Leading by Example: Walking Your Talk … Under a Magnifying Glass

Why don’t my people just do what I say?

It’s a common refrain among my executive clients. Life at the top would be so much easier, if only “they” would “get it.”

In fact, your employees probably _are _doing what you say. You just may be saying things you don’t intend. It’s often not your broad proclamations that give direction; it’s the little things you do that have the biggest impact.

Your actions encourage and discourage behavior

Remember when you were a front-line employee. Executives’ actions were relentlessly scrutinized. A late arrival, a smile, or a nod could introduce chaos. A CEO I worked with was looking over his marketing department’s latest campaign. He frowned at a storyboard before strolling away.

Unknown to him, the team saw the frown, scrapped the campaign, and spent the weekend reworking everything from the ground up. When he found out, he was flabbergasted. He never thought a simple frown would change the team’s direction.

Your reactions to employees and their work will send signals. Remember this! If you notice yourself frowning or smiling, nodding or shaking your head when it may send the wrong message, stop. Think about the message you may have sent, and say or do whatever it takes to make sure your audience knows your intent.

Watch your words, too. A joke may not be a joke. A consulting firm’s Managing Director smiled and quipped “Remember, if you’re not here Sunday, don’t bother coming in Monday.” He was smiling. Everyone knew he was joking. And as one team member later told me, “I felt like I had to come in Sunday. Sure, he was joking. But he’s the Managing Director. Maybe it’s not 100% a joke.”

You lead by demonstration

Of course, the Managing Director was there Sunday, thus insuring everyone would know weekend appearances are mandatory. Your actions will, by demonstration, always be the most significant way you communicate standards of behavior and priorities to your company. The Managing Director cared deeply that his people have an outside life, and said so on many occasions. But his coming in on weekends spoke louder than his words in signaling acceptable behavior.

What you don’t do also matters

What you don’t say out loud, the actions you don’t acknowledge, and the signs you don’t show send powerful messages, as well. The messages sent by omission are harder to detect. After all, there‘s nothing there to examine! But there are things your employees might expect that aren’t forthcoming.

If you don’t acknowledge people, it can send a message that you don’t value their contribution. Different people need different acknowledgment. For some, it’s public recognition. For others, it may simply be mentioning “Hey, you did a really great job.”

If you don’t give feedback when someone does a poor job, you send the message that their performance is fine. If someone is screwing up, they deserve to know as early as possible. Otherwise, they’ll walk away with a message that does neither of you any good.

Common courtesy is increasingly rare, and its absence communicates a subtle lack of respect or lack of individual concern. A simple “Please,” or “Thank you” with a smile and direct eye contact takes only a couple of seconds. If you don’t have time even for that, then people will (rightly!) conclude they aren’t important enough to warrant your attention.

Making decisions in isolation quickly lets people know you don’t trust them. I have worked with companies in which the senior managers are very open with their big decisions, and other companies in which “we can’t tell them that” is a common refrain. As far as I can tell, involvement signals faith that your employees have something of value to contribute. When that involvement is missing, the message of distrust is loud and clear.

Not sharing bad news sends the message that everything is fine. It’s easy to keep bad news quiet, for fear of hurting morale. But framing bad news as a reason to rally builds a team instead of breaking it down. Shared challenge is the stuff of bonding. Use it!

A Great Business Leader Knows His Impact

Matsushita, one of history’s most successful businessmen, knew the impact he had on everyone around him. As this story shows1, he even appreciated the messages conveyed by what he didn’t do.

The father of $75 billion empire, Matsushita was revered in Japan with nearly as much respect and reverence as was the Emperor. And he was just as busy.

One day, Matsushita was to eat lunch with his executives at a local Osaka restaurant (Matsushita Leadership by John Kotter). Upon his entrance, people stopped to bow and acknowledge this great man. Matsushita honored the welcome and sat at a table selected by the manager.

Matsushita ate only half of his meal. He asked for the chef, who appeared in an instant, shaken and upset. The Great One nodded and spoke: “I felt that if you saw I had only eaten half of my meal, you would think I did not like the food or its preparation. Nothing could be less true. The food and your preparation of it were excellent. I am just old and can not eat as much as I used to. I wanted you to know that and to thank you personally.”

Concrete next steps

If you find yourself under the magnifying glass, here are ways of mastering the situation.

  1. Don’t get caught off guard. Schedule five minutes at the end of the day to review your day, note who you came in contact with, and simply ask yourself what messages you sent.

  2. Use the magnifying glass deliberately. At the start of the week, choose a message you want to communicate by example. Spend a moment or two identifying exactly where you can send the message, and how you have to behave to send it. Then do it.

  3. Check for messages of omission. During your daily review, ask yourself who you didn’t contact, but who might have expected it (you may not know who at first, but over time, you’ll learn). What message does the lack of contact send? What message will rumors of what you did do send to those who didn’t see/talk to you?

  4. Review company systems. To make sure you’re sending the same message as your company, review the systems once a year or so. Review your compensation plan: what does it communicate about company goals? What behavior does it encourage? Discourage? Review your decision making and feedback processes. Ask yourself if you’re omitting anyone or anything in those areas.

Communicate well!


  1. Matsushita story excerpted from Dr. Mark S. Albion’s Making-a-Life, Making-a-Living ML2 E-Newsletter #56. Free subscriptions and information on his New York Times Best Selling new book can be found at http://www.makingalife.com. ↩

More than one strategy is actually… no strategy at all.

Creating a strategy

My friend Carey’s business had stalled. Since I’m one of those people who loves to offer unasked-for advice (knowing the recipient will be eternally grateful), I offered some. “You need an overarching strategy,” I intoned, sagely. The unfathomable response, “Thanks, but no thanks. I already have lots of strategies.”

Lots of strategies? Hmm. You can’t have multiple overarching strategies at once. But Carey wouldn’t know that, because we’re never taught what a strategy is, or how to make sure you have a good one.

Do you have a strategy? For business? For life? Do you even need one? What is one?

Strategies Aren’t Tactics

People use “strategy” to mean a to-do item, but that’s not a strategy. That’s a tactic. Carey has 16 different products under development at once. Those aren’t 16 strategies; they’re 16 tactics.

A strategy is a directed plan you use to commit your time and action in a single direction. By aligning how you spend your time, your money, your resources, and your communication, you greatly increase your chances for success.

If Carey’s projects include designing a high-fashion clothing line for the Milan runway and opening a Veterinary Pet Grooming franchise, those will compete for time, attention, and dollars. When the clothing line needs another 5-gallon tub of sequins (I never said Carey had taste), that’s money that could have been spent on tick sponge-on. Neither business gets the full resources needed to insure success.

Set a Vision that Drives Your Work

Before you can create your strategy, you need to know where you want to end up. What’s the result the strategy is designed to produce? That’s the vision that drives your work.

Start your strategy by setting a compelling, substantive vision. A vision needs to be specific enough to use to make decisions. It needs to be general enough to allow flexibility in what you choose to do.

My friend Rowan’s vision is “to build a business.” That’s so vague that it could cover everything from fashion design to tick removal… and so it does.

But make it more specific, and it becomes a powerful guide. In an alternate universe where Rowan is capable of focus, the vision could become:

A business that helps pet owners keep their pets healthy 365 days a year[1].

This vision can be used to decide which product lines to enter, and to allow a range of options: tick treatment and nutritional consultation both fit. It can also be used to decide which product lines notto enter: high fashion that features too many sequins[2]. It’s just specific enough to guide a good strategy.

Create a Strategy Linking Your Goal to Your Reality

Now you have a vision. But while visions are great, they’re still too abstract for action. If a new Puppies R Us (We Sell ‘Em, You Care For ‘Em™) opened down the street from Rowan’s storefront, concentrating the business on dog care could be Rowan’s ticket to mansions and private planes. But if the new store is Spiders Galore: Unusual Pets for Unusual People, concentrating on the care and grooming of Brachypelma emilia might make the most sense.

Begin crafting your strategy by linking the vision to your current reality. Assess your resources — what you have a lot of, and what you’re short on. Assess your situation — outside forces that might help or hinder different courses of action. Create a high-level plan that uses your resources to move towards some way to realize your vision, given your current environment.

Rowan can take the pet health business vision, and link it to the things in real life that will make it happen.

Point tactics towards a vision to get the job done right. Then link it to reality.

If Rowan has home office space, an email list of pet owners, and a vast network of veterinarians, Rowan’s strategy could be to form an online pet care referral network. There could be an app, and a website, and a huge campaign to sign up hundreds of veterinarians from around the world.

If Rowan has a retail storefront near Puppies R Us, but no mailing list, the strategy could be to create in-person care for dogs and dog-related issues. Rowan could even propose a collaboration with Puppies R Us where Puppies promotes Rowan’s business and gets a referral fee.

These are two different strategies. Both lead towards the vision of “a business that helps pet owners keep their pets healthy year-round.”

Being in possession of the retail storefront, Rowan chooses the strategy of providing in-person dog-related care.

Keep Your Strategy Clear

Lastly, keep your chosen strategy clear and singular. You might have many tactics that comprise the strategy. Rowan can get the word out in many different ways: online banner ads, leaflets in the local community, and a Puppies R Us partnership. These are pretty different activities, but make no mistake: these aren’t strategies, they’re separate tactics supporting a single strategy.

By having only this one strategy, Rowan can now concentrate all resources on the storefront. If the opportunity comes up to run a nationwide banner ad, the explicit strategy tells Rowan what to do: say “no” to the ad; advertising a Springfield puppy health service in Skokie makes no sense.

Think Strategically Throughout Your Life

A strategy helps you make decisions about where to put your time, money, and attention. We’ve been exploring strategy in business, but you can apply strategic thinking to other areas of your life.

What is your vision for your life? For your family? Your Career? Spend some time forming your vision. Then look at today’s reality, and choose a strategy that will realize that vision as possible in your life today. You’ll get a lot more of what you want in life, and a lot less of whatever random the world throws at you. Then you can put your efforts into tactics that support your strategy.

A scattershot approach to success is a recipe for staying stuck. Avoid this by organizing your tactics and resources using a well-chosen strategy. Align it all in pursuit of the vision that inspires and energizes you, and you’ll soon be enjoying plenty of success, while still having time to stop and pet the puppies.


  1. Closed on February 29th.  ↩
  2. Lack of fit with the vision is only one reason not to enter that particular business.  ↩

The Internet will destroy commerce

Last week I wanted to buy product X, locally. I couldn’t. Every search phrase I could come up with took me to a custom site from a big company. “Widget, Miami, FL” didn’t go me Miami Florida local businesses, it gave me specially crafted, search engine optimized pages from Walmart.com, saying “Miami Widgets” on a domain that redirected to Walmart.com.

I rarely issue proclamations about the future, because I’ve noticed that my ability to predict trends is reasonable, but my ability to pick the timing of those trends sucks eggs. But let’s give it a shot:

Advertising-Supported Business Models Will Decline

The more that media companies and software companies and game companies rely on advertising as their primary revenue base, the more the supply of advertising spots will increase. Eventually, the supply will exceed the demand and, except for a few extremely high-traffic sites, ad prices will be driven down … because ads will become much less effective unless the advertiser has the time, money, and skill to do the detailed analytics needed to find the few venues where they get a positive ROI on their money.

This will drive a lot of the ad-supported businesses out of business, because they just don’t have the reach to be able to be one of the high-value ad space suppliers.

As Will All Businesses That Rely on Ads or Search for Customers

This will drive a lot of smaller businesses out of business, because those smaller businesses don’t have the resources to spend on marketing analytics, which will become necessary for finding the few advertising outlets that actually work for those small businesses. The marketing analytics will become a cost of being in the game.

In other words, the internet will drive us toward a more anemic economy where there are a few big-company winners, and those without the resources will lose.

(Essentially, the internet raises the playing field for everyone to the point where only big companies can survive.)

There will always be exceptions for specialty niches, but not for general commerce.

I hope I’m wrong, but I from what I see on the ground, it looks like a plausible scenario.

The ongoing joke that is Silicon Valley Privacy

SnapChat just revised their privacy policy. I decided to read it. It looked pretty good. Then I got to the section How We Use Your Information. How does SnapChat use the information? To provide services. To communicate with me. To monitor trends. And so on.

The final bullet point? Carry out any other purpose for which the information was collected.

In other words: SnapChat has no privacy policy, and places no limits on what they can (and presumably will) do with your information.

Google’s privacy policy is similar. It sounds really grand, but if you read it carefully, in critical areas it exempts Google from any actual restrain on behavior by including similar clauses to the SnapChat clause.

Please face it: Silicon Valley, that supposed bastion of libertarian respect for individual rights, is no such thing. It’s a collection of disingenuous, deceptive, liars who are happy to write multipage privacy policies for PR purposes, which have no teeth whatsoever.

Be very, very careful of anything you put on a computer you don’t own. And I’m sure that the license agreements we agree to when we buy our computers and install Windows or Mac OS X will contain similar escape clauses if they don’t already.

If a policy does not have genuine, real teeth (“Corporation agrees to pay $1,000 for every violation of our privacy policy”), then over time, all such policies that supposedly protect consumers will be eroded. It seems to be a natural law, and it makes me believe more and more in regulation. I would rather slow progress than have process come at the expense of the well-being of consumers. Business was invented to serve us, not the other way around.

Corporations seem to be nothing if not explicitly immoral. It is very sad to watch.

What’s your industry? The answer may surprise you.

The way people define industries is really quite interesting. I’ve once again been asked to be a judge for the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition. They asked what industries I’m comfortable commenting on. It’s a surprisingly hard question to answer, because it’s quite unclear what an “industry” is. Here are a sample of a few things that people call industries:

  • B2C internet
  • B2B internet
  • Health Care
  • Medical Devices
  • Energy
  • Financial Services

What makes these an industry? Is it that all members of the same industry share the same markets? Is it that all members of the same industry share the same employee skill sets? Is it that all members of the same industry produce the same kind of products?

Every definition I’ve tried has glaring exceptions, which makes me wonder whether thinking in terms of “industries” really makes as much sense as I’ve always assumed.

Perhaps it makes more sense to think in terms of:

  • companies/products who serve a given market
  • companies/products that require certain kinds of distribution
  • companies/products that require certain specialized knowledge on the part of employees

What do you think?

Please work for free. Not.

I’m sure you have never asked someone to work for free. But just in case you know someone who has—or if you’ve ever been asked—here’s the kind of thing you really should say.

Today I received this letter:

Hello Mr. Stever,

 

I am writing to you on behalf of XYZ, a non-profit, CSR project of ABC (a $4 billion conglomerate operating in 16 countries). … We bring together advisors and speakers from some of the top business schools in the world… we are committed to building local intellectual capital and leveraging a business model that ensures sustainability and relevant development opportunities to our present and future business leaders.

 

To begin a relationship, we would be interested in having you as one of the subject experts for our Webinars to conduct a live complimentary webinar on a topic of your choice, and also offer you to write exclusively on our blog<.

My response:

I find your request confusing. I am a professional, who has spent several hundred thousand dollars and several decades developing my expertise.

 

While I believe I might have valuable content to offer, the key word is “valuable.” You say that you are a project of a $4 billion conglomerate, yet your business procedure seems to be asking people such as myself to work for free. That doesn’t sound like partnership; that sounds like crass exploitation. You have the money to pay your vendors, you would just rather have them work for free.

 

That is not the kind of business practice I stand for or am interested in. If you are training entrepreneurs, it is a business practice you should object to as well—any entrepreneur who does not make sure they are well-paid for their product will quickly go out of business. I strongly suspect that neither you nor the CEO of your organization work for free. I can only follow your lead and decline your offer, in favor of clients and partners who believe in paying for the value I provide.