Show me a great leader and I’ll show you a talented storyteller. Leadership and storytelling go hand-in-hand. In fact, leaders who lack the ability to leverage the power and influence of storytelling are missing the very essence of what accounts for compelling leadership to begin with – the story. Give me a few minutes and allow me to share a story with you – it may just change your life.
In my most recent column on Forbes I briefly discussed the value of white space as it relates to “span of control” but felt the topic deserved a deeper dive. Here’s something you might not want to hear, but you should definitely take to heart – If you’re having difficulty ordering your world, it’s nobody’s fault but yours. I don’t care how busy you are, but I do care about what you accomplish – the former doesn’t always lead to the latter. Busy leaders are a dime a dozen, but highly productive leaders are not so common. One of the easiest things for leaders to do is to bite off more than they can chew.
Fact: bright, talented executives with a bias to action will often take on more than they should. These leaders don’t understand the value of white space. The reality is maximizing results and creating a certainty of execution is all about focus, focus and more focus. Here’s the thing – it’s difficult to focus in the middle of chaos. One of the hardest things for leaders to do is to learn to create white space. The best leaders are those who understand the most productive things often happen during intentional periods of isolation used for self-reflection, introspection, and the rigor of critical thought.
While the mind of a leader may be most comfortable being oriented toward the future, he/she can only act in the here and now. The knowledge and skills required to master any endeavor only happens when we focus on what we’re currently doing. This is the definition of presence, and it is only when we operate in the present that real creativity, growth and innovation occur. The problem with being present is many leaders confuse this with having to do everything themselves. Have you ever interacted with somone who deals with silence by jumping in and filling the conversational void? This same thing occurs with executives who attempt to fill every open slot on the calendar with activity – this is a huge mistake.
All good leaders have matured to understand they can be fully engaged and present and yet still be alone. Smart leaders don’t fill their calenders with useless activities, they strategically plan for white space allowing them to focus on highest and best use endeavors. Leading doesn’t always mean doing. In fact, most often times it means pulling back and creating white space so that others can do. This is true leadership that scales.
Is your rubber-band stretched so tight it’s about to snap? Efficiency and productivity are not found working at or even near capacity. Rather entering the productivity zone is found working at about 60% to 70% of capacity. Operating in excess of that threshold will cause increased stress, lack of attention to detail and errant decisioning. The old “what if I only had ‘x’ number of hours to work in a week, what would I focus on?” exercise is a good one. In fact, if you’re reading this text, just stop right now and benchmark your activity against your reflective thoughts – Is what you’re doing, in alignment with your true priorities, or have you been sucked down into the weeds?
It is important for executives to learn to apply focused leverage to a limited number of highest and best use activities rather than to continually shift gears between multiple initiatives. Resist the temptation to just advance a broad number of disparate initiatives, and alternatively focus your efforts on the completion of a few high impact objectives. The simple reality is that if you continue to add new responsibilities to an already full plate, all of your obligations will suffer as a result. Face current challenges head-on by keeping your head down and applying focused leverage to the task at hand. Leaders who operate without margins usually hit the wall they are most desperate to avoid.
Have you noticed how some leaders are frenzied, stressed, and always playing from behind, while others are eerily clam and always appear to be a few steps ahead? It’s been my experience that leaders who fall into the latter category make great use of their thought life, while those in the former category seem to forgo their alone time in lieu of being busy. Savvy leaders crave white space whereas unseasoned leaders feel uncomfortable with open time.
One thing that can be a difficult lesson to learn is that not all engagement is necessary or productive. Leadership and engagement go hand-in-hand, but only when engagement happens by design rather than by default. Don’t get me wrong, good things can happen with spontaneous engagement, but if you’re engaging with others without intent and purpose, it likely serves as a distraction for all parties. Don’t interfere with your team just because you don’t understand how to use your time wisely. If you do, you’ll become an annoyance known for not respecting others – this is not leadership.
I have found the best leaders are harder on themselves than anyone else could ever be. In fact, so much so, that the best leaders constantly self-assess and are relentless in challenging themselves. They relish their solitude because it gives them the ability to be alone with their thoughts, to challenge their logic, to refine their theories, and to test the boundaries of their intellect. It’s during these quiet moments that leaders willing to be honest with themselves will examine their own flaws and frailties. They are forever in search of new ways of dealing with old problems.
Perhaps the most powerful thing about creating white space is that it presents opportunities for others to step-in and raise the level of their contributions. When leaders step back and resist the temptation to do everything themselves their organization is strengthened. When leaders become comfortable being without always doing collaboration flourishes and productivity is enhanced. Whether white space makes you more productive on an individual basis, or you leverage the white space create operational depth and scale, you’re better off with white spice than without it.
Ask 5 people for their opinions on optimizing “span of control” and you’ll likely receive 5 different opinions. These well meaning opinions will often cite a few different rules of thumb on size and composition, and will undoubtedly refer you to someone’s version of best practices. Here’s the problem – they’ll all lead you astray.
My question is this: Is your intellect an asset or liability? All one has to do is watch a very bright person defend their position to understand what I’m driving at with today’s post. Observing intelligent people lecture, spin, posture, position, cajole, argue, rationalize, or justify their beliefs in order to “get the win” is often times entertaining, but it can also be exceedingly frustrating.
I’ve come across more than a few self-proclaimed “intelligent” people who believe their intellectual acuity is far superior to the discernment of their peers and co-workers. Not only are these intellectual giants usually wrong, but sadly, by the time they awaken to a state of reality it is already too late. In the text that follows, I’ll share the keys to leveraging your intellectual assets as opposed to having your intelligence serve as a barrier to your success…
While leadership intelligence doesn’t have to be an oxymoron, it certainly can be. When a person begins to believe their own smoke, they have placed themselves on a very slippery slope. I believe there is truth in the statement “a person can be too smart for their own good.” How many times have you witnessed a very bright person fail to solve a problem a younger, less experienced, and perhaps even a less intelligent person solved with seemingly little effort? While raw intelligence is a valuable commodity, in-and-of-itself, and to the exclusion of other traits and characteristics, the sole reliance on IQ can be a barrier to professional growth and maturity.
Is your intellect standing in the way of your success? Are you so enamored with how smart you are you can’t get anything done? Consider this; is it more important to be right, or to achieve the right outcome? I tend to respect those who can lead others to the proper outcome as opposed to those who excoriate others just to prove they’re right. If your certitude overshadows your wisdom, you may want to dial it back a notch…
By nature of what I do for a living I tend to work with very bright people. It has been my observation hyper-intelligent people can tend to think themselves into trouble and out of opportunities with great ease. Whenever I find myself discussing issues of intellect, ego, leadership, etc., I’m always reminded of the cartoon which reads: “Rule number one: the boss is always right. Rule number two: when in doubt refer to rule number one.” If you find yourself rationalizing or justifying positions based solely upon intellectual reasoning without regard to culture, practical realities, timing, or other contextual considerations, you may be too smart for your own good. Just as a lack of belief in gravity won’t prevent you from falling, simply believing a particular opinion or theory to be fact doesn’t mean it is.
Often times the problem with intelligent people lies simply in the fact they have come to enjoy being right. Bright people can quickly find themselves in the position of confusing ego with intellect, and can sometimes defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong. Smart leaders fear being wrong more than being proven wrong. Winning an argument isn’t particularly difficult, but it may come at a very expensive price. This confusion of ego and intellect often stems from successfully arguing wrong positions over time such that they’ve built their persona around being right, and will therefore defend their perfect record of invented righteousness to the death. Smart people often fall into the trap of preferring to be right even if it’s based in delusion.
So how do you know when you’ve crossed over to the dark-side and can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction? The following 5 items will help you discern whether or not you are using your intellect properly, or whether you’ve just simply bought-off on your own propaganda:
1. Consistent Conflict: Do you find yourself in a perpetual state of debate? Do you find yourself thinking “why am I the only one who gets it?” Is it more important for you to be right than to arrive at the correct resolution to an issue, problem or opportunity? Are you known as a bitter, pessimistic or negative person? If any of these issues describe situations that hit too close to home then you may want to take a step back and do some self-evaluation.
2. Lack Professional Growth: I’ve often said it’s impossible for stagnant leaders to sustain growing organizations. If you prefer to rest on your laurels rather than continullay stretch your mind you’re in for a rude awakening. Warning: Leaders who don’t develop themselves professionally will be replaced by those who do.
3. Exclusivity vs. Inclusivity: Do you use your intelligence to intimidate and stifle others, or to encourage, inspire and motivate others? Do you wonder why you can’t seem to retain tier one talent or why you lose key clients? If your brilliance is polarizing as opposed to engaging, then how smart are you really?
4. True Success: If an independent third party interviewed your peers and subordinates alike, what would that feedback look like? Do others see you as successful, or are you merely a legend in your own mind? What I think of myself is not nearly as important as what my family, friends, clients, and co-workers think of me. If those you surround yourself with don’t hold you in high regard, then you have no reason to.
5. You’re Too Busy: Saying “I’m too busy for _________” is code for you don’t value whatever __________ is. Smart leaders are never too busy to make good decisions, to invest in people, to listen, or to learn. The job of a leader is to understand the value of creating and leveraging white space both personally and organizationally.
Bonus: You’re A Bad Listener: Stop worrying about what you’re going to say and focus on what’s being said. Don’t listen to have your opinions validated or your ego stroked, listen to be challenged and to learn something new. You’re not always right, so stop pretending you know everything and humble yourself to others. If you desire to be listened to, then give others the courtesy of listening to them. It’s important to remember you should never be too busy to listen. Anyone can add value to your world if you’re willing to listen. How many times have you dismissed someone because of their station or title when what you should have done was listen? Wisdom doesn’t just come from peers and those above you – it can come from anywhere at anytime, but only if you’re willing to listen. Expand your sphere of influence and learn from those with different perspectives and experiences – you’ll be glad you did.
The bottom line is this…the gift of intellect is an asset to be thankful for, and put to good and productive use. It is not an excuse to be lazy, arrogant, mean-spirited or delusional. Don’t let your intellect stand in your way, but rather use it as an asset to develop those around you to their full potential thereby increasing your chances for long-term success.
Does size really matter? Should you go big or go home, or does quality win out over quantity? The fascination business leaders have with size has always both intrigued yet perplexed me. Is empire building and the pursuit of category dominance a healthy thing, or the corporate equivalent of the road to Perdition? I’ll frame the debate – you decide.
Leaders don’t offer, nor do they accept excuses. True leadership demands the character to demonstrate personal responsibility for one’s actions, and the courage to hold others accountable for theirs. Excuses attempt to conceal personal or professional insecurities, laziness, and/or lack of ability. They accomplish nothing but to distract, dilute, and deceive. It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.”
The word “excuse” is most commonly defined as: a reason or explanation put forward to defend or justify a fault or offense. History’s greatest leaders have always fostered cultures of commitment, trust, and performance, where action is valued over rhetoric. Leaders who issue or accept excuses are complicit to muting performance and fueling mediocrity.
The problem we face as a society is we live in a time where he or she with the best excuses wins. Excuses have become the rule, and performance has become the exception – a sad commentary to be sure. However the solution is a rather simple one – I’ve always said, people will stop offering excuses the minute those in positions of leadership stop accepting them.
People have overcome poverty, drug addiction, incarceration, abuse, divorce, mental illness, victimization, and virtually every challenge known to man. Life is full of examples of the uneducated, the mentally and physically challenged, people born into war-torn impoverished backgrounds, who could have made excuses, but who instead chose a different path – they chose to overcome the odds and succeed.
John Wooden said, “Never make excuses. Your friends won’t accept them and your foes won’t believe them.” The great thing about performance is it obviates the necessity of an explanation. In these troubled times inept leaders blame their business woes on the economy, while skilled leaders find a way to thrive. Challenges and setbacks are opportunities for growth and development, not permission space for rationalizations and justifications. The best leaders not only understand this, they ensure the entirety of their organization practices it.
Here’s the thing – sane people don’t expect perfection from leaders, but they do expect leaders to be transparent and accountable. Accepting responsibility for your actions, or the actions of your team makes you honorable, and trustworthy – it also humanizes you. People don’t want the talking head of a politician for a leader, they want someone they can connect to, and relate with. They not only want someone they trust, but someone who trusts them as well.
One of my favorite quotes is by Edward R. Murrow; “Difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.” The fastest way to lose respect as a leader is to focus on optics over ethics. If you’re more concerned about political fallout than solving the problem, you have failed as a leader. Even though responsibility for decisions defaults to the leader, responsibility should be a thing of design, not default. It should be readily accepted and not easily denied – this is real leadership.
It’s important to realize that just because someone holds a position of leadership, doesn’t necessarily mean they should. Put another way, not all leaders are created equal. The problem many organizations are suffering from is a recognition problem – they can’t seem to recognize good leaders from bad ones. In today’s column I’ll address how to identify bad leaders by pointing out a few things that should be obvious, but apparently aren’t.
When it works, Big Data can be a beautiful thing – what organization wouldn’t want more actionable information with which to feed better data driven decisions in the quest for a competitive advantage? But in the race to acquire Big Data, leaders can easily wander off course with devastating results. According to EMC (disclosure: client), only about 1/3 of companies are able to effectively use Big Data. In today’s post I’ll examine the pitfalls awaiting those companies in pursuit of Big Data.
Clearly some organizations (Amazon, Google, The Federal Government, etc.) are better positioned to exploit the opportunities afforded by Big Data than others. Here’s the thing – not every corporation has access to, much less the ability to collect, assess, and operationalize data in exabytes (about 1 Billion gigabytes). The amount of infrastructure and staff it takes to integrate data from disparate, yet ubiquitous inputs is staggering. The harsh reality is that for every one company able to harness Big Data, hundreds will fail in their attempt to do so.
MBO’s, KPI’s, segmentation, analytics, and now Big Data. All leaders measure things – the question is are they measuring the right things, for the right reasons, and at the right times? While I don’t dispute the value of Big Data, I would rather see organizations realistically focus their efforts on operationalizing knowledge at whatever volume or velocity they can currently handle and then worry about scale. Let me be clear – metrics are at best useless, and quite possibly harmful, if the wrong things are being measured, and especially where quantity is valued over quality. In a previous column on Forbes I caution leaders about relying too heavily on “data” by explaining not all data is good data (this is worth reading).
If you read the Forbes piece, and understand the difference between data and knowledge, we can turn our attention to which metrics you should be interested in to begin with. While there are virtually endless amounts of financial and non-financial metrics that can be assessed, I believe that most measurements can be broken down into the following 5 categories:
- Static Historical Measurements;
- Quantitative Return Measurements;
- Qualitative Return Measurements;
- Quantitative Performance Measurements, and;
- Qualitative Performance Measurements.
It has been my experience that most businesses at least attempt to measure items 1 and 4, but often times fail to measure the other 3 categories, which also happen to be the most meaningful measurements. The best managed companies measure all 5 categories (as well as various subsets) with their focus being on items 3 and 5.
Let’s begin by stating what should be the obvious – all businesses need to monitor the basic static financial measurements of revenue, expenses, break-even, earnings and cash flow. While analyzing these drivers will give you some basic operating information, they are also somewhat myopic. The reason I say this is while historical analysis is important, it is taking the next step of using these historical measurements as baselines to calculate forward looking return drivers that will help you fine tune your business. While the following overview is not by any means exhaustive, it provides a great jumping-off point to fuel productive thought and conversation.
Quantitative Return Drivers:
Metrics such as Return on Assets (ROA), Return on Equity (ROE), Return on Investment (ROI), Return on Cash (cash-on-cash), and Return on Human Capital (ROHC) will give you more useful information than the static calculations mentioned above. The great thing about return analysis is that each area can be broken down into several more refined qualitative return calculations.
Qualitative Return Drivers:
A great example of qualitative return analysis would be contribution margin (CM), which is a qualitative measure of segment, team, or individual performance on profit. Another example would be Return on Innovation which would be the qualitative measure of the impact on new initiatives. These types of qualitative return drivers allow you to make forward looking investment decisions that can have immediate impact to the business.
Quantitative Performance Drivers:
Measurements in this category would be items like revenue hurdles, billable time, utilization, production hurdles and service levels. These are the metrics of how an organization performs against its benchmarks.
Qualitative Performance Drivers:
Measurements in this category are where an organization truly becomes productive with analytics. These sets of metrics focus on the measurements surrounding things that generate influence, improve culture, develop talent, create engagement, build teams, manage the consumer experience, improve customer satisfaction and increase brand equity. Getting to the qualitative level of performance measurement is difficult in that it is often necessary to overcome a set of traditional leadership behaviors and beliefs.
Ask yourself this question…do you measure the metrics that are critically important, or just the ones that are obvious and easy to measure? If company leadership can make the attitudinal adjustments necessary to create accountability and focus on qualitative performance metrics, they will find it’s these measurements that help to catalyze growth, enable execution and create dynamic organizations.
Thoughts? I’d also be interested in hearing from you with regard to any measurements/metrics which have been particularly beneficial to you.