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Leadership The Success Factor

Jun 02, 2010

I was listening to our CEO, Jerry Mills, at our annual partners’ meeting and I was impressed by the clear vision he had laid out for our firm. As he provided some history, achievements and future goals, it occurred to me that the leadership qualities he demonstrated were consistent with that of other successful leaders. Jerry motivated the audience, not just with his vision, but with the same declaration that he made a year ago – that he “refuses to participate in the recession.” Those words were part of his strategy to change our thinking about our circumstances - that we have the ability to change our thoughts and therefore our experiences. In that way, we can continue to pave the road to further success and not be prone to the same negative thinking that so many people subject themselves to, particularly in today’s tough economic times. So, reflecting on Jerry’s comments, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the key aspects of effective leadership.

Over the years, I have observed the successes and failures of many organizations. As an athlete and sports nut, I am always reminded when I watch a ballgame of the similarities between leadership and success in both sports and in business. In sports, there have been some amazing success stories: teams that defied the odds, such as the Amazing Mets in ’69, Jim Valvano’s NC State basketball team winning the NCAA tournament when they were clearly underdogs, and who could forget the US Olympic Hockey team’s famous victory in the 1980 Olympics. In business, there are companies that clearly defied the odds also, such as Microsoft, founded by a college dropout named Bill Gates, IBM, once a typewriter company that transformed into a global computer company, to such household names as Xerox and Google.

I have often asked myself, “Why do some organizations or teams thrive with apparently better talent than other organizations?” If it is not talent alone, then what differentiates the winning team from the others?  

I have found that all of the successful organizations and teams have one very important trait in common. That is LEADERSHIP. From a business perspective, leadership has been the key factor for many organizations that have navigated through one of the worst recessions our economy has ever experienced. It is the reason some companies have not just survived, but thrived for over 100 years and transformed themselves through changing business environments and technological advances. In sports, great leaders have taken what appeared to have been average teams to the championship, while teams that were better “on paper” were not able to achieve the same levels of success.

While many books have been written on the subject of leadership, I wanted to briefly touch on what I believe are the most common traits of leadership because to me they are so important. By implementing these ideas, I believe you can quickly implement behavioral changes in your organization or team to raise your organization’s level of performance, and not just achieve your goals and objectives, but exceed management’s and customers’ expectations.

The following are some of the most common characteristics and actions of leaders.

Vision

Leaders have the ability to see where they need to take the organization. They set the broad goals and objectives for the team. Leaders often set the bar higher than many believe is possible and then “do what cannot be done.”  Leaders are often criticized for their new ideas and are often considered crazy. They do not listen to the nay-sayers. They are totally committed in their beliefs and to their vision of what is possible. They have a “do whatever it takes” attitude. They will not stop until they achieve their goals and objectives. Then they raise the bar and set even higher goals.

The book, “Built to Last,” by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras provides a number of true and inspiring stories about the successful habits of visionary companies. Every example in the book highlights how leaders transformed some of the most well-known companies, including IBM and 3M, and in some cases bet the entire company’s future based upon their vision for the company. These leaders had the insight to know that they needed to take their companies in a different direction. And, they had the courage to take the actions necessary to change their organizations’ cultures and attitudes in order to adapt to changing times.

Develop the Plan

Leaders develop and implement plans that will achieve the organization’s goals and objectives. They understand, however, that actions against those plans need to be monitored regularly, and plans must be modified for changes in circumstances, be it changing market conditions, the quality and composition of team members, or other factors that are beyond a leader’s control. For example, in many businesses, like sports, the weather is an uncontrollable factor that impacts performance and results. Leaders anticipate these situations and have contingency plans in place in order to be ready for changing circumstances. Football coaches exemplify this type of leadership. They watch films of their team and the opposing team, and develop a game plan that is practiced every day in anticipation of next week’s game. But on game day, as circumstances change with every play, the successful coaches (leaders) adjust their game plan “on the run” and make the necessary adjustments while advancing their team to its ultimate objectives.

Build the Team

Every organization strives to obtain the best talent; that’s a given. But, successful leaders understand the importance of training, developing and motivating their people and are able to get the best out of their team. They understand the importance of having “bench strength.”  In sports, this means having good players on the bench or in the farm system ready to step in if a key player is injured. In business, it’s the development of succession planning, so that if key staff leaves, other personnel are ready to step into those positions and deliver quality service without much downtime.

Leaders understand the importance of training and development. Training comes in many forms, from mentoring programs, in-house or outside training, to studying the competition and marketplace to see what works and what needs improvement. It requires an attitude of constant and continuous improvement.

Leaders motivate their people. I believe that the best leaders are no longer following the old school methods of catching someone doing something right, or worse, berating them for making mistakes. Rather, the best leaders lead by example. Leaders:

  • Demonstrate what needs to be done and help their team members in establishing their goals and objectives.
  • Give team members the resources and support to achieve their goals. 
  • Show how the achievement of individual goals fits within the overall goals of the organization. 
  • Encourage and foster risk-taking by team members so that they can bring out the best ideas.
  • Give their people a stake in the outcome.
  • Develop people who are loyal to the team, and dedicated to the goals and overall best interests of the organization.

Communicate

Leaders communicate their vision, goals, objectives and plans and are effective at getting the buy-in of key people, including owners, lenders, investors, team participants, and other stakeholders. They typically communicate in a way that excites people and that keeps motivation and morale high. The best leaders “walk their talk” and are able to sell their message because they truly believe what they are saying; they are completely congruent.

Preparation

The best leaders understand that results are all about preparation. Basketball fans used to marvel at Michael Jordan’s skills on the basketball court. Kids wanted “to be like Mike.” Many didn’t realize that he used to spend 8-10 hours every day in the gym working hard to build and refine his skills. What he made look easy was the result of hard work and long, grueling practice sessions. In the 1980s, Larry Bird was hired to do a commercial in which he had to shoot the ball and miss the basket. The story goes that they had to do 25 takes until he missed. Larry Bird used to practice his shots every day over and over to a point at which the shot became automatic and his body was programmed to make the basket. He actually had to work hard to miss the shot during the commercial!

When we were kids, many of us heard our parents and coaches say, “practice makes perfect.”  In fact, that is actually not true. If you consistently do the same thing, the same way, time and time again, you will likely get the same result. So the key is to practice with a result in mind – in business terms, the goals and objectives. If you do not get the desired results, then make adjustments. Keep practicing and keep making adjustments and changes, many of which are minor, fine-tuning adjustments, until you can consistently achieve the desired results. So the saying should be, “practice, with adjustments, makes perfect.”

The point is that 95 percent of results come from preparation. All professional coaches have their players run the drills repeatedly. Even when the player finally gets it, you will hear the coach say, “run it again.”  Coaches watch films tirelessly, studying their teams in an effort to find ways to improve, and they study their opponent (the competition), to find weaknesses that they can exploit. Successful business leaders are no different.

The best leaders, and the most successful people, be it in sports or in business, model their preparation, practice and performance after successful people. Ninety-five percent of the work is done in preparing to meet the competition; five percent is in the actual performance. Leadership is about making sure your team knows the plan and is ready, really ready, to execute the plan, and most importantly to adjust for changes during the game. An airline pilot flies a plane from one city to the next and his responsibility is to execute the flight plan. In fact, the plane moves off course about ninety percent of the time. The pilot’s job is to make adjustments throughout the flight and ensure that he reaches the destination, his goal. The best leaders, both in sports and business, do the same thing.

These are my thought on leadership. Many of the books on leadership say this in different ways but I believe it really comes down to these points. Be mindful of these aspects of leadership and you will take yourself, your team and your organization to higher levels of achievement and success. And remember that a great leader is a person who shares the credit. The leader wants his team members to experience the great feelings that success brings. And in so doing, success will breed more success. It has often been said that it would be amazing to see what would be accomplished if it didn’t matter who got the credit.

 

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