In What Roles Do You Also Lead?

Over the course of time, I have read numerous books on leadership and have attended trainings, as well. Without fail, all of them talked about leadership at work. Perhaps that was due to purchasing bias on my part because I wanted to be the best leader I could be in my career.

Being in the midst of my 60th trip around the sun, I find myself being more reflective. Not so much to second guess my past, but to make sure I get the final chapters right. One of my very recent reflections has been centered on where, besides at work, have I been a leader and where have I been the best leader. There are two non-work parts of my life that called me to be a leader: my family and my church.

As for my church (churches, actually), I have held leadership roles since our very first church in Greenfield, WI back in 1985. I held various leadership roles in different functions. Over the years, the health of the areas under my leadership seemed to improve. Of course, it wasn’t so much what I did as it was what God did through me, so I really can’t take any credit. Still, with God’s ample assistance, I think I have led well in those rolls.

In my business career, I’ve had positive impacts on my employers and my businesses over the course of time. Stumbles were many, but I kept getting better and the businesses grew more profitable. I was blessed to have really good people with which to work (both as bosses and as co-workers) and we accomplished much. Hopefully, I had some level of influence upon those successes.

Upon a lot of reflection, the most important leadership opportunity that I have had was in my family. If I am honest, however, it’s in this role in which I think I’ve done my poorest job of leading. One could say that a family is the most complex and demanding of these three leadership roles. That could be true, but that really is no excuse. The fact of the matter is that it’s been the leadership role for which I was the least prepared…and the one that scared me the most.

We are all driven by something. That “thing” for me has often been the fear of failure. I don’t know what it is for me about leading my family that made me flinch, but I did. In business, I attacked and shored up my weaknesses. In church, I gave God my hands and my heart and let him use me. But at home….I just felt inadequate.

I don’t share this with you to pout. My main conclusion from this reflection mirrors advice that I give my coaching clients: NONE of us knows everything. I tell them to build on their strengths and hire to fill in for their weaknesses (either via employees or mentors). In my personal life, my loving and patient wife has filled in for all my holes as we raised our family. Our sons have turned into fine young men and I simply cannot describe how proud of them I am. She is that perfect example of surrounding ourselves with team mates that complete us. Of course, I didn’t hire her (I doubt she would have taken the job). Instead, God saw in her exactly what I needed and He put us together. Perhaps, he saw in me exactly what she needed, too. Together we led our family. We had each others’ back and we pressed onward. She is my greatest blessing. On this Valentines week, I celebrate her.

Who fills in your holes? Celebrate them!

Leadership is Not About Power

A number of years ago, when I was leading a group of about 150 employees, I used to have “Lunch With Jeff” for all the employees that had a birthday in the current month. I would have one gathering for 1st shift and a second gathering at the switchover between 2nd and 3rd shift.

A typical get-together would include some pizza or subs served in a conference room. Generally speaking, these were pretty well attended affairs. Who doesn’t like free food? My primary purposes were to: 1. Wish them happy birthday (always good to survive another year, right?), 2. Thank them for the effort they were putting forth, 3. Give them a chance to get to know me better and me them, 4. Let them ask me pretty much anything, with the caveat that there were some things I either did not know or could not answer.

I recall, in particular, one of these lunches that occurred during the run-up to a presidential election. Living in Iowa at the time, the Iowa Caucuses were on nearly everyone’s radar. During the course of conversation, one of the youngest in the group (guessing early 20’s) indicated that he wanted to go into politics and get elected (we nicknamed him The Senator from that day forward). Being extremely skeptical of nearly all politicians I asked him why he wanted to do that. He replied, “For the power; just like you are in management for the power.”

I looked at him and smiled what I hope was a gentle smile and informed him that I really had no power at all. Sure, I could hire and fire. However, I did the latter only out of necessity. Beyond that, I explained that the power belonged to each of them. If they weren’t buying what I was selling, it would show in the business’ results and I would be out on my ear in short order. If they were buying into my vision, then they could make the company as good as they possibly could. There was a short period of silence followed by a new topic of conversation.

John Maxwell tells us in his book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” that the true measure of leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less. The ability to influence is preceded necessarily by a relationship. No influence occurs until there is a relationship created first. That is true for a business, a family unit, the acceptance of a faith….any influence.

Since this is a business blog: If you own or manage a business/business segment, invest the time in your team to get to know them and allow them to know you. In doing so, the relationships you develop will allow you to influence your team so you can lead them to new heights.

What Does Your Business Stand For

Most business owners/executives are rightly concerned about the customers’ perception of their business.  They work very hard at trying to manage that perception through their marketing program.  The really successful ones have a very clear vision of what their business is about and what it stands for.  From there, they make sure that all communication and customer interaction reflects that vision.  Now, being human, mistakes are made in this endeavor.  The key is to get back on track immediately.

In order to do this in your business, answer this one question:  “What do you stand for?”  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  It really takes a lot of self examination, especially for a leader of a small business like me.  This is because every step you take has a direct reflection on you.  Plus, if you actually stand for something, there may be potential customers that aren’t comfortable with that and decide not to patronize your business.  It’s tough self-love and can be risky, but critical to identifying what your business stands for.

When I purchased my auto repair business two years ago, I thought long and hard about the experience I wanted to provide for our clients with respect to what I wanted our image to be; what I personally stood for.  Believing firmly that God put me in this place at this time, I believed that the business was my opportunity to do His work through this business.  I made that clear by putting the Christian Fish symbol on our company’s sign and a reference to my faith on our business cards.

Clearly, there will be people that don’t come to our shop because they don’t believe what I believe.  So be it.  That’s their right.  I can look in the mirror and know that we stand for something good and right AND our clients know that.  That gives us a baseline from which to operate and makes it clear What We Stand For.

Improve or Die

You’ve either worked for, read about or know someone who worked at a company that made a ton of money for a long time doing the same things they’d always done. Then, all of the sudden, the market/industry changed. Now, efficiency and higher levels of customer service and speed are what it takes to compete. Unfortunately, the company didn’t have some or all of those attributes. This was mostly because they spent years or even decades without any quantum changes in their processes. Now what?

It’s time to get on the process improvement band wagon. You know; the stuff you’ve been reading about for years. It doesn’t matter what set of tools you use. My personal preference is to embrace Lean Enterprise because of its common sense thought process regarding waste elimination. I’ve found that every person in the organization can grasp its concepts. There’s also Six Sigma, TQM and a number of hi-bred programs. Get to learning and get improving. Not doing so will seal the fate of your organization.

More to come on this topic.

Integrity

As I watch, with my mouth likely hanging open, at the lies, vitriol, closed mindedness and overall lack of character going on in Washington, I find my self hoping this does not pour over as normal behavior into the rest of society. Now, Washington’s behavior shouldn’t surprise me. They continue to under-perform and fail to meet already low expectations on a daily basis (just look at their approval rating). However, I’m still amazed by the behavior of people who are supposedly adults; supposedly leaders.

As you look to set the course of your business, use the Washington example of what NOT to do. Whether you are the CEO, VP or the Mail room Manager:

DO treat people with respect and dignity.
DO communicate frequently and clearly with your team and your customers (internal and external).
DO maintain calm in tough situations. Your team is looking to be led.
DO lead by example.
DO involve your team in decisions that affect their day to day activities.
DO have something else in your life more important than work (your team probably does).
DO say please and thank you.
DO have open and honest dialog.
DO be a person of good character.
DO insist on absolute integrity from your team.

Let Washington be Washington. Emulate someone better.

The Three P’s

People, Processes and Products.

Simply put, if you have excellence  in all three of these areas, your organization is bound to be successful.  If you have been around business for any length of time, this isn’t exactly a revelation.  However, it keeps it simple (a common theme of mine).   When you are wondering why your results aren’t quite what you want them to be, come back to the three P’s to re-center yourself as a leader.  Analyze each of the P’s and find out where the weakness(s) lie.

People – We all want to hire the best people.  While it’s not easy and we do make mistakes from time to time, having a thorough and systematic hiring process will limit those errors.  Beyond hiring, we have to be aware that our business is changing.  Are our people keeping up with the changes?  Can they still handle the new environment?  Has the business outgrown them?  These are some of the things to consider to ensure that the three P’s stay in balance.

Processes – If you have great people, but the processes within which they work are not up to snuff, the opportunities for failure increase significantly.  Conversely, you can be successful with air-tight procedures and some average people.  Now, I wouldn’t recommend a whole staff of mediocrity because that’s asking for trouble.  However, the power of an excellent process multiplies every team member’s ability to succeed.

Products – This is where the rubber meets the road.   Do you have products/services that customers actually want to purchase?  Do they see enough value in your offerings that they will pay a profitable price or are you selling a commodity?  You can make money either way, but a commodity product requires a low-cost operation with a much smaller margin for error.  In my experience, a high-value product is a lot more fun.  You can afford a few more key people and the helps prevent your team from burning out.  Again, this is something that needs to be monitored.  What used to be a high-value product, my become commoditized one day.  It’s important to recognize this and be ready with new high-value offerings or be prepared to adjust your cost structure rapidly.

Our mothers used to tell us to mind our P’s and Q’s.  Keep it simple and just focus on the P’s.

Let’s Be Clear

If you are a business leader, how well are your team members aligned with your vision?

Are you sure?  When was the last time you asked them about their overall reason for being employed there?  If you are like most, it’s been a while.  When was the last time you actually stood in front of your team and specifically and succinctly explained to them why they are there with you?  Probably as long, if not longer.

This is a very common problem in the businesses that I’ve work in and been associated with from the outside.  Oddly, it’s one of the easiest things to correct.   Get your team together for 15 minutes next week and tell them what your vision is.  You should know that like the back of your hand; after all, it’s your vision.  Then talk about it every chance you get.  Leave no doubt as to what the company is trying to accomplish.  You and only you can do this.  Don’t leave it to your direct reports (you probably haven’t been clear with them either).  Don’t leave it to the line managers.  They are usually trying to get today’s orders out the door.  You must own this one.  It cannot be delegated.

Once you’ve done it, don’t turn around and change it.  You will confuse everyone and make the business more complex than it needs to be.  Anything you add to the business needs to fit under your big picture vision.  That’s how you keep it clear and avoid constant changes.

Keep your team moving in the same direction with a consistent, clear message.   And do it now.