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Are You Being Seduced by Tools?

It is easy to be seduced by a tool that will solve your most pressing problems. We convince ourselves that weak sales, shrinking margins, inability to keep up with the competition, and more, can be solved with this software program or that new sales force management tool. “If I have that tool,” the CEO thinks, “I’ll have what I need to improve and gain an advantage.”

Except that such an all-powerful tool doesn’t exist. While you do need to evolve with technology, it is equally important to recognize that a tool is not a solution. Solutions come from people, and the most impressive, sophisticated, feature-rich tool is useless in the hands of someone who won’t leverage it. If I give a monkey a hammer, he’ll destroy my house. If I give a hammer to a master carpenter, he’ll build me a beautiful new home. The tool hasn’t changed, only the hands we put it in.

The main problem with tool seduction is that it means executives or managers are looking outside their organization for answers, rather than to their people. They are abdicating their own role in the problems that have developed, and potentially tolerating incompetence from their team. It is like people who are trying to lose weight, and instead of exercising or eating better, look for that miracle cure in a pill that will magically transform them.

True Solutions Take Work

The truth is, the right tools can help with all of this, but they don’t take the place of solid leadership. SharePoint, for instance, a web-based file-sharing program by Microsoft, offers a tremendous range of features. It allows users throughout an organization to access information, communicate, and manage data efficiently. It’s a tool. It is part of a solution. When leaders train their employees, who then share, edit documents, and publish content, the team can become more productive. But the program isn’t going to make that content any better! Only the workers can do that.

There’s an old saying, “A fool with a tool is still a fool.” You can get all the tools you want; if you don’t have the people to leverage them and make the right decisions about and with those tools, they are as useless as your 1980s Commodore. Too often, we focus on the tool and not the people who will be using them. When that happens, these “solutions” have relieved you of nothing in the end but some time and money.

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8 Characteristics of Great CEOs

Over the years, I have been able to work with, observe, and coach really great CEOs. It has become obvious to me that these great CEOs differentiate themselves by exhibiting certain characteristics that make them successful. My observations have led me to conclude that there are eight characteristics of successful CEOs. Here is what I found:

  1. They work hard to make a positive impact on everyone they meet.
  2. They treat others with respect, and because of that, they have large networks of people who respect them as well.
  3. They consistently surround themselves with “A” players who challenge them and elevate their game.
  4. They are realistic enough to realize that not every idea works out, so they will quickly pivot to another idea rather than giving up.
  5. They are relentless in their drive to overcome obstacles and adversity.
  6. They are willing to take risks when others would have walked away.
  7. They hate to lose more than they love to win.
  8. They love giving credit to others, and always show their appreciation for the contribution others make to their success.

You can call these what you like…principles, characteristics, or virtues…but keep in mind that they are powerful factors that contribute greatly to success.  If you can internalize and practice these characteristics in your role, your chances of becoming successful will be greatly enhanced.

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The 6 Fundamental Axioms of Leadership

An axiom is a statement or proposition that can be accepted as true without the need for proof. I have six axioms that I believe in and have witnessed over the years, and they no longer require any proof to me. They are:

  1. You deserve the employees you hire (and keep)
  2. If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist
  3. Accountability is a cultural thing
  4. Every day is “showtime”
  5. You aren’t one of the guys
  6. The Samurai knew what they were doing

As a leader, and specifically as a CEO, these six axioms are fundamental to your ability to lead and inspire your organization. Although I cannot guarantee anyone’s success in such a complex and demanding role as CEO, I do believe that following these six axioms will immensely increase your odds of success. Let’s examine each one here:

You deserve the employees you hire (and keep) – Since the most important decision you will ever make is who you hire, this axiom is probably the most important. If you are willing to hire and accept mediocre (B and C) players, then you deserve whatever results they give you. Following-up on their performance, correcting their mistakes, and watching them miss critical deadlines is a sample of the punishment you get for keeping them around. On the other hand, if you take the time to recruit A players, nurture them, and sustain them within your organization, you will reap the rewards. I have been told over and over again that one A player is worth three B players.

If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist – Researchers know this axiom, but it’s just as valid in business. I know there are people who will tell me that there are things that can’t be measured; concepts and emotions like love, hate, and fear. I could take exception and say this isn’t true. We do measure conceptual things. We measure intelligence (IQ) and emotions (EQ), and I’ll bet I can measure love and hate on a scale of 1 to 10. But even if they are correct in their criticism, let’s just agree right now that I am speaking of business. Everything in business can and should be measured. That’s the only way to know if you are achieving goals, making quota, delivering on time, keeping customers happy, managing staff turnover, and so forth. The more you can measure your key performance indicators, the better you can manage your business and guide it in the right direction (and make corrections when something is going off course).

Accountability is a cultural thing – We all talk about accountability, but it won’t matter if you haven’t established a culture of accountability. Your organization and employees must live and breathe accountability. Your culture needs everyone from the top down to accept responsibility and to be held accountable when things don’t go as planned. If your culture doesn’t foster accountability, you will have a very tough time trying to keep your people on track and responsible for their employees’ behavior, and more importantly, their results.

Every day is “showtime” – As a CEO or leader, you are always on stage. If you are having a bad day, your face, posture, and behavior will signal that something is wrong. Have an argument with your spouse in the morning, and then turn up at work with a scowl, and your employees will think the worst…something is wrong with the business. Are we having layoffs? Is cashflow OK? They don’t know anything about your home situation, just that you look as though trouble is brewing on the horizon and they will be impacted by it. This means that you must always put on your game face before you walk into the office. No matter how bad things are (maybe you are having trouble making payroll or the IRS is doing an audit that makes a colonoscopy feel like a walk in the park), you need to show confidence and that you are in control. You must be the consummate actor, always playing the role of self-assured CEO.

You aren’t one of the guys – Too often a CEO or manager within an organization begins to identify with their employees. Surely you have seen or heard of the department head that defends his employees and takes their side against the company. These people over-identify with their employees. This leads them to make decisions based on what’s good for their staff, not what’s good for the company. Leaders need to understand that they are not one of the guys. Employees really expect you to be different, even if you don’t think so yourself. You see yourself as nothing special, but to your employees, you are. They know that you can hire and fire them, give bonuses, take time off, buy a nice car, pay yourself big money, play golf at the local country club, and make decisions every day that affect their livelihood and morale. Don’t try to be one of them. They need you to be you. They need you to play the role of boss. Once you try to be one of them, you will find yourself digging a hole from which you will have difficulty climbing out. Once you bring yourself to their level, becoming the boss again will be a monumental effort. And it’s tough making decisions that go against your employees’ interests, which many business decisions do, if you identify too easily with them. Bottom line is that the company comes first, because without it, the employees won’t have a place to work.

The Samurai knew what they were doing – The ancient Samurai had an advantage in mortal combat…they had no fear of death. And by not fearing death, they could take risks and make decisions without apprehension, never second guessing themselves. This allowed them to overwhelm their enemies and strike fear in their hearts. Similarly, in the military, soldiers accept the fact that they may die in battle, and that frees them to do what needs to be done to accomplish their mission. If they constantly dwelt on the fact that they could be killed at any moment in combat, they would freeze and never succeed in battle. On a much less deadly note, CEOs also need to be fearless. They need to stop fearing the things that will freeze them in place and keep them from succeeding. Being sued, losing a key employee, failing to win a major deal, missing a bonus, or making a bad investment are just a few examples of the types of “death” that leaders face daily. If your decisions are based on avoiding these issues, you will not have the freedom or the ability to do what’s needed to take your company to another level. Constant fear of a bad outcome can paralyze a CEO into a risk-adverse cocoon, stifling growth and innovation.

I can assure you, from my own experience and my observations of the CEOs that I coach, that following these six axioms will strengthen your leadership and help you to become a better CEO. Make these six axioms part of your management style and corporate culture.

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Do You Know How Your Employees See You?

Most CEOs think of themselves as “regular” people. Nothing special about them. So they govern their actions as if they were the same as everyone else. Well, there is a difference between you and the people that work for you…at least in their minds.

Perceptions are quite real to the people who see you in action. Their image of you is probably not what your image of yourself is, so you need to be aware of that. If you don’t understand this difference in perception, you cannot be a great CEO.

Your Perspective vs. Their Perspective

You see yourself as a typical business person, not much different than anyone else. You hang out with people like yourself, so everything seems quite “normal” to you. But look at it from the perspective of the people who work for you. They see a person who is in charge; someone who founded and built a company (or was brought in to run it). You make more money than they do. You probably drive a really nice car and wear an expensive watch. You are going to business lunches and traveling all over the USA or internationally for meetings. You are busy negotiating deals, giving speeches, attending important meetings offsite, and handing out awards and bonuses. Your signature is on their paychecks.

If you don’t think that presents a certain image to your employees, then you are blind. They have an image of a person who has put his/her stamp on the company, and of someone who is important, in charge, and successful. Most of them know they could never start a company and grow it, or do many of the things that you do so well. Believe it or not, they look up to you. They watch everything that you do, and you are setting the example for them. Don’t allow yourself to fall into complacency, believing that they see you like “one of them.” Because they don’t, no matter how much they say they do, or how much you try to be one of them.

Your influence on them is far beyond what you think it is. They will emulate you. They will worry if you seem distant or troubled. The part you play as CEO is crucial to their success. They need to know you are involved, interested, and thoughtful. Culture starts at the top, so that means that you, as the very top person in the organization, set the tone for everyone else. Don’t underestimate the impact your image has on your staff. Always be cognizant of the way they see you and act accordingly.

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Why Do You Have To Be The Smartest Guy In The Room?

One of the curses of being a CEO is that we think we know more than everyone else. Although we deny this over and over again, and we make bold statements such as “I always hire people smarter than me,” or “I surround myself with people who know more than I do,” the reality is that we don’t act that way. I have worked with dozens of CEOs who claimed they deferred to their better educated, more informed staff, yet demonstrated a disregard for their staff’s ideas by always trying to add value.

How Does One “Add Value”?

Adding value is when we take a person’s idea and try to make it better by adding our own contribution to it. We simply can’t resist making their idea even better!

Here is how it works: Your VP of marketing comes into your office with a recommendation to increase the advertising budget to include some new website ads. You look her right in the eye and say “That’s a great idea…but you know what would make it even better? Let’s do such and such….”

Basically, you just told her that her idea was crap, and that you have a better idea, or at least that’s how she sees it. How do you think she feels about herself, about the job she’s doing, and about how you see her? If you want people to stop bringing you good ideas, then crush their spirit by telling them how to make them better.

Taking A Step Back

It’s funny, but we just seem compelled to do this. We have to take every idea, concept, and recommendation, and improve upon it. Yet we brag about how we hire such smart people. If they’re so smart, why do we keep “helping” them with our input?

As a CEO, there are times when you have to keep your mouth shut, even when you really believe an idea can be improved upon. Let the person enjoy their moment. Allow them the opportunity to present something and have it stand on its own. There is plenty of time later to “tweak” it. And if you are really good at what you do, you can find ways to suggest improvements and have your staff think it was their idea. Here are a few recommendations on how to improve an idea without you directly adding your own value to it:

  • You can hold a meeting with several others and ask the group to discuss and enhance the idea.
  • You can have committees or working groups that review ideas and discuss how to implement them.
  • You can even ask the person who came up with the idea to go back and come up with two or three ways to improve it (there is always something else that can be thought of, even by the original author or inventor).

The lesson here is that your desire to add value to another person’s idea might make you feel good, but it makes the other person feel crushed. Hold back, bite your tongue, and let your people have their moment to bask in the sun. There are other opportunities to improve the idea without your “contribution.”

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The Dangers of Favortism

Favoritism! I am amazed at how many times I hear a CEO or other C-level executive claim how much they hate “suck-ups” and “ass kissers,” yet see them reward that exact behavior. EVERYONE says they hate these kinds of employees, but they are embraced and treated as favorites. How can we say one thing, yet do another?

We claim that we want independent thinkers, people who can speak their minds and express their opinions, and people who challenge us. Yet, we push those very people away, and send them a clear message that we prefer a good suck-up over a person with an opinion that differs from ours. We love to play favorites! Why do we encourage the exact behavior we ridicule?

We tend to gravitate toward subordinates who make us feel good about ourselves, seem to like us, and compliment us. We hang out with them more than other employees. We reward them more often, and with better benefits, bonuses, and promotions. We brag about them to other employees, and we are more likely to show them support and attention in public. What kind of message does this send to the other employees, particularly the ones that are more challenging to us, and disagree with us on key issues?

The more you reward a behavior, the more of it you get. If sucking up is a way to get ahead and get positive feedback, people will do more of it, and the independent thinkers who would challenge us, tend to back off and become more fawning just to stay equal with the others. We have now built a team of servile, unthinking “yes men.” Do you think that’s going to make your company more successful? Hardly!

To be a great CEO, we need to be challenged. We need to hear differing opinions so we can make informed decisions. We need people to tell us the truth, not what we want to hear. And we need to know what our subordinates actually think of us.

To become a great CEO, you need to ask this question about your subordinates:
“Do their words and/or actions contribute to my self-esteem, or do they contribute to the success of the company?” The answer will be obvious.

If your employees are spending more time flattering you than working on important issues in your company, they are really doing you a disservice. You might feel good hearing such nice things about yourself or having consensus on every issue, but it’s doing nothing to solve problems or advance the company. The more we bask in praise, the weaker we become as leaders. We need to welcome challenge in order to strengthen ourselves. Only a weak leader is afraid to hear the truth.