I am often asked in interviews this seemingly simple question: “How do you do what you do?”
My responses are usually fairly brief. In most interviews and discussions, I’m working against a deadline, and it’s not an easy task to codify in one or two sentences what I’ve done over the course of a 40-plus-year career. Nevertheless, last week I decided to take a “few minutes” to capture the specific methods I’ve used to help me and my business associates succeed. Not surprisingly, the exercise took much longer than expected — but it delivered, I hope, some useful insights.
1. Surround yourself with great talent.
Jack Welch said it best, “The team with the best players wins.”
There’s no doubt a major factor – in fact the most important success factor — for leading a business is to build a team with the brightest, most diverse people in thought, background and experience. It’s also critical that the team be composed of people with the professional courage and self-confidence to challenge you to be better than you would be by yourself.
Playing team sports from my early childhood as well as college football at one of the least glamorous positions (offensive line) taught me the importance of teaming and alignment. Successful teams, like a chain, are only as strong as the weakest link. Building the best team represents one of the most powerful arrows in your quiver. Fortunately, I have been blessed over my career with teams of talented professionals who always pushed me and the rest of the business to excel.
2. Sweat the details.
One of the biggest fallacies in business is that leaders don’t have time for details. I’ve even seen leaders open their staff meetings with the line, “Just give me the high points.” That’s unwise.
In fact, it’s the details that help you do what you do! I am extremely detail oriented, with an almost childlike level of inquisitiveness, and those traits have served me well. The practice has allowed me to not just accept the 40,000-foot response to a 1-foot question. It has also spurred me to ask the second, third and sometimes fourth question. Not only does this practice help me better understand the issue, it helps confirm the presenter’s level of knowledge and understanding. In addition, it conveys my interest in the issue and can be a confidence builder for both of us. Facts are friendly and should be used frequently.
3. Build and nurture the right culture.
Among the many elements of business success, culture is one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated. It can’t be forced. It’s not something that is written down in a handbook, and it most certainly is not a “do what I say…not what I do” exercise. Culture is built at the top of the organization and across the business; associates will take their lead from their leaders.
My goal has always been to develop a culture and organizational environment of inclusiveness. Every opinion matters, and every job is important. When associates know they are valued, they perform better and feel better about the work they do. Conversely, individuals, groups or functions that perceive themselves “first among peers” will create an environment that is distracting and counterproductive to the success of the entire enterprise and perhaps even demotivating to the rest of the team.
Creating culture takes time, but is well worth the effort. On the topic of culture, few have said it better than Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines: “Culture is what people do when no one is looking.”
4. Remain organized and maintain your focus.
Leaders have significant issues coming at them at all times and from all directions. When leadership fails, the root cause often can be traced to a lack of organization. It’s easy to develop a mindset that says, “I’ll remember the important things.” The reality: You won’t. It’s simply not possible to really know what’s truly important until you take the time to assess the issue. Disorganization leads to challenges that are either misunderstood or, worse, never addressed at all.
Along those same lines, the ability to think and act laterally is critical when dealing with a very complex organization or set of business issues. The sheer volume and mix of these challenges means you must understand the many interdependencies each represents. Fixing an issue in one area of the business may create more in others, so make certain you understand the implications of every action before making your move.
I have created a personal discipline where I am singularly focused and organized on the issue at hand, the meeting I’m in, or the phone call I’m on – and nothing more. While I realize it’s common for people to “multi-task” during meetings or on conference calls, I strongly discourage the practice. You simply won’t be as good in dealing with a challenge if you’re not entirely dedicating your time to it.
5. Assign accountability.
Every decision needs an owner. Building consensus is great when it comes to group exercises or political rallies, but it’s no way to run a business. We’ve all seen the scenario where everyone claims to have made the decisions that turn out great, while no one claims those that play out poorly.
Leaders must operate in a world where accountability and responsibility are assigned and everyone knows, in advance, who owns the outcome. It’s equally important to make certain people recognize that there are consequences associated with their accountability. Ideally, the goal is for the consequences to be associated with the appropriate reward and recognition for the individual or team. The consequences for poor decisions or performance are obviously less pleasant – but a business reality. When associates perceive there are no consequences for poor performance, the concept of accountability is compromised.
Transparency, too, is an important aspect of a leader’s success. It’s important your associates and your customers understand what’s being done and why. When those affected by decisions understand the rationale — the likelihood of gaining their support grows exponentially.
6. Be an active part of the solution.
Great business leaders are truly engaged, and their associates know it.
It’s important that, as a leader, you never ask an individual or team to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. In my early days at GE Power Systems, we were unraveling a series of business challenges and complexities that required much more time than the normal 8-5 work week to address. As a result, many team members were asked to work part or all of a weekend to get to the bottom of some of our core business challenges. I made sure I was right there on weekends with them and in the same business meetings they were grinding through to come up with the best solution. In the end, the transformation of that business into one of GE’s best is a great success story, and it would not have been possible without the tremendous dedication of the team during those trying times.
7. Insist on innovation.
Nothing dooms a business more than complacency. No matter where I’ve been, I have consistently pushed my teams to find the “next great next.” There is always a better way to do something or satisfy a customer, and being passionate (even maniacal?) about finding that way is and will always be a leader’s job.
When a leader stops asking “Is this the best way?”, he or she is well on the road to obsolescence. I love the phrase “innovate or evaporate.”
It’s important to understand, too, that innovation goes well beyond just product. Innovation should also be reflected in your organizational design, your go-to-market strategy and, basically, every aspect of your business.
Speed of innovation is also an important factor to your business’ success. Your rate of internal change must be faster than the competition, the industry, or the environment on a global basis. When it comes to innovation, playing catchup is a losing game.
Now it’s your turn …
Every business has different challenges, and every leader will have the opportunity to apply a specific “recipe for success” to address them. The seven strategies I’ve outlined have certainly worked for me, and I’m hopeful you’ll find some of them helpful. I’d love your feedback on what you are doing to help drive your success.
Photo: wrangler / Shutterstock