These perspectives are intended to share career insights and advice based on my personal experiences as a successful entrepreneur, business owner, and CEO – with the ultimate purpose of helping you effectively navigate your own career journey. Do you have a question or is there a topic you would like to see featured in the newsletter? Send me a message here.
I spend a lot of time talking with students and young entrepreneurs. A common question I hear from young professionals is, “How do I get to the next level in my career?” Then they ask, “Is it about working harder? Is it about working smarter? Is it about taking more risk?”
Among this group, one skillset that stands out as needing development is what I call focus discipline. I too struggled with this skill when I was younger. Most young professionals have wide-ranging ideas, energies, passions, goals, and ambitions — and much that they want to accomplish. And it's all too easy to bounce from one to the next. Therefore, I always advise young professionals to seriously think about what they want to accomplish: “Figure out where you want to see yourself in the next 12, 18, 24 months, and then develop a focus on getting there.”
It is extremely important to get your arms around a focus. Whether it becomes a five-year plan or an annual goal, concentrate on what you truly want to achieve and accomplish. I'm a big strategy guy. In fact, at my company we do strategic planning every year, and then we revisit and update our strategy mid-year. We all set goals and initiatives that are very specific, achievable, measurable — and in writing.
Once you set your goals, begin planning what you need to do in order to reach them. Who do you need to be working with or around? Where do you need to be prioritizing your time? It all has to start with an overall general focus.
I've been very fortunate. Even though I've had much success as a business owner during my 35-year career, I still sit down every year and make a list of goals. And I revisit those goals every few months. I occasionally remove one if it becomes irrelevant, and sometimes I add another one. But generally, my goals stay the same. I wish I could say I hit every one of my goals each year, but I do not. There have been times when I’ve carried a goal on my list for five or six years, but it never diminished in importance.
My point is this: after all these years, I still focus on who and what I want to be. Unwavering focus is the single most important piece of advice I have to give —especially to the young entrepreneur, who's just starting out in business.
“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” Henry Ford
There are a lot of crazy things going on in the world of business right now. If you are in a business that buys commodities such as lumber or steel, you know prices of these materials are soaring. If you own a small business or work in the service industry, you know that labor shortages are rampant. If you are trying to buy a house, you have probably been in bidding wars with multiple buyers. If your business is manufacturing, your company likely cannot keep up with demand. If you are in accounting, consulting, or a legal profession, you are seeing clients rushing to make decisions around these and other concerns. I could go on, but the point is this: the business world is experiencing some of the most profound uncertainty it has seen in years.
To compound the uncertainty, just a few months ago, unemployment was at an all-time high. The stock market was tanking, and businesses were closing. Economists were forecasting a long and deep recession, and social upheaval was prevalent.
With everything changing so rapidly, how do we manage all this uncertainty? How do we function, compete,execute, and deliver in our businesses with all these obstacles that seem to swing wildly from good to bad, from horrible to excellent, and from high tolow— seemingly over and over again?
I read a quote the other day on Twitter that caught my attention. It was credited to Warren Buffet, but I’m not sure if it actually came from him. It said, “An idiot with a plan can beat a genius without a plan.”
Making plans and creating goals, then diligently and consistently sticking to them until they are executed, continues to be the best way to push through obstacles and uncertainty. The world is not a certain place. Those who try to predict what will happen and when are merely fools. But those who develop measurable and achievable goals and plans to get where they want to go, and to be what they want to be, will be best prepared to handle the obstacles that markets and the economy present.
The business world always has frightening elements. There is never a perfect situation or scenario. Goals and plans can also be full of imperfections. But setting goals and implementing plans will ensure the greatest certainty of success, regardless of what obstacles come your way.
As a CEO, I promote the idea of personal responsibility a lot. In fact, it’s in the mission statement of my first and largest company. And it's really one of the principles that has guided us through the years.
This simply means taking personal responsibility for the work you do, whether that's working with a client or coworkers, or on a process or project. It is all about owning what you're doing and making sure that you're doing it the best you can, while seeking the best results for your coworkers, clients, and employees. Personal responsibility is taking your work to the next level and making it all about others.
Achieving a culture of personal responsibility is done through servant leadership. If you're serving a customer, how can you best serve that customer? If you're working for an individual, what can you do to make sure that individual succeeds? There's an immense amount of power in going beyond personal responsibility into servant leadership and trying to understand what you can do to benefit others within your business circle. And once you get to that point, it's almost impossible not to succeed.
My daughter sent flowers to her mom on Mother’s Day. Unfortunately, her mom never received the flowers. My guess is the flowers were delivered, but to someone else’s mom.
When my daughter called the flower shop to get a refund, it took a while. The flower shop wanted to give her a credit towards a future flower order instead of a refund. Although my daughter eventually got her full refund, it took 30 minutes of persuasion for the flower shop to come around and agree.
But let’s look at this situation from the flower shop’s perspective. By refunding her money, the flower shop was losing a customer for life. Why would my daughter, or any customer, ever order flowers from them again when they screwed up an important delivery? Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but what I think they were trying to do was to preserve a customer. If my daughter had accepted the credit, then used that credit to order flowers later, they would have a renewed opportunity to provide their services at an excellent level, thus converting her to a satisfied customer.
I am a big proponent of doing what is necessary to preserve a customer. We all screw up and make mistakes with customers, resulting in their anger or disappointment. However, if we get another chance to make it right, we can demonstrate to the customer that we care about them and their satisfaction. Making it right with a customer when given a second chance may also separate us from the competition.
When my daughter told me this story, she was frustrated with the flower shop and how long it took to get her refund. She had every right to be upset. She will also never again order flowers from this company. But all I could think about was this: if they had handled the situation differently, maybe offered more of an incentive to make up for their mistake, they could have retained a customer. More importantly, they could have developed a customer who would tell others about their excellent customer service and efforts to convert a wrong into a right.
Business lessons can come when least expected. During a recent road trip, I stopped at a restaurant for lunch. As I arrived at my table, two women sat down a few feet from me. Both were professionally dressed and appeared to be meeting for the first time. With empty tables around us, I could clearly hear their conversation. I admit I was eavesdropping.
It quickly became apparent that this was an interview for a managerial position with a retail company. The interview started off with the usual pleasantries, a sharing of both career and personal information. But as it progressed into determining qualifications and fit for the job, I observed the one flaw many managers often make while interviewing candidates.
The interviewer would not stop talking. So much so, she rarely allowed the interviewee to talk.
Interviewing someone can be difficult. You only have a brief period of time to determine if the person is right for the job. Often, the inclination of an interviewer is to talk, describe the job and the skill set required, and in turn, hope to engage the interviewee in responding. But the time should be spent learning as much as possible about the potential hire, which can only happen through listening.
The best course of action for an interviewer is to arrive with a list of questions, then stick to asking those questions. Most importantly, listen diligently to how the interviewee answers, and then ask them to follow up on their answers with more explanation. Give them every opportunity to talk, even to the point of using silence if necessary.
It’s amazing what you can learn about a job candidate if you allow them to talk. But to do so, you must make sure you’re not doing all the talking.
One of the most important lessons every executive must learn is to never underestimate the impact of their words and actions on their employees.
I was listening to a podcast recently where the guest was a famous celebrity. He spoke about how he learned a valuable lesson many years ago. When fans started recognizing him in public and would approach to ask for a picture or autograph, he found that he could respond two different ways – each response producing a different result. He could interact graciously and with kindness. In turn, that fan would feel special, and be left with excitement and a positive experience. Or, he could respond with indignation, leaving the fanto believe they had violated his space, or had been an annoyance. This approach elicited feelings ranging from sadness to anger, with the fan likely regretting the encounter.
This celebrity learned he was solely responsible – through his response, actions and words – for creating either a positive experience ora negative experience with those who admired or respected him.
Executives have a similar power to influence encounters, provided by their position within an organization. How they communicate with others or respond to situations will set the tone within an organization. More importantly, how executives respond to employee interactions will determine how well these individuals perform their jobs, treat others, or and even their decision to remain with the company or seek other employment.
I recall instances where I have had a brief conversation with an employee, and later learned that my comments or actions were not well received. In almost every instance, I came to understand my comments were lacking or my attitude was not at its best. Maybe I considered a question to be silly, I had more pressing matters to consider, or simply heard something that left me questioning the intent of a comment. Regardless, my response is what was remembered and that left a lasting impression on the person.
Being the boss comes with a number of responsibilities and expectations. This includes always being conscious of how your actions and comments may be interpreted by others within the company. The individual who can be like the celebrity and use every interaction to make those around them feel both special and heard, will find themselves moving from being “the boss” to becoming a true leader within their organization.
Twenty-five years ago, I was a mid-level manager working on a project for a key customer, a large company with thousands of employees. Because of the uniqueness and importance of the project, the client’s CEO was involved, and he and I would meet on a monthly basis.
One day, the CEO left a voicemail on my office phone (this was before the prevalence of cell phones). He wanted to discuss a particular issue and a couple of ideas. I received the message late in the day and still had a number of pressing tasks I wanted to get done. I finally returned the CEO’s call the following afternoon.
His first comment to me was, “I always expect you to return my calls on the same day. Make sure this doesn’t happen again.” At first, I was taken aback. “Arrogant” was the word that immediately came to mind. But he was the client, and furthermore, the CEO of the client’s company; therefore, I made sure it never happened again.
Now, many years later, I understand the lesson. This wasn’t a CEO looking to set himself on a pedestal. He was teaching me the importance of responsiveness.
Lack of responsiveness is the silent business killer. It kills potential opportunities. It kills business relationships. It kills trust and dependability. But often we don’t realize it until it’s all over. When we do not respond effectively and timely, the other person simply moves on. Sadly, we don’t understand why they no longer respond to our calls.
That CEO and I ultimately worked on a number of other projects. We developed a close working relationship until he retired. One of the positive traits he often noted about me and my team – and one of the reasons he continued to work with us – was our high level of responsiveness.
When you make a mistake that can impact the company, it’s no longer about you and your career. It’s solely about the impact that mistake can have upon the company. The worst thing you can do in that situation is keep it to yourself, try to fix it on your own, and wait to tell others when greater damage has potentially been done.
The sooner the mistake can be addressed and resolved, the less impact it will have on the company. I once heard a business leader tell a young professional that when they make a mistake, it’s their (the young professional’s) responsibility to fix it. My immediate thought was that’s poor advice. Instead, their first course of action should be to make it known to management, then bring solutions to the table.
As a seasoned CEO, I have witnessed a lot of mistakes. Most mistakes made by young managers are not new to me; there’s even a good chance I have made many of the same mistakes in the past. Furthermore, I probably already know the best plan of action to remedy the problem.
Making mistakes is expected and acceptable. However, not immediately notifying your boss or team leader of the mistake is not.
I moved eight times in the first 10 years of my professional career, always at the request of my employer. When I was a project manager, I made a point to accept the difficult projects others stayed away from.
And now, at my own company, when a client requests a service that we don't typically offer, we educate ourselves and then find a way to provide that service. Why? Because I understand the value of being flexible.
Every CEO, even those who have worked for the same company their entire careers, can attest to experiencing many personal or professional changes. They have held multiple roles, managed unique and challenging assignments, adjusted to new policies or processes, responded to market changes, moved to new cities, and taken on new responsibilities. What all these leaders have in common is the ability to successfully maneuver through change. They also know they must remain flexible.
Rarely has a company or an individual ever been successful by doing the same thing over and over again for many years. Change is crucial for long-term success. Yet for any change to be successful, flexibility is required.
When I am assembling a management team, I seek a mixture of personalities and a combination of diverse skill sets and talents. I look for attitudes of both optimism and pessimism within the team. I want my ideas and opinions to be challenged, and invite discourse and discussion. But I also expect my team to be flexible, and to be willing to adapt and transform to accomplish our goals.
Flexibility allows us to easily adapt and adjust as dictated by markets or events. It causes us to take on change when it is necessary for the success of the organization. It drives us to seek new challenges, greater knowledge,innovative ideas and relevant training.
Lack of flexibility is among the greatest impediments to growth and continual success. No customer wants to work with a company that is rigid, and no CEO wants to work with an employee who is inflexible.