The Leadership Resolutions That Work Best

TSE 1 copyake a look at my article, originally published by Harvard Business Review, in Switched On Leadership magazine. The publisher presented it really well. The article is also available on this site or by clicking the link in the magazine.

Click here to download PDF of The Leadership Resolutions That Work Best article…

To access the entire magazine available exclusively on the Apple Newsstand, from your iPhone or iPad click this link, and use Subscription Bonus Code “LeadersAreReaders” (without the quotes) to get a three month free subscription.

Get Over Your Fear of Sales

When you graduate from college with a degree in communication studies and rhetoric, the business world can look very confusing. Unsure of where I fit in, I explored options. Many friends suggested sales. I was doubtful. I worried that being in sales would not carry the prestige and credibility I so badly wanted as I started my professional career. I was also having a hard time getting excited about selling any particular product.

Then I interviewed with a partner at a (then) Big Six consulting firm. He talked about an opportunity to work on “leveraging the most important assets in the firm— its people.”

“That sounds terrific,” I said, thinking that matched my interests, “What function is that?” The partner replied, “Human resource management.”

My 22-year-old self thought, How cool is that? It even has management in the title. That sounded way better than “Sales Rep for Acme Company.” Off to San Francisco I went to be a human resource management associate at a Big Six consulting firm.

After two years in this position, I had an epiphany. I was at an expense-account business lunch with a senior partner and an audit associate. The partner liked us both and remarked that we both had a lot of talent. He went on to say, “The main difference is that you (pointing to the audit associate) generate revenue, and you (pointing to me) are overhead.” Two of the three people at the table had a quick laugh, and my job search began as soon as we returned to the office. I came to a stark realization that day: sales is at the heart of every commercial enterprise and that being the revenue-generating engine of a business was actually a good thing. Maybe even something to be proud of.

In truth, though, I was afraid of sales. The perception. The quotas. I hated the idea of having to be pushy.

I’m hardly the only one with this misconception of sales. Twenty years later, with two stints as an executive vice president of sales along the way, I often see that despite the obvious need to sell their products, many companies encounter some form of resistance to “sales.” Ironically, this unwillingness to own and embrace a sales culture frequently comes from within the sales team itself. I hear sales professionals say, “I don’t really sell. I help clients make a buying decision.” Or “My job is more of being a consultant to my clients.” And my favorite, “I’m not in sales, I’m in business development.” Even professionals who have dedicated their careers to sales are afraid of sales. Or at least, they’re afraid of the label.  Why?

I’ve come to the conclusion that at least part of that fear stems from the persistence of an anachronistic definition of selling and a complete misunderstanding of what successful sales professionals actually do.

Many people equate sales with making people buy things they don’t want, don’t need, and can’t afford. That perception likely emerged from the days, at the turn of the 20th century, when hucksters and peddlers were among the few sales jobs on the U.S. census, and unfortunately this image still persists in some professions. The proverbial used-car salesman springs to mind.

But today there are over 28 census codes that reference professional sales specifically, many of which require tremendous expertise. For instance, a client of mine in the medical device industry employs sales professionals whom doctors consult about the proper application of their product while they are in surgery. Take that in. A doctor asking a sales professional questions during surgery. This is not your father’s salesman.

When I’m called on to help an organization with a sales transformation, I quickly gauge the culture and begin to address counterproductive beliefs that are holding them back from getting the performance they want. There are three key steps to overcoming a negative sales culture: You need to help them see that:

If you operate on the assumption that people will benefit from using your products and services, then sales is entirely about helping others. Done well, selling today is helping people identify and address their needs in order to achieve their goals: to improve efficiency in a business, to make something easier, to live a better life in retirement, to be safer, live longer, and so forth. In this way, sales is not simply an appendage of the organization responsible for distribution, but the conduit for showing how your clients benefit from your products or services.

How you sell is a vital part of the value you create for the customer. While conducting research and observing my own sales teams, I’ve sat in on over 1,000 meetings between sellers and buyers, and one of the things I’ve observed is that successful salespeople don’t “pitch” and they don’t “close.”  That is, they don’t prattle on about how great their offerings are, and they’re not pushy (what some have called the “spray and pray” method). This may sound like heresy to many sales professionals, particularly those who cut their teeth in sales before the 1990s. But it is true.

What they do instead is engage in a mutual dialogue about what a client is trying to accomplish, and then apply the solutions offered through their products or services to the client’s needs. The very best ask smart questions, helping clients to see problems they didn’t even know they had or opportunities around the corner.

One of the best examples of I’ve seen of this was a sales rep for a major daily newspaper. Her job was to sell ad space in a highly competitive market where advertisers had ever-increasing alternatives to newspaper space. I had the opportunity to observe several of her sales calls as part of a consulting assignment for the paper, and I immediately noticed how little she talked versus how much she encouraged the client to speak.  She told me that her objective was to help the client see why advertising with her newspaper would help him grow his business, and she asked insightful questions. When she did talk about advertising options, she focused specifically the ideas the client expressed. The meeting lasted only 45 minutes because she didn’t spend any time talking about features or benefits that weren’t relevant. At the end, she simply expressed an interest in working with the prospect, offering two or three suggestions on how they might proceed. He opted to receive a proposal and agreed to review it the next week. How she sold her product was key to her success as one of the top five sales reps in the company.

Every employee is selling in some capacity — even if they don’t think they are — so they might as well get good at it. In his book To Sell Is Human, Dan Pink indicates that more than 40% of our professional time is spent selling. Not only selling the company’s products or services, but selling ideas, approaches, or a particular way to solve a problem. I have written here before about how sales professionals create value with customers. Your ability to create value, is inextricably linked with your ability to sell, no matter what position you’re in.

When I work with professionals in customer service or IT who bristle at the idea of being in sales, I emphasize that done well, sales and service are very alike, though one is typically proactive, and the other is reactive. While that difference is not trivial, consider that the outcome of a good service experience and a good sales experience is the resolution of some problem a customer has, or the identification of some opportunity for improvement.

Don’t run from away from sales  as I used to. Update your thinking to the 21st century. Sales is the engine powering all business. And sales professionals are the ones driving the train.

In the Spotlight: Leadership Speaker Scott Edinger Helps Companies “Move the Needle” and Achieve Their Goals

So you’re looking for leadership speakers for your next meeting or conference. No problem:

Turns out finding leadership speakers is easy. Finding the right leadership speaker for your people and your company — that’s a little more challenging.

After a while, all the videos and bios start to run together. But what if you could actually sit down with the speaker candidates and ask them point blank: Who is your ideal audience? What results can I expect when I hire you? Do you customize for our company and our people?

Of course you don’t have time to do that, but no worries — we’ll do it for you! We call it putting our speakers “In the Spotlight” — where we ask them some of the key questions on your mind (and then you can listen in).

Today, we’re shining the light on one of our leadership speakers, Scott Edinger, co-author of The Inspiring Leader and the The ASTD Leadership Handbook (along with Ken Blanchard, John Kotter, Jim Collins, Patrick Lencioni and others).

Below are some excerpts* from a conversation between Scott and Shawn Ellis, founder of The Speakers Group

Shawn: You’re a bit different from a lot of leadership speakers in that you don’t just talk about, say, “five keys to great leadership.” What you really talk about is how organizations can achieve their goals through their people, and of course that involves putting people in the right environment to succeed. 

Scott: Right. I think what’s important to recognize is that there is, I guess, what you’d call the classic motivational speaker. I sort of smile when I say that because when I first started doing this my friends would haze me a bit and say, “You’re kind of like Chris Farley, you know? You tell people that you’re living in a van down by the river or something.” That is the poor stereotype of the motivational speaker – which is essentially nothing but a bunch of rousing kind of cheerleading versus the way I approach things which is really to use my expertise in a few different areas.

The broad umbrella as you described is leadership. Within that there’s a very clear connection to the business outcomes and results an organization is trying to achieve and needs to achieve. Underneath that there are a handful of things that I really have great expertise in because of the background that I’ve had. I’ve spent a lot of time focused on sales organizations, specifically sales professionals who interact with clients and the sales leaders; those who manage them. That’s one area of leadership that I specialize in.

Then another area of leadership that is in the area of strategy formulation and implementation – vision and implementation being a critical element of leadership. How do you determine where the organization is going, and how do you get it there? Those would be two of the categories I guess, that I put under the broad topic of leadership, and of course in the overall sea of leadership there’s a handful of components to that. Whether it be how leaders inspire, how you get the most out of leaders at the front lines of your business or people who are individual contributors. Of course most importantly, individual leadership and how does one develop their unique strength, and develop those strengths in a way that is different than fixing weakness.

Shawn: I know the first time we spoke, you said that you’re a great speaker for a client who’s looking for someone not just to entertain the crowd, but to really move the needle and to make a real change. How do you move the needle, as you said, from the stage where you’re speaking to a large audience?

Scott: Well I think if you consider those topics — leadership or strategy or sales effectiveness, sales leadership – all of them can be spoken about in an entertaining and philosophical kind of way. Unfortunately, too many times that’s like the sugar doughnut of a motivational or conference speaker because it’s entertaining while it happens, but there’s no real benefit from it. Usually when I have seen that happen it is because the speaker has failed to make things pragmatic.

One of the things, regardless of what the topic is, is to understand what the organization is trying to accomplish. What’s the real change or difference they’d like to see following that event? Then to figure out connected to the message, what are the pragmatic things that people can immediately begin to do differently?

Sometimes it’s reorienting their thinking. Sometimes it’s a specific action, but I find it really important to provide people with practical, tactical things that they can do immediately that start to change the way they approach things. There’s limited things that you can do within an hour or an hour and a half, but certainly helping people with pragmatic things that they can begin to do differently, and a context for why they need to do it is a really powerful and a tremendous way to use that very valuable time.

Shawn: What types of organizations or industries are in the sweet spot for you? 

Scott: I’ve worked across 22 different industries between my individual consulting with specific clients or speaking. Hundreds of different clients from Fortune 10 companies to companies with 30 employees. I’ve seen a wide range and I’m able to relate many of those areas of expertise to how they specifically apply to a given company — because it’s hard to say that leadership or strategy or sales effectiveness isn’t important for “a company like this” or “in this industry.”

Figuring out how it applies — that’s my expertise. I take those bodies of work – stuff that I’ve written and worked on, and provided clients with – and translate them to a real clear way to apply it.

Shawn: So that covers the organizations and industries. What types of audiences do you typically speak to within those organizations?

Scott: I typically end up with three different types of audiences:

First would be… call it the sales meeting. National Sales Meeting or Sales Manager Meeting. A couple of years ago I did a huge sales meeting for a standard chartered bank in Singapore. Four hundred people from 18 different countries, and we had six different interpreters in the back. That’s one kind of audience, a sales meeting.

A second kind of meeting would be a managers meeting. Companies do this with all different levels. “Managers Meeting” — whether it be mid managers, senior leadership. Last year I was doing some work with Lenovo when I spoke to their top 100 leaders.

Then the third kind of meeting where I do a lot of speaking is conferences. That could be industry conferences representing a specific industry, and the leaders of the companies within that industry who share a common set of issues. That’s an interesting kind of audience to speak to as well because you don’t have the company examples for your content, but you have the industry examples and that’s kind of fun.

Strategy, Plans, And Running With The Bulls

I’m on a flight back to the USA from Spain, where a few days ago on July 14th, I was running with the bulls in Pamplona. The running of the bulls is part of theFestival of San Fermin, which has been held annually since the middle ages, honoring the patron saint of the city. I ran on the last day of the festival with a small group of friends. On the return flight home I couldn’t help but reflect on the experience, and some parallels to my work with clients designing and implementing successful strategies. Here they are.

1. Clearly define your strategy in specific detail. We wanted to complete the run safely by:

  • Holding off on our start until the bulls ran by. Nobody can keep up with a bull running 22-24 mph and we wanted to run with the bulls (behind them really,) not in front of the bulls.
  • Running as close to the left side of the street as possible. (In our observation of the run on the previous day, and video footage of past races, it seemed that because of the turn before the area of our starting position, they tended to drift to the right side).
  • Sticking together in pairs. We used the buddy system to look out for each other.
  • Finishing the run by breaking left toward the 9 o’clock position of the bullring as soon as we entered.

Defining the outcomes with specificity is much harder than it seems, and good strategies are clarified so that they are easily understood. They are precise and specific as it relates to objectives, and how those objectives are going to be achieved. This is the most difficult part of executive work, as it requires patience, making tough decisions and judgments, as well as a lot of critical thinking. Because of that, leaders are often in a rush to just get this work done. It is much easier to read and respond to emails, attend meetings and focus on the tactical work that doesn’t require as much thought.

2. Be prepared for your strategy not to go according to plan. How many projects or initiatives in your business have turned out exactly as they were planned? My experience has been that it is rare. On the morning of the run there was a light rain, which made the streets a little more slick than usual. Instead of the bulls running together in a pack (which is the best case) they got separated as they came around one of the turns. On this day, they were running closer to the left side of the street.  Despite your best efforts and research, you will never be able to rely completely on it, and you will never have all of the facts. For example, we learned only on the morning of the race that the Miura Bulls, renowned as Spain’s largest and fastest bulls, were reserved for the final day. Imagine how that made us feel.

Even if the assumptions we make in formulating strategies are incorrect, it is critically important to go through the progression of doing so. In the process you become keenly aware of different alternatives, capabilities, and scenarios, and if necessary can adapt quickly and make adjustments in real time. As Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

3. Getting everyone in your company to understand and behave consistently with your culture is the most important thing you can do to get your strategy implemented.  Most of the runners in Pamplona shared the same goal—to finish without being punctured, pierced, or steamrolled. While there are always a few with different goals (some want to touch or run in between them), the vast majority shared that objective. But as soon as the rocket to start the race went off, things got pretty chaotic with runners of different speeds getting in each other’s way, and often hindering one another in their own rational self-interest.

Even when people in an organization have the same overall goals for the company to succeed, individual approaches can vary greatly. This tends to reduce quality of work and productivity, as well as create conflict. To prevent this, people must understand what is expected of them in your culture, and how they fulfill your strategy. Further, they need to have exemplars to look to as role models, and appropriate rewards and consequences.

4. Take time to evaluate your performance. For the entire day following the run as we traveled from Pamplona to Madrid before heading home, we relived every moment. The emotions leading up to the run, what happened during the run, what others saw from their vantage point and so forth. We only ran once, and in your organization the run is continuous.

My most successful clients are unquestionably those who review their strategy at regular intervals, make adjustments, and keep it dynamic. It doesn’t sit on a shelf in a binder. They work hard to integrate strategic a perspective into all of the work they do and for any projects or initiatives.  They ask the question “how will this help us to achieve our strategy?”

The running of the bulls is an extraordinary and unique experience. While I’ll never do it again, I found valuable insights from the run that illustrated what is critical when creating and executing a strategy. Done well, you can still succeed even when everything doesn’t go as you expected. All 8 of us completed the running of the bulls, unscathed.

English: Running of the bulls during Sanfermin...
English: Running of the bulls during Sanfermines in Iruñea – Pamplona, Spain. Español: Encierro con toros durante los Sanfermines de Pamplona, España (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do You Have A World Class Sales Culture?

A couple of months ago I was having dinner with Neil Rackham, sales guru, and mentor of mine. We talked about recent changes in the nature of sales and sales management, and agreed that companies with a sales oriented culture would have a source of significant competitive advantage.

In my client work and two stints an EVP of Sales, I’ve observed a handful of characteristics that stand out in the best sales cultures. Here they are.

  • The sales function is recognized as a critical component of how the company creates value for clients. It isn’t simply distribution, and it is widely understood that the sales organization provides the business with an asset beyond products and services. They get it that there is value created in the sales process and how they sell. That value can only be derived in the interaction between your clients and sales professionals. It happens when a seller helps a client to identify issues or opportunities they hadn’t considered or to recognize the unintended consequences of a decision. They may even be seen as valuable to a client by bringing additional resources or capabilities that your company can offer in the service of addressing their needs. This is what Neil termed, and I have written about for Harvard Business Review, as sales calls your customer would be willing to pay for.
  • They manage sales as a process. In a high performance sales organization the sales process is understood based on the expectations of the company and clients at each stage of their decision making process. Doing this enables sales professionals and management to replicate activities that portend success, and address predictable failure points. In a high tech company that I’ve worked with, we identified several pivot points in their successful sales cycles that most often resulted in acquiring business. Isolating those common variables helped them to concentrate resources, and focus on key milestones at each stage of their sales cycle. This enables organizations to decode and replicate a vital part of the success of their top performers and provides a roadmap for rapidly getting new hires up to speed and productive.
  • Coaching is a business imperative. Selling is one of those professions, which few people (I know of no one) actually go to school to get a degree. As a result there isn’t really a blueprint or defined standard to follow like GAAP rules for accounting and so forth. Professional selling is learned almost entirely on the job. A successful manager coaches their sellers on process, skills, and approaches to increase effectiveness. They understand where limited coaching time will have the greatest impact and consider that in planning. They avoid the pitfalls of doing the selling for their reps, being the discount approver, or worse, the closer. They observe sales calls and provide feedback, and help to plan account strategies. This is important for sales leaders too, because done well; they are coaching sales management to be more effective. Not just double and triple checking forecasts, which is the next topic.
  • They manage the right metrics. While it is important to forecast performance as accurately as possible, doing so rarely if ever helps improve sales. In fact, every minute spent reporting or inspecting the results, is a minute lost trying to improve them. In a sales culture the right practice is to create some equilibrium between analyzing results (which can’t be managed), and coaching optimal activities and behaviors (which can be managed with great benefit). Jason Jordan and Michelle Vazana, coauthors of Cracking the Sales Management Code, studied over 300 sales metrics that were tracked by companies, finding that only a fraction could actually be affected by management. The remaining were the results of coaching and completing the right sales activities. Activities like sales call management, opportunity management, account management, and territory management. It’s the difference between inspecting the results that have already occurred, and actively improving the results.
  • They have a clear sales strategy beyond “get out there and sell!” This includes some kind of ideal client profiles, an understanding of where the best opportunities are likely to be, and what differentiators will be most effective in the market. The cornerstone of that strategy is a vividly clear picture of what the improvements in the client’s condition you are able to make. It doesn’t have to a big strategic science project to do this, but you will need the discipline, focus, and process to do the hard thinking about what your strategy will be.

The glaring omission for some of you reading this will be incentives and rewards. I didn’t forget that, but rather, intentionally left it out here. In great sales cultures, while compensation and incentives must be available for high performance, they are simply part of a good performance management system. But compensation won’t create the culture.

So what kind of sales culture do you have?

Be More Inspiring In Just Ten Minutes Per Day

If you are a leader in any capacity whatsoever, odds are that you have heard, or perhaps even been told that you should be more inspiring. When I co-authored the book The Inspiring Leader, we studied the ability to inspire and motivate others and found that it was the most influential leadership trait promoting employee engagement. Additionally, when subordinates were asked what characteristic they most wanted from their managers, it was to be more inspiring. But who has the time?

The secret is not to create additive work in your efforts to inspire others. Rather, take small steps to change your approach to doing the work you must already. So as you try to be more inspiring to those you work with try the following.

  • Be an exemplar of the behaviors you wish to see in others. If you want to instill greater collaboration in your business, be a role model of doing so and visibly demonstrate your cooperative efforts with others. Discuss it in meetings. Celebrate team success. Recognize collaboration efforts elsewhere. Behaviors of key leaders tend to proliferate. Make sure you are proliferating good ones by getting out in front and displaying the traits you want to see flourish in your organization. You know this, right? People will do as you—and other key leaders do. This takes virtually no extra time.
  • Connect on a human level and use emotions to your favor. One of my clients is a manufacturer of major commercial equipment. In a meeting with their senior managers we discussed that while they build machines, they build those machines through people. We don’t operate like machines and because of that we need to connect with those around us as people. Not as a job function to be completed or a task to be accomplished, but as people with feelings, goals, and individual needs. For some leaders a good place to start is simply using some good manners (something I find all too often lacking.) For others, understanding a persons point of view and what is important to them, is a powerful means to further develop someone’s engagement in your team. You are already interacting with the people you want to inspire so take a few precious minutes to change the tone and tenor of the conversation.
  • Prioritize innovation over problem solving. The best leaders I work with are constantly seeking to raise the bar. When presented with challenges, they use them as a chance to innovate and try something completely different and creative. My avatar for innovation is Antanas Mockus, the former Mayor of Bogota Columbia. When confronted with major traffic problems in Bogota, he didn’t go the conventional problem-solving route of more police, harsher fines, or typical traffic problem solving approaches. He hired 420 mimes to mock people misbehaving at intersections throughout the city.  Fatalities and accidents decreased due to his very creative approach. As an aside, this is not permission to go mock your employees. That’s not the point here. You are already spending this time trying to solve problems so thinking creatively doesn’t have to take more time. But it does require you to be intentional about it and create an environment where it is safe to express new ideas.
  • Stop emailing and do more live communicating. Sure, email a form of communication, but it is one-dimensional. Personal interaction is best when you need to communicate matters of strategic importance, engage in discussions about alternatives, or topics that are nuanced and can’t be sufficiently addressed using the forum of email. I’ve heard suggestions that when an email thread has been commented on three times and an issue is still lingering that email is no longer an effective medium to resolve the issue. If you are not in the same location, pick up the phone. Walk down the hall. Use a videoconference. Anything that brings additional dimensions to your communication with others. Don’t kid yourself about email being efficient. Just because you send an email doesn’t mean something is done. Try adding up the collective wasted time on extending decisions, discussions, and deliberations on email. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say this will save you time.
  • Develop the skills of someone else. Nothing inspires loyalty like helping someone improve. This rarely occurs as an HR or talent development initiative as a means to develop bench strength. This happens most effectively when a leader highlights the growth and learning of people on their team. In one of my first jobs I worked for a manager who prioritized my development with training, coaching, and investing in my growth as a professional. Twenty years later he still inspires me when I speak with him. Helping others to grow and coaching to improve performance almost always drives loyalty, increases engagement, and ultimately improves performance. This will take you more time. But it doesn’t have to be a lot. In fact, if you focus on developing others in the context of the work you are doing through modeling, planning, and debriefing, you will accomplish two things at once.

None of these are particularly onerous time commitments. Pick one or two of these areas of focus and work on them. Here’s the trick. It is tough to become an inspiring leader with one action per week that you remember to check off at 4:45pm on Friday afternoon. You need to create simple and demonstrative actions daily, even multiple times daily to develop a habit with impact. In most cases, it is not about creating additive work. Rather, it is finding ways to integrate new behaviors in the work you are already doing. Surely you can spare ten minutes a day, right?

Don’t Fall In To These Leadership Traps In 2014

TSE 1 copyake a look at my article, originally published by Forbes, in Switched On Leadership magazine. The publisher presented it really well. The article is also available on this site or by clicking the link in the magazine.

Click here to download PDF of Don’t Fall In To These Leadership Traps In 2014 article…

To access the entire magazine available exclusively on the Apple Newsstand, from your iPhone or iPad click this link, and use Subscription Bonus Code “LeadersAreReaders” (without the quotes) to get a three month free subscription.

Strategic Leadership As A Competitive Advantage

ISE 1 copy’m in good company with Dan Pink and Peter Bregman in Switched On Leadership magazine. The publisher transcribed my podcast of the same title and presented it quite nicely. The podcast is also available on this site or by clicking the link in the magazine.

Click here to download PDF of Strategic Leadership As A Competitive Advantage article…

To access the entire magazine available exclusively on the Apple Newsstand, from your iPhone or iPad click this link, and use Subscription Bonus Code “LeadersAreReaders” (without the quotes) to get a three month free subscription.

For Leaders, Relationships Trump Expertise

As you advance in an organization, technical skills become less important, and leadership skills become more important. It’s an inverse relationship because, as a leader progresses and rises to new positions of authority, they need to rely more on leadership ability and getting results through others, than their specific area of expertise.

Now before you get annoyed, I’ll highlight that I am not suggesting technical or functional knowledge and skill is unimportant. They absolutely are. Yet the more I work with organizations large and small, it is clear that as you climb the company ladder, you will rely far less on your proficiency with the business than your ability to work with people. This is about being a leader first, functional expert second. So if you want to be a leader first, here is where to put your focus.

Inspire and motivate those around you. One of my clients builds very sophisticated capital equipment. It is clear that while knowledge of schematics and detailed manufacturing plans is important, leaders of this organization don’t actually do or personally direct any of the building. Other people do that. They certainly need to understand it, but getting people to perform their assigned jobs and be accountable, is the majority of their work. The leaders in the manufacturing division prioritized bringing positive energy into the plant as a means to bolstering productivity. In the book I coauthored, The Inspiring Leader, we highlighted a study indicating that the better a leader was at inspiring and motivating, the greater the workgroup was rated efficiency and productivity. That includes minimizing wasted effort, and continuous improvement too.

Build depth in relationships. Treat people as people. Not as jobs, tasks, or outputs. Doing so requires you to take an interest in them, ask questions, and listen attentively. When leaders demonstrate an interest in people and their work, it helps to develop mutual commitment to the job at hand. Leaders can do this by providing focused attention, taking time away from the office or the plant to discuss ideas and opinions, having conversations about their suggestions, and being available to your team. Most of us know how to do this, but it is a matter of prioritizing these things in the course of every day interactions. This isn’t additive work. It is the work. And the way you accomplish your objectives.

Coach and develop others ability to create value. Another way to deepen relationships also happens to be a critical responsibility of most leaders. Developing talent. In addition to being an effective way to demonstrate care and concern for someone’s success, this is a powerful mechanism to improve performance and ability to create value for an organization. The better people are at applying their talents and knowledge to solve organizational problems or address opportunities, the greater the value they bring to the enterprise. As a coach, you can directly influence how technical specialists or managers use their skills to carry out your strategic objectives. When leaders create a culture of learning and continual improvement, there are fewer errors, greater flow of information, and less dependency on a few experts to do critical tasks.

Foster teamwork and collaboration and bring people together. Few things are more frustrating than the presence of conflicting objectives and teams that aren’t working. One of my clients admonished his senior team, suggesting that all of the profit dollars needed for the organization to meet its financial objectives was “falling through the cracks between your divisions.” His assertion was that the lack of collaboration and competing agendas of the leaders was causing a loss of tens of millions of dollars in productivity and efficiency. By focusing on teamwork and prioritizing the goals of the organization above any one group, or individual, you’ll go a long way to creating an environment where cooperation thrives.

Develop those communication skills. Sure, developing this competency is ubiquitous when working with leaders, but there is no substitute for being skilled in communication. When considering the importance of being a leader first, the ability to powerfully communicate your strategy or the details of your implementation plans to those you work with is critical. When I review organizational survey data, invariably, one of the issues that emerge is a desire for better communication. Finding the right level of detail for your content and your cadence is up to you, but you need to do the work to communicate in a way that ensures your messages are not only understood, but acted upon.

Whether you are a Sales Vice President, the Director of R&D, or a CFO, remember, your divisional responsibility simply represents your area of content expertise. The main job you have is that of a leader. You are a leader first.

How to develop your leadership strengths

When we identify a need or have a desire to improve performance, our initial reaction is almost always to find a weakness and fix it.

It’s like we have an instinct to look for problems and try to repair them. Instinct does not serve us well when developing leadership ability. The truth is that great leaders are not characterized by the absence of weakness. They are characterized by the presence of strengths.
Take a moment to think about the best leaders you have worked with. Were they perfect? Of course they weren’t. It is very likely that they possessed a few truly outstanding abilities that set them apart and made them excellent leaders.

In my review of data on tens of thousands of leaders, and my experience working with senior executives, I’ve consistently seen that in order to perform at a high level, leaders need to possess just three to five areas of extreme competence. What’s more is that there is no secret recipe for which competencies they have to be, as long as they are important to your business.
That has considerable implications for anyone who is interested in achieving better results through improved leadership. Most leadership development work is aimed at helping people get incrementally better at a laundry list of leadership abilities from communication skills to financial acumen. Instead, the emphasis ought to be at selecting a few critical areas of strength (that we enjoy) and developing them much further.

Now here is the rub. Fixing a weakness is straightforward. That is, you get steady, measurable improvements by learning and practicing the basics. After a while, your performance curve will level off. In the same way, people training for a marathon don’t simply increase their mileage in training.

Getting significant improvement requires you to work on complementary skills — what I refer to as “non-linear development.” Think of it like cross training. The marathoner I just mentioned likely supplements a running regimen with weight training, yoga, maybe even biking or swimming. The same principle applies in developing as a leader because to go from good to excellent you need to involve other competencies. I have seen some leaders over-rely on the use of one area of strength at the expense of others. The most common scenario is a leader who is incredibly good at focusing on results but not great with interpersonal skills. The solution here is not to be less focused on results, but to further develop their people skills.

Sure, when weaknesses are really getting in your way or derailing you from achieving your goals, you have to address them, but I see that far less often in my work. It is your strengths that will carry the day for you as a leader.