonomy, mastery, and purpose–you have the opportunity to create the right standards and culture to attract, engage, grow, and retain high-performers.

Acknowledge your blind spots. Reflect on your own performance, engage a handful of “loving critics,” learn how to coach for growth, and lead by example. All of those elements begin with you.

Never forget: people don’t quit companies or jobs. They quit the unhealthy cultures their bosses create and tolerate, they quit being overworked, and they quit being underappreciated (which includes a lack of opportunity to learn and grow). 

The success of every team, group, division, or company starts at the top. When you circumvent your insecurities and biases and focus on the fundamentals of engagement, you’ll build an organization that will withstand far more than next quarter’s social media trend.

=============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Dates: October 21. 2022. Learn more and register!

==============================================

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with a culture of accountability execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build a culture of accountability.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Dates: October 20, 2022. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“For me the greatest beauty always lies in the greatest clarity.”

– Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

The leaders I coach have all the right stuff. They’re smart, driven, and can articulate a clear vision of how their company should operate. But those same success factors are a breeding ground for overconfidence, blindspots, and cognitive biases that diminish their ability to communicate effectively and achieve peak performance from their teams. 

When was the last time a communication issue negatively affected you, your team, and/or your firm’s performance? Odds are, it happened within the past few days, if not the past few hours! The cost of ineffective communication and misunderstanding is astounding, whether in terms of time, money, reputation, and/or energy. As you think about this more deeply, I have little doubt you’ll find examples of supporting evidence on your team and throughout your organization. Even worse, count on additional negative impact below the surface, as a lack of clarity invisibly erodes morale and teamwork.

The curse of knowledge and the Dunning-Kruger effect are two cognitive biases that invisibly reduce our effectiveness as communicators. We need to understand them before learning how to work around them.

The curse of knowledge occurs when you unconsciously assume others have the same information and understanding as you. This is why, for example, a game of Pictionary can be so frustrating! The person drawing the picture knows what they’re trying to communicate, but since the observers lack the same information or context, it is considerably more difficult for them to ascertain the message.

The result of this cognitive bias is that leaders tend to communicate less frequently and with less detail than they should. An executive who directs their team to “become more efficient at processing customer orders,” for example, might understand all the steps needed to make it happen. Their team, on the other hand, hears a vague order and does their best to interpret it and execute. The path from here is depressingly predictable: over time, the leader becomes frustrated because their team isn’t prioritizing or executing as expected.

The Dunning-Kruger effect causes us to overestimate our competence or knowledge in a given domain. The domain of communication is at the top of the list for business leaders.

Studies have shown that the lower your competency in a field, the more overconfident you are in your abilities. “If you are incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent,” David Dunning wrote in his book, Self Insight.  In other words, you can’t know what you don’t know, which makes Dunning-Kruger the ultimate blindspot for each of us.

Because of these cognitive biases, every leader I’ve met thinks they are great at communicating. For example, when I ask executives if they think they’re in the top 20% of communicators at their firm, almost all say yes. 

Statistically, that’s impossible!

Especially because under-communication is one of the most prevalent and costly issues in business. The problem is, we leaders think we’re pretty good at it, and yet there are piles of evidence and never-ending complications that point to the exact opposite conclusion.

Here are three easy-to-implement, highly effective tools to help you bypass your cognitive biases, become a more effective communicator, and improve your firm’s performance. They are: Commander’s Intent, Role Accountability, and Meeting Rhythms.

Tool # 1: Commander’s Intent

Commander’s Intent is a military concept with origins in the German army during the 19th Century. The gist is that before a leader describes a detailed plan of attack to his or her troops, they must first articulate an overall view of the mission’s goal. For example, “take hill XYZ by 4:00 pm tomorrow so the caravan of supplies can get to the forward base after sunset.”

Commander’s Intent is important because nothing ever goes 100% according to plan. When an aspect of a plan inevitably falls apart, people need to know what the overall purpose is so they can improvise and continue moving forward. As such, the context of the plan is as important as the details of the plan.

Many leaders focus communication on WHAT and HOW, but fail to describe WHY something matters. This lack of context is a real handicap for the team because it forces them to become dependent on the leader when things inevitably go awry.

Many leaders focus communication on WHAT and HOW, but fail to describe WHY something matters.

Here’s an example of what I mean: One of the leadership team’s topics at a recent client meeting was to create an agenda for an upcoming two-day retreat for their 20 sales managers. The head of sales suggested the leadership team brainstorm activities, and was getting ready to open the floor for suggestions when I stopped him. “What does good look like?” I asked. “When you walk out the door at the end of the second day, what do you want to have accomplished?”

The leadership team was missing Commander’s Intent for the brainstorming activity. Although the head of sales understood the retreat’s purpose himself, without first communicating it to his team, they were going to fall into the trap of an inefficient, unfocused conversation as they tried to develop a high-stakes agenda.

Without skipping a beat, the head of sales articulated four broad objectives for the sales manager retreat, including a desire to have managers interact with colleagues they’d never met before, and leave the conference feeling aligned with the direction of the firm. Once the team understood the overall purpose, the brainstorm session that followed was highly productive.

Use Commander’s Intent at the beginning of every project, initiative, and activity—whether you’re making broad, strategic decisions about your firm’s direction, or small, tactical moves like creating a meeting agenda. Commander’s Intent provides clarity and improves performance because it provides context, improves focus, and allows people to improvise more independently when something unexpectedly derails the plan.

Tool # 2: Role Accountability

Leaders become frustrated when individuals on their team don’t perform, but I’ve found that it’s often a result of unclear role definitions and accountability. If people don’t understand what is expected of them in their role, how can you as their leader expect them to consistently deliver? Role Accountability improves communication and performance by clarifying the outcomes and results associated with every role in the organization. 

Most organizations I’ve encountered are activity-focused. When I ask a salesperson what her role is, for example, she’ll typically answer with verbs—things like calling prospective clients, qualifying prospects, writing proposals, and closing deals. Yes, activities can be important, but only as pathways to concrete outcomes, which are nouns, not verbs. If this salesperson was on my payroll, I’d much rather hear her say that her role is to achieve revenue, gross margin, and a number of new clients targets.

It’s on the leader to be able to clearly communicate to every employee what is expected of their role. If you don’t establish a universally understood performance standard for every role (think outcomes/nouns), it’s not only difficult to hold people accountable, but it’s also much more challenging to coach them to improve their performance over time.

It’s on the leader to be able to clearly communicate to every employee what is expected of their role.

Role Accountability must start at the top. Clarity and alignment in an organization flow in one direction: down. The further away from senior leadership you go, the less clear everything becomes. For example, even when there’s precise clarity and alignment on the executive team, I expect to see a bit less at every level descending through the organization’s ranks. On the other hand, when there’s poor clarity and alignment at the top, by the time you reach the front lines, people have absolutely no idea what’s going on!

Here’s how to create a Role Accountability card for each role in your firm, division, group, or team. Start with your own direct reports and give each team member a 3×5 index card. Ask them to write their role (not their name!)  at the top and then answer the question, “what are the three most important results the company expects you to deliver in exchange for paying your salary?” Be sure to lead by example and participate yourself to define the outcomes for your role as well!

Now the fun begins, because this exercise pushes your team to get it right. They will ask plenty of questions! “What do you mean by results?” or “What if I can’t measure what I do?” Reassure them that there are always measurable results–because if there weren’t the company wouldn’t be willing to pay a salary for their activities! Throughout this process, beware of verbs and look for nouns. Have the team draft their accountability cards and share their answers in the meeting, then follow-up with 1-on-1 conversations to edit and tune them into alignment with the outcomes on your card, which should be at the highest level for the organization or team you lead.

This process defines accountability by role, not by person, so if one member of your team occupies two roles–like perhaps a Controller who is also the Head of IT–they should produce an accountability card for each distinctive role.  For roles with multiple seats, there’s still just one card for the role, so a team of six salespeople would share a single Role Accountability card for the salesperson role. 

Once your team’s Role Accountability cards are in place, there will be clarity and alignment that wasn’t there before. This translates into a more aligned focus on the “right” things. After this is completed for your team, have each of your team members execute this same process with their teams, and so on–one level at a time–until you have a Role Accountability card for every seat in the organization.

Tool # 3: Meeting Rhythms

Information is the lifeblood of your organization and the Meeting Rhythms tool ensures that you, your team, and every employee are in sync. Just like we rely on the flow of our circulatory system to keep our cells nourished and functioning, you must ensure information flows throughout your firm consistently and effectively.

Although there are numerous meeting rhythms you should establish to maintain a healthy communication flow, for brevity, the two I will prioritize here are the daily huddle and the weekly meeting.

You must ensure information flows throughout your firm consistently and effectively.

The purpose of the daily huddle is synchronization. It never ceases to amaze me how disjointed people are without a huddle, even though they literally work side-by-side for eight hours a day! Huddles are critical to the performance of your organization.

An effective huddle should last less than 10 minutes, and it’s an opportunity for everyone on the team to synchronize: to know what’s going on, where people will be, who needs help, and what issues might be brewing. The huddle is NOT a forum for problem solving or debating issues—rather, it’s a touch point so the left hand knows what the right is doing.

Daily huddles should also reinforce your firm’s culture. I instruct my coaching clients to have one person in each huddle tell a non-heroic core values story every day, which is a foundational culture-building element over time.

I’ve yet to encounter a client whose organization has not been significantly transformed by the addition of well-run daily huddles. They find there are fewer surprises, less drama, and fewer 1-on-1 meetings and interruptions throughout the day. 

The weekly meeting replaces your huddle one day each week. It’s an hour-long session where you and your direct reports discuss metrics, the progress of broader initiatives, and the opportunities and challenges associated with advancing the business. This includes having in depth discussions and debates to resolve some of the issues that surfaced during the team’s daily huddles.

Your Meeting Rhythms–four Daily Huddles and one Weekly Meeting–will transform the flow of information, alignment, and performance in your firm. Even better, you’ll effortlessly reinforce your culture, build esprit de corps, and instill consistency and discipline into your operation.

Conclusion

“Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.”

– Dwayne Johnson

You’re a leader because, one way or another, you’ve earned the right to lead. But beware of overconfidence, blindspots, and cognitive biases, each of which has the potential to subvert your path to success.

To stay on track, create habits around Commander’s Intent, Role Accountability, and Meeting Rhythms and become consistent and vigilant with your practices. Periodically assess:

  • How often and how clearly are you expressing Commander’s Intent when you delegate, ask for input, or give direction? 
  • When was the last time you used someone’s Role Accountability card to guide a coaching session or to evaluate their performance? 
  • How productive are your firm’s Daily Huddles and Weekly Meetings? What needs to change to keep them on track?

Further, I suggest you regularly solicit feedback from your team and other trusted sources as to how effectively you’re communicating, using the tools, and creating clarity for your team. 

One final thought: Don’t fall into the trap of thinking just because you implement Daily Huddles or create Role Accountability cards that you’ve got everything under control. The Dunning-Kruger effect is real, and there’s a big difference (and tons of blind spots) between implementation, consistent use, and then mastery.

=============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Dates:    

==============================================

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with a culture of accountability execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build a culture of accountability.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities

Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Dates:    

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.”

– Lao Tzu

We all want to be liked by others.

Some psychologists believe the desire to be liked begins at birth when we are dependent on caregivers to survive. Others take an evolutionary perspective and point out how being part of a social group enabled our ancient ancestors to survive and pass along their genes. This likely caused humans to evolve to feel hurt by rejection, which reinforces group bonds and promotes group-strengthening behaviors.

Now, tens of thousands of years later, young humans are still taught the virtues of being liked. Sharing toys, waiting your turn, and being nice to others are behaviors that yield praise for children. These same ideals continue into our adult lives—especially at work, where we’re rewarded for a job well done and criticized for falling short.

That said, the desire to be liked generally serves us well as members of groups, teams, and society. But if you’re a supervisor, manager, or leader, a strong need to be liked diminishes your efficacy. It can even backfire completely and cause your team to like you less!

According to psychologists, indicators of a strong need to be liked include:

  • Continuous efforts to please people, including conflict avoidance
  • Heightened anxiety when facing disapproval
  • Willingness to compromise your values and/or integrity to avoid rejection
  • Reluctance to stand out from the group or go against the grain
  • Fixation on a person who doesn’t seem to like you

Now consider these relatively common situations where a desire to be liked undermines effective leadership:

  • Delivering bad news effectively
  • Making and acting on hard, right decisions
  • Giving effective, constructive feedback
  • Ending non-fit customer relationships

Why? Each example includes an inherent risk that others might like you less!

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you should be disliked by your team, but I do believe you must learn to be comfortable jeopardizing short-term likeability to pursue a worthy goal.

Remember, at some level we all have a need to be liked. So, it’s not a question of whether, but rather how much your need to be liked influences your thinking and behavior. Fortunately for managers and leaders, there’s a more worthy, game-changing replacement habit to consider:

Respect.

The most effective leaders I know have developed a stronger affinity for needing to be respected than for needing to be liked. This powerful reframing enables more of the right thinking and right moves to achieve more.

Let’s consider two different real-world scenarios where a need to be liked is preventing an otherwise well-intentioned leader from making the right move. We’ll review each situation and explain how reframing “being liked” into “being respected” would help these leaders improve.

Scenario 1: Sarah

Sarah owns and operates a marketing agency with 20 employees. She considers herself a good boss because her clients and staff seem to like her, and she’s grown the business slowly but surely since she opened it eight years ago.

There are three other managers in the firm, one of whom—Chuck, the Director of Operations—isn’t holding his team accountable. As a result, client work is often late and/or missing the mark against expectations. Sarah has been stepping in to make things right for clients, which she finds frustrating but necessary.

What’s worse is that Mitch, one of Sarah’s star Account Managers reporting to Chuck, has decided to leave the firm for a competitor.

Part of her frustration with Chuck is that she already told him he needs to deliver client work more reliably. “C’mon Chuck, you know how important it is for us to meet our client commitments, right?” Sarah said. “Let me know how I can support you, okay? We can do this! We can do this!”

Meanwhile, the voice in Sarah’s head told a different story, even as her comments to Chuck were leaving her mouth. Why doesn’t he get how critical this is? I wonder if Mitch is leaving us because he doesn’t like working for Chuck. We’re going to lose clients if we can’t reliably deliver, and then what? Will I have to lay people off?

In this scenario, Sarah’s need to be liked is unconsciously preventing her from giving essential, critical, pointed feedback and coaching to Chuck. As a result, she’s risking everything she’s worked for the last eight years in a misplaced effort to avoid conflict. Her internal dialogue indicates she knows the right thing to do, but like many well-intentioned leaders, she can’t bring herself to say what needs to be said.

Scenario 2: Tom

Tom’s conversation with his accountant last week is really stressing him out. Over the past 12 years, he’s grown his bicycle shop to three full-service locations offering sales and service. This time last year, his accountant warned Tom that his costs seemed to be increasing faster than his revenue. Last week, Tom learned he lost money for the first time since his start-up year in the business. Something had to give.

His accountant remained optimistic, however, and suggested how Tom could easily fix the problem: All he had to do was raise prices to cover the increased expenses.

Tom is a well-regarded business leader in his community and takes pride in his personal relationships with his customers. As the business has grown and additional locations opened, he’s always vowed to take care of his customers, even if he isn’t able to know most of them personally. 

Tom is a giver, and through his business contributes to local causes, sponsors children’s sports leagues, and is a vocal champion of cycling safety. Having to increase prices and disappoint his community is among his greatest fears. He justified years of flat pricing as a way of “giving back” and building trust, with an eye on generating additional business volume in return.

All of that has now caught up with him, as he faces the choice of increasing prices or slowly allowing the business to wither—one uncomfortable quarter after the next—until an inevitable end.

Tom knows the right thing to do. He acknowledges that plenty of other businesses he patronizes have increased their prices. But he doesn’t want to disappoint his customers and his community.

Replacing Likeability with Respect

Like so many business leaders, both Sarah and Tom have a need to be liked, preventing them from doing the hard, right things needed to operate their firms. 

  • Sarah isn’t providing Chuck with the direct feedback and coaching he needs and isn’t able to seriously contemplate replacing him with a more capable operations head.
  • Tom can’t bring himself to increase prices, even though he knows the viability of his business is at stake.

Now let’s reframe these scenarios through the lens of needing to be respected rather than being liked:

Sarah

There are no secrets in any organization, and Sarah’s inability to shoot straight with Chuck is transparent to her employees. Though she may be liked by her team, Sarah is not respected as a result. This could explain why Mitch, her star Account Manager, decided to leave.

When she finally does give Chuck the feedback and coaching he needs, it’s true that he might not like her in that moment, or for the next few days. But he’ll certainly respect her for being straightforward and setting clear, non-negotiable expectations.

In the event that Chuck isn’t able to improve his performance and Sarah decides to replace him in the role, her consistency and action will earn respect from her team.

Tom

Tom’s inability to increase prices over so many years has likely been noticed by other business leaders around town. Odds are, they’re wondering why he’s not doing the obvious thing, which has certainly diminished their professional respect for him—even though they appreciate all that he contributes to the community.

Tom’s accountant, other professional advisors, and senior staff have also been observing his odd reluctance to do the right thing for his business, his family, and his staff. Though they like Tom tremendously, many are likely questioning his business acumen and decision-making.

When he finally does the right thing and implements across-the-board price increases, it’s true that some of his customers might not like it. But they’ll respect the decision when they come to understand that the survival of his business is at stake, as are Tom’s valuable community contributions. The decision will also repair Tom’s image with the local business community.

Conclusion

“I am not concerned with being liked or disliked. I am concerned with being respected.”

– Jackie Robinson

There’s a classic scene in an episode of HBO’s long-running series The Sopranos where mob boss Tony Soprano is arguing with his nephew and crew captain, Christopher. “What happens, I decide, not you,” Tony says. “And if you don’t love me anymore, that breaks my heart. You don’t gotta love me, but you will respect me.”

While you probably won’t ever find yourself heading an organized crime family, the sentiment within your own organization should remain the same. It’s far more valuable to be respected than to be liked as a leader. As with Sarah and Tom, if you’re not saying or doing something you “know” you should, it’s likely because your need to be liked is greater than your need to be respected.

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Remember, there will always be unintended negative consequences that stem from a desire to be liked! For Sarah, it was a lack of respect from her employees; for Tom, it was from the community he so deeply cared about.

By focusing on being respected instead, you’ll be able to lead, make hard choices, and act on what needs to be done. You’ll become more effective in your role and experience one of the greatest ironies and gifts of leadership: Highly respected leaders are also well-liked.

=============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events

Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Together we will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Class Dates:    

==============================================

Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with a culture of accountability execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment and fun at work.

Together we will:

  • Identify the 3 building blocks of accountability.
  • Learn 9 accountable behaviors required to build a culture of accountability.
  • Discover 3 types of accountability (it’s not just one thing!).
  • Improve role definitions and outcomes using results instead of activities
  • Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement

Class Dates:    

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

In a perfect world, your staff would complete their work on time, more proactively communicate problems and potential obstacles, and produce more predictable results.

They would be more accountable.

But right here, right now in the real world, projects are late and over budget, customer promises remain unfulfilled, and careless mistakes cost time and money. Operating a business often seems harder than it should—because it is! 

I’ve never met a CEO or business leader who wasn’t concerned with loose accountability on their team, the symptoms of which can be quite painful. Here are just a few of the scenarios I’ve witnessed: Leaders unable to recall the objectives they set at their annual planning session, key customers not receiving deliveries as promised, and CEOs who maintain lists of the commitments made by others to ensure nothing is forgotten. The effects of loose accountability are costly, frustrating, demoralizing, and growth-killing.

These issues were the driving force behind my book Creating a Culture of Accountability, a handy guide for building a culture of crisp, rigorous, and systemic accountability within any organization. But what if you can’t afford to wait as you work through the three types of Accountability I feature in the book? For example, I encounter leaders every week with transactional accountability problems–issues associated with a specific person, project, or task–that require immediate action.

Here’s some good news: There is a straightforward, standalone three-step system you can implement immediately. When you do it correctly, it has the potential to transform transactional accountability on your team while not consuming any additional resources or time.

Yes, you should buy my book. But if you must, you can get started here right away.

I’ve been using the three building blocks of accountability–expectations, context, and attention–to help business leaders gain traction via more accountable staff for years.

Now you can use them too.

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Step 1: Expectations

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.”

– Robert Rosenthal

An expectation is a belief that is expressed either verbally or through actions. Expectations drive outcomes. 

Research backs this up, particularly psychologist Robert Rosenthal’s work with what is more popularly known as “The Pygmalion Effect”. Rosenthal selected elementary school students at random and informed teachers these students had particularly high potential. Lo and behold, the “high potential” students outperformed their peers at the end of the academic year. The explanation for their success? Teachers believed the students were talented, treated them accordingly, and the students met their expectations.

Rosenthal’s findings transfer to the business world as well. This Harvard Business Review article points to studies of company performance that confirm expectations in work settings also become self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Accordingly, it stands to reason that leaders should have high expectations of their people, including the belief that employees possess the capacity to deliver what is asked of them.

The question is: Do you?

If you don’t, you might have some people on your team who don’t belong. Or, you might have the right people in roles that don’t play to their strengths. Remember: you’re accountable to get the right people in the right seats (RPRS) on your team! For more on how to do that, have a look at my article on getting the right people in the right roles.

Assuming you have RPRS and you believe in your team, you must express it to them. When you delegate a task or assign a project, the first step to building accountability is to communicate your belief in their ability to meet your high expectations. The simplest way to say this is “I believe in you.”

If that feels too “soft” or uncomfortable for you, that’s ok. Here are some other real-world phrases that convey the same message:

I know this project is a stretch, but you’re more than capable of meeting the challenge–and rest assured, I’ll support you along the way.

I wouldn’t be asking you to do this if I didn’t believe you’d be successful. In fact, I have a feeling you’re going to do really well!

I have no doubt you’re ready to take this on.

A word of caution: don’t express your belief if you don’t mean it. Beyond the words, mannerisms and actions also transmit expectations, and it’s relatively easy for people to see through non-authentic expressions of belief.

Building Block #1: Communicate your belief in them. “I believe in you.”

Step 2: Context

“For me, context is the key—from that comes the understanding of everything.”

– Kenneth Noland

It’s intuitive to think about and ask what, who, and how questions as you lead, delegate to, and manage your team. For example:

  • What do we need to accomplish?
  • Who is best suited to complete the task?
  • How should they start and proceed over time?

But I’ve found leaders seldom think or communicate about WHY.

Context is a critical component of accountability because it provides important information that helps your team appreciate the bigger picture beyond the work on their desk. Well-thought context answers the following questions:

  • Why does this role / assignment / project / task matter to the firm?
  • Why does this role / assignment / project / task matter to the division, group, or team?
  • Why does it matter to YOU, the leader, personally?

Research into the root causes of employee engagement consistently suggests that a sense of purpose is one of three key factors (the other two are autonomy and mastery). In other words, knowing why something matters—matters a lot. When you relay the context of a task or request, you are being clear that it’s important to you. Don’t ever assume your team already knows. Just because it’s important in your mind doesn’t mean it’s important in theirs!

Be explicit about sharing the context of your request to underscore why it matters to the business and to you. When assigning a task to a team member, share the context after setting the expectation. 

Building Block #1: Communicate your belief in them. “I believe in you.”

Building Block #2: Explain the context of the assignment. “This is important because…”

Step 3: Attention

“Where attention goes, energy flows”

– James Redfield

My client struggled for years to consistently achieve the monthly Key Performance Indicator (KPI) at the core of his business model—specifically, client billable hours worked. The leadership team believed they were accountable for staff compliance with their individual client billable hour targets. As such, they produced lists of employees whose hours were below expectations and lists of others who weren’t inputting their billable hours in a timely manner. Though their intentions were good, all of these actions occurred after the fact—effectively looking back at the previous month, after it was too late to recover the hours and revenue for the period.

After listening and understanding their situation, I asked one question: “Who should be accountable for client billable hours?”

Sensing I asked this for a reason—and after a leadership team member replied “we are”—another team member hesitatingly suggested that each staff member should be accountable.

“Exactly!” I replied. “And assuming they are accountable, how can you bring real-time attention to their accountability, effectively letting them know you are watching?”

After some debate, the leadership team agreed to require each staff member to report progress against their weekly billable hour goal verbally in their daily huddle.

Through this simple process, the leadership team is crystal clear about their attention to this KPI. And, if you think about it from a staff perspective, reporting your personal metric on a daily basis is the ultimate bar-raising move. After all, no one wants to be the person who reports a zero-progress day!

Leaders with highly accountable teams pay close attention to results and actively impart “I am watching” to their teams through words, actions, and processes. Your number one job as a leader is to point to what matters most, which is exactly what paying attention does.

I occasionally get push-back with this step in the accountability process because leaders think “I am watching” is too Big Brother or micro-managerial. The point, though, is not to become overbearing. It’s to reinforce the timeline, the importance, and the expectations. By paying attention, you’re doubling down on the why of the task or goal.

Although attention might seem like the most difficult step to implement because it’s more abstract and ongoing than the first two steps, it doesn’t have to be. Paying attention can look like a repeatable process like my client implemented above, or it can be a three-minute sync each week. Here’s one of my personal favorites: Ask a question while passing someone in the hallway—”How’s that report coming along? I’ll have it on my desk by noon Thursday, right?” And keep on walking!

Building Block #1: Communicate your belief in them. “I believe in you.”

Building Block #2: Explain the context of the assignment. “This is important because…”

Building Block #3: Ensure they know you are paying attention. “I am watching.”

Conclusion

“Accountability is the glue that ties commitment to the result.” 

– Bob Proctor

The odds are overwhelming that you have an accountability problem in your firm, your division, your department, your group, or your team. One way or another, it’s slowing you down, costing you money, and decreasing the engagement of your staff.

While creating a culture of accountability is the best, long-term solution, it doesn’t necessarily have to be your first step. You can begin today by implementing the three building blocks of accountability. This three-step process won’t cost you anything and barely takes any time at all, yet yields massive potential returns.

Establish clear, high expectations (I believe in you), thoroughly explain the context (This is important to me), and then pay attention over time (I am watching). When you do this well and consistently, the benefits will come quickly and with great effect.

With these three steps, you’ll be well on your way to achieving levels of productivity you once thought existed only in a perfect world. 

Once it’s working for you, please consider sharing the process with others. You’ll be doing your part to help solve the costly, frustrating accountability headache for other leaders around the world.

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Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

In this program you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Classes:    

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” – Patrick Rothfuss

My wife Keri and I are huge bourbon fans. This past spring, after unsuccessful previous attempts, we were finally able to secure reservations to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and tour our favorite distilleries, including Woodford, Four Roses, and Makers Mark to name a few. We planned to travel there in our motor coach on our way home to Virginia from a mid-June factory maintenance trip to Michigan. Unfortunately, the motor coach gremlins struck, and the maintenance team at the factory uncovered the need for more significant work than we’d anticipated. As a result, we left the coach in Michigan for repairs, canceled the distillery tours, and came straight home.

On the one hand, we were absolutely crushed to miss the bourbon distillery tours. On the other hand, it was a relatively easy decision. The Michigan factory was, without a doubt, the best possible place to have the issues with our coach diagnosed and repaired. Further, Keri and I had newfound time to relax at home and accomplish several things around the house. Despite the dispiriting circumstances, we made the best of it and enjoyed a pleasant “vacation” week together at home.

This story illustrates an attribute I’ve strived to embody: an optimistic mentality. I’ve managed to wire myself to mentally make the best of any circumstance. To be clear, this isn’t fluffy optimism where I pretend everything is perfect, rather, I am referring to pragmatic, realistic optimism. 

In addition to serving me personally, this trait is invaluable to leaders, increasing their resilience, improving their decisions, and motivating (and focusing) their teams.

How you think about yourself, your circumstances, your surroundings, and your goals profoundly influences your outcomes. These patterns of thought or mental models are the most critical “invisible” factors that distinguish high achievers in any domain. Whether you realize it, your thoughts have the potential to either propel or derail your success in any endeavor. They often manifest as the “voice in your head.”

Our thoughts are so powerful, they can even affect our health! A 2017 Stanford study found that people who perceived themselves as less active had up to a 72% higher mortality risk than those who felt they were more active—even though both groups completed the same level of activity. Another study found that employees who were told stress enhanced their health experienced lower levels of cortisol and increased levels of the growth hormone DHEA. In other words, just being told “stress is good” actually LOWERED the biological indicators of stress.

When properly harnessed, productive mental models yield awesome power, remarkable achievement, competitive advantage, and sustainable growth. Left unchecked, they can cripple both you and your firm.

Which of your assumptions, beliefs, and habits of thinking serve you best? And which could be holding you back?

Consider those questions as you explore the following mental models high performing leaders use to 10x their results:

Return On Luck

Business researcher, author, and consultant Jim Collins coined the term “return on luck” in his book “Great By Choice.” His research concluded that successful companies weren’t any luckier than their less-successful counterparts; rather, they generated a better return on whatever circumstances presented themselves.

“When we study this over and over again, what we find is we’re all hit in life with different kinds of luck. But a huge swing variable is there are those who grab it and then get a high return on that luck, and there are those who fritter it away. When you compound that over time, it tends to produce a very big difference. And the bad luck side is also important, because it’s not just return on good luck; it’s return on bad luck.”

— Jim Collins

It turns out, over time, there is a roughly equal distribution of “good” and “bad” luck events affecting individuals and businesses. What makes the biggest difference is how you and your team respond to them, whether good OR bad.

These findings demonstrate something I’ve found working with my clients: Habits of thinking about luck determine the magnitude of return a firm generates over time. For example, the way a leader behaves after winning a large account affects future returns. 

She might think to herself, “This is fantastic, let’s celebrate and relax; we’ve achieved some security,” and use it as an opportunity to catch her breath. Unfortunately, by leaning back after a big win, she will probably generate a fair to poor return on the new account win (a good-luck event)—and miss the chance to further capitalize on it. On the other hand, if she were to think, “Wow, we just won this big account. We’ve got momentum, so let’s double down and create a new sales incentive program to help our salespeople continue to crush it in the market,” her approach would likely lead to a much higher return on the same event. 

Of course, this also holds true for the opposite scenario when one’s habits of thought create either self-pity and inaction or concerted, focused action in response to a negative event–say the loss of a key account. The choice of action or inaction after the loss similarly leads to widely divergent returns over time.

The return on luck mental model helps you seek opportunities and positive returns, even in the face of extreme adversity. There’s a catch, though: You have to be ready to seize the opportunities and generate a return on your luck regardless of whether the event appears to be positive or negative. That’s where acceptance comes into play. As I wrote in my last article, if you can’t acknowledge that the unexpected will happen, your capacity to capitalize on unforeseen circumstances is lost.

Key Questions for Leaders: 

  • When encountering an unexpected luck event, how do you seek opportunity?
  • How can you capitalize on, learn from, or grow from “bad” luck events?
  • How can you use those experiences to help others? 

The Stockdale Paradox

The Stockdale Paradox is another powerful tool for leaders. This mental model also originated with Jim Collins’ research, this time from his book “Good To Great.”

Admiral James Stockdale was the highest-ranking American military officer captured during the Vietnam War. He spent eight gruesome years in the “Hanoi Hilton” and was tortured over 20 times. Yet by his own account, he emerged from the camp stronger than when he entered.

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After he returned home, Stockdale explained why both optimists and pessimists died in the camp. The optimists died of broken hearts, having their hopes for release and return home repeatedly crushed. The pessimists, on the other hand, had no hope, gave up, and lost the will to survive. Stockdale believed he survived because he retained faith that regardless of the difficulties of his horrendous circumstances, he would prevail and emerge stronger. 

Here’s the paradox: he continually confronted the brutal facts of his current reality while simultaneously holding hope that he would eventually emerge as a better version of himself.

As this Harvard Business School article points out, the Stockdale Paradox played out in many businesses over the last few years through the global pandemic. Leaders standing on the edge of ruin may have pinned their hope on rescue in the form of a cure for the COVID-19 virus, but more than two years later, it’s unlikely we’ll ever return to what we once considered “normal.” Leaders who weathered the storm moved their teams past the doubt—not through happy thoughts and fluffy optimism, but by constantly reinforcing the organizations’ purpose, values, and fundamentals while simultaneously acknowledging the unknowns, risks, and other hard facts along the way. 

There’s never a straight or easy path to significant accomplishment in any domain. Take the time to understand the backstory behind greatness and you’ll uncover significant adversity was overcome along the way. To surmount the inevitable adversity on the path to your highest aspirations, you must embody Admiral Stockdale’s paradox by simultaneously maintaining faith in the outcome while accepting the hard facts of your current reality.

Key Questions for Leaders: 

  • Where are you sugarcoating the “brutal truth” right now?
  • How can you reinforce your team’s connection to your firm’s purpose, values, and fundamentals?
  • Who is best positioned to help you see what you’re missing?

Choose Your Neighborhood

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”
— Jim Rohn

Both research and life experience seem to indicate Jim Rohn was right.

A University of Exeter study in 2014 reported that humans evolved to be heavily influenced by their neighbors. The result? Our thoughts, our motivations, and our decisions are invisibly and profoundly influenced by those around us. 

Sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be if you turn your genetic impulses into a strength through the mental model of choosing the right neighborhood!

When I was preparing to purchase my first house, my Grandpa Ben gave me the following advice: “No matter what you do, don’t ever buy the most expensive house in the neighborhood because there’s only one way the other houses will affect your property value over time.”

Years later and, sadly, after his passing, it occurred to me that Grandpa Ben wasn’t only giving me real estate advice. I had become one of the most expensive “houses” in my professional neighborhood and needed to upgrade the people around me. I purposely made a series of moves to surround myself with people who were far better and more accomplished than I was at the time; people who made me a little uncomfortable and challenged me. I harnessed my genetic herd instinct to accelerate my growth and development.

Be on the lookout for the indicators you’re in the wrong neighborhood: you’re contributing a lot, but reaping very little. As you grow, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll outgrow those in your mastermind group, networking organization, peer group, or other significant cohort.

Unchecked, these situations can, albeit with good intentions, work against your aspirations as a leader. For example, advice you get from others less capable than you likely embodies THEIR fears—and potentially validates some of your own—diminishing your value over time. On the other hand, if you surround yourself with people who have broken past where you are, they’ll help you stretch, challenge you to grow, and increase your value over time.

In this same vein, be wary of the information you choose to consume. I don’t care how smart or self-aware you are, spending too much time on social media will absolutely influence your mindset, and usually in a negative way. A study in the journal “Technology, Mind, and Behavior” found that binging on negative news in order to find answers during uncertain times increased feelings of anxiety, reduced self-control, and promoted depression.

This is the reason I haven’t watched the news for the past 15 years (and counting!). I’ve found the news is mostly “bad”—because that’s what sells—and doesn’t help me learn, grow, improve, and achieve my goals. I’m still quite aware of what’s happening in the world, however I’m very deliberate about how and when I expose myself to negative influences.

Author Tim Ferris puts media consumption in perspective in his book, “The Four-Hour Workweek:” If it’s important enough, everyone will be talking about it anyway!

Key Questions for Leaders: 

  • Are you surrounded by people who challenge you and make you a little uncomfortable–or–have you become the most expensive house in your neighborhood?
  • What negative influences are you exposed to—purposefully or inadvertently? How do they affect the way you see yourself and the world?

Everyone Needs a Coach

In all of my years as a coach, I’ve yet to find a CEO who has all of the answers. In fact, those who KNOW they don’t know it all are usually the most successful! Their belief system includes the mental model that everyone needs coaching.

In her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” psychologist Carol Dweck explains that when it comes to achievement, many people have a “fixed mindset”—that is, they believe their basic qualities like intelligence and talent are predetermined and immutable traits. These people often believe that if they’re not good at something immediately, they’ll never be good at it. The opposite also holds true; if someone with a fixed mindset thinks they have something all figured out, there’s no way to talk to them about potential improvements.

Those with a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, believe that practice and hard work lead to improvement and eventual mastery. These individuals seek feedback and advice on ways to improve and view failures as opportunities to learn. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a primary characteristic of effective leaders is their desire to continually learn and grow. 

As a leader, it’s productive to not just have a growth mindset for yourself, but to also expect it of your team. This train of thought sets the stage for the development of a learning culture and the rejection of those who can’t or won’t learn and improve.

To be clear, the mental model that everyone needs a coach does not imply that everyone should hire a coach (as an aside, I’m not sure there are enough coaches on the planet for that!). Rather, a coaching mentality is applied to drive continual growth and development throughout the firm.

Your job as a leader and as a coach is to identify behavioral patterns that stand in the way of each employee’s continual improvement. For example, here are a handful of patterns I’ve observed to be common in the workplace: consistently disorganized, unreliable, late to meetings, prone to argue non-essential points, slow to ask for help, too soft in negotiations, and being more problem than solution focused. Great leader/coaches speak candidly, directly, and with great caring when they deliver feedback and coaching to their team.

I’ve never observed a business with a sustained growth rate that exceeds the personal growth rate of the people running it. This bar-raising mental model will get and keep you there by exerting a strong influence on hiring, expectations, decision-making, and ultimately the growth rate of the firm. 

Key Questions for Leaders: 

  • Are you “coaching” or “managing” your teams?
  • How can you promote a growth mindset among your staff?
  • Are you being coached to improve your capacity as a leader?

Conclusion

“We are no greater than the thoughts we think.”
– Bishop T.D. Jakes

In America there are two reasonable certainties when eating at a Chinese restaurant: (1) You’ll receive your check at the end of the meal; and (2) The check will be accompanied by a fortune cookie for each person at the table.

Many years ago, while traveling on business I ate dinner at the Chinese restaurant across the street from my hotel. At the end of the meal as I prepared to pay my server, I opened my fortune cookie. What I saw inside shook me to my core.

“With our thoughts, we create our world,” the fortune read.

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It might sound strange because fortune cookies aren’t exactly known for dispensing profound wisdom, but at that moment, I knew it to be true. If I could find a way to productively harness my thoughts, I could create the “world” I wanted, which is exactly what I did in the three years that followed.

Now contemplate the power of this fortune for yourself. How you think can literally 10x your results, both personally and professionally!

Use the four mental models we’ve outlined to get started. And don’t doubt for a second they’ll work for you. Rather, rest assured you already have everything you need within you to fully capitalize on their power.

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Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

In this program you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Classes:    

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Fortune favors the prepared mind.”

— Louis Pasteur

Paul “Bear” Bryant was arguably the best American football coach of all time. During his 25-year career at the University of Alabama, he won six national championships and 14 Southeastern Conference (SEC) titles. When asked about the key to his success, Bryant spoke just three words:

“Expect the unexpected.”

I’ve found most leaders don’t think enough about Coach Bryant’s wise words—especially as they pertain to people and succession. Unfortunate and/or unforeseen events inevitably affect employees. If you don’t plan for them, you’ll scramble to recover—potentially at an extremely inconvenient or inopportune time. Indeed, filling an unexpected leadership staffing void is often urgent, distracting, and damaging to your operating results. 

At this point, you might be thinking, “If most staffing events are unexpected, how can I plan for them?”

Although the timing and specifics of each individual situation might be surprising—and even bizarre—the idea that they’ll occur is not. Consider these stranger-than-fiction, real life scenarios I’ve encountered with some of my coaching clients over the past two months:

  • A high-performing manager was rightly promoted to branch manager, a role that includes access to a company car. Two days after the promotion, the new branch manager was involved in a hit-and-run accident, which he reported to the company after a three-day delay. His legal situation escalated quickly, and it became clear that despite the employee’s past performance, he could no longer work for the firm.
  • A well-respected supervisor was credibly accused of using racist language with an employee. The supervisor was terminated the same day.
  • An executive-level leader began exhibiting physical and cognitive health symptoms that prevented him from working over the past six weeks. This leader is a key player in the organization’s success and the CEO must fill the void for an unknown amount of time, perhaps even permanently.
  • A senior leader from a recently acquired firm was slotted to run a major practice area. Within three weeks, the new practice leader informed the CEO he was resigning to pursue his dream of running his own firm. 

In all these situations, critical team members were literally “here today and gone tomorrow.” None could have been specifically predicted, but the probability of SOMETHING happening is always greater than zero!

Meanwhile, employees have been quitting their jobs at historic rates since 2020—the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an average of 4 million Americans quit each month. The numbers don’t lie. Believing that the unexpected won’t happen with the people in your organization is not only unrealistic—it’s irresponsible. You MUST think about succession, and you can prepare for the unexpected.

Here are four sustainable strategies that mitigate the impact of unexpected leadership turnover.

Strategy 1: Develop Internal Bench Strength

“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”

– Harvey S. Firestone

Throughout his career, Bear Bryant understood the importance of mentorship. “The idea of molding [people] means a lot to me,” he said. As successful coaches in any team sport know, being prepared for the unexpected requires a deep bench and a “next person up” mentality. In a business context, this involves cultivating next-level leaders so that when (not if!) the time comes, they’re prepared to step up and into a new role.

There’s a tendency for leaders to be complacent in this area because when you have a high-performing employee, you tend to leave them alone while directing your attention to low performers and other problems in the business. Meanwhile, the A-Player—someone with the potential to be a valuable, promotable long-term contributor—doesn’t feel particularly challenged or developed. Unsurprisingly, over time, they become bored and disengaged, which increases their flight risk.

You can engage and develop your rising stars by coaching for growth. Coaching for growth fosters all three prerequisites of high engagement: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Your job as a leader is to identify, communicate, and coach the behavioral patterns that stand in the way of each employee’s growth and development. Coaching for growth sustainably builds capability, independence, and scalability. Even better, A-Players love it!

Sadly, many leaders balk at the imperative to speak with the straight-shooting candor that coaching for growth requires. Ruled by fear, they revert to less effective techniques. I urge you to avoid this at all costs! Instead, tell the brutal truth (with caring and kindness) your people need to hear so they can continue to learn and grow. They’ll be able to do more, to think at a higher level, and to become more independent in their work which, in turn, makes them more promotable over time.

As you build bench strength within your organization, don’t be afraid to raise your expectations. Research shows we get what we expect—from ourselves and from others. If you want your staff to perform to higher standards, start their journey by increasing your expectations of them. Best of all, you’ll discover that high expectations are virtual catnip for high performers and a potent repellant for low performers.

Strategy 2: Create a Virtual Bench

In addition to cultivating talent inside the firm, it’s also crucial to focus outside. With a small amount of energy, consistently applied, people outside your firm can join your “virtual bench” — a prequalified talent pool in orbit around your firm who can be called when the need arises.

Every senior leader in the company should be accountable to network externally and seek outside talent for your virtual bench. It’s as simple as gaining agreement to remain in touch with talented people without regard to your current staffing needs. Here’s how that sounds: “There could come a time when we’ll have a need for you at our firm. I don’t know when, but would it be okay if we stayed in touch?” Great people will never say no, then it’s on the leader to periodically stay in touch.

If each of your senior executives maintains a small handful of people on their virtual bench, you’ve instantly got a list of people to call when there’s an “unexpected” (or planned) opening. It doesn’t guarantee you’ve got the next hire in-hand, but it’s a lot quicker than advertising a position and starting with no candidates.

Even better: Data suggests filling roles from your virtual bench is more successful than utilizing job boards or head-hunting services. A 2019 Jobvite survey reported that nearly 70 percent of jobs were found via networking—50 percent from friends, and 37 percent from professional networks.

Maintaining a virtual bench doesn’t cost a penny and is relatively low-energy, but it does require discipline to stay in touch every three-to-six months. The return on that time, when you need it, is extremely high.

Strategy 3: Evaluate Leadership Succession Quarterly

Thinking about, coaching, and developing people are fundamental elements of your role as a leader. Accordingly, your senior leadership team should discuss people quality and succession each quarter, as my clients do. 

During our full-day quarterly leadership meetings, each executive on the senior team evaluates their direct reports on both performance and cultural fit in front of their peers. To counter potential bias and blind spots, we open the floor for feedback, comments, and discussion, then categorize each direct report as an A, B, or C Player. On occasion, as warranted, I’ll ask leaders to evaluate two layers into the organization, not just their direct reports.

The real value of this exercise isn’t the rankings—it’s the conversations that ensue and the continual reminder that leaders MUST be accountable for the quality and continual growth of their people. It’s quite common for a manager to discover they’re not accurately assessing an employee, or there’s a diamond in the rough they need to polish. My newer clients are often surprised when they realize the conversation isn’t only about low performers (although that’s part of it), but rather to ensure their highest performers remain challenged and engaged. This process balances energy between A and C Players while also identifying the B’s who have potential to grow into A’s. 

This quarterly review process keeps senior leaders focused on people and continually developing bench strength—ensuring they’re prepared for the “unexpected,” high-performers remain challenged and engaged, and the right people get the right opportunities over time.

Strategy 4: Require Leaders to Develop and Share Staff

As a CEO or senior leader, you need to be clear with your direct reports about how you expect them to think about employees. There are two common scenarios I see that constrain organizational agility and the ability to respond to “unexpected” turnover:

  1. Leaders are unwilling or unable to delegate and/or coach for growth. Since they’re not engaging to develop their people, they become the bottleneck to succession.
  2. Leaders are reluctant to share their high performers. For example, a division head wants an emerging leader to work on an important project because it would be a valuable developmental opportunity, but their manager resists because “I really need them performing in their current role.” Although the manager’s position will likely yield better short-term results, it stifles the emerging leader’s growth, engagement, and long-term potential.

Both situations require more senior leadership intervention (i.e., it’s on YOU!). If you don’t see your senior team doing the things you need them to do, you have to lean in and set—or clarify—the expectation. Everyone in leadership must understand that thinking about succession through growth and development is critical. If they can’t or won’t then THEY become the C-Players on your team and should be coached and potentially replaced themselves.

The incentive for leaders to invest in people is the creation of leverage—a prerequisite to sustainably scale. Your team must understand that by coaching for growth and sharing resources, they can accomplish more through others and elevate themselves to focus on more strategic, higher value activities. The leverage they create ensures the company continues to grow while providing ample opportunities for others.

One way to cement and reinforce your commitment to developing people is via your firm’s core values. Values pertaining to learning and growth are quite common and quite powerful, provided you are willing to lead by example and hold others accountable. 

Conclusion

“Those who choose to adopt an infinite mindset are better equipped to manage the unknown. In fact, they are able to find opportunity in uncertainty.” – Simon Sinek

In his book, The Infinite Game, author Simon Sinekwrites that most leaders are wired to think of business as finite: There are inevitably winners and losers, and every year you either achieve your goals or you don’t.

On the other hand, infinite-minded leaders understand that goals, metrics, and timelines are arbitrary. The company itself is viewed as a vehicle to help advance an ideal or solve a human need. Ego is put aside to address the cause and, rather than competing, teams display high trust. Never satisfied with the status quo, they continually seek others—worthy rivals, as Simon calls them—to help them learn and grow. 

Leadership succession is, in itself, an infinite game. There are no goals to achieve, no milestones to hit, and no endpoint where you “win” the game. Teamwork and continual improvement pave the way for more impact, more significance, and less disruptive turbulence along the way.

Yes, unexpected, people-related events and turnover will always happen. It’s your job as a leader to understand that, expect it, and be as prepared as possible by activating these four strategies.

It worked for Bear Bryant. It works for my clients.

It will work for you, too.

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Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Class: July 27, 2022. Learn more and register!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Everything in your life is a reflection of a choice you have made. If you want a different result, make a different choice.”

— Unknown

Life is all about choice. Think deeply about any aspect of your life—your job, your wellness, your relationships—and you’ll find you’ve chosen to be where you are. Each day, you’re faced with decisions—some huge, many miniscule—and over time, these millions of choices result in where you are right now.

This can be hard to swallow, especially when you’re in an unfortunate situation and see yourself as a victim of circumstance. But you must understand that your current position is of your own design.

Over the course of your life, every choice you’ve made was to achieve something you wanted at the time. The problem is, while making many of those choices, you were distracted by short-term rewards and didn’t fully contemplate the long-term consequences. It turns out, our brains are wired for this. A Princeton study found short-term gains are fueled by the emotional part of our brains, while long-term gains stem from the logical part. The difference? Short-term rewards come with an instant shot of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone, which explains why it’s so challenging to resist the glazed donut even when you know it will undermine your diet.

The same principle applies at work. Consider how you respond when an employee asks for help to complete a task. You’re probably working on something else, and they likely interrupted you. As a result, you contemplate the effort behind their request before you answer them. You might rationalize that explaining how to do it could take 20 minutes but doing it yourself will only take five, so you tell the employee not to worry and you’ll complete the task for them. You made the choice because, in that moment, you wanted to save time, get the job done, and ensure it was done right.

Thousands of choices later, you wonder why you’re working long days handling minutia for others. Here’s why: because time after time, teaching someone how to do something seemed unreasonable. You failed to see that investing time in the moment would pay dividends over the long run.

Luckily, there’s an alternative. With awareness, you can consciously choose to delay gratification for long term gain. It requires you to act against your brain’s natural instincts, but when you understand both your propensity to choose instant gratification and your power to defer it, you can start thinking differently about daily choices and actions. 

There’s an invisible three-pronged fork in the road that precedes every choice and decision you make. The key to more productive outcomes is to acknowledge and master it. 

The Invisible Fork in the Road

“Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

— William Jennings Bryan

About a year into my relationship with a client in the technology sector, we assessed their employees’ performance and cultural fit using a methodology called Topgrading. Through this rigorous process, and somewhat to their surprise, it became clear that to fulfill their commitment to continue growing, they needed to replace some of their staff.

Unbeknownst to these executives, they were standing at the invisible three-pronged fork in the road, unconsciously contemplating their options. They could:

  1. Deny the problem and continue on their path.
  2. Operate inside their comfort zone and take limited, low risk actions—but stop short of the steps necessary to achieve real results.
  3. Decide to act, exchanging some short-term pain for a significant long-term payoff.
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The first thing that emerged from our conversation about upgrading their staff was fear and worry. They wondered: Would the terminated staff walk out the door with important institutional knowledge? Would they take other employees or customers with them? Would they criticize the company online? And more.

As the “what if” scenarios progressed, the executives realized their fears only applied to a small subset of staff. They also determined that the cost associated with retaining those individuals was far greater than the fear of what could happen if they were let go. In the end, they chose to do the hard, right thing for the future of the firm; they chose the right path to maximize their long-term aspirations.

Since the fork in the road is invisible, it’s difficult to recognize which path you’re on until it’s too late. As such, it’s critical to learn the distinctions and symptoms. Here are some characteristics of each:

Path 1: Denial and Inaction

Denial involves consciously or unconsciously ignoring facts and evidence that would lead to a logical decision.

The largest motivating factor pushing us down this path is fear. Fear affects all of us—and likely more than you think. Acknowledging that the majority of our thoughts and behaviors stem from fear requires no stretch of the imagination, particularly in light of how our brains and biochemistry evolved. A 2009 study found that fear often overtakes the decision-making process, leading individuals to make choices based solely on the POTENTIAL of catastrophic events, no matter how unlikely.

Most fears originate in one of three areas: ego, scarcity, or failure. Ego is all about the need to judge and compare and often leads to risk avoidance for fear of negatively affecting your status, your position, and what others may think of you. Scarcity is the notion that there’s never enough. A CEO operating from fear of scarcity may be unwilling to define an explicit and precise strategy because they worry they’ll miss out on opportunities that fall just to the left or right of their chosen path. And while all leaders have failed transactionally in one way or another, losing a sale, a customer, or a valuable employee, the fear of failure becomes inhibitive more existentially: failing to provide for your family, to have time to do the things you want to do, and to place big bets and reap the rewards.

All three fears lead to risk aversion—keeping your head in the sand when you should be standing tall. This might cause you to deny clear facts or logic, or it might lead you to delay action. If you seek freedom and abundance and hope to leave a meaningful legacy, it’s crucial to understand that the fears of ego, scarcity, and failure directly limit your potential. Ego-related fear is a bottleneck to freedom, scarcity-related fear is a bottleneck to abundance, and fear of existential failure is a bottleneck to leaving your legacy.

Key Questions for Leaders:

  • Where are you in denial of facts and evidence?
  • What choice or action have you delayed?
  • Which of the “big three” fears most affects your choices?

Path 2: Comfort Zone

Management thinker Judith Barwick first coined the term “comfort zone” in the early ‘90s. She described it as “a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a set of risk.”

We LOVE our comfort zone, but it gives us a false sense of security. It feels like we’re doing “something” and making meaningful progress, but it’s an illusion: we do just enough to feel good, but never what’s required to have a meaningful impact. This reminds me of the phrase “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic:” the deck would surely look neater, but in reality the ship is still sinking.

Unsurprisingly, fear is a significant contributing factor leading to comfort zone choices. 

The most common comfort zone actions I see relate to employees and customers. Fear, emotional entanglements, and conflict-avoidance keep you from being able to address these issues decisively and meaningfully.

For example, many leaders have dealt with a toxic high performer. You know that the individual needs to be removed, but since they bring value to the business—perhaps sales or certain know-how—you fear loss and retribution. So, you stop short of letting them go, instead hoping they will turn themselves around. The conversation with them will certainly ease your mind—after all, you’ve taken ACTION! —and it might even change the employee’s behavior in the short term. But because you were unwilling to make the hard choice, you’re instead spending your time rearranging deck chairs and hoping for the best.

Key Questions for Leaders:

  • Where have you settled for the easy choice?
  • Which comfort zone decision would be most productive for you to revisit?
  • How can you move past your comfort zone with people decisions? 

Path 3: Doing the Hard, Right Things

This path from the invisible fork in the road sums up your job as a leader. Effective leaders actively, consciously, and routinely trade off short-term costs for long-term rewards. This entails not just making the right choices, but also following through with directed action. If you make the choice but hesitate to act, you’re procrastinating, which brings you back to denial and inaction!

Think back to the example of my technology client’s struggle to upgrade their staff. When I stepped into the conversation, they were at the invisible fork in the road multiplying the complexity of their situation with each “what if” scenario. They were unintentionally conflating the “what will we do?” decision of letting team members go with other components of acting like “when” and “how” should we do it (here’s an article that goes deeper into leadership decision-making). They were setting themselves up to embark on one of the two weaker paths: denial and inaction or the comfort zone.

To take the third, less-traveled path of doing the hard, right things, the team needed to compartmentalize the “why,” “what,” “how,” and “when” of their decision. I guided the conversation to clarify why they needed to take action. From there, we focused on what would be done, which identified the staff to be let go. Finally, we tackled the when and how of executing on their plan. By defining the “what” of the decision without regard to how or when to act, it became much easier for the team to see the right path and commit to it.

As the team talked it out that day, they named their fears and considered all their options. They actively contemplated each of the three paths, and by doing so brought their choice to full consciousness.

This is the key to mastery.

Key Questions for Leaders

  • How effectively are you making hard, right choices and acting on them?
  • How can you compartmentalize the why, what, how, and when of your decisions?
  • Where is your team missing an opportunity to make a hard, right choice?

Conclusion

“I am who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

EVERY choice you make shapes who you are and your future state. You are in control of your path and your progress, but this requires making productive choices. Don’t be the leader who hides their head in the sand or lives in their comfort zone! Rather, identify and confront your fears, get comfortable being uncomfortable, and make the hard decisions. It might not feel great in the moment, but over the long term, you’ll be far more successful.

There’s a scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Albus Dumbledore puts his hands on the young Harry Potter’s shoulders and says: “There will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” 

That time is now, for you and for anyone seeking freedom, abundance, and legacy.

=============================================

Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class: June 27, 2022. Learn more and sign up!

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Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Class: June 29, 2022. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

Each of us has a vision of an ideal version of ourselves. Your ideal self may be an accomplished, respected leader -or- a difference maker for people in need -or- a CEO building a revolutionary company brick by brick. Yet there are days when you can’t fix a simple problem, or you feel more like an amateur than a fearless leader. 

We all have moments that highlight the duality of how we envision ourselves versus where we feel we are in the present.

For example, there are probably days when:

  • You feel more like a failure than a success.
  • You aspire to be cool under pressure, yet feel a lack of control.
  • You envision being clear-headed, yet act indecisively.
  • You are full of worry.

What’s the biggest roadblock preventing you from closing your duality gap? Most commonly, it’s how you think.

We humans are fantastic at getting in our own way. We obsess over hypotheticals, conjure events and meaning that don’t exist, and worry about outcomes we can’t control. We allow our emotional state to rule (and overrule!) our rational selves. We ascribe meaning to others’ words and actions without regard for data, facts, or intent. The effects of this thinking can slow growth, damage careers, and cause capable team members to flee.

It’s not totally your fault. A recent Forbes article reports that self-sabotage often occurs in small, almost undetectable moments. And no one is immune. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer once confessedhe constantly suffered from creative paralysis due to his success. “It wasn’t just me sitting down to write,” Mailer said. “It was Norman Mailer sitting down to write. I had to live up to him.”    

Wouldn’t it be great if there was one straightforward technique—a superpower of sorts—you could use to short-circuit your tendency to get in your own way? And wouldn’t it be even better if you could also use it to help your team do the same?

There is, and it’s called reframing.

Reframing is a mindset and influence technique that you can use to help yourself and others. The real prize of reframing is what psychologists call behavioral flexibility—increasing the breadth of your thinking and of your potential actions at any moment in time. This is the key to being able to “unstick” yourself and others when you (often unconsciously) fall prey to your thought-narrowing, option-limiting human defaults. 

After I learned how to do this for myself, I began helping my coaching clients employ it, enabling them to move past what often seemed like insurmountable obstacles. Reframing has become the most powerful tool in my leadership toolbox—and it’s one you need in yours, too.

Reframing Defined

“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” — Abraham Lincoln

Reframing changes the meaning of a person, place, thing, behavior, or event. Since all meaning is context-dependent, when you deliberately shift context, you can change the meaning of any statement or event. Reframing can also assign new meaning to old experiences. It’s a powerful mechanism to increase behavioral flexibility.

There are two types of reframing:

  • Context Reframing—Context reframing changes the circumstances where a specific behavior would or wouldn’t be appropriate. For example, if you were irritated by a junior team member who constantly inundates you with questions, I could reframe your context of their behavior by saying: “Wow, what curiosity! It sounds like you should be grooming them for a role in sales. After all, most salespeople I know don’t ask nearly enough questions.” In this case, I’ve reframed your perspective of their annoying behavior (asking too many questions) as a valuable asset in another context (sales).
  • Content (or Meaning) Reframing—With this reframing, you ask: what else could this mean? and then list plausible alternatives. For example, many people struggle to bounce back from rejection or failure because their initial framing of the event results in a direct hit to their ego. I help my coaching clients reframe rejection or failure by pointing out that there is always something to learn. After all, our experiences of rejection and failure contain information and clues with the power to lead us to create future success. In other words, there is no failure; only feedback!

Reframing can be used to change your own perspective relative to thoughts, experiences, or events that hinder your effectiveness as a leader (or as a partner, a spouse, a parent, a teacher, a coach, etc.). You can also use it to influence others by helping them see things in a new way and perhaps change their opinion or stance on an issue. It’s also a handy coaching tool as you coach your team for growth.

How to Reframe Past Negative Events

“Everything can be taken from a man but the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” — Viktor Frankl

The way we conceptualize the past, present, and future informs our beliefs—in turn influencing our decisions, choices, and actions. Psychologist and Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo conducted extensive research on the psychology of time and found that each of us has a unique “time perspective” that determines how we view events. Some of us obsess over the past, others live for the moment, many worry about the future—and each of us process our thoughts and emotions differently. 

For example, let’s consider two people who recently vacationed together at a beach resort. It would be reasonable to think that they experienced the same events as they traveled. But when you speak to each of them individually after the trip, they tell very different stories: one gushes about the beautiful beaches and elegant restaurants, and the other complains about the high winds and pricy drinks. We’ve all experienced some version of this—remembering something quite differently than another person who was right there with us at the time.

But how can this be?

To effectively reframe past negative events, it’s important to acknowledge that emotionally-charged memories contain no facts. Rather, our recollections are literally stories we tell ourselves. This is why two people who were vacationing together can have totally different recollections of what happened! As soon as you recognize this, you gain the power to begin reframing the way you tell these recalled stories to yourself and to others, and transform your perspective on the past into an asset leading to your future.

As a leader, how do you frame past events? Do you tend to think about them positively or in a more negative light? Leveraging your past experiences—even highly negative ones—to create your future provides an incredible advantage. In fact, bestselling humorist David Sedaris has based his entire career around positively reframing past negative events. “If somebody treats me poorly, I write about it, and I’m so glad I was there in that moment,” Sedaris told The New York Times“It’s like they’re handing me money.”

My friend David Rendall realized the value of reframing when he began his career. As a child, David exhibited classic symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). He couldn’t sit still in class and was in trouble constantly. As he likes to say, he was every school principal’s worst nightmare! Though very smart, David grew up believing that his ADD was a weakness that would prevent him from achieving any real success in life—sadly, a notion that was continually reinforced by most of his teachers and administrators. When he eventually entered the business world, he found his troublesome traits from childhood were a liability there as well. 

One day, David realized that though his ADD made him unhappy in an office setting, it made him well-suited for public speaking where he would be able to talk freely as the center of others’ attention. That’s exactly what he decided to pursue. He began researching how others overcame their ADD and discovered that our greatest weaknesses can also be our greatest strengths. The result? His book, The Freak Factor: Discovering Uniqueness by Flaunting WeaknessDavid’s become highly regarded speaker with engagements around the world—all because he reframed his past and leveraged it to build the future he wanted.

To transform your thinking about the past, ask yourself these reframing questions:

  • What if I’m wrong about a particular belief I have about myself?
  • What was the good that came from a bad prior experience?
  • Are there alternative explanations for events or different ways to look at what happened in my past?

Just like David, exploring the answers to these questions can be the key to your future success!

How to Help Others Reframe Their Perspective

“It’s only a thought, and a thought can be changed.” — Louise Hay

My client, Daniel, was stuck. Although he was recently promoted to be the CEO of a successful $100m firm, he struggled to make decisions that were required to scale the business. His indecision was so profound, he felt guilty even considering an executive assistant to support him and two other senior leaders! As we spoke about his situation, Daniel labeled himself a “doer,” referencing his work ethic as the factor that he believed made him successful at building the business. He then said something that ultimately helped unlock more behavioral flexibility: “Mark, everyone I know who’s successful is a doer. And now I’m supposed to be a leader and not a doer. I don’t understand how that can work!”

Daniel had opened the door for me to contextually reframe his perspective. “Who exactly are you comparing yourself to?” I asked. “I bet none of the successful doers you know are the CEOs of Fortune 1,000 firms.” I went on to suggest that he was using the wrong comparison set of people to benchmark his behavior as the leader of a $100m firm.

Daniel thought for a moment, then said: “You know what, Mark? You’re absolutely right! The doers I know are successful project and program managers, not CEOs” And, just like that, Daniel reframed the context of his comparison set and increased his behavioral flexibility.

You can help your team increase their behavioral flexibility this way, too. As you coach your team members for growth, try to identify patterns of thinking and behavior that hold them back—the same way I identified Daniel’s unproductive pattern of comparing his performance as a CEO to other individuals in vastly different roles. 

To help someone else reframe their perspective, ask yourself these questions:

  • How is their definition of the [problem] situation restricting their behavioral flexibility?
  • What perspective can I add through context or content reframing?
  • What examples and/or analogies can I use to make the reframing more concrete?

Before long, your newfound leadership superpower will help your team move past their current patterns, get “un-stuck” more readily, and accelerate their growth.

Conclusion

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.” — William James

Reframing increases behavioral flexibility.

Whether you’re a CEO at the top of your game, an entrepreneur just getting started or anywhere in-between, your behavioral flexibility as a leader correlates to your ability to get out of your own way and to help others do the same. 

Begin your journey to mastery by acting on yourself. Become more aware of situations where reframing the content or context of an event can help you discover a new perspective. 

Use my Reframe Your Past Tool  to accelerate your progress. This free, easy-to-use tool walks you through the reframing process for a past event in your life that you remember more negatively than positively. Leverage Your Past is one of eight Activators from my book, Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done.  Check it out for a deeper dive.

As you become adept at reframing, your duality gap will decrease. This is because, more and more often, your feelings and actions will be in better alignment with your vision of your ideal self. With mastery, it truly feels like a superpower!

From there, use the same techniques to help your team accelerate their growth.

Your experiences of success, failure, triumph, and trauma don’t define you. Rather—and reframed—it’s what you do with those experiences that makes the difference.

=============================================

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class: June 27, 2022. Learn more and sign up!

==============================================

Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Class: June 29, 2022. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Beware the lollipop of mediocrity. Lick it once and you’ll suck forever.”

– Brian Wilson, founding member of The Beach Boys

Have you ever watched The Weakest Link? It’s a television game show where contestants answer a series of questions, then vote to remove the lowest-performing person. Each round concludes with the show’s host coldly proclaiming: “You are the weakest link. Goodbye!”

Who or what are the weakest links in your organization?

After all, just like on the game show, you are only as good as your weakest link. But it’s often difficult to identify a weak link, acknowledge the problem, and/or make the decision to remove someone from the organization. 

Here’s the hidden cost: You wind up accepting mediocrity because you’re busy, people are hard to find and hire, you’re unwilling to accept a hard truth, you’re emotionally entangled with some of your staff, or—let’s be brutally honest here—you’re overly dependent on some of your worst offenders. So you tolerate the weak links.

Tolerating mediocrity has devastating effects on any organization over time. It repels top performers. It poisons work environments. It damages customer relationships and loyalty. It burns out managers. It slows (or kills) growth.

Books, speakers, seminars, research, and classes talk about getting the Right People in the Right Seats (RPRS), but what exactly does that mean? For example, how do you know when you have the wrong person in your firm, or perhaps the right person, but in the wrong seat?

Understanding what you tolerate and accept as a leader helps answer those questions—provided you are open to hearing and acting on the message. Here are the four areas where you’re most likely allowing mediocrity to take root in your organization.

Behaviors

Although there are numerous behaviors I watch leaders tolerate that contribute to mediocrity, the most common is an unwillingness or inability to live the company’s core values.

A classic example is the high performer who’s a cultural misfit. At the extreme, I call these people Toxic High Performers. One could be your top salesperson who doesn’t show up to meetings on time, never has their paperwork in order, or acts like a diva in front of your staff. Another could be your top customer service representative who refuses to share their expansive knowledge of your products, services, and systems with other staff. But because these employees are highly productive, many leaders tolerate the inappropriate behaviors and turn a blind eye. 

Yes, they’re top performers, but they’re clearly not a cultural fit. And it’s obvious to everyone—not just leadership—because all eyes and ears are on you all the time. This includes what you do, what you say, what you don’t do, what you don’t say, and what you tolerate both in yourself and in others. When the rest of your staff realize you’re enforcing a double standard (and rest assured, they will!), they become resentful. This is why, over time, retaining low culture fit employees, even if they’re high performers, destroys culture and productivity. 

Another behavior I see leaders tolerate in themselves and in others is rewarding heroic actions. Examples of rewarding heroics include celebrating when an employee pulls an all-nighter to submit a client proposal on time or when someone on vacation spends 3-4 hours solving a problem for one of your clients. Acts of workplace heroics are HORRIBLE to reinforce. Although legitimately warranted at times, particularly in small, high-growth firms, heroics are neither sustainable nor scalable. Rather, successful, scalable firms lack drama and operate predictably on a sustainable basis over time. If your business model requires heroics, it’s a very serious warning sign that you could be on the wrong trajectory.

Non-learning is the final behavior I’ll highlight as one often tolerated by leaders. Non-learners are the people on your staff who won’t or can’t or refuse to learn, grow, or improve. These employees aren’t willing to hear feedback and don’t respond to coaching, so they stagnate as others and your firm grow around them. Think of the message this tolerance sends to the learners and high performers in your organization! 

Fear causes leaders to tolerate undesirable and unsustainable behaviors. If a top producer is the problem, who’s going to make up that revenue? What about the institutional knowledge that you’ll lose if you terminate them? You also might be emotionally entangled: maybe you hired them as employee number four, you see them socially, and you think “I can’t let them go. We’re friends!”

When faced with these situations, it’s helpful to focus on the effect of your decisions on the rest of the firm. I’ve observed countless leaders over the years who focus relentlessly on the “problems”—the 5% of their staff who need to be “fixed.” They expend massive time and energy on a small portion of their team while ignoring the impact on the majority! When you take the perspective of the majority–the 95% instead of the 5%–you’ll find it easier to stop tolerating certain behaviors and make the right moves to strengthen your team.

Without fail, 100% of the time, whenever I’ve had a client finally bite the bullet and fire a behavioral misfit, they come back to me after the fact and say: “I should have done this six months ago.”

Then, without fail, 100% of the time, I reply: “You’re being too kind to yourself. You should have done this a year ago.”

Key Questions: 

  • Is each member of my team a solid cultural fit, willing to learn and grow?
  • Do we celebrate and reward heroic behavior?
  • Am I focused on the opportunities for the 95% instead of the problems of the 5%?

Results

There are two areas where leaders commonly accept results-based mediocrity: Employees who miss the mark and employees with low accountability.

Employees who miss the mark are the opposite of what we discussed regarding behaviors—they’re  a great cultural fit but don’t achieve their objectives. Although these employees might be non-learners which makes them the wrong fit for your firm, occasionally, when a low-performer is a high cultural fit, it might be a case of “right person, wrong seat.” In these instances, a role change might be the fix that’s needed.

With the best possible intentions, leaders often place people in roles that aren’t suited to their abilities and strengths. It’s important to look for this when someone underperforms, particularly if they’ve been a valuable employee in the past and are a solid cultural fit for your firm. Regardless of the cause, you cannot tolerate underperformance from your team. The lowest performer in any group sets the bar for what’s “acceptable.” This causes high performers to look elsewhere for a challenge and encourages others to aim lower in their work.

Leaders who accept a low level of accountability also allow mediocrity to creep into their organization. Non-accountable employees tend to point fingers and blame others, to withhold information and obscure the truth, or to communicate infrequently. If you accept a status update like this: “There’s a small issue, but by next week, we’ll be back on track,” or: “Don’t worry about it—we’ll get it done,” chances are you’re tolerating low accountability.

High accountability, on the other hand, includes frequent and detailed communication, personal ownership of outcomes, proactively identifying potential risks, and asking for help. Raise your expectations of your team regarding accountable behaviors to counteract the creep of mediocrity associated with low accountability.

As a leader, you are ultimately accountable for the results your team produces. Tolerating low performers and non-accountable behaviors make YOU a low-performing leader if you refuse to do something about it.

Key Questions

  • Do I hold my team accountable for meeting their objectives?
  • If they’re a cultural fit but a low performer, are they in the right seat?
  • Do I accept finger pointing or generalities about projects and results?

Relationships

There are two areas where leaders commonly accept relationship-based mediocrity: tolerating “takers” at the expense of “givers” and fostering co-dependency rather than growing independent employees.

Healthy, positive relationships in the workplace are key to maintaining a high-performance culture. But it’s surprisingly easy to become so entwined in the details of the business that your team’s relationships, those with you and with each other, don’t get the attention they deserve. One way or another, mediocrity soon follows.

An example of an unhealthy relationship behavior is tolerating or even encouraging employees who are takers rather than givers. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes that employees decide how much to give to their colleagues daily—in assistance, in knowledge, in networking connections, and more. But in a competitive workplace, they’re often tempted to be takers, “trying to get others to serve their ends while carefully guarding their own expertise and time.”

Givers are the bedrock of a successful, growing firm. But if you foster an environment that rewards takers—even unintentionally through individual performance metrics and bonus structures—employees feel pitted against one another and, as Grant puts it, can adopt a “not my job” mentality. Encourage and reward giving behaviors as an integral part of your firm’s culture.

Failing to cultivate self-reliance in your team is another common source of relationship-based mediocrity. Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, more proactive, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Yet, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from people by telling them what to do! Although running an organization with “one brain and 1,000 hands” can feel good in the short-term, over time, your team’s reliance on you will grow while their capacity to perform independently won’t.

As I wrote at length here, at first it will take more time and energy to empower your employees than it does to tell them what to do. But the returns are massive when you resist the urge to give instructions, challenge your people to think independently, and encourage them to become more self-reliant. Before long, you’ll be able to get out of the details and lead more strategically because you’ll have a more capable, independent, and reliable team.

Finally, it’s important to periodically evaluate your own professional relationships to ensure you’re not the “most expensive house in the neighborhood.” Years ago when I was shopping for my first house, my Grandpa Ben gave me this advice: “Don’t ever buy the most expensive house in the neighborhood. There’s only one way the value of that home can be affected by the other homes around it, and that’s down.”  While it was solid real estate advice to be sure, Grandpa Ben’s words apply even more profoundly to our relationships (in fact, Change Your Neighborhood is an Activator from my book with the same title).

If you have more experience (and value) than the members of your circle, your continued affiliation with them will cause your professional value to decrease (move toward mediocrity) over time. 

This is why it’s critical to deliberately surround yourself with people who are more accomplished than you, who make you a little (or a lot!) uncomfortable by challenging you, and who help you grow. By taking this approach, your capabilities and value will continually increase over time.

Key Questions

  • Do I foster an environment that encourages more giving or taking?
  • Do I cultivate self-reliance, or do I run a team with “one brain and 1,000 hands?”
  • Where do I stand in my professional neighborhood?

You

Once you’ve evaluated the behaviors, results, and relationships within your firm, it’s time to focus on your own performance and results. After all, as a leader, what you say and what you do are invisibly, but constantly observed, scrutinized, and evaluated by every member of your team. 

Employees consciously and unconsciously take behavior cues from their leaders. In other words, they model their actions, words, and tolerances after YOU. Therefore, if you accept mediocrity in yourself, you’ll unknowingly send the message to your team that it’s okay for them to be the same.

You must lead by example to create the impetus for others to follow. This includes what you SAY, what you DO, and what you TOLERATE in yourself. 

Here are a few examples to consider: Do you embody your firm’s Core Values and consistently talk about them with your team? Do you hold yourself rigorously accountable for meeting your objectives? Are you transparent about communicating with your team? Are you a giver or a taker?

Your answers to these questions–the reality of your own day-to-day behaviors–is where you’ve set the bar for your team. Do as I say, not as I do won’t cut it.

Key Question:

  • What am I tolerating in myself that I wouldn’t—or shouldn’t—tolerate in anyone else?

Conclusion

In his book Wealth of Words, mentalist Amit Kalantri wrote: “If you do anything with mediocrity, you will do everything with mediocrity.” Regardless of where or in whom it occurs, mediocrity is a dangerous weed that must be plucked before it chokes your firm. 

As you proceed, stay grounded in the reality that you are both the obstacle AND the solution to creating the team, the culture, and the results you desire.

Although there are plenty of excuses for accepting mediocrity, all of them yield the same results. Take a page from The Weakest Link and be merciless in showing mediocrity the exit.

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Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Class: May 4, 2022. Learn more and register!

==============================================

Masterclass – Overcoming the Hidden Growth Killers

You cannot overcome what you cannot see.

In business, we are often unaware of things holding us back: as a person; as a CEO; and as a company. These hidden killers seem to exist in our peripheral vision, but we can never quite see them clearly when we try.

Mark is presenting to bring them into sharp focus. 

In this Growth Faculty Masterclass, you’ll learn how to:

  • Shed the hidden killers of growth
  • Reach your full potential as a leader and as a person
  • Escape the growth gap and reach new heights
  • Become your best self: professionally and personally

Upcoming Masterclass on May 10, 2022. Learn more and register!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”

— Harvey S. Firestone

You cannot scale your firm without scalable structures, including people and the ability to increasingly delegate to them. Yet more frequently than we care to admit, as leaders and managers, we all face this classic dilemma: Should I do it myself or teach someone else to do it?

Here’s the catch: you need to engage top performers or risk losing them. Even so, I regularly see executive teams stretched to the limit, trying to take everything on themselves. To scale, leaders must continually elevate themselves strategically over time. To do this you need to hire well and then actively work to build capability in the next level of leadership within your organization.

This is easier said than done, as Kate’s story illustrates.

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Kate’s team was hitting their targets like clockwork. She was promoted to Sales Manager two years ago from her role as a top performing sales representative. A self-proclaimed “people person,” she enjoys wandering the sales floor and helping her team find, shape, and close deals. She shares her experience generously, usually by saying (or implying) “Here’s what you should do next…” Her team likes her because she helps them earn their commissions. Her boss—the firm’s CEO—appreciates the results and views Kate as a key leader on his team.

But beneath the surface, all isn’t well with Kate and her sales team.

Two of her top performing sales reps recently departed, citing “opportunities they couldn’t refuse” as the reason for leaving. As a result, in addition to the work to hire new reps, Kate redoubled her efforts to coach her team and achieve the sales targets the CEO expected. She wondered to herself: “How can we keep growing if I’m already exhausted managing my team? And why did those two reps quit even though I was helping them close business all the time?” Kate was stressed out, losing sleep, and felt like she was the only person at the firm who could reliably close deals on her own even though she was constantly coaching her team. 

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Despite her good intentions, Kate coached her team for business results, not for professional growth. By telling them what to do, she inadvertently stunted their learning and turned her team into an extension of herself. It’s likely that the high performing reps who quit departed because they didn’t feel like they were challenged to grow and improve. Rather, it seemed like the expectation was to do what they were told to close deals.

Kate was operating at the bottom right of the Capability Growth Curve (see figure below). She was expending tremendous energy inserting herself into deals and coaching her team for results. Although they were hitting their sales targets, they weren’t learning to become more independent in their work. This can feel like an exhausting, unsustainable trap for managers, with no clear path to escape.

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Coaching for Growth, Not Results

“The key to greatness is to look for people’s potential and spend time developing it.”

– Peter Drucker

The term “coaching” is overused to the point it’s become a synonym for any 1-on-1 meeting between a manager and a subordinate. The meeting’s format isn’t a proxy for being a competent coach! Further, not all “coaching” is effective to build capability in others. In fact, many things well-intentioned managers do when they think they’re coaching actually increase dependency, which isn’t a scalable structure.

Most managers (just like Kate) unknowingly coach for business results rather than for professional growth. This is doing and managing, not coaching! It’s important for managers to master growth-oriented coaching to engage and scale their team.

A results orientation focuses on getting things done, usually by telling someone what to do and/or how to do it. The problem here is that managers feel like it works, because they’re “helping” their team create results. Even worse, these managers also feel useful to their teams because they regularly step in and answer questions from their employees like “what should I do now?” and “how would you handle this?” Over time, rather than building more independent thinkers, this approach reinforces the proverbial “genius with a thousand arms and legs” organizational structure. Although managers may be achieving transactional wins, coaching for results is exhausting and unsustainable in a growing firm.

Coaching for growth on the other hand sustainably builds capability, independence, and scalability. To begin your move to the top left of the Capability Growth Curve, you’ll need to rethink how you provide feedback.

Mastering Feedback

“The best way to develop people is to constantly get them out of their comfort zone.”

— Ziad Abdelnour

Researchers have determined that most feedback isn’t “brain friendly” and doesn’t work. There are two dominant tendencies that miss the mark:

  1. Indirect and Soft Feedback may feel more comfortable to the feedback giver but can be difficult for the receiver to recognize as feedback. This soft approach also often confuses the receiver with watered-down and/or mixed message. In short: it usually doesn’t work!
  2. Feedback that is Too Direct frequently leads to defensiveness. This is an expected outcome according to social scientists because we perceive hard, direct feedback as a social threat which triggers our fight/flight response. Defensiveness is the result, and rarely leads to effective outcomes from the conversation.

Cognitive Psychologist LeeAnn Renniger and her team conducted research that identified “great feedback givers” from numerous organizations and then dissected how they gave feedback. Their findings led to the development of a four-step model for providing highly effective feedback.

  1. Get a Micro Yes. It’s critically important to prime the other person’s brain to expect feedback before starting the process. The micro yes does just that, taking the form of a statement and a simple question that should generate a “yes” response. Here are two examples: (1) “I have a couple of thoughts to share about today’s meeting. Do you have a moment right now?” (2) “I have some ideas about how we can improve things. Can I share them with you?”
  2. Use Datapoints (Facts). Be specific as you relay what you observed and/or heard. If possible, give more than one example of the behavior (three are ideal) to create clarity and establish a pattern. Be careful to avoid non-specific terms that the psychologists call blur words. For example, saying that someone should be “less defensive” or “more proactive” fails to provide useful guidance about the problem behaviors and how to change them. Convert your blur words into specific behaviors and examples to help the other person understand and then act constructively moving forward. For instance, instead of saying “you’re not reliable,” use a specific datapoint like “you said you’d get the client report to me by noon yesterday and I still haven’t received it.”
  3. Show the Impact of the Current Behavior. Describe how the behavior affected you, and perhaps others. This information imparts a sense of purpose to the feedback: this is why it matters to me and why it should matter to you too. Here’s how this can sound: “Our clients rely on us to meet our commitments and when we don’t, we risk losing them to our competition. I promised to send them my recommendations by the end of the day today, which we’re going to miss.”
  4. Ask a Question for Engagement and to Gain Commitment. This final step relays the feedback giver’s expectations, generates dialogue, and helps pivot the conversation to action. To continue the example: “What are your thoughts about this?” or “How do you see it from your perspective?”

The same four-step model applies to positive feedback as well. It’s important to (1) prime the brain for positive feedback, (2) be specific (no blur words!), (3) show the positive impact of the behavior, and (4) encourage even more of it.

You’ll be far better positioned to coach for growth and accelerate your team’s development when you’ve mastered feedback.

How to Coach for Growth

“Good leaders develop ideas. Great leaders develop people. The best leaders develop new leaders.”

– Bobby Umar

Now that you understand LeeAnn Renniger’s feedback process, it’s natural to wonder how to use it in the context of coaching for growth. I’ve worked with leaders who provide lots of feedback using this process, but without materially accelerating the growth of their people. It turns out, you have to pick the right behaviors—patterns of behaviors, actually—to effectively coach for growth. You also need to speak plainly, even if it’s somewhat uncomfortable for you or for the other person.

Coach Behavioral Patterns

Pattern recognition is an evolutionary capacity modern humans developed because we were a prey species for millions of years. Think about the survival advantage of being able to notice a rustle in the distant grass or detect a snapping twig amid the background noise of the day. As a result, we can identify repeating patterns and anomalies to patterns with relative ease, whether visual, auditory, or tactile.

Your job as a leader and as a coach is to identify the behavioral patterns that stand in the way of each employee’s growth and development. For example, here are a handful of patterns I’ve observed to be common in the workplace: consistently disorganized, unreliable, late to meetings, prone to argue non-essential points, slow to ask for help, too soft in negotiations, and being more problem than solution focused.

Use the pattern in step two of the feedback process as the lead, and then offer specific examples of the behaviors that establish the pattern. For example, if Kate the sales manager was coaching one of her reps for growth, she might point out that their prospective customers negotiate on price more than they should because the rep has a habit of not asking enough questions earlier in the sales process to establish the value of their offering. Then Kate should describe three specific examples of the rep’s behavior pattern to help them understand. This method is foundational for growth as opposed to the most common alternative, which is to coach for results by helping the rep negotiate more effectively (“do this” and “say this”) to close the deal.

Speak with Radical Candor

Technology executive and author Kim Scott coined the term Radical Candor in her book with the same title. When I first read it, I realized that although I had been coaching with radical candor for years (it’s why this newsletter is called Straight Talk for Leaders!), there was a massive opportunity for my clients to up their game and their effectiveness as leaders.

Radical candor requires two simultaneous actions: caring deeply and telling the brutal truth. Scott’s premise is that we owe our people the truth about how they show up, how they act, and how they come across to others. If not for that, how can a leader have any reasonable expectation for people on their team to improve? Ironically, Scott argues, the ability to tell the brutal truth requires one to care deeply and caring deeply impels us to tell the brutal truth. As long as you’re not a jerk about it, shoot straight with your people by telling them the truth they need to hear and give them the chance to grow and improve.

When combined with Renniger’s feedback process, pattern recognition and radical candor unlock the full potential of coaching for growth.

Conclusion

The consequences of operating at the lower right end of the Capabilities Growth Curve are costly, exhausting, and growth-killing. Start your journey up the curve by looking in the mirror and considering where you coach your people for results and where you might even be doing their jobs for them. You should also ask your team, your colleagues, and perhaps a qualified coach for feedback to guide your thinking. Every meaningful change begins with self-awareness.

From there, find opportunities to practice the four-step feedback model—even if transactionally. You’ll discover it’s a far easier and more effective way to get your points across to others while also motivating them to act on your input. Over time, shift your 1-on-1 interactions to coach for growth: identify behavioral patterns, operate with radical candor, and continue to use the feedback model.

American author, salesman, and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said: “Successful people use their strength by recognizing, developing, and utilizing the talents of others.” Coaching your team for growth does just that.

You’ll expend less energy on higher impact coaching. You’ll retain more top performers who love to learn and grow. And you’ll more sustainably build capability, independence, and scalability within your organization.

=============================================

Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Classes: April 18, 2022 and May 4, 2022. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.” — Patrick Lencioni

In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said: “…I know it when I see it…” (regarding “hard-core” pornography).

The same can be said of most of us regarding team dysfunction. We might not be able to articulate the fine points, but we certainly know it when we see it (or feel it)!

Common symptoms of team dysfunction include:

  • Increased political behaviors like saying what others want to hear
  • A reluctance to name “elephants in the room” and talk about the right, hard things
  • Meetings after the team meeting
  • Team members have shorter fuses with one another and are less forgiving
  • Team members avoid ideological conflict with one another
  • A “me before we” vibe, at times, on the team

But what if the symptoms of dysfunction could also be caused by something other than dysfunction itself?

Although I’m a huge fan of Pat Lencioni’s “5 Dysfunctions of a Team” book and model, a prolific advocate for Right People, Right Seats (RPRS), and a relentless bar-raiser for leaders and leadership teams, I’ve realized that not all conditions that look like dysfunction are dysfunction. 

Rather, they are a failure of leadership.

Counterintuitively, this is good news. As it turns out, the leadership-related issues that cause the appearance of dysfunction are more readily solvable than actual team dysfunction. The answers and actions are 100% within the leader’s control.

This doesn’t mean it’s easy. Nor does it imply you don’t have actual dysfunction which, if you do, you need to remedy swiftly and decisively to ensure you have RPRS on your team!

All of that said, in addition to bona fide team dysfunction, there are three common causes of symptoms of dysfunction on your team:

  1. Unclear strategy, plans, priorities.
  2. Nagging organizational and/or structural issues.
  3. Tactical ambiguities.

Here’s how to address them and help your team perform to their potential.

Clarify Your Destination and the Roadmap to Get There

My client’s leadership team spent countless hours questioning, debating, challenging, and confronting one another as they advocated for the specifics each of them individually thought best to scale the firm. Their arguments were heated, emotional, and seemingly never ending. Although team wasn’t aligned and appeared dysfunctional, the CEO of this fast-growing technology firm was convinced he had the right people in the right seats. Yet he couldn’t find the root of the problem.

After some probing, the root cause became clear to me—and it wasn’t actual team dysfunction. 

Although the CEO thought his team had clarity regarding his vision for the firm’s next 3-5 years, in fact, they didn’t understand the details. To his credit, the CEO had, indeed, shared his vision with the team — but apparently not enough for the details to truly sink in and be fully understood. The CEO agreed to review his vision with the team at our upcoming quarterly meeting.

After some probing, the root cause became clear to me—and it wasn’t actual team dysfunction. 

Immediately following our opening rituals at the quarterly meeting, the CEO grabbed a marker, walked to the front of the room, and proceeded to narrate his vision for the firm as he drew on a flip chart. His talk generated visible relief from the team and sparked a highly productive and highly functional hour-long conversation. The team’s symptoms of dysfunction seemed to have magically disappeared! What’s more, at the conclusion of the conversation, the team agreed to present the vision to the next level of leadership in the organization to gain their understanding and alignment as well.

The perception of ambiguity regarding your intended destination (the objective) and the general roadmap to get there (the strategy) often leads to the appearance of dysfunction on a team. It’s on the team’s leader to ensure both clarity and understanding of:

  1. Why: The Firm’s (or Team’s) Purpose
  2. What & When: Your Vision, Objective, and Timeline
  3. How: The Strategy, Plans, and Priorities to Achieve the Vision & Objective

If you’re not crystal clear on these items, your team will never be! Yet this is often the obstacle to clarity and alignment. Engage the team, a coach, and any other resources necessary to define your destination and create a high-level roadmap to get there.

Finally, repetition will set you free.

As I write and speak about often, if you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not giving your team a chance to learn and internalize what you’re saying. If you’re not repeating yourself, you cannot be an effective leader and, just like my client, you invite the symptoms of dysfunction to join your team.

I teach leaders to use an “eye-roll metric” when assessing whether they’ve repeated their messages enough. You know you’re getting through when your team begins to roll their eyes as you repeat yourself and then completes your sentences for you.  Then—and only then—you’ll know for sure that you’ve communicated successfully.

How clear is your firm’s destination and the roadmap to get there?

Solve Nagging Organizational and/or Structural Issues

The Director of Operations (DOO) was promoted from within the firm. The CEO believed the DOO was right for the role and would solve a myriad of tactical issues plaguing the firm’s ability to deliver on its client commitments.

Six months later, the DOO wasn’t getting the job done and the same unsolved, annoying problems continued to undermine the firm’s performance. The CEO was tolerating the wrong person in a critical seat on his team and, as a result, invited the symptoms of dysfunction to join his team. They included short fuses, a reluctance to name elephants, and “me” before “we” among the executive team. 

I’ve watched CEOs and leaders avoid, delay, and even ignore RPRS problems on their team. There’s a steep price to pay for this.

Although it took the better part of a year, the CEO eventually removed the DOO and restructured to solve the problem. Concurrent with these moves, the team’s apparent dysfunction disappeared.

Nagging organizational and/or structural issues can produce the symptoms of dysfunction on otherwise fully functional teams. It’s the leader’s role to ensure:

  1. The right seats (roles) are defined on the leadership team.
  2. The right people are in the right seats (RPRS) on the leadership team.
  3. Clear role accountability (outcomes) for each seat on the leadership team.

I’ve watched CEOs and other leaders avoid, delay, and even ignore RPRS problems on their team. There’s a steep price to pay for this, which is often part of the learning process for leaders. In over 20-years of developing and coaching leaders, I’ve never once heard any client say, “I should have kept him [or her] longer.” Instead, they always say, “I should have done this 6-months [or a year] ago!”

Learn from their costly, dysfunction-inducing, morale-destroying mistakes.

What nagging organizational and/or structural issue is producing symptoms of dysfunction on your team?

Make Decisions to Remove Tactical Ambiguities

As we continue to emerge from the global pandemic, several of my coaching clients are struggling to decide whether to require employees to work from the office, to create a hybrid workforce, or to create a fully remote workforce. There are often as many opinions as there are people on the leadership team and, in the face of the very real “great resignation,” fear around hiring, retention, and employment abounds.

This ongoing debate recently produced full-blown symptoms of dysfunction on one client’s leadership team: increased political behaviors, meetings after the team’s meeting, shorter fuses, and even some passive-aggressive behavior. The CEO allowed his team’s debates to rage but hesitated to make any workforce decisions because of continuing ambiguity around the pandemic, hiring and employment trends, and the business’ own performance.

His view was that there were too many uncontrolled variables in the “let’s commit to a future workforce strategy” equation. I discovered his team, on the other hand, was looking for tactical clarity: “what’s our workforce stance now and for some period looking forward?”

The primary job of any leader is to point to what matters most, which implies you need to decide what matters most first.

I suggested the CEO could have it both ways: create immediate clarity for his team while also delaying the ultimate decision about their future workforce strategy. He agreed and gave his team crystal clear guidance on a workforce approach for the next 6-9 months, while reserving the right to make a potentially different decision for the long-term. Although not everyone on the leadership team agreed with his call, the decision provided tactical clarity and direction.

Guess what also happened? The team’s symptoms of dysfunction disappeared.

The primary job of any leader is to point to what matters most, which implies you need to decide what matters most first. It’s the team leader’s role to make decisions that remove tactical ambiguities, which often create symptoms of dysfunction.

Tactical ambiguities reveal themselves as follows:

  1. There are unending debates about the same issue(s).
  2. The team seems to have the same conversations repeatedly over time.
  3. There’s imperfect or incomplete information preventing the leader from making a decision.

While ambiguity and uncertainty make your role as a leader more challenging, they don’t absolve you from making decisions and pointing to what matters most. Reframe the symptoms of tactical ambiguities as markers of decisions that need to be made. You’ll reduce the dysfunctional behaviors on your team and, even if they disagree with your decision, they’ll appreciate the clarity to move forward.

Where is a tactical ambiguity creating the appearance of dysfunction on your team?

Conclusion

A leader makes decisions, leads by example, and points to what matters most.

Although we know team dysfunction when we see or feel it, quite often the symptoms are inadvertently caused by a failure of leadership. More specifically, it’s a failure to make and/or communicate decisions that are critical for the team to internalize and understand.

As John Maxwell once said: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” In other words, a leader makes decisions, leads by example, and points to what matters most.

Use symptoms of team dysfunction as a guide to the root cause, remembering that true dysfunction must be remedied first and is usually caused by a bad actor or culturally mismatched member of your team.

Beyond true dysfunction, look for and address the three most common causes of dysfunctional team behavior, each of which is 100% in your control:

  1. Unclear strategy, plans, priorities.
  2. Nagging organizational and/or structural issues.
  3. Tactical ambiguities.

Your firm’s performance will improve, and your team’s dysfunctional behaviors will disappear virtually overnight!

=============================================

Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Classes: March 28, 2022 and April 18, 2022. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

Let’s talk about money.

Regardless of your Core Purpose, Mission, or societal aspirations, business is about money. It’s the fuel that (hopefully) enables the achievement of those things and more. It’s also the return for entrepreneurs and others who accept risk as they contribute to an organization’s success.

If only it was that simple!

Now imagine an entrepreneur / CEO transported back to her childhood dinner table at age ten. “Daddy,” she says, “At school, my friend David said his house is a million dollars. How much is our house?” Daddy looks across the table at Mommy, smiles awkwardly, rakes a fork through his mashed potatoes, and says with the best possible intentions of raising a polite and respectful child: “Dear, we don’t talk about that.”

This type of scenario has played out at dinner tables across the globe for centuries, which makes it easier to understand how children often grow into adults who are unable to comfortably talk about and engage with money. There’s no point during our schooling or early adulthood when we’re reconditioned to be okay with money. And yet, as business leaders, it’s literally our job to not just talk about money, but to use it as a tool facilitate growth!

“A child’s financial lessons aren’t taught. They are experienced through the actions of the parents.” –Linsey Mills

The values with which we were raised and our socioeconomic status shape individual mental models around money. For example, if someone considers spending $2,000 on a high-tech large-screen television for their living room as a massively significant expense what happens when he or she takes on a leadership role managing a $5 million line of business? Just think about the perspective—if $2,000 is massively significant, what must $5 million feel like?

Our emotions around this topic run deep.

I’ve had clients—some highly accomplished entrepreneurs and leaders—admit embarrassment and shame that they aren’t comfortable and fully literate with their own financials. I’m certain the few who were willing to admit it are just the tip of the iceberg relative to the reality of how many others share their feelings.

Now let’s broaden our perspective and consider all the managers, supervisors, and employees out there trying to do their best every day. They grew up the same way the rest of us did: probably not completely comfortable talking about and/or engaging with money. Yet these are the same people making day-to-day decisions, including many financial decisions, within your firm.

The bad news: There’s a steep cost associated with avoiding financial conversations, misunderstanding how money flows through the business, and operating with skewed perceptions of large versus small amounts of money. The good news: There are three straightforward solutions for those who see the value of a financially literate team.

Provide Basic Business Financial Education for All Employees

Several years ago, while onsite with a client team, I overheard some employees speaking about the firm’s push to grow revenue. One of them said: “Why should we work so hard for more revenue when all that does is help [CEO’s Name] buy more vacation homes?” In reality, revenue growth for this particular firm created more opportunities for employees to advance in their careers, more employment for their community, and more income for all via the firm’s profit share plan! The leadership team was incredulous when I told them what I overheard, then immediately wondered how many more of their staff misunderstood the basics of how money flowed through the business–and what that was costing them in terms of poor decision-making, productivity, and morale.

I’ve found mistaken beliefs about revenue to be quite common among employees, along with broad misunderstandings about the risks and costs associated with operating a business. In other words, business financial illiteracy.

For these reasons and more, it’s critically important for leaders to provide basic financial education to their staff.

Although I have numerous coaching clients who share their financials transparently with employees, transparency isn’t a requirement to provide basic financial education for staff. An education program can be general in nature or specific to your firm’s financials–either will work to improve the financial literacy of your team.

It’s critically important for leaders to provide basic financial education to their staff.

The best way to connect with staff on this topic is to begin by helping them understand that they personally have a Profit & Loss Statement (P&L) and a Balance Sheet for their own financial affairs. Show them a representative personal P&L for someone who works at your firm, including income (salary), less fixed expenses, less variable expenses, yielding a “net” that is hopefully positive and can be saved or invested–which is the link to their personal balance sheet. This can be an extremely engaging conversation for people who were never formally or properly financially educated!

The next step in this process is to introduce the P&L for the business, whether general or specific as I mentioned earlier. You can use the personal P&L example for reference as you help your team understand the flow from revenue to gross profit (operating income) to net income, and, of course, the ties to the firm’s balance sheet. Additional conversations about fixed versus variable expenses and the total costs of employment (which employees never understand unless taught!) help as well.

Although you can use an outside expert like a CPA to provide this training, I recommend, if possible, you utilize an internal resource. I’ve seen these programs executed successfully as a series of “lunch and learn” sessions and as more formal classroom education, with periodic refreshers over time. You might also consider including financial education in your new employee onboarding program, which ensures everyone shares the same basic financial knowledge and sends a “this is important” message to your new staff.

As I’ve written before, your people will behave in accordance with your expectations of them. Teaching basic business financial literacy to your employees establishes the foundation upon which your expectations of them can increase over time. How they make day-to-day decisions is the next step up from there.

Align Employees with Their Financial Domains

Whether you or they realize it, every one of your employees directly affects one or more lines in your P&L and on your Balance Sheet every day. Their daily influence on your financials should represent the “return” on your investment of salaries and benefits.

For example, a salesperson typically influences revenue, gross margin (operating profit), and travel, meals, and entertainment expenses. They probably also influence the receivables line on your Balance Sheet and potentially more, depending on your industry. And that’s just a single salesperson!

Now think about your entire team. Are they each individually aware of their day-to-day financial domains–that is, how their decisions and actions support specific line items in your P&L and on your Balance Sheet?

And are you getting a fair return on your investment in your staff?

This topic builds upon the basic business financial foundation I’ve recommended above. It’s best delivered by department or team and has the potential to dramatically change the kinds of things your people think about–and ask about–as they work. It’s also likely to improve the return on your employee investment!

As your team tunes into the financial levers they push and pull every day, you’ll need to consider providing them with additional data, as a guide. For example:

  • Do your relationship managers and/or salespeople see accounts receivable reports?
  • Does your shipping team see data daily to help them minimize costs?
  • Do your customer service representatives see renewal and/or add-on revenue reports?

Think through every team and role in your firm to determine what data, at which frequency, would support their efforts to positively influence your financials. In addition, you and your managers should reinforce financial connections, thinking, and behaviors in weekly team meetings and 1-on-1 coaching sessions. Before long, your team will begin bringing ideas to you that directly drive improved financial results!

As with the financial literacy training, you can be fully transparent or somewhat general with this, depending on how comfortable you are sharing the data. For the record, I am a proponent of full financial transparency, which goes hand in hand with the expectations of financial literacy.

Ensure Leadership Can Read and Interpret Financial Statements

You and your leadership team aren’t exempt from upping your financial game alongside the rest of your team. I’ve found that plenty of seasoned leaders and managers benefit from the basic financial elements we’ve already covered–so don’t take that for granted or allow anyone on your leadership team to skip the basic education process. It’s always time to lead by example!

Once you and your team have mastered the basics, this element provides your advanced financial education. Include your leadership team and potentially others whose careers would benefit from more advanced financial education. I’ve seen clients attend university classes (both in person and virtual) or engage an outside expert to dive more deeply into the nuances and ratios found in financial statements that tell the story of the business behind them.

Part of this process typically includes case studies. For example, using available financial data (if possible), assess one of your top competitors versus your firm as an intellectual exercise and/or evaluate another firm as a mock acquisition target.

It’s always time to lead by example.

As you and your leadership team become increasingly comfortable with financial data, reporting, and ratios, you’ll naturally begin to question your own financial reporting more deeply:

  • Are we getting what we need monthly and quarterly to make informed decisions?
  • Do we receive financial data rapidly after each period’s closing?
  • What additional analysis / reporting is required to support our strategy and plan?

Through this, you may also realize that you need to upgrade the financial leader within your firm. I’ve watched businesses take quantum leaps forward when they hired their first, highly qualified CFO!

Conclusion

“Money is the wise man’s religion.”

–Euripides

In business, money is both the fuel to create success and the reward that comes with it. Sadly, societal stigmas, norms, and well-intentioned childhood conditioning render many unable to be truly comfortable talking about, cultivating, and understanding the essential financial underpinnings of healthy organizations.

Although there’s a steep cost associated with this, the solution is straightforward, cost effective, and fast acting:

  • Teach your employees basic business (and personal) financial literacy.
  • Connect every team member’s day-to-day work to specific line items on your P&L and/or Balance Sheet.
  • Ensure senior leaders learn more advanced financial statement analysis.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, talk to your children about money! It’s a fabulous investment in our collective future.

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Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Classes: March 28, 2022 and April 18, 2022. Learn more and register!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

I recently met serial entrepreneurs Ajay (pronounced “Ahh-Jay”) Kori and Jeff Sheely, founders of the scaling success story UrbanStems, Allay Lamp, and several other emerging ventures. The duo became friends while attending Duke University and, after starting their careers independently, came together to create UrbanStems.

Their entrepreneurial rise to success with UrbanStems has been classic: ups, downs, a “near death” moment, passion, investor wrangling, insight, increasing maturity, hiring someone else to run the business, and then—of course—starting their next venture.

We spent just over an hour together via Zoom as they told their story, including many of the hard leadership lessons they learned as the business evolved.  Both Jeff and Ajay are humble, curious, intense, self-aware, and whip smart.

Their story is instructive and inspirational for entrepreneurs and leaders.  To date, it’s a two-act tale featuring three crystal clear winning moves—patterns of thinking, really—that accelerated their remarkable and continuing success.

Act One: UrbanStems

UrbanStems launched on Valentine’s Day 2014 with the aim to disrupt an outdated floral delivery system and provide a superior experience to its customers. Through expressive bouquets, plants, and curated gift options, they help people connect and feel more cared for, even from afar. The company currently employs a team of over 100 and offers coast-to-coast next day delivery and same-day courier service in New York City and Washington DC.

Mark: How did you split your roles as co-founders?

Ajay: It broke down cleanly to internal and external. Jeff handled the internal, especially operations before we had a dedicated COO. He managed the team on a day-to-day basis, managed our marketing activities before we had a CMO, and ensured that everything internal was working. I handled the external, bringing in early shareholders and, once we gained traction, lining up the seed round that allowed us to expand the team. In addition, I focused on recruiting people to the company to ensure we had the strongest team possible.

We defined our culture from the very beginning, and that’s before we even knew we’d be doing flowers!

Jeff: Ajay and I came together on leadership and the culture. We defined our culture from the very beginning, and that’s before we even knew we’d be doing flowers! We always talked about what kind of company we wanted to run and what kind of workplace we wanted to create. That’s something we did together since founding the company and the culture persists to this day.

Mark: I understand Valentine’s Day of 2017 was a “near death” experience for UrbanStems, about three years after you founded the business. What happened and how did you recover?

Ajay: The floral industry is quite unique in that you have these two days—Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day—where you get about ten to twenty times your normal business volume on one day. Especially if you’re a same day delivery company, you have to increase your operational capacity by 20x for a single day, twice each year. As you can imagine, bringing on 20x the employees, having 20x the space, and so forth is difficult to do. We had managed it in prior years and were able to make it work with 20x everything, except for our space. We just didn’t have access to that much space in 2017. What happened is mundane, but it led to a cascading series of failures. Our couriers came in, but then couldn’t find their bouquets on the racks because they were stacked three or four deep. So, we had to pull our preppers to help, which stopped production of new bouquets for later delivery windows. The couriers were going out late and fell behind on other deliveries. Then, a couple hours into the day when bouquets weren’t being delivered on time, we had a crush of phone calls from angry customers. This overwhelmed our customer service team, who could no longer talk to each customer about the bouquets that were missing. By the end of the day, we had thousands of deliveries that never went out on one of the most important flower delivery days of the year!

Jeff: Who we are as a company is creating the best experiences for our customers. We quickly decided to make it up to every single customer. We held an emergency board meeting to explain what happened, why it happened, and what our plan was to make things right. They said: “You’re doing the right thing. We’ll put up whatever money is necessary for you to execute this.” Support from our board, who were clearly aligned with our values, was key. We spent the next four days calling every one of the 10,000 customers whose delivery we screwed up. For each of them, we found out what their story was, what part of Valentine’s Day we ruined, and then did whatever it took to make it up to them. This included not only delivering the missing bouquets, but in some cases buying them plane tickets to spend time with their partner!

Ajay: When all was said and done, we surveyed the 10,000 customers and by a margin of 50-to-1, they said that they would never use another flower company other than UrbanStems again. It was a lesson for me that when our team and our investors are properly aligned behind the right ideas, you can get over any mountain.

Leadership Success Pattern #1: Get and Keep the Right People

The first leadership success pattern that emerged from my dialogue with this duo was an early and almost maniacal focus on getting the right people on the team. Jeff and Ajay took this further with a clever and powerful step they integrated into their hiring process to ensure each employee’s personal interests and aspirations were aligned with the goals of the business. 

No matter how great a company is, each employee views that company through the lens of their life story.

Ajay: For us, our culture and the right people came down to two things: smart and nice. As a company, that’s how we want to be. In terms of hiring, we believe everyone is the protagonist of their own story. No matter how great a company is, each employee views that company through the lens of their life story. We wanted to help our people get to the next chapter of their story. In every first interview, we’d ask this sequence of questions: (1) Where do you ultimately want to go and what do you want to be doing? (2) What is the next goal or rung on that ladder for you to attain? (3) Does the potential role we have for you here help you get to that next rung? We focused on finding people who we could challenge and help them get to wherever they wanted to be. For many, that was starting their own company, and what’s been great is that since we started eight years ago, many of those people have started successful companies.

Leadership Success Pattern #2: Point to What Matters Most

The primary job of a leader is to point to what matters most. Ajay and Jeff did exactly this, repetitively and unceasingly, over time. What mattered most to them? Their cultural attributes: smart and nice.

We wanted to ensure that we reinforced the culture first and foremost, before getting down to business.

Jeff: We spoke about our culture a lot. Maybe people would say too much, but every team meeting, every gathering, everything we did, we’d talk about it. Even in our board meetings! Ajay would start board meetings talking about our “smart and nice” culture to the investors—we put it at the core of everything we did. We wanted to ensure that we reinforced the culture first and foremost, before getting down to business. This habit is what helped ingrain it and make it stick so well over time.

Leadership Success Pattern #3: Know When to Step Away from the Day-to-Day

As I’ve written before, capability outweighs capacity and relevant prior experience is priceless as you scale your firm. This often involves knowing when to step back as a founder to let more capable and experienced people run the business. The way to become an $XX million dollar (fill in the numbers to match your aspirations) business is to begin acting like an $XX million dollar firm today. And the way to do that, as Jeff and Ajay did, is to hire one or more experienced leaders who have already operated at that level.

Ajay: We were clearly not set up for the volumes that we were growing into. As a result, in mid-2017 we hired a Chief Operating Officer (COO). Seth Goldman was the US CEO of HelloFresh and had grown that business from $20+ million to several hundred million in revenue during his tenure. HelloFresh was a similar business to ours, delivering perishable items daily to consumers.

UrbanStems is far ahead of where we would have been if Ajay and I remained in place.

Jeff: In 2018, we continued to grow rapidly, and it became clear that our biggest challenges were operational. It was about optimizing supply chain, optimizing delivery, optimizing the operations of the business, what we offer, the branding, all of that. That’s when Ajay and I realized we’re not optimizers, we’re builders. We approached Seth and offered him the CEO role. Thankfully he was game to take it on and has done a phenomenal job ever since. UrbanStems is far ahead of where we would have been if Ajay and I remained in place leading things we weren’t particularly passionate about.

Act Two: Allay Lamp

By stepping away from day-to-day leadership roles at UrbanStems, Ajay and Jeff had time and space to create their next venture: Allay Lamp. The lamp is a non-pharmacologic form of relief for migraine sufferers and others with extreme light sensitivity. It’s also fantastic at helping just about anyone relax.

Harvard Medical School Professor Rami Burstein discovered a natural band of green light that allowed people with light sensitivity to get back to their everyday lives. His dream was to create a lightbulb to help them function without discomfort. After talking to lighting experts about mass-producing his research device’s $50,000 bulb, the first cost estimate was $20,000—clearly not viable for a consumer product. A short time later, he began working with Ajay, Jeff, and their third partner who were eager to make his dream a reality. The team contacted the engineer who designed and installed the lights on the International Space Station, who then helped design an affordable light that delivers the precise band needed. Within a year, Allay Lamp was born.

Since then, as you’ll see, Jeff and Ajay have begun applying the same leadership success patterns that worked so well for them back at UrbanStems.

Ajay: My father is one of the top migraine specialists in the country, so I grew up around a lot of migrainers and the things that my dad worked on. It’s the third most prevalent illness in the world and there is no cure. Even worse, migraine drugs work for only about 50% of people and they have pretty bad side effects. When my father’s longtime friend at Harvard Medical School told him he’d discovered a specific frequency of light that provided relief for 90% of people, I became interested right away. It became clear that this was something that could make a huge impact on people’s lives if they knew about it.

Our goal is to get this in as many hands as possible—to help as many people as possible—by educating them about the benefits of narrow band green light.

Jeff: Our challenge with Allay is that no one is actively looking for green light. If you’re a migrainer and you’ve been spending thousands of dollars a month on medication, it’s a tall order to believe that a $180 light is going to make you feel better. Our challenge is to educate and then sell. We’re good at the selling. The education piece is what we’ve been learning and scaling up. Our goal is to get this in as many hands as possible—to help as many people as possible—by educating them about the benefits of narrow band green light.

Mark: One of the happy discoveries along the way is that narrow band green light benefits non-migrainers as well. How did you figure that part out?

Jeff: Dr. Burstein anecdotally knew the light helped with other things and that people found it soothing. The first day he showed it to us, when he turned off all the lights and turned on just this green light, we could feel a difference. As you’re sitting there, you get a little more relaxed and you start to feel it. When we started getting it in people’s hands, we began asking how they use it and were able to identify non-migraine uses. For example, NFL wide receiver Brandin Cooks uses Allay to relax before games during the football season while his wife used it at night when she was feeding their newborn baby. The more stories and testimonials we heard, the more we were convinced that just about everyone could benefit from our product. This makes us even more committed to getting it out there however we can, because it’s just life changing for so many people.

Mark: I feel compelled to comment on the design and packaging of the lamp—both are beautiful. Mine felt like a gift as I unwrapped and opened it, which makes total sense to me now as I think back to how customer driven you were at UrbanStems. I’ve been using my Allay Lamp for about two months. I keep it next to my bed and turn it on for 15-45 minutes before I go to sleep. I am definitely falling asleep more readily than in the past. I find the green light really relaxing.

Jeff: Awesome! That’s exactly how I use it too.

Mark: Thank you both for sharing your story and these leadership lessons with my audience.

If you’d like to learn more about Allay Lamp, check it out here. The lamp is great to help entrepreneurs and leaders unwind at the end of the day—and it’s sure been working for me! Jeff and Ajay have very kindly offered a $25 discount for my readers, which will automatically be applied at checkout with this link.

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Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Classes: March 28, 2022 and April 18, 2022. Learn more and register!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

— Peter Drucker

Whether deliberate or not, whether you realize it or not, your organization has a culture.

But has your culture evolved by default or by your choosing? Does it contribute to or hinder your prospects for growth? Does it help you attract and retain top talent? Does it define a place you feel fantastic about as an extension of your own personal values?

According to Merriam-Webster.com, culture is defined as “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.” Put another way, your firm’s culture is the aggregation of behavioral norms that are continually reinforced among your staff.

Researchers including Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner long-ago concluded that repetition and association are the elemental ingredients to behavioral conditioning. In Pavlov’s best-known series of studies, dogs were fed after hearing a bell ring. Over time, the dogs associated the bell with food and began salivating upon hearing the bell—even in the absence of food. 

Seen through this lens, it becomes clearer how cultures, whether accidental or deliberate, grow and thrive: Repeated behaviors become associated as accepted or required.

Which behaviors tend to be repeated? Those that leaders model, accept, reward and/or tolerate in themselves and in others. 

If you aspire to build an enduring culture that contributes to the growth and vitality of your firm, you need to ensure that you model, accept, and reward the behaviors you want your employees to demonstrate while at work. You’ll also need to call out, discourage, and not tolerate behaviors that conflict with the attributes of your firm’s culture.

These attributes are most commonly called Core Values.

Although there are plenty of articles about how important it is to cultivate the right culture within your firm, there’s very little out there about exactly “how to” make that happen. In practice, getting culture right involves far more than simply identifying your Core Values!

Here are the five winning moves to create and sustain an enduring, growth-supporting culture.

Focus Internally, Not Externally

“If a brand doesn’t live on the inside, it can’t thrive on the outside.” – Libby Sartain

Culture is an internal affair, yet many business leaders believe that Core Values are marketing assets that reflect on the firm externally. Although these leaders will utilize a process to help them define their Core Values, once defined, they’ll immediately move to plaster them everywhere imaginable, both as a badge of honor validating their effort and as “proof” they have a “sounds good / feels good” culture. Ironically, the weakest, lowest performing cultures I’ve encountered belong to firms that actively promote their values externally! My rule of thumb: When I see Core Values front-and-center on a website, I immediately become skeptical regarding the strength of that firm’s culture.

An internal-only lens, on the other hand, allows leaders to focus on the realities of employee behaviors without simultaneously worrying about what those external to the firm might think. This orientation enables leaders to be more creative, more rigorous, and more true to themselves as they define their Core Values. Another giant advantage of this approach is that it’s more enduring. Because values created with an internal orientation tend to be more authentic, there is a higher probability that the leadership team will do the work required to model and reinforce them over time.

Identify 4-6 Core Values

“Company culture is the backbone of any successful organization.”

– Gary Vaynerchuk

The number of Core Values is an often overlooked, critical structural element to building a sustainable culture.  

Fewer than four values fail to adequately define enough behaviors within the culture, which leaves room for additional, non-defined behaviors to emerge “accidentally” as add-on cultural norms. Think of too few values as a partially defined culture. It’s slightly better than having no values defined, but not nearly as powerful or sustainable as having crystal clear behavioral guidance defining your culture.

At the other extreme, six or more Core Values are too many because the specific behaviors become too challenging to remember! I facilitated a 2-day planning session recently with a new client that had previously defined seven core values. As we opened a conversation about culture, I asked each member of the senior team to write down all seven of their core values. You might see where this is going: The CEO was only able to remember five of them and the team’s range was 3-5! The problem is that when you add an extra core value, you can’t remember any of them as well—not just the extra one.

This leaves us in the happy zone of 4-6 Core Values as necessary and adequate to define your firm’s culture.

Define Observable Behaviors, Not Merely Headlines

“The culture of a company is the sum of the behaviors of all its people.” – Michael Kouly

As we learned from Merriam-Webster, culture is the aggregation of behavioral norms that are continually reinforced over time. 

I’ve adapted and enhanced Jim Collins’ Mission to Mars exercise to help my clients create clear, behaviorally defined Core Values. Here’s an overview of the process I use:

  1. Pretend your firm is sending a handful of employees on a mission to Mars to tell the Martian people what is best and most right about your culture. The problem is that the Martians don’t understand spoken language: they can only interpret observable behavior.
  2. Nominate 4-6 of your employees (none from the leadership team) whose observable behaviors you believe would represent what is best and most right about your firm’s culture to the Martian people.
  3. Think about each of the nominees individually and write down ALL the observable behaviors they exhibit that illustrate why you picked them to represent your firm. Avoid skills, competencies, years of experience, innate attributes like “intelligence,” and anything else that isn’t an observable behavior.
  4. You should now have 4-6 lists of behaviors. Remove the employee names (after all, they’re not really going to Mars) and eliminate obvious duplicate behaviors.
  5. Group similar behaviors together and, as you do, eliminate any that fail any one of the three tests of a Core Value: (1) You should be willing to fire an offender who, over time, won’t or can’t demonstrate the behavior; (2) You should be willing to take a financial hit to uphold a Core Value; and (3) Each Core Value should already be alive within your firm (note: this is the “easiest” test of the three because all the behaviors originated from current employees).
  6. Using a forced choice process to prioritize, agree on the top 4-6 Core Values that emerge from the behavior list. These become the headlines for your core values.
  7. Write 1-2 short sentences that more clearly define the observable behaviors for each of your Core Values.

Here are two sample Core Values that illustrate behavioral clarity:

Own It: We take initiative and are dependable. We assume responsibility for our own contributions, experiences, and impact.

Continuous Improvement: We are committed to getting better every day in everything we do as individuals and as a company.

Lead by Example and Reinforce Behavioral Learning

“Determine what behaviors and beliefs you value as a company, and have everyone live true to them. These behaviors and beliefs should be so essential to your core that you don’t even think of it as a culture.”

– Brittany Forsyth

The most common and damaging culture-building mistake made by well-intentioned leaders is to launch newly defined Core Values to the company before the CEO and executive team have full behavioral integrity with them. 

As a leader, whether you realize it or not, all eyes and ears are on you, all the time! You’re also, as I constantly remind my clients, just as human as everyone else on the planet, which implies that you are imperfect, error-prone, fallible, and likely violate some or all your Core Values regularly without realizing it.

I gently wean new clients into this harsh-sounding reality by encouraging them to self-report their own Core Values violations to one another for 30 days. Their self-awareness soars and, indeed, they realize where and how they themselves violate the very same values they are about to impose on the rest of the firm.

For the next 30 days, I have them give one another permission to provide feedback to each other when they observe non-Core Value or borderline behaviors. This bar-raising activity replaces self-reporting and drives more self-awareness, social pressure (from other members of the executive team), and behavioral integrity with the values.

Yes, that’s a full 60 days of work for you and your senior team to internalize your Core Values! Here’s the reward: You are now prepared to lead by example.

After you’ve launched the Core Values to the firm, I recommend running a fun Core Values Contest for 45-60 days to accelerate behavioral learning among your staff.  Here’s how:

  1. The point of the contest is to reinforce the specific behaviors with each Core Value headline. For example, in the sample value Own It above, “taking initiative” is a specific behavior.
  2. The mechanism of the contest is to have your staff report Core Value Stories where they observe another employee demonstrating a specific Core Value behavior. You’ll need to set up a simple process for stories to be submitted and tracked over time.
  3. Here’s the format for a Core Value story: Name the value, identify the behavior, repeat the value.  For example: “I have a story today about our Core Value of Own It. Yesterday, I saw Mary follow-up three times with our supplier to get more accurate delivery timing. Mary did a great job demonstrating our Core Value of Own It.” Short, behavioral, and to the point!
  4. There are two prizes at the end of the contest: One for the person who tells the most stories about others (the best Core Value observer) and One for the person who has the most stories told about their behaviors (the best example of Core Value behavior). Both prizes work in tandem to help your employees learn and internalize the Core Values!
  5. Along the way, have employees publicly recognize one another and tell their stories during team meetings. You might also create a scoreboard to track the total number of stories told and the number of stories told for each of your Core Values.

Both you and your employees need time and structure to develop behavioral integrity with your newly defined culture. Invest the time, energy, and focus to get this right.

Continually Add Energy to Maintain Your Culture

“Culture is not an initiative. Culture is the enabler of all initiatives.” – Larry Senn

An enduring culture, just like anything else worthwhile, requires ongoing focus and energy to maintain over time. Although there is certainly a cost to this, I’ve found that a small number of low-energy leadership habits more than suffice to reinforce and more deeply root the culture within your firm.

Integrate a Core Value Story into your organization’s Daily Huddle Meetings (read this article for more about meeting rhythms). This ensures that every employee (including you!) will hear at least one of-the-moment Core Value story every day—forever. Unlike the other “rounds” in a Daily Huddle, there’s just one Core Value story told in the huddle daily. Once you update your Daily Huddle agendas to integrate a Core Value story, the process will be in place to automatically reinforce your values daily with every employee.

Update your weekly, monthly, and quarterly meeting agendas to add a topic to the first half of your agenda entitled “Core Values Check In.” This ensures you and your teams have a built-in reminder to check in on the culture regularly over time.  I’ve had clients use this time to diagnose and solve challenges (usually people problems), share good news, and identify next steps they’d like to pursue in the evolution of their culture.

Enhance your hiring process to include Core Value screening. Create 1-3 questions for each value that elicit behavioral answers demonstrating whether candidates exhibit your Core Values. Don’t share your values with them; rather, ask questions designed to see if their past decisions and behaviors align. This way, you’ll not only be hiring staff with the right skills to execute their responsibilities, but also the right values to thrive within your culture! 

Modify employee feedback and review processes to include your Core Values. This is a critical step to continually reinforce Core Value behaviors with staff. Coaching and feedback regarding values behaviors must occur alongside performance-related conversations and be equally weighted for success.

Conclusion

“Corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that is completely within the control of the entrepreneur. Develop a strong corporate culture first and foremost.” – David Cummings

You are more than capable of building a deliberate, strong, enduring culture within your firm. The key is to recognize the process as one of behavioral change and reinforcement more than anything else.

Along the way, you’ll need to model and reward the behaviors you want your employees to demonstrate while calling out, discouraging, and not tolerating the behaviors you don’t.

By using these five winning moves to create your culture, you’ll make your firm more scalable, attract and retain better fit, higher performing staff, and feel more authentic in your leadership.

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Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Class: February 7, 2022. Learn more and register!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

The most important question in business is and will forever be “WHO?”

Here’s why: The best idea, strategy, and plan on the planet doesn’t yield a thing without the right people in place to execute and make it happen. Although this sounds straightforward and logical, the process of identifying the right “seats” (roles) and then filling them with the right people remains a top challenge for entrepreneurs and leaders.

“Talent is the #1 priority for a CEO. You think it’s about vision and strategy, but you have to get the right people first.”

– Andrea Jung

I regularly witness executives defending and justifying “good” people in key roles while simultaneously tolerating results and/or behaviors they shouldn’t. These choices kill or slow growth, demotivate others, and create more work (and frustration) for leaders and staff alike. Even worse, these “good” people increase the operating risk of the business, further penalizing the entrepreneur / owner who can’t or won’t act to upgrade their team.

There are three reasons why “good” people aren’t right for your organization:

  • They aren’t a cultural fit,
  • They don’t possess the capability to be successful in their role, and/or
  • They don’t have the requisite expertise to achieve the outcomes demanded by their role.

Over my 20+ year coaching career, I’ve seen plenty of examples of leaders on both sides: those who make the right, hard moves, and those who settle for “good” people. The corresponding outcomes could not possibly be more stark and clear: The RIGHT people in the right roles are behind every single scale-up success story!

I’ve distilled the mindset of leaders who commit to having the RIGHT people on their team into three core beliefs. We’ll dive into them first and then outline some of the very real obstacles and solutions to getting and maintaining a team of the RIGHT people to help you scale.

Belief #1: Cultural Fit is Paramount

When I hear a leader describe someone on their team as “good,” they are usually characterizing that person’s performance in their role. Although performance is certainly important, cultural fit is a second, less appreciated dimension with the potential to either multiply or negate performance.

My use of the term culture here refers to the organization’s behavioral rules and norms. I call these Core Values. I’ve heard leaders call them Cultural Commitments and various other creative terms, but make no mistake: whatever you call them, they are the behavioral rules that define your culture.

Although performance is certainly important, cultural fit is a second, less appreciated dimension with the potential to either multiply or negate performance.

These rules capture critical non-performance-based expectations and are tailored to create the culture that you and your leadership team deem desirable for your firm. Behaviors captured by Core Values commonly include teamwork, punctuality, caring, continual improvement, personal growth, transparent communication, quality, speaking up, and the like. If you’ve ever had the experience of working next to someone who exhibits the opposite of any of these illustrative traits, you can begin to understand the damage a non-culture-fit person inflicts on the rest of the team!

Here’s how leaders with the belief that culture fit is paramount keep it that way:

Each calendar quarter, my coaching clients stratify their direct reports (typically managers) into A, B, or C classifications. Both performance and cultural fit are incorporated into this process. What’s more, the senior leaders conduct this exercise in front of their peers who are encouraged to provide additional feedback, debate, and context to one another along the way. This high accountability, high rigor environment eliminates favoritism and ensures that neither performance nor cultural fit are discounted.

These highly productive, bar-raising conversations keep the leadership team sharply focused on the RIGHT people standard of thinking that accounts for both performance and cultural fit.

How frequently and rigorously are you assessing the performance AND cultural fit of your employees?

Belief #2: Capability Far Outweighs Capacity

As I’ve written before, you would never expect a fish to climb a tree. To state the obvious, this is because it doesn’t have the capability.  Yet, in effect, many leaders hold an equally unreasonable expectation: they expect people without the right capability to succeed as they staff key organizational roles.

For example, think about:

  • The customer service representative promoted to run marketing because she was the most interested in the role,
  • The tenured, loyal employee asked to become operations manager because the founder felt like he was the fastest learner, and
  • The newly hired sales manager who never managed people before, but whose salary was affordable and seemed “ready for the next step” in their career.

Each of these relatively common scenarios reveals incremental thinking and relies upon a hope-based plan for success, neither of which accelerates growth, impact, and scale. The hallmark of this approach is to focus on capacity, that is, “I think they can do the job,” rather than capability which is more about “They’ve done this or are already doing this, so they will be successful.”

How are you weighting capacity in the form of prior experience as you evaluate otherwise “good” candidates to fill key roles?

Belief #3: Prior Relevant Expertise is Priceless

The way to become an $XX million dollar (fill in the numbers to match your aspirations) firm is to begin acting like an $XX million dollar firm today. Put another way, as uber-coach Marshall Goldsmith posited in his book with the same title: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

This principle holds true for just about any aspiration or endeavor.

For example, want to be a more effective communicator? Begin replicating the behaviors of effective communicators today. Although this seems straightforward, it can be difficult to downright impossible to “figure out” the right next moves to make if you’ve not actually had the experience of success—yet—yourself.

This is why leaders need to be mindful of assembling a team of people who have already proven their capability to operate at the level to which the organization aspires!

Consider the moves four of my coaching clients made over the past year:

  • A $200 million technology infrastructure firm hired a president who previously ran and sold a similar business after growing it from $1.4 billion to $2.2 billion in sales in less than 5 years.
  • A 300-employee not-for-profit hired a senior operations executive from a global apparel firm who was managing over 1,000 employees and $6 billion in revenue to help them scale their operations more smoothly and efficiently.
  • A $100 million specialty manufacturer hired a CFO who led a global firm’s growth to over $1 billion and then took it public to guide their capital plans, facilitate acquisitions, and help them scale to $500 million in the next 3 years.
  • A $150 million financial services firm hired a General Council who previously ran the legal team at a multi-billion-dollar firm to transform their risk management and legal capabilities as they continue to scale.

I encourage you to scale these numbers down to fit the reality of your firm, as the same principle applies at any stage of growth. For example, if you’re a $750,000 business today you should look for people with expertise running a $10 million operation to help you get there! While buying this level of expertise can be expensive, it’s actually more expensive to proceed without the right people and, in fact, there are countless win-win creative ways–including the use of fractional / consulting expertise–to enable next-level people to join your team.

Do the “good” people occupying key roles on your team possess the expertise to pull your organization forward, or are they trying to “figure it out” as they go? Where do you need to look outside to find the expertise you need to scale?

The Obstacle of Emotional Attachment

Emotional attachment is a massive obstacle that prevents otherwise capable leaders from accelerating their firm’s growth and success.

Consider these two realities:

  • Your emotional attachment to longstanding members of your team interferes with your ability to objectively evaluate their performance and fit.
  • A whopping 85 percent of the leadership teams I’ve coached had at least one member turnover within the first twelve months of my engagement because that the person wasn’t the right fit.

All of this notwithstanding, there is no end to the justifications you might try to make as to why every “good” member of your team is RIGHT for their role. Believe me, I’ve heard them all.

If you have a RIGHT people problem—and the odds are you do—you have to be honest with yourself and begin upgrading your team. The wrong people in the wrong seats can’t help you improve your organization’s accountability or performance.

Another way to look at this situation is to imagine you report to a board of directors consisting of the 5 most successful people in your industry. How would they assess your team’s performance? How would they assess yours? And what expertise would they suggest you acquire that is currently lacking in your firm?

The wrong people in the wrong seats can’t help you improve your organization’s accountability or performance.

If emotional attachment is still holding you back, consider that it’s quite possible to treat people with gratitude and dignity, yet be firm about the notion that the firm has outgrown their capabilities. Sometimes you can find an appropriate, alternative role for them; sometimes that’s just not possible. Either way, as a leader, you are accountable to the organization, to yourself, and to your team to provide every possible moral and ethical opportunity to achieve your objectives.

How are your emotions preventing you from replacing “good” people with the RIGHT people?

How to Get the RIGHT People on Your Team

Here are three game-changing moves that will help you get the RIGHT people on your team:

Overcome Your Fears

Whether you realize it or not, fear is a common obstacle that prevents leaders from making the right people moves as they strive to scale. This most commonly manifests as “bird in the hand thinking” related to the “good” people on your team: they may not be ideal, but you know and trust them, and they get the job done. On the other hand, you might wonder about how challenging it might be to find a replacement and whether you can afford the transition.

Here’s a free tool from my first book Activators that can help. Use it to think more logically through your situation and find a way to move forward through your fear.

Think About the 95%

I’ve observed countless leaders over many years focus relentlessly on the small percentage (say 5%) of people in their organizations that need to be “fixed.” Another name for this is the “C Player Trap.” It’s a trap because you’re expending massive time and energy on something relatively small while largely ignoring the impact on the rest of your firm! Now think about the other 95% of the people in your organization. What’s the impact of you tolerating ongoing issues with a few people on the rest of your firm?

When you begin focusing on the other 95% instead of the 5%, you’ll find it easier to make the hard, right moves to upgrade your team.

Clarify Your Priorities and Connect to Them Emotionally

How clearly can you see your ideal desired future state? And when you think about it, does it seem distant and abstract, or can you feel it viscerally and emotionally?

Unclear and non-emotionalized priorities make it challenging to justify a departure from your comfort zone to make hard, right people moves. Take the time to create a vivid vision of your desired future and make it so vivid that you can feel the emotion of getting there. Consider your priorities for the business, for your family, and for your ultimate legacy! Clear and emotionalized priorities make it easier for you to consider whether you truly have the right people on your team and—as needed—make changes to accelerate your journey.

Conclusion

“I’ve learned if you have the right people in the right places doing the right things, you can be successful at whatever you do.”

– Roger Staubach

Getting the RIGHT people in the right roles is a never-ending quest: You don’t just find the right players, check off the “I got them” box, and call it a day!

As we’ve explored, this process typically begins with the need to remove underperformers and other “good” employees who aren’t a fit or can’t get you where you need to go. The process evolves from there to become a more proactive and developmentally minded effort to add capability and experience to your team. 

Rest assured, when you make the required moves and truly experience the RIGHT person in a role, it will be a tipping point in your evolution as a leader and in the growth trajectory of your firm. From there, you’ll want more RIGHT people, faster.

Best of all, it’s never too late to get started!

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Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class: January 26, 2022. Learn more and sign up!

==============================================

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Class: February 7, 2022. Learn more and register!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“High expectations are the key to everything.” – Sam Walton

Although you’ve probably heard the phrase, “you get what you expect,” have you truly integrated high- and continually bar-raising expectations into your leadership style?

Here’s why this is such a critical attribute for growth-minded leaders: Expectations of ourselves and others exert a profound impact on performance and outcomes. In other words, high (or moderate or low) performance flows from high (or moderate or low) expectations.

Consider the findings from these two studies:

  1. In the early 1960’s, University of California psychologist Robert Rosenthal demonstrated the power of expectations with a now classic experiment on how teachers’ expectations affect student achievement. At the beginning of a school year, Rosenthal selected children at random and informed their teachers that they had particularly high potential. At the end of the academic year, these “high-potential” children outperformed their peers. The only explanation for their success was that their teachers believed they were especially talented, treated them accordingly, and the students met the challenge. This phenomenon goes both ways. If the teachers had been warned that the children selected were more difficult or less skilled than others, they would have lowered their expectations, and the students, in turn, probably, and unfortunately, would have met them.
  2. Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks observed the debilitating impact of anxiety as an undergraduate student at Princeton University. She was an a cappella singer and, during an audition, she noticed that those who did well channeled their anxiety positively—into excitement rather than fear—while those who did poorly allowed stress overtake their talents. With this observation in mind, she ran a study with 113 people who were asked to sing a song using a karaoke video game and told that their singing would be scored. The participants were divided into three groups. Prior to singing, the first group was instructed to repeat aloud, “I’m so anxious.” The second was instructed to say, “I’m so excited.” The third (control) group was instructed to say nothing. The “anxious” and “excited” groups literally spoke their expectations prior to singing. Here are the results: those who said they were excited scored an average of 80 percent; those in the control group who said nothing scored 69 percent; and those who said they were anxious scored 53 percent. The participant’s expectations predicted their performance! Brooks’ findings have been replicated through multiple studies over time: those who talk about being excited immediately before an anxiety-provoking task significantly and consistently outperform others. 

In my coaching, I’ve found fear and/or low confidence at the root of why many leaders won’t or can’t meaningfully raise the expectations bar on themselves and on their teams. Here are some of the most common symptoms I’ve observed:

  • Hesitating to push hard to find the other party’s true limits while negotiating, 
  • Avoiding the delivery of candid feedback to certain employees,
  • Withdrawing from your pursuit of something (or someone) important before trying everything ethically possible to get what you want, or 
  • Neglecting to challenge top performers to learn, grow, and improve.

There are two prevailing and costly patterns behind the symptoms: (1) We give up too soon, and (2) We refuse to risk relationships and security by tolerating status-quo levels of performance. 

Ironically, we overcome fear and build confidence by doing the very things we avoid, and then—through Deliberate Practice—building even more capability over time.  Get started immediately with one or more of the following five big moves to raise expectations and improve performance this year (and every year!).

As my coaching clients will attest, I use these expectation-raising moves myself—and now you can too.

Believe You Are More

You are more than you think you are. More capable, more resilient, more flexible, more respected, more intelligent, and more and more and more!

And yet, you operate beneath your true potential. It’s been estimated that we have 20-50% more capacity than we believe. This is true for both physical and mental activities. The problem is, we get in our own way, allowing self-talk, baggage, preconceived notions, and all sorts of other junk to derail us—most times, not even realizing we are our own obstacle.

The death crawl scene from the 2006 film Facing the Giants powerfully illustrates the gap between what we think we have within us and our true capabilities.  Take five minutes to watch this riveting scene and begin believing you are more!

Then have the hard conversation you’ve been avoiding, get back to the negotiating table, or do whatever it is that you’ve convinced yourself you can’t (or shouldn’t)—but that you know you must.

If you cannot raise the bar on yourself, it will be next to impossible to expect truly great things from those around you. Start here to create a rock-solid foundation of belief in yourself before moving to the other four big moves.

Assume Positive Intent

When was the last time you thought you knew someone else’s intentions, only to discover later with the passing of time (and, often, quite a bit of drama) that you were incorrect?

Failing to assume positive intent is one of the most drama-inducing, costly human behaviors out there. Here’s why: Context overpowers content.

When we question someone’s motives (context), the content of their message is reduced to near-zero value as we focus on the newly apparent threat to our ego, project, business, livelihood, relationships, etc.  And yet, in all my years as a professional, I’ve never run into anyone who woke up in the morning and deliberately set an agenda to ruin someone else’s day. Rather, like you and me, people begin their day with generally good intentions to do and be the best they can given their circumstances, work environment, and capabilities.

“Context overpowers content.”

What would it cost you to grant the members of your team the benefit of the doubt? Not much!

This simple bar-raising expectation—that everyone has positive intentions, regardless of the outcome they’ve produced—will lead to more productive relationships, less drama, better execution, and greater accountability. It’s also quite contagious!

Believe Your People Have the Answers

This big move is the corollary to #1 on our list, Believe You Are More.  If you believe you are more capable than you feel you are at times then it stands to reason that, as a leader, you should hold the same belief about those on your team.

Are you holding expectations for them to contribute to their full potential?

For instance, if you believe they have ideas and answers to help your firm overcome obstacles and/or pursue new opportunities, it becomes easy to ask, “What do you think?” more often.  This simple question singlehandedly changes the game, communicates elevated expectations, and challenges your people to think more independently and share more of their (probably very good) ideas!

It’s crucial to ask this question before you’ve shared your own thinking to encourage others to contribute their thoughts rather than opt to agree with you. To minimize this risk, use the best practice I teach my coaching clients: the leader ALWAYS speaks last during discussions and debates.

Once you’ve mastered the use of “What do you think?” to raise the expectations bar on your team, you can deploy a slightly more sophisticated version by asking “What do you recommend?” instead. Here you’re not just eliciting their thinking, but also expecting them to do the work of synthesizing a recommended course of action. This approach raises expectations even further and challenges your team to improve their thinking and contributions to the organization. 

Look for a Little More—Everywhere

If you do the math, it’s possible for a series of small changes to yield massive performance gains for just about any organization. This is a challenge for many leaders, as our nature causes us to focus on just one or two big things that need improvement.

For example, I frequently see leaders set growth targets that are solely volume-based: let’s sell 20% more stuff and generate 20% more revenue as a result.  In a business that generated $1m in revenue last year by selling 400 units of a $2,500 item, that would be a $200k increase to total revenue of $1.2m this year. Assuming a fair (but not high-performing) net margin of 12%, this yields $144,000 net income—up $24,000 (also 20%) from the prior year.

What if, on the other hand, we looked at smaller changes to multiple metrics like volume, price, and cost of goods sold (COGS)? On the same $1m base business, a 10% increase in price to $2,750 per unit combined with a 10% increase in volume to 440 and a 3% decrease in COGS to $1455 per unit (based on prior year COGS of $1,500 per unit) would yield total revenue growth of 21% to $1.21m and total net income growth of 51% to $181,500!

There is a multiplying force at play when you change multiple metrics simultaneously that transforms relatively small changes into large aggregate results. In this example, replacing an ambitious 20% growth target with two 10% increases and one 3% decrease generated 256% more net income growth.

How can you raise the bar and set higher expectations for small improvements to multiple metrics within your operation? In addition to the parameters we covered in the example (price, volume, and COGS), you might also consider accounts receivable days outstanding, inventory turns, overhead expenses, and any number of other factors vital to the operation of your firm. 

Raise your expectations a little, everywhere, and reap big returns.

Raise the Bar on Your Highest Performers

As we emerge from the pandemic and remain in the throes of the “great resignation,” there’s a tendency among leaders to tread gently around high performers. In a misplaced effort to retain top talent, they loosen expectations and lower standards which, ironically have the exact opposite effect!

Think back to a peak moment in your life when you achieved something significant, either individually or with a team. Now think about how you felt at that time. In most instances, people report feeling challenged, exhausted, exhilarated, and proud after pushing themselves beyond their previous limits to achieve something special. They also report gratitude to at least one other person who pushed them to be their best. These feelings are virtual catnip to top performers in any domain.

When you fear the loss of a high performer, rather than relaxing your standards, have a conversation with them instead and ask them how they need and want to be challenged next! The answers might surprise you and point to real opportunities for you, for them, and for your business.

Do your best to challenge your top performers—especially those you deem “at risk” of leaving the firm. As you raise the bar, be sure to equip them with the right people, tools, budget, and other resources they need to meet the challenge. Otherwise, they’ll quickly conclude that you’ve assigned them Mission Impossible, which is a scenario in your control that usually doesn’t end well.

How can you engage, challenge, and continually raise the bar on your high performers?

Conclusion

“High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”
— Charles Kettering, American Inventor

The research and the anecdotal evidence are clear: “You get what you expect.” Now so are the five big moves you can make this year to fully integrate high- and continually bar-raising expectations into your leadership style:

  • Believe You Are More
  • Assume Positive Intent
  • Believe Your People Have the Answers
  • Look for a Little More—Everywhere
  • Raise the Bar on Your Highest Performers

Pick one or two to get started, not next week, but today.

I expect that you will—further accelerating your growth and positive impact—so be sure to let me know what you learn along the way.

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Class: January 10, 2022. Learn more and register!

==============================================

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class: January 26, 2022. Learn more and sign up!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“It’s more important to do big things well than to do the small things perfectly.”

–Ray Dalio

As leaders, we pride ourselves on being resourceful, agile, and generally fast-moving. Much of the time, this is an admirable trait that yields decent results. On the other hand, there are moments when the fast or easy or most convenient action invisibly works against your intentions, slowing growth, profitability, and progress.

The most damaging of these moments involves people decisions—specifically who to put in which seat as your organization grows. I’ll say unequivocally that Mr. or Ms. “right now” rarely leads to Mr. or Ms. “right” in any role over time.

You would never reasonably expect a fish to climb a tree because it doesn’t have the capability.  Yet, in effect, many leaders do just that: they expect people without the right capability to succeed when they fill an organizational role with a “right now” person. 

For example, think about:

  • the customer service representative who is promoted to run marketing because he’s the most interested in taking the role;
  • the tenured, loyal employee who is asked to become operations manager because the founder feels like she’s the fastest learner on staff; and
  • the newly hired accounting director who never managed people before, but whose salary was affordable and who seemed “ready for the next step” in their career.

Each of these relatively common scenarios reveals incremental thinking and relies upon a hope-based plan for success, neither of which accelerates growth, impact, and scale. The hallmark of this approach is to focus on capacity, that is, “I think they can do the job,” rather than capability which is more about “They’ve done this or are already doing this, so they will be successful.”

As your organization grows, here are three ways to avoid “right now” thinking, to focus on capability, and to put the right people in the right seats as you fill key roles.

(Note: All names in this article have been changed to maintain confidentiality)

1. Hire Someone Who Has Already Succeeded in the Role

The Problem:

My client Fred is the founder and CEO of a 20-year-old firm in the technology sector. Over the years, Fred and his largely home-grown leadership team struggled to stay profitable as they scaled. 

Although an impressive visionary and relationship guy, Fred struggled with his operational responsibilities, avoided conflict, and failed to hold others accountable for results. The leadership team was unsuccessful solving the firm’s cultural, accountability, and performance problems that grew with their scale: They avoided “rocking the boat” with too much change and lacked the leadership experience to know what would work.

What costly and/or frustrating issues persist in your firm?

Where might you have the wrong person (including yourself!) in one of your key roles?

The Solution:

About a year ago, Fred reached his limit and became exhausted hearing the same stories and dealing with the same issues as his minimally profitable firm slowly scaled. He also acknowledged his own inability and dislike of holding others operationally accountable. Fred committed to make a significant leadership change: he decided to hire a President to operate the firm.

The first step in the process was to create a detailed role scorecard for the new President position while modifying the CEO scorecard to accommodate. Among the must-have capabilities: industry leadership experience, including having scaled and successfully sold a business. He realized that the person he needed would be a big player requiring a well-considered compensation plan, so Fred engaged an executive compensation specialist to help him get it right to entice the right candidate to join the team. Scorecard and compensation framework in hand, Fred began tapping into his vast network to get the word out.

The new President with every bit of experience Fred sought was hired about six months later. Within three months, the value of Fred’s big move became abundantly clear. New and different questions were being asked, accountability improved, and an operational turnaround was clearly underway. Although costly, the experience of the new President paid immediate dividends in numerous ways. Fred’s bigger thinking, indeed, yielded much bigger results.

How could someone from outside your firm who has already accomplished what you want to accomplish accelerate your growth and help you scale?

2. Pay More for More Experience

The Problem:

Carla had a big idea and founded an agency dedicated to helping others build their online presence to amplify their message and cause. She and her small start-up team had landed a solid core of clients, including some well-known names and brands. Although the business was profitable and scaling, Carla had to be careful to balance acquiring new staff with the income from their new and anticipated clients.

About a year ago, client demand dictated the necessity to hire an additional Account Manager. Their financial condition was still tight, so Carla decided to follow the same hiring pattern she used in the past and embarked on a search for a relatively inexpensive entry-level or junior Account Manager.

During the team’s search to fill the role, they were introduced to a candidate whose compensation requirements were almost 2 times the amount they allocated. This candidate wasn’t only more expensive, he was also strongly recommended, more senior, and highly experienced.

Where is a scarcity mindset affecting your decisions as a leader?

Do you hire junior-level staff because that’s what you need or because that’s what you can afford?

The Solution:

With some prodding from their coach, Carla and her team reevaluated their budget for the role to account for the anticipated value the more senior-level hire would bring and, with some trepidation, decided to make the hire.

The new Account Manager began making a positive impact within his first week on the job. Carla discovered that she and her Operations Manager were able to hand off more tasks to their newest employee than they anticipated, including several that were quite strategic in nature. This freed them to invest even more of their time to grow the firm.

Further, because of his experience and mature relationship capabilities, the Account Manager quickly ingratiated himself to the firm’s demanding clients whose experience working with the firm improved thanks to his leadership.

As she reflected on her decision to spend more for the more senior Account Manager several months later, Carla said: “This was probably the best business decision I ever made. I now realize how limiting it was when I ran my business with ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ thinking!”

How could a more expensive, more capable person change the game as your next new hire?

3. Promote from Within after Capability in the New Role is Proven

The Problem:

My client Tom built a profitable, successful firm providing both required and discretionary educational programs to certain practicing professionals. Although, like many scaling entrepreneurs, he created his leadership team organically over time by elevating high performers, Tom also invested heavily in their growth as managers and leaders. His strategy worked and yielded both a high-functioning team and business growth to match.

Several years ago, Tom, a classic prone-to distraction entrepreneur, decided to spend more time thinking bigger and pursuing additional business opportunities. Like my other client Fred, Tom also realized that his strengths were creative and strategic, not operational—and yet, he occupied an operational leadership role in his firm. It was time to change the roles on the leadership team.

Judy ran the programming team at the firm and, over time, had grown into an exceptional manager, leader, and coach to her own staff and to her colleagues on the leadership team. Although Tom’s instincts were to ask Judy to take on a bigger operational leadership role, he wasn’t sure she was ready.

How significantly do you invest in the growth of your organization’s managers and leaders?

When was the last time you reevaluated and optimized the roles on your leadership team?

The Solution:

Tom chose to follow his instincts and opened a dialog with Judy to assess her willingness and readiness to play a larger leadership role as COO (Chief Operations Officer). She was open to it, but not totally confident she was ready.

In response, Tom asked Judy to read Gino Wickman and Mark Winters’ book “Rocket Fuel” with him, so the two of them could navigate, discuss, and agree to how they would potentially work together as CEO and COO. In the book, Wickman and Winters utilize the terms “Visionary” and “Integrator” to conceptually separate the two roles and offer both structure and rhythms to optimize the productivity of the relationship while minimizing the potential for dysfunction and drama, as can often occur.

As they read and discussed the book over several months, both Judy’s and Tom’s confidence in the leadership transition grew. Before any change was made or announced, the two of them gained the insight, clarity, and operational structure that stacked the deck in favor of a smooth transition and a successful outcome.

By the time Judy’s promotion was announced to the organization, Tom, Judy and the leadership team were primed and ready to operate in their new reporting relationships and accountabilities. Judy continued to grow into the role and quickly became appreciated even more by the leadership team as her operational instincts enhanced the team’s ability to execute and achieve their plans. In the meantime, Tom, now relieved of his operational role, found himself energized as he shifted his focus to look ahead and think strategically about the future of the business.

How can you engage and develop your people to build the capability for success in a more senior role?

Conclusion

It would be crazy to expect a fish to climb a tree and yet, in effect, that’s what many entrepreneurs and leaders do as they fill newly created roles in their growing firms. They employ “right now,” incremental logic and then wonder why the growth and scale they aspire to remains elusive.

The three solutions I’ve outlined here require bigger thinking, a focus on capability, and an investment mindset. After all, you cannot reasonably expect a return without first making an investment! And, yes, that entails some degree of risk—but risk can be managed in exchange for an expected higher return, particularly if you are hiring more senior, more experienced people and/or others who have already achieved the outcomes you seek.

Consider and answer the questions I’ve posed in each of the three scenarios, then find a way to think and act differently to fill the next key role that opens at your firm. As always, a good mentor, peer group members, or a qualified coach can help you self-assess, commit, and act.

Retired US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford once said: “When you have to make a choice between capacity and capability, I would go with capability.”  I would too!

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class: December 23, 2021. Learn more and sign up!

=============================================

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom!

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Class: January 10, 2022. Learn more and register!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

I recently taught a masterclass on Building a Culture of Accountability for The Growth Faculty, Australia’s leading live leadership events production company. During the Q&A session, a participant asked how to make matrixed organizations more accountable.

My answer was short and to the point: “You don’t,” which is why I’m not a fan of matrixed structures.

But the question got me thinking about why matrixed organizations exist in the first place, so I continued my response with a discussion of my belief that they are an avoidance mechanism; an organizational callus created around some irritation that leaders are not willing or able to change or remove. 

In humans, a callus is formed when repeated irritation causes our bodies to create a hardened outer layer. A callus doesn’t eliminate the irritation; rather, it protects us from further harm and allows us to continue the activity that caused it to form in the first place. The downside of a callus is that it can interfere with flexibility and sensation. Although we typically think of calluses on our hands and feet, they will form anywhere there’s a repetitive irritation.

It turns out, just like our bodies, we create calluses in our organizations to avoid or work around pain points. Think about the processes in your firm that are designed to operate around or despite certain members of your team. Think about certain clients or suppliers whose shortcomings or demands require you to expend unreasonable resources to compensate. Think about the person on your team who might be singlehandedly “preventing” you from raising your expectations on everyone across the board.

It turns out, just like our bodies, we create calluses in our organizations to avoid or workaround pain points.

These are just a few of the sources of organizational callus. It’s not scalable, it’s costly to maintain, it’s exhausting for your team, and it’s likely to cause your top performers to seek greener pastures for their careers.  Worst of all, organizational callus sneaks up on you as it forms—starting slowly and stealthily with a simple-seeming workaround, then building to something that “all of a sudden” becomes both debilitating and growth-preventing.

There are four sources of organizational callus that growth-minded leaders should minimize and prevent: people, processes, customers, and suppliers. 

People

The head of operations wasn’t comfortable with the idea of change and seemed to find all the reasons why any attempt to improve the business wouldn’t work. She was highly intelligent though, and created logical, compelling arguments to support her status quo positions. The CEO and his leadership team, on the other hand, knew that change was essential for the business to continue to grow.

Because the CEO wasn’t ready or able to address the issue head-on with his head of operations, the leadership team began maneuvering around her during meetings and to get things done, unknowingly building organizational callus and slowing their progress. The team couldn’t accurately assess the price they were paying for this until about a year later when the CEO finally decided to exit her from the business. Leadership team meetings improved dramatically, change initiatives accelerated significantly, and the organization breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Pay particular attention to underperformers, cultural misfits, and the “right” people in the “wrong” seats. Each of these employee archetypes predictably fuels the formation of organizational callus. I’ve maintained for years that the most important question in business is and will forever be: Who? When leaders tolerate the individuals in these categories, they effectively normalize the behaviors and guarantee that organizational inefficiencies will result.

Pay particular attention to underperformers, cultural misfits, and the “right” people in the “wrong” seats.

Here’s how to prevent people-related organizational callus:

  • Implement rigorous Right People, Right Seats (RPRS) standards for both performance and culture fit and assess every employee quarterly as I do with my coaching clients.
  • Build a Culture of Accountability.
  • Mind what you tolerate as a Leader. All eyes are on you, all the time—including not just your own behaviors, but also the behaviors you tolerate in others.

Whose attitudes and/or behaviors are causing organizational callus to form within your firm?

Processes

My wife Keri and I do our best to clean out the closets in our home every Spring. I’m sure you know the pattern: Impressively neat and tidy closets on day one, then a slow, inevitable descent to mess and disorganization by day 365. Like you may have learned in high school physics, all systems move toward entropy (disorder) in the absence of energy to maintain order, which is why you need to spend the better part of a day cleaning your closet (energy) and then, over time, it becomes a mess again (entropy).

The same laws of entropy and energy (and your bedroom closet!) apply to the processes in your business. And this is how process-based calluses are born.

Inputs, outputs, approvals, rules, and standards related to any process change over time because your firm’s operating environment is in a constant state of evolution and change. The most common response is to add a new check box here, to convene another meeting there, and so on. The irritant is the conflict between reality and the current process; callus springs from the myriad workarounds, adaptations, and inefficiencies that arise in your team’s best efforts to make it all work.

The most significant source of messy, inefficient processes is a lack of process accountability. Each of the core processes in your firm should have a single point of accountability for their operation, maintenance, and enhancement over time. Common core processes include customer acquisition, service delivery, manufacturing, billing & collections, and talent acquisition.

The most significant source of messy, inefficient processes is a lack of process accountability.

Single point accountability can be challenging for leaders, as most core processes run horizontally across organizational silos—sales, operations, customer service, human resources, and accounting to name a few—rather than within them. That said, it is crucial to create crystal clear accountability for the actual operation of your business in addition to the functional silos within it.

Here’s how to prevent process-related organizational callus:

  • Create clear accountability for each of your firm’s core processes.
  • Build the imperative for change into your culture. When you normalize disruption of the status quo and change, your firm is far less likely to suffer from messy, outdated processes.
  • Establish rhythms for “Spring cleaning” to assess and update your core processes. I recommend every 12-18 months, depending on the velocity of your business.

Which processes in your business need “Spring cleaning” and single point accountability?

Customers

I recently coached the CEO and executive team running a sizable contracting firm whose customers were general contractors building or renovating large-scale commercial projects. I was amazed to discover that their “best” customer owed them more than USD $4 million and was over 6 months in arrears. Even worse, they continued to accommodate this customer despite their unwillingness to meet their commitments.

Cash flow is a big deal for building contractors, so my clients spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to “borrow from Peter to pay Paul” as their largest customer strung them along with millions in receivables. Predictably their issue with this client started small and grew over time. As it did, this distracting and non-productive financial maneuvering was the organizational callus they built to compensate.

Beware of customers with unreasonable demands, those who are slow to pay you, and those who treat your staff poorly. These characters tend to increase organizational callus as you and your staff compensate for their shortcomings. Further, if you do the math, you’ll likely realize you’ve been accommodating your least profitable customers, which is hardly the path to sustainable, profitable growth.

Beware of customers with unreasonable demands, those who are slow to pay you, and those who treat your staff poorly.

Here’s how to prevent customer-related organizational callus:

  • Identify your Core Customer and focus your resources to attract more of them. Core Customers value your products/services, are willing to pay a fair price, and tend to tell others about you.
  • Hold your customers accountable to treat your people well and don’t tolerate bad behavior.
  • Stop treating all customers equally and be willing to say goodbye to low profit / high hassle relationships.

Which of your customers are contributing to the formation of organizational callus within your firm?

Suppliers

Many years ago, I coached two partners running a major dress manufacturer. Design, sales, and distribution were handled out of their New York offices, and all manufacturing was completed via contract in China.

At the time, their manufacturer was struggling with quality control. To compensate, my client hired a firm in China to spot check dresses in the factory prior to shipping. In addition, because a significant number of dresses were still shipped with quality problems, they also established a quality check and a repair facility in their New York warehouse. Despite these issues and the massive organizational callus they built in response, the two partners refused to consider adding another factory to their manufacturing stable.  In addition to the expensive, work-intensive quality checks, their retail store clients who sold the dresses to the public slowly lost confidence in the brand’s ability to deliver on its promises.

Each firm that names you as one of their customers should contribute to the efficiency and value of your operation. If they don’t, find a replacement who will.

Monitor your suppliers, contractors, and vendors for the following callus-inducing symptoms: infrequent and/or non-transparent communications, unreasonable demands, and a lack of “good partner” behaviors. Just like a top performing employee, each firm that names you as one of their customers should contribute to the efficiency and value of your operation. If they don’t, find a replacement who will.

Here’s how to prevent supplier-related organizational callus:

  • Create accountability to expected standards of behavior and performance for each of your vendors.
  • Establish both normal and exception-based communication rhythms and, if applicable, reporting.
  • Create relationships with potential backup and secondary suppliers. You’ll be empowered and able to switch vendors if warranted.

Which of your suppliers, contractors, or vendors are contributing to the formation of organizational callus in your business?

Conclusion

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” – Benjamin Franklin

Any minor irritation in your firm has the potential to induce costly, growth-slowing organizational callus. Leaders can prevent this by tuning into the symptoms, establishing clear behavioral norms, and acting aggressively to remedy exceptions.

Here’s the common denominator: Mind what you tolerate as a leader and adopt a bias to act. This posture not only sends clear message to your employees, to your customers, and to your suppliers, but also helps attract and retain top tier talent (who typically have a low tolerance for passive leadership). 

Which callus-inducing conditions are you tolerating in your firm? An honest answer combined with focused action could be one of the most valuable things you do for the business this year.

=============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class: November 17, 2021. Learn more and sign up!

=============================================

Mark’s Coaching Gymnasium for Leaders – A Live Event

If you have questions about growth, scalability, hiring, priorities, accountability, or anything else related to leading your organization, register for my Coaching Gymnasium and tackle your problems head-on.

In the unique gymnasium format, I’ll coach those in the Coaching Seats for their benefit AND for the benefit of all attendees. I’ve found that there’s just as much value for the “audience” as there is for the people being coached.

The next event is Thursday, Nov. 18 at 10:00 am EDT. Don’t miss out.

Grab a Coaching Seat and come with real problems and questions. Sometimes it takes straight talk from a different perspective to find the solutions you need. Give it a try and join us!

==============================================

NEW Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom!

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Class: November 30, 2021. Learn more and register!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

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Have you ever experienced this? A friend mentions their intention to buy a certain type of car and then – suddenly – you see that specific car everywhere.

This isn’t magic, but a matter of attention, and it’s the easiest part of you for others to hijack and control without you realizing it.

Our brains evolved such that what we pay attention to grows in importance to us. This was critical to survival when, tens of thousands of years ago, a rustle in the bushes nearby often meant something with sharp teeth and claws was eyeing you for lunch. Today, in addition to helping you notice your friend’s soon-to-be new car everywhere, this same instinct confers an unseen advantage to those seeking your attention to promote their ideas, to advance their agendas, and to sell their products and services.

Although you don’t need to worry about being eaten anymore (most days, at least), you should certainly be aware of how and when your attention is hijacked because it costs you a lot: You chase red-herring issues, you burn precious time supporting others’ agendas, and you wind up delaying your own achievement.

Although you don’t need to worry about being eaten anymore (most days, at least), you should certainly be aware of how and when your attention is hijacked.

On the other hand, as a business leader, you need to rely on your team and others for input, guidance, expertise, and more to make decisions and operate your organization. Amid the cacophony of well-intentioned voices and potential attention-hijackers surrounding you, how do you sort out who should be getting your attention?

Start by clarifying what you want.

Know What You Want, Feel What You Want

We all have goals, aspirations, plans, and/or some vision of what we want our futures to be. Yet, in my experience, our aspirations tend to be vague and composed with “wiggle” words that increase the haze surrounding what we want for ourselves.

Here are some I’ve heard recently:

·       I want to sell my business and retire.

·       We’re going to get a beach house someday.

·       I want to grow my business.

·       When we can afford it, we want to travel around the world.

·       I want to earn more.

It’s virtually impossible to assess who and what merits your attention in the absence of a crystal-clear vision of what you want. Many are familiar with SMART goal setting: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistically High, and Time-Bound, which I support, but I recommend something more here; something you can feel.

When you have a crystal-clear vision and passion, you know what you want in the deepest possible sense.

In 2012, my wife Keri and I decided we wanted to live and eventually retire on Smith Mountain Lake in southwestern Virginia. Accordingly, we created a SMART goal and built a 9-year plan for ourselves that targeted the Fall of 2021 for full time residency in Virginia. Further, we asked ourselves why: Why is it important for us to live and retire on this lake? Our answers—health, longevity, happiness, fun, adventure—literally made us cry together. We felt it, it was important to us, and we were willing to fight for it.

Despite significant obstacles and adversity, we purchased our lake home in the Spring of 2013 and have enjoyed it as a vacation home since then. As I write these words, through ups and downs (and a global pandemic!) over the years, Keri and I are literally 24 days away from the successful and on time completion of our 9-year plan! We’ll be permanently moving to Virginia from our home in New Jersey at the end of this month—Fall of 2021.

We did not make this happen alone. There were countless advisors, professionals, friends, family members, and neighbors who contributed to our journey. But because we had an extremely clear vision of our future state—one we could literally feel—it became easier to clarify who and what we should pay attention to along the way.

Now back to leadership: How clear is your vision of what you want most? Can you feel it? Can you describe it in a sentence such that others feel your passion?

When you have a crystal-clear vision and passion, you know what you want in the deepest possible sense. This state of clarity puts you in a position to be more deliberately selective of the voices around you.

The Voices Around You

I’m fairly certain one of the qualifications to be a human being is to have opinions. Since there are plenty of people around you, both internal and external to your organization, the probability of an attention hijack is roughly the same as the likelihood you’ll breathe again in the next 60 seconds: one hundred percent!

But all of those people and their opinions are not equally relevant regarding each particular question or issue you face.

In his timelessly wise and engaging book Principles, Ray Dalio introduced the term “believability” as a mechanism to weigh the value of someone’s thinking, ideas, and input. In his words, “…believable people [are] those who have repeatedly and successfully accomplished the thing in question—who have a strong track record with at least three successes—and have great explanations of their approach when probed.”

Believability—experience, proven expertise, and clear explanations—should be the most heavily weighted factor informing who and what you pay attention to as a leader.

Although potentially good ideas can come from anyone, it’s wise to assess their believability on the topic at hand as you consider their opinions and the chances of their idea’s success. Sadly, on multiple occasions, I’ve seen the least believable people in the room hijack leadership team debates. This occurs under the misguided notion that “allowing all voices to be heard” means “weighing all voices equally, regardless of experience and expertise;” a surefire path to alienate your most experienced team members, to make bad decisions, and to pursue wrongheaded ideas.

As famed American oil well firefighter Red Adair once said: “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.” The same holds true for soliciting ideas and opinions!

Believability—experience, proven expertise, and clear explanations—should be the most heavily weighted factor informing who and what you pay attention to as a leader. Yes, your managers, employees, clients, vendors, professional advisors, coaches, mentors, consultants, and other outside experts all have opinions and ideas to share. Just be sure that the most believable among them get the majority of the airtime and attention.

Listen carefully to those whose believability is aligned not just with the issue or question at hand, but also with moving you toward the vivid vision you seek. In many instances, Ray Dalio’s high standard for believability could also potentially eliminate you as a meaningful contributor of ideas and solutions for your own problems and aspirations. The challenge is, there’s yet another voice that will try to convince you otherwise.

The Voice Within You

This might sound like an odd request, but bear with me: Close your eyes for thirty seconds and observe where your mind goes.          

              . . .          

What did you notice? Did you have just one thought or many? Were you focused on a single concept, or did your mind jump from topic to topic? Perhaps the internal chatter sounded something like this:

              “Why is he making me do this? I hate doing things like this.”

              “It feels a little cold in here.”

              “I forgot to return that call!”

              “I hear a dog barking.”

              “I have that early meeting tomorrow; I need to make sure to check my alarm.”

              “What’s for dinner tonight?”

Everything you noticed—every thought that emerged—was generated by the voice in your head: your internal narrator. This never-ceasing private dialogue runs inside you separate from whatever is happening in your real world. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s unconscious and you don’t realize two realities are occurring simultaneously. This is what makes the voice in your head so challenging to manage!

This inner voice has a significant seat at your leadership table and weighs in frequently and dramatically with great impact on your decisions and actions. For example, you may know you need to talk to an employee about his tendency to dominate meetings and alienate others—but your inner voice urges timidity: “He’s my most valuable employee and if I upset him, he’ll sell a little bit less, or he’ll find another job, or he’ll get angry and start disrupting the business in other areas.” You say nothing, having played out the conversation in your head, but denying it a chance in real life, so the problem employee and their damaging behaviors remain.

The voice in your head can also be your harshest critic, making you feel inadequate or ill-equipped to handle certain situations. At its worst, this condition is called rumination, where we replay an error or mistake over and over in our minds, fully narrated of course.

But you are not the voice in your head!

Rather, as our thirty-second pause / exercise demonstrated, you are the observer of the voice. Though it may be challenging at first, you can hear the voice in your head and recognize it as a separate entity. One helpful technique is to give your inner voice a name, like “George.” Another is to imagine the voice speaking as Mickey Mouse (or your favorite cartoon character). In both cases, you’re creating separation and putting the voice in perspective as a separate entity, and perhaps having a laugh at its expense.

When you’re conscious of the chatter, you can control it.

Other techniques include enrolling the voice as your advocate and cheerleader to support you when the going gets tough. For more on this, check out Todd Herman’s fascinating and useful book The Alter Ego Effect.

When you’re conscious of the chatter, you can control it. And controlling the voice in your head is essential to making sound decisions and following through with the right action, in business and beyond.

Conclusion

“Fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention”
– Amy Tan, “The Joy Luck Club”

Whether you realize it or not, you are surrounded and consumed by voices demanding your attention to their opinions, ideas, and agendas. If you don’t deliberately direct your attention in a manner that supports your goals and aspirations, rest assured it will be directed for you by others in a manner that serves theirs. You’ll chase red-herring issues, burn your time on others’ pursuits, and delay your own achievement.

These three techniques work together to help you gain and maintain control of your attention:

1.     Know what you want and feel what you want.

2.     Weigh the believability of those around you with respect to the idea or issue at hand.

3.     Control your inner voice.

We humans are undisciplined and inconstant creatures, and we’re fabulous at getting in our own way. Knowing which voices to listen to helps you rise above this and is essential for sustainable achievement, particularly in our era of information bombardment and overload.

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Classes: October 18, 2021 and November 17, 2021. Learn more and sign up!

=============================================

Mark’s Inaugural Coaching Gymnasium for Leaders – A Live Event

If you have questions about growth, scalability, hiring, priorities, accountability, or anything else related to leading your organization, register for my Coaching Gymnasium and tackle your problems head-on. The first event is FREE!

In the unique gymnasium format, I’ll coach those with questions to ask or problems to solve for their benefit AND for the benefit of all attendees. I’ve found that there’s just as much value for the “audience” as there is for the people being coached.

This first event is FREE and will be on Tuesday, Oct. 19 at 11:00 am EDT. Don’t miss out.

Come with real problems and questions. Sometimes it takes straight talk from a different perspective to find the solutions you need. Give it a try and join us!

==============================================

NEW — Live Masterclass – Creating a Culture of Accountability

In partnership with The Growth Faculty–the premier live leadership event firm in the Asia/Pacific Region–Mark is thrilled to offer this new, live masterclass for business leaders.

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if your people don’t step up, take responsibility and act accountably. And yet, accountability remains a top issue for business leaders around the world. When organizations operate with a culture of accountability they execute effectively, retain high performers and have an improved sense of collaboration, winning and fun at work. This cycle drives significantly higher employee return on investment, providing more flexibility to scale and achieve the most ambitious targets 

This masterclass is designed as a practical guide based on Mark’s books, Activators – a CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done and Creating a Culture of Accountability. Join Mark to discover: 

  • Why change that is necessary simply doesn’t happen 
  • What’s required of leaders. How to slow down to speed up and embrace bad news 
  • How accountability helps you retain the best and lose the rest 
  • The 3 building blocks of accountability – context, expectations, attention 
  • How to lead by results instead of activity 

October 26 / 27 2021 – Learn more and register using Mark’s discounted rate!

Click here to explore membership with The Growth Faculty, including 12 months access to over 25 live masterclasses. Be sure to use promo code MarkGreen for the best rate!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“The best scientists and explorers have the attributes of kids! They ask questions and have a sense of wonder. They have curiosity. ‘Who, what, where, why, when, and how!’ They never stop asking questions, and I never stop asking questions, just like a five year old.”

– Sylvia Earle, Marine Biologist, Explorer, Author, and Lecturer

Every idea begins with a question: What if…? Why wouldn’t…? Could we…? Does it…? How can…? And more!

This is how innovative products and new businesses are born. There’s a curiosity, a challenge, or a problem to solve and the entrepreneurially minded ask enough questions to (eventually) arrive at a viable and potentially profitable answer. Indeed, these questions and the basic hypotheses they help to form are the stem cells that grow and mature into successful organizations and firms.

But once those businesses are up and running, something strange happens: the questions tend to give way to statements––those of the entrepreneur, now leader and manager, who has become an operator. “Do this,” “Fix that,” “Cut back here,” “Add some there,” and so on.

The child-like curiosity that birthed the business diminishes and is replaced with directional commands designed to efficiently marshal people and other resources to accomplish the organization’s goals. After all, the popular paradigm is that leaders and managers running maturing or fully mature firms “tell” people what to do. While this is true when it comes to setting and communicating direction, otherwise well-intentioned leaders assume it’s their role 100% of the time. However, both research and anecdotal evidence indicate that in professional settings, a command and control operational leadership style isn’t scalable, exhausts both the leader and their team, and absolutely crushes the morale of highly capable staff.

Of course, there’s a better way: leaders should hold fast to childlike curiosity, talk less, and ask more.

There are four surprising and highly productive questions that successful leaders consistently ask to foster and further capitalize on the curiosity that started it all, while also engaging and growing their team. We’ll explore each in detail below.

Why am I talking?

This meta-question’s function is to create self-awareness. For example, do you have any idea how much time you spend directing and talking versus asking and listening? If you’re like most leaders I’ve met (including my coaching clients), until this moment, this isn’t even something you’ve thought about!

Do you have any idea how much time you spend directing and talking versus asking and listening?

The “Why am I talking” question not only forces awareness regarding the amount of space you’re occupying, but also encourages contemplation of the reason why you’re speaking in the first place. The reality is, sometimes we talk because we think we should be talking, or telling people what to do, or demonstrating our expertise, or filling an otherwise awkward silence. In fact, none of these are productive reasons why a leader should be speaking!

To get your airtime in check, consider monitoring your question-to-statement ratio. Effective leaders ask countless questions which empower others to think, to contribute new and different ideas, and to clarify their own weaknesses and opportunities for growth. I encourage a 20/80 rule of thumb with my clients: leaders should spend roughly 20 percent of their interaction time asking questions and the remaining 80 percent listening to the answers. This one simple practice is a powerful mechanism to motivate and grow your team while also generating more innovative and more complete thinking to fuel your decision-making process and yield even better outcomes.

The bottom line for every leader and manager: know why you are talking in any given moment, and if you don’t have a very good answer, stop. Gather your thoughts, ask a question, and then listen!

The remaining three questions are powerful examples of what you should be asking your people repetitively over time to elicit their best thinking and to help them learn, grow, and improve their capacity.

What do you think?

You’ve probably worked hard to surround yourself with a capable team, but have you created space for them to contribute to their full potential?

Asking, “What do you think” singlehandedly changes the game, shifting your leadership from “commander mode” to “collaborator mode.” It also challenges your people to think more independently and to share more of their (probably very good) ideas!

Keep in mind that it’s crucial to ask this question before you’ve shared your own thinking on any topic at hand! Otherwise, you risk setting the stage for “group think” where your people default to agreeing with you rather than contributing their own thoughts. To minimize this risk, use the best practice I teach my coaching clients: the leader ALWAYS speaks last during discussions and debates.

Asking “What do you think” challenges your people to think more independently and to share more of their (probably very good) ideas!

Once you’ve mastered the use of “What do you think,” you can deploy a slightly more sophisticated version of the question by asking “What do you recommend” instead. Here you’re not just eliciting their thinking, but also expecting them to do the work of synthesizing those ideas into a recommended course of action. This approach raises the bar on your team and challenges them to improve their thinking and contributions to the organization. Use both questions individually or layer them to raise the bar, engage, and elicit input from your team.

What have I/you/we learned?

As I recently wrote, it is critical for leaders and their teams to find time to pause, reflect, and learn. Although it sounds easy enough, in fact, this is a real challenge for many. When you’re running at a full sprint for most of the day, every day—oh yes, and your hair is on fire—it is exceptionally challenging to make time and space for learning! And yet, if you don’t, there’s no way out. You’re effectively sprinting on a treadmill: the view never changes and no matter how hard you run, you’re not going anywhere.

An After-Action Review (AAR) is a productive means of creating an organizational habit to pause, ask “What have we learned,” and ensure the lessons stick. At the conclusion of a project or periodically, as I do quarterly with my coaching clients, allocate focused time to discuss:

(1) what worked;

(2) what didn’t work (and needs improvement); and

(3) what you and your team have learned.

There’s one more step to the AAR that many organizations miss: share the lessons widely throughout your firm. In most cases, a project team’s learnings (or an executive team’s learnings from a given quarter) apply to many others within the organization. Be sure to create a simple mechanism to share the lessons of what worked and what didn’t work widely with your employees.

It’s important to note this question doesn’t just apply to groups; it is also fosters individual learning in a one-on-one coaching format. I’ve found that asking individuals, “What have you learned this week?” typically opens rich and valuable threads of reflection and conversation. Try it during your next 1-on-1.

Why does this matter?

When posed to others, this deceptively simple question prompts them to consider context; why something is or isn’t relevant. All too often, leaders are bombarded with information that others consider critical, but with some vetting, proves not particularly relevant to their priorities. Context always matters but is frequently neglected—often at great cost.

It’s a productive habit to establish context by asking “Why does this matter” before someone presents you with something, whether it’s data, an idea, a proposal, an update, or anything else for that matter. Doing so will create valuable insight, better focus, and fewer time-wasting conversations.

All of that said, you’ll glean even greater value from this question when you pose it to yourself!

Context always matters but is frequently neglected—often at great cost.

As a leader, it’s your job to ensure others have clarity about why an idea, project, or initiative is important to you and to the firm. After all, your primary role is to point to and communicate what matters most to your organization. In my 18+ years developing and coaching leaders, under-communication of context remains one of the most consequential unproductive leadership habits I observe, even in those who consider themselves good communicators!

For many, the primary culprit is the Curse of Knowledge bias. This cognitive bias causes us to inaccurately assume that others have the same information we do. In leadership or management, nothing could be further from the truth!

To appreciate how the Curse of Knowledge bias diminishes communication from the receiver’s perspective, think back to a time when you needed to interrupt someone telling you a story to have them backtrack and provide a missing detail because something didn’t make sense to you. In the instance you’re considering, the storyteller likely glossed over a point so well-known to them that they unconsciously assumed you knew it too, which ultimately led to your confusion.

The same scenario occurs constantly in professional settings. But when you add a power gradient to the mix—that the storyteller / communicator is more senior than the listener—it’s much less likely that the listener will interrupt you to ask for the missing information, that is, if they even realize there is missing information in the first place. Instead, the other person leaves the conversation without a clear understanding of what you expect, what they’re being asked to do, the context of how things fit into a broader picture, and more.

Asking others “Why does this matter” saves time and increases focus. Asking yourself “Why does this matter” inserts a conscious pause to ensure you’re providing the right context and content to those on the receiving end of your communication.

Conclusion

As the late, great engineer, statistician, and management guru W. Edwards Deming succinctly summed it all up: “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”

When it comes to effective leadership and asking the right questions, quantity matters as much as quality. With these four questions in mind, begin monitoring your question-to-statement ratio and take aim at the 20/80 benchmark.

If you’re not asking enough, right questions—to others and to yourself—you’re neither fulfilling your own potential as a leader nor the potential of the capable people on your team. Even worse, if this is the case, your current leadership style isn’t scalable and is likely deteriorating the morale of your highly competent staff.

When it comes to asking the right questions, quantity matters as much as quality.

On the other hand, asking more and listening more enables your staff to perform at or near their full potential by giving them room and the expectation that they will. This approach, including the four surprising and productive questions we’ve covered here, ensures more engagement and better outcomes for the individuals on your team and, accordingly, for your organization.

 What do you think?

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Mark’s Inaugural Coaching Gymnasium for Leaders – A Live Event

If you have questions about growth, scalability, hiring, priorities, accountability, or anything else related to leading your organization, register for my Coaching Gymnasium and tackle your problems head-on. The first event is FREE!

In the unique gymnasium format, I’ll coach those with questions to ask or problems to solve for their benefit AND for the benefit of all attendees. I’ve found that there’s just as much value for the “audience” as there is for the people being coached.

This first event is FREE and will be on Tuesday, Oct. 19 at 11:00 am EDT. Don’t miss out.

Come with real problems and questions. Sometimes it takes straight talk from a different perspective to find the solutions you need. Give it a try and join us!

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NEW — Live Masterclass – Creating a Culture of Accountability

In partnership with The Growth Faculty–the premier live leadership event firm in the Asia/Pacific Region–Mark is thrilled to offer this new, live masterclass for business leaders.

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if your people don’t step up, take responsibility and act accountably. And yet, accountability remains a top issue for business leaders around the world. When organizations operate with a culture of accountability they execute effectively, retain high performers and have an improved sense of collaboration, winning and fun at work. This cycle drives significantly higher employee return on investment, providing more flexibility to scale and achieve the most ambitious targets 

This masterclass is designed as a practical guide based on Mark’s books, Activators – a CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done and Creating a Culture of Accountability. Join Mark to discover: 

  • Why change that is necessary simply doesn’t happen 
  • What’s required of leaders. How to slow down to speed up and embrace bad news 
  • How accountability helps you retain the best and lose the rest 
  • The 3 building blocks of accountability – context, expectations, attention 
  • How to lead by results instead of activity 

October 26 / 27 2021 – Learn more and register using Mark’s discounted rate!

Click here to explore membership with The Growth Faculty, including 12 months access to over 25 live masterclasses. Be sure to use promo code MarkGreen for the best rate!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

There is great value in pausing to reflect, lest yesterday’s hard-earned lessons become lost in the noise of today’s challenge.

In my client meeting rhythms, the opening pulse check ritual is a series of questions answered individually by each executive in the room, with a three-minute time limit to ensure brevity and reflection on the most important things. Designed to foster communication, recognition, vulnerability, and learning, these questions generally explore what went right, what went wrong, how people feel, lessons learned, and anticipated near-future risks and opportunities.

One of this month’s opening pulse check questions was: “What is the most valuable leadership lesson you’ve learned this year?”

There is great value in pausing to reflect, lest yesterday’s hard-earned lessons become lost in the noise of today’s challenge.

The responses have been a veritable coaching clinic of hard lessons learned. Among dozens of answers and numerous lessons, the following four powerful patterns emerged from the leadership trenches of 2021:

  • Big Change is Easier than Little Changes
  • Give Hard Feedback
  • Let Go and Delegate More
  • Keep Things Simple

American former baseball pitcher Vernon Law insightfully said: “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.” Read on to benefit from the hard, most valuable lessons my coaching clients learned from their experiences this year.

“Experience is a hard teacher because
she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.”

– Vernon Law

Big Change is Easier than Little Changes

There are countless quotes and memes espousing the power of small changes that lead to big results over time. While this is true in many domains including personal development, health and wellness, and compound interest, my clients have found it to be untrue in the realm of organizational change.

It’s tempting to think and act incrementally when you know your organization needs to change. After all, these moves typically impact people, relationships, policies, processes, systems, and—critically—the organization’s collective comfort zone. So well-intentioned leaders default to playing what I call “small ball:” they avoid big, bold moves that make a real difference and implement minor, incremental changes with the hope that things will begin moving in the right direction.

They don’t. In fact, the organization’s performance usually worsens! This is because minor, incremental change sends a “business as usual” message to employees, deepening their own commitment to your firm’s status quo. As some of my clients learned the hard way this year, the costs of delaying meaningful change can be staggering and a proverbial death by a thousand cuts.

Play “big ball” with organizational change instead. You’ll need to overcome your own discomfort with change as you contemplate the right moves to align, improve, and/or adjust your organization to move forward. Yes, there will be disruption when you announce the changes—but when your staff realize that you’ve made one big change in lieu of smaller adjustments (with more to potentially come), they’ll quickly settle into the new structure and routine.

Key Question for Leaders: Are you playing “big ball” or “small ball” with the changes you need to make inside your organization?

Give Hard Feedback

Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, makes a compelling case that we need to be candid as managers and leaders. To do that, one must care deeply and tell the hard truth. You cannot have one without the other. Consider: if you don’t care deeply about someone but tell them the hard truth, you’re a “jerk.” If you care so deeply that you cannot tell them something they really need to hear, you’re a “wimp.” Finding a balance between both makes for effective and meaningful relationships. 

As several of my coaching clients learned this year, when you operate with radical candor–caring deeply and telling the hard truth–you’ll challenge your people in a way that accelerates their performance and capacity. Over time, they’ll be able to do more, think at a higher level, and become more independent in their work.

Although this approach is logical to most leaders, here’s the real-world challenge: Your need to be liked and emotional entanglements with others often prevent you from employing radical candor. In this common scenario, you (as the leader) have become the problem!

You may employ bright and capable people, however I bet that none of them are able to read your mind. As such, without direct feedback regarding what you think about their performance, how can you ever reasonably expect anything to improve? In the absence of radical candor, three things happen over time: (1) You (and potentially other members of your team) become increasingly frustrated with the “problem” employee, (2) In your mind, the magnitude of “the conversation” to give them feedback increases massively, appears even more daunting, and thus is further delayed, and (3) Top performers on your team see you tolerating sub-par performance or problem behaviors and either disengage or contemplate leaving.

Worst of all, your discomfort denies a human being from gaining insight and the opportunity to improve. Give direct (and when required, hard) feedback generously to your team!

Key Question for Leaders:
How frequently do you deliver direct,
“hard truth” feedback to your staff?

Let Go and Delegate More

This leadership lesson was the most prevalent among my clients, including several highly seasoned executives. In their words, the learning here was either: “I don’t need to have the answers” or “I don’t need to fix things for everyone.”

Whether your path to leadership was entrepreneurial or professional via promotion, you’ve likely ascended the ladder with baggage. Early-stage entrepreneurs are successful because they move quickly and have the answers. “Super workers” are promoted to become supervisors and then eventually managers and/or leaders because they possess exemplary technical skills, and they too tend to have the answers.

For most, these tendencies are totally unconscious! You’re simply doing more of what you’ve been doing, which are the same things that led to your current success. The problem is, when you think it’s your job to supply the fixes and the answers, you’re unable to let go and effectively delegate to your team, which isn’t scalable, holds everyone back, and prevents you from attracting and retaining top talent.

In his powerful and engaging book Turn the Ship Around, author David Marquet defines a process to help leaders let go while empowering their team. It’s a series of statements called the Ladder of Leadership that evolves from “Tell me what to do” (which is what employees expect from leaders who have the answers) through seven incremental steps to “Here’s what I’ve been doing” (which is how highly empowered employees communicate to leadership).

You can start by challenging your question-to-statement ratio, which is something I work on with all my coaching clients. If you think you have the answers, you’ll find yourself in the unproductive leadership habit of making lots of statements. Asking questions, on the other hand, flips the script. The act itself requires opening your mind to new possibilities, to being more curious more often, and to learn more.

For example, instead of telling someone “Here’s what I want you to do,” (the bottom rung of David Marquet’s ladder) try sharing some background information with them and then asking them “What do you think we should do?” Odds are, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with their answer! And if they don’t quite get it, that’s ok—you can course-correct them, reinforce the learning, and then expect them to get it next time.

Key Question for Leaders:
How can you let go and delegate more?

Keep Things Simple

Keeping things simple is another leadership lesson that unlocks massive potential for organizations. The discipline of defining fewer, clearer priorities serves as a powerful example.

As Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less explains, keeping things focused and as simple as possible has been aligned with success for hundreds of years: “The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.” 

The problem is, when everything is important, nothing is important. And as humans with a penchant for “busy-ness” as a proxy for self-worth and success, we’re masters at overcomplicating things. As a leader, it’s up to you to focus your team on the few, critically important areas where you must move the needle. The rewards can be great: By identifying what matters most, almost like magic, your team will accomplish more in the direction of your objectives.

When everything is important, nothing is important.

To keep things simple, here are the prioritization rules of thumb I use with my clients: 

  • Plan three-year, one-year, and one-quarter priorities. 
  • While three-year priorities can be more vague, both annual and quarterly priorities should be clearly defined and in sharp focus. 
  • Identify a maximum of three annual priorities for the business, and just one quarterly rock—the priority you’ve identified as most important for a calendar quarter. 

In addition to few, clear priorities to keep things simple, you can also look to overall direction (or strategy), people/roles, and metrics as additional areas where I’ve seen leaders create unnecessary growth-slowing complication.

Key Question for Leaders:
Where are you creating unnecessary complexity for your team?

Conclusion

It’s important to make space for and capitalize on the power of regular reflection to learn and grow. This is why the opening pulse check questions I use to begin each client meeting are so important.

Upon reflection, these are the hard, most valuable lessons my coaching clients learned from their experiences this year:

  • Big Change is Easier than Little Changes
  • Give Hard Feedback
  • Let Go and Delegate More
  • Keep Things Simple

Now you’ve benefitted from them as well.

Just like my clients, you’ve also learned important and perhaps painful leadership lessons this year with the potential to make you and your team better and more effective. Consider them, learn from them, and share them to help others.

Key Question for Leaders:
What was the most valuable leadership lesson
you’ve learned this year?

=============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

NEW — Live Masterclass – Creating a Culture of Accountability

In partnership with The Growth Faculty–the premier live leadership event firm in the Asia/Pacific Region–Mark is thrilled to offer this new, live masterclass for business leaders.

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if your people don’t step up, take responsibility and act accountably. And yet, accountability remains a top issue for business leaders around the world. When organizations operate with a culture of accountability they execute effectively, retain high performers and have an improved sense of collaboration, winning and fun at work. This cycle drives significantly higher employee return on investment, providing more flexibility to scale and achieve the most ambitious targets 

This masterclass is designed as a practical guide based on Mark’s books, Activators – a CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done and Creating a Culture of Accountability. Join Mark to discover: 

  • Why change that is necessary simply doesn’t happen 
  • What’s required of leaders. How to slow down to speed up and embrace bad news 
  • How accountability helps you retain the best and lose the rest 
  • The 3 building blocks of accountability – context, expectations, attention 
  • How to lead by results instead of activity 

October 26 / 27 2021 – Learn more and register using Mark’s discounted rate!

Click here to explore membership with The Growth Faculty, including 12 months access to over 25 live masterclasses. Be sure to use promo code MarkGreen for the best rate!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

Leading and managing are distinct roles, each critical to your organization’s health, that require different skills and capabilities. Yet all too often, I see well-intentioned entrepreneurs, CEOs, and their executive teams blend them and unknowingly slow their progress.

I recently spoke with a CEO (I’ll call Sarah) who was disappointed and frustrated with her HR director. The HR director was getting things done sufficiently and on time, but wasn’t effective at driving meaningful change. Here’s one example of several Sarah shared to illustrate the issue:

“We needed to save money on health insurance without reducing benefits. I delegated the task of reassessing our plan to my HR director, who then set a relatively low target for cost improvement. When I saw his number, I challenged his thinking and pushed for a higher savings target, which we ultimately met.”

She continued: “He executed well, because we met the more aggressive objective, but I’m disappointed he didn’t set a more aggressive target in the first place. Why do I have to continually push him to aim higher?”

I suggested Sarah separate the HR director’s performance as a manager (which was solid) from his performance as a leader (which was lacking). This insight helped her see the HR director’s performance and capabilities in a different light and led to more productive (and precise) coaching and, ultimately, better performance in the leadership realm. 

As I explained to Sarah that day, there are three dimensions that differentiate leaders from managers: directing/planning, aligning/organizing, and motivating/controlling.

Clarifying these critical distinctions—and the unique value of each—will help you with your team and in your own role.

Leaders versus Managers

“Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Each has its own function and characteristic activities.”

– John P. Kotter, Professor of Leadership,
Emeritus, Harvard Business School

John P. Kotter was among the first business thinkers to make a strong case for separating leadership and management roles in his 1990 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article entitled, “What Leaders Really Do.” In it, he argues that, rather than making plans, solving problems, or organizing people, the true role of a leader is to “prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it.” 

In 2015, Gino Wickman and Mark Winters made a more contemporary case for the distinction between leadership and management in their book Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business. Focused on high growth and entrepreneurially run firms, they used the terms “visionary” and “integrator” in place of “leader” and “manager.” 

Regardless of the terminology or the era of the thinking, as my client Sarah discovered, the message is the same: Leaders produce change, primarily by focusing on communication. Managers cope with execution and complexity, relying heavily on their coordination skills to make it all happen. 

Again, both roles are critical for your organization: One is not “better” or more vital than the other––the two are essential for scalability and success. If you’re wondering whether it’s possible for someone to be both a strong leader (visionary and change agent) and a strong manager (operator), it is—but that combination is exceptionally rare.

Here are the key behaviors specific to each of the two roles:

No alt text provided for this image

Most of us know intuitively which of the two roles best suits us. The key is to understand the distinctions and strive to optimize your team, with the right leaders and managers in the right seats. 

Setting Direction versus Planning and Budgeting

“The most important role of a leader is to set a clear direction, be transparent about how to get there, and to stay the course.”
– Irene Rosenfeld, Former Chairman
and CEO of Mondelēz International

I often say that the primary role of leadership is to point to what matters most, which is the function of setting direction. Setting direction is the domain of deciding what and who you’ll become and how you intend to make that happen. Strategy, product development, performance targets, and culture are all examples of critical decision areas that fall under the domain of leadership, and require setting direction. Leaders also need to communicate the decisions they make in those areas effectively and repeatedly over time.

Planning and budgeting are required to successfully execute on the direction that has been set. But they, on the other hand, require coordination––determining the exact details, steps, resources, and timing necessary to move forward––a responsibility that is naturally embedded in each management function.

This distinction holds true not only at the macro levels of an organization––say, setting operational strategy (a leadership responsibility) and execution planning (a management responsibility), but also at the micro level (think back to Sarah’s frustration with her HR director who wasn’t effectively setting direction for the healthcare assessment due to his leadership limitations, but who planned and executed the project well due to his strong management skills).

A note of caution, particularly as we approach the fourth quarter and business planning season: long-term planning is not the same as setting direction! Under the banner of “strategic planning,” all too often the actual conversation is 100 percent focused on execution planning, which is essentially what the team wants to “do.” The critical leadership function of setting direction is overlooked or assumed to be known, so the team spends their valuable time planning to get to a place they haven’t clearly defined. Be sure to allocate time for both setting direction and planning as part of this year’s annual planning process. If you need help thinking through how, just ask!

Aligning People versus Organizing and Staffing

“Growth is never by mere chance;
it is the result of forces working together.”
– James Cash Penney,
Founder of J.C. Penney Stores 

The leadership function of creating alignment is primarily a communication challenge—that is, to have them understand where you, they and the organization are headed. 

Most leaders I know under communicate due to social projection, a psychological process through which they expect others’ beliefs to be the same as their own. This causes leaders to falsely assume (and believe) that their people have the same information they do. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! 

Let’s say you’ve established clarity when it comes to purpose, core values, vision, strategy, and priorities. It’s a fantastic start, but how do you share and repeat that information? And what about metrics or scoreboards to share progress and maintain alignment? Who sees those, how frequently, and how well is the information understood?

What’s on your mind as a leader, should be on their minds. One way or another, repetition is the answer.

For managers, on the other hand, organizing and staffing requires careful coordination of resources like people, funds, equipment, and partners, such that the organization’s tactical goals can be accomplished. This requires systems, processes, and tradeoffs. Details are critical, as is the imperative to get the right people into the right seats to ensure smooth execution and predicted results.

Here’s how Kotter sums it up: “Managers look for the right fit between people and jobs. This is essentially a design problem: setting up systems to ensure that plans are implemented precisely and efficiently. Leaders, however, look for the right fit between people and vision. This is more of a communication problem. It involves getting many people, both inside and outside the company, to believe in an alternative future––and then to take initiative based on that shared vision.”

Motivating and Inspiring versus Controlling and Problem-Solving

“There are only two ways to influence human behavior:
you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.”
– Simon Sinek, Author and Speaker 

Since the function of a leader is to create change, making change attractive to their team is also essential to the role.

Change is hard for many people. It can be difficult to let go of the status quo, regardless of how well things might or might not be working. As such, organizational change is typically challenging and jarring to staff. Preaching vision in the form of a better future is an example of how leaders motivate and inspire people to embrace change. Here again, repetition pays.

But beware: there’s a fine line between hollow cheerleading and meaningful inspiration and motivation. Effective leaders understand the difference and invest considerable time in getting this right and continuing momentum to keep their people engaged over time.

Managers oversee the implementation of change and focus on adhering to a plan, detecting deviations (or potential deviations), and course-correcting. This is the essential domain of controlling outcomes and problem solving. Managers create and implement systems and structures to make outputs more predictable, to measure and detect deviations, and to solve the problems that inevitably present themselves along the team’s path.

I’ve seen entrepreneurs, CEOs and executives mistakenly blend these functions to their organization’s detriment. There’s no time or space to communicate a grand vision when granular planning and challenging prioritization decisions need to be made. On the other hand, the CEO who describes a very detailed plan to the entire firm misses the opportunity to preach vision and inspire the team to rise to the challenge ahead.

Make the time to get both functions right.

Conclusion

“Focus on being balanced — success is balance.”
– Laila Ali, Professional Boxer

Leaders set direction and communicate to align people. Managers plan and coordinate. High-performing organizations reward, develop, and balance both roles.

Although you need leaders and managers on your team to succeed, quite often out of necessity––particularly in a small or high-growth firm––you may have to perform both functions simultaneously. If this is the case, be sure you are fully aware of which role you are occupying at any given moment in time. If you’re wearing your manager hat to run a planning meeting, fulfill the role by focusing on the details, on planning, and on coordinating people, systems, and outputs. You must do the same in other situations when you wear your leader hat, communicating vision, inspiration, direction, and the need for change to the team.

Further, know which of the roles is your stronger suit and—if possible—ensure you have at least one person on your team who compliments your strength with their own in the opposite area. This is the essence of the balanced visionary/integrator concept that Wickman and Winters wrote about in Rocket Fuel

Finally, keep an eye toward the future and consider how you are developing tomorrow’s leaders and managers as you scale. Although by now you understand the imperative to develop both, most organizations I’ve encountered have a “leadership development” process that produces managers, not leaders! That kind of confusion won’t get you where you want to go. Rather, use these principles to evaluate and optimize development tracks for future leaders and future managers in your firm. 

As Kotter explained, “the real challenge is to combine strong leadership and strong management and use each to balance the other.” Where is your current balance point and what do you need to do about it to accelerate your firm’s progress?

Do you consider yourself a rational thinker?

Chances are, assuming you are reasonably sane, your answer is “yes.” You may even find it a bit odd that I asked! And you’re not alone: We humans believe ourselves to be rational creatures. But the assumption that you in particular—and humans in general—are inherently rational is incorrect.

To begin to understand exactly why we aren’t the bastions of rationality we imagine, let’s travel back through millennia. Our ancient ancestors—early women and men—responded with lightning speed to the slightest of stimuli: a rustle in the bushes to the left, or perhaps a flicker of movement to the right. These reflexes were a matter of life and death for them. A barely perceptible sound or brief flash of color in their peripheral vision could have been a predator. Sometimes, it was. Often, of course, it was just the wind.

But our ancestors couldn’t be too cautious! Natural selection ensured those who didn’t react to real or perceived threats were eliminated. We are the product of the survivors: descendants of those whose healthy fear caused them to always respond to the rustle or flash as if it was a predator. That wiring remains within us.

“Man is many things, but he is not rational” – Oscar Wilde

This “fight or flight” instinct influences us constantly, raising our blood pressure and preparing us physically to “fight for our lives” even in the comfort of our own offices. For example, your pulse accelerates as you make decisions about the future of your company or consider firing a low-performing employee, even though there’s no real danger in your midst. Meanwhile, your body’s physical response reinforces the notion that your “fear” must be valid; you can feel it after all! As a result, an imaginary threat influences your decisions and actions, rather than the rational thought process you might otherwise imagine.

According to quite a bit of clinical research, it gets worse: We’re either blind to or in denial of many of our fears and emotionally based decisions because, when we make a decision, we immediately employ logic to justify our position.And the moment that after-the-fact logic is employed, the fear or emotion that drove the decision becomes invisible. In other words, we buy into our own hype!

Here’s an example of how this plays out in leadership: If you were to ask a CEO why she decided to continue doing business with a marginally profitable client who posed numerous challenges, she would undoubtedly give you a perfectly logical argument, delineating the client’s value to the company and how it outweighs the difficulty they cause. It’s not an excuse; she truly believes that rational thinking, rather than fearing the loss of revenue or operating income, is behind her choice. In my experience, 99% of the time, the fear of loss drives this decision, and our well-intending CEO is unknowingly surrendering to her inherited emotional response.

Brain Science and Biases

We’ll look to psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the brain science of System 1 and System 2 thinking to better understand how our reality disconnects arise. System 1 thoughts are instinctive and automatic: You bolt upright in bed when you hear a noise in the middle of the night, or brake while driving when you detect motion in your peripheral vision. These are the survival instincts we inherited from our ancient ancestors! On the other hand, System 2 thinking is slower and more deliberate—it operates in situations where you’re carefully weighing options, rewards, and consequences.

To our benefit, System 1 thinking governs much of our lives. The quickness of System 1 processing makes us efficient, saving us time when it counts (we have System 1 thinking to thank for innumerable narrowly missed collisions and many spectacular athletic performances, for example). Well-formed habits also fall into the realm of System 1. But there are times—particularly in business—when this otherwise useful brain operating mode does more harm than good.

“Nothing is perfect. Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational.” – Hugh Mackay

To run with its trademark speed, System 1 thinking relies on numerous cognitive biases—rules of thumb for your brain—that can foster irrational decision-making. Here are three I see often with negative impact on business leaders:

Anchoring: 

We tend to compare current conditions and experiences to previous ones, which serve as a frame of reference and influence our choices. For instance, if your last conversation with a member of your team was awkward or challenging, you’ll tend to assume that the next conversation with that person will be as well—and potentially try to avoid it. 

Anchoring can also exert a dramatic impact on our interpretation of magnitude. Have you ever considered why new automobiles are labeled with a Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) or why restaurant wine lists are sequenced to present the highest priced bottles first? These are both examples of savvy anchoring techniques that create an artificially high magnitude of comparison which, in turn, causes customers to spend more while thinking they’re getting a good deal.

In a leadership context, your anchoring bias can irrationally impact negotiations, decision making, prioritization, and even which behaviors you choose to tolerate in others.

Availability: 

Think of availability as a bias of proximity. So, for example, if you take a summer holiday to explore the natural beauty of Alaska, you’re probably not going to be concerned about being attacked by an alligator. You aren’t anywhere near alligators, so they’re not readily available to you or to your anxiety.

However, you may very well worry about the potential for an earthquake. Further, if an earthquake recently happened somewhere else in the world, your fear would become more pronounced, at least temporarily, especially if the potential for an earthquake might influence any of your decisions.

But your availability bias isn’t solely physical; it also operates within the realm of your thoughts. For example, if you’ve run your business in a specific manner for a long time, the models or processes you use are highly available. Without you realizing it, that availability stealthily encourages you to discount other options, even if their merits suggest otherwise. Your arguments to maintain the status quo may seem perfectly logical, but the justification is influenced by your availability bias.

Representativeness: 

Representativeness is a bias of categorization, a mental shortcut to save time and energy. For example, if I showed you a picture of two men—one tall and slim; the other short and fat, and then asked which one is more likely to be a professional athlete, most people wouldn’t hesitate to pick the tall and slim person. This is because we generally assume that athletes are fit which, indeed, is usually correct.

But overgeneralizing can be limiting. Say you’ve made a habit of hiring people with a certain background because someone with that background did well in a particular position in your firm. Inevitably, you risk overlooking great candidates who could bring fresh—and highly valuable—perspective to your team. 

Activators Promote Rational Thinking

So, how do you overcome your inherited tendency to unknowingly allow fear and emotion to hijack your choices and actions? This is where techniques to change the path of thinking and behavior come into play. I’ve labeled them Activators, and they aren’t just powerful, they’re also readily accessible: You can put them to work immediately to create tangible differences in your behavior and your results.

One is to cultivate System 2 thinking as part of your decision-making process by slowing down.When you lead a business, although it’s easy to feel like you need to provide instant answers to clients and employees—particularly in the face of a complaint, a request, or a negotiation, an instant answer is rarely required. When you give in to the urge to act or answer immediately, chances are the decision will be driven by emotion (quite often, fear) rather than by logic and rational thought.

Instead, resist. Find a way to take your time. A deep breath or any other meaningful pause overrides your default response and gives your brain the opportunity to slow down. By slowing down, you avoid the pitfalls knee-jerk, System 1 choices while activating System 2 for more logical and less emotional thinking.

By now you know that rational thinking doesn’t come naturally to us. Our emotions get in the way, feeding our fears. But you can override your default settings and lean into rationality directly—if you’re deliberate about it.

Getting rational, just like enabling System 2 thinking, also requires slowing down. Here’s an example of how this works: Over the years, I’ve encountered many business leaders with a habit of being seduced by their own busyness—essentially equating being busy with being productive. This causes them to gravitate toward fixing tactical, of-the-moment problems when, more rationally, they should be working on big-picture, higher-value aspects of the business, like assessing people or thinking strategically.

Rather than give in to the tactical urge, these leaders should slow down and get rational. When they stop before they act, they open a window of opportunity to deliberately and consciously compare the value of one activity to others and determine which has a higher long-term payoff on the investment of their time.

There’s another important opportunity here as well: room to assess whether someone else in the firm can handle the tactical issues so they can be delegated outright and, at the same time, potentially help a member of the team learn and grow.

Slowing Down to Speed Up

Counterintuitive as it may seem, slowing things down before speeding them back up again is often the move that ensures you stay rational and on track.

This approach is also common in the physical realm. Here’s how the Space Shuttle, which weighed 4.4 million pounds at launch, attained earth orbit:

At launch, the shuttle’s main engines were fired to maximum thrust. However, about one minute after liftoff, to prevent the shuttle from shaking itself to pieces as it accelerated through the earth’s relatively thick lower atmosphere, the engines were throttled back to just 70% of their rated thrust. Then, about a minute or two later, as the atmosphere thinned through higher altitudes, the engines returned to maximum thrust to attain earth orbit.

To make orbit, the space shuttle literally slowed its acceleration before it sped back up!

The same is true of us as leaders. By slowing down, we are better able to keep things together—particularly our brain’s rational capabilities—in pursuit of the most rapid path to our goals and aspirations.

Conclusion

You now have the information you need to begin to override your brain’s hard-wired instincts and enable more rational thinking to improve your decisions and effectiveness as a leader. For more guidance and to accelerate your progress, consider slowing down a bit more and using these free assessments and tools along your way.

“Even the most analytical thinkers are predictably irrational; the really smart ones acknowledge and address their irrationalities.” – Dan Ariely

Although attempting this on your own will certainly provide insight and value, the most effective path is (always!) to have someone else by your side. An accountability partner, a mastermind group, a mentor, or a coach—all people with an external perspective to lend—will challenge your thinking, illuminate blind spots, and help you overcome the cognitive biases and irrationalities that cost you the most.

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

NEW — Live Masterclass – Creating a Culture of Accountability

In partnership with The Growth Faculty–the premier live leadership event firm in the Asia/Pacific Region–Mark is thrilled to offer this new, live masterclass for business leaders.

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if your people don’t step up, take responsibility and act accountably. And yet, accountability remains a top issue for business leaders around the world. When organizations operate with a culture of accountability they execute effectively, retain high performers and have an improved sense of collaboration, winning and fun at work. This cycle drives significantly higher employee return on investment, providing more flexibility to scale and achieve the most ambitious targets 

This masterclass is designed as a practical guide based on Mark’s books, Activators – a CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done and Creating a Culture of Accountability. Join Mark to discover: 

  • Why change that is necessary simply doesn’t happen 
  • What’s required of leaders. How to slow down to speed up and embrace bad news 
  • How accountability helps you retain the best and lose the rest 
  • The 3 building blocks of accountability – context, expectations, attention 
  • How to lead by results instead of activity 

October 26 / 27 2021 – Learn more and register using Mark’s discounted rate!

Click here to explore membership with The Growth Faculty, including 12 months access to over 25 live masterclasses. Be sure to use promo code MarkGreen for the best rate!

——————————————————————————————

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class: August 17, 2021. Learn more and sign up!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

When was the last time you radically rethought and changed something within your business? To be clear, I’m not referring to incremental improvement, the addition of a new capability, or any other change that wouldn’t fit the definition of “radical.”

As painful or potentially challenging as this may seem, every organization must periodically apply radical rethinking to itself so that it can continue to grow and scale. A straightforward example is the requirement for wholesale changes to administrative systems like accounting and human resources over time. Growing from 10 employees to 100 employees, for example, and then again to 500 or 1,000+ staff cannot occur without radical changes to administrative systems. 

Although this makes intuitive sense, as many of us learn the hard way in life, logic often takes a back seat to more powerful forces within us. This is where the trouble starts with respect to radically rethinking anything inside your organization.

We humans are creatures of habit and although that’s mostly a good thing—habits help us automate repetitive tasks without occupying our brain’s processing power—there are some serious downsides.

The most insidious is complacency—a seductive sense of comfort with the status quo—which is an absolute growth killer.

“As many of us learn the hard way in life, logic often takes a back seat to more powerful forces within us.”

Because habits are automated responses to environmental cues, it’s easy to forget about them over time. And when something is removed from our focus and attention, it’s particularly challenging to change, because we forget it even exists. Consider: When was the last time you deliberately tried a different way to take your morning coffee?

There are two types of habits: habits of doing, like brushing your teeth, driving the route to your favorite restaurant, and asking certain questions of a job candidate in an interview; and habits of thinking, which, well, we don’t often think about! Habits of thinking include your beliefs and assumptions which, in turn, have a profound impact on your decisions, your words, and your actions.

Over two decades of coaching, I’ve observed a clear pattern of harmful impact from leadership habits and unintended complacency in three areas—People, Priorities, and Rhythms. Leaders who cling to the status quo in these areas damage morale, reduce performance, diminish profitability, and dampen overall business growth.

So, fellow habit owners, the odds are that one or more of these areas is ripe for a radical rethink in your business.

People

“What got you here won’t get you there.” – Marshall Goldsmith

WHO is the most powerful question you can regularly ask as a leader. Not WHAT, and not HOW. Because each of those lives or dies based upon WHO you have on your team.

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According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a professional “…implies professed attainments in special knowledge, as distinguished from mere skill; a practical dealing with affairs, as distinguished from mere study or investigation; and an application of such knowledge to uses for others as a vocation, as distinguished from its pursuit for one’s own purposes.”

Here’s the key question: Have you surrounded yourself with professionals on your leadership team?  And by professionals, according to the definition above, I mean people who have already accomplished what you are seeking to accomplish!

I’ve told clients for years that the way to become an $xx million dollar business (feel free to fill in any amount appropriate to your aspirations) is to begin acting like one today.  And the way to begin acting like one today is to hire professionals—people who have already built and operated at the level to which you aspire.

None of this, of course, is meant to diminish the accomplishments and capabilities of your current leadership team, however this brings us back to Marshall Goldsmith’s insightful quote at the beginning of this section. Are the people on your team—the people who helped you get where you are—the professionals you require to get you where you are going? 

Based on my experience, in all likelihood, one or more probably aren’t, which is your opportunity for radical change.

There is no end to the justifications you might want to offer as to why everyone on your leadership team is 100 percent right for their role. In my nearly 20 years coaching small and mid-market CEOs, I’ve heard them all! However, you must consider the following reality: Your emotional attachment to longstanding members of your team interferes with your ability to objectively evaluate their performance and fit.

If you have a people problem—and the odds are you do—it’s best to be honest with yourself and upgrade your team. Without radically rethinking whether you have the right professionals in place, your firm won’t scale as smoothy or as rapidly as you desire.

Priorities

“When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” – Mark Green

The primary role of a leader is to point to what matters most. To do that, you must create clarity and focus on a small number of very important things.

The word “priority” first appeared in the English language in the 1400s. It was singular; there was no plural for the word. The definition was “the very first – or prior – thing,” and it remained a singular term for about 500 years.

Then, in the early 1900s, the language evolved, and the plural term “priorities” was born. For leaders everywhere, this should have been hailed as a most troubling development! With implied permission to have many priorities, the leader’s job of pointing to what matters most became considerably more complicated. After all, when everything is important, nothing is important—and our “priorities” are treated like items on a to-do list rather than most important things.

Enter Italian civil engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher Vilfredo Pareto who, in the early 1900’s insightfully offered a mental model to bring us back to the standard of a “most important” thing.

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Pareto’s insight gave birth to what is now known as the 80/20 Rule—the idea that a small number of things are typically the cause of a disproportionately large percentage of outcomes.  In other words, for example, approximately 20% of your customers likely generate 80% of your profit, 20% of your employees cause 80% of your headaches, 20% of your leadership team contributes 80% of the strategic insight, and so on.

I’ve adapted Pareto’s thinking into client priority planning processes using a domino analogy. You’ve probably seen a video of thousands of dominos lined up, one-by-one, in a complicated pattern—and then the lead domino is knocked over, which causes all the other dominos to fall over in succession (here’s the world record video for reference). 

It’s the lead domino I’m most interested to explore. There’s a good reason why the lead domino is tipped over first, and not another domino further down the line: It has the potential to impact the most other dominos along the way. In other words, the lead domino has maximum power compared to all of the other dominos.

To bring this back to priority planning, think for a moment about the “lead dominos” in your business this year. They should be the one, two, or three things that have the greatest potential to impact the most other things you want to achieve. These are your true priorities!

Here are the four rules I use with my clients as we define their “lead domino” priorities: 

  1. Plan three-year, one-year, and one-quarter priorities. 
  2. While three-year priorities can be more vague, priorities for the year and the quarter should be crisp and in focus (this is the Priority Planning Tool I use with my clients).
  3. Stick to a maximum of three annual priorities and one quarterly ROCK—the “lead domino” you’ve identified as most important for your business that quarter. 
  4. In addition, each executive on the leadership team can take on a maximum of two individual priorities for their functional roles (to be supported by their teams) per quarter.

As you pare down your priorities to the essential few, ensure they’re focused and clear. To check, watch for symptoms of poorly defined priorities: team members struggling with “time management” problems, mired in lots of activity while achieving very little, or putting out fires as a primary function of management.

Without clarity on a small number of most important things, you’re not pointing to what matters most and your team lacks critical guidance regarding how you expect them to make decisions and allocate their time. This is exactly why you might need to radically rethink how you create and communicate your firm’s priorities.

Rhythms

“In the beginning, there was noise. Noise begat rhythm, and rhythm begat everything else.” – Mickey Hart

There’s something magical and familiar about any beat. From our hearts, to our lives, to our relationships, and to our organizations, there’s a beat; a rhythm that marks time, events, and accomplishments.

It’s a beautiful thing to see an organization’s rhythm in synch with its rate of growth. There’s energy, coordination, and a knowing or predictability to everyone’s day, week, month, and quarter.

On the other hand, in both the largest and the smallest of firms, a lack of rhythm can be costly and frustrating to leaders, employees, clients, partners, and suppliers alike. Implementing communication rhythms fixes these issues, improves accountability, builds esprit de corps, and—when deployed properly—strengthens culture along the way.

Repetition is another critical rhythm to embrace as a leader. If you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not really pointing to what matters most. If you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not giving your team a chance to learn and internalize what you’re saying. If you’re not repeating yourself, you cannot be an effective communicator!

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Communication rhythms including repetition, daily huddles and weekly meetings are the simplest, most powerful leadership processes your team can implement.

To help you catch the beat, here are the daily and weekly communication rhythms I coach my clients to use:

The Daily Huddle: The daily huddle is a stand-up meeting that lasts fifteen minutes or less. The focus is on synchronization—“what’s up” in the organization and any “stucks” (obstacles or challenges) members of the team are encountering. The huddle is not a time for discussion, debate, or problem solving—that happens offline or at your weekly meeting. 

To keep your huddles on track, pick and rotate a “quarterback” each week who is accountable for ensuring a timely, focused, effective daily rhythm. 

The Weekly Meeting: The weekly meeting, run by the CEO (or team leader), provides the forum to go deeper. Most of your time here should focus on monthly / quarterly metrics, priorities, and identifying, discussing, debating, and solving issues and opportunities. Weekly meetings are between sixty and ninety minutes, maximum.

Start your communication rhythms with the leadership team first. Resist the temptation to cascade them throughout the organization until the senior team has mastered them and is deriving clear value from the process.

How clear, coordinated, and effective are your firm’s communication rhythms? If your answer is anything other than “crystal clear, fully synchronized, and extremely effective” then it’s probably time to radically rethink the beat of your business.

Conclusion

“The most radical and far-reaching solutions often need rethinking of processes and deep questioning of the status quo—and these are hard.” – Bill Price

We are creatures of inertia; of habits including actions and thoughts. Inertia is the enemy of change—yet change, including radical change—is required to successfully lead and scale a growing business.

Andy Grove and Gordon Moore, the duo who famously scaled Intel Corporation through the 1980’s found an effective way to overcome their inertia as leaders and implement radical change.

Although memory chips were Intel’s primary, highly profitable, business in the early 1980’s, inexpensive chips from Japan began flooding the market and driving prices down. Grove recalled a conversation where he asked Moore: “If somebody took us over today, what would they do?” Moore’s answer: “They would get us out of the memory chip business and into the processor business.”

In that moment, the two leaders made the decision to “fire” themselves as President and CEO, walk out of the building, and then walk back in as the “new” President and CEO to lead Intel into the processor business.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Although you may not need to “fire” yourself as a leader, you do need to challenge the status quo and radically rethink things to successfully scale. Start today with one of the three “lead domino” areas with the most potential for positive impact: People, Priorities, and Rhythms.

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

NEW — Live Masterclass – Creating a Culture of Accountability

In partnership with The Growth Faculty–the premier live leadership event firm in the Asia/Pacific Region–Mark is thrilled to offer this new, live masterclass for business leaders.

The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if your people don’t step up, take responsibility and act accountably. And yet, accountability remains a top issue for business leaders around the world. When organizations operate with a culture of accountability they execute effectively, retain high performers and have an improved sense of collaboration, winning and fun at work. This cycle drives significantly higher employee return on investment, providing more flexibility to scale and achieve the most ambitious targets 

This masterclass is designed as a practical guide based on Mark’s books, Activators – a CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done and Creating a Culture of Accountability. Join Mark to discover: 

  • Why change that is necessary simply doesn’t happen 
  • What’s required of leaders. How to slow down to speed up and embrace bad news 
  • How accountability helps you retain the best and lose the rest 
  • The 3 building blocks of accountability – context, expectations, attention 
  • How to lead by results instead of activity 

October 26 / 27 2021 – Learn more and register using Mark’s discounted rate!

Click here to explore membership with The Growth Faculty, including 12 months access to over 25 live masterclasses. Be sure to use promo code MarkGreen for the best rate!

——————————————————————————————

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class: August 17, 2021. Learn more and sign up!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it took place.” – George Bernard Shaw

Think about the last time a miscommunication negatively impacted you, your team, and/or your firm. Odds are, it happened within the past few business days, if not the past 24 hours. Whether in terms of time, money, reputation, or energy, the cost of ineffective communication and misunderstanding is astounding. As you consider this more deeply, I have little doubt you’ll find countless examples of supporting evidence on your team and throughout your organization. Even worse, rest assured there’s additional negative impact below the surface, as poor communications invisibly erode morale and teamwork.

My globally deployed coaching colleagues and I agree: Regardless of industry, culture, geography, or stage of growth, under-communication is one of the most prevalent and costly issues in business. The problem is, we leaders think we’re pretty good at it, and yet there are piles of evidence and never-ending complications that point to the exact opposite conclusion.

Regardless of industry, culture, geography, or stage of growth, under-communication is one of the most prevalent and costly issues in business.

The primary function of any leader is to point to what matters most.  This includes, for example, strategy, culture (core values), priorities, goals, expectations, and much more. Effective pointing includes effective communication.

And effective communication is never a “one and done” affair!

Research and my own experience, both as a communicator and a coach, consistently point to four disciplines that dramatically improve the effectiveness and impact of one’s communication. They are context, framing, repetition, and questions.

With practice, each can be learned and applied to great effect at little or no cost.

Context

“The most important things to say are those which often I did not think necessary for me to say—because they were too obvious.” – André Gide

Think about a time when you needed to interrupt a family member or friend telling a story and ask them to backtrack and fill in a missing detail or something that didn’t make logical sense to you. This is a perfect illustration of the universal reality that, despite our best hopes and assumptions, other people simply don’t have the same information (context) in their head as we do!  In the instance you’re thinking about, the storyteller may have glossed over a point that was well known (or assumed) to them, but unknown to you—which disrupted the logic of the story and caused you to ask for additional detail.

This same scenario occurs all the time in professional settings, but when you add a power gradient where the communicator is more senior than the listener, it’s much more rare that you’ll be interrupted and asked to fill in a missing detail. Rather, in these cases, the listener leaves the conversation without clear understanding or even worse, totally confused.

The communication insight here for leaders is to be aware that other people rarely, if ever, share the same information and context you possess.  Context can include why something is important (to the business or to you personally), the history of a circumstance or issue, the definition or meaning of certain ideas or things, the background of the people who are involved in something, and more.

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It’s useful to imagine a canyon separating your context from your listener’s context. As the communicator, it’s your job to cross the bridge, meet them where they are, then lead them across the bridge to your perspective (now sharing your information and context) before beginning to communicate your message. How else could you reasonably expect them to understand you?

This is a real challenge for senior leaders, particularly in situations where they are addressing large groups of employees. In these instances, be deliberate about clarifying not just your messaging, but also how you’ll build the logical bridge first to ensure that each person in the room shares your information and context.

Most leaders focus on the message first; the best communicators build shared context first.

Framing

“The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” – Mary Catherine Bateson

How you communicate an idea is more important than the idea itself in terms of understanding and retention. In other words, framing matters.

For example, let’s say that my idea is this: “3591115.”

That’s the information without any framing. It’s knowable, but likely not very memorable when I communicate it to others. Now let’s say I framed that same idea this way: “odd numbers from 3 to 15, without 7 and 13,” or—even better—this way: “at 3:59 pm there were 111 people in the casino betting on the number 5.”

Suddenly, the string of numbers takes on a different meaning; importantly, one that you can retain more easily and repeat to others. The difference is that, with the framing, there’s a story to which the listener can relate. And we all like to hear a good story!  Here’s why:

Researchers have found that when we hear a good story, we produce more oxytocin—the “feel good” hormone that boosts feelings of trust, compassion, and empathy.  Framing your message as a story or as an analogy stacks the odds in favor of others receiving, understanding, and retaining your message.

How can you convert your communication into an analogy or simple story to frame it for your listeners?

Most leaders present their thoughts and ideas; the best communicators utilize framing to make them more understandable and more memorable.

Repetition

“Repetition may not entertain, but it teaches.” – Frederic Bastiat

Repetition is the mother of all learning. Repetition is the mother of all learning. Repetition is the mother of all learning.

Although countless studies have identified spaced repetition–a repeated exposure to information–as the most effective method for learning and retention, many leaders possess a mindset that the need to repeat themselves reflects poorly on their leadership or on their team. Too many times, I’ve heard things like: “I’ve already told them twice. They should get it by now.”  This is a massive missed opportunity!

If you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not really pointing to what matters most. If you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not giving your team a chance to learn and internalize what you’re saying. If you’re not repeating yourself, you cannot be an effective communicator.

Just how effective is repetition? It’s so effective that learning occurs through exposure alone, regardless of the learner’s intentions.

Think back to your childhood and recall an advertising slogan, or perhaps the words to a jingle. The example I use for clients in the USA (ahem, of a certain age like mine) is to finish this sentence: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese…”  The answer is: “pickles, onion on a sesame bun.” And it’s describing the Big Mac at McDonalds which was an advertisement we were exposed to repeatedly over time. Without the intent of learning it, here we are many (many!) years later and we still know the words!

For the cost of absolutely nothing, repeat yourself more. Much more! This allows the mechanism of spaced repetition learning to work its magic for you.

For the cost of absolutely nothing, repeat yourself more. Much more!

I teach my coaching clients to use an “eye-roll metric” when assessing whether they’ve repeated their messages enough. You know you’re getting through when your team begins to roll their eyes as you repeat yourself and then completes your sentences for you.  Then—and only then—you’ll know for sure that you’ve communicated successfully.

Most leaders are “one and done” broadcasters; the best communicators utilize repetition deliberately and to great effect.

Questions

“There is no communication so simple that it cannot be misunderstood.” – Luigina Sgarro

There are few guarantees in life, but one of them is this: If you ask a question, you’ll wind up with better information than you had before you asked. And yet, many leaders completely ignore the power of questions as an element of how they communicate.

I’m referring specifically to open-ended questions, like “what do you intend to do next?” I’m not referring to closed-ended questions with a yes or no answer, like “is this clear?”

Use open-ended questions to assess exactly what information someone else has before and as you communicate so that you can share your information and then more appropriately frame the communication to resonate with them. This technique also works well to confirm someone’s understanding of your information and/or request.

Here’s an example of how this works when you delegate something to a member of your team:

After you’ve framed the context of the task being delegated (why it matters) and what you expect as the result, use questions to confirm the other person’s understanding. 

For the record, the worst question ever is: “Do you understand?” First, it’s closed-ended. Second, consider how infrequently people tell the truth when they don’t understand something—rarely at best!

For the record, the worst question ever is: “Do you understand?”

Rather, ask something like this: “To be sure we’re on the same page, give me an overview of your understanding of the objective and the first few steps you intend to take as you get going on this.”  It’s neither insulting nor demeaning, but it does force clarity. At that point, they’ll either give you the answer back as you expect, or they won’t—in which case you can course correct them on the spot, and then reconfirm their understanding.  This one technique will save the leaders in your firm countless hours of frustration, delays, and rework!

How can you incorporate more open-ended questions into your communications with others?

Most leaders communicate by telling alone; the best communicators ask questions as they tell to confirm understanding.

Conclusion

“Communication works for those who work at it.” – John Powell

Like every other leader, you have the potential to become an exceptionally effective communicator. As I discussed at length in this article, there are two required elements for any change to occur: desire and willingness.

To begin the process of improving, first acknowledge that you’re probably not as effective at communicating as you think you are, and that miscommunication exerts a significant drag on your firm’s performance. Next, you’ll need to be willing to do the work to improve!

Context, framing, repetition, and questions will improve your capabilities as a communicator and, therefore, as a leader. As you perform your primary role of pointing to what matters most, you’ll bring more of your team with you more often, you’ll improve morale and teamwork, and you’ll reduce the frustrating and costly effects of misunderstanding.

How do you see this unfolding in your organization?

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Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class: August 17, 2021. Learn more and sign up!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

Think about the most significant achievement in your life and how you made it happen. Was it easy, or was it hard?

Chances are, it was hard (or even extremely hard!), which is likely what made the achievement significant to you. Hard things tend to be worthwhile. Really hard things can be epic!

Yet, I’ve heard plenty of smart, capable leaders lament and wonder why things couldn’t be easier. I’ve witnessed others expend massive amounts of time and energy pursuing “easy wins” at the expense of a more significant accomplishment.

Although challenge and adversity seem to be required to manifest our greatest successes, we tend to either avoid or circumvent the very thing we should embrace and push through. 

For example, recall your first promotion into leadership. You may have thought something like, “Things will be easier for me now that I’m in charge,” but quickly realized that being an effective leader requires a lot of challenging work. Some choose to face the challenges while others look for an easy way—and we know how each of these two diverging storylines typically conclude.

If you aspire to accomplish anything significant, you must learn to love and appreciate adversity.

Adversity comes in many forms. It can be internal, requiring you to master your own mental game or external, necessitating you figure out how to deal with others. It can be involuntary, caused by factors you don’t control or voluntary, in the form of accepting a role or project with full knowledge of the challenges ahead.

Through my own experiences and those I’ve seen my coaching clients face over the past two decades, I’ve identified the following four strategies that help leaders aiming to accomplish great things stick with the challenges they face, work through and overcome adversity, and build resilience.

Embrace Failure

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  –Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison had it right: you must learn to embrace failure if you want to make your mark. Failure is part of every change process, and change is required to accomplish the most important things in work and life.

Think of any complex skill you’ve mastered––from riding a bike to hiring great people, or perhaps making a sale. How did you learn to do it? Trial and error had to be a part of the process and your ultimate success was built atop countless failures along the way. As such, it’s productive to look at failure as a building block of success rather than as a setback––though the latter is an easy default for many.

Accounting software company Intuit embodies the idea of embracing failures and recognizing them as opportunities. The company’s philosophy is that failure teaches powerful lessons and provides the seeds for future great ideas, so much so that they give an award for Best Failure and host periodic “failure parties” to reinforce their culture of experimentation and learning. Materials science company W.L. Gore & Associates, the manufacturer of windproof and breathable GoreTex fabric, provides another example, having long celebrated failed projects with beer or champagne as if they had been successful. Their leadership team views mistakes as a required element of its successful creative process.

How can you find rewards in the inevitable failures you’ll have on the way to your greatest successes? How can you help your team do the same? 

Consider It an Ordeal

“Be grateful for all ordeals, they are the shortest way to the Devine.” –The Mother (Mirra Richard)

In addition to considering inevitable failures as learning, to accomplish great things, you’ve got to muster the motivation to keep moving forward––regardless of the difficulties you encounter along the way. As I’ve written previously, decades of psychological research consistently identify Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose as the keys to motivation and engagement. Autonomy is self-directedness and latitude regarding how to get work done, mastery is the opportunity to learn and gain expertise, and purpose is feeling part of something larger than oneself. You’ll activate all three when you reframe an extreme challenge as an ordeal or “rite of passage” instead.

In 2019, I opted into an extremely rigorous certification program in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). In addition to about fifty hours of preparatory work, I was required to travel from my home in New Jersey to Whistler, British Columbia for two eighteen-day blocks––one in the spring and one in the fall.  For those who haven’t made the journey, Whistler, BC is a beautiful place, but it’s particularly hard to get to from the Eastern United States! The travel and the time commitment, in and of themselves, were ordeals of sorts.

While there, my classmates and I worked long days in a windowless classroom and spent many late nights completing assignments. There were plenty of opportunities to quit the program (and at times, it was quite tempting, as this was the singular most challenging learning experience I’d ever faced in my life––university included!).

But instead, I reframed the whole experience as an ordeal.

I thought of how few people enrolled in––let alone successfully completed––the program. I thought of how much I could learn. I thought of the course as an opportunity for me to prove I could do it, even at the age of fifty-two, with a family and a coaching practice to run.

When I considered it through the lens of an ordeal, I was able to tap into all three motivational elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. As a result, I powered through and earned my Certified Trainer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming certificate. It was a tremendous accomplishment, and quite an ordeal, which is what made it one of the most significant achievements in my life.

With that in mind, how can you reframe an extreme challenge you’re facing as an ordeal, doubling down on autonomy, mastery, and purpose to see it through?

Find the Learning

“Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a different way to stand.”  –Oprah Winfrey

When hardship arises––and it will––look for the lessons. Intuit, W.L. Gore & Associates, and each of my coaching clients have built cultures that equate struggle and failure with learning. This is a healthy approach on numerous fronts, the most meaningful of which is developing a growth mindset among your team. In her seminal book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, psychologist and Stanford professor Carol Dweck explores the differences between those with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset. While fixed mindset thinkers tend to withdraw from challenging tasks, those with a growth mindset typically persist much longer. The reason is that growth mindset thinkers believe the more they try, the more they’ll improve.

One way to accelerate learning from failure is to resist judgment and consider the new information (from the failure) as feedback. This concept is so powerful, it’s one of the ten presuppositions of NLP: “There is only feedback (no failure, only feedback.)” Think about how often you judge yourself or allow yourself to be judged by others when you grapple with something new! During times like these, words like “never,” “can’t,” “don’t,” and “won’t” flow like water from a poisoned spring.

The reality is that struggle and failure offer clues—new information about how to improve slightly on your next attempt. And if you look for the clues instead of drinking the poisoned water of judgement, they will appear—providing valuable lessons from which to learn.

Want proof? Think back to the last big challenge you surmounted. Now recall exactly how you finally broke through whatever was blocking your way. The odds are overwhelming that your breakthrough came as a direct result of feedback (or learning) from prior unsuccessful attempts. If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the process of change, you’ll find everything you need here.

What can you learn from a recent struggle or failure by thinking more deeply about the clues (information) you may have missed? Who on your team can you help convert their adversity into learning, growth, and wherewithal to press forward?

Seek Community

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  –Isaac Newton

According to the American Psychological Association: “Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models, and offer encouragement and reassurance, help bolster a person’s resilience.”

As you think about those in your life on whom you can rely when the going gets tough, note the purpose of this particular community isn’t to attend your pity party or to dissuade you from your challenging pursuit! Rather, these should be people who have already met the challenge you face themselves or who are committed to the same ordeal you’re taking on.

Purdue University resiliency researcher Elliot Friedman reinforces this further, saying: “The availability of social support in all its forms—instrumental support, emotional support, support with how you think about things—they all matter and help us in facing challenge.”

I’ve written and spoken extensively on how critical it is to periodically evaluate and upgrade your professional neighborhood to ensure you have the right professionals, mentors, advisors, and peers around you to help you get where you want to go. These same principles apply here. To learn more, check out hack #5 and the corresponding free tool in this article.

Who are the top ten people in the world with the capability to help you surmount your biggest challenges and accelerate your growth as a leader? What must you do to add some of them to your professional neighborhood?

Conclusion

“Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.”  –Lou Holtz

You’re reading this right now because you are on a journey to achieve something you consider worthwhile in your business, in your life, or in both. While energizing and exhilarating, it’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s seemingly unfair at times.

But, as Lou Holtz said, nothing worthwhile or truly meaningful in life comes without some form of struggle.

That adversity is also your greatest source of inner strength, motivation, learning, and deeply meaningful connections to others. What matters most is how you respond to it––which, in turn, depends upon how you think. The strategies we’ve covered––embrace failure, consider it an ordeal, find the learning, and seek community––help stack the deck in favor of your success.

Use them deliberately and thoughtfully to find the right path and the resilience you require to create the change, the progress, and the results you seek. Along the way you’ll discover that, as Celine Dion once said: “In the moment that you think you can’t, you’ll discover that you can.”

Indeed, you can, and you will!

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

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Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class Dates: July 13th & August 17th. Learn more and sign up!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

Although the words “change” and “leadership” go hand-in-hand, and every performance improvement is itself a change, very few leaders know much about the process of change. The stakes here are high, as failed change and/or improvement initiatives are frustrating, costly, and energy-depleting for everyone involved!

In search of a sustainable solution, I recently took a deep dive into the intricacies and mechanics of change with my friend—and behavioral change expert—Gina Mollicone-Long. Among numerous valuable insights, I discovered why it’s critical for leaders to learn and master the process of change, which itself (ironically) never changes.

An engineer by training, Gina is an international best-selling author, in-demand speaker and peak performance coach with a mission to reveal greatness in individuals, teams and organizations. Since 1998, she has trained, coached, or spoken to tens of thousands of people on six continents. Her books, Think or Sink (** free book link below **) and The Secret of Successful Failing are widely read and enjoyed by people around the world.

“The number one quality of a peak performer in any discipline is flexibility of behavior. This is because the person or system with the most flexibility in terms of resources and options will direct the outcome,” Gina said. 

Like having extra money in the bank during a recession or spare oxygen tanks on a high-altitude climb, those with the most cognitive and behavioral resources at their disposal have more options and are able to exhibit flexibility when it counts most, giving them an advantage over others. 

She continued: “It follows logically that peak performers must constantly learn new skills and increase their behavioral resources to effectively respond to changing circumstances and achieve the best possible outcomes.”

In other words, peak performers—including leaders—must always be learning and changing!

“There is nothing so stable as change.”
— Bob Dylan

To understand how to accelerate change and increase behavioral flexibility, we’ll explore the five-stage process of change and then define two prerequisite requirements for any change to occur.

“The whole goal of increased performance is to change faster and with less effort,” Gina said.

The Process of Change

It’s important to understand that all change is neurological, which means that true change creates both different behaviors and results. Gina warns: “Wanting to change isn’t change! There are no shortcuts, and the process of change consists of five stages regardless of what you are changing.”

The five stages, adapted from Gina’s book Think or Sink, are reflected in the diagram below:

  • Stage 1: Comfort Zone
  • Stage 2: Desire
  • Stage 3: Breakthrough
  • Stage 4: Dominant Habit
  • Stage 5: ACME (Peak Performance)
No alt text provided for this image

Stage 1: COMFORT ZONE

In your comfort zone, change isn’t possible because there’s nothing to drive it. You don’t know what you don’t know, and things seem perfectly fine as they are. There is no movement in this stage because there is no readiness for change. 

Here’s how Gina describes the comfort zone: “Let’s use the analogy of a newborn baby. A newborn baby cannot learn to walk even if its parents are ambitious and super positive. The baby can’t learn to walk because the baby is not ready; it can’t even hold up its own head let alone walk! There is no readiness therefore there is no movement towards change.”

Key Questions for Leaders: 

  • How can I increase my awareness of what I “don’t know” regarding my role, my business, and my industry?
  • What can I learn and/or read more about that is tangential to my business?

Stage 1 –> Stage 2

Movement from your comfort zone to desire begins when something catches your attention and causes you to notice that there is more available. Think of this as a simultaneous building of awareness and capacity.

Gina added: “In the case of the baby, it develops over time. Things like muscle mass, balance, strength, and more. Imagine a miniature person inside the baby’s head with a clipboard monitoring progress. When all the components on the “ready for walking” checklist are completed, then there is readiness to change.”

Stage 2: DESIRE

Stage 2 on the diagram is where desire for change appears, because there is capacity for change. You know that you don’t know how to do something, yet somehow feel ready, and are therefore motivated to move toward it. Desire provides the impetus to break away from your comfort zone and try something new. It is important to point out that when desire for change is initiated, it can never be “un-desired.” Desire indicates readiness for change: You have the requirements, but you don’t have the behavioral sequence figured out.

Desire provides the impetus
to break away from your comfort zone
and try something new.

Gina continued: “The baby is ready to learn to walk and it demonstrates this by pulling itself up on the furniture, however it needs to find the correct sequence that produces walking. Wanting change isn’t change but it is an important step to drive effort and experimentation.”

Key Questions for Leaders: 

  • What are the one or two things I want to accomplish and/or change in the next 6-12 months, but haven’t yet started?
  • What are the specific rewards associated with achieving those one or two things?  And what are the specific consequences of maintaining the status quo?

Stage 2 –> Stage 3: TRIAL AND ERROR PROCESS

The going gets tough between Stages 2 and 3! This is where there’s repeated trial and error in an attempt to discover the right behavioral sequence. Change often fails because we give up when we encounter a barrier and return to our comfort zone before we’ve given our all. This is an error. The barrier represents everything you thought you had. If you want to change then you must be willing to give it what it takes: Try, fail, try, fail, then try and fail even more! Gina lovingly nicknamed this part of the model “hell” because Winston Churchill once said, “if you’re going through hell, keep going.” You will either find the correct sequence or you will get feedback that needs to be incorporated into your next attempt. One hack to apply here: If someone else has achieved your desired outcome, learn from them and copy them! 

If you want to change then you must be willing to give it what it takes: Try, fail, try, fail, then try and fail even more!

Gina extended the baby example further: “Our baby gets up every time it falls and the miniature person with the checklist inside is tweaking the sequence and refining the strategy for walking.”

Change is difficult for many people because they get stuck between Stages 2 and 3, they give up too soon, and they revert to their comfort zone. There is a prevalent stigma around failure that prevents most people from pushing through their limiting beliefs (and we all have them!). The best way to succeed is to take massive action and keep course correcting using feedback until you achieve your goal. Gina’s advice here: “Don’t ever give up on anything you desire!”

Stage 3: BREAKTHROUGH

Breakthrough is the Stage where actual, verifiable change occurs. You know that you know, because you’ve done something new and different for the first time. For example, the baby takes its first few wobbly steps without assistance. A new and successful, albeit rudimentary, neural network is formed. 

Many erroneously believe that the breakthrough moment is the end of the journey of change. “It’s not, and this is a big mistake,” Gina warned. “Think about the baby. When the baby takes its first steps, you don’t take it down to a busy street corner and assume it’s good to go. There’s more to the process.”

Key Questions for Leaders: 

  • What have I quit this year before giving myself enough time to realistically achieve a breakthrough, both personally and professionally?
  • How can I increase the accountability of my team to persist through a current improvement / change initiative?

Stage 3 –> Stage 4: MASTERY PROCESS

The mastery process is a critical, often missed, segment of the overall process of change. The new neural network requires practice and repetition until it becomes the dominant pattern or habit. Each repetition strengthens the behavior pattern, which must be repeated until you can’t get it wrong

“Our baby practices walking day in and day out until one day it becomes a confident toddler,” Gina said.

Stage 4: DOMINANT HABIT

At Stage 4, the new behavior is now the dominant habit and will be your default behavior of choice. Until this Stage is achieved, there is risk of falling back to your former dominant behavior pattern. In addition, beware: We tend to revert to old, more reliable patterns when we are under stress, even if they don’t produce the results that we want. 

Gina emphasized: “It is important to notice that our baby can now choose to walk or crawl depending on what the circumstances dictate. The baby has become more flexible in its behavior and is operating at the peak of its ability.”

Key Questions for Leaders: 

  • Which desirable leadership and/or cultural behaviors do I temporarily abandon when I’m under stress? How can I increase repetition during non-stressed times to achieve Stage 4 for those behaviors?
  • Which desirable leadership and/or cultural behaviors does my team need to repeat more to achieve Stage 4?

Stage 5: ACME

After even more repetition over time, you’ll reach Stage 5. Named ACME, the Greek word for peak or highest point, it is the new, highest level of performance possible — your peak performance.

That is, until the next desire for change comes along. Then the process must begin again from Stage 1. Because, as music legend Bob Dylan once said: “There is nothing so stable as change.”

Key Questions for Leaders: 

  • How can I help my team use the process of change to improve performance?
  • Which areas in my business are most ripe for improvement, disruption, and change?

Two Requirements for Change

There are two requirements for any change to occur. “It doesn’t matter what goal you have or what you want to achieve. If you possess these two qualities, then success with the change you’re seeking will happen,” Gina said.

You must have:

  1. Desire; and
  2. Willingness

She continued: “Desire is absolutely critical for any change because it’s the energy that pulls you out of your comfort zone.” Desire provides the motivation to try something new and indicates that you are ready for change. “Note how the baby in my example has no desire to change until it is neurologically ready to learn to walk,” Gina said. “Having desire means that you already have what it takes but need to discover the successful sequence of behavior.”

Desire is the product of being ready to tackle a new challenge. You can increase desire by raising the desirability or motivation for the benefits (rewards) of change and clarifying the consequences of failing. In my experience, most leaders fall short by taking this critical step for granted. You must have desire before anything meaningful can happen! The same rules apply to your organization in that every member of your team has to have a real desire, not just an “I’ll go along with this for now…” desire. As the leader, you need to motivate them based on their preference of reward- or consequence-based motivation, positioning the change so the gain of the outcome outweighs the pain of undergoing change.

You can increase desire by raising the desirability or motivation for the benefits (rewards) of change and clarifying the consequences of failing.

Willingness is the other required prerequisite because you must be willing to give what it takes. Here’s Gina: “You have to be willing to go beyond your perceived limits and dig deeper. You must be willing to fall down and get up. If you use a coach or a guide to achieve something that you’ve never achieved before, then willingness also equals coachability. You have to be willing to follow the coaching and do things differently.”

Cultivating willingness in yourself involves making a commitment and creating accountability to keep moving no matter what. Have a clear vision of the outcome, focus on what you want, take massive action, and be flexible along the way. Gina added: “Creating willingness in an organization is similar, requiring a unified, clear vision of the big picture and that everyone has clearly defined roles and tasks. From there, it is your responsibility to hold your team accountable to their agreements.” 

Cultivating willingness in yourself
involves making a commitment
and creating accountability
to keep moving no matter what.

As with desire, many leaders take this for granted and fail to create proper accountability, which eventually sabotages the whole effort. If holding yourself and others accountable is an area you’d like to improve, you can learn how to create a culture of accountability here.

If you have a persistent problem with some people on your team, build motivation (desire) for the change and increase accountability (willingness) to keep them on track. The change you seek cannot happen if you and your team lack either desire or willingness.

Conclusion

Change can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be.

“I think leaders struggle to understand that all change follows the same five-stage process. I often hear leaders complain about individuals as being the problem, so the solution wrongly seems to depend on whether those people will change. That’s a terribly powerless mindset,” Gina said.

She continued: “When someone doesn’t want to change, there is nothing you can do to change them. However, when someone wants to change, there is nothing you can do to stop them!”

Of course, the same is true for you.

Now, with an understanding of the five-stage process of change and the two requirements for change, you’re equipped to be more flexible in your behavior and more effective in attaining peak performance for yourself and for your team.

To encourage you to continue learning about the process of change, Gina is generously offering my subscribers her book Think or Sink free of charge (and with no strings attached!).

Click here to download your free copy.

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class Date: June 14th. Learn more and sign up!

==============================================

Additional Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But, nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you do not belong.” — N. R. Narayana Murthy

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“The yucca plant was dying,” my client Liz said. “Pressure from the root ball caused the pot to burst because it literally didn’t have any more room to grow. Now that I’ve moved the plant into a bigger pot, it’s thriving!”

“This is the situation I’m in right now with my staff,” she concluded, cementing her insight.

Liz’s situation is common in growing firms: For all sorts of seemingly justifiable reasons, the leadership team fails to anticipate and preempt the complexity and adverse consequences of growth, causing the organization to plateau or even stagnate as a result.

The bigger problem is that we don’t see it coming until it’s too late, yet the stakes are too high to wait for “the plant to look like its dying” before we intervene.

It turns out, the challenge is our very human struggle to conceive of exponential curves as they relate to complexity in organizations.  In a July, 2020 article entitled “We’re Dumb about Exponential Growth. That’s Proving Lethal,” author Andrew Nikiforuk notes: “Gradually, and then suddenly. That’s how exponential growth can ruin your day, undo your family, evaporate your economy, destroy your climate, crush an empire and destabilize a planet.”

It can also cripple your business.

“To stay ahead of the growth curve, leaders need to think bigger and farther into the future.”

As illustrated in the graphic below, we tend to think about growth in a linear fashion that corresponds to our own individual perspective. For example, we add one client at a time, we hire one employee at a time, we close one sale at a time, we open one new office at a time, and we launch one new product or service at a time. Even if these common business activities occur rapidly, we mentally process them linearly as “one at a time.” Meanwhile, these individually innocuous-seeming events spawn an unseen exponential curve of complexity!

No alt text provided for this image

For example, let’s imagine a firm that grows from twelve to forty employees over the span of eighteen-months. At the beginning, it’s relatively easy to communicate effectively, align and manage the team, provide a consistent client experience, leverage technology to work efficiently together, and build the culture you want. Each of these elements will undergo an exponential increase in complexity as headcount moves in relatively linear fashion to forty employees.

To stay ahead of the growth curve, leaders need to think bigger and farther into the future. Here are five issues every leader will inevitably face—and how to prevent them from slowing you down.

1. You’ll outgrow some of the people on your team.

Not everyone has the capacity to continue successfully in their role as it grows and evolves with your organization. Although this idea is particularly challenging for entrepreneurs who have emotional connections to the people who helped them launch their firm, the reality is that you cannot reasonably expect the person who managed HR and Accounting for your start-up to be the same person capable of providing leadership to either of those functions when you have three-, five-, or ten-times the staff. Rather, over time, this “A” player from your start-up should more likely wind up working for your Director of HR or your CFO.

“The wrong people in the wrong seats can’t help you grow and probably aren’t very happy in their roles anyway.”

And yet, I’ve seen leaders continue to double down their bets on legacy “A” players who are clearly over their heads relative to the changing demands of the business and the role. As leadership coach and author Marshall Goldsmith eloquently stated in the title of his acclaimed book: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There!

This can be difficult to recognize and acknowledge. In fact, there is no end to the rationale you might offer as to why each member of your leadership team is one hundred percent right for their role. Over my eighteen+ years coaching small- and mid-market firms, I’ve heard it all. 

Now consider these two realities:

  1. Your emotional attachment to longstanding members of your team interferes with your ability to objectively evaluate their performance and fit; and
  2. A whopping 85 percent of the leadership teams I’ve coached had at least one person turnover within the first twelve months of my engagement, because they weren’t the right fit for their role.

If you have a growth-induced people problem—and the odds are that you do—you must be honest with yourself and make the switch. The wrong people in the wrong seats can’t help you grow and probably aren’t very happy in their roles anyway.

Find the right people to lead, then honor legacy “A” players by placing them in the right roles or offering them a hero’s sendoff to the next chapter of their careers.

Action Item for Leaders:

Critically evaluate your team every six-to-twelve months (quarterly for very high growth firms) to ensure you have the Right People in the Right Seats (RPRS). Adjust as needed, thinking one-to-three years ahead and considering what the future of each role will require.

2. The structure of your organization won’t be scalable.

My client Liz, whose constrained yucca plant helped her understand the risks of falling behind the growth curve, had an organizational issue that was burning her out.  With growth and reactive adjustments to accommodate both staff and clients, the complexity of her organization became overwhelming as she found herself managing twenty-two direct reports!

Not only was her span of control unmanageable due to sheer numbers, but her team wasn’t getting anywhere near the attention they individually and collectively deserved. Even worse, Liz wasn’t free to think strategically and lead. In essence, like her yucca plant, everyone involved was stuck and not able to grow. 

Research suggests that seven (plus or minus two) direct reports are the ideal maximum for leaders to create full engagement with their team (here’s a solid overview of this thinking from Inc. Magazine).

With a proper span of control, leaders can improve accountability, delegation, and coaching for their teams. These elements underpin a truly scalable organization, as they build depth and capacity over time, creating succession pathways for the highest performers, all of which I call “The Upward Spiral of Momentum and Growth” (see figure below) in Creating a Culture of Accountability

No alt text provided for this image

Note well it’s a failure of leadership to resort to external hires for more than half of newly created supervisory / management / leadership roles as your organization scales. Most should be grown and promoted from within!

Action Item for Leaders:

Regularly monitor span of control ratios in your business and aim, on average and over time, to achieve seven-to-one (plus or minus two, as research suggests). In addition, build the habit of delegating and coaching more to enhance depth and capacity—progress up the spiral—in your organization.

3. You’ll lack critical skills & capabilities as the business grows.

My client and his leadership team had tried everything to grow their technology-based business more profitably. Progress was incremental, slow, and not good enough to achieve their goals. Earlier this year, the CEO decided—at no small expense—to engage an outside industry expert to evaluate the firm and help them identify specific areas to improve. Now, just a few months into the project, answers are emerging that are laying the foundation for a path forward to become a much more efficient and profitable organization.

This CEO’s move to engage an outside expert was preceded by a shift in his mindset. For years, he and his team believed that, as the seasoned leaders of the firm, they should have the answers. The shift was to a belief that, as leaders, they needed to find the answers, which opened the door to explore and engage an outside industry expert.

“Are your problems truly unique, or have they been solved—somewhere, somehow—by others?”

Think about the most significant issues or obstacles your organization faces over the next six-to-eighteen months. How do you plan to find the answers? Are your problems truly unique, or have they been solved—somewhere, somehow—by others?

Your role as a leader is to point to what matters most in the form of strategy and priorities, and to supply the organization with the resources it requires to execute successfully. How often do you consider the resource and potential return of engaging outside, seasoned expertise to accelerate your progress?

Action Item for Leaders:

Periodically review the most daunting problems you and your team can’t seem to solve and look externally to explore who in the world may have already solved them.  Find and engage them and/or learn from them as mentors (more on mentors in issue #5 below).

4. You’ll be surrounded by the wrong peers and professionals.

I was four years into my career when, in 1993, my Grandpa Ben pulled me aside and said, “Mark, I need to give you some advice before you buy a home.” He continued: “Don’t ever buy the most expensive house in the neighborhood. This is because there’s only one way the other houses around you can affect your property value over time.”

It didn’t occur to me until about a decade later that Grandpa Ben’s advice applied far beyond real estate. By then I had established my coaching practice and was affiliated with an organization of coaches in the leadership development business. At one of our quarterly meetings, as we sat discussing a topic that had become very familiar to me, I experienced a life-changing insight: I had become one of the most expensive houses in my professional neighborhood!

I had more experience and more clients than most members of the organization, and sure enough, my continued participation was decreasing my professional value over time. From that moment and continuing today, I deliberately surround myself with people who are better than me, who make me a little uncomfortable, who challenge me, and who will help me grow. You should too.

“You’ll know you’re in the right professional neighborhood when you feel a little uncomfortable as those around you challenge your beliefs, your actions, and your outcomes to help you grow.”

One day, you may realize you’re contributing to others but reaping very little or know as much or more than some of the outside professionals you engage to help you grow. If that’s the case, any advice you get will likely embody their limitations, potentially dragging down your value over time.

You’ll know you’re in the right professional neighborhood when you feel a little uncomfortable as those around you challenge your beliefs, your actions, and your outcomes to help you grow.

Action Item for Leaders:

Adopt an annual planning exercise to formally evaluate whether you may have outgrown any of your professional neighborhoods. Be sure to consider mastermind / peer groups, forums, associations, and external professionals like coaches, accountants, attorneys, consultants, and various other outsourced functions.

5. You won’t learn the right things fast enough as a leader.

You and your leadership team must grow for your business to grow.

“Learning takes many forms, the most effective of which lie beyond a classroom, conference center, virtual event, or book.”

Failing to acknowledge and act on this condemns you to insular thinking, less innovation, an inability to preempt competitive and environmental threats, and a team that spends most of its time stuck in the past at the expense of future growth. Yet, because of some combination of the preceding four issues, it’s virtually impossible to allocate enough time to think about and focus on the future.

It’s a trap of sorts: Your growth as a leader slows or stagnates as you fight fires which, in turn, slows or stagnates the growth of your firm.

What’s a well-intentioned leader to do?

Prioritize learning and put a rhythm in place to ensure you and your team honor this critical commitment. Learning takes many forms, the most effective of which lie beyond a classroom, conference center, virtual event, or book (for the record, I’m a fan of each of these on their individual merits, but not as primary drivers of learning).

Find a mentor or two.  Related to my Grandpa Ben’s advice, a regular meeting rhythm (think once every three-to-four weeks) with a couple of mentors is a fantastic mechanism for learning and growth. Don’t just look “up” for mentors by considering those with more experience (or perhaps, grey hair!). Look “down” for mentorship as well—to younger leaders who can help you relate to and embrace new technologies and the hopes and expectations of your up-and-coming talent pool.

Hire a coach. The best coaches function as “Chief Bar Raisers” for their clients, who expect to be challenged and to grow as a result of the relationship. Although many coaches work 1-on-1 with their clients, I’ve found a team approach to be highly effective to accelerate both individual leader and overall team performance (and results) over time. But buyer beware! Here’s an article that outlines six critical factors to consider as you evaluate a coach’s fit relative to your individual needs. 

Action Item for Leaders:

Prioritize your team’s leadership learning and growth by committing to learning rhythms with mentors and/or a qualified leadership growth coach.

Conclusion

Like my client Liz’s yucca plant, you and your growing firm will require continual repotting to anticipate and accommodate continued growth. It’s not a matter of whether you’ll experience some or all of the five issues we’ve explored here, but rather when.

“Exponential growth gives people two basic choices: act early or be overwhelmed,” Andrew Nikiforuk explained in his insightful Inc. Magazine article, “But the good news is this: small interventions…can often have a much larger effect than we can imagine. When we take action…we put the brakes on exponential growth.” 

Small, disciplined actions today—the items I’ve recommended (they’re all simple habits and rhythms, really)—will keep you ahead of the growth curve as your firm continues to scale. And if you do that, there’s one thing I can absolutely guarantee: You and your team will have a lot more fun along the way!

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class Date: July 13th. Learn more and sign up!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

Can you imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, more proactive, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance? 

These easy-to-list, challenging-to-achieve attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and benefit any organization in multiple ways. They’re also required if your aspirations include elevating your leadership to scale your firm. 

Yet, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team by telling them what to do! When that’s the case, you’re running an organization with “one brain and a thousand hands.” Although it can feel pretty good for a while––and things certainly get done––your team’s reliance on you grows while their capacity to perform independently doesn’t. Meanwhile, you cannot sustainably scale without engaging, growing, and empowering your staff.

Whether you realize it or not, you (the leader) are either contributing to your team’s dependence and disempowerment or causing it directly! 

However, you are also the solution.

Decades of research consistently identify three factors that correlate to employee engagement, which sets the stage for empowerment and independence. They are:

Autonomy – Self-directedness and latitude regarding how to get work done.

Mastery – Ability to learn and gain expertise.

Purpose – Feeling part of something larger than one’s self.

Today we’ll discuss five leadership behaviors that create autonomy, mastery, and purpose for you to learn and internalize to create an independent and empowered team.

Fair warning: Initially, it will take more time to empower your employees than it does to tell them what to do! Resist the urge to give instructions. Your investment now will be returned handsomely when you lead more strategically and have a more capable, reliable, scalable team.

1. Create Clarity

The primary role of a leader is to point to what matters most. To do that, you must create clarity starting with your organization’s purpose, core values, and strategy. There are two key questions to consider here:

  1. How clear are you with these elements, and how frequently do you convey them to your employees? 
  2. How well do your employees understand them and how clearly do they connect to their daily work? 

Assuming you’ve answered the first with clarity, to answer the second question, consider my “tap on the shoulder test:” if I picked 15 percent of your employees at random, tapped them on the shoulder, and asked them to tell me about the company’s purpose, core values, and strategy, how accurate and aligned would their answers be? If you realize there’s a gap here, don’t be discouraged. It’s a massive opportunity to benefit from creating additional clarity!

“The primary role of a leader is to point to what matters most.”

The next mechanism to create clarity is to name specific, tactical priorities. My coaching rule of thumb for clients is a maximum of three priorities for the firm at both annual and quarterly intervals. Without clarity here, your team lacks critical guidance regarding how you expect them to make decisions and allocate their time. Further, when everything is important, nothing is important—and people (including both middle and senior managers) are much more likely to need to be told what to do next. 

The final element to create clarity for your team: Establish role outcomes and accountability. This is a crystal-clear definition of the top three outcomes that you expect from each role in your firm. This process will likely require thinking in terms of “widgets,” not only dollars, for numerous roles. While businesses commonly measure success in terms of dollars––profit, revenue, etc.––they are not an appropriate outcome for every role. A widget, on the other hand, refers to a unit of output. For example, you may identify the number of qualified leads as one of the outcomes for which your director of marketing is accountable. Role accountability helps people understand your expectations as a leader and how you intend to measure their value to the organization in a tangible way.

2. Over-Communicate

Social projection is a psychological process through which we expect others’ beliefs to be the same as our own. This causes leaders to falsely assume (and believe) that their people have the same information they do. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! 

Let’s say you’ve established clarity when it comes to purpose, core values, strategy, priorities, and role accountability. Certainly a fantastic start, but how do you share and repeat that information? And what about your firm’s metrics or scoreboards to share progress? Who sees those, how frequently, and how well is the information understood?

The solution here is to establish communication rhythms—daily huddles, weekly meetings, and monthly “all hands” sessions to improve collaboration and remind your team what matters most. Use these sessions to create a constant pulse of information through the business, just as your body relies on your veins and arteries to provide a life-giving flow of blood to your cells. What’s on your mind, should be on their minds, and communication rhythms make it so. For more on communication rhythms and other skills and tools to help you scale, check out my upcoming live class.

Here’s an example highlighting how simple and effective the right rhythms can be: My former client David is the CEO of a virtual coaching firm that helps people comply with their medications and achieve certain health goals. David’s employees are located throughout the United States, making his communication challenges substantially more difficult than those of a leader with their team members under one roof. To better communicate with his staff, I suggested that he produce a ninety-second audio clip each week, in which he would discuss any significant events, updates, or hot topics that fit with the mission of his organization and that happened to be on his mind as CEO. I added that he could also use these recordings to single out employees or accomplishments that merit recognition throughout the company. The process would cost him approximately five minutes of his time per week and a total of zero dollars. David agreed to try it. 

After distributing his first recording, David received overwhelmingly positive feedback from multiple employees. They indicated that hearing from him made them feel truly connected to the company despite their disparate locations. And now, the business is more aligned than ever.

“What’s on your mind, should be on their minds.
Communication rhythms make it so.”

How do you know if you’re doing your part to communicate? I use the “eye-roll” standard to help my coaching clients. If your employees aren’t rolling their eyes knowingly and finishing your sentences, you’ve not communicated to them enough!

3. Raise Your Expectations

Studies show that you get what you expect, both from yourself and from others. If you want your staff to perform to a higher standard, begin by increasing your expectations of them. 

About ten years ago, I briefly coached the executive team of a New York City-based multi-unit fast food restaurant. It was obvious to me from the start that the business’s leaders had disdain for the hourly staff in their restaurants. They didn’t trust them and treated them more like cogs in a system or a nondescript group of “them” than like the intelligent, hardworking people they were. 

Whenever something went wrong, it confirmed the leaders’ beliefs about in-store staff, corresponding to their low expectations. In turn, the low expectations created a massive disproportionate focus on problems and low performers, rather than instances of high performance. As a result, the business never achieved stability with in-store operations––and the hard-working, well-intentioned location managers felt the most pain of everyone involved. Each restaurant experienced high turnover and struggled with employees who arrived late and didn’t care much about their jobs or the company at large. Indeed, the leaders of this firm got exactly what they expected!

Now let’s consider one of my current clients: Boris is the CEO of Mott Corporation, a Connecticut-based manufacturing company that specializes in filtration and flow control. Boris has exceptionally high expectations of himself and his team. He never hesitates to challenge himself and those around him by raising the bar. As a result, his leadership team—and the company as a whole––have generated stellar results. In 2020, when many suffered at the hands of a very tough market, Boris and his organization experienced a record year. Today, they have an ambitious, well-conceived strategic plan and Boris’s high expectations continue to pull everyone forward.

“If you want your staff to perform to a higher standard,
begin by increasing your expectations of them.”

As you reflect on your own expectations, consider that they should encompass both the hard- and soft-edges of leadership. Soft-edge leadership elements include your firm’s human, cohesive, and cultural systems, for example, how you hire, fire, grow, care for, and promote people. Trust, collaboration, and accountability are also part of the soft edge. On the other hand, the hard-edge refers to the operation of your business and includes strategy, execution, and cash. You must cultivate high expectations of yourself and your team in both areas. 

To ensure your own leadership is on track, you must also ask: Who has expectations of me as a leader? And are they high enough? If your leader’s (or board of directors’) expectations aren’t as high as they should be, you may want to encourage them to raise the bar, which will help you grow. If that’s not an option, think about others who can hold you to high expectations and encourage you to level-up.

4. Coach for Growth

Most leaders coach for results, which is good. Few coach for growth, which is optimal. 

Let’s say you’re a sales manager coaching a salesperson on your team. You probably focus on how to overcome a particular objection, how to close a piece of business, or perhaps the next three steps in a big negotiation. Covering those topics is considered coaching. And in a way, it is. But in reality, when you provide those answers, the salesperson begins relying on you to tell them what to do. 

As a leader, you likely feel good about this because when they do what you suggest, and ultimately win business, it reinforces your actions. You feel like your coaching is working, and they feel great too. Plus, it’s often easy and comfortable, as there’s nothing threatening about giving someone instructions.

Here’s the problem: While you may be achieving some results, you’re not growing that person’s capacity to be more independent and accomplish things on their own. Rather, you’re creating dependence, and as we established, that’s not scalable. 

Coaching for growth requires a different approach. It’s about pointing out the things someone needs to learn so they can figure out how to accomplish something independently going forward. Here’s what this sounds like: “I noticed that every time you reach a certain point in a negotiation, you come to me with the same question. Why do you think that is?” 

Rather than telling them what to do and sending them on their way, you question a pattern you’ve observed in their behavior preventing them from being more effective in their role. Although this results in learning and independence over time, many leaders balk at the prospect of speaking so candidly to their employees, and then revert to coaching for results.

“When you care deeply and tell the brutal truth,
you’ll challenge your people in a way that
accelerates their growth and capacity.”

Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, makes the correct and compelling case that we need to be candid in our business relationships. To do that, we must care deeply and tell the brutal truth. You cannot have one without the other. Think about it: if you don’t care deeply about someone but tell them brutal truth, you’re a jerk. If you care so deeply that you cannot tell them something they really need to hear, you’re a wimp. Finding the balance between both makes for an effective and meaningful relationship. It’s also a requirement to coach for growth. 

When you care deeply and tell the brutal truth, you’ll challenge your people in a way that accelerates their growth and capacity. They’ll be able to do more, think at a higher level, and become more independent in their work.

Yet another benefit of coaching for growth? It distinguishes true A-players form everyone else. A-players love this process! They lean into it. Meanwhile, B players tolerate it, and C-players hate it. Coaching for growth makes them uncomfortable, and they’ll often tell you. Pay close attention to this, as it could signal it’s time to find someone else for the role.

Coaching for growth is required to scale. If you don’t build your team’s capacity, you’ll forever be the brain behind everyone else’s actions—an exhausting and low probability strategy to move your organization forward.

5. Walk Your Own Talk 

Although the previous four leadership behaviors are important, your integrity as a leader––the example you set with your own behavior––is by far the most critical. 

Whether you realize it or not, as a leader all eyes are on you, all the time. What you say. What you do. What you tolerate. How you make decisions. What (and who) you prioritize. What you reward. What you punish. And more! Everyone is watching everything you say and do. 

Consider for a moment whether you are walking your own talk as a leader. For example, are you: 

  • Living your own values? 
  • Honoring your own priorities? 
  • Accountable for your own decisions and outcomes? 
  • Balancing the hard- and soft-edges of leadership? 
  • Being coached for growth yourself? 

Before you answer these definitively, I challenge you to solicit outside opinions first by asking a few employees for honest feedback. 

“Whether you realize it or not, as a leader
all eyes are on you, all the time.”

If one of your aspirations is to scale your leadership and your organization, then a key behavior to model is delegating decisions and outcomes to others, as opposed to holding onto them yourself. Here’s an easy way to get started: Use the WDYR, or “what do you recommend?” method. Whenever an employee asks you a question about what to do next, instead of answering them, respond: “What do you recommend?” 

Expecting recommendations from your staff rather than questions is a bar-raising behavior! Do this consistently and within two weeks, people will begin coming to you with recommendations in lieu of questions. It works like magic, and it’s a great way to empower your team and foster independence. 

The truth is that, unless you get this fifth leadership behavior right, you’re going to have a hard time gaining the returns provided by the other four. Think about that, along with who you can enlist to help you (and your leadership team) walk your own talk. 

Conclusion

You cannot rightly expect a return unless you are first willing to make an investment. This is true for just about everything in life, leadership included. To create sustainable scale––the return––you must grow, challenge, and engage your team by increasing autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

The five leadership behaviors we’ve outlined here represent the investments necessary to make that happen. 

Start by soliciting feedback from your team and from impartial outsiders on whom you can depend, like forum mates or a qualified coach. Ask them about whether you walk your talk––and start with your own integrity––before moving on to the other behaviors.

Remember: You are both the problem and the solution to creating a more independent and empowered team!

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class Date: June 14th. Learn more and sign up!

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More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

You’re excited. You’re about to leave on your first real away-from-home vacation since 2019, before the pandemic. Tickets in hand and visions of a white sandy beach, aquamarine water, and exotic cocktails dancing in your head, you board the airplane and take your seat. 

Moments later, the captain’s voice confidently comes over the intercom. “Welcome aboard!” he says. “I’ve been flying jets for twenty-three years and have accumulated more than 30,000 flight hours over the course of my career. Today, I’ve decided to stop using the checklists we normally use before and during your flight. I know this stuff cold, so trust me, we’ll all be just fine. Enjoy the flight!” 

Wait, what?!?

If I was on that flight, I’d be off the plane before you could say “Mai Tai”––even at the expense of my first vacation in well over a year! Wouldn’t you? 

As Dr. Atul Gawande articulately explains in his book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, we all need checklists to help us reliably attend to the myriad details required by our roles and professions––even a 30,000-flight-hour commercial pilot! We know this intuitively. 

 The same is true for a leader like you with regard to the effectiveness of your decisions, actions, and overall leadership.

Spring Cleaning

Have you ever thought about why your closet gets messier with the passing of time? I’ll spare you the physics lecture, but it’s due to entropy, which is an increase in randomness and disorder when energy isn’t expended to maintain order.

 You expend significant energy to clean it out each spring, then relax over the year as mess and disorder accumulate. That is, until sometime the following spring when you put energy back into the system to create order once again. It’s a never-ending cycle. 

At this point, you may be wondering, “What does my closet have to do with leadership?” 

Leadership becomes messier (less disciplined) over time in the absence of focused energy to maintain order. And, as with your closet, you can overcome entropy’s unrelenting progression with some spring cleaning. With that in mind, I’ve created a checklist to bolster your leadership by focusing on eight factors that activate leadership success. 

Adapted from my first book, Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done, this checklist delves into eight activators to help you refresh, refocus and/or reframe your Purpose, Fears, Assumptions, Habits, Relationships, Metrics, Past Events, and Enjoying Your Journey. I’ve also included links to free downloadable tools to help you fully engage with each Activator.

1. Increase Inspiration

The term purpose may sound touchy-feely to some, but there’s no need to gather crystals or burn incense for this first segment of the checklist. In fact, there’s nothing even slightly fluffy about tapping into a sense of purpose to achieve something important. Hundreds of research studies tell us that big-picture objectives––like impact, one’s legacy, and an overarching purpose––are catalysts for inspiration and success-generating actions. With clarity of purpose, you can more easily and accurately determine whether taking a particular route serves you and your goals, and then act accordingly—while bringing others with you. (For additional compelling arguments on the value of a strong purpose, read Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why.) 

Checklist Questions: 

  • How clear is my organization’s core purpose? 
  • How deeply does every employee understand and connect to our purpose? 
  • What specifically can I do to further clarify and help our team connect to our purpose as an organization?

 Using purpose as a guiding principle makes day-to-day, hour-to-hour, and moment-to-moment choices easier and better. This Know Your WHY Tool will help you clarify the purpose behind your aspirations. 

2. Reduce Fear

Fear affects us all––and likely more than you think. Studies show that fear frequently hijacks our decision-making processes, leading us to make choices based solely on the potential of negative events, no matter how unlikely. Those decisions are typically safe bets—involving less creativity, less risk, and less change—to make us feel physically and/or psychologically safe and more secure. But you shouldn’t be comfortable leading a growing business. High performing growth firms encourage active experimentation and creativity—and by the same token, the risk of failure. To overcome your fears and make the decisions necessary to scale, you must first understand exactly what you’re afraid of, as well as the implications of your fears—and there are many.

Checklist Questions

  • What are my top 3 worries (fears) as a leader?  How do they influence my decisions and actions?
  • Where in the organization am I tolerating something that I shouldn’t? What must I do to act?
  • In which key areas of the business am I focused more on avoiding loss (loss of customers, employees, suppliers, money, prestige, etc.) than on achieving gains?

Most fears that impact business leaders arise in three categories: ego, scarcity, or failure. My research-based Fear Reduction Tool will help you overcome the fears that emerge from these checklist questions and then make the commitments necessary to succeed.

3. Get Rational (and Slow Down)

We are Emotional beings. Unfortunately, our emotions don’t reliably support our goals; rather, they tend to feed our egos, fears, and detrimental habits. One way to override emotions and interrupt unproductive habits is to force yourself to be as rational as possible. 

For example, many CEOs are in the habit of being seduced by their own busyness. Rather than working on big-picture aspects of their business, like assessing trends or thinking strategically, their assumptions regarding the value of their time cause them to choose to fix things right in front of them that seem to be broken. To avoid these counterproductive temptations, they should slow down and get rational by thinking through the comparative value of different actions available to them to determine which has more long-term payoff.

 The following questions will help you challenge unseen assumptions, get rational and slow down. 

Checklist Questions

  • What assumptions are associated with the most costly / frustrating business problem my team and I can’t seem to solve?
  • What specific evidence do I have that supports and validates each of those assumptions?
  • How could things be different if some of my assumptions were false?

 Use the Challenge Your Assumptions Tool to isolate a particular problem and determine how to move past it, breaking down the hidden assumptions that reinforce your current thinking.

4. Change Unproductive Habits 

All humans are creatures of habit. Our habits have helped us conserve energy and survive since our emergence as a species. As with many positive attributes, however, there are corresponding liabilities: some of our habits don’t serve us, harm our relationships, and even derail our aspirations. To address the liabilities, it’s important to periodically identify your most unproductive habits—the ones preventing you from reaching your personal and professional goals—and itemize the rewards that keep them in place (there are always rewards associated with habits, even “bad” habits!), as well as the consequences of maintaining them. With this clarity, you can then more readily replace them with other behaviors, which is the only way to permanently eradicate unproductive habits. 

Checklist Questions

  • What are three unproductive habits I exhibit as a leader? (Hint: if you don’t know, then ask your team – they’ll know!)
  • What one habit, if changed, would make my life healthier, happier, and/or more fulfilling?
  • How can I become even more self-aware in the year ahead?

 My Change Your Habits Tool will help you identify the behaviors or patterns of thought that aren’t serving you, consider their rewards and consequences, and take steps to replace them with more productive behaviors / thinking. 

5. Change Your Neighborhood

When I began looking for my first house, my Grandpa Ben gave me some advice: “No matter what you do,” he said, “don’t ever buy the most expensive house in the neighborhood because there’s only one way the other houses can affect your property value over time.”

His wisdom made perfect sense to me, so I’ve followed it ever since. It wasn’t until years later that I realized Grandpa Ben’s advice applied to more than real estate transactions; it’s also a key insight for relationships. If you have more experience, clients, and resources than your peers, YOU may have become the most expensive house in your professional neighborhood––and there’s only one way those around you can affect your value (and rate of growth).  

To continually improve, you must surround yourself with people who are better than you, who make you a little uncomfortable and who challenge you. These are the professional “neighbors” who can truly accelerate your growth!

Checklist Questions

  • Which groups, networks, forums, peers, or advisors have I outgrown as a leader?
  • Who are the top ten people in the world with the capability to help me accelerate my growth as a leader?
  • What assumptions and habits do I have that could prevent me from cultivating my top ten list? (Hint: refer to the Assumptions and Habits sections above) 

When you surround yourself with individuals who have already reached the next level (or beyond)—who have broken past the place where you are, they’ll help you stretch and challenge you to improve, increasing your value over time. This New Neighborhood Tool will help you identify and find them.

6. Measure More

To be successful in any worthy endeavor, you must be willing to make trade-offs today for tomorrow’s rewards. But it’s hard to focus on the future when your hair is on fire, which is often the scenario for leaders running high-growth firms. Forcing more future focus helps, and one way to do that is to measure more––tracking your progress on the path toward a larger objective. This practice helps you stay in the present while also thinking more long-term.

Checklist Questions

  • Does each member of my team understand the outcomes they are paid to deliver in their role?
  • How frequently do we discuss our metrics as a team? If not weekly, what needs to happen so we can discuss them weekly?
  • Have we created clear, compelling three-year objectives for the business that all of our employees understand?

To ensure that your long-term aspirations receive the attention, energy, and investment they deserve, you must build a habit to measure more and increase your future focus. Completing this Accountability Tool and referring to it daily will enable you and your team to do just that.

7. Leverage Your Past

According to psychologists, our perceptions about the past tend to skew either toward the positive––meaning we tend to remember the past fondly, or toward the negative—making us more likely to retain memories with a negative charge. While a leader with past-positive orientation will likely recall events to bolster their confidence as they approach a challenge, those with a past-negative orientation might face a problem or even an opportunity with fear, dread, or total avoidance, remembering a similar past experience that didn’t end well. Fortunately, you can reframe your past, shed your mental baggage, and shift your perception to see the positives in an experience you previously considered to be negative. 

Checklist Questions

  • What are three critical leadership decisions I need to make within the next six months?
  • For each of these decisions, which negative experiences in my past have the potential to derail my ability to do the “right, hard thing?”
  • Upon reflection, what positives or lessons learned came from my negative experiences? How can I utilize them to become more effective as a leader?

This Reframe Your Past Tool will help you reframe your perspective and make past experiences more effectively support your future. 

8. Enjoy the Journey

Researchers including Philip Zimbardo, psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, have repeatedly demonstrated that being in the present moment is a valuable trait. Life is full of unexpected situations. If you can be OK with that reality, you can learn to capitalize on it, have more fun, and more fully enjoy the journey along the way.

Checklist Questions

  • How does my mobile phone, tablet, or laptop computer interfere with my ability to be present for others who are important to me, both personally and professionally?
  • What activities do I find fun and enjoyable that I’ve not done in a while?
  • How can I add more spontaneity to my life?

 We often spend our emotional and physical energy focused on the past (what’s already happened) or on the future (what we want to or think will happen) at the expense of the present—the moment that’s right here, right now. This Schedule the Present Tool will help you engage in more present moment-focused activities to help you better enjoy the journey.

Conclusion

John C. Maxwell said, “Small disciplines repeated with consistency every day lead to great achievements gained slowly over time.” But leaders, just like airline pilots need checklists to consistently attend to the critical elements of their roles. Today’s spring cleaning checklist is a necessary tool to refresh, refocus and reenergize your leadership.

 After completing the checklist questions, pick the one or two Activators you most want to develop. For additional guidance on where to focus, take the Activators Self-Assessment here and the Hidden Growth Killers Self-Assessment here (like the tools, both are available for free). When you know what you’re committing to—and perhaps also how you plan to achieve it—consider working with an accountability partner, a friend, colleague, or coach who can help you meet your goals and combat the entropy that will inevitably sneak into your endeavors.  

Just like the inevitable mess in your closet, your leadership becomes less disciplined over time in the absence of focused energy to maintain order. But applying a little energy—and the Activators—will help you and your team stay on track in all seasons. 

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Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class Date: June 14th. Learn more and sign up!

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Accountability for results is a perennial challenge for business leaders worldwide. It’s costly and frustrating––not only for shareholders and leaders, but also for top-performing employees who see underperformance in others tolerated and often rewarded.

Excuse-making is a common symptom of low accountability. But beware: the excuses I’m referring to aren’t always obvious like the adult version of “the dog ate my homework.” In many cases, your team’s excuses are subtle, and even plausible, which is why it’s so important to distinguish them from more legitimate rationale.

Although there’s a fine line between rationale and an excuse, effective leaders know the difference.

Note too that any organization is only as strong as its weakest link, so it’s wise to contemplate not only your own behaviors which, whether you realize it or not, you model for your employees, but also the behaviors you tolerate in others. After all, behaviors you model and tolerate become accepted cultural norms and, if that includes excuse-making and low accountability, then it’s quite likely, dear reader, that you are the root cause!

“There’s a fine line between rationale and an excuse. Effective leaders know the difference.”

With that in mind, let’s embark on our exploration of four leadership strategies to eliminate excuse-making in your firm, starting with the most vital element: you.

Lead by Example

Accountability must start with you.

Consider the following series of questions that highlight the slippery slope of leadership behaviors I’ve seen lead to excuse-making and low organizational accountability:

Do you arrive and start meetings on time? Meet your commitments to others? Honor every one of your firm’s Core Values consistently? Accomplish your own projects and tasks on time? Identify and consider risks with potential to delay or derail commitments and business results? Follow your own policies and rules? Communicate both good and bad news transparently and without delay? Make excuses for your shortcomings?

Here’s a leadership reality: all eyes and ears in your business are focused on you. What you say and what you do are invisibly and constantly observed, scrutinized, and evaluated as your managers and employees look for clues as to how they should behave. The most effective leaders I’ve coached consistently lead by example and walk their own talk; that is, they answer all the above questions “yes,” all the time.

If you’re not sure whether you make excuses or truly lead by example, ask a trusted member of your team, a forum mate, or an outside professional or coach for candid feedback on whether or not you are inadvertently modeling a culture you don’t want.

If you find that you have an issue when it comes to excuses or other accountable behaviors, eliminate it as soon as possible. Why? Every shift in your organization—big or small—begins with your commitment to change yourself first! Once you’ve addressed your own behavior, you can more objectively evaluate the rest of your team, beginning with senior leadership.

“Every shift in your organization—big or small—begins with your commitment to change yourself first!”

Low accountability often masks a significant problem: that one or more members of your management team may not be the right person for their role. That is, they can’t or won’t exhibit the leadership and accountability behaviors required to pull your business forward.

This can be difficult to recognize and acknowledge, potentially leading you to the excuse-making behaviors we’re aiming to eliminate! There is no end to the justifications as to why everyone on your team is “100 percent right” for their role. Trust me, I’ve heard them all.

Before you begin listing your excuses on their behalf, consider these two realities.

1.     Your emotional attachment to longstanding members of your team interferes with your ability to objectively evaluate their performance and fit; and

2.     A whopping 85 percent of the leadership teams I’ve coached had at least one member turnover within the first twelve months of my engagement because the person wasn’t right for that seat.

If you have a people problem—and the odds are that you do—you have to be honest with yourself and make the switch. The wrong people in the wrong seats aren’t capable of helping you improve your organization’s accountability. The best question to ask yourself in this regard is “Would I enthusiastically rehire every member of my leadership team?” Of course, the key word here is “enthusiastically.”

If not, it’s time to stop making your excuses, lead by example, and act.

Separate Decisions from Actions

I’ve found that the ease of justifying and excusing inaction varies in direct proportion to the degree of complexity perceived in the task. In other words, people make more excuses when taking action feels challenging!

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean by this: 

Most leaders have, at least once, employed a high performing employee who is toxic to their culture. You know the individual needs to be sent packing, but since they bring some value to the business—like relationships or certain know-how, you fear two things: loss and retribution. Let’s say your problem employee is in customer service. You worry about how much revenue or customer satisfaction you’ll lose without them, and perhaps whether they’ll take some of your best clients with them. You might also worry that they’ll move to a competitor or recruit some of your other staff to join them. 

In situations like these, the details of how and whenHow should I let them go? and When should I let them go?—typically dominate and delay the decision-making process. These complexities are masked, however, by the rationale (excuses) that you manufacture to justify why firing them isn’t a good idea! As a result, the hard questions remain unaddressed and your culture (and employees) continue to suffer at the hands of a toxic colleague.

What’s a well-intentioned leader to do?

For thorny or complex situations, isolate the elements of your decision and start with the what—determine the right action to take without regard to how or when to act.

Once the commitment to right action is made (the what), then and only then determine the actions that must be executed (the how) and the timeline on which to act (the when). This approach increases the probability you’ll get the job done––and leaves less room for excuses.

Increase Accountability 

I’m a fan of simple leadership frameworks that create structure and work reliably over time. Meeting rhythms, prioritization, and the decision-making model above are examples of frameworks I use with my clients to great effect. Accountability is another one.

Do you use a framework to create accountability on your team? Most leaders don’t. They wing it, which is why accountability––and the corresponding excuses—are an ongoing headache for so many organizations.

This is a struggle for every leader I have ever coached! How do you let go, while ensuring that others will fulfill their part of the bargain––to your standards, no less? You deploy the building blocks of accountability.

“Do you use a framework to create accountability on your team? Most leaders don’t. They wing it, which is why accountability––and the corresponding excuses—are an ongoing headache for so many organizations.”

My excuse-busting accountability framework contains the following three elements:

1.     Believe in them. This is crucial. If you don’t truly believe someone can accomplish the task or project you’re requesting, they won’t either. On the flipside, if you show them you have high expectations—that you know they can meet—those expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ensure the following message comes through loud and clear, repetitively over time: I believe in you.

2.     Give them the why behind your request. Tell them why the task you’re assigning matters to the business and to you personally. Divulging your personal stake in the outcome further enhances the perceived importance of what you’re asking them to do. You’re essentially communicating: This is important to me.

3.     Demonstrate that you’re paying attention. After expressing how much their progress and results matter to you, be sure to follow up on a regular rhythm. Checking in reinforces the importance of their work and your expectation that they’ll achieve the agreed-upon goal. You’re telling them: I’m watching.

Early in my career I worked for a manager who was exceptional at creating accountability in others. She employed a particularly effective “drive by” technique to demonstrate that she was paying attention. As we passed each other in the hallway, she would smile at me and say something like, “You’re going to get that report to me by the end of business today, right?” I could only reply with a confident “of course,” before hustling back to my desk to ensure it was done before I went home that evening. I knew she was watching!

With these core elements in place, your team will have more clarity regarding your expectations and why their work matters. Excuses will disappear, and accountability––and results––will follow.

For a deeper dive into creating a culture of accountability, you’ll find my monograph on the topic here.

Focus on Next Action

Excuse-makers often deploy a shield of complexity to justify their inaction and/or lack of results. They say things like, “the devil is in the details,” or “we can’t proceed until X happens,” or “until [key person’s name] is free, we can’t move this forward.” People who use excuses like these are abdicating responsibility to control their actions and results.

The antidote to these excuses is to focus on next action.

Ask them one of the following:

·        “What can you do? What specifically is the next step here?”

·        “If you could imagine another solution to advance this, what would it be?”

·        “How can you eliminate that as an obstacle to proceeding?”

Then, patiently and quietly wait for—and expect—the answer. When they provide it, follow up with one more question: “By when?”

By forcing specificity and a clear, time-bound next action, you’ll neutralize the effects of the shield of complexity, force them to be accountable for their actions, and spur them to move forward.

Conclusion

George Washington Carver said, “Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.” 

As we’ve uncovered, excuse-making is a habit derived from loose accountability. On the other hand, crisp accountability starts and ends with you, the leader: your own behaviors and what you tolerate in others.

“Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
– George Washington Carver

With that in mind, here’s a recap of the four leadership strategies to eliminate excuse-making in your organization:

·        Lead by Example

·        Separate Decisions from Actions

·        Increase Accountability

·        Focus on Next Action

Breaking your own excuse-making habit first equips you with the credibility and clarity to help others do the same, improving productivity––and profitability––in the long run. Best of all, you can start right now.

After all, there’s no legitimate excuse not to!

==============================================

Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class Date: June 14th.  Learn more and sign up!

==============================================

More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…