Category Archives: Leadership

Why You Should Walk the Line Between Company Culture and Your Individual Leadership Style

The company culture is the heart of the organization. Goals, processes and policies should be tied to it. So when leadership styles within the organization match that culture, success should follow, right? That’s what you would think, but an interesting study conducted by researchers from Georgia State University suggests the opposite.

The research, which was published in the June issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that CEOs who adopt a leadership style similar to the company culture actually have a negative impact on the organization’s performance. Among the 119 U.S. organizations studied, firms were most effective when CEO leadership style and organizational culture differed.

Why? Leaders who conform to the norm don’t bring anything new to the table — they aren’t innovating. But leaders can’t completely ignore established values and practices either. It’s a fine line to walk, but a leader who gets it right is more effective and brings more value to the company.

Here’s how to find that delicate balance between company culture and innovative leadership style:

Complement the culture — don’t undermine it.

Company culture defines the values of the workplace and how employees should behave. So while leaders should be innovators, they shouldn’t challenge and undermine a culture just to say the did — there needs to be a good, strategic reason in leading outside the culture.

Instead of thinking of ways to undermine the culture, look at ways to build on the business by using strategies the culture overlooks.

For example, the researchers from Georgia State University explain that company cultures tend to fall into one of two categories: task-oriented or relationship-oriented. In a task-oriented culture, employees focus on reacting to external problems such as customer needs and the actions of competitors. In a relationship-oriented culture, however, employees focus on internal issues such as communication and collaboration.

So in a task-oriented culture, leaders can take a more collaborative approach and help employees to better communicate and work together. In a relationship-oriented culture, leaders can innovate by staying on top of industry trends and guiding teams to attack them.

Don’t oppose the culture — use a unique leadership style to work with it and leverage the strengths of employees.

Find what’s missing.

Although company culture is meant to guide employee actions and bring teams together, many employees have a negative view of these principles. In fact, a survey of 1,200 employees and executives conducted by researchers at VitalSmarts in July found a gap in how leaders and employees view company culture.

Among those surveyed, leaders were much more likely to say they wanted innovation, initiative, candor and teamwork, while employees said obedience, predictability, deference to authority and competition with peers were really valued by the organization.

Leaders who go along with what they think is the norm are missing these huge differences and are blind to many of the issues and concerns employees have on a regular basis.

Listen to employees — what are they complaining about? What do they think could be made better? What’s missing from the culture? Find where these disconnects are happening and fill in the gaps. Use leadership and personal leadership style to address these issues, build on the culture and make it better for employees.

Encourage innovation.

Employees take their cues from leaders. So when leaders stick to the established culture, employees think they need to stay inside the box as well. There’s a lack of innovation at every level.

After all, the VitalSmarts survey found that employees were 53 percent more likely to say their company culture encourages them to conform, follow the rules and make a good impression than leaders were. So while leaders want employees to innovate, employees feel the opposite.

Encourage employees to challenge and question assumptions and anything that’s considered “normal” in the culture. Set an example by doing the same. Innovate, ask questions and push for positive change.

While employees should be encouraged to think outside of the box, don’t encourage them to adopt a negative view of the company culture. The goal should be to improve the workplace and the business as a whole, not to trash it’s values. Lead with an innovative attitude and employees will follow suit.


The 4 Roles of Accountability Within Your Company

When determining accountability within your company, there are two groups that should be held responsible. First, process indicators should be pushed down to the lowest appropriate level. This gives the power to act to the right person, thus empowering all levels of employees. In many organizations, decisions are made at the wrong level, sometimes several levels removed from the person whose action can impact the indicator. This not only creates confusion but distracts teams from meeting their individual goals.

The reverse is true for process initiatives. These should be assigned to the highest appropriate level in the organization. The word “appropriate” implies that the person has the decision-making power to allocate necessary resources to ensure the success of the initiative. Because of the high importance of strategic projects for the future of the business, the person in charge should be as close to the CEO level as possible. But not all of these initiatives should be assigned to the CEO. Some projects can be assigned to a direct report of the CEO or another appropriate person.

The four roles in accountability

There are four roles that could be assigned to the indicators and initiatives. Defining these roles clarifies accountability and ensures that each person in your company understands how their actions impact the indicator. Each person with influence on an indicator will have one of these four roles.

1. The role of direct influence or CSF

The person with the greatest direct impact on moving a process indicator, at the lowest level in the organization, is accountable for the indicator. The indicator becomes the person’s critical success factor (CSF). The CSF takes the value of the indicator.

For example, if the indicator is “percent of customer returns” and John is the person in charge of production at the lowest level of the organization with the greatest direct impact, then John’s CSF is “percent of customer returns.” Further, if the status of the indicator is 5 percent for a particular month, then John’s CSF will also have a value of 5 percent.

Let’s take another example: “percent of undesirable turnover of salespeople.” This is an indicator that measures how fast you’re losing your sales talent. The person with the most direct influence on this indicator is the sales manager. Therefore, this is his CSF. If the status of the indicator is 10 percent for a particular month, then the CSF will have the same 10 percent value.

2. The role of cross-functional influence or CIF

Rarely is there an indicator that’s influenced by only one person. Usually, there are many people in different functional areas who influence the same indicator. To capture this shared responsibility, we define the role of cross-functional influence and assign a term called a critical influence factor (CIF) to those people who have indispensable cross-functional influence on a factor but aren’t the main drivers.

Consider the two examples above. In the first case, “percent of customer returns” could be impacted by different functions, including the shipping supervisor, salesperson and marketing supervisor. As such, each of these individuals will have “percent customer returns” as their CIF, and the status of their indicator will be the same as the status of the CSF, that is, 5 percent.

In the second example, “percent of undesirable turnover of salespeople” could be influenced cross-functionally by the HR manager, who will have the indicator as a CIF, with the same value of 10 percent as the owner of the CSF.

When the roles of CSF and CIF are clarified, the owner of a CSF knows the company expects results from them, and this is motivating. The owner of a CIF knows that they’re expected to collaborate to influence the result. However, the CIF owner will also realize that it’s important to not take over the role that the CSF owner must play. Through the process of involvement, everyone understands their role and agrees with it. This increases collaboration.

3. The role of management influence or CMF

The third role is that of management influence. If you impact an indicator through your role as a manager, then the indicator will be a critical management factor (CMF) for you. A CMF measures your success at influencing results through the people you manage. For example, as a sales manager, the total sales of the six salespersons reporting to you would be your critical management factor. It is a CMF because you don’t do the actual selling, but you influence the sales through your salespeople.

If you’re a manager, you’ll also have individual CSFs for your job. Beyond watching the total consolidated number as a CMF, you have a unique contribution to make that’s measurable. For example, as a sales manager, one unique contribution and CSF for you could be “percent of your salespersons over quota.” This encourages you to pay attention to all your salespeople and help them achieve their quota, and it contributes to a long-term development of your resources. Another CSF could be “percent of salespersons that achieve 120 percent of their quota.” This encourages you to pay attention to the high-performing salespersons who work to increase the overall sales.

Distinguishing the CSFs from CMFs is very important, because the tendency in many organizations is for managers and directors to consider consolidated numbers from lower levels as their own CSFs. This causes layers in the organization “watching” those actually doing the work. For example, suppose you have five people selling. A zone manager would be looking at the total sales of the zone. The regional manager would be looking at the total sales for all the zones. The country manager would be looking the total sales of all the regions. That’s fine, and that’s their CMF. But what other added value do they have? It’s important to be able to identify unique added value for each job and assign CSFs to the job.

4. The role of dotted line influence or CIM

The fourth role is the “dotted line” influence. This role is called CIM, which stands for critical influence management factor. It implies the management influence over the work of an individual in a different function (dotted line). To look at an example of a dotted line influence, let’s imagine a large department store. In the men’s department, there’s a boutique line of sunglasses. The salespeople are selling a mix of products, including the boutique line of sunglasses. The salespeople report to the sales manager of their department in a solid line for the total sales in their areas. They could have a dotted line reporting to a director in the store responsible for the sunglass category. So the measurement “$ sales of sunglasses” would be a CSF for the salespeople, a CMF for the sales manager and a CIM for the category director.


Why ‘Vacation-Shaming’ Hurts You More Than Your Employees

Shannon Kuykendall used to be the sales team assistant at a company where she supported 10 other people, all of whom put in 60 hours a week. The team, she said, was understaffed and over-worked. Then the company’s sales declined and the team pulled together to bring those sales back up.

“But their efforts were lost because you could see how tired they were,” Kuykendall told me, of her co-workers. “We were all tired, and we all needed a break.

 “After my first year, I was due my first one-week vacation,” she said, continuing her story. “I was so ready for it, but I heard stories about others putting in their vacation requests and then being made to feel guilty for taking the much due and deserved time off. One day, I jokingly said, ‘That’s a wrap, it’s vacation time.’ The sales team manager shot me a look and shook his head.”

Subsequently, employees began losing their jobs, and the company shut down completely. “I often wonder if it was because people were burned out,” Kuykendall said.

Today, she’s CEO of her own business, Up Automation, in Cambria, Calif., where she’s made vacation an important part of the company culture. “Every three months, I take a week to myself and digitally detox,” she said. “The first three days are hard; then, after that, it’s smooth sailing. All I know is that when I take care of myself, I can better take care of my clients and my team.”

Kuykendall’s tale of woe from her earlier work situation is hardly unique: According to the 2016 Alamo Family Vacation Survey of 1,500 U.S. adults, 59 percent of millennials and 41 percent of older employees feel a sense of shame when they take time off.

And that’s terrible, of course: A workplace where employees don’t feel that they can take a vacation has a lot of negative implications, especially for the company. In fact, that scenario might actually lead to the company going under,as happened with Kuykendall’s former employer.

Here are some ways vacation-shaming hurts employers more than employees and why it should be avoided:

Poor employee retention

When employees feel constantly burned out, they eventually leave. This puts stress on the company because it has to keep finding and training new employees. That makes it difficult for everyone to be productive.

Gary Beckstrand, vice president of O.C. Tanner Institute, in Salt Lake City, described an acquaintance who worked for a smaller company where long hours and lots of work travel were common. “While she was very passionate about her work — in fact, she says she loved it — after three years and only one very short vacation mixed in, she was completely burned out and she left the company,” Beckstrand told me.

“You lose great experience and talent with employees who leave, and it costs the company money to bring in and train a new person.”

Difficulty recruiting

If an employer doesn’t have a competitive vacation-days policy, job candidates will often just drop out of the interview process. This can mean missing out on top talent.

“I worked for an HR tech company that had a strict one-week-per-year vacation policy for your first five years,” Mike Seidle, co-founder of WorkHere, in Indianapolis, told me. “The result was that many of the best software engineers would just say no to us in the interview. Of those that started, many would quit from disputes about taking extra vacation time.”

High absenteeism

“I noticed my staff taking a lot of ‘sick’ time even though they didn’t appear to be ill,” Greg Nickolson, managing partner of Technology Solutions in Tucson, Ariz, told me. “Performance was sub-par, meaning efficiency and productivity was noticeably lacking. After some research and discussions with a few staff members, I concluded that they were just burned out.”

Since sick days aren’t planned, maintaining productivity and covering employee workloads becomes difficult. This creates a cycle where employees become even more burned out because they have to carry others’ weight.

Merely offering paid time off as an employee benefit is not enough to reduce burnout. Here are five ways to ensure employees take their vacation time:

1. Give employees financial support. 

One reason employees don’t go on vacation is a lack of money. Realizing this, Nickolson launched 401(play), which allows employees to set aside money from each paycheck into a vacation savings account.

“After the first year of introducing 401(play) into our culture at Technology Solutions, I noticed a remarkable difference in the overall attitude and performance of staff members that elected to participate,” he said.

Tip: In addition to allowing employees to withhold money from their paychecks to save for their next vacation, your company might consider an employer contribution. Nothing says commitment to a policy quite like money.

Heather Whaling, founder of Geben Communication in Columbus, Ohio, agrees. She implemented a mandatory vacation policy called “Inspacation.” All employees are required to a take a minimum of one consecutive week out of the office at some point in the year. “As a sign of our commitment to this policy, Geben provides each eligible employee with $250 to use during their Inspacation,” Whaling told me.

Even the smallest bit can help boost morale with employee vacation time. “Last year, one of our team members used their Inspacation spending money to treat her family to a horse[back] ride during their annual beach trip,” she said.

Tip: Once your company has determined an amount and policy, devise a communication plan to roll out the new opportunity to employees. Generate excitement and encourage employees to take advantage of the stipend by sharing the message directly from senior leadership.

2. Make vacation scheduling a group effort.

“Make vacation planning a team exercise,” suggested Ricardo Pellafone, founder of Broadcat in Dallas. “At Broadcat, we do this at the beginning of the quarter, planning when each person will take off a full week. Forcing everyone to commit to a full week each quarter makes sure that people actually take real time off — not just a long weekend here and there.”

Tip: Ask leaders to pull teams together on a quarterly basis to encourage employees to schedule vacation time. Create a calendar of the committed time off for each team member, so everyone has visibility and can help cover the workload when each person is out of the office.

The established vacation selections don’t need to be firmly set in stone, but getting them onto the calendar encourages employees to take the time they need to refresh.

3. Make the request yourself.

“At Lever, every few months, the employee experience team sends each manager a list of the people on their team and the time they’ve taken as PTO,” Leela Srinivasan, chief marketing officer at Lever, in San Francisco, told me. “This is used to flag people who aren’t taking enough vacation, and gently prod them to book more if they haven’t already planned to do so.”

Just such prodding recently happened to an associate marketing manager at Lever, who was both surprised and delighted at the reminder. “It took me by surprise!” the associate told Srivivasan. “I didn’t realize you were paying attention, and I certainly didn’t think you would ever tell me to take more time!”

Tip: Keep track of employee vacation time on a quarterly basis. If the list of employees not taking vacation becomes unmanageable, personally reach out to those not leveraging their PTO. Ask team leaders to convey the message. Employees feel more inclined to take time off when the request comes directly from leadership.

4. Close the office.

When the office is closed for a few days, all employees, whether they go out of town or not, will be forced to take a break from work.

For example, companies like Thrivatize in Park Ridge, Ill., shut down entirely during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

“When I found out about the policy, part of me was angry that that was a mandated part of my five-week vacation,” Suz O’Donnell, president of Thrivatize, told me. “But once it happened, I realized that it truly forced everyone to take a real vacation. No one was replying to emails, no one was in the office; and actually, you would get in trouble if you were working during this time.”

The results? “People came back in January refreshed and ready to work. There was no sense of guilt in enjoying time with family, friends or vacationing,” she said.

Tip: Whether mandated time off occurs during the winter holidays or some other time of the year, think about shutting down your entire company. Instruct employees to conduct no work during this time. It’s like rebooting a computer; every employee will come back more focused and aligned after taking the time to reset.

5. Lead by example

“The boss sets the tone for how to handle time off,” Christina Kori, marketing manager at BELAY, in Atlanta, told me. “CEOs who refuse to take time to recharge are sending a message that they don’t trust their team to get the job done in their absence.”

Tip: Take all allotted vacation — a full week at a time if possible — and avoid checking in with the team the entire time. Go off the grid so employees know not to reach out. This makes your time off a true vacation, and employees will recognize it.

When employees see executives taking time off for a true vacation, they feel confident in taking time off and being unresponsive during that break, as well. The results? A happier and healthier workforce. 


The Myth of Transparency You’re Already Falling For

After a new business meeting with a team from a company I respect immensely, I debriefed my team, and our attention turned to one of the leaders in the room who was new to the company. I asked my team if they noticed how this leader agreed with what we were saying about the importance of leadership influencing the evolution of the business. But instead of asking follow-up questions about how it applied to his team in the room or the company he had just joined, he began every comment with “Well, yeah, but…” or, “I guess I think…”

My team nodded. Do you know why this leader said that? It’s because he had no leverage. He was new to the company and the industry. He wanted to impress, which made him even more afraid to be transparent. Ultimately, he showed that he really didn’t understand things as well as everyone — especially the people who answered to him — in the room. As a result, he failed to allow those people to have the influence necessary to generate trust.

You can’t control everything.

Many leaders lack this influence in their organizations because they fail to give their employees necessary influence. While making it obvious that he was desperate to cover that up — which is the polar opposite of transparency — that leader tried to keep control of every situation instead of being transparent about what he didn’t know. Control is not necessarily a negative, but it doesn’t lead to influence.

What this leader should have said was, “Listen, I am still learning and really appreciate your helping me better understand this.” Then he could have asked, “Can you help me understand why this is done this way?” He instead tried a power play to make himself sound important but only revealed that he didn’t have a clue.

You don’t have to know everything.

Unfortunately, I find these power plays with people in leadership roles at all levels in all-size companies, but especially new hires looking to make their mark in a chaotic environment. They don’t listen first, just like the leader I mentioned. It is also common with those who are in charge of strategies for multicultural marketing and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Those initiatives are often marginalized and perceived as cost centers (expenses) and not profit centers (investments). Those leaders should be transparent enough to say to people at any level in the hierarchy, “I have got a mess here. I have to learn how to handle it. So I asked myself how you could help me. How can you help me solve for this and create a strategy for growth?”

Why can’t we do this? Generally, leaders avoid this kind of communication because we don’t see power in transparency. We don’t understand the value of admitting we might not know everything to others — both internally and external partners — who can help and work together as a team. We see power in resistance, not relationships. This is a problem in business but also, increasingly, for America as a whole.

It’s not only about you.

Transparency requires leaders to work with a generous purpose. They know the wisdom behind having each other’s backs and working in a place where everyone’s best interests are taken to heart, regardless of hierarchy or rank. When the corporate culture values transparency and promotes honest and direct feedback, it empowers people to break down silos and build bridges to strengthen communication, clarity and understanding.

Leaders and business that work with a generous purpose encourage the sharing of knowledge and wisdom by maximizing and leveraging the intellectual capital that lies within the organization, its employees, clients and external partnerships. Leaders embrace this mindset fully and advance themselves by serving the needs of their people. They are genuine about making their employees feel valued and their clients appreciated because they see it as not only the right thing to do but also as a competitive advantage for evolution and growth. When leaders apply strategic focus with the mindset of evolution, they are in constant renewal and reinvention mode. They have the will to make things better, invest in relationships and cultivate environments of transparency and reciprocity – where diversity of thought is valued.

That’s the power of transparency.

There is so much doubt in the world — not just how but why we should transform ourselves, our businesses and our nation as a whole. But we will keep working at cross-purposes without the courage to see that being transparent actually makes your leadership more powerful. You are not diminishing your influence and authority; you are gaining respect.

Transparency is too often viewed by many business people as a touchy-feely thing. But it is a very serious thing, so stop paying it lip service. The more transparent we are, the more we are creating a foundation for us to think about how we grow not just great businesses but great people at the center of those businesses.


Why the ‘Snowflake Test’ is a Big, Big Hiring Mistake (and What to Do Instead)

After receiving hundreds of applications, Kyle Reeves, CEO of The Silent Partner Marketing, in Manchester, Conn., designed the snowflake test to weed out candidates he deemed “whiny, needy, entitled little brats.”

The test, which attracted considerablef media coverage, is named for the notion that some people think they’re absolutely unique — the way snowflakes are — and therefore suspect. In the hiring context, Reeves’s test involves a series of questions to determine whether a candidate is too delicate to work for his company. Some of the questions are:

  • How do you feel about guns?
  • What do you think about the police?
  • What does the world “entitled” mean to you?

But the problem is that while Reeves was honestly trying to find candidates who would fit his company culture, the test he designed has some inherent problems.

Political beliefs are not a culture.

Reeves is confusing culture with political beliefs. Instead of finding candidates who align with his company culture, he’s getting candidates who think the same way he does.

“These very pointed questions are discriminatory in nature,” Lisa Dawsey Smith, president of the board of directors at Downtown Whitewater, Inc., in Whitewater, Wis., told me. “This prospective employer is attempting to hire individuals who only align with his political inclinations.”

What to do instead: Matt Paddock, the general manager of Grow in Norfolk, Va., said he spends extended time with candidates outside the office. Eat a meal or go on a trip with them to uncover who they really are and if they’ll fit the culture, Paddock advises.

Group think is real, and dangerous

When a company focuses on beliefs and not perspectives, it may end up hiring the same type of person over and over. This hurts diversity and can lead to a communication gap that makes it difficult to reach all types of customers.

Mollie Delp, a human resources specialist at Workshop Digital, in Richmond, Va., shared an example with me: “Let’s say, in a service-based company, that hiring managers might be looking strictly for extroverts, and feel that anyone who is shy, quiet or introverted should be eliminated from the pool,” she said.

“Now, you have a roomful of similar people that all have assigned clients they are responsible for communicating with and [for] solving their problems. It is extremely unlikely that every customer and contact they interact with will also be extroverts. That leaves the potential for a huge gap in communication styles and understanding how either personality type solves problems.”

What to do instead: Figure out how candidates think and problem-solve. Samar Birwadke, founder and CEO of Good&Co, in San Francisco, told me he focuses his questions on learning whether candidates can bring new perspectives and ideas to the table when faced with a difficult situation.

Job-seekers lie.

“I completely disagree with the snowflake test,” Emily Lyons, CEO of Femme Fatale Media Group, in New York City, told me. “The type of candidates that ‘pass’ this test are pretty much the exact opposite of what we look for.”

While all the publicity around the snowflake test has gotten Reeves’s company a lot of applicants, they also all know what type of answers he’s looking for now.

“Now that they know the answers that are ‘correct’ for this test, that’s exactly what they will say,” Lyons said.

What to do instead: Offer final choices a trial period. Grayson Lafrenz, CEO of Power Digital Marketing, in San Diego, says he does this so the company can be sure that the candidate who was seen during the interview will be the same person who becomes the employee.

The test is built on fear.

“The point is, the snowflake test only serves to determine surface value while simultaneously potentially degrading people,” Todd Mitchem, whose title is managing disruptor at the executive coaching firm, Todd Mitchem Companies, in Denver, told me. “A leader’s job is to motivate, inspire and uplift a team to combined success. [Reeves] seems to do the opposite right from the start, and, more importantly, builds a culture of fear.”

Using the snowflake test tells employees that from day one, they are being judged for their personal beliefs or opinions. If they ever have a new idea, they’ll be scared to voice it out of fear of punishment for being different.

What to do instead: Take the action advocated by Dr. Steven Stein, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Multi-Health Systems Inc., in Toronto: Focus on emotional intelligence. This will allow your organization to build a workforce that is open and understanding of all points of views and opinions.

Hiring is a science.

The snowflake test ignores important aspects of the hiring process, like job fit. Plus, it doesn’t necessarily give reliable results.

“Who knows if the people he’s hiring are even capable of doing the work?” Kris Boesch, founder and CEO of Choose People, in Denver, said tod me. “Based on his snowflake test, he doesn’t evaluate performance. They just need to be ‘followers.’”

Stein added, “There is no real validity or reliability behind the test. While some of the underlying attributes are fine, such as the ability to work within specific groups or cultures, the way they assess for it is shaky, at best. Also, having an organization where everyone has the same attitudes and beliefs does not make a healthy work culture.”

What to do instead: Rather than political beliefs, qualities you should prioritize in an interview include interpersonal skills, attention to detail and hard skills related to the role’s responsibilities. To accomplish this, use data-driven hiring tools, like Caliper, Traitify or sixQ software. These platforms allow hiring managers to identify candidates who fit the role based on personality and skills assessments — the criteria they should be using.


How Pulling Our Investment in ‘Average’ Employees Made Us Anything But

Every leader knows that bad employees are bad for business, but average employees can be even worse. A recent McKinsey & Company paper suggested a reason why, saying that average employees’ performance ratings do not indicate future performance.

Several years ago, the Harvard Business Review outlined the massive effort average employees require to be trained and maintained, as well as to function. Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh has estimated that his company has lost more than $100 million since its inception over its efforts to turn the wrong people into good fits.

Yet, while everyone deserves a chance to succeed, why keep an average employee when a high performer or future leader is out there?

Average employees aren’t average everywhere. Sometimes, the right person is just sitting in the wrong seat. Letting these employees go can be difficult, but when the “right” seat is one at a different company, parting ways is likely better for everyone involved.

How do mediocre employees present themselves? Here are three red flags:

1. They don’t acknowledge when they’re falling short.

The best employees always see opportunities for improvement, while average ones think they’re doing well in every area. Self-awareness is a hallmark of a great employee; if someone on your team lacks it, he or she could be holding back the rest of that team.

Professors at DePaul University conducted an experiment on how self-awareness relates to a team’s effectiveness: Teams with members who were convinced they were contributing more than they really were turned out to be adjudged as being less effective. The chances of their teams’ success were actually halved.

This issue is bad enough on its own but is magnified when an employee continues to repeat mistakes after being properly trained. We all have blind spots, but great team members strive to identify and correct them. In fact, there’s a practice Benjamin Franklin followed to remain self-aware of his personal “net worth” — he maintained a “balance sheet” of traits about himself that he admired, and traits he found to be liabilities.

Franklin believed he could grow in character through just this kind of self-awareness (and today’s research indicates he was right). Conversely, average team members deny blind spots’ existence or think everyone else is overreacting to their missteps.

2. They’re unwilling to learn new skills (or improve old ones).

As leader, you should gauge employees’ willingness to improve by how they receive feedback. Those who are unlikely to change or grow tend to take feedback as criticism. On the other hand, those who strive to be better appreciate feedback as helpful advice on how to improve.

Average employees fear failure and the appearance of incompetence. They don’t take chances, even when those chances could teach them new skills. Great employees are those driven by goals; they accept that they make missteps if they can learn new things from their efforts. They own their failures and seek challenges — even when those failures are due to circumstances beyond their control.

To discover employees’ willingness to improve, give them the freedom and flexibility to explore their passions at work. 3M instituted this philosophy decades ago, leading one employee to invent the Post-it in his downtime.

At our company, we offer a program called AP Fellows to help our team members grow personally and professionally by learning leadership skills. Team members have to apply to join the program, do homework, give presentations and be willing to deeply engage with one another. Some who go through AP Fellows come out realizing that while they love working at AP, their career passions lie elsewhere. We fully embrace that and do whatever we can to create a smooth transition to the next chapter of their professional lives.

3. They love to play the victim.

While great employees seek solutions, average employees love it when an adequate excuse presents itself. They focus on problems, and when a big one comes along, they point to that as the reason they couldn’t accomplish their goal.

Obstacles truly are too large to overcome sometimes — but the question is how the person handles it. Is this employee glad to be rid of the responsibility or accountable for his or her inability to finish?

Average employees seek opportunities to relinquish control — and accountability along with it. This mentality can be dangerous if left unchecked. When one employee seeks opportunities to pass blame, others may feel unfairly saddled with that responsibility. What’s worse is that the blame game spreads like the flu: A study by professors at Stanford University and the University of Southern California revealed that watching and/or hearing someone blame another person can cause others to do the same.

If this pattern starts to develop at your company, identify the culprit quickly and start an honest conversation about expectations.

For example, a client recently presented us with a complex affiliate recruitment challenge. It was what some business folks like to call a BHAG — a big, hairy, audacious goal — with a tight deadline. On the surface, the project never should have been completed. There were too many opportunities to fail and not enough resources. If just one team member had claimed “victim” status along the way, that declaration might have killed the whole endeavor.

Fortunately, our team members all stayed accountable, believing in their collaborative efforts. What easily could have been a missed opportunity turned into a huge accomplishment.

Identifying and terminating people who aren’t stretching their abilities doesn’t mean issuing a sink-or-swim ultimatum. When it becomes apparent that an employee will require a disproportionate investment to succeed or may never reach the level of his or her peers, we initiate our Mindful Transition program.

Solution: Mindful Transition

Mindful Transition is our solution to positive employee departures. Throughout our organization, we readily encourage open communication about goals and expectations. If and when our culture or the type of work we do is no longer a good fit for a team member, we provide flexible time for him or her to transition into something that is.

This could be a job at another company or even the effort to start his or her own business. All we ask is that team members be transparent about their willingness to move on and maintain an acceptable standard of work while they’re still with us.

Average employees shouldn’t dictate a company’s success. Demand excellence from employees, give them the resources they need to achieve it and reward them when they meet expectations. If an employee doesn’t meet those standards, initiate a Mindful Transition to put both parties in a better position moving forward.


One Trait Every Successful Leader Must Master

What do Howard Schultz, Mark Zuckerberg and authors of countless articles remind us is an essential trait for any leader and those who don’t show it are struggling to be transparent, admit mistakes and grow their businesses? Vulnerability.

Vulnerability is like sunscreen: Fail to apply it and you will get burned — maybe not immediately but eventually and then over and over again. Yet, many leaders still think vulnerability undermines their strength. Not a week goes by without someone questioning me about the need for it and saying it makes them look weak.

Historically, being vulnerable as a leader was viewed as a sign of weakness. But in today’s business climate, the speed of change forces us as leaders to bring others into the fold much quicker. Let’s face it, no one has all the answers — and when we think we do, the marketplace tells us otherwise. Most leaders, regardless of hierarchy or rank, would be better served by being vulnerable enough to admit that they need others and that what got them here won’t get them there.

This is not a joke.

So why do so many leaders ignore or fail to understand the importance of transparency? Many reasons: we often don’t see power in transparency, and admitting we may not know everything is one reason I have covered before. But the biggest reason is we don’t believe that others can help — we see power in resistance not relationships.

But the opposite is true: to build trust and have influence, leaders must be courageous to be vulnerable and vulnerable to be courageous.

In times of renewal, reinvention and transformation, we must be even more vulnerable to connect to all people and correct the mistakes of the past in order to grow and evolve in the future. Vulnerability brings us together — it’s a sign of a confident leader who can build trust with people even in times of great uncertainty. Without that vulnerability, you project overconfidence which erodes trust.

Evaluate Yourself

How would your people rank your vulnerability as it relates to your leadership style and approach? Here are three steps you can take right now to ensure that you are mastering this essential trait:

1. Ditch anything that says “annual” or “quarterly” on it.

They’re probably just gathering dust anyway. This expectation for speed has now disrupted the way all business is done today in even the oldest legacy companies in industries like insurance, healthcare and retail. These businesses now understand the importance of getting feedback from their customers regularly to adapt and course-correct to move the brand forward.

So why do so many leaders stay beholden to the templates of the past — particularly the dinosaurs of annual plans and reporting. If you only connected with your closest relationships — in business and in life — every year or 90 days, what would they think of you?

2. Make sure you touch the business as much as you lead it.

success of  “Undercover Boss” taught us in prime time the consequences of leaders losing touch as they grow and becoming more beholden to shareholders and the bottom line than the individuals they serve. To know what you don’t know, you can’t just lead out front. You must also lead from behind, lead across and lead parallel to your employees. This is why strong-headed leaders who cannot admit mistakes are struggling. They become out of touch. Ask yourself, are you doing things just to make your numbers and get paid? Or are you evolving to grow yourself and your business in the workplace and marketplace? The vulnerable leader sees value in the latter; the overconfident leader touts the former.

3. Solve for the right opportunities.

We live in uncertain times. Best-laid plans can fail just as easily as haphazard ones, and suddenly, the trajectory of their businesses are not what they thought. This is when overconfidence consumes too many leaders and leads them down the path of solving for the wrong opportunities by staying the course or saying it must be done their way. They think their title entitles them to push forward instead of having the confidence vulnerability gives you. Vulnerability allows your wisdom to be shared. It brings others into the fold quickly to react and influence the solution and uncover new opportunities. That’s when vulnerable leaders win.

Remember: Confidence comes from working for a healthy whole that leads to seeing and seizing opportunities previously unseen and then growing and sharing them for the betterment of your industry, communities, business and, most of all, your people.


12 Daily Habits of Exceptional Leaders

One of the most popular Dilbert comic strips in the cartoon’s history begins with Dilbert’s boss relaying senior leadership’s explanation for the company’s low profits. In response to his boss, Dilbert asks incredulously, “So they’re saying that profits went up because of great leadership and down because of a weak economy?” To which Dilbert’s boss replies, “These meetings will go faster if you stop putting things in context.”

Great leadership is indeed a difficult thing to pin down and understand. You know a great leader when you’re working for one, but even they can have a hard time explaining the specifics of what they do that makes their leadership so effective.

Great leaders change us for the better. They see more in us than we see in ourselves, and they help us learn to see it too. They dream big and show us all the great things we can accomplish.

Great leadership is dynamic; it melds a variety of unique skills into an integrated whole. Great leadership is also founded in good habits. What follows are the essential habits that exceptional leaders rely on every day. Give them a try and see where they take your leadership skills.

1. Effective communication

“The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.” — Joseph Priestley

Communication is the real work of leadership. It’s a fundamental element of how leaders accomplish their goals each and every day. You simply can’t become a great leader until you are a great communicator.

Great communicators inspire people. They create a connection with their followers that is real, emotional and personal, regardless of any physical distance between them. Great communicators forge this connection through an understanding of people and an ability to speak directly to their needs.

2. Courage

“Courage is the first virtue that makes all other virtues possible.” — Aristotle

People will wait to see if a leader is courageous before they’re willing to follow his or her lead. People need courage in their leaders. They need someone who can make difficult decisions and watch over the good of the group. They need a leader who will stay the course when things get tough. People are far more likely to show courage themselves when their leaders do the same.

For the courageous leader adversity is a welcome test. Like a blacksmith’s molding of a red-hot iron, adversity is a trial by fire that refines leaders and sharpens their game. Adversity emboldens courageous leaders and leaves them more committed to their strategic direction.

Leaders who lack courage simply toe the company line. They follow the safest path — the path of least resistance — because they’d rather cover their backside than lead.

3. Adherence to the Golden Rule +1

“The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.”  — Jon Wolfgang von Goethe

The Golden Rule — treat others as you want to be treated — assumes that all people are the same. It assumes that, if you treat your followers the way you would want a leader to treat you, they’ll be happy. It ignores that people are motivated by vastly different things. One person loves public recognition, while another loathes being the center of attention.

Great leaders don’t treat people how they themselves want to be treated. Instead, they take the Golden Rule a step further and treat each person as he or she would like to be treated. Great leaders learn what makes people tick, recognize their needs in the moment and adapt their leadership style accordingly.

4. Self-awareness

“It is absurd that a man should rule others, who cannot rule himself.” — Latin Proverb

Contrary to what Dilbert might have us believe, leaders’ gaps in self-awareness are rarely due to deceitful, Machiavellian motives or severe character deficits. In most cases, leaders — like everyone else — view themselves in a more favorable light than other people do.

Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence, a skill that 90 percent of top performing leaders possess in abundance. Great leaders’ high self-awareness means they have a clear and accurate image not just of their leadership style, but also of their own strengths and weaknesses. They know where they shine and where they’re weak, and they have effective strategies for leaning into their strengths and compensating for their weaknesses.

5. Passion

“If you just work on stuff that you like and are passionate about, you don’t have to have a master plan with how things will play out.” — Mark Zuckerberg

Passion and enthusiasm are contagious. So are boredom and apathy. No one wants to work for a boss that’s unexcited about his or her job, or even one who’s just going through the motions. Great leaders are passionate about what they do, and they strive to share that passion with everyone around them.

6. Humility

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” — C.S. Lewis

Great leaders are humble. They don’t allow their position of authority to make them feel that they are better than anyone else. As such, they don’t hesitate to jump in and do the dirty work when needed and they won’t ask their followers to do anything they wouldn’t be willing to do themselves.

7. Generosity

“A good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit.”  — John Maxwell

Great leaders are generous. They share credit and offer enthusiastic praise. They’re as committed to their followers’ success as they are to their own. They want to inspire all of their employees to achieve their personal best — not just because it will make the team more successful, but because they care about each person as an individual.

8. Infectiousness

“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” — Reverend Theodore Hesburgh

Great leaders know that having a clear vision isn’t enough. You have to make that vision come alive so that your followers can see it just as clearly as you do. Great leaders do that by telling stories and painting verbal pictures so that everyone can understand not just where they’re going, but what it will look and feel like when they get there. This inspires others to internalize the vision and make it their own.

9. Authenticity

“Just be who you are and speak from your guts and heart — it’s all a man has.” — Hubert Humphrey

Authenticity refers to being honest in all things — not just what you say and do, but who you are. When you’re authentic, your words and actions align with who you claim to be. Your followers shouldn’t be compelled to spend time trying to figure out if you have ulterior motives. Any time they spend doing so erodes their confidence in you and in their ability to execute.

Leaders who are authentic are transparent and forthcoming. They aren’t perfect, but they earn people’s respect by walking their talk.

10. Approachability

“Management is like holding a dove in your hand. Squeeze too hard and you kill it, not hard enough and it flies away.” — Tommy Lasorda

Great leaders make it clear that they welcome challenges, criticism and viewpoints other than their own. They know that an environment where people are afraid to speak up, offer insight and ask good questions is destined for failure. By ensuring that they are approachable, great leaders facilitate the flow of great ideas throughout the organization.

11. Accountability

“The ancient Romans had a tradition: Whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: He stood under the arch.” — Michael Armstrong

Great leaders have their followers’ backs. They don’t try to shift blame, and they don’t avoid shame when they fail. They’re never afraid to say, “The buck stops here,” and they earn people’s trust by backing them up.

12. A sense of purpose

“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” — Ken Kesey

Whereas vision is a clear idea of where you’re going, a sense of purpose refers to an understanding of why you’re going there. People like to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Great leaders give people that feeling.

Bringing It All Together

Becoming a great leader doesn’t mean that you have to incorporate all of these traits at once. Focus on one or two at a time; each incremental improvement will make you more effective. It’s okay if you “act” some of these qualities at first. The more you practice, the more instinctive it will become and the more you’ll internalize your new leadership style.


Create Your Entrepreneur’s Essential Backup Plan and Never Panic Again

Your clients are not paying on time, computer problems need attention, and your most productive employee is giving signals that they need a raise.

Late paying clients can be handled. Computer issues can be fixed. An employee who deserves a raise should receive it. You just need a plan. A great receivables employee can coax the slow-paying clients to deliver. Your IT manager can figure out what to do. The employee can be rewarded, sometimes in ways that don’t require large amounts of funding.

How do you cope with all of these issues? Think about it. All of the concerns are really stemming from one problem that has multiple aspects. That’s right. You need more cash flow, but don’t let urgency tempt you to consider plans that might be financially risky.

Find the backup plan you need.

What you really need is money. Money really can solve most business problems. But, you don’t want to jump into something that can ultimately cause further angst. Consider a business line of credit. Although you may have thought of it and never applied for one, a business line of credit can remove the tension. If your business has been around long enough for you to have a staff and customers buying your products, then you most likely have temporary needs that can be resolved with a temporary loan.

Here are some approaches to resolving your immediate and future money issues:

Make a list.

What are your immediate, secondary and “if only” needs? The priority is to keep the business running as smoothly as possible. Don’t leave any aspect of your concerns out. Close your eyes and think about your facility, employees, customers, products, health plan, working hours — everything. Write down the ideas immediately. Narrow the list down to the top three to five items that must be accomplished to keep the company on track.

Develop your plan.

Figure out what must be done now. Payroll is critical — losing valued personnel would impact everything else. Fixing computer issues that prevent the company from receiving funds and processing orders is just as important. If your company manufactures a product, you need to keep your suppliers paid or you’ll have nothing to sell.

Brainstorm with key staff. You may need to streamline some approaches, but think of the greater good. Staying solvent and functional is the goal.

Apply for a business line of credit.

Although there are many approaches to finding fast cash, the business line of credit is one of the most flexible. Once approved, you can receive the funds you need as you need them. Use only what you need and pay interest only on that amount for the period of time you use the funds. Pay back the funds when your clients pay you, and you have the full value of the line of credit for a cushion. You don’t need to reapply for a loan if you need funds at another time.

Work with your staff to implement the plan.

Some of these ideas may take some time to implement. Your staff will be motivated to put the plan into action. Keep key staff involved so they are committed to following the plan and working through the glitches. Incentives can be incorporated that can motivate those in sales and collection roles to “up their game.”

Resolve your issues.

If Sally in sales is a prima donna and, after repeated coaching, she doesn’t pull his weight, take a deep breath and terminate her. Pay her what she’s due, but be firm. Look for the talented, loyal people and promote them. Sometimes the perks can outweigh the money if someone really wants special privileges. Job satisfaction is often more than just a raise.

Sometimes, just keeping the doors open on a business is a heroic task. As an entrepreneur, your commitment is to take the passion you have for your business and translate that into even greater levels of success. Reviewing and finding ways to streamline, funding the projects and preparing for potential crises, and setting goals are all part of the process.


How to Meet Tight Deadlines Without Sacrificing Creativity

There’s nothing boring about being an entrepreneur. Every day is like a snowflake shrouded in ambition, excitement, anxiety and booby traps that Indiana Jones would be envious of.

Tight deadlines can be one of the peskiest obstacles we face — especially when the task at hand requires a complex and creative solution. Whether it’s an off-the-wall client request or an urgent in-house matter with an employee, deadlines can be creativity’s kryptonite. When we’re up against a time crunch, it can be awfully tempting to chuck our creative energy out the window.

But that would be a big mistake. According to a 2016 survey conducted by Adobe, a majority of professionals from across the globe believe creativity improves a company’s innovation, competitiveness, customer engagement and financial performance. Furthermore, and quite alarmingly, just 31 percent of the survey’s respondents believe they’re tapping their creative potential at work.

In today’s fast-paced world, entrepreneurs have very few windows dedicated to uninterrupted focus. Even if we gave up eating, sleeping, family obligations and our social lives, we would still have a finite amount of time to provide excellent solutions to complicated problems.

Here’s some good news: You can have it all. You can flex your creative muscles and craft top-notch solutions while the dark clouds of tight deadlines loom overhead.

process of structured creativity.

As a leader at one of the fastest-growing video production companies in the U.S., tight deadlines have become a mainstay in my life. Our team used to fly by the seat of its pants, relying on our sheer energy and enthusiasm to conjure up creativity out of thin air. But that method didn’t hold up as the company grew and faced more simultaneous deadlines. We needed a step-by-step process that helped us consistently develop excellent, award-winning creative on very tight deadlines.

We’ve learned that we don’t have to meditate in a dark, candlelit room for hours to come up with creative solutions. Instead, we use this three-step framework to efficiently produce creativity under a time crunch:

1. Pinpoint the core objective.

Your knee-jerk reaction to a tight deadline might be to rush into the execution phase. However, it pays to look before you leap. If you charge down a path that’s off base, you’ve wasted time solving a problem that didn’t need to be solved.

It may sound obvious, but this happens much more often than you’d expect, especially in the marketing world. According to a study by USA Today and RPA, 90 percent of agencies say they understand their clients’ businesses, but just 65 percent of those clients agree. This disconnect highlights exactly why you need to pause and gather your thoughts before you hit the ground running.

Refer back to the original conversations and emails that detailed the task at hand. What is the problem you’re being asked to solve, and who exactly are you solving it for? Once you’ve clarified this core objective, make sure it’s clear to your entire team.

My company once dodged a bullet by taking a little extra time to dig deeper into a client’s goals. We were given a tight deadline to create a video for a large game manufacturer to promote a soon-to-be-released board game. If we began executing on that small amount of information, we would have assumed the video needed to appeal to kids. However, after digging a little deeper into the original correspondence, we uncovered that the video was going to be used by salespeople in meetings with a variety of big-box retailers. A video targeting kids would have never resonated with these professionals.

2. Role-play to understand pain points.

After identifying the core objective, it’s now time to take a walk in someone else’s shoes. Also known as psychodrama — a therapeutic technique coined in the early 1900s — role-playing breaks down the walls of your normal consciousness and allows you to objectively enter a different mindset. While you’re there, you can immerse yourself in the pain you’re seeking to solve and construct a plan that guides your creativity.

This age-old approach has helped companies across all industries craft great solutions and strategies that boost their bottom lines. For example, according to Harvard Business Review, this tactic helped a Cleveland-based radio station increase its sales from $600,000 to $6 million in less than three years. And further, the Girl Scouts are also known to use role-playing exercises to help their young sellers make their fattening cookies even more irresistible.

Before we shot our video for the game manufacturer, we visualized ourselves sitting inside a board room and wondered what we’d want to see if we were toy store executives. What would convince us that kids would love a particular game? Would it be a video that highlighted its specs and features, or would it be a video that simply showed kids having fun while playing it? The answer was crystal clear.

The executives wouldn’t care about the game’s bells and whistles. All they wanted to see was kids having fun.

3. Dig up key data and insights.

The world is drowning in data, so why not put it to good use before you execute? According to a study by Tableau and the Economist Intelligence Unit, data-driven companies greatly outperform their non-data-driven peers.

Key insights should fuel your creativity. Search for data that reveals fundamental driving forces behind your target’s behavior and illustrates opinions and quirks surrounding the problem you’re seeking to solve.

Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign is a perfect example of this approach in action. After learning that only 4 percent of women in the entire world considered themselves beautiful, Dove used that insight to fuel one of the most creative and successful marketing campaigns of all time.

We weighed many key insights when planning our video for the game company, but the one we leveraged most was the fact that big-box retailers were aiming to reach 8- to 12-year-old boys. So we hired actors who fell squarely into this demographic and created a video that featured them playing the game, laughing their faces off and having the time of their lives. We simply showed the executives why this game will help them achieve their goals — and it worked.

Whether you’re putting together a comprehensive business pitch, a marketing plan or a creative execution, you don’t have to shoot in the dark and hope for the best. By using this three-step process to drive your execution, you can efficiently deploy excellent creative solutions without getting overwhelmed.