5 Wrong Things Experts Told Me

September 12, 2010

This blog originally appeared in Innovation DAILY.

One of the dangers of being a good listener is that, well — you listen. Combine this with a tendency to believe that other people generally know what they are talking about, and you’ve got the setup for entrepreneurial enervation.

Herein, five of the most off-target ‘truths’ that business experts inflicted on my entrepreneurial soul:

1. If you are working too many hours, you’re doing something wrong.

MYTH! The 4-hour workweek? Who’s kidding whom? Maybe this is relevant if your goal is near-total retirement or some other ‘lifestyle option’. Or perhaps you have created a totally self-service online business, have outsourced the satisfaction of your personal needs, and your ambition is a life of leisure. But if you are a bootstrapping a company, or you want to change the world with your innovation, be prepared to sweat. And besides, if you know how to build a quality team and you have a worthy goal, why would you want to NOT work?

2. You should be able to define what you do in 10 words or less, and your great grandmother should understand it.

MYTH! OK, I overstated the criteria just for effect. It’s true that eventually you’ll need a very succinct and accessible value proposition, so you can get people to invest in it, and get the buzz going. But if you know where you want to go and you are only beginning to find your way, focusing on a ‘high concept’ pitch can be counterproductive. This happened in my own company!  We had been advised to sell TGI Role-Based Assessment as an ‘innovative Talent Management Solution’ and went nowhere.  Finally we reassessed the situation and realized that “RBA predicts whether a person is a top team-player…..before you hire them” and can “Make the workplace a better place to work.”

Going from point A to point B took us nine months and innumerable refinements. Start with a vision paper of about three or four thousand words. You can trim down later, but at least you’ll know the outer limits of your possibilities and can make better choices about how to achieve them. And forget the opinions of grandmothers, great and otherwise. There’s a saying that “People can only understand new things in terms of something they already understand.” My mother never got what I do. I shiver at the mere hint of what her mother would have thought.

3. Entrepreneurs are not made, they are born….with at least one Y chromosome.

MYTH! I am living, breathing proof. But I have been told this is impossible–and not years ago, when I started my first company. This was in 2010!  And you wonder why there are so few women entrepreneurs? Enough for THAT expert. But he is not alone. If we women are forever having to prove ourselves (an even more pronounced requirement when said woman is of the petite variety) then this is the one wrong thing I am actually concerned may become the truth. Man-up and listen: it’s what’s inside. Give me people with great teaming characteristics and I don’t care if they wear ties or mascara, or both.

4. You need to pay someone to sell for you because Founders can’t sell.

MYTH! This is the one you get from out-of-work sales people, and from morons. Sometimes you get the related myth that you can’t sell until you take the sales training being offered. Think about this. Who knows your product better than you? And who has more passion for it? (Hint: if you actually had an answer for that second question, you aren’t an entrepreneur.) You need these things: the ability to TALK…and LISTEN…and ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS. Enough said. Read ‘SPIN Selling’ or anything else by Neil Rackham. You’re smart enough to figure out how to apply it to what you do.

5. Starting a business isn’t easy.

MYTH! Starting a business is very easy. Keeping it going is hard. What does it take to keep it going?

First, you need to recognize that the trip from single person start-up to functioning business team is a HUGE transition. You will have to stop doing a lot of things you’ve been doing just because they had to get done, and you will need to entrust them to other people. Then you will need to get out of their way. You will need to set standards for respect and communication on the team, and you will also have to live up to them! You will have to be a better, smarter person–probably better than you have ever been, and you will need to surround yourself with people who can do likewise. (Make sure those people are Coherent, with the right Role-fit to their job responsibilities, and have great teaming characteristics, of course.)

Finally, remember that further growth means those interrelationships will have to grow too. Some people who love the challenge of going zero to sixty in record time, but they have no interest in driving a bus….or even a race car.

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Humility Breeds Trust

March 8, 2010

Since so many CEO failures are caused by failure to put the right people in the right job, and the related failure to fix people problems in time, the big question is, why do such smart people make such bad decisions?

One reason is approaching the problem and believing that you already know the solution. Starting with a full mind leaves no room for new perceptions. Performance is highly linked to how much trust is in the DNA of the culture. And we know more about how to destroy that trust than we know how to build it.

Most people’s default is to trust others and to expect to be trusted. They assume that everyone is headed in the same direction, toward the achievement of the vision. Then they crash into someone who neither respects nor returns that trust. They have their first experience of disenchantment.

Sometimes it’s the rigid, Machiavellian boss who promises you’ll get to try your wings on an exciting project and then clips them mid-air. Sometimes it’s the co-worker who has little original thinking but is happy to take credit for your work.

If you want to lead a trust-based organization, you should start by focusing on bottom-line results. If you believe the hype about leaders, you’ll think that all it takes is a lot of charisma and a great story. That helps. But neither vision nor execution alone gives you bottom-line results—they require vision plus planning plus execution plus follow through.

You can’t do all that yourself. No one can focus on all of these at the same time and accomplish anything. Teams can achieve what an individual cannot, but only if there is diversity of style and focus, and a leader who realizes that no one can be everything. Humility will keep you from flying into the sun, unlike poor Icarus who was gifted with many qualities of leadership — save the humility that would have allowed him to listen to others who warned him that things were going to heat up far beyond his control.

Here are some suggestions for building your trust-based organization:

  • You don’t have to be a member of a 12-step program to take a fearless inventory. Is your default arrogance or humility? Do you know how you affect those who work with and for you?
  • Remember to balance the needs of the organization with the needs of the people. You won’t know what those needs are unless you know people as individuals and understand what motivates them. A good measure of your humility will be your lack of surprise when you realize that what motivates you most is not necessarily what motivates them most.
  • Understand that there is great value in the diversity of other people’s styles and roles. People who don’t think the way you do are tremendously valuable to you in solving problems and coming up with innovative ideas. Listen carefully to all of them, and understand each point of view and carefully consider it even if, at first, you don’t agree with it. If you turn it down, do it with respect and gratitude for their act of trusting you with it.
  • Earn the best team you can get. Engage them in your process — vision, execution, evaluation — and make it a living process. Set team goals that are challenging but attainable and lavishly reward the entire team for achieving them. Rewards can be non-financial and just as effective as long as they are oriented to what motivates each individual.
  • Remember your origins. You were not born to lead at birth. Someone trusted you. Now it is your turn to trust and to be trustworthy. The further you get from your origins, the further from Earth you will fly until, like Icarus, you are left with no supports, and your fall is inevitable.

This piece was originally published by Leadership Excellence magazine.

If you’re a CEO like me, you have high expectations for everyone. I mean really high. If we work this hard, shouldn’t everyone? If we knuckle down and deal with tough problems, shouldn’t others do it with the same gusto? And if we can nail down value points and key indicators like a pneumatic hammer, why does it seem that others are pounding with rocks.

We aren’t the only ones. There are probably lots of people in your organization who feel ‘alone at the top’ of their team. It’s frustrating, but guess what: there’s no where it’s more frustrating than in HR.

Finance has the tools and the data to generate projections. And Operations can give you production metrics. Sales has the top line numbers. Even Purchasing can tell you how much money they’re saving as they upgrade the old coffeepot to the fancy barista station. But HR? Their hard measures are things that keep you up at night, like rising health insurance costs! HR’s other metrics- turnover, onboarding speed, and engagement – never quite seem to ‘measure up’ in terms of business value.

So consider this: all those other executive functions have tools that allow them to analyze needs, identify best options, and demonstrate solution value, while HR has disparate databases, training programs that don’t measure outcomes, personality tests from the middle of the last century, and metrics that neither speed nor simplify management decision making.

Here’s an alternative. Let them you know want them to have the tools they need to prove their business value. Then direct them to The Gabriel Institute and tell them to ask for your old friend Dr. Janice. I’ll take it from there.

Dr. J

P.S. Our solutions cost little, predict how people will perform in teams, build the strength and productivity of your human infrastructure, and deliver measurable business value. Just give HR a little time to learn how to apply them. You WON’T be disappointed.

The Real Score

January 17, 2010

People who think they can be everything to everyone fascinate me, especially when it comes to leadership.  This is a quiz designed to frustrate them because you have to choose only one from each pair.  Even worse, I’m going to ask you how you actually behave, not what you think you would do.  Are you game?

A- My job is to inspire my team, so I have a vision I share with them that they can believe in.

OR

B-  My job is to motivate my team, so I give them rewards for a job well done.

A- I spend some time most days focusing on what I need to do to achieve my vision.

OR

B- I spend some time most days focusing on achieving the desired outcomes.

A- I know where I’m going and I expect my team is following.

OR

B- I frequently check in and herd my team so they don’t get lost as they work toward the goals.

A- I explain what I want to my team as they seem to need it.

OR

B- I have documented very clear rules and I expect my team to follow them.

A- I give my team wide berth to do their jobs in the way that makes sense to them.

OR

B- I am careful to set reasonable limits on how far people are allowed to deviate from my plans.

A- I thank my team for being there.

OR

B- I praise my team for doing things well.

Add up your As and your Bs and don’t be too concerned which you had more of.  You are who you are: if you have more As, most people would say you’re more of a leader. If you have more Bs, they’d say you’re more of a manager.  One isn’t better than the other; they’re just different.

But that’s not the real score.

To get your real score, answer these two questions:

1- In how many instances was it very difficult for you to choose only one option?  (The more difficult, the more likely you actually are capable of doing both, which is, after all, what needs to get done if you’re going to have anything to lead.)

2- In how many instances did you think of someone else on your team who prefers the opposite of your choice?  (The greater the number, the more likely you focus on the team rather than yourself.)

The real score is that leadership happens when you’re not thinking about it.  It happens when you focus so much on supporting other people that they can’t think of you as anything other than a leader.

Not a typo.  I mean it.  Meddle management is on the rise, if what I overhear on the street is any indication.

It isn’t common behavior among CEOs – I mean, really, who has the time to micromanage people into creative oblivion?  But it’s rampant in the layers below, if I can believe what I heard in line at ye olde caffeine shoppe.

Young man #1 to Young man #2: My manager told me not to use staples but my paper clips are wearing out.  Is there some secret way to fix them?

Young man #2: Are you kidding?

Young man #1: No.  I hate working.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Is it YM#1 who has two problems (unusable paper clips and confusing pleasureable productivity with micromanagement)?  Or YM#2, who doesn’t seem very sympathetic?

Answer: The manager, of course.  Clearly a PWOC.  (Person Without a Clue).

CEOs read this book: The PWAC Manifesto.  And don’t add to the meddle management.

There’s a long tradition of having ‘yes-men’ around to do your bidding.  Had two conversations this week from which I’ve learned that (a) ‘yes-men’ are still alive and well and working in huge, successful (at the moment) companies, and (b) CEOs are realizing that, in the long run, they stifle innovation.

Conversation 1 was saddening, though enlightening.  A clearly, painfully diffuse person reporting to a CEO with a definite tendency to be rigid was praised as ‘the best person I ever hired.’  Well, okay, rigid people like diffuse people – they are the original ‘yes-men.’  But you’d think he’d want to use hard data.  Actually, even if he did, I’d be suspicious.  I bet he does enough work to cover Mr. Yes’s backside.  Well, you can’t help everyone.

Conversation 2 was uplifting and enlightening.  A head of state (not in the US) was speaking to the CEO of a vendor and bemoaning his inability to find the right people for key positions.  He wanted integrity, productivity, and obedience.  I laughed with delight as the CEO related this.  These are the words of a Founder/Vision Mover.  This head of state is totally coherent and wants obedience yes – to his Vision, not his whims!  That’s just the basic respect due him.  But they hire by resume so they are probably attracting diffuse ‘yes-men’ who’ve never produced on their own.  Here’s one that can be helped.

Conclusion: ‘Yes-men’ may flatter your ego, but they will obscure your Vision.  Better a nice loud “no” every so often rather than being blind to the promises of the future!

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