Seven Executive Leadership Lessons In Honor Of Star Wars Episode VII


As a lifelong fan of Star Wars, I found it exciting when the third trailer for the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII, The Force Awakens was released. Part of the appeal of the Star Wars saga is that it is the classic hero’s journey. But there’s a lot more. Having worked with leaders in over 25 different industries, I can tell you with certainty, that if you pay close attention, there are some incredibly powerful instructions for how to successfully lead. Here are seven, in honor of the forthcoming episode in the saga.

1. Let go of attachments. In Star Wars, the Jedi refer to this principle as it relates to people so that they are solely focused on serving. But we all need to let go of attachments to outcomes. This has nothing to do with doing everything within your ability to reach goals or achieve objectives. Always strive for the outcome, of course. But you can’t control outcomes, so the key is to maintain your focus on the actions that get you there. When we get too attached to outcomes you see poor decisions, choking at important moments, and at worst counterproductive or even dishonest behaviors.

2. Always in motion the future is. You can tell by the syntax that Yoda spoke these words (If I have to explain who Yoda is at this point, more work have you to do.) When executives formulate strategy and create plans, its important to recognize that you are always acting on incomplete information. What’s more is that its unlikely you know how much incomplete information you have! Leaders have to make rational decisions based on their knowledge and experience. I’m not saying that information isn’t important, but I see it frequently used to stall. Mostly driven by fear of making a wrong decision. More on fear in a moment.

3. Calm is powerful. The senior-most Jedi are often found meditating. Because it helps them maintain focus. Think about how it feels when you are around a leader who is anxious, frenetic, or whirling around “crazy busy”. Does it inspire a lot of confidence? In my experience analyzing the data on what nearly 200,000 direct reports said about their bosses, the answer is unequivocally no. In fact, many times it makes a person look like they can’t handle the job. Don’t mistake calm for a tranquil or even lethargic state. Rather, it’s about focused attention, centeredness, and upbeat energy to inspire confidence.

4. The most powerful devote time to honing their skills. This goes for the dark side of the force and the light. I’m hoping you are on the light side. Regardless, you don’t wield telekinetic powers to move space ships without a lot of practice. This includes being proactive in continually developing new skills. But it is also about practice. I’ve seen too many people attend a training program and fail to practice any of what was learned afterward. In the same way you can’t become a proficient golfer in a day or two, the interactive skills required of excellent leaders require practice. Practicing difficult or important conversations before having them and practicing strategic messages for maximum impact. Whatever you are developing for growth, your deliberate practice is significantly more valuable than the famed 10,000-hour rule. Prioritizing the intentional development of skills is how the best practice—constantly, to meet the intense requirements of the job.

5. Fear is the path to the dark side. We don’t talk about fear a lot in business but I sure do hear a lot of it. The way it is popularly talked about—sometimes in a humble-bragging way is with stress. But stress is most often being afraid that something will or won’t happen. None of us can completely escape fear, so complete avoidance isn’t realistic. Its vital to be attentive to those fears and make sure that they don’t completely control your actions. An overdose of fear or stress is the root cause of many poor decisions. Don’t let it control your destiny.

6. Listen to your novices and frontlines. In a favorite moment of mine, a Jedi Master asks a group of children just starting to learn about the force to help solve a conundrum. One of the children quickly resolves the mystery, prompting the recognition that “wonderful is the mind of a child”. That’s because they are unfettered in their thinking and able to see things others don’t. Leaders ought to prioritize spending time with the front lines of the organization as well as new employees. They are the best source for simple, logical, and rational ideas to address issues. Front line personnel are also a tremendous source of innovation.

7. Do or do not there is no try. This phrase is a favorite of even non Star Wars fans (its amazing to me that such people exist), and needs little explanation. Commitment and driving for results, high engagement, and the willingness to give our best effort, are hallmarks of not just great leaders, but of great people.

Of course, there are more lessons in the Star Wars saga, but these are the ones I find most prevalent and useful in my work with executives. And with Episode VII on the horizon, there will clearly be more for all of us to learn.

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Why Your Cross-Selling Strategy Doesn’t Work

rain-today-logoIf your sales team has trouble cross-selling, it isn’t because you have a cross-selling problem. You have a selling problem.

Here’s the rub. The promise of more to offer customers sounds wonderful as a growth strategy. And the ability to provide more for clients is unquestionably attractive. But how many times have you heard about that promise getting broken because for some reason, cross-selling isn’t happening at the projected or desired rate.

I hear it from CEOs who grapple with why the combined entity created from mergers or acquisition fails to deliver on an investment thesis. I hear it from sales executives who struggle to understand why more customers don’t use multiple offerings. I hear it from front-line sales managers and sellers who have a difficult time increasing adoption rates of their new offerings.

The source of the cross-selling problem comes from people not selling properly. For if they did sell correctly, then cross-selling would be as comfortable as a cross breeze. (I live in Florida and couldn’t resist that.)

2 Cross-Selling Challenges

Here are two primary issues organizations often face when trying to cross-sell and how sellers can handle them:

1. Different Buyers Buy Different Things

While a company may need the new or extra products you offer, it’s very possible that a different buyer handles the acquisition of them. If sales are getting stuck because marketing efforts aren’t attracting the correct buyers or salespeople are pursuing the wrong buyers, those have little to do with cross-selling.

One organization I work with sells IT hardware and services. The services were added recently to create the overused, but still accurate, term of a “solution.” Services sales have lagged, however, and a primary reason is that the person who buys computers is different than the person who buys consulting services for the data center.

But finding the appropriate person to sell to is not unique to cross-selling—it is the starting point of any selling effort. Make sure your people are engaged with potential buyers who can actually say yes to what you are selling.

2. Varied Circumstances or Needs Addressed

When I worked with partners at PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the Big Four consulting firms, our objective was to expand opportunities beyond the classic audit. It turns out the firm has more value to offer than the assurance of financials. Much more. But to effectively sell those high-value services, these partners needed an understanding of the myriad drivers of need that would indicate appropriateness.

Maybe an acquisition strategy would support a valuation project. Perhaps a conversion to a new ERP system would require technology strategy. But recognizing those circumstances, and being able to identify issues on the horizon that a CFO may have not yet taken action on, is valuable. And it provides the context for discussions about a new service.

A hallmark of the overused, but still accurate and effective term of “consultative selling,” is unearthing specific customer needs that can be addressed by what you have to offer. However, if your sellers are not intimately familiar with the issues or problems a new service helps clients address, it’s a tough road. It won’t be enough to just tell the customer how good a new product or service is, aka talking brochure style.

Again, that’s not isolated to cross-selling. Knowing how your product or service addresses customer needs is what effective sellers do every day.

Product training and education must support this. Even very effective solution-oriented professionals will revert to a pitching approach if education only addresses what is new. Sellers also need to understand the context of how the new thing benefits buyers.

Further, if there are multiple subject matter experts who get involved in complex sales (e.g. trust experts in banking or technology specialists in IT sales), I can make a strong argument that product or service knowledge may not matter much at all to salespeople. Because if sellers understand who their buyer is, and have a depth of knowledge about the issues that they are most keen to address, then getting specs on a product or details of a process is easy.

But again that isn’t just true of solving cross-selling issues because those things are at the heart of most successful sales, period.

Don’t allow your selling issue to masquerade a cross-selling issue. Recognize it for what it is, and address it head on.

Sales Leaders Must Create a Culture of Selling

rain-today-logoIt’s common for a CEO to say he wants a sales culture, or more specifically, a culture that supports sales. It sounds good especially to shareholders and corporate boards who have a sense that selling is kind of important for achieving revenue growth. Sales teams like to hear it, too, as it feels like recognition for the importance of the role.

But most efforts involving culture devolve into big science projects led by human resources and disregarded by others. With no disrespect to HR—in fact, I started my career in HR—that department will never be able to change the culture of a business. That is a job for the leaders of the business, and sales leaders have to step up to the challenge of working across the organization to drive this change.

To create a culture of selling, you must consider three fundamental principles:

1. Focus on the Value Sales Creates

Culture is about mindset. That means to create a sales culture, you must start with what people believe about selling. Our beliefs shape our behaviors, so you need to know what people in your organization think or feel about the sales force. Do they view the sales organization as a vital part of the value created for clients, or do they see it simply as the distribution function?

Companies that have a strong culture of selling focus on the value that is created because the sales organization does considerably more than communicate the competitive advantages of products and services. They are the advantage.

2. Practice What You Preach

Actions more than words cause people to change their beliefs. While leaders must actively communicate how the selling function supports the value chain of the entire company, they must also show how it does that.

Role models need to be recognized throughout the business as the standard for performance. Publicly identify those who achieve strong results for the business. This goes beyond revenue generated. The real exemplars are those who achieve strong results for the business and do so in a way that demonstrates how they helped differentiate your business from a competitor or how they positioned your products to form a unique solution that the customer hadn’t considered.

Yes, profit and revenue are the quarterly (or monthly or weekly) report card. But highlighting them as the only things that matter undercuts the importance of how those results are achieved.

3. Reinforce the Right Behavior

The culture you create depends on your reinforcing the right behavior and having consequences for inappropriate behavior. Leaders must, therefore, determine specific expectations and standards across the business and translate those into actions. What are the appropriate response times on proposal support requests? How are members of the sales team expected to participate in territory research?

By asking such questions as “How would I know we have a sales culture?” or “What would be different if our culture were more sales-focused?” you’ll quickly come up with answers that decode what it looks like in your business. Then provide the rewards and consequences for sales reps’ behavior.

Note: it’s a mistake to recognize someone for results if they were achieved following undesirable behavior. For instance, if a seller reaches his quota but does so by significantly discounting prices, that is not something to recognize when you are trying to increase margins. You need to provide recognition for actions that will drive future success.

Organizations that have a strong sales culture understand there is a significant connection between the value customers are willing to pay for and the role of the sales organization. Great products and services are table stakes for selling today. The companies that win most have a culture in which everyone recognizes that the sales organization is part of the competitive advantage of the business.

How to Use Your Sales Team Most Effectively to Drive Organic Growth

chiefexec-author-picOf all the strategies for growing your business, organic growth is the most daunting. But with the uncertainty and high failure rates of M&As and partnerships (most studies indicate between 70% to 90% of the time they fail to meet stated objectives), organic growth is also the path to the highest value for your business.

To drive that kind of growth with new clients, new product or service configurations, and expand your business with existing clients, use the most powerful lever you have—your sales organization. Effectively mobilizing your sales team involves much more than setting a stretch target and funding a compensation plan to reward its achievement. It is about utilizing your sales organization to shift from communicating your competitive advantage, to being your competitive advantage. Here are three points to help you accomplish that goal.

“The moment when employees interact with customers or prospects is when your strategy comes to life.”

1. Involve your sales team in corporate strategy and goals.As the CEO, you’ve thoughtfully formulated a winning strategy, but the moment when employees interact with customers or prospects is when that strategy comes to life. According to a study by McKinsey, organizations that made the sales organization a vital part of their strategy outstrip their peers 50% to 80% in revenue and profitability. Make sure your sales leadership team gets your strategy. That doesn’t mean just understanding the strategy at a basic level, but being able to pragmatically apply it to daily decisions, especially relating to priorities and focus. Is your sales team working with the right kind of prospects? Are they playing to the advantages you’ve carefully invested in and determined matter most?

2. Be as engaged with your sales leader as you are with your executive team. I’ve worked with a lot of CEOs whose main interaction with the sales organization is an inspection of last month’s performance and next month’s forecast. CEOs often are more comfortable working with finance, technology or operations, and as a result, push a lot of the sales interaction to the VP of Sales. Obviously, those other areas are crucial, but don’t make the mistake of delegating the direction of your sales organization. You must establish the focus of this function of your business to ensure it creates value for your clients. I describe that in my HBR article, Would Customers Pay for Your Sales Calls, which highlights that sales is much more than just being the conduit for your products and services to reach clients.

3. Marry sales and marketing. These are two sides of the same relationship. Sales nurturing, for example, actually takes place within marketing. Define your expectations for collaboration as a means to better acquire, expand and serve clients. Establish interdependent objectives and let investment decisions flow from them. If they are separate, you are the only person in the company who can steer their relationship toward a powerful synergy.

When CEOs utilize their sales organization as a substantial part of the value or differentiation the company provides for clients—not just the communicators of that value—it becomes a considerable advantage. It is difficult for competitors to recognize or copy, and it becomes an additional source of brand equity. The key is that this can’t be delegated to your VP of Sales, or worse, to HR to run training programs. It’s a strategic decision about organic growth that the CEO must lead.

The Hidden Leader: Discover and Develop Greatness Within Your Company

td-logoWho are the hidden leaders in your workplace? Can you spot them? They could be right in front of you, mixed in with the worker bees and confident extroverts. Hidden leaders are enthusiastic employees who make good decisions, listen well, and are considerate of others. With a strong sense of fairness and integrity, they often help others to succeed. They are focused on business goals and the customer experience.

In The Hidden Leader, Edinger and Sain explain that organizations must be open to discovering leadership traits in unexpected people. They sometimes remain hidden by choice, chance, or position. It is up to managers to recognize the value these unsung contributors bring to the organization’s bottom line and long-term success.

After hidden leaders are identified, how do we engage these “strategic energy sources”? Edinger and Sain suggest two ways: Flatten the organizational structure so that they “pop up in the landscape,” and provide opportunities for hidden leaders to maximize their contributions.

Organizational culture also can help hidden leaders thrive. According to the authors, a culture with an emphasis on performance measurement is key. This allows managers to expose all employees over time to the core characteristics of hidden leaders. With guidance and measured results, all employees have an opportunity to develop leadership qualities. In this way the performance we expect from hidden leaders becomes the norm for all.

A culture where initiative is rewarded also is imperative. Too often managers skip over employee efforts in their pursuit of results. Initiatives that fail may still serve as paths to innovation. To create a culture of innovation, management must be willing to reward those who try something new, even if it doesn’t get the desired results. The Hidden Leader helps readers identify, encourage, and reward initiative that can lead to innovation.

The authors provide detailed worksheets and questionnaires for immediate use, accessible through quick response (QR) codes and URLs. The book’s website ( provides additional information to guide readers through the process of discovering and grooming hidden leaders.

By following the steps in the book and its supplemental materials, organizations can cultivate their best employee advocates. Full chapters in the book are devoted to enabling integrity, building relational skills, creating a results focus, and instilling customer purpose. The authors also identify steps organizations can take if one or more of these key traits is missing in employees.

With their straightforward and accessible writing style, Edinger and Sain provide a fresh look at leadership potential. They weave in personal examples to show readers that hidden leaders can be developed and nurtured, becoming a company’s hidden competitive advantage.

Don’t Obsess Over Getting Everything Done Before a Vacation

HBR-logoLike most people, I find the week before a vacation to be something of a nightmare, as I attempt to clear the decks before I go. One the face of it this seems like a good idea – get your work done (and ideally the work you would have done during the time you’ll be on vacation), and you can go off with your mind at rest. But I believe I’ve been thinking about this entirely backwards.

Far from freeing you to enjoy that time away, what’s really happening is that you are stealing the energy you’re exerting to clear the decks from the future, and as a result turning your relaxation time into recuperation time. I need only go back to the last vacation I took to demonstrate this point. See if this sounds familiar: I was working on some deadlines (self-imposed, of course) and for three days leading up to our departure, I put in significantly more time and energy than usual. I stayed up very late the night before leaving, working until the early morning hours. Caffeine and excitement helped me get moving early the following day, but by mid-afternoon I was toast. It took several days to make up the sleep deficit, and I missed out on having fun with my family, while I got that extra sleep. Three days of a week-long vacation is no small percentage. Worse, I know I was far less attentive and focused those first few days than I typically am. I certainly didn’t maximize that precious and important time away from work.

I’m not suggesting you need to be a slacker the week before, but too many of us burn the midnight oil to get work done just before a holiday, mistakenly thinking that we’ll make up for it with rest during the time off. As much as you can, try to make the week leading up to vacation a typical one in terms of the energy you expend or hours you put in. For those of you who will say “I run hard all the time,” you know the difference between high speed and your maximum.

Second, if it’s not a good idea to entirely clear the decks before you go, I’m going to suggest that it’s also not entirely necessary to unplug completely from work while you’re on vacation, either. I’ve made this suggestion before, and you may not be surprised to find that it’s the one I received the most hate mail — and the most fan mail — about. The detractors were the vacation purists who believe that any kind of attention to work during a vacation is a violation of one’s time to recharge. Those who appreciated my perspective felt that finally someone was giving them permission to simply check in and screen e-mail for critical issues. Interestingly, both groups included every sort of executive, ranging from entrepreneurs to senior executives in Fortune 500 companies: there was nothing about role or title that determined their position on this. The point here, though, is to move beyond the “should I or shouldn’t I?” question to consider whether a constructive compromise wouldn’t do more good than harm.

The compromise is essentially an exercise in containment that recognizes that when you succumb to the seemingly sensible notion of stealing the odd moment of vacation downtime to slip in some work, your mind is as far away as it would be if you were physically in the office, as all of your companions are acutely aware. If you doubt this, just picture your spouse our your children sitting at dinner with eyes cast down looking at their cell phones just at the moment some intriguing, surprising, or funny notion popped into your head that you want to share.

So, the idea is not to forbid contact with work but to establish clear ground rules about when you will engage in it, with the explicit recognition that when you’re engaged in work you really aren’t on vacation, you really are at work. There’s no right way to do this, but here’s my rule of thumb: During a one week vacation, take at least 72 consecutive hours with no work, no e-mail, and if you are daring, no screens. For longer vacations adjust the time accordingly or oscillate between the two. Then only spend 30 to 60 minutes a day quickly checking in on truly urgent issues. This allows you to be unplugged for the remainder of the day and still be able to check in.

When I tried this, I experienced a major epiphany about how much checking my e-mail via smartphone is reflex versus need. I asked my 11-year-old to take my phone and only give it to me when we needed to check something on-line related to one of our trivia games or vacation plans. It was shocking to me to see how often I reached for my phone, entirely out of habit rather than necessity. I reminded myself in those embarrassingly frequent moments to look up, take a breath, and notice something happening around me. As I became more fully engaged in the world around me, I discovered I really liked the feeling of not having my phone for a few days. It is decidedly liberating. And when I returned to my phone on check-in days, it was easier to avoid being sucked in by the tractor beam of its e-mail.

My third point is at once self-evident, critical, and very difficult to accept. To be able to truly go on vacation you need to be convinced that the world can do without you during that time. I’m not saying you don’t make a difference, or even that you won’t be missed. But I am suggesting any negative impact will be modest and quickly ameliorated upon your return. Here’s what I mean.

I own my own business, and so the stakes for its success could not be higher for both me and my family. But even so, much so-called “urgency” I’ve created isn’t urgent at all. A lot of deadlines or expectations, with clients, staffers, and (most difficult) myself can be negotiated. One of my clients said to me a few months ago, “I don’t really have the time to take this vacation.” If you’re nodding your head here, that’s a clue that you need to take a step back and realistically think through your concerns. I find making them physically concrete, by actually going to the trouble of making a list of your concerns, can help. Then consider the impact and the worst possible consequences of each. If you are anything like me, I expect you will see they are rarely unrecoverable. Add to that the likelihood of anything occurring at its most severe level, and you’ll be thinking clearly.

If it makes you feel better, you can take your peers, direct reports, and perhaps even your boss through the same thought process, asking them to consider the implications of your time off and think through the probable scenarios, as well as the odds of their happening. On the other hand, a little self-deprecation might be all that’s needed. When I was executive vice president of a consulting firm, I suggested to my team that they “Call me immediately if there is a leadership development emergency. Otherwise, it can probably wait until I return.” Perhaps I needed to reassure myself that I could leave without any dire consequences as much as empowering my team members to think for themselves in my absence. For many of us, our work is such a vital part of our lives that we have a distorted view of our own importance. When we take a step back and change our perspective, we give ourselves permission to not be indispensible for a time. Odds are, the world will be okay if you’re out for a week or so.

Roman philosopher Seneca stated: “Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure, to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.” Invest wisely in your time off, through preparation, shifting your mind-set, and limiting your engagement with what’s going on back at the office, and you can expect to accomplish great things when you return from vacation, truly rejuvenated.