The Collaborative Entrepreneur

Nike’s corporate tag line is “Just Do It.” And that could be the tag line for many companies of all sizes. Leaders at all levels send the message of “Just Do It” to their “charges.” This notion boils down to a command and control style of management. And I probably do not need to point out how poorly this approach works with today’s Millennial workforce. We Boomers grew up in this environment and may tend to continue its practice. Perhaps it is time for something different.

I know that many entrepreneurs agree in principle with a more collaborative style of leadership. Yet, the language that is used may belie this agreement. Examine the following statement that rolls up many of the words used into a massive contradiction with collaboration. Mr. Smith is a senior executive with the ABC Company and he’s describing a recent business win for his company.

My employees really came through with this project. I have a hundred people working under me and every one of them did their jobs like they were supposed to. I set their goals and they achieved them. I’ve been focused on this opportunity for a long time. I love winning this way!”

At first blush Mr. Smith seems to be giving credit for the win to others. But the way he says it indicates that he is not yet a convert to a more enlightened style of leadership. Note the highlighted words. Clearly, he is in charge here and other people have done his bidding.

Entrepreneurs can change this narrative. When we are comfortable in our own skin, we are easily able to eliminate the unhealthy aspects of our ego from our interactions with others. It is often the case that having to take the credit for an accomplishment or reinforcing the fact that we were “at the top of the food chain” is a result of our own lack of confidence or some other insecurity. With our new level of comfort, we relax, smile, and become totally humble.

Here is another version of the previous statement. Mr. Doe is a senior executive with XYZ, Inc. and is celebrating a recent success.

“The XYZ team is amazing! They worked together to establish the goal and drew upon our Core Values to develop a winning strategy. We are so appreciative of each and every one of the hundred team members who worked tirelessly on this project for more than a year. Their commitment, dedication and creativity are the reasons for our success.”

Sounds a little different doesn’t it? There is not a single mention of the words “I,” “me” or “my.” The word “employee” has been replaced with “team member.” Mr. Doe simply delivers the message without allowing his ego to enter the picture. Clearly, Mr. Doe’s team members work “with” him – not “under” him. I have written before about how we need to be intentional about modifying our vernacular away from “I,” “me,” and “my,” and changing to “we,” “us,” and “our.”  

Collaborative leadership is not decision making by committee – as a leader we still make the ultimate critical decisions. Collaborative leadership is about seeking out team members and listening to their thoughts and ideas. It is valuing others as human beings and the contribution they make to the enterprise. It is about having empathy and creating a culture of respect. And it is about using the words we say as a reflection of all these factors.

When we think about what we write and say we can ask ourselves this simple question – “Do my words focus the spotlight on me or on others?” Doing so helps us move away from the old command and control approach of the past.

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.

The “We” Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship is a team sport. Successful organizations are built on the collective effort of many talented and dedicated people. As leaders, we need to look for every opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of others. I’ve seen study after study that tells us that recognition and appreciation is very important to the culture that we are building – in some cases it is valued as highly as compensation and benefits. And yet there are countless instances where leaders shine the spotlight on themselves and take the credit for a successful endeavor. How does this manifest?

A business leader has been asked by a reporter how his company competed for and won a very large piece of business. Listen to how this statement sounds. “I have had a long-term relationship with the client and have worked for years to get to this point. I developed an innovative strategy that worked just as I thought it would. It’s all queued up so that all my employees have to do is execute.” A more thoughtful leader might have said it this way. “We have had a long-term relationship with the client, and our team worked hard to develop and implement an innovative strategy that was spot-on. Our entire organization had a hand in this success, and we are grateful to each and every team member for their contribution. We especially want to thank Alice Doe and John Smith who led the effort.” Notice the second statements did not contain the word “I” a single time? It was filled with the words “we” and “our.” It acknowledged the entire team and focused the spotlight on those team members who were at the forefront of the initiative.

What does it take to become a “We” Entrepreneur? First and foremost, we must have a genuine and authentic attitude about who gets the credit. If we are secure enough in our own skin, we check our ego at the door and do whatever we can to shine the spotlight on the good work provided by members of our team. This means that we must reverse some of the patterning we received as children. When I was young and attending school, we were praised for properly answering a question posed by the teacher. While there was nothing wrong with this, it did create an attention-craving atmosphere for some students. We wanted to receive the approval from an adult which was our proof that we were worthy of their accolades. Parents, teachers, coaches and a host of other adults were a party to this endless cycle.

Breaking out of the childhood approval-and-acceptance-seeking mode to become an authentic “We” Entrepreneur requires a couple of steps. First, we need to come to a deep understanding within ourselves that we are worthy. In the early years of my career this was a difficult concept because I had little to no experience. I felt a compelling need to prove to the world that I belonged in the big leagues. Eventually I found that when I excelled, my actions spoke louder than chest-beating. In other words, we develop the understanding of worthiness by challenging ourselves and steadily performing at high levels.

Once we have developed a strong sense of self-worth, we look for ways to focus on the accomplishments of others and celebrate when they occur. In other words, we fix the “inner” (me) first and then move to the “outer” (others). This will take practice. We won’t become adept at the “We” concept overnight as I, me, my and mine will creep in to our consciousness periodically. Here’s something that helped me and I still do to this day. When I write an e-mail, a text message, a letter or any other form of written communications, I review it before sending and remove any I, me, my and mine references and replace them with we, our and us, wherever that it makes sense. This approach helps keep me mindful of my mission to be a “We” Entrepreneur and spills over into my verbal communications as well. And after doing this for an extended period of time, it will be more than just a communications tool – you’ll really believe it! We will see the value in the contribution of others and be truly grateful. At that point our acknowledgement will become a genuine part of our persona.

The “We” Entrepreneur is gracious and unassuming. He or she is always appreciative of what others contribute to the success of the team and makes a special effort to shine the spotlight accordingly.

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.