One of the ways most of us made our way up the corporate ladder was to be able to answer the tough questions, and find solutions to the difficult problems. It is interesting in that the result of the problem answering capabilities that enabled most people to become leaders and executives also resulted in their moving to management levels that were farther and farther away from where the problems were. Executives must evolve from “go to” problem solvers to leaders who groom the next generation of “go to” problem solvers.
As an established problem solver it is easy to stay in that mode as an executive. Members of your team will bring you the problem and you will establish the direction or answer it. This is not the way to go. As you have moved up the ladder you have moved away from the line issues and problems. You have experience on how to deal with issues of the type you will hear about, but you are not on the line for that specific issue.
The way I dealt with this situation was straight forward. I told the team that I was reasonably aware of most of the major issues in the business. What I needed from the team was workable answers to the issues. The rule was then put in place that anybody could come and talk to me about any issue they had in the business as long as they also brought at least one workable answer.
This move enabled me to learn all that was going on, while providing some guidance and experience on the implemented solutions. It seemed to work very well. It enabled those that were directly involved with and closest to the issue to suggest solutions (which is always a good idea) and it provided the opportunity to have a check and balance (prioritization) based higher level business needs.
It also trained and groomed the next generation of problem solvers (line of succession) for the business, which helped create a stronger business.
I remember the first time management came to me and said “We have an opportunity and a challenge for you…”. This is normally a phase to be dreaded and feared, or so I thought. I was being given a new assignment. It was a tough job in a division that had not been doing very well.
A friend and mentor of mine at the time took me aside and told me “Congratulations”. I asked him what he meant. We all knew that this division was a mess and that this was a very tough job. He then told me something that has stuck with me to this day. He said:
“Never be afraid to take a tough job. By stepping in with a plan and working hard, you can only improve the situation.”
He was right. Tough jobs are in fact career opportunities. Don’t shy away from them. Look for them. Creating a plan and then putting in the work is what turns tough jobs into great jobs.
It took some time but the first tough job assignment did get turned around. It led to more and larger opportunities. It provided the opportunity to explore facets of business that you would not normally get to by taking the “easy” jobs. It increased my value to the company. It taught me to enjoy a challenging position. I still do to this day.
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.
We have all heard the phrase “risk and reward”. It helps us quantify and balance the upside (reward) and downside (risk) of all that we do.
When most of us start out in business we have not accumulated much in the way of position, title or responsibility. We have not so much to risk (lose) as a result of our actions. We tend to make our decisions based on how we can improve our situation or the situation of the business. If we make good decisions we and the business prosper.
As we progress up the ladder, we begin to accumulate responsibility. We begin to have more to “lose” as a result of an incorrect decision. You have heard it and seen it. In general people start to get a little more conservative in their approach. They begin to focus more on the risk associated with the action and not so much on the reward to the business. The status quo and management by existing directional momentum set in.
No one makes the right decision every time. The key is to recognize if a direction needs to be changed and quickly adjusting. The reason for the action must however remain constant. It should not be solely or predominantly to avoid the downside or risk. The action should be taken as a step toward the goal. It should be due to the focus on achievement. Keep the positive reinforcement in place for decisions versus the negative. It keeps you and the business moving forward.
Years ago I had the pleasure of listening to General Norman Schwarzkopf address an audience after his successful Desert Storm campaign in Iraq. He talked about the qualities that he looked for in leaders. He made the comment that people wanted good leaders, not good managers. That one and a couple of his other comments have stuck with me and have served me well over time. His others were:
Rule 1: When put in charge, take command. When put in the leadership position, lead. Listen to the team. Learn the situation. Build the consensus and respect that a healthy organization needs. But when it comes time to make the call, the hard decisions that every organization faces, it’s your responsibility to make it. Don’t delay, shirk or waffle.
Rule 2: When put in charge, do the right thing. There are always many forces acting upon leaders. There are always stakeholders that would prefer the status quo. There are usually easier ways or paths of lesser resistance that may not take you to the objective you have set. The leader should always do the right thing. Not the easy, nice or expedient thing. They must choose that action that moves the organization forward toward the goal.
These were pretty simple rules coming from a then 4-star general, but as I learned to apply them it became evident that they didn’t need to be any more complicated than that. Take command. Do the right thing. I think we would all be a lot better off if everybody had a couple of simple rules like this.
Having great technology for your product is a given. The new product needs to be faster-better-cheaper that the competitions. Identifying your target customer set and matching their needs is a requirement. All set, right?
How do you plan to get the product from you to them? Increasingly in the technology market you will probably use some sort of intermediary or distribution arrangement. They can be called distributors, dealers, resellers or retailers, but they will probably be the path of choice to market for a technology based product. Now the question becomes how to target, attract and recruit these channels, and once you have them, how do you retain them and help keep the competition out of them.
The creation of a strong and vital Dealer/Distributor “Advisory Board” can be a solution. Utilize the advisory board to help you solve the issues of problem identification, prioritization and resolution. However expect not only “product” issues, but also “process” issues to be identified. One of the goals for this group should be to help identify how this indirect sales force wants to do business, and be dealt with.As with internal business teams, where you listen to and work with all business disciplines to create a cohesive solution, the advisory board enables you to extend this “teaming” arrangement outward to the indirect sales channel. Their involvement creates ownership and buy-in on issue identification, prioritization and resolution. As the business responds and adapts to their requests and requirements, their commitment to the business should also strengthen and grow, as should their orders on it. It is essential that the appropriate resources and management commitments are provided to see the process through to conclusion. If your sales channels are going to commit their time and resources to work with you they will need to see the same level of commitment from you, or they will look for other suppliers who will provide the commitment they are expecting.