Category Archives: Leadership

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.


Cultivating Humanity: 3 Vital Skills for Today’s Entrepreneurs

In today’s world, where new technology, robots and automation are displacing jobs in almost every industry, three human skills remain irreplaceable: creativity, connection and storytelling. Here’s how three successful entrepreneurs have made use of these skills — and how those skills led to their incredible success.

1. Creativity

Creativity is an integral part of every phase of entrepreneurship, from inception to employee morale to problem solving to breathing new life into stale business models. Obviously, the entire basis of entrepreneurship is rooted in creativity, but in the current climate, entrepreneurs cannot afford to rest a wink after their original creation and must be imaginative, responsive and open to new ideas — what world-renowned chef Massimo Bottura calls “ready to capture the flash in the dark.”

Bottura, a vocal advocate for creative experimentation, encourages a culture of embracing both failure and innovation. An often-told example is when his meticulous chef, Taka, dropped a lemon tart upside down on a plate, shattering the pastry in an explosion of yellow. The chef was upset, but Bottura found inspiration in the splash pattern. “Taka, it’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s amazing.” He suggested recreating it precisely on a second plate. Now, the deconstructed desert “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart” is a popular menu item at Bottura’s restaurant, Osteria Francescana.

 “My chefs can work anywhere they want in the world but they stay because they feel stimulated,” Bottura said during a presentation at Chef Sache in Cologne. He was addressing chefs but his message is vital to entrepreneurs in any industry.

The three Michelin-star chef says that his creative process involves distilling all his passions — music, art and memory — “into edible bites.” Known for his cutting-edge vision, Bottura reimagines foods from his cultural heritage, like the aptly named “Crunchy Part of the Lasagna.” The elaborately deconstructed dish attempts to recreate the taste of the burnt edges of his Italian grandmother’s Parmigiano Reggiano crust — “the first thing everybody would reach for . . . we are trying to connect you back to that joy.”

In a humorous post-modern video, Bottura cooked and served this dish to a robot in a sound-proofed room full of microphones. At the climax of the video, Bottura crunchily tastes his creation and then whispers into the robot’s ear, “How does that make you feel?” It is perhaps a comment on the new automated kitchens and robot chefs.

2. Connection

Too often networking devolves into superficial glad-handing or clumsy grasping to procure clients or investors — rather than a genuine effort to make true connection.  Today’s successful entrepreneur must develop curiosity about others and learn to form meaningful connections with people who are very different from themselves.  New ideas come from people outside your circle.

Everyone knows that making connections is essential in the business world, but it isn’t only human beings that today’s entrepreneur needs to be able to connect with — connection of ideas and industries is also critical. Creativity is, as Steve Jobs put it, “just connecting things.”

An example of brilliant connection is Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of the disruptive Airbnb, who connected lodging to the digital age, turning the hotel industry on its head, and kicking off the sharing economy. Jonathan Ive, senior vice president of design at Apple, lauded Chesky in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of 2016. “He dares to believe that we shouldn’t be strangers,” Ive said. “He saw a new way to build community through people’s innate desire to connect with the world around them.”

When Chesky started Airbnb, he was an unemployed art school graduate with dreams of building a startup; he was, on paper, unprepared to be leading a billion-dollar company five years later. Fortunately, Chesky, a naturally curious person, passionately sought to connect with diverse individuals in his quest to hack CEO-ship. He tapped people like Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, who told him to be proactive, and, less expectedly, former CIA chief George Tenet, from whom he got advice about corporate culture. Tenet shared the importance of visibility in leadership, how he wrote handwritten notes to employees and ate in the common cafeteria every day at a different table. Chesky avidly took in and synthesized everyone’s advice.

In December, Chesky even asked his Twitter followers for advice, tweeting “If @Airbnb could launch anything in 2017, what would it be?” Chesky got over a thousand responses and personally replied to hundreds of the respondents, asking questions, championing their ideas and making remarks like “Wow, I didn’t realize this!

Rather than rest on his laurels, the young billionaire is further blending industries and connecting people. The recently launched Airbnb “Experience” is a new service that promises unique connections with hosts who share their expertise or interests — whether it be a day in the life of a truffle hunter in Florence, an evening hitting Cuban hotspots with an award-winning singer or three days learning the art of astrophotography in Los Angeles. The “experiences” offer a kind of synthesis of tour, adult education and hanging out with people you ordinarily might not. “It’s very easy to tell you 10 jobs that may or may not exist in the future,” Chesky says, “What will human’s do in the future? They will do things only humans can do.

3. Storytelling

The founders of some early tech companies (Facebook and Google, for example) didn’t have to be great storytellers because their services spread virally. Now, with technology dumping non-stop information, people are overwhelmed and disinterested in most of the advertising coming their way. The only way current entrepreneurs can cut through to share their message is via storytelling. Stories are how we process and understand our world. Our decisions are frequently based in emotion. It’s not enough to create a great service or product — you also have to figure out how to let people know about it and to fight for your vision with an emotionally compelling narrative.

Uber’s co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick is a prime example. The disruptive Uber has had to fight regulatory battles from the beginning. Kalanick, a charismatic speaker, uses storytelling to rally for his cause. A case in point is his battle to promote and defend his ride sharing program “Uberpool.” In a TED talk, Kalanick engagingly tells the story of R.P. Draper’s jitney — a 1914 version of Uberpool.

Draper, tooling around early Los Angeles, saw long, frustrated lines outside the trolleys and had the idea to put a sign on his car announcing he would pick people up for a “jitney” (slang for a nickel). “People jumped aboard,” Kalanick says, pointing to the image of jitney with cheerful riders hanging out the doors. The early ride sharing service took off across the country and within one year there were 150,000 rides per day in Los Angeles. “To give you some perspective,” Kalanick says, “Uber in Los Angeles is doing 157,000 rides per day, today, 100 years later.”

Then, like any good storyteller, Kalanick brings in the conflict: In the case of the jitney, this came in the form of disgruntled trolly drivers. Kalanick goes on to entertainingly describe bizarre and unfair regulations cooked up by the transportation monopoly to slow down and eventually destroy the plucky jitney. The allegory is not lost, and the audience is left cheering for Uber to conquer.

If entrepreneurs cultivate a receptive state of creativity, they will be ready to make connections, to capture the “flash in the dark,” and then, through storytelling, communicate their vision to the world.


Why Business Leaders Make the Best Social Entrepreneurs

Social entrepreneurship is all the rage these days. Millennials in particular seem to be attracted to the combination of being their own boss and having their careers mean something beyond making a buck selling products and services. But if that’s your goal, you’d be far better off cutting your teeth in the conventional business world first.

Of the countless causes out there, the only people who seem to be making a real difference on a large scale are those who were successful in business before pivoting their careers toward societal causes. Famous entrepreneurs like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar come to mind. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. There are three very good reasons why that’s the case.

First, experienced business leaders understand what it takes to get a startup off the ground, raise capital, grow an organization and scale an enterprise. That’s hard enough to do in a free-market built around a profit model that’s been well-understood for eons. The non-profit world is not nearly as well-defined.

 Second, successful founders don’t just drop out of the sky into comfy corner office chairs. They learn on the job and develop their expertise and network as they go. Usually their careers begin to take off at a certain inflection point when their capability and access to opportunity reach a certain critical mass.

Third, it’s hard to run a business without learning to sell. It comes with the territory. Sales skills are absolutely necessary in the not-for-profit world where you’re asking people to give up their time and money without hope of any material return on investment. It’s a very tough sell that requires major league tenacity.

Those who decide to become social entrepreneurs early on miss out on all that. That’s why those who achieve even some measure of success with a local project usually find themselves pigeonholed in a relatively small niche. They never reach their full potential or develop the wherewithal to take it from there.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment to drive the point home.

Let’s say you’re Bobby Flay, a world-famous chef who has starred in lots of TV shows, owns a string of restaurants and has written plenty of cookbooks. If you suddenly get the urge to leverage your knowledge of food, business acumen, star power and wealth in the name of a cause, it’s not a slam-dunk, but I’m guessing you could pull it off.

After all, non-profits require the same sort of knowledge, skill-set, experience and capital as for-profit businesses. The only real difference is that their goal isn’t to make money.

Now, let’s back up a few decades to a time when you — the young Flay — were just starting out with little more than a knack for cooking. You wouldn’t graduate from culinary school and get enough experience under your belt to open your first restaurant for more than a decade. The books and TV fame would follow.

But what if none of that had happened. Instead, you decide early on to use your interest in food to try to help starving children. You can imagine how much harder it would be to pull something like that off at that stage, rather than a decade or two later after you’ve gained all the knowledge and experience, not to mention connections and notoriety, of today’s Bobby Flay.

It’s not at all clear how you would have risen to the top of your profession, as Flay did. Like it or not, the world of social causes simply doesn’t offer the same kinds of opportunities to excel in a craft as the business world does.

A lot of young people read about famous business leaders devoting time and wealth to social causes, and that inspires them to do the same. That’s fine, but those same entrepreneurs would tell you to be patient, learn the ropes and make a name for yourself in the business world first. You’ll have way more to give back and a far better chance of achieving an impact by following their example.


Why a ‘Living and Breathing’ Company Culture Isn’t Always a Good Thing

If you’ve been plugged into the entrepreneurial world at all in the past decade or so, you’ve probably heard people describe how they want all their employees to “live and breathe” the company culture. The metaphor here is designed to imply a deep commitment to that culture — usually defined as its values, character and priorities.

It’s a commitment so deep that it can no longer be distinguished from employees’ own individual values, character and priorities.

It’s also an interesting vision, and one that certainly has its merits: When all your employees are so deeply committed to the company, they’ll be willing to work harder for their shared goals and more likely to work together. They’ll also contribute more positively to the overall environment, creating an accelerating feedback loop that makes the culture even stronger.

However,a “living and breathing” company culture takes the idea of culture to an extreme that yields more than a handful of downsides, and the only reason the concept exists is because of our arguably temporary obsession with the importance of company culture.

The rise of company culture

Organizational culture has been a concept in business and management since at least the 1970s, but it’s only recently that “corporate culture” has become a buzzword. You could argue that this is so because more business leaders are discovering the true objective value of a positive company culture; I’d argue, however, that it’s something closer to a fad.

Company culture started to accelerate in popularity once people started realizing that many tech startups in the Silicon Valley region — which turned into multi-billion-dollar juggernauts — all had surprising cultural features in common that broke from traditional office environments.

Obscure furniture, casual dress codes and a youthful energy were and still are stereotypically common features in this context, and they fuel a false association: Specifically, both culture and financial success differentiate these companies, so surely the two factors must be connected.

The end result is a still-growing obsession with creating a unique and “modern” corporate culture — one that employees must “live and breathe” to allow for that culture’s full benefits.

How company culture can go too far

This illustration shouldn’t convince you that corporate culture is bad or unnecessary; in fact, I’d still argue that it’s critical for a business’s success. But, we should be careful not to overestimate culture’s benefits, and avoid shoving it down workers’ throats.

Company culture can go too far, in at least the following ways:

  • Homogeneity. Some of the best ideas in the world are the ones you didn’t see coming. They come from outside sources and outside perspectives, or arise from uncomfortable situations. Accordingly, having a diverse environment, with many different minds and perspectives, is important to a business’s survival. Being too rigid and too serious about your company culture encourages a kind of homogeneity; if all your employees think and act alike, they’ll all solve problems the same way, which will limit your growth and put you at risk for bigger problems down the road.
  • Stress and pressure. Using the phrase “living and breathing” company culture implies that working for this company is as important as life itself. While some people thrive in high-pressure environments, chronic stress isn’t good for anybody. If you make your workers feel like nothing matters except their work, eventually they will begin to suffer lower morale and display lowered productivity.
  • Polarization. Approaching company culture with this extreme level will also polarize your newest hires and job candidates. It’s true that you’ll naturally attract some people who already fall in line with your company values, but you’ll also scare away some serious talent who may differ with you on a handful of key points. Is that scenario really worth it?
  • Misplaced values. Don’t forget, this is still a business, and your bottom line is profitability. Company culture is a useful way to make your workers happier and more productive, but the “living and breathing” angle can sometimes interfere with that vision. For example, if an employee’s deviation from your cultural norms ends up earning better results for your business, you shouldn’t complain or reprimand the employee.
  • Cult vibes. Finally, to a more subjective point: Enforcing your company culture too strictly or seriously gives off some serious cult vibes. This is off-putting to employees, clients and customers alike — so try not to turn your brand into a corporate brainwashing scheme.

Finding the right balance

Remember, company culture is still important, and your employees should fit, to some degree, into that culture. The key is to find the balance between nurturing that culture and mandating it. It’s different for every business; depending on your size, your niche and your personal preferences, you may end up settling on one end of the spectrum or the other.

There isn’t a single right answer, but you owe it to your staff and the future of your business to give it some serious analysis.


7 Ways Entrepreneurship Helps You Be a Better . . . Anything

For some people, entrepreneurship is a way of life. Creating something new and leading a team is living the dream, and a destination in its own right. For others, it’s only a means to an end, or might even be considered a detour en route to even bigger and better things.

If you’re struggling with the notion of entrepreneurship, seeing the appeal but either fearing the risk or recognizing that it’s not your ultimate goal, think carefully about your options. Entrepreneurship isn’t just about making a lot of money or leading a company to greatness. In fact, the experience of entrepreneurship can make you better at . . . well, almost anything you can think of.

 How? Here are seven ways.

1. Critical thinking

There’s no application that doesn’t demand at least some level of critical thinking. Being able to spot and compensate for your own biases, analyze the roots of various problems and discover alternative perspectives on certain subjects can help you address issues more thoroughly, and make smarter plans for future development.

In the professional world, this means being more efficient and seeing better results. In your personal life, it may mean better understanding your relationships and identifying key areas for personal improvement.

2. Creativity

Entrepreneurship also forces you to be creative. While you can’t force creativity, you can practice it — and the more time you spend generating creative thoughts, the better and faster you’ll be at doing it in a practical environment. How you apply that creativity is entirely up to you.

It could help you in a creative hobby, like painting or photography, or give you fuel for professional visions like marketing campaigns — or maybe even another business in the future.

3. Adversity

Entrepreneurship is rife with hard times. The strategies you thought were brilliant (and, hypothetically, perfect) may not work nearly as well as you thought they would, or you may reach a point where your finances are stretched so thin that you have to consider closing up shop.

Though times of adversity and failure will test your patience and fill your life with stress, they’ll also teach you valuable lessons about the nature of challenges and hardship. You’ll learn that failure is only temporary, and you’ll grow more confident — not to mention, likely to stop worrying about the smaller problems you face in everyday life.

4. Independence

As the founder of a business, you’ll be in charge of all the decisions. You’re the ultimate source for accountability, and you’re the one who makes the rules. At first, this will be both exciting and intimidating, but as you become more familiar with your role, you’ll start to accept that level of independence and direction as fundamental to your being.

After you gain some experience, you’ll be more decisive and confident, and less dependent on others, which will be beneficial no matter what you do afterward.

5. Management

It doesn’t take long to realize how much entrepreneurship demands. You’ll be spending countless hours working on your ideas, and managing full teams of people (not to mention partner, vendor and client relationships).

In some ways, entrepreneurship can be seen as a juggling act. In others, it’s a game of micro-economics, demanding that you work with limited resources, like time, to gain the greatest value for the money you put in. In any case, entrepreneurship teaches you the fundamentals of management, which makes you a better decision-maker, better planner and better allocator of resources. There’s no downside to these benefits.

6. Personal branding

Spending time at the helm of your company, you’ll have the chance to develop your personal brand. You’ll get some press coverage as the “face” of your organization, you’ll attract more followers to your social accounts and you’ll likely have the opportunity to publish more content under your name.

All of this can be used in the future to build your resume, help you stand out from the crowd and prove your expertise in at least one niche.

7. Connections

Even if you don’t consider yourself a social butterfly, you’ll gain from adding connections to your network. Entrepreneurship gives you a good excuse to find and retain those connections. You’ll have greater access to employers, mentors, employees and teachers, but also hobbyists and specialists, whom you may call upon for personal projects, as well. Just be sure to keep in touch even after your stint as entrepreneur.

No matter what other goals you have in life — whether you want to be a poet, salesperson, scholar, chef or anything in between — entrepreneurship can give you the skills that will improve your chances of success in your professional life.

Entrepreneurship is an unparalleled experience that offers a diverse range of opportunities for improvement, opportunities that are accessible to just about anyone. If you have the ideas and the motivation to back you, I highly recommend it ,and even if you fail, you’ll come out better for it.


Focusing Like a Laser Will Increase Your Odds of Success

Do you remember the image during the credits of the movie Forrest Gump, where a feather is floating through the sky, being carried in whatever direction the wind would take it? That is a perfect visual of what not to do, when trying to build a business.

Business success requires an almost religious level of focus on the goal at hand, while not letting the whims or pet projects of our customers, investors or employees blow us in different directions. The entrepreneur that can keep the team focused and not easily distracted is the one that will most successfully get to the finish line.

What is focus?

The best way to define focus might be to give you a personal example of what focus is not. Yes, even yours truly has fallen victim to a loss of focus during the early days of my executive career. And, this example from my iExplore days will pound home the point.

 iExplore was a consumer portal to research and purchase adventure tours, where our primary strength was consumer marketing online, while relying on ground operator partners to run the trips. But, in our early days, we got lured into the corporate incentive travel business by one of our customers. The notion of selling 100 passengers per booking, instead of two passengers per booking, sounded worth it to a startup trying to scale its business.

But, in chasing that business, we quickly learned that the corporate incentive business is driven by a B2B sales team, not consumer marketers. We didn’t have the right kind of team, with meeting planner relationships. Also, the skill sets required for customer success were a lot more than marketing. We needed professional event planners and boots on the ground to be really successful. And that just wasn’t our consumer model, since we didn’t actually have to run the trips ourselves.

Attempting to get into the corporate incentive business was the equivalent of me leading the team down a rabbit hole. That “flavor of the month” looked like a good move, based on the financial upside of a business like that, but without the right sales and operations team involved, it was simply a fool’s errand. It ultimately distracted us from focusing on continued success in our consumer business. So, the point here: Don’t let a “flavor of the month” lead you down any rabbit holes, as those rarely bear fruit, long term.

Don’t confuse focus with stubbornness.

There was a major pivot point in our history, when iExplore began to sell advertising on our website. I really wanted to stay focused on being a travel-revenue-only business, as I thought the ads were going to clutter up the site and hurt the user experience. But, my fellow executives passionately made their case to do a small advertising test on our website. And, the result was a new-found revenue stream and a 75 percent profit margin business that far exceeded the 10 percent profits margins we were getting from our travel revenues.

The point here was, had I stay solely focused on being a travel business, we would have missed an even bigger opportunity to evolve into a big travel media business. Once we learned that 30 percent of our revenues were driving 75 percent of our bottom line profits, the team shifted directions toward what we saw as the future of our business success.

You can only build 1 business at a time.

Once iExplore made the decision we were shifting our focus to being a media business, from a travel business, that changed everything from a website design perspective. And, that ruffled a lot of feathers internally from our travel department, which believed that the media business was actually hurting the company. There was a constant tug-of-war between the travel business and media business, fighting for prominence and positioning on the web pages. What was good for one was bad for the other.

I actually thought having the two lines of business fighting with each other would create a good balance on the website, by not letting the user experience get bogged down by too many ads. But what I should have done was pull the plug on the travel business altogether and let the high-margin media business drive the train. The media business required fewer people to build, drove three times the profitability and was very sticky with a high level of repeat clients. Hindsight is 20/20, but we should have had better focus on that one business line to truly maximize our success.

But, it was a scary thing to do, exiting the core business upon which the company was founded. But never be scared to make the right business decision, even if it means killing your sacred cows.

Defining the goals to focus on. 

To define the key business goals that the management team needs to focus on, a more formal strategic business planning process is required. Most entrepreneurs don’t know how, or don’t take the time, to run that process. It’s a vital process to implement. Even if you do it in abbreviated fashion, taking the time to define your strategic plan will make sure the voices of all stakeholders are heard and ensure you are truly focused on the right objectives to maximize success for your business, long term.

Keeping the team focused on those goals.

Once a plan is set, your job as CEO is to make sure your entire management team stays focused on hitting those goals and not running down any new rabbit holes. At your next strategic planning process, any new ideas — and the odd rabbit hole — can be considered. You can’t have your CFO building a sedan, your COO building a minivan and your CTO building an SUV, when all agreed during the planning process you were going to build a luxury coupe. Focus, more focus and still more focus will help you achieve your business goals a lot faster.


Accept and Embrace Failure With ‘The Other F Word’

Great innovators don’t fear failure. They learn from it. They build on it.  Failure can be a game-changing strategic resource that can help you and your organization achieve the greater success you crave. Grab your free copy of The Other “F” Word eBook to learn practical approaches to use failure to your advantage.

The Other “F” Word shows how successful leaders and teams are putting failure to work every day; to re-engage employees, spark innovation and accelerate growth. Authors Danner and Coopersmith—with their rare blend of senior-level executive experience, global advising, teaching acumen and cross-discipline perspective—share these valuable new practices, and show how they can improve results across your organization. This book features a practical, seven-stage framework to liberate failure as a force to advance your leadership agenda. Failure doesn’t need to be feared or revered, but it does need to be respected and understood if it is to be put to work effectively.

The Other “F” Word shows you how to:

    Start an open, productive conversation about failure across your organization
  • Reduce the fear of failure that stifles initiative, creativity and engagement
  • Anticipate, prepare for and respond to failure so you can leverage it when it happens
  • Harness failure as a catalyst to drive innovation, improve performance and strengthen culture

This eBook offers practical suggestions for how savvy leaders can turn failure from a regrettable reality into a resource for resiliency.

Note from the authors: Everybody wants to talk about success. But nobody wants to talk about failure. Failure benefits no one when it is the unmentioned elephant in the conference room. We teach about innovation, leadership, strategy, and entrepreneurship. This book offers you specific ideas on what you can do with failure to improve your odds of success.

Disclosure: This is brought to you by the Entrepreneur Partner Studio. Our goal is to feature products and services that we think you’ll find interesting and useful. If you purchase them, we may get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our commerce partners. 


Do the Job Nobody Else Wants and You’ll Never be Overlooked at Work

Over the past five years, I’ve delivered talks to tens of thousands of professionals across the country. After each talk, whether at a corporation or a conference, I’m always asked the same question by the audience — How do I stand out in my job and get noticed?

It’s a great question, and it’s coming from a good place. It means the person is hungry for career success, and they don’t want to be average, coast in their job or deliver work that’s just “good enough.”

 My answer to the question, regardless of what stage someone is at in their career, is always the same — Do the job that no one else wants to do. At first, the response is typically something like, “But if no one wants to do that job, why should I do it?”

Allow me explain.

Over the course of a career, especially early on, opportunities for you to stand out will pop up on a regular basis. But it’s easy to overlook these moments and be totally unaware of their potential because they seem so underwhelming at the time. Do any of these ring a bell?

  • A tough assignment became available, but instead of volunteering to work on it, you looked down at your notebook and said nothing because you were intimidated by how much work it would involve.
  • Your boss asked for volunteers to come in early to help set up for a meeting, but you wanted the extra 30 minutes of sleep instead.
  • Someone in another department — a department you have your eye on for the future — asked if you were interested in staying late to help their team finish an important project. It sounded good, but you had dinner plans and decided to pass.
  • A manager you respect (not yours, incidentally) desperately needed a work-related errand to be run during crunch-time for the company, but you told yourself that your job description didn’t say anything about running errands.
  • Your boss asks for people willing to train other employees on a piece of software that you happen to know well. You know someone else will raise their hand — and finally, they do — so you figure no harm done.

Sure, none of the above examples sound particularly sexy. And it’s true that they may not be part of your description. So why say yes to any of them? The simple reason — because nine out of 10 people won’t.

When requests like these are made, most employees will immediately lose eye contact with the person making the ask and demure. Your opportunity is to do the exact opposite.

Next time you encounter a request that no one else wants to take on, you can make eye contact with the person who made it and simply say, “I got it.” When an email comes in with a request, be the first to say yes. Even better, be proactive, knock on doors, and ask people if there’s anything you can help with.

The reason it’s critical to do the jobs no one else wants to do sometimes is because you:

  • Are seen as indispensable and committed to your work
  • Engender goodwill, and make people eager to help you in turn
  • Become the “go-to person” over time, especially when it really matters

These are powerful reasons that will go a long way as you increase your influence and build your brand over the course of your career. Remember: Your personal brand is what people say about you when you’re not around.

Sure, everybody wants to land the fun project or play an important role. The way to get there is by being willing to get your hands dirty and do the less glamorous work sometimes. This is your opening.

Every day, you have an excellent opportunity to stand out from the crowd by saying “yes.” Start today.