The Path

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One day long ago, a calf decided to cross a thick forest to return to its pasture. Not knowing where it was going, it forged a twisted, confusing path full of turns that went up and down hills. The next day, a dog came by and used the same path to cross the forest. Then, a sheep took the same path, which was followed by its fellow flock, and various other animals.

Later, a group of travelers came along and decided to take the path that was well worn. They went left, right, around deviating obstacles, and complained about the terrible path the entire way, but did nothing to create an alternate route. After many years, travelers continued along that same, well-worn path, each time taking three hours to cover a distance that would normally take 30 minutes had they forged a smarter path.

Here’s the way I see it: Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best, “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.”

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What Leadership Really Means in the Era of Working Remotely

ThinkstockPhotos-614419830.jpgMore employees are working remotely than ever before. According to research conducted by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, roughly 50% of the workforce in the United States holds a job that is “compatible” with at least partial telework. Of those people, about 20 to 25% of them actually do work remotely at some frequency.

More than that, a further 80 to 90% say that they would really like to work remotely at least part time – pointing to a trend that is only going to get more popular as time goes on.

Employees who are all able to work from home (or wherever they’d like, really) sounds fantastic… if you’re an employee. But what if you’re an employer? More than that, what if you’re a leader? How do you continue to do your job of bringing people together to benefit the greater good if they’re all spread out over a potentially massive geographic area?

The Job Hasn’t Changed…

The “good news” is that the leadership qualities required to steer any organization towards success have not changed, nor are they likely to ever do so. You still need to be an excellent communicator, making sure that everyone is on the same page, that they know what “success” looks like, and that they all still feel like they’re contributing to something much more powerful and important than themselves.

You still need to be willing to lead by example, never asking someone to do something that you’re unwilling to do yourself. You still need to inspire people to give their all not because their paychecks depend on it, but because they just can’t help themselves.

… But the Tools Have

Things have changed, however. In terms of communication, for example, you need to be willing to adapt your process to rely less on face-to-face interaction and more on the digital resources that you have available to you. Collaborating on a project no longer involves sitting in the same room and hammering out ideas. Now, it’ll involve using some cloud-based solution to give everyone editing access to the same files at the same time.

This type of thing will require an adjustment from your perspective, but it is one that is undoubtedly worth making. Typical telecommuters tend to be much happier with their jobs than people forced to come into the office every day, which will directly affect both productivity and work quality in a positive way. 73% of telecommuters say that they’re more satisfied with their company than they’ve ever been before. Most of them work more than 40 hours per week. They also tend to work harder to create a friendly, cooperative, and positive work environment – something that you’re also trying to do by being the best leader you can be.

In truth, how you’re able to change your management style to keep up with the demands of the modern telecommuting workforce will go a long way towards deciding what type of leader you’ll be today, tomorrow, five years from now, and beyond.

Why Does Elon Musk Want Dissenters in his Company?

ThinkstockPhotos-615829998.jpgIn many companies and organizations, there is a position that most employees learn to avoid. It’s the position that stands out from the crowd and represents the minority voice on the team. Instead, folks learn to see which way the water is flowing and the music is playing, and they align their interests and concerns accordingly. It’s often couched in phrasing as “being a team player” and being a “proactive player instead of a negative burden” or similar.

Elon Musk, the well known chief executive of SpaceX which just recently solved how to create a space rocket that can land itself and be reused again, follows a different path with his employees. He actually wants people to tell him when they think he’s going down the wrong path. As Musk puts it, the lone dissenter or minority voice often points out issues and facts that if ignored can turn into costly problems later on. However, if a company team only follows the majority path, it can quickly turn into the fatal path of groupthink and “yes” men, ignoring major warning signs a big disaster is about to occur.

The Reward Dissenters Bring

Elon Musk and SpaceX are no strangers to risk. They operate in the high stakes game of off-Earth space transport and travel. A mistake in this environment has almost always meant total loss and millions of dollars wasted. So from Musk’s perspective, a dissenting voice provides multiple benefits. It forces the supported path to be defended better by showing why the concern raised is not an issue, a form of vetting before moving forward. Second, the minority opinion frequently brings up risks or concerns that may be glossed over otherwise because they are inconvenient to the supported path. Again, the biggest business mistakes often start with small, ignored issues, like a small leak in a levee.

The idea of rewarding the person who raises potential problems goes against the trend of American business. For decades business managers have been taught that the team is all-powerful and that many minds in synergy produce more than the individual alone. However, this also assumes a lot of mistakes are made along the way to develop that experience. In rocket-building, however, mistakes can’t be tolerated, so Musk believes in asking every question and giving a chance for dissent, an antithesis to traditional corporate culture.

Think This Doesn’t Apply to You? Think Again

Some might argue that the same situation of a rocket company doesn’t apply to a business creating software or coffee-makers. Businesses can afford to have mistakes and still make sales. However, in practice, this logic fails when the company gets sued and loses a major product warranty or personal injury case. Litigation has killed more than one small or medium business with a great product or service but no defense to a mistake that harms someone.

Musk doesn’t believe every dissenting opinion should be followed. In fact, he notes in his advice they can be incorrect. However, listening causes the path chosen to be analyzed just a bit further to identify weaknesses missed. And in Musk’s business, if it exists, avoiding that weakness can mean his multi-million dollar rocket landing again in one piece. What does it potentially mean for your company?

Why Educated Confidence Will Carry You Far In Business

ThinkstockPhotos-472675690.jpgTo say that confidence is an important quality for a business leader to have is an understatement. At any given time, your employees are going to be looking to you to make decisions and provide insight. They need to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you’re confident in the actions you’re taking. You need to know that you’ve given serious thought to the long, often difficult road ahead of you and that you’re making the right move for the right task at the right time. If people can see that you believe in yourself, in your business, and what you’ve worked so hard to build, they’ll start to believe in those things, too.

But something many people often don’t realize until it’s far too late is that “confidence” and “educated confidence” are NOT the same thing.

What is Educated Confidence?

Trust, belief, faith, conviction – these are all among the most essential ingredients that go into creating a confident leader. But one of the most important is also one of the ones that is rarely mentioned – humility. Humility allows you to acknowledge that even though you’re a leader, you’re still just one small cog in a much bigger machine. A living, breathing machine with a life of its own – one that is much more powerful than any one individual working within it, even when that person is yourself.

In many ways, educated confidence is all about slightly adjusting your perspective to account for your own limitations. You need to be confident in the fact that you’re not always going to have the right answer to every problem you face. And that’s okay – because you’re also confident in the people around you and you know that you’ll get through it together like you always do.

You need to be confident in the fact that you are going to make mistakes as a business leader – probably a lot of them, in fact. But this is something that you welcome because you’re also confident in your ability to learn the right lessons from these mistakes and strengthening yourself and your entire organization in the process.

It’s All About the Decisions

It has been said in the past that leadership essentially comes down to your ability to make decisions – but this is only one small part of a much larger story. It’s also about your ability to see those decisions through the lens of all possible consequences, both good and bad.

An overly self-confident leader often becomes one that people follow because their paychecks depend on it, not necessarily because they want to. We’ve all had these types of bosses – the people who are experts at delegating responsibility (read: barking orders) but who always seem to disappear when those proverbial chickens come home to roost.

A leader armed with the power of educated confidence, however, is someone that people follow because they just can’t help themselves. They acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers and they likely never will, but that’s okay – because “we’re all in this together.” It’s the idea that just because you’re a leader doesn’t mean that you’re always right – and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Educated confidence is that little voice inside your head that says “maybe I should get a second, or third, opinion on this, as this is definitely outside of my wheelhouse.” It’s a voice that you shouldn’t try to stifle or tamp down, resist or ignore.

Instead, you need to give that educated, confident little voice a megaphone.

Why Patience is One of the Most Important Qualities a Leader Can Have

ThinkstockPhotos-624713098.jpgThe chasm between a leader and a great leader is a deep one. It is one that is often filled with qualities like clarity, decisiveness, courage, passion, and a healthy amount of humility given the circumstances.

But one of the major qualities that is essential to leadership that people don’t talk about nearly enough is patience. When patience is practiced wisely, it can have a dramatic effect on your entire organization from the top down.

The Ripple Effect of Patience

In general, patience is more important than just being willing to wait for results. Yes, all people are different and employees need to be given room to move at their own pace for the sake of quality. But, the true benefit of patience runs much deeper.

First and foremost, patience shows respect in a way that also encourages productivity at the same time. If you’re the type of leader who delegates responsibility but then spends hours each day telling people to “hurry up” or to “get things moving,” ultimately all you’re really doing is creating frustration or fear in an environment where you can afford neither.

Being willing to wait for someone to work at their own pace shows an employee that you value their overall contribution to the larger organization. You didn’t just choose any person for this job; you chose the right person for the right job. Sometimes, that takes a little more time than you’d like, but that is perfectly fine. Patience is also an important acknowledgment that every person progresses at a different pace. If you’re up in arms every time someone takes a little more time to complete a task, what you’re doing is communicating that they’re not as good as someone else when given the same responsibility.

Patience Also Says a Lot About You, Too

Being patient with others isn’t just about your employees – it also speaks volumes about you. When you’re constantly working from a place of “I needed this yesterday,” all you’re doing is artificially inflating the stakes of the business you’re trying to run. You’re not making considerate decisions; you’re making ones fueled by little more than raw emotion and a ticking clock.

Patience shows that you’re the type of leader willing to stop and let things breathe for a moment. It shows that you’re willing to listen and consider all variables before making a thoughtful judgment about what to do next. It shows that you’re not the type of person to make snap decisions that you’ll later regret and that your employees shouldn’t be willing to settle for that, either.

These are just a few of the many reasons why patience is one of the most important qualities a leader can have. It’s also important to remember that you need to be patient with yourself. Patience is a virtue, yes, but it’s also something of a discipline. You’ll need to acknowledge the importance of patience and the role it plays in your business so that you can grow into the type of leader who no longer has to make an effort to be patient with others. Instead, it will become an afterthought.

Indra Nooyi: A Story in Being Yourself and Persistence

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Have you ever heard of Indra Nooyi? Maybe not, but you’ve probably bought her product at one time or another in the past year. Ms. Nooyi is the CEO of Pepsi-Co., the makers of the popular and well-known Pepsi soda brand. However, her position at Pepsi is not necessarily what is the most amazing fact of her story. Granted, reaching the status of being a Fortune 500 company CEO is huge and significant, but how Ms. Nooyi got her start is the real story. That’s because she risked everything with no safety net to fall back on.

Some Compelling Advice

Indra Nooyi came to the U.S. like so many other great minds, arriving as a student immigrant. Ms. Nooyi jumped to a slot in Harvard’s master’s degree program in business. However, graduating wasn’t her biggest challenge. It was translating her academic success into a result:  getting a job. Ms. Nooyi’s first real interview was total failure – no connection, no rhythm, no job. However, she received a piece of advice from a professor that Ms. Nooyi has carried forward since then to her role as a CEO. She was told to simply “be herself.”

Ms. Nooyi clearly took the advice she received to heart. Not only has she been herself as intelligent, smart, persistent, and daring, she has also scored an enviable position of 75 percent plus support by her own employees worldwide. See if you can find a politician with as much support even when winning a national election.

What Makes A Person Successful?

For business owners and leaders, the lesson from Ms. Nooyi is to never forget what really makes a person successful. It’s not the suit, it’s not the past laurels, and it’s not the school degree. What makes the difference that catches people’s attention and gets their support is one’s personal confidence and persistence. Ms. Nooyi gambled everything with not just coming to the U.S. to succeed but to also establish herself in a highly competitive arena: business consulting. Had she failed, Ms. Nooyi would have had to return back to India and likely would have disappeared into a vast number of IT companies there; everything for her was on the line. But she persisted. And Ms. Nooyi, with her new advice on being herself, was quickly hired. That in turn became her path to eventually becoming Pepsi-Co.’s latest CEO.

A Better Choice

Business leaders trying to keep a company going will at some point face a challenge where everything has to be put on the line to get to the next level. Many don’t take that leap. It’s too risky, it’s too costly, or it’s too unknown. Yet from Ms. Nooyi’s example, the last thing anyone should be doing is trying hard to fake their way through the issue. Be yourself. Trust your skills and trust your gut to make the right the decision. That’s what got a person to a leadership role in the first place, so why should he or she be any different at the moment that counts the most? Risk, responsibilities, fears of what-if can all combine to make someone think behaving differently may be the best path forward. Clearly, from Ms. Nooyi’s example, there’s a better choice.

A Leadership Ethics Lesson Courtesy of a Leeson

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Although ethical behavior in business is often touted, it can be hard to attain in practice. That’s because ethical behavior has to be practiced by every individual, every day. It’s not the sort of thing that can be decided upon and implemented en masse. Leaders are often under particular pressure to be practical over ethical. The reasoning is often because hard decisions require frequent compromise, and ethics often come across as black-and-white perspectives that don’t match the reality facing a decision-maker.

A Virtue You Can’t Afford to Ignore

However, ignoring ethics can be a dangerous path. Nick Leeson provides a very vivid example of this. His name is well known in financial circles as the man who single-handedly put the Singapore financial markets into a panic and brought down one of Britain’s most famous banks.

Leeson got his start early in banking as a clerk in 1985. At first, Leeson seemed to be a success. However, he began quickly playing outside the rules, and because he was bringing in big profits, Barings Bank ignored the risks.

By 1992, trades started going bad. Leeson packed the losses into a technical account originally designed as a dummy account for accounting errors. No one noticed, so he continued on his unethical path of hiding losses repeatedly. The tipping point came in January 1995 when Leeson placed a big trade between the Singapore and Japanese markets. Not expecting a major earthquake in Japan to throw both markets into a tailspin, Leeson realized the gig was up and went into hiding. Barings Bank folded a few weeks later owing £827 million in losses, and eventually, Leeson went to prison.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Interestingly, following good ethics not only avoids situations like Leeson’s, but it also works as a defense for a business leader. The adage, “actions speak louder than words” is true for ethics as well. Ethical behavior not only keeps employees behaving on the right side of the law, but it also gives managers and leaders incentive to work for more than just the bottom line. Ethics can incorporate greater goodwill for the community a business operates in, safety protection of employees and customers, market protection from unscrupulous players, and far better interaction with the government and regulators. All of which, in turn, help a company see a larger bottom line.

No question, the ethical path isn’t always the easiest. However, leaders of companies and organizations need to remember that good ethics involve more than just an individual perspective; by the very nature of their role, top managers affect all of the organization and set an example for staff to follow and the community to model after. Good ethics can be far more than just a set of rules; it can be a powerful marketing/communication tool positively setting a business apart in the market from competitors and creating the long-term foundation for customer retention.