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LEADERS: FIND PITFALLS BEFORE THEY FIND YOU

May 12th, 2017
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Does it always take an extraordinary life changing event for leaders to make fundamental changes that result in better lives for them, their families, their employees and the community?

The narrative of transformation and finding new purpose is as old as time. The biblical accounts of Moses, St. Paul and stories of the path to enlightenment for the Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad were examples of unexpected callings to follow radically different courses in life that have had profound impacts on the world.

For most of us, the moments when time and circumstances presents life altering choices of this magnitude are rare and dictated by outside events which we don’t control. More often, they result from failure and loss.

Learning from life’s misfortunes

The death of a child or a spouse are terrible experiences. From this anguish often comes insights that can help you to recover from tragic loss and to find new purpose. Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg recently released a book with psychologist Adam Grant (Option B) about her grieving process after her husband’s sudden death while on a family holiday and what she learned. Sandberg doubted that she could ever recover. But she did and found untapped sources of strength, resilience and empathy for others. She credits this experience with becoming a better parent, friend and business leader.

Would you accept these gifts if the price was not so steep? Of course! Unfortunately, the people who would benefit most are often unaware that they are on a path to failure and ignore others trying to alert them.

Take for example Travis Kalanick, Uber’s hard-charging Founder and CEO. A social media post showing him and an Uber driver having an epithet filled argument over fees raised has questions about his suitability to lead the startup valued at $70 billion. Afterwards, he admitted publicly that his immature behavior was hurting Uber and promised to immediately recruit a COO to provide adult leadership to steer the ride hailing giant back on track.

Whether this is the epiphany that transforms Kalanick’s perspective on life and leadership is yet to be seen. Hopefully, it will because his company is in crisis. Top senior managers have left. Female staffers have gone public with accounts of sexual harassment. Will Kalanick takes steps to lead Uber out of the crisis? Only time will tell.

Start looking for pitfalls when all is well

In reality, harsh experiences like disgrace and rejection may be the best motivators for transformative change. Pitfalls do happen – even to the best of leaders. Each of us has blind spots. A crisis can emerge from what we don’t know, coincidence and just plain bad luck. But we can take steps to improve our odds by finding our blind spots. Here’s a list of things you can do:

Take stock of your key business relationships – We know relationships are critical to success. Ask yourself tough questions about the quality of your key relationships. Do you get along and work well with other senior managers? Board directors? Staff? Investors? Major customers? Are you on the same page on strategy and other priorities? Do you surround yourself, professionally and personally, by people like you? Are you receptive to ‘honest’ critique and feedback? Are you truly open to new ideas and concepts? How globally fluent are you? When was the last time you took an analytical look at the cause/effect of your decision-making? This list can go on and demands an objective look inside – both in your leadership and management style. Even when everything seems to be going well, there can be problems building just below the surface and hidden by a leader’s blind spots. Especially in today’s world, problems and challenges are not isolated but are blended problem-sets, which often transform with each decision.

Don’t be the last one to know – You need to get honest feedback from your key business relationships. Asking a question like “How am I doing as a CEO?” of board director would likely get an honest response. The same question directed at an employee would likely get a perfunctory “Oh, Just fine” answer. Don’t forget the inherent difference in power and influence in the boss/employee relationship. Instead, solicit advice on one of your business challenges. For example, “I am having trouble figuring out better ways to improve customer relations. What could we do better?” If they feel safe and that this is an honest effort to involve them in problem solving, they will likely be more willing to answer other questions about the state of affairs at the company. Above all, leave the comfort zone of your office and go personally to the shop floor/ customer if you really want to know.

Prioritize problems and develop a plan to address them – Congratulate yourself for being courageous. It’s not easy to listen to criticisms, especially about your own performance. But getting insights on possible deal breaking problems is worth every bruise to your ego. If several important issues have surfaced, you need to prioritize what gets done first. For example, potential resignations of key staff because of differences in strategic direction or an ailing corporate culture. Here again, get help from trusted advisors and key staff on what issues to prioritize and their assistance in developing a plan of action.

Use a team approach to address problems – The buck stops with the Founder/CEO to address major problems. But the CEO will need the support and involvement of other managers, employees and board members that have credibility with the company’s key stakeholders, including employees, their families, board members, and major customers. A lot of pent up frustration and anger could surface, especially if a Founder/CEO is at the source of a problem. The direct participation of trusted stakeholders in the discussion on company problems and the process of finding solutions will have a better chance of success.

The lessons here are five-fold. 1) Never take anything for granted. The appearance of calm waters on the surface gives no indication of building turbulences below. 2) Build trust. Honest feedback comes from people who trust you, not fear you because you are the boss. 3) Be humble. This will be hard for business leaders who feel they must always have answers to everything. 4) Leave your ego at the door. Asking for advice and listening can produce good ideas and good will. Don’t wait for the call to make change. 5) Lead the effort.

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