Once I had attained executive level, I was frequently asked to conduct new hire orientation classes. I didn’t know if it was because no other executives wanted to do it or if it was because of the way I had come up through the ranks. Looking back I suspect it was because no one else would do it.
Regardless, I did take the responsibility seriously. At the end of the session, I would always ask for questions. The question I got most frequently was: “How did you become and executive so quickly, and what do we need to do to accomplish the same?” I came up with a two part answer. I think it still applies.
First I would tell people that they needed to spend some time in sales. It is hard to understand just how difficult it is to compete with other sales teams to get customers to give you money (orders) unless you have done it for a while. It will give you a perspective on the market from the inside out.
The second thing I would say is learn the numbers. As you progress up the corporate ladder, more and more of your communication and information revolves around the tabulated financial data. You have to understand how the metrics interrelate and how to affect them.
Doing this won’t guarantee your success in the corporate world, but it will help you to understand why it works and acts the way it does, and that is the first step to success.
When I was an undergraduate I studied Physics. Don’t ask me why. I am not sure I know.
This study of hard science taught me a couple of concepts that also seem to apply to business. The first of these concepts was that of Momentum.
A simple scientific definition of momentum is the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest, and a body in motion to continue in motion. The way to change momentum is to apply a force.
In business in many cases it seems to be easier or less risky to continue to do what has been done before, or to continue moving in the direction that things have been moving before, instead of doing something new. This is momentum. In a business’ momentum is the reason that marketing programs continue beyond their designated times (and stop affecting customer or competitor behaviors), and why products linger for longer than they should (and attract more and more costs associated with continuing to sustain them verses the revenue they generate) and why you are still getting reports on the value of your yellow pages adds instead of information on the number of hits on your web site.
In looking at a business it is always good to look at what type of work that is being done. Why are certain things being done or continuing to be done, and others not. Invariably the answer tends to be “momentum”. Things are being done a certain way because that’s how they were being done before. There was no external action or force that was applied to change things, so they just continued on in the same way.
The market (and the world) continually changes. Businesses must continually take action to meet this change. The most obvious example of this is the development and introduction of new products and services to meet this change. However, momentum usually rears its head in the form of using older or “tried and true” processes and methods of doing the associated work.
Just like product life cycles dictate that older products need to eventually be discontinued in order to make room for new ones, the processes and work within a business must also be continually reviewed. In this way outdated processes and what is usually referred to as “busy work” can be discontinued to free up the resources to do new things and create new processes to meet the changing market. Without this type of work review, the momentum (the tendency to continue motion in the direction it had been going) of business will eventually have moved it to the point where work is being done that no longer serves the purpose and provides the value it once did.
A good leader must be the force that is applied to a business that changes its momentum. Stop doing work that no longer needs to be done, and start doing the new things that the changing environment requires.
Customers like to see the boss. This is pretty much one of the immutable laws of sales.
The leader of the business should also be the lead salesman. Good leaders should want to see their customers as often as possible. Building that relationship and trust is a key to long term customer retention, growth, and profitability. Demand that the sales team take you out to see the customers.
These are some of the most important people in the world. These are the people that give you money. Understand what type of relationship they have with the sales team. Understand how they want to be dealt with by your business. Learn about them. Work directly with them.
Some times the sales team may seem to be a little reticent to take you to see “their” customers. That’s okay. You are an unknown (initially) when it comes to working with their customers. Demand to go anyway. The business will be better and stronger for it.
If you don’t go, your competition’s sales force will probably be bringing their leadership team out to see your customers, and soon they may not be your customers anymore.
I always learned more about what was happening in the business by walking around the office, than by any other method. Staff meetings were fine. Monthly, and in some cases weekly reports were okay. The best way for me was by walking around.
Walking around the office serves a couple of purposes. Teams invariably like their leaders to be visible. They also like to feel their leaders are approachable. If you are out in the aisles talking to anyone and everyone, not just your direct reports, you are all this and more. You are a visible member of the team.
Engaging the team in their space, not in your office or a conference room, put them more at ease. They seemed to open up more. It was a conversation, not a report. It was more of a peer to peer exchange. It was less of a superior to subordinate interrogation.
If you need to know what is happening on a deeper level, don’t call people into your office to ask them. Get up and walk over to their area to see them. Sit down and start a conversation. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn just by walking over.
I have heard management compared to many things. I personally used to compare it to flying a plane – you need a firm but light grip on the controls. If you grab on too tight you’re in for a bumpy ride. I recently heard of comments about how a real manager does it.
Joe Torre, the very successful manager of the New York Yankees, and now the Los Angeles Dodgers, is reported to have described his traits for successful management. I think he got it right.
Joe said that the time to bear down and focus/work harder is when you are on a winning streak. If you win often, it’s easy to forget how hard it is to win. You start to neglect the little things that got you there. He said that it was when the club was winning that he took a more active and firmer leadership role in how the team conducted itself.
He also said that when the team was not doing as well, he would not necessarily let up; he just wouldn’t bear down as hard. He knew that when things were tough a good team will feel the pressure to improve their performance and apply themselves that much harder. They don’t like losing and are working to do better on their own. Joe would try and maintain an even keel, make sure the proper work would get done and trust his team.
Of course when you have a team of stars with a payroll approaching $200M a year (for 25 players) you should be able to trust them.
The point he made was that contrary to our natural tendency to apply additional pressure to the team when things aren’t going our way, he found it better to ease off just a little and focus on enabling the team to work their way back onto a winning streak. Additional meetings and his intervention and pressure didn’t seem to help as much as his more restrained approach. He has won a lot of pennants and a handful of championships, so I have come to the conclusion that maybe he knows a good way to apply leadership.