Leadership: 3 Keys To Building Culture

The  June 2011 issue of Inc. magazine recognizes top small company workplaces.  It is a great article for people thinking about culture and the start-up of new companies.  Here is the link.

Here are some thoughts that all leaders can take away.

Cultures are:

  1. Intentional:  Defining and writing down what you want to create is a must step.  Some start with what they want to avoid based on experiences at other organizations.  Whatever the start, in the end someone writes something down and uses that as the guide.
  2. Exclusive:  One example is how a company called TRX has a core value of Fitness.  People are encouraged and expected to workout. (coincidentally they company markets fitness products)  It would be difficult to fit into this organization unless you had a passion for exercise.  Values define who you are and will exclude people who do not share the same passions.
  3. Ideas backed by action:  All of the examples have established norms, interviewing techniques, goal setting in evaluations, or standard practices that promote a value.  The values/beliefs have come off the wall/out of the head of the entrepreneur and become an observable action that people see.  Spandex is often seen on employees at TRX as the go to or return from a workout.  An example of an acceptable norm and practice.

There is lots to worry about in a start-up.  Cash flow. Sales.  Product quality.  Hiring.  In my dealings with leaders 5-10 years after a start-up I have often heard the comment “I want work to be fun again.”  Part of fun is enjoying/participating in a culture you created. 

This is great lesson for any leader.

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Lessons in Leadership: Chris Ilitch

Recently I had the opportunity to see Chris Ilitch speak about the Little Caesars culture and success. He is the son of the founder, Mike Ilitch. Some basics on this organization is that it is a privately held $4.2B company that derives income from 11 different organizations that includes pro sports (Tigers and Red Wings), pizza (Little Caesars), food distribution, entertainment, and gambling.

Here are the key values/beliefs that he titled – Secrets to the Sauce.

  1. Think Big / Set Goals
  2. Creativity and Innovation (remember Pizza Pizza? They started that craze)
  3. Courage and Risk Taking
  4. Perseverance and Commitment (“Not all risks pay off. Mistakes will happen.”)
  5. Humility and Character (“Don’t get to high. Don’t get to low.” “If you do something good people will find out about it.”
  6. People and Giving Back

Every speaker leaves you with something.  For me, the thing I took away was how long it took to build this organization and how diverse it has become.  The first store opened in 1961, the 100th in 1988, and the 2000th in 1989.  Overnight success?  Hardly.  Now their businesses go way beyond pizza, and yet what has not changed is a commitment to a struggling city (Detroit) and a state where it all started.  Chris ended the presentation with that reminder that their key has been to define what is important to them(this list) and then stick with it.

No family or business is perfect, and I am sure the Ilitchs are no different.  It is a great story and Chris Illitch does a great job telling it.

What keeps you up at night? A unique way to use this question

insomnia

We have all heard this question.  It is one of those What to ask a leader 101 questions.  Yesterday I heard this question used in a way that surprised me.

I saw retired Brigadier General David Hall speak.  He had many insights to share, but how he used this question was unique.  In his years of leading he developed the habit gathering his staff together at the end of each month to have a drink and some social time.  One of the things he would do during their time together was share the things that, as their leader, were keeping him up at night.  He would end with the request for help from anyone who had an idea or perspective that would make that worry go away. 

  • Shouldn’t people ask the leader this question?  Yes, but the military is not much different from business.  Sometimes people are scared or nervous to ask a leader a tough question.
  • Is it right for a leader to dump like that?  It is sharing what you are thinking and asking for help.  Dumping is this happening daily or weekly.

Not surprisingly, many of his problems went away over time. 

Why wait for a question like this to be asked first?

Someone we all need to listen to – Jessica Jackley

Image representing Kiva as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

I like listening to interesting people.  Recently I was able to see Jessica Jackley speak.  If you don’t know her, she is the co-founder of Kiva.org, which enables micro lending to happen in the world’s poorest areas.  Successful?  In five years they have made loans in excess of $130 million to 700,000 people.  In the process over 98% of the zero interest loans have been paid back.  If you want to hear her speech here is the link to the TED website.  It is a worthwhile 18 minutes.  Here is what I took away:

  • Know your mission (what / how / why).  It helps you say no to some things and connect with people who share similar goals.
  • In order to co-create with people you have to give up control (Kiva uses volunteer translators).
  • Do iterative development:  Build it, get feedback, improve it, and remember it is okay to fail.
  • Entrepreneurs see tomorrow > today

Finally, in response to a student asking her a question about whether he should pursue a similar career track, she responded with these steps to helping others:

  1. Learn as much as you can about the person you want to help.
  2. Ask if they have a place the can go to get their needs met.
  3. When you see things/needs that are not being met, find a way to fill in those gaps.

These three simple steps could be used anywhere it is important to connect with people and make a difference in their lives.  Which is everywhere from main street to the board room to the factory floor.  It is refreshing to see someone who did not read all the leadership books succeed because they were passionate and willing to try something.  Passion is the fuel for change, and Jessica Jackley stands out as a modern-day example of that.

Do Heroes Have To Be Leaders?

As I was having my coffee and reading the Sunday morning paper yesterday an obituary caught my eye.  A 92-year-old WWII veteran named Richard ‘Dick’ Winters had passed away.  I first learned about Dick Winters watching the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.  It was based on a book published by Stephen Ambrose that told the story of a company of soldiers from the 101st Airborne during World War II.  I am the first generation in my family in the last 100 years not to serve in the armed forces, and I love to hear the stories of those individuals who did because it provides me a glimpse into the character of my father and grandfather.  What war requires and what it takes away from those who go through it still boggles my mind. 

The story of Dick Winters is especially interesting because he was not the leader of Easy Company when the planes took off from England as part of D-Day.  But when their company commander was killed in the invasion he assumed command and his heroics began.

Dick Winters was a hero, and he happened to be a leader.  What did he think of leadership?

“If you can,” he wrote, “find that peace within yourself, that peace and quiet and confidence that you can pass on to others, so that they know that you are honest and you are fair and will help them, no matter what, when the chips are down.”

Did he consider himself a hero?

When people asked whether he was a hero, he echoed the words of his World War II buddy, Mike Ranney: “No, but I served in a company of heroes.”

Being a great leader takes courage.  Being a hero takes a depth of courage to quickly act in unbelievably difficult situations.  Unbelievably difficult are the words for those who hear about the heroics years later.  For real heroes, they just call it their job or their duty, and humbly go about their lives. 

Something to think about today no matter what your title or position.

Do your clients really love you? Here is one measure

Yesterday I had a discussion with a partner that has done an amazing job helping me promote my business during my first year of operation.  The discussion was difficult because I need to alter my relationship with them from a monthly basis to an as needed basis.  They were valuable and I need them on my virtual team, but I have to do things a little differently in year 2.  It was a great discussion and I left feeling upbeat, as I always do.  As I sat down this morning I realized I had to add another sales goal to my list – Find Clark Communications another client to replace my business. I like them so much I want to sell for them, and they did not ask me to do this. I know that is a strange reaction, but that is how good they have been to me.  I owe them another client.  

So what do they do that makes them so special?

  • They get as excited about my business as I do:  When someone really believes in you it is obvious – they always have energy for what you are doing and it always feels like you should be paying them more.  Imagine that last thought?
  • They really care about how I am doing:  The first question from them is always about me – then about my business. Startup is not easy.  They understand that and tend to the entrepreneur first, then the business.
  • Their service feels like a friendship:  Friendship is not about connecting on LinkedIn or Facebook, it is about doing the little things just because.  When you sit next to someone you hear their conversations and do lots of ‘little’ things that are just part of working with someone.  It is part of being a friend – – you do things just because.

American Express made the priceless concept into a commercial that always made me smile.  One question we should be asking ourselves every day is What can I do to become priceless to my clients?  Hmmmmmm . . . . . . . .

Thanks Clark Communications.  More specifically, thanks Craig and Jen. 🙂 Now I need to go find that new client . . . .

Building a Strong Team – no ropes needed, just a BBQ

I read a great story today about a team that developed largely through the actions of the team members.   It is about the Michigan State University offensive line and what they did to build a more cohesive and higher performing team.   It resonated with me because it was done largely through two things that we can all afford:  attitude and time.  Highlights for me:

  • Leadership (the coach) set the goal to develop a more dominant running game.  (result was +30 yds/game in 2010 vs 2009)
  • Their time together off the field was spent around a barbeque – eating.  (ie.  no ropes course or expensive consultants were needed)
  • The quarterback provided leadership (via encouragement) by buying t-shirts for the linemen to help show their unity and pride. (ie. no $$ compensation was needed to motivate this group)
  • No significant individual honors were received by any of the offensive lineman.
  • The opponents recognize their teamwork, and the players use the word PRIDE to describe how they feel about what they have accomplished.  What great key measures.

It is not certain that their team will win their bowl game, but it is certain that this group of young men have shown us they understand how to build an effective team.   Here is the link  – http://www.tidesports.com/article/20101228/NEWS/101229701/1011?p=2&tc=pg

Joy: Why It Should Matter to the CEO

I just finished reading Born To Run by Christopher McDougall.  I won’t give you a whole book report, but one part of the story is etched in my brain.  The story is based around a tribe in Mexico called the Tarahumara and their amazing ability to run many miles (50 to 100 plus) at a time.  Legendary running coach Joe Vigil was watching two Tarahumara runners late in a 100 mile race they would eventually win, and it struck him that they were smiling.  Vigil had spent 50 years studying runners and attempting to define the physiological keys that would make people faster, only to discover the last piece to the puzzle for him was character.  As it is stated in the book “Vigil’s notion of character wasn’t toughness.  It was compassion.  Kindness. Love.”  The Tarahumara had never forgotten their love of running, and the joy they felt oozed out of them even after 50+ miles.

Joy is the  key ingredient in opening our hearts, minds, and bodies up for a whole new level of performance.  In Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind he makes a case for the presence of play and laughter in the workplace and the impact it has on innovation and engagement.  What happens when we lack joy in our work? Dr. Stuart Brown wrote in his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul that younger people suffer the same “crisis of the soul that comes from pouring every moment of your time and every ounce of your being into other’ expectations.”

As a leader, take a pulse of your organization by walking around.  Are people smiling?  Do they approach you to say hello or do they wait for you to say it?  Watch people in your lobby being greeted.  Is there any warmth?  At 5pm, how many cars are left in the parking lot?  How often do you hear laughter?  When you ask the question Why do you work? what kinds of answers do you hear?  How would you answer that question?

Imagine what a day at work would be like if we celebrated just being there.  What if we brought a little of the Tarahumara to work.  Imagine the difference it would make in everything that we do.  The best news for the bottom line – joy is free.  The best news for everyone – joy is a personal choice.

7 Leadership Lessons from Dave Bing

People from outside of Michigan may not recognize the name Dave Bing, so let me share some highlights of his career.

  • 7 time NBA All-Star
  • In 1996 named one of the 50 Greatest NBA Players of All-time
  • Entrepreneur – Founder/Owner of Bing Steel
  • Current Mayor of Detroit, Michigan

So it can be said that at many levels he is a successful person.  I had the opportunity to hear Mayor Bing talk today at the Grand Rapids Economic Club, and in thirty short minutes he had a lot to say.   The first thing I heard that stuck with me was his introduction.  He has been called “The right man for one of the most thankless jobs in America.”(Time Magazine)  Some statistics that illustrate what he faces in his job:

  • He assumed ownership of a city that was $330M in debt
  • There are 50,000 empty homes in Detroit
  • Detroit has a recently installed $100M computer system that does not work
  • Illiteracy is running between 40-50% for the residents of Detroit

All that being said, Dave Bing shared some great advice that all leaders need to hear.

  1. Be prepared . . . and be prepared to be overwhelmed – He shared that he went into office thinking that he was ready for this job because of his business and sports background.  He quickly realized that the problems he faced (see list above) were beyond what he was ready for at the time. 
  2. Leaders are Reslient – see #1
  3. Lead with Questions – One of the first things he did was to spend time asking this question of the people in his city, What is the role of government?
  4. Focus on Building Trust – He found many people did not trust the city government.  He realized he could not get the change that was needed without that trust from residents, corporations, and other key allies.  It became his #1 priority.
  5. Focus on Setting Priorities – The priorities he has set for fixing Detroit are Fiscal Health, Crime, Blight, and Education.  His agenda is clear and he is focusing resources and people on fixing these things.
  6. Focus on Accountability – Set performance expectations, work with people to help them achieve these goals, and be ready to make a change if the performance goals are not met.  An example, he has replaced his Police Chief twice because crime is a focus of his agenda and the performance goals were not being met.
  7. Leadership is about making tough decisions – He has to ask/urge people to move from their homes in areas of the city that are largely made up of abandoned homes and into areas where there is a concentration of people so the city can focus their services and resources.  You think your job is hard?

I agree with Time Magazine.  I would add that he is a man/leader worth following.  If you don’t know Dave Bing you should get to know him.  Read more