Category Archives: Leadership

I Can Do Hard Things

Phil had dropped in to go through our insurance coverage in detail. Two hours later he was headed out the door when Karen asked him about his family. He explained he had six children and sixteen grandchildren. When I commented that Karen is a reading tutor for kids getting started in elementary education, Phil mentioned that he has two autistic grandchildren and one Down Syndrome child. He then told us a short story I will not soon forget.
His Down Syndrome granddaughter came home from school one day with bloody and skinned hands. After a fair amount of questioning and prying, her mom got out of her that she had been trying to prove she could do what the other kids do at school. In this case, she was trying to make it from one end of the monkey bars to the other, hand-over-hand, without dropping off. Her mangled hands were a result of many unsuccessful attempts. Through tears she told her mother, “I can do hard things!”

I’ll think of that the next time I run into a business challenge that is important but where I am shrinking from the hard work of seeing it through. I’ll think of that the next time a family member asks me for help on something that metaphorically looks like a steep mountain, at a time when I’d really rather expend my energy elsewhere. And I’ll think about that little girl the next time I set a personal goal, large or small, that suddenly reveals itself to be much more difficult than I had planned.
One more thing…I’ve asked my family to adopt with me a motto for our clan. It doesn’t have to be the only principle that states who we are, but I think it will prove to be an important one. “I can do hard things.”

Your Black Labrador

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Oscar

Oscar, my black lab, looks a little different from most black labs. His legs are shorter, his fur is shorter, and his head is smaller – not to mention his entire body. But he’s a black lab because, where we have recently moved, everybody has a big dog, and many are black labs. So, he needs to be a black lab.

When we hike a trail with his new best friend, Delmar (who looks a lot closer to a black lab than Oscar), Oscar invests himself in the walk almost completely. He wants to keep up with Delmar. His short legs churn at blazing speed (OK, maybe not blazing, but faster than normal), constantly trying to catch up to Delmar. This attempt at speed is in dramatic contrast with a normal Oscar walk which is more of a saunter, a meandering, a sashaying, guided by his nose, and at a pace resembling that of the occasional slug he confronts on our garden path.

Oscar’s metamorphosis when walking with Delmar is not unlike some small businesses. When they get around larger businesses, they develop more of a spring in their step. Large customers, large suppliers, large potential investors, and large member companies in their peer advisory group can cause the business to step it up a notch.

As a result of hanging out with Delmar, Oscar is healthier and his self esteem is elevated. He’ll probably live longer because of his new friend. He dares to try new things (like actually getting close to the creek that runs along one of his favorite hiking trails).

If there’s a downside, it’s the potential for injury as he tries to keep up with the big dogs. He could experience a heart attack, or he could develop the confidence to leap into a fast moving stream that whisks him away prematurely to doggie heaven.

Business lessons? Acquiring large customers or large suppliers or large investors, or joining a business owner peer advisory group with some larger members can be helpful to your business growth, if you’re willing to run faster to make up for your shorter legs. While it’s OK to tell fellow business owners that you are running a $10 million business, even if the best year you’ve ever had was $7.8 million, do not let that bravado lead you into overburdening the business with debt, or seriously overcommitting to large customers.

One of your challenges as CEO is to balance your view of your business against reality. Dreaming of a bigger business can be the beginning of a true metamorphosis. Driving the business considerably faster than its current capabilities allow can lead to a bad ending. The best CEO is a balanced driver.

What Will You Tell the Kids?

“So why did you fire Tricia, Dad?” Trevor knew Tricia’s son, and the story was already circulating at school. Pete didn’t respond immediately. When he did, he immediately felt that his answer was inadequate.

“She just wasn’t up to the job,” he finally said.

“I don’t know what that means” said Trevor as he headed out of the room.

That’s where the conversation ended. But Pete’s rethinking his decision had only just begun.

When you have faced a really tough decision in your business, have you ever considered how you would explain that decision to your kids?

A few CEOs find crucial decision-making relatively easy. Almost nobody finds making good crucial decisions easy.

If you want to not only improve your decision-making, but also improve your mood following a crucial decision, you might try applying “the kids test”. Regardless of the current age of your children, test your tentative decision by thinking through how you would explain the decision to your kids, once they have attained the age of reason (for some that’s about 12, for others, more like 42). Apply it to virtually all your tough business decisions. The circumstances surrounding my opening example drag the son into the conversation in a way that does not normally occur with your business decisions. That’s not important. Try forcing yourself to boil down your explanation of any decision to language that an innocent who does not work in your business would understand.

The reality is that your kids are not likely to ever ask you anything about your business or your career. OK, occasionally one will ask, but only when they think you’re on your deathbed. But that’s not the point. The mental exercise I’m suggesting can be an effective tool for you.

Try it right now. Pick a tough decision you’re in the process of making and implementing. Find a place where nobody except you can hear you, and explain – out loud – why you have made the choice you have made. Critique your own explanation, and do it over until you’re satisfied that your defense of the decision is fundamentally sound.

Let me know how it goes.

The Case of the Renegade Case

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I recently took a trip, several hikes, a brief leave of my senses and, finally, matters into my own hands. That’s a lot of “taking”, during which I learned a lesson about delegation. Lots of business leaders struggle with “the big D” and my sharing my personal experience might light a path or reduce some stress for you.

My wife (call her Karen, since that’s her real name) and I took several days to relax at a resort 130 miles from our home. The morning of our return trip, we packed the items we would be bringing home from the condo, hopped in the car, smiled at the blue sky, and had a series of really good conversations over the next two-and-a-half hours. Got home, unpacked, and then…are you familiar with that sudden realization that you’ve overlooked something really important? For my body, it manifests itself north of my neck. Kind of a numb feeling as my face flushes with reality setting in. Kind of warm too, but not in a good sense. I realized I had left my packed briefcase in the dining area on the floor next to the table and invisible from the front door.

I always travel with a briefcase. Always have. Can’t stand to be without useful files and magazines – not to mention my iPad – on any trip. Suffice it to say that this briefcase on this particular trip had not only interesting stuff inside, but also important and sensitive information…and did I mention my iPad?

Within minutes, I was on the phone, confirming that Housekeeping had recovered my briefcase. I quickly made up my mind to retrieve it the next day. Karen looked at me like I had just volunteered to cook dinner (i.e., in disbelief). Why would I travel 260 miles the next day, knowing I am still rebuilding my body from a back injury that can be exacerbated by sitting for long periods of time in the same position, only to personally pick up a briefcase that could easily be overnighted to me?

At first, I couldn’t explain (at least not clearly) why I had already decided to personally retrieve the briefcase. She ignored me, called the resort, talked with Guest Services, and got them to agree they could retrieve the case from Housekeeping and get somebody to take it to the Post Office. When Karen persuasively told me this, it made some sense. I really wanted some of the contents ASAP, and if the resort reacted quickly, I could have them in my possession within 24 hours. So I called Guest Services. Kelsey explained that she was trying to reach the lady who drives the van to pick up and deliver guests as well as the mail, and that she was hopeful that Cathy would return her call soon. This was about 3:30PM on a Friday and I was aware that most small town Post Offices did not stay open all night. Long story short, within 30 minutes I learned that the briefcase could be delivered to the Post Office the following morning and I was advised I could call the Post Office directly to discuss overnight delivery or other special handling for returning the runaway briefcase.

What had started to seem like a sensible approach less than an hour previously now gave way to my overwhelming feeling that I had to personally get this thing done.

Can you identify with that?

I have worked with several hundred small business owners over the past dozen years, and the tension between Control and Delegation is almost always a stress point. Very few find it easy to delegate important tasks, even though they are aware that a successful, growing enterprise requires lots of delegation.

What I realized in “the renegade briefcase” caper is that, whether it be a personal or a professional challenge, the decision to delegate rather than maintain personal control involves more than simple reason and trust. It also involves instinct…your gut. And, as any nutritionist worth her weight in tofu will tell you, your gut is very important. Going against your gut can cause extreme discomfort.

My instinct that Friday became overwhelming. The world would not end if I did not have that briefcase back in hand for three or four days. But it would have been VERY inconvenient, and my world would have been filled with stress until I got it back. I would be counting on at least three different people, more likely five or six, to get the communications straight and to protect the contents of that case.

This episode caused me to reflect on a number of discussions with CEOs regarding their resistance to delegate certain responsibilities that seemed to me at the time to be no-brainers. For example, I once had a client who ran a $50 million business who insisted on opening all the incoming mail, every day. I now have a better appreciation for his gut.

This story is not a plea for you to delegate less and work harder than ever to grow your business. Rather, it’s intended as a stress reduction aid. You don’t have to justify driving 130 miles one-way to your wife, to pick up your briefcase. You don’t have to justify opening all the mail every day to your business coach. If you gain significant peace of mind, in addition to the certainty that the job will be done in the best possible way, then it’s OK to maintain control and do it yourself. Heck, if you simply enjoy writing software code or installing systems or stocking shelves, allow yourself some time to do that fun work occasionally. It’s your business, and it’s not supposed to be 24/7 stress.

Once you pick your spots, once you select the task or tasks you will personally handle, allow any ancillary benefits to accrue to help justify your decision – and provide additional peace of mind. In my case, seeing an April sunrise in Central Oregon was a big plus, in addition to the fact that 90% of my drive time was either through piney forest or up and down high desert buttes. I’m not used to that type of scenery, and I hope I continue to hold it in awe.

If you are willing to share your own thoughts on Control versus Delegation, please do.

Learn from the Presidential Debates

Tis the season for some folly – i.e., the presidential debates have only just begun. Those of us tuned in for some or all of the show are looking for information or entertainment or both. If you run a business, I would suggest that viewing can also offer an education in interpersonal communications.

Just like the general population, some political candidates are naturally outgoing, at ease as the life of any party. Some are naturally thoughtful, not particularly loud but, as with the EF Hutton of old, when they talk, people listen. Others are naturally contentious, reveling in a good fight more than a civil exchange of ideas.

The truth is that many of the voting public want a president who blends all these personality characteristics appropriately, depending on the circumstances. But that’s a discussion for a future blog.

When it comes to debating, each participant must consider how well their natural behavioral tendencies will serve them. They will become a chameleon during the debate if and when they believe something other than their natural approach is required.

So, how is this educational to you?

Watch a few debates. Note which participants seem to be naturally aggressive and which do not. Note who comes across as thoughtful and prepared, and who does not. Compare the candidate who thinks well on their feet and moves smoothly with the ebb and flow of the discussion, with the one who appears to be cautious and a bit awkward when the subject changes.

The contrasts I’m raising are in no way intended to imply that any one trait is preferable to another in a President of the United States. Again, that’s a topic for another day.

But, if you take the opportunity to relate your debate observations to your own behavior in your organization, it should be educational. You’ll recognize more clearly your own style. You’ll recognize that you are more credible and more relaxed and generally more effective when operating within your natural style. (Because you’ll notice that anyone assuming the role of chameleon in the debate – i.e., stretching to be somebody they are not – turns an unattractive shade of green or brown.) You’ll realize that when you feel forced to modify your style significantly, your stress goes up and you become less effective interpersonally. Or worse, you embarrass yourself.

Next time you watch a debate, notice how uncomfortable an aggressive candidate appears to be when they attempt to become thoughtful and low key. Notice how uncomfortable a contemplative candidate becomes when they attempt to respond to confrontation with confrontation. And make a note to self that you are much more authentic when you are able to stick close to your natural style in every business situation.

Rebuilding Year(s)

The business owner CEO does not have the option of resigning.I’m a Philadelphia Phillies fan, which means I’m following the team with the worst record in Major League baseball right now (July, 2015). It’s a “rebuilding year” for the Phillies, a pretty rough period.

In baseball, a rebuilding year generally causes more than a poor win-loss record. Management changes are inevitable. Fewer fans attend the games. High-priced players are traded for younger, cheaper, potential-laden minor leaguers. In the case of the Phillies, all of this is happening, and more. The manager they brought on to see the team through this difficult transition grew weary of losing, and resigned. (That’s right. He wasn’t fired, he resigned.)

For the past six years, I’ve been coaching a CEO (we’ll call him Tom) who decided to take on a “rebuilding year”. Sales were flat, profits were meager and cyclical, and the competition was intensifying. Tom’s tendency was to try to do everything himself, and he longed to discover effective marketing and sales processes, areas that he considered to be personal weaknesses. His relationship with his business was unhealthy – his description: “I feel like a slave”.

Tom’s rebuilding year actually took about four. It included the following:

  1. Developed a new product that addressed a shift in customer preferences – earlier than was recognized by his competition.
  2. Pushed his VP Marketing & Sales hard to identify and grow new opportunities. When he didn’t, he was replaced.
  3. Took a personal interest in an area of marketing that was integral to their future success, and brought others in to do the work after he understood what was required.
  4. Through some trial-and-error, figured out how to recruit, hire, and mostly keep talented people needed to stimulate and sustain ongoing corporate growth.

It was a bumpy ride. The new product development effort sucked up resources that the company did not initially have (both human and financial). The development of a larger organization included the usual complement of bad hires and redirection. Boot-strapping the financing of the growth, rather than borrowing a bunch of money, caused serious frustration in the early going. But Tom persevered, knowing that neither resignation nor termination were options.

While the “rebuilding year” (four) is now in the rearview mirror, it’s not over. The vision that Tom developed for his enterprise has the entire team working towards “the next big thing” for the business. His bank account is healthy, his workforce is high caliber, and the team has a sense of direction. The need for rebuilding has been replaced by a drive to stay on top.

The Phillies should be so lucky.

Creating positive change in an organization is one of the most difficult tasks facing a CEOYou don’t have to look far to find books or articles proclaiming how to accomplish effective organizational change.  Many of these are worthy of your attention.

But if you happen to be the proponent of an upcoming change for your business, you would best start preparing by engaging in some serious introspection. Let me explain my point using a very personal example.

My own personal vision and life circumstances have recently combined to cause a lot of introspection. My spouse and I are in the throes of planning our “next chapter”. It will involve substantial change. It has caused me to reflect on a handful of some of the most important changes I have experienced since birth. Here’s a recap, ultimately tied into a business lesson.

My personal journey down memory lane led me to conclude that some of the most memorable changes in my life occurred in my youth. Changes like being pushed from the nest into nursery school; or transitioning from elementary school to junior high, where we had to change classes multiple times each day; or graduating to high school where my sophomore class size was 1100 students; or saying goodbye to a large high school and hello to a small college; not to mention seven job changes and relocations within the first 17 years after college.

Now, after living in the same home for 29 years, change finally looms again. We have grown comfortable with our house, our neighborhood, our friends, our church, and our surroundings in general. But our children and grandchildren are on the other side of the continent. Emotion suggests that we stay where we are comfortable and buy lots of plane tickets to enjoy being with family multiple times a year. Yet logic relentlessly pushes for relocation closer to family.

At this moment, the concept of change is very real and very personal. I believe I’m in an appropriate frame of mind to understand how your employees might feel when you are bringing a major change to the business or to their role in the business. I believe the most important factors involved in the inherent resistance to change are:

  • The involuntary nature of most change, viewed from the perspective of an employee
  • The relative comfort of “the present”, again from the perspective of the employee

In my personal situation, our upcoming relocation is, in a sense, forced. It’s forced by our advancing age and the anticipation of the inevitable decline in health. This makes it difficult.

Since our present circumstances are comfortable, since it will be difficult to leave good friends and familiar surroundings, score another blow for difficult change.

However, the rest of the story is more important than these two realizations. The attraction of being a larger part of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives; of being more available to help out; of being present to celebrate birthdays and holidays; is strong. The attraction to get to know new territory, to get to make new friends, to prove that we remain vibrant and significant as we approach seven decades on the planet – this attraction to relocate a couple thousand miles and make a difference in new ways also imposes a seemingly magnetic pull. And the magnets enumerated are strong.

As a business owner who is leading change, you will be most successful if you can identify with those specific fears or perceived losses that make the change difficult for each individual employee.  Then, identify and clearly articulate the “magnets” associated with your proposed change. Feeling their pain and showing them the positive tradeoff of the change should be central to your change strategy.