The CEO of a manufacturing company recently approached a business coach because he was frustrated by his organization’s performance. He knew it was underperforming, failing to achieve his objectives, had never had positive cash flow since he took the helm, yet he could not put his finger on why all this was happening. He thought that implementing a good leadership operating system would make all his problems go away. Little did he know that poor leadership was the cause and everything else was effect… Leaders Get Out of Your Own Way!
Without boring you with too many details, the coach facilitated a three-day retreat with the executive team, and it was clear why this company was having trouble. While this company did need a leadership operating system that could help guide them to make better and faster decisions, create winning strategies, limit focus on a few key priorities, align everyone, and hold people accountable, this company faced a bigger problem. The main issue was the dysfunction amongst the leadership team itself. Worse, the CEO could not see that his behavior was the center of it. He loved to argue every point, even when it did not matter, hated to lose more than he loved to win, belittled his leaders at every turn, and had to put his stamp on everything.
After several working sessions with the coach, the team came clean and told the CEO how they felt. Rather than taking this as an opportunity to grow and shift, the CEO’s ego took hold. He told everyone in the room that he did not believe he needed to change, and if they could not stand the heat they should find another place to work! As his coach tried to work with him to see how his people had become “yes” people, the opposite of what he told them he wanted, he became even more adamant that maybe they were just the wrong people. We call someone like this un-coachable. While the coach could help implement the leadership operating system, the effectiveness of the system was severely compromised by the inadequacy of the CEO, leaving an enormous amount of profit and growth potential on the table.
Are you concerned about how to get more out of your team? Have you wondered why one team functions better than another? Have you noticed that your team members are not contributing much in your meetings, but you know they have valuable ideas? Or worse, are you now questioning their capacity to grow.
I share this story right from the start because much of our success as coaches depends on how coachable our clients are. The tools and processes are only as good as the people we work with. Most companies have a lot more growth and profit potential staring them right in the face. Having a great team is right around the corner, but they can’t see it. Less stress, more control over the business, less drama, and happy customers can be more simply attained. The secret can be found in their “Leaky Bucket.” I discuss this in detail in Your Business Is a Leaky Bucket: Learn How to Avoid Losing Millions in Revenue and Profit Annually.
The Leaky Bucket concept is very important. The leaks covered in the book will not be found in your financial statements. Yes, they impact the results, but not in ways that are easily measured. I used the Leaky Bucket as a metaphor to help you visualize cash pouring out of a bucket through lots of various sized holes. You can also imagine water flowing over the top because the bucket has not grown fast enough.
I mention my book because this whitepaper, goes deeper into the issues related to profit leak number 1, “poor leadership.” When you make allowances for poor leadership, you are deciding that a substandard leader has more to offer than everyone else put together, which is a fool’s bet. Your ineffective leader causes everyone else to perform at lower levels. You lose access to a lot of great ideas, and people are less apt to willingly give extra effort.
In this whitepaper, I want to address three issues that I have found that have the biggest effect on our ability to maximize success with a client. All three factors can be addressed through training and coaching as long as the “student” is a willing participant.
After 35 years in the workforce, I am convinced that the number one hindrance to peak performance is ego. While you would no doubt agree with me, and are probably saying to yourself “duh”, ego problems are the least dealt-with issue and are the most severe the higher up we go in organizations. This is significant because leaders have more of an impact on their organizations than their subordinates. When you have a senior leader with an overinflated ego, business life is a train wreck!
If you have not read it yet, The Ideal Team Player, by Patrick Lencioni, must be at the top of every leader’s must-read list. In this book, Patrick recounts a story about leaders that discover the three virtues that are necessary to avoid having assholes working for them. Sorry for the language, but that was the story line. While it seems obvious in hindsight, he was right to identify that you are not an ideal team player if you do not possess humility, hunger, or common sense about how to interpersonally deal with people. I am going to deal with the last item later in this whitepaper. In his book, they describe people who lack humility and interpersonal skills as “bulldozers.” Imagine what this does to employee engagement, turnover, productivity, and so on. There is no way your organization could operate near its peak performance. Worse, it would be hard for you to recruit top talent or talent in general. Who wants to work for a “bulldozer?”
You may find this difficult to believe but many people do not recognize when their egos are clouding their judgment, swaying decision making, causing favoritism, inciting organizational strife, stifling teamwork, and causing high turnover rates. They refuse to consider the ideas of others, and in many cases, do nothing because they are afraid to be wrong. Ego is a blinder and a form of self-sabotage. It stops them from processing information and seeing the world as it is. In some cases, they are more concerned about themselves and blinded by the beauty of their names in lights that they fail to realize that it is not all about them, that others contributed to the results, that others are not there to serve the leader’s greatness, and that their job as the leader is to bring out the best of others.
“Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” — John Wooden
Do you easily compliment or praise teammates without hesitation? Do you easily admit mistakes? Do you easily take lower-level work for the good of the team? How easily do you defer credit to the team for accomplishments? Do you easily acknowledge and seek help for your weaknesses? Do you offer and accept apologies graciously? If your colleagues do not indicate that for each of these questions you “usually” act in that manner, you have an ego problem.
There are two primary ways in which Ego manifests itself. The first is when someone thinks too highly of themselves. This person spends a lot of their time making sure everyone knows how great they are, making sure they get their time on stage. You get to hear their incredible opinions, taking all the credit for success, posting their picture every two minutes on Facebook and Instagram to show you everywhere they are, who they’re with, and their latest recognition. We will refer to this as false pride. The second type, is fear or self-doubt, which is when you think less of yourself than you should and are consumed with your own shortcomings. In many cases, these people can be more damaging than the false pride folks as they can significantly erode their effectiveness or the effectiveness of their departments.
One of the hardest challenges for leaders is to remain grounded in the face of their success. When everyone defers to you, it must be tempting to start believing your own press releases. It must be easy to think: I am smarter, more charismatic, and more powerful than everyone else. As
leaders reach a point where they believe their opinion matters more than yours, they stop listening. And that means they stop learning. Leaders dominated by false pride are often called controllers. Even when they don’t know what they are doing, they have a high need for power and control.
As an Executive Coach, I’ve encountered many controllers who really believe their people cannot possibly decide without them. They act as bottlenecks to their organizations because everything has to flow through them. They honestly believe they are right every time; every change they make to a document was crucial to its success; they are the best at selecting new employees; and they are expert at every function in the company. This is, of course, buffoonery, but they cannot see it. They can see everyone else’s mistakes but their own. The organization ends its days cleaning up their leader’s messes, doing double and triple the work, and keeping their ideas to themselves because there is no way around it.
At the other end of the spectrum are the fear-driven managers, often characterized as do-nothing bosses. They are described as never around, always avoiding conflict, and not very helpful. They often leave their team members alone, even when these individuals are insecure and need help.
Do-nothing bosses don’t believe in themselves or trust their own judgment. They value others’ thoughts more than their own, especially thoughts from those to whom they report. Thus, they rarely speak out and support their own team members.
The great thing about the “ego” trap is that it is a coachable issue. Now keep in mind, one is only coachable if they desire being coached and want to change. If not, you can stop reading because the person you’re dealing with is not going to change.
In The Ideal Team Player, Lencioni suggests we make the three virtues mandatory in our organizations. If someone is not willing to be coached and does not address their humility problem, I would remove them from the organization. In the long run, such people will cost you far more than they can possibly be worth. They cause everyone else to be less effective, and no one person is worth more than the many. If you happen to be a subordinate of this person, and there is no chance they will be replaced (because they are the owner or CEO), then my recommendation is to leave. You will never receive the appreciation you deserve. They will always cause unnecessary drama for you and other teammates, and there will be more pleasurable places to work. Life is too short, and you deserve better!
Now if you want to address the ego barrier here are some practical suggestions for developing your humility:
The second most crucial issue I see holding back organizations is how leaders treat their people. In Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player, the essential virtue of “smart”, which he describes as a person’s common sense about people and their ability to be interpersonally appropriate and aware in individual and group situations. I agree with Patrick that this is an essential component in teamwork and being a leader. However, there is another dimension I want to address, namely the leader’s biases toward how they view subordinates and colleagues in general.
Let’s first address the leader’s common sense about people. Much has been written about emotional intelligence, but not enough has been done to apply it. Let’s face how most leaders have been selected in your organization and others. The people that are the hardest workers, with the most industry knowledge, highest technical acumen, people you may feel comfortable with and have been with the company the longest are usually given the most attention. Soft skill qualities are usually identified as important but, let’s face it, are usually considered secondary.
After all, how often have you seen people in companies that are horrible communicators, cause tons of drama, directly cause the most turnover, and survive year after year because they deliver results or are coveted for the reasons I described above. They are considered irreplaceable because of their customer relationships, contacts, institutional knowledge, etc. In the end, they are horrible with people and are severely holding your company back because you have decided that this one person is more valuable than the many they are infecting.
Worse, once you have tolerated one person treating other people badly, you are telling others that being a jackass is okay. You are indicating to all your employees that treating people with dignity, respect, and character does not affect results. You are indicating that we should not care about the feelings of others. Just focus on results because that is all we care about. If you deliver results, you are untouchable.
You probably wondering where I was heading with the above. I am sure if I audited your company, I would find at least one leader that has poor emotional intelligence, and you are tolerating it. As an executive and business coach, I witness this issue daily in every organization. What I find frustrating is that leaders allow the dysfunction to continue. I have found that improving your decision making, leadership team chemistry, and organizational effectiveness
can be achieved simply by helping that leader understand how to use the right communication style. An assertive communication style rarely has the issues I described above.
“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” — John Wooden
The degree of assertiveness you use in dealing with people provokes fairly predictable reactions by others, which in turn help determine how effective you are as a leader. Assertive communication is characterized by honesty. It enforces rules, requires results, and is a direct approach that shows concern for yourself and others. It communicates the message that “you are both okay.”
This communication style could be construed as treating all the individuals involved as equal, each deserving of respect, and no more entitled than another to have things done their way. You feel connected to others when you are speaking to them, and you are trying to help them take control of their lives. You address issues and problems as they arise and create environments where others can grow and mature.
The reason assertive communication is so effective is that it combines the positive dimensions of both aggressive and passive communicators. The assertive communicator is goal-oriented and direct, and at the same time is a good listener, considerate, and thoughtful. Thus, the assertive leader bridges the most positive aspects of the two other styles of behavior while at the same time avoiding the negative aspects of those two styles. The assertive style is both a good human relations style and a good team-building style for any organization. The assertive leader is viewed as someone who is strong, energetic, and is both able and willing to fight for resources needed by the department. Further, the assertive leader does not appear to play favorites, since he or she does not bend rules or fail to enforce rules in an effort to be liked by others. This leadership style is most admired by team members and employees.
As I mentioned above, there are some biases that I believe leaders have that severely hamper their interactions with people. While there are many I could discuss, there are two biases that cause some significant lost opportunities in organizations.
I have met too many leaders, particularly founders, who believe everyone in their company exists to serve them. While it is true they started the business, and at one point you could say they were the business, at some point the organization must grow up and operate as a business, not a bunch of serfs working for their master. Everyone in a successful business, including the founder, exists to provide products and services to customers.
Each person in the organization has a role in the process of providing products and services. As a team, we help each other to do a better job than our competition so that we can operate more profitably, and thus enable everyone to earn their fair compensation and the business to expand and create more jobs. The leader’s job is to make the subordinate’s job easier so that all are in a better position to serve our customers well. Not the other way around!
I have witnessed servant leaders on average get two to three times the productivity of those that have the god complex. Their employees give extra effort, work efficiently, and spend extra time looking after the customer. Ironically, they spend more time looking after their leaders than subordinates of leaders with a god complex. I believe the reason is that the latter secretly resent their boss and do the minimums to stay out of trouble.
Leaders with this complex cause everyone else to be inefficient. Employees spend their days readjusting their schedules from best serving customer to best serving the leader, resulting in severe organizational inefficiency. Such leaders misuse resources and do not even recognize it because they are so selfish.
In a world where most jobs require people to use their brains, and each situation is a little different, most roles are filled with knowledgeable workers. Ironically, many leaders do not treat them as such. In Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, Liz Wiseman identified the difference between leaders who access and revitalize the intelligence in the people around them (Multipliers) and those whose view of intelligence is based on elitism and scarcity (Diminishers). The Diminishers believe that intelligent people are a rare breed and that they are one of those few smart people. They then conclude that other people will never figure things out without them.
Here is the rub! We are all Multipliers and Diminishers. The questions are how often are we multipliers and with whom? Leaders that have huge ego problems are most often Diminishers. I know of one CEO that terrorizes the leadership team and other employees daily with emails micromanaging their every activity. This CEO’s team loses tremendous daily productivity in order to respond to those emails, provide reports to show what is being asked for, and attend update meetings so the boss can show them what to do.
Diminishers have other traits that cause them to get far less productivity than their people are capable of. The “tyrant” creates a tense environment that suppresses people’s thinking and capability. We have all been around that leader who loves to debate everything, hates to lose, and loves to win. It takes too much energy to get our own points across, so we just don’t even try.
Another Diminisher is the “know-it-all” that gives directives that showcase how much they know. Then there is the “decision-maker” who makes centralized, abrupt decisions that confuse the organization.
“You are not a failure until you start blaming others for your mistakes.” — John Wooden
The Multiplier has a completely different way of handling people. Where Diminishers cause people to underperform, Multipliers can get the very best out of people and some believe exceed expectations. They are considered “liberators” as they create an intense environment that requires people to tap into their best thinking and work. They are considered “challengers” as they define an opportunity that causes people to stretch rather than the directive that limits the outcome. The Multiplier wants to make sound decisions, so they encourage vigorous debate on important decisions, usually staying quiet during the debate. After all, they know their own opinion. They really value the opinions of their team. They are “investors” as they invest in people to take ownership of results and are invested in their success!
In my book, Your Business is A Leaky Bucket, profit leak number 12 is dedicated to “being allergic to saying “no”. Rarely do I meet someone that tells me that they have mastered the use of time! If you are one of those people, you primarily work only those things that will contribute the biggest impact to your organization and role, and you are good at deferring, delegating, or discarding the rest. As a leader, you are communicating well, and you are emphasizing messages you really want your team to hear. Most importantly, you are clear on the right type of opportunities you expect your team to aggressively pursue and those you want them to defer, delegate, or discard. To a very large degree, your success depends on it.
You cannot manage time itself, but you can manage how you choose to use your time. We are under more time pressure than ever, and those little gadgets like cell phones may make our lives much harder than easier.
Time is the great equalizer. Everyone gets the same amount of time: 24 hours in each day. You cannot buy more time, and no one can give you more of it. Thus, the most important question you can ask daily is: “How can I and my team use time more wisely?”
One of the essential keys to maximizing success as an individual or an organization is to effectively determine where your time should go now and into the future. Where you used time in the past only serves as a guide, a learning mechanism for your decisions as to where time should be used in the future. One person in your group losing focus on congruent goals can impact everyone’s time and even create a huge barrier to success.
Too often people search in the wrong places when trying to understand why they are not achieving their goals. They think there is something wrong with the time management program they’re using, so they buy a new one. The real problem is not what program or process they currently use. Rather, it is what habits of thoughts and attitudes they use to decide how they will use their time.
To do that, you must pick and choose which opportunities and tasks to undertake. Time and priority management is a skill few people master, but every person needs. One of the greatest mistakes many leaders make is to say “yes” too often. In many cases, time management is more about what you decide not to do, rather than what you do. Does your leadership team fail to say “no” often enough? Or does it choose to chase fires rather than identify and address the real issues staring them in the face? While there is no exact percentage, you should be passing on at least 25 percent of the opportunities and responsibilities that come your way. Otherwise, you will find yourself spending far too much time on tasks you never should have agreed to take on in the first place.
Belief systems lead to actions that cause results, which then impact your time management. If you or your people behave in counterproductive ways, try to identify what the belief systems are that cause that behavior. For example, let’s say you decide you should exercise three days a week to improve your health. Your primary belief system, however, is that exercise is boring and painful. What do you think the chances are you’ll implement that “decision” to exercise three days a week?
Commonly, I hear CEOs complain that they spend little or no time on their strategic priorities. Instead, they spend their days putting out fires and dealing with their employee issues. They are usually insistent this is just part of business as usual. However, a closer examination teaches us that some people like to put out fires. They enjoy the immediate gratification of handling the daily emergencies, want to be the ones with all the answers, and have trouble saying “no” to others. These habits directly impact their ability to manage their time effectively.
“Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.” — John Wooden
Our society is notorious for seeking immediate gratification. The benefit of better health is a long-term goal. In the short term, however, a person is apt to avoid the pain of sore muscles and the loss of self-esteem that goes along with confirming one’s own bad physical shape by not going to the gym. In other words, they feel better about not going to the gym than they do about going. This is immediate gratification, even though the decision is a bad one for long-term goals.
To change behavior, you must identify the immediate gratification you get from your bad behavior and the thought patterns that cause you to continue to practice it. Once identified, you must find something more motivating to replace them. For example, many people would exercise if their doctor told them, “If you do not start to regularly exercise tomorrow, you’ll have only six months to live. If you do exercise regularly, you will live another twenty-five years.” That is quite a carrot to dangle.
An additional aspect of using time is that most people do not have a good sense of where their time goes. At least once every six months, executives should track their time to see where they really spend it. Once you have a solid understanding of how you spend your time, you can redirect time you control and use it more productively by delegating activities to others.
A key area where leaders have the hardest time saying “no” is when it comes to revenue. This is critical. Not only is this a critical strategic conversation, it is also an issue that can destroy a significant amount of your organizational resources; both time and money. Not all revenue is good revenue. In addition, the more market segments target, geographies you try to conquer, product and services you offer, and distribution channels required, the more resources required. It is important to be prudent in how you go about building your revenue. It is very important to know when and how to say “no”!
Your strategy will help you consider the best type of revenue to target. The predictability and consistency of your revenue growth rate are important measures of the health of your business. A key to driving your growth is targeting the right market segment, not aiming to be all things to all segments. You might love pie, but you’d likely not be feeling too well if you ate the entire pie at one sitting. The same is true regarding the health of your business. You must pick the right slice and exercise moderation. Targeting every source of revenue can leave you spread thin, the proverbial jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Profit leaks result from not focusing your efforts on the most valuable and sensible avenues for revenue.
What does this have to do with saying “no?” Positioning your company in a growth industry, market segment, or sector is crucial to the continued success of your company. To have future growth, regardless of how you are doing in this quarter or year, there must be a target market that your products/services are focused on and that is regularly growing. When businesses mistakenly chase revenue anywhere it leads them, they wind up with less of it. Great companies quickly learn that by segmenting the marketplace, they can perfect their business model around owning their segment or slice of the pie.
You set your employees up for failure by saying yes to everything. When everything is important, nothing is truly important! Perfection does not exist. Simple math dictates that the more things you randomly throw on someone’s plate, the less time they have to spend on each thing. Overloads cause leaks in company buckets.
A domino effect occurs when leaders cannot say “no” to anything. Let’s take the people ramifications. The more complicated your service model, the more talented your service staff has to be. They have to be smarter than the average employee in the marketplace while also maintaining specialized skills to handle your customers. That said, when you overload them with responsibilities, you’ll find they cannot reach all your original projected goals.
“Being average means, you are as close to the bottom as you are to the top.” — John Wooden
The number one job of a leader is to make their employees’ jobs easier! I recently had breakfast with a CEO I am coaching, and he had mentioned that the COO seemed overloaded. He had wondered if he had hired the wrong person. As we talked, it became clear that they had never established clear priorities together. In other words, everything was important! When I started asking him questions about what he believed the top priorities where for this person in the current quarter, he paused. It was obvious that he was unsure. A great example of setting a good clear priority was an advertising agency that had too much complexity in its client intake process. It took two weeks and six different people to onboard a new client! After proper focus and attention, that was reduced to one hour and one person. That could not have happened had they not focused on a clear priority and de-emphasized other things to get that done.
A great example of a company that benefited from saying “no” is Southwest Airlines. They say “no” often. If you want reserved seating, you do not fly Southwest, because their boarding process does not allow for it. Southwest Airlines, unlike most of the competition, does not charge for bags. All of their planes are 737s. This simplifies their fleet, reduces the time it takes to train mechanics, and drastically improves inventory management. In addition, they do not provide onboard amenities. Also, you will notice they fly to just 101 destinations. They choose airports with lower gate fees. Additionally, you can only book flights on their website. The culmination of these “no” decisions is that they have remained one of the most profitable airlines in the industry. As of this writing, they are second only to Delta Airlines in market capitalization with approximately half the number of employees.
Typically, leaders push back on the concept of saying “no”. To that end, make it a priority NOT to schedule any meetings or calls in the first three hours of each day. Use that time to work on one key task to move the rocks (your main priorities) out of your way. If you finish in less time, use the leftover time to go after the gravel, sand, and water tasks in that order, the lesser priorities that also fill your daily bucket. This ensures you are working on at least five key motivators each week. You have been trained since you entered the workforce to please your customers and your bosses. They make you feel as if you always have to go the extra mile and exceed expectations! The problem with this mentality is that by trying to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. You set yourself and others up for failure. You might think it takes courage to say “no”. In reality, it takes brains to say “no”. And the better practice is to prioritize your time commitments and always put thoughtful productivity at the forefront of your mind.
Strong leadership is essential to maximizing the success of your organization. Failing to address a poor leader in your organization is the equivalence of leaking money out of your bucket. I encourage you to coach each leader in your organization to check their egos at the door. We all falter. When you notice colleagues faltering, reach out in a positive manner to help them see it so that you can all grow as leaders. Don’t assume that just because someone has poor people skills that it must stay that way. Recognize that they have never been taught or required to be any different. Take responsibility to help them see a new way of interacting with the team. Work hard as a leadership team to say “no” more often. Help everyone see what is most important and get better at letting the rest wait. In the end you will find an organization that will grow more profitability with a lot less drama.
Howard Shore is a business growth expert who works with companies that want to maximize their growth potential by improving strategy, enhancing their knowledge, and improving motivation. To learn more about him or his firm, please visit his website at www.activategroupinc.com or contact Howard Shore at (305) 722-7216.