In my many years of business, I have often seen, firsthand, how vital leadership is. It can turn a losing team into a winner and, it is important to note, it can turn a winning team into a losing one. But nowadays there is so much competition that being a “good leader” is not enough. At least it is not enough if you want to truly drive your company to the top.
There are more leadership books out there and advice on the subject than you will ever be able to grasp. So, what should we do?
My advice: listen to the actual corporate leaders, not to people that merely theorize on the topic. In real corporate life, few things are yes or no; black or white; all or none. In real life, you will seldom have all the facts to make a decision and, as even legendary executive Jack Welch conceded, sometimes you will have to decide with your gut.
Sure, the “gut” of a highly experienced business leader is quite refined and can process enormous amounts of (conflicting) information to allow him or her to make the “right” decision. But to paraphrase Vin Learson, a former IBM CEO: “During his business career, an executive will make tons of decisions. Some will be easy: 90-10; 80-20; 70-30. However, now and then the decisions will be 48-52 or 52-48. In these cases, the most important thing is not making the right decision but making the decision right.”
Advice received from consultants tends to be elegant but impractical. Advice from CEOs tends to inelegant but more effective. Because this is the real world. This is not guru land. Here on Earth you don’t even know all the variables (let alone understand them). But as a business leader you not only have to set the direction but also inspire a large or very large organization to follow you.
You will never find that only one thing is happening for you to invest all of your attention. In real life, dozens, maybe hundreds of things are happening at the same time and you will not be able to optimally address each one of them. It does not matter. Learn to prioritize and make decisions. It will never be perfect, but if you move faster than the competition you will stay ahead.
So, let’s cut to the chase and talk about the things that make corporate leadership worthwhile.
But first, a disclaimer: nothing here (or anywhere else you may find it) is copy – paste. You must do your homework. Nothing is easy. Everything must be adapted for you and your organization. Not everything works everywhere and not everything works for all leaders. You are unique, your organization is unique. Know thyself, dive deep and think. Oh, and you will need lots of energy. High level corporate leadership is only for those that are “fit.” You must set the rate, intensity and direction of the whole enterprise.
Also, if “everybody” is doing what you are doing, then you are on your way to irrelevance. It is only a matter of time.
So, let’s talk about some key points.
Management vs. Leadership
The management versus leadership debate centers on a false dichotomy. You must be both all the time. Sure, sometimes you will be 70 percent leader and 30 percent manager and sometimes it will be the other way around. However, there is no way you will be successful by being a “pure” leader. There are budgets to meet, sales quotas to achieve, government regulations with which to comply. “Leadership” is the sexy thing, but you will also have to perform competently on the nitty gritty, everyday details. Sometimes “great” leaders lead a company to bankruptcy so… be careful.
The “Vision” Word
Corporate “vision” has gone in and out of style. Tons of C-Levels’ time is spent creating elegant, grammatically correct, idealized vision statements… and it ends up not relating to anybody in the organization or outside of it. No! Forget about elegance. Craft something that can at least mildly inspire the troops… every day. And yes, it must be very simple. It must be very visual. And yes, you, the CEO or general manager should continually hammer it into the organization. This is not something you paint on the wall and forget. You mention it all the time with essentially everybody. You mention it until you yourself are sick and tired of hearing it. But you must be (or at least seem) as enthusiastic about it each time. Imbue life into it. This is what energizes the troops; not the “maintain total return on assets at a minimum of 11.7 percent during the next five years.”
Few words cause more fear in corporate life, than “innovation.” So, let us first clarify something. You are not Steve Jobs. Sorry for being blunt. If you were Steve Jobs, you would be in Silicon Valley or elsewhere convincing venture capitalists to launch your unicorn. So no, that is not the type of innovation we are talking about. With few exceptions, corporate innovation is about doing things a little bit faster, a little bit cheaper, a little bit better (yes, some call this continuous improvement but the word innovation is more sexy, so I encourage you to use it). When a company has hundreds or thousands of people continually innovating in this way, it becomes unstoppable. But how do you transform your entire enterprise into an innovation machine?
We once asked this question to a highly successful CEO and his answer was: “It is their job!”
In other words, during their annual performance review, innovation has a substantial weight. If they do not innovate one year, fine. If they do not innovate a second year, they are fired. No wonder his company is a well-oiled innovation machine.
Management by Wandering Around
MBWA (Management by Wandering Around) is a concept coined many decades ago at HP. As a leader, you must be in the game. With the first line employees, with customers, with clients, with suppliers, with the union (if you have one), even with competitors. You must be someone that loves people (or at least likes them). If the best moment of your day is not when you greet new employees, then this leadership thing is probably not your life calling. And this MBWA must be done with lots of positive energy. You are there to kindle fires, lots of them (just remember not to burn down the building). How many people do you “touch” and inspire in your working day?
Motivation vs. Inspiration
Maybe there is some overlap among them, but I will let the psychologists argue about that. We do not have time so let’s stick to the point. Here are some examples:
- Motivation: You are doing a great job with this project.
- Inspiration: We are having a big impact in reducing child malnutrition globally and your job is key in sustaining this effort. Let me tell you why.
Motivation can be gone in 20 minutes; inspiration can last a lifetime.
Thank you for reading and keep an eye out for more advice “straight from the horse’s mouth.” In the meantime, let us just underline that in business, leadership is not the most important thing, leadership is everything.