Team ‘Tude

My favorite Major League baseball team is in a slump. They can’t hit their way out of a paper bag. Their starting pitching has been amazing, but the bats are asleep. They are losing games 1 – 0 or 2 – 1. For a fan, it’s agonizing to watch. How can it be that an entire team that is paid over $140 million a year cannot hit? What’s worse, the two highest paid starters are batting .169 and .203 respectively. It’s one thing for a player or two to be slumping. It’s quite another for the whole team to be in this predicament. Yeah, I know. It’s a long season and eventually the bats will come alive. Hopefully it won’t be too late to make a serious run at a pennant. But this whole episode is instructive from an entrepreneurial standpoint. What happens when our entire team is in a slump?

Have you ever felt like nothing is going right? Multiply this by the same feeling being shared by nearly everyone on your team and you may have a genuine team slump. The reason for this is as obvious as the entire baseball team slumping all at the same time. In scientific terms, the team’s attitude is messed up! So you ask – how did we get there in the first place? Who knows? The important thing is that if we’re not careful it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It often starts with one person – perhaps a star producer – who is struggling with a losing streak. That individual may grouse a bit with the “woe is me” routine. Others listen to this and can’t help but be impacted. It’s particularly concerning when a leader in the organization becomes negative in this way. Team members begin to feel a bit insecure. Everyone starts looking over their shoulders. They work especially hard to avoid mistakes and become very self-conscious in the process. Eventually each member of the team has become part of the downward spiral that creates the aforementioned slump.

What’s the way out? In baseball, sometimes the general manager fires the hitting coach. In other instances, the manager may shuffle the lineup. I’ve heard of more drastic situations where a team meeting occurs and a player reads the riot act to the rest of the team. Then everyone rallies, puts on a new face and plays the game with new resolve. And sometimes all of this can work.

I submit that when a team is struggling as a whole, it’s time for the leader to step up. It’s a time for calm. If the entrepreneur/leader starts to panic, it’s awfully hard for the whole team not to follow suit. Instead, strong positive reinforcement is needed from the leader. Each team member needs to be told in genuine terms how critical he or she is to the organization. The leader should point to the positive patterns of success that have been realized in the past. He or she shouldn’t hesitate to provide coaching where there are obvious flaws in execution.

It’s also a time to engage the team in an exercise of collaboration. Team meetings are held where ideas are exchanged and new positive energy is created. It’s important for us as entrepreneurs to be truly optimistic and upbeat. It’s not a time to wallow in despair and dwell on all of the negative things that have been occurring. When we model calm and creativity, our team will respond in kind. Our leadership has never been more important than at times like this.

Ultimately we want each member of our team to commit to a positive attitude. Sound a bit woo-woo? It’s not. I haven’t been in the locker room of my favorite baseball team, but I’m willing to bet that the attitude isn’t very positive. Attitude is a razor’s edge. It’s easy to tip either way into positive or negative territory. If the team ends up with a negative attitude there is no way that it will win. It’s the entrepreneur’s charge to make absolutely certain that a positive attitude is attained and maintained.

Team slumps can be attributed to the team’s attitude. Strong leadership that creates infectious positivity is a great start toward helping the team regain its balance and winning form.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 45 – Comfortable Skin.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Old-Fashioned or New-Fangled?

I recently came across an article by Stefan Stern from the Financial Times publication dated November 10, 2008. “While cleaning out his attic, a British business leader stumbled upon some typewritten notes on leadership from the 1950s. ‘Leadership is the art of influencing a body of people to follow a certain course of action, the art of controlling them and getting the best out of them.’” Sounds kind of old-fashioned, doesn’t it? The art of controlling them? That’s an attitude that’s not likely to win many awards in this day and age. The article and this statement in particular got me to thinking about leadership. And because I’ve lived long enough, I’ve had the good fortune to experience many different leadership styles. So, here are some personal observations that have helped me develop my own leadership style.

Entrepreneurs are often “quick on the draw.” A team member asks a question or brings us a problem and our instinct is to provide the answer or solve the problem. Then we move on . . . quickly. In the old days, that would probably have been considered “leadership.” One of my goals is to develop a sustainable organization that is no longer dependent solely upon me. If I answer every question and offer every solution, how does this support others in their quest to step-up and become leaders in their own right? I believe that leadership involves leading people to answers and solutions rather than simply telling them.

I’ve heard certain pro athletes and a number of entrepreneurs who says it’s not their job to be role models. It seems to me that anyone who has the megaphone ought to savor the opportunity to set an example for others. Doing so also enables us to become more accountable to our team. Back to the sustainable organization concept for a moment – do I want to display anger; yell at people; exhibit boorish behavior, and generally put my ego front and center? When I model this way, what message does it send to up-and-coming leaders? Here’s the simple truth for me. I don’t want to show any sort of negative behavior for which I should apologize.

One of the toughest aspects of being an entrepreneur is communicating our vision to our team. Most of us have a vision of some sort locked away in our brains. I was asked for years by my teammates for my vision, but never could figure out how to articulate it clearly until recently. Having a vision and communicating that vision are two entirely different things. When I mentor other entrepreneurs I ask them a very basic question. What does it look like when we get there? Focusing on this question eliminates the psycho-babble and gets to the heart of the matter. In plain English it requires that we paint a word picture that everyone can understand. We should never forget that people are drawn to leaders who can express a strong and powerful vision.

As a leader, how much time do you spend working on your business rather than in your business? I can tell you that I love doing complicated real estate deals. Without question, that’s working in my business. It would be very easy (and profitable) for me to focus all of my time and energy on buying and owning apartment properties. But that doesn’t advance the cause for the sustainable organization that I have envisioned. Thus, I must spend significant time working on my business. This involves developing a wide range of strategic initiatives, cultivating and educating team members, and helping to define our mission. A great leader will spend far more time working on his or her business than working in it.

While there are many other modern leadership traits to be explored, the last one on which I want to focus is that of attitude. Leaders with negative attitudes generally produce negative results. Over the past four-plus decades I think I’ve become more and more positive and optimistic. I realized that it’s not much fun to work in a negative environment. And as a leader, if I’m down-in-the-mouth it’s pretty hard for that attitude not to become contagious. I’ve come to realize that there’s always a silver lining in every situation and it’s my aim to find it. This doesn’t mean that negative things won’t happen – they do. But the faster we can move on and regain positive footing, the faster we’ll get back on track. It’s my goal to be a positive and optimistic leader every second of the day.

Modern leadership still embodies ageless basics and fundamentals. But there are some “new age” twists that help propel us to new heights of success and create sustainable organizations in the process.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 19 – Charm School.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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Is the Lone Ranger Dead?

One of the businesses with which I’m involved is in the venture capital space. We identify, evaluate, vet and fund startup companies in the animal health, agribusiness and human health verticals. As you might imagine, we see everything under the sun. Founders present some pretty unique ideas along with financial projections that are pretty concrete on one end of the scale, to total pie in the sky on the other; slide decks that range from extremely good to extremely poor; business plans that might be exquisite or often are ridiculous; and valuations that are mostly “are you kidding?” though there are a few that are quite reasonable.

We really dig into the details, ask a lot of questions and look at a lot of documents. We pay close attention to whether or not the founder has the right passion and temperament as well as what kind of a problem his or her idea solves. It’s a good sign if the founder has some skin in the game and a vision that goes beyond simply cashing out down the road. And then we get to one of the central Go vs. No-Go questions – is the founder the Lone Ranger or is there a strong team in place?

Believe me when I tell you that there are some amazingly brilliant entrepreneurs out there. These people are scary smart and have world-changing ideas . . . but many won’t get funded because they haven’t (or won’t) put together a world-class team. The risk is too great from an investor’s perspective to make a bet on a Lone Ranger. Growing a business to any scalable level requires some very talented human capital. And the founder that says, “Invest in me now and I’ll go out and hire the talent,” just doesn’t understand. As investors we want to know who is going to be on the team from the get-go. It’s important for us to know if the chemistry is right; if everyone is committed; if the necessary principal skillsets are covered, and if all members of the team are on the same page.

There’s an obvious parallel here between startups looking for funding and our own entrepreneurial endeavors. In fact, we should step back and take a hard look at our own organizations as though we are presenting to venture capitalists. And here’s the hardball question we must ask. If we are hit by the proverbial bus today will our team be able to carry on tomorrow? Will our company survive and thrive or will it die? I know many entrepreneurs who believe their businesses are too small to justify a world-class team. To manage the risks that are inherent in entrepreneurship I think we need to scale to a size where such a team is a must-have. But can we afford not to have such a team in place as we push to scale? Think about it this way. It’s kind of like walking on thin ice across a lake. We hope with every step that we can make it to the other side without falling in. And if the ice breaks and we fall through we’re dead without the team. On the other hand if the team is in place, it can pull us out of the water should we take the icy plunge.

Some of us may be Lone Rangers because we think we can do it better than anyone else. In other cases we may know we need to build a team but don’t know how to find the right people. And there may yet be other instances where we don’t believe we can afford to hire the team at the present time. My response to all of these reasons is a repeat of my previously posed question, “If I’m hit by the bus today, will my company survive and thrive tomorrow?” If the answer is no, then it’s probably time to get busy with developing and implementing a strategy to build a strong team as quickly as possible.

While the Lone Ranger was a beloved fictional character from a different era, it isn’t a concept well-suited for a growing company. Building a world-class team is a solid way to manage risk in today’s entrepreneurial environment.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Lone Ranger

Making the Distinction

There’s a lot of talk these days about mentoring. Many members of Generation X and Generation Y (Millennials) have told researchers that having a mentor is of high importance to them. As a Baby Boomer, I take great pleasure in being called upon to mentor other entrepreneurs. But as the CEO of our family of companies, I made the mistake of also thinking that I could be a mentor to some of the up and coming leaders in our organization. This realization has just recently become apparent to me and its subtlety is what tripped me up.

By my definition, a mentor is an advisor and nothing more. The mentee can take what the mentor offers and do with it what he or she wishes. A mentor typically has no “skin in the game” where the mentee is concerned. As a result, the mentor is able to freely dispense advice and opinions without an agenda. CEOs should not try to be mentors within their own companies. Why? Because they clearly have an agenda which is first and foremost shaped around what is in the company’s best interest. In my experience trying to be a mentor to a handful of leaders in our firm has not worked effectively. They are deferential to a fault because I’m the CEO. They listen to what I have to say differently than if I were outside the organization. For example, when I challenge them with a particular question or premise, they take it as gospel. The relationship of the CEO to any member of the team is going to be such that a true mentoring relationship will be very difficult.

So what is an appropriate role for a CEO to play in developing leaders within his or her company? I have found that becoming a coach is the right path to take. Let’s use sports as the metaphor here. The coach is a teacher. He/she may call the plays from the sidelines until a sufficient level of expertise and trust is developed with the players to allow them to call their own plays. A coach should be wise and compassionate; yet there are times when he may be appropriately demanding and exacting.

Gen Xers and Millennials are well-served to understand the distinction between coaching and mentoring. I believe that a future leader should have both. Find a mentor who is older and has plenty of experience outside the company. By building extensive relationships throughout the community, one can usually connect with someone who may be willing to serve in a mentoring capacity. Then, try and establish a coaching relationship with a superior inside the company, assuming that the individual has a coaching personality. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case with certain people in positions of authority who are insecure and have power issues. I submit that it is healthy for the organization to move away from the boss-employee mentality and develop an attitude of coach-player.

CEOs and members of their teams can be fulfilled by a healthy coaching relationship. And an outside mentor can be the icing on the cake.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

coach

Hero or Not?

I grew up in an age where the hero of the day was a cowboy or someone like Superman. I think my favorite was a character named Paladin played by Richard Boone in Have Gun Will Travel TV western series that ran from 1957 to 1963. Paladin wore a black hat, but he was definitely a good guy. He took care of the bad guys with his cunning and his fast gun. He wore a stoic expression and generally solved the problems he faced by himself. You never saw him flinch. There were no high fives; no fist bumps; no complaints, and he was always the gentleman. Many of us grew up idolizing macho heroes of this sort.

Paladin is a wonderful metaphor for today’s entrepreneur. How many of us take the “never let ‘em see you sweat” approach and soldier on to the finish line regardless of the obstacles we encounter? I know that I certainly have felt responsibility for the hundreds of employees and their families that are integral to the success of our companies. And as a result, there have been times when I have sacrificed mightily to make certain that my colleagues are safe and secure. After all, isn’t that what a leader is supposed to do?

We entrepreneurs often spend more time working in rather than on our businesses. I will stand at the head of the line to admit that in the past I handled things that others could have been doing because I a) wanted to set a good example, b) figured that I could get it done more quickly than showing someone else how to do it, or c) wanted it done properly. After a while I began to wonder why everyone stepped back and let me do these things not realizing that the example I was setting was encouraging people to believe that I would handle it! I suppose at the time that there was a feeling of indispensability on my part. I needed to be in the middle of things to pave the way to victory.

So what did I learn following this path? I learned that no one saw me as “the hero.” They became reliant upon me and they also felt that I didn’t have confidence in them. Apathy became a real problem. The quality of work slipped because the “Lee will fix it – he fixes everything” syndrome was in full swing. I was burning out and not having as much fun as I had in the past.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that if I really care about my team members and their families – and I really do – the most important thing I can do for them is to create a sustainable organization. Companies where the founder or key principal micromanages everything and strangles everyone are doomed to die when the leader retires or dies. I can’t bear the thought of that happening to the people I’ve worked with for decades. My solution has been to develop a culture of empowerment and coaching. I now spend time helping my teammates learn how to fish as opposed to doing the fishing for them. It’s my responsibility to hold the vision for our companies, but that has become a shared vision rather than just my vision. Delegation is a key element to sustainability and all team members now have clearly defined roles and accountabilities with training and resources devoted to helping them succeed.

Heroes come from the battlefield or burning buildings and not from the boardroom. Sharing responsibility is the best way to create a sustainable organization.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

paladin

The Anti-Bulldozer

Many of us entrepreneurs have a tendency to be a bit aggressive at times. The appropriate analogy might be something about a bull in a china shop. Speaking for myself I know there have been times when I pushed through a situation and likely ran roughshod over others who were involved. It’s not that we do so intentionally, but we are naturally assertive and want to get things done . . . right now!

Much earlier in my career I was totally oblivious to how others might be reacting to me. I had not yet learned how to “read” people. I thought I was doing things the right way, but apparently was stepping on a lot of toes in the process. When this was pointed out to me I became a bit defensive and thought, “It’s not my problem if others have such thin skins.” Perhaps this was true in a literal sense, but how others feel and perceive us becomes reality – regardless of what we intend. What I didn’t realize is that being the bulldozer caused my colleagues and others to resent me and not want to work with me.

After many years it became apparent that others weren’t going to change – I needed to instead. Fortunately this didn’t require me to compromise my principles. But I realized that not only did I need to understand how others were responding to me, but also that I needed to adjust my approach accordingly. I began to pay close attention to “reading” people and modifying my approach away from a “one-size fits-all.”

Reading people is multi-faceted. It requires us to listen not only to what others say but how they say it. If I am laying out a strategy and asking for feedback, I need to pay attention to voice inflection, pitch, cadence and tone. I need to watch facial features. Does the other person’s jaw clench; is there an eye twitch; does the color change in his or her face, and do the nostrils flair? I must observe other body language tells. Is there a stiffening or turning of the body; do the arms fold or gesture in some way; do the fists clench; does the head raise or drop; is eye contact lost; what do I see in the eyes, and does the person literally shrink in position? How exactly does the person verbally respond? Is there hesitation before speaking? What words are selected by the person in his or her response?

People reads are only part of the sensitivity process. How do I conduct myself when receiving feedback? Is my body language open or closed? Do I keep a smile on my face or do I send signals that I don’t really want to hear what is being said? Am I truly listening or just giving the appearance of doing so? I have found that repeating back what the other person says helps send the message that I am listening. Then it’s important for me to acknowledge what is being said in a positive manner. For example, “I hear you when you tell me that you aren’t in favor of reaching out to the client in the manner I suggested and understand why you feel the way you do. Let’s come up with a different way of handling this.” In the old days I would simply tell the person to “just do it.” Today, it’s become much more important for me to be flexible and help others find different ways to reach the same end goal than just the way I want to do it.

Sensitivity is not a weakness. Instead it is an effective leadership trait. Reading people; listening to them; understanding what they are saying, and making the necessary adjustments engenders the trust and confidence of our team.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

bulldozer

Stylin’

Question: I am fascinated by different leadership styles. Which style seems to work the best?

Answer: Of course there is no one particular style that works for all situations. So let’s focus on a few common approaches.

In the “olden days” the leader led by dictate. The process was autocratic. Organizational hierarchy was respected at all costs. The phrase “it’s lonely at the top” was an ingrained belief system. All eyes were on the man (seldom a woman) in the corner office. The leader rarely sought input from the management team. It’s possible that he had a “consigliore” or confidant. He made the decisions and issued orders to his troops. Often he valued fear and intimidation as techniques for maintaining order in the ranks. Imagine how today’s millennials would respond in this environment. There would be a mass exodus of biblical proportion! Thankfully the autocratic era has passed.

Some leaders use a consensus approach. Perhaps they have a senior leadership team or an executive committee where ideas are presented and discussed by everyone sitting at the table. Participants are able to express their thoughts with impunity and feel as though their opinions count. The real test of this style comes in how decisions are made. Does the leader ask for a vote of his/her team on the issue at hand and then carry forward with the results of that vote? There may be certain situations where following the majority-rule is appropriate. But in many cases this is simply management by committee and an abdication of leadership.

The style that I believe shows strong leadership involves the leader soliciting input from the various stakeholders. She/he listens to and weighs the opinions and the evidence . . . and then makes the decision. Sometimes the decision may be contrary to what the senior team or executive committee wants. The leader must be willing to fully explain his/her decision and have a valid reason for not following the advice of the group. Perhaps the leader has more information and a broader perspective. Or there could be a legitimate philosophical difference. But the leader makes the ultimate decision and will be held accountable accordingly.

Leadership is about a clear vision and purpose. It involves effective communications. A strong and effective leader shows sensitivity for others and values their input. A good leader considers the facts and overlays his/her moral compass on the situation at hand. And finally, a true leader makes the decision when it’s appropriate and doesn’t abdicate it to others.

Sound leadership principles empower us to make decisions even when it’s tough to do so. As leaders we should model the opportunity to make tough decisions which in turn will help others learn how to become strong leaders.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Ducks