Five Leadership Patterns that Accelerate Sustainable Growth

For the past twelve years (and counting), every quarterly leadership team meeting begins with a bright spot identification exercise. Every. Single. One.

I use this ritual with my coaching clients—leadership teams running high-growth small- and mid-market firms—for a number of reasons: It opens a full, intense day of strategic planning on a positive note, it provides a pause for reflection, and it allows the leadership team to celebrate progress. But none of these is the primary purpose of recognizing bright spots.

We identify bright spots to learn from them.  

A bright spot is a significant win, advancement, or accomplishment that occurred during the previous quarter. Here are a few examples: fully implementing a new software package, exceeding a revenue target, achieving a companywide priority, and expanding a major client relationship. They’re all major accomplishments.

To learn from bright spots, I have my clients identify the causal patterns of thinking and behavior that created them. 

Usually there are just four to six patterns that explain most of a team’s bright spots for any given quarter. The patterns––whether thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors— tell the real story of what happened during the quarter and provide insight as to what worked. This, in turn, allows the leadership team to “double down” on the patterns for the coming quarter to build on their success. 

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that bright spot patterns aren’t unique to each organization. Rather, they tend to repeat on a larger scale. In fact, a particular set of patterns recurs regularly among new coaching clients––those in the first twelve to eighteen months of our relationship. These patterns contain critical lessons for leaders to internalize and implement.

“The more we observe patterns, the more we connect the dots and make sense out of them, the more we learn.”  ― Omar Sharif

Today, from the bright spot rituals of my client work, I’m sharing the five most powerful leadership success patterns my early-stage clients learn to help you, your team, and your organization reap the benefits of accelerated growth and success. 

#1 Put the Right People in the Right Seats (RPRS)

We’ll begin with the most important question a leader can ask: Who?

The imperative of ensuring that your organization has the right people in the right seats (RPRS) is the most powerful, transformative, challenging, and often painful lesson any leadership team can learn. 

The problem is most leaders (please note, dear reader, this likely means you) are either tolerating or in denial of the people issues that plague their organizations.

Their need to be liked and emotional entanglements with others make it hard to recognize that they don’t have the right people in the right seats in the first place. What’s more, they tend to be far too forgiving when they evaluate their people which renders them unable to see the real damage occurring to their firm before it’s too late.

Even worse, when leaders know and acknowledge they don’t have RPRS, many are hesitant to remove sub-par players, choosing to give up the potential of better hires in the name of the status quo—even if there are significant downsides.

For example, a client of mine employed a salesperson who produced, but was toxic to the culture. The CEO knew he should do something about it, but was wary of risking the revenue, so he decided to tolerate the salesperson’s behavior—even though the right new hire would be equally productive and fit their culture. This particular CEO failed to honor his culture, demonstrated a lack of caring for all of his employees who did, and eventually had to fire the problem salesperson anyway after a particularly nasty transgression. The leader’s error was classic “bird in the hand” thinking . . . except the bird was pecking at his face while the entire company watched. Ouch!

RPRS is a never-ending quest. You don’t just find the right players, check off the RPRS box, and call it a day. The process typically begins with the need to remove underperformers and others who aren’t a fit and evolves to a more proactive and developmentally minded effort to add capacity and experience to your team. 

I ensure that my clients evaluate RPRS regularly using a two-dimensional matrix of performance and culture. Every quarter, every employee (in smaller firms) or every direct report of the executive team (in larger firms) is graded based on their performance and cultural fit. The leadership team then discusses both problem staff and their highest performers, so those who are below the bar are placed on a performance plan (or exited), and those who excel are supported and developed.

In my experience, the lessons of RPRS can take years to learn (or learn, forget, and then re-learn—often quite painfully). But—more than any other tool, technique, strategy, or plan—the sooner you and your team truly embrace RPRS, the sooner you’ll accelerate your growth and dramatically decrease the drama and stress in your firm. After all, you’re only as good as the weakest links in your organizational chain.

Key Question: Where are you tolerating RPRS issues in your organization?

#2 Identify Fewer, Clearer Priorities

When everything is important, nothing is important. 

At face value this leadership lesson makes perfect sense, so why do so many business leaders go wrong in their pursuit of a “more is better” based philosophy of prioritization? Here’s a clue, as Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, explains: “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 plural of the word “priority” didn’t even exist until the 20th century!

The primary role of a leader is to signal what matters most. As you learn to discern and communicate the small number of things that truly matter most (hint: begin by defining the purpose, core values, and long-term aspirations for your organization), almost like magic, your team will accomplish more in the direction of your objectives.

“The primary role of a leader is to signal what matters most.”
Click here to Tweet.

Here are the rules I use with my clients as we define their priorities: 

  • Plan three-year, one-year, and one-quarter priorities. 
  • While three-year priorities can be a bit more vague, priorities for the year and the quarter should be clear and in focus. This is the priority planning tool I use with my clients.
  • Stick to a maximum of three annual priorities and just one quarterly ROCK—the priority you’ve identified as most important for your business that quarter. 
  • 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).

Once you pare down your priorities like my clients do, it’s time to ensure they’re focused and clear. To check, watch for symptoms of poorly defined priorities. If you and/or your team are struggling with “time management” problems; mired in lots of activity while achieving very little; or putting out fires as a primary function of management, you’ve got some sharpening to do.

Key Question: How effectively are you signaling what matters most to your team?

#3 Implement Communication Rhythms

In both the largest and the smallest of firms, lack of coordination and alignment is very costly and frustrating to leaders, employees, clients, partners, and suppliers alike. And—trust me as your coach on this one—you’re nowhere near as effective a communicator as you think you are! Implementing communication rhythms fixes these issues, improves accountability, builds esprit de corps, and—when deployed properly—strengthens your culture along the way. 

Communication rhythms—particularly daily and weekly meetings—are the simplest, most powerful success pattern your team can implement.

Here are the communication rhythms I require my coaching 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 only. Don’t cascade them throughout the organization until the senior team has mastered them and is deriving clear value from the process. This commonly takes several months.

One of my clients recently thanked me for helping them implement communication rhythms. He said: “You know, Mark, if not for the communication rhythms and structures you helped us put in place, there’s no way we could have transitioned seamlessly to 100 percent remote within forty-eight hours last March [of 2020] without skipping a beat!” 

Here’s an important additional detail: this client is a 1,000-employee organization. And, yes, they moved from an entirely in-person model to fully remote within two days when the pandemic hit in early 2020!

This leader’s experience demonstrates how meaningful and powerful communication rhythms and clear priorities are, not just in the pursuit of your goals, but also when challenges inevitably arise. 

Key Question: Which communication rhythms will we implement and/or improve?

#4 Continually Grow as Leaders and as a Team

“I’ve never observed a business where the sustained growth rate of the firm exceeds the personal growth rate of the people running it.”  

–Mark Green      Click here to Tweet.

There’s a good reason I say this all the time: Your own individual growth and the growth of each member of your leadership team are essential to your company’s success. 

The following three elements build cumulatively and highlight critically important areas for individual and team growth:

  • Higher Vulnerability and Trust: Research demonstrates that high-vulnerability teams exhibit more trust and outperform less-trusting teams. The behaviors of high-vulnerability teams include asking for help, disclosing mistakes, requesting unvarnished feedback, admitting you don’t know things, and expressing a willingness to change your mind.
  • Better Debates and Decision-Making: With a willingness to be vulnerable with one another and higher trust, teams are able to more vigorously debate ideas and ideologies, which leads to better decision-making. 
  • More Accountability: Better debates and decision-making, in turn, improve accountability because each team member feels like they contributed and were heard during the decision-making process. Further, high trust teammates are more likely to rely on and hold one another accountable. 

Meanwhile, lower-trust teams don’t cultivate vulnerability, hang back from having hard conversations, miss out on rigorous debates, and tend to make less optimal decisions. Without the same opportunities to feel safe and heard, they are also less likely to hold themselves and others accountable. 

My primary purpose as a coach is to nurture this success pattern of leadership and team growth. As such, my clients consider me the Chief Bar Raiser (CBR) for the executive team.

Key Questions: Who is your team’s CBR? Where do you need to raise the bar for growth as a leader and for your leadership team?

#5 Lead by Example

During the American Revolutionary War our first commander-in-chief, George Washington, came upon a group of soldiers struggling to lift a massive oak beam. 

After watching them for a bit, Washington asked the corporal—who was standing by shouting encouragement—why he wasn’t helping. The corporal replied, “Don’t you realize I am the corporal?” 

Very politely, General Washington responded, “Yes, Mr. Corporal, I do.” Washington then dismounted his horse and worked with the soldiers to position the beam. When they finished, General Washington wiped the perspiration from his brow, and said “If you should need help again, call on Washington, your commander-in-chief, and I will come.” (story adapted from Maxwell, J. (2011). 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential.)

General Washington led by example, and with good reason. Whether you realize it or not, all eyes and ears within 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. 

Leading by Example (LBE) is the most critical leadership success pattern, in that it ensures all of the other patterns can be implemented. The most effective leaders I’ve coached consistently lead by example and walk their own talk.

To improve your LBE, ask yourself these three questions at least once every day:

  • Are my actions aligned with my intentions? 
  • Am I holding myself to an even HIGHER standard of behavior than my team? 
  • Am I willing to do the things I ask others to do, before I ask them to do those things (as George Washington was)? 

All three of your answers should be a definitive YES to pass the LBE threshold.

The opposite of LBE is “Do as I say, not as I do,” and it’s easy to accidently (and with otherwise good intentions) fall into this trap without realizing it. This is why it’s important to enlist others around you to help you hold yourself accountable to your intentions and to your word. 

Key Question: Where are you failing the LBE threshold?

The Power of Pattern Recognition

Here, in summary, are the five leadership success patterns my early-stage coaching clients learn and identify as powerful drivers of their growth:

#1 Put the Right People in the Right Seats (RPRS)

#2 Identify Fewer, Clearer Priorities

#3 Implement Communication Rhythms

#4 Continually Grow as Leaders and as a Team

#5 Lead by Example

Although pattern recognition is a virtue for any leader, learning from and acting on them is where the real value lies. These are the patterns that have been foundational to my clients’ successes over the years, yielding countless bright spots, stronger cultures, greater accountability, more fun, less stress, and—critically—faster and more sustainable growth.

Now you too can put these proven leadership lessons to work.


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