Despite the bitter Chicago cold, wind, ice, and snow (sounds appealing doesn’t it!?), there is something energizing about this time of year. January is a fresh start. A blank slate. But also a time to apply lessons learned. It’s easy to jump back into the daily grind without first reflecting on what actually happened the previous year to set a strong foundation for growth in the year ahead.
There were a lot of moving parts that made up our year at the Association of Interim Executives. Thousands of conversations with owners and executives, further development of the Rapid Executive Deployment program, our first interim executive annual conference and more. While those developments were visible signs of progress, there were underlying themes that helped serve as a driving force.
Here are 5 things I learned from owners, entrepreneurs and other brilliant minds:
Many companies are starved for effective leadership, and as a result the demand for great interim executives who will come in and do the work is increasing. Consider this passage from the book Traction:
The inability to make a business vision a reality is epidemic. Consider it a new take on an old quote: Vision without traction is merely hallucination. All over the world, business consultants frequently conduct multiple-day strategic planning sessions and charge tens of thousands of dollars for teaching what is theoretically great material. The downside is that after making you feel warm and fuzzy about your direction, these same consultants rarely teach you how to bring your vision down to the ground and make it work in the real world.
I was travelling recently near Guanajuato, Mexico, to the small village of Santa Rosa de Lima, population 3000. We visited a cooperative run by five local women called Conservas Santa Rosa. This company was founded in 1998 with support from the government, which sought to exploit natural resources such as wild fruits produced without fertilizers. They started making strawberry jam by hand for the local communities and now have a contract to supply a national restaurant. With this growth they have raised the standard of living of over fifty families and are now sending their children to school. They have been recognized by the UN as a successful rural productive project.
40 years in public company management, merchant banking and entrepreneurship in multiple industries has left an indelible imprint on me. In the two dozen businesses that I have been involved with as owner, investor, operator or contractor, my belief is that businesses that seek outside help tend to focus on fixes for weaknesses in growth or profitability. Whether it be failing or non-existent cash flow, troubled industries, poor strategic fits, etc. my belief is that the damage was done far before the negative symptoms occurred. Operating and financial weaknesses are the symptoms of the larger illness.
The root cause is always about two factors: people and leadership. A leader creates the culture for his company and that culture is palpable at every level of involvement including the C-suite, middle management, rank and file, customers and suppliers.
One of my early mentors inspired me to restart, after each painful management lesson, by paraphrasing the following excerpt from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1915 speech at the Sorbonne.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the one who points out how the strong stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if one fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that one’s place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I once took one of those business simulation courses. In it, we were given a computer terminal, an inbox, and a walkie-talkie. Our simulated company, Acme Widget, was said to be in trouble, and the point of the exercise was to evaluate our crisis management skills. There was a team of psychologists who were looking for leadership and other soft skills that might help us do well during a pressure-filled day.
The fellow who had been chosen as simulated CEO of our team was an up-and-coming executive in a Fortune 100 company. He was clearly acting as CEO in the exercise because his company had indicated he had so much potential.
The psychologists asked the “CEO” to give his motivational speech as the simulation began.
The CEO said, “Our job is to grow revenue faster than expense. Now get to work!”
That was it.
Would it surprise you to hear that Acme Widgets did not survive the simulated crisis? The emails flew, the disasters proliferated, and the team fell apart. I thought then, and I still believe, that the CEO’s speech could have made a big difference in how our team performed.
Turnaround & Workouts magazine named your firm one of the top 12 outstanding turnaround management firms in the country, twice. How did you do that?
This award is usually given to firms based on their growth, we stood out with our case work. We are unique from the standpoint that we are very nimble and flexible and can respond quickly to a company’s needs. We think it’s far more important to build a team within the corporation, therefore build value, because unless we do that, once we leave, so do our resources.
Is that unique?
That is in contrast to the major consulting firms that want to put in 10, 20, or 50 people at their rates into a particular company. What we want to do is use the people that are within the company. We want to bring employees to the next level, hire a full permanent management team, and make sure that plans are in place so that the business can continue when we leave.
I’m often asked what makes a great leader; it’s one of the foundational elements of my practice. There are a myriad of agreed-upon traits in the business world that we use to define leadership “greatness” — things like vision, decisiveness, persuasion, communication, and charisma. These are doubtless important and relevant attributes, but as I’ve walked alongside several leaders in pursuit of organizational excellence over the years, I have come to believe that the foremost characteristic in any leader’s arsenal is courage.
Courage is defined as ‘the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.’
There is a corrosion character in our society. The post World War II ethic of loyalty, honesty and commitment has long disappeared. While the current goal-centered individualism has contributed significantly to our entrepreneurial environment, one that is more creative and interesting, it has resulted in significant social and economic instability. Are loyalty, security and ethics casualties of our times?
The news continues to be replete with examples, including our governing Congress that has lost all sense of civility.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville commented that the love of wealth is the motivation for all Americans. This need to accumulate took on more significance and covered more segments of our society as our economy grew. He also suggested that we are better at spending than other peoples. As a result, our greed seems to have undermined the concern for others’ human condition. It is important to note that greed and ambition are vastly different. Without boundaries, greed often infects beyond an individual to poison the entire body upon which an institution is built.