Robin, the Hamster

Robin goes to work every day at the consumer products company where she has been employed for the past two years. She faithfully performs her roles and accountabilities and has received relatively high marks from her supervisor. In fact, she has never taken a sick day and is proud of the fact that she’s never missed a day of work other than scheduled holidays and vacations. But recently, Robin has begun to feel more and more like she’s on a hamster wheel. She believes her compensation is relatively fair and she likes what she does. However she often wonders about what she might be missing at another firm.

Robin is feeling unappreciated and undervalued. No one has been disrespectful or mean to her, so that’s not the problem. More than anything no one outside of her operating unit seems to really care whether she’s part of the team or not. It’s this level of apathy that’s eating at her. She sees the “big boss” almost every day, but he’s never once spoken to her. She rationalizes this by acknowledging that there are over 1,000 employees in the company and it’s impossible for him to know everyone. Still, her accomplishments are seemingly unnoticed and taken for granted.

The scenario just described is repeated countless times every single day across a wide spectrum of companies – large and small. There are multiple studies showing that feeling valued is more important to many people than what they are paid. And this is not a problem that is easily solved with a large company event, a cruise or other significant activity. No, our team members need to feel valued on a regular and ongoing basis.

Leaders need to understand that helping others to feel appreciated and valued is one of the most important functions we can perform. It requires a genuine and authentic mindset that we are here to serve. Yes, you read that correctly. We are servant-leaders. The objective is to look for every way we can to make others feel important and fulfilled. It’s not a mindset that we can turn on and off depending upon who we encounter. We can start creating this mindset by trying to find something good and positive about every situation and everyone. When we are served in a restaurant, we can call the server by name and tell him or her what great service was provided. In public spaces there are always people cleaning the floors or polishing the glass. We can compliment them on how they are creating a sparkling appearance.

We continue to practice our appreciative mindset at our workplace. We make certain to greet everyone we walk by and call them by name. We go out of our way to acknowledge the efforts of others and thank them for their contribution. As leaders, it’s our job to encourage other leaders to create a culture of gratitude.

An initiative we launched several years ago involves sending a letter to each of our team members on their work anniversary. It’s a form letter that changes annually and is signed by me as the CEO. But we’ve taken it a step further. A spreadsheet is created onto which is recorded comments about each team member’s accomplishments provided by his or her supervisor. Toward the bottom of the letter I hand write a personal note – several sentences – citing these individual accomplishments and thanking the team member for being a part of the team. I write several hundred of these every year and can tell you that it’s one of the high points of my month. I also call team members when I hear about exceptional performance and express my appreciation for their service.

It’s equally important for our team to feel as though their input is needed. Mandates from on high are sometimes necessary, but soliciting feedback from team members and involving them in the decision making process whenever possible promotes buy-in. And we need to make sure when people speak that we listen and act accordingly. There are many great ideas and practical solutions that can be accessed from such a collaborative approach.

Acknowledging value and showing respect starts at the top of an organization. If the executive leadership doesn’t incorporate this as part of the cultural fabric, it’s not likely that it will be a priority for others either. If the “big boss” would simply say hello to Robin and show a little interest in her and what she does, it’s unlikely that she would feel the way she does.

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 67 – PM.

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.

Spock-Like

When I was a kid growing up it seems like my mother was always cooking something in a pressure cooker. I have no recollection of exactly what food she was preparing; I just remember the mystique of the pressure cooker. I think I must have been warned that there was an inherent danger with this device and I never wanted to stand too close. It’s possible that I was told that the thing could blow up at any second and I would be maimed by flying shrapnel, pork chop bones or some other lethal object. In retrospect, I think this admonition was one more way to keep me out of the kitchen while Mom was cooking dinner.

Anger is like the pressure cooker. It can simmer for a while and then seemingly explode in an unpredictable manner. From a physiological standpoint, the amygdala is the part of our brain that is the culprit. When the amygdala sounds the alarm to the body that something is present that will make us angry, our adrenal glands start pumping and testosterone is also produced. We begin speaking in a louder and more rapid voice. Our muscles tense, our cheeks flush and our heart starts beating faster. Anger is the ticket to higher risk for heart disease, and it also accelerates the aging process as well as decreases lung functions. Pure and simple – anger isn’t good for us.

Here’s the thing. It takes a superhuman effort not to get angry, especially when things aren’t going as planned. Now think about leadership and anger. Is there a productive correlation? The answer is obvious. To be strong and effective leaders we must curb our temper. Perhaps we’ve experienced the type of boss who has a hair trigger. When he goes off the meltdown is epic. His face gets beet red. He yells and screams. There may be a plethora of profanities laced throughout his diatribe. In extreme cases he may even shove files and papers to the floor or even throw something. What is the usual result of such a tantrum? There’s a general feeling of embarrassment and a specific sympathetic reaction to the party that is bearing the brunt of the boss’s emotion. Everyone keeps their head down and makes a detour away from the boss for the rest of the day. Overall, morale is destroyed. Fear is palpable. Is there any silver lining here? The simple answer is, no.

If all of the preceding is true, what is the point in getting angry? You guessed it – there is none. Do we truly feel better after we get angry? Do we enjoy the headache that ensues; the elevated blood pressure, and increased anxiety? I’ve worked for decades at “lengthening my fuse.” Those who have known me for a long time can attest to the fact that I rarely get mad anymore. This doesn’t mean that I’ve become a pushover. I’ve just learned that the toll that anger takes on my colleagues and me is just too high.

Here’s what I’ve discovered. When something is about to trigger an anger response I recognize the need to become stoic. A stoic is defined as “a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.” Think Mr. Spock in Star Trek or Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption. I have also come to realize that maintaining a positive mindset in every circumstance is critical to problem solving. Anger is a negative emotion and does nothing to get to a solution. This doesn’t mean that I don’t feel disappointment or even a momentary flash of “extreme dissatisfaction.” But staying in such a feeling is poisonous in every respect and is not the way I want to model for others.

Temper tantrums are for little kids and are usually best ignored. The best leaders are able to control their emotions and help their team move in a positive direction no matter what.

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 60 – Innie or Outie?

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.

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.

angry-boss-firing-woman

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