The business world is moving at a fast pace with technical advancements emerging that we never thought possible a decade ago. Sometimes it feels like everything is changing and that we need to change, too.
Recently I caught myself thinking, “This is what we used to do” and even reminisced about the “good ole days.” I initially did not say it out loud because I thought it might stall progress or even sound old school. As I thought about it, I realized that the more things change, the more they stay the same. (Yes, I know that’s a cliché).
It can be valuable to revisit what has worked in the past. A great example where I see this play out is sales leadership. We see all the new contemporary tools and ideas and yet, at the core, the same levers apply.
Here’s what I am learning:
Simpler is usually better. In an effort to stay ahead and improve, we have a tendency to overcomplicate things. We add more structure and elements to try to drive better results. Yet, often times our best practices are things we’ve effectively done in the past. If we don’t understand the process and can’t explain it from beginning to end, that’s probably a red flag.
Don't complicate an already good practice. We can get creative with reward systems to try to motivate certain behaviors. Ultimately, it can get cumbersome and complicated and work against you. We can waste time and energy trying to be clever or innovative when perhaps we already have a good practice. Don’t overcomplicate it.
More is not better. Often we think the answer to increasing sales is to give a salesperson more to sell or a bigger territory. But one person can only do so much. Focused efforts actually lead to better results. When we dilute the work, we lose our effectiveness.
How has your organization made it harder than it needs to be? We all have work to do in this area. We set too lofty of goals, add too many steps to a process or bring in too many people for a task.
A colleague of mine uses the term “easier to buy, easier to sell and easier to manage.” This is good advice, but hard to do. Effective leaders take out the complexity so their people and their organization can perform better. What will you unravel this week?
On a recent trip to New York, I learned the story about the MetLife North Building. Originally proposed as a 100-story-tower, MetLife sought to build the tallest skyscraper in the world in the 1920s. Then the Great Depression hit.
Construction halted and they put the dream on hold. That happened a lot in New York in the 1930s.
They had to regroup and change plans to make the building functional. Today, only the 32-story base remains with the foundational strength and elevator shafts (100 of them) needed for a building three times its size. (Here's a picture my wife took of the building today).
It reminded me of the many times that we have to stop, reassess and make new plans as organizations. There was a time when Marco had a strategy to be a retail office products superstore, and we developed plans to achieve it. Then the Recession hit in 1991 which caused us to take a different path.
As leaders and strategists, it’s our responsibility to navigate unexpected barriers that have the potential to wipe out even our best plans. We need to identify alternate routes to position our organizations to be resilient and sustainable long-term.
We’ve participated in three recessions during my 35 years here at Marco. We have also transitioned our company from office products and typewriters to the technology services company we are today.
When faced with barriers, we ask ourselves the following questions to help navigate the situation:
What is the worst case scenario? One of the hardest things to do is give up on Plan A, but there are always options. Sometimes a good Plan B can be even better than the original plan. In the case of the MetLife building, it was a shorter, stronger and still highly functional building.
What is a more realistic scenario? MetLife leaders and their designers modified their original plans and chose to build only a portion of the proposed tower. What was functional for decades is still in use today. In the case of our office products plan, we could have continued to operate our retail storefront knowing we were going to struggle to achieve our intended goals. Instead, we changed course and developed a strategy to build a more sustainable technology services business.
Navigating barriers – in the economy, in our industry and in the life of a business – is a natural part of leadership. The pace of change is far more substantial today than ever before, and we find ourselves constantly considering the barriers. We’ve learned that the higher the barrier of entry, the higher the reward.
We all have future disruptors that could completely change how we do business. As leaders, how we navigate these will determine the sustainability of our business long-term. The execution plans may be more complicated, but the rewards will be far greater for those who are willing to navigate them.
What are the barriers in your business today? How prepared are you for the unforeseen barriers of the future?
As CEO, I often get asked, “What keeps you up at night?” It is a good question to ask ourselves, especially as leaders. My answer most of the time is: not much. Does that surprise you? The reason is that I have peace of mind.
As I have grown older (and wiser), peace of mind has become more important to me. I have recognized the impact it has on my work, my ability to lead and my relationships. When you don’t have it, you’re distracted.
You know it when you have it and when you don’t. I pray for peace of mind specifically every day — usually with gratitude that I have it and that it will continue; sometimes that I will regain it.
Peace of mind can be fleeting. We can lose it in an instant, with unexpected bad news. It also can creep up on us with what seems simple. Some people never seem to have it. But those who do, perform and lead better.
There are steps we can take to promote more mindfulness (besides praying). Here are some ideas:
Write a note. When I start thinking about an issue and feel my peace of mind wavering, I write a note to myself to focus on the next steps to address what’s on my mind. I keep a pen and paper near my bed. (There is something about lying down that can naturally start a mind race). You may even write about something unrelated, like a list of things you’re grateful for or enjoying, to “quiet” your mind.
Reframe your thinking. Step back and ask yourself these questions: - What’s the worst-case scenario? - What’s the likely scenario? - What’s the best outcome? - What control do I have?
So often the worst-case scenario is not as bad as we’re feeling and outlining the likely scenario reminds us to bring logic back into the equation. Focus on what you have control over and make the best of the rest.
Seek out someone you trust. Tell someone close to you about the issue. This helps you get it out of your head and provides you a different (often less cloudy) perspective. Their words will most likely help you work toward a desired outcome faster.
Increase your knowledge. Research and acquiring information on the subject at hand can help bring facts, rather than feelings. When we know more, we feel more prepared. Preparation fosters peace of mind. When I am giving a presentation on a new topic for the first time, I remind myself of this.
Give it time. The circumstance will dictate the amount of control we have or don’t have. The less control we have, the more time it takes. Sometimes we just have to wait, knowing that it will take time to regain peace of mind.
Mindfulness has been called the ultimate habit for success. It increases resilience to stress (because stress is going to happen), improves decision making and increases emotional intelligence.
Being aware of and managing peace of mind is what good leaders and high performers do. Personally and professionally, it allows us to be less distracted and get back on track sooner. So pay attention to “what keeps you up at night” and take the steps to quiet your mind.
I remember in grade school teachers saying, “There is no such thing as a dumb question.” The comment was designed to combat fear and inspire participation. They prompted us to ask questions, rather than pretend we know.
The concept made sense, but in the back of our minds, we all felt like there were dumb questions. Curiosity and a quest for knowledge are positive at any age — and any level of your career. But the questions we ask from the classroom to the conference room actually do matter.
Questions that focus on one-offs, comments disguised as questions or ones that ask the obvious can completely derail meetings. None of them ignite healthy dialogue, deepen understanding or provide clarity — as a question should.
Good questions, on the other hand, promote better conversations and drive results. They are essential to leadership. What type of questions are you asking?
Here are ways to ask better questions that can make a difference:
Focus on execution. These questions promote action. One of my favorite questions to ask is: “This will be a successful meeting today if what?” Other examples include: “Who besides yourself will be involved in the decision?” or “So, what are the next steps?” The answers to these can make for a productive engagement.
Create new possibilities. These are the “why not” or “what if” questions. They reframe what’s possible and set the stage for new ideas and input. It could be as simple as asking “Why wouldn’t we do this?” Or you could ask a series of “What if?” scenarios. These thought starters should expand the realm of possibilities while remaining grounded in reality.
Promote clarity. Communication is defined by the receiver. If you don’t understand something, get clarification. Examples include: “What I heard you say was…. Is that what you mean?” or “What are we missing?”
Solidify commitments. These questions often focus on assigning accountability. A key question here is: “Who will own this?”
Be sensitive to time. Good questions help understand and set expectations, including deadlines. A key question to ask is: “What would be a reasonable timeline for this?” or “Could we get this done by the end of the first quarter?”
Good questions will move the conversation forward and drive action. Dumb questions will derail the meeting or side-track the conversation and be unproductive. Questions are not simply about whether or not you know the answer. They can create new ideas, provide clarity and build consensus. So, are you asking the right questions?
Last April, I wrote about a Leader Worth Following who retired after a long and successful sales career at Marco. Less than a month after retirement, Kevin Schwantz began a battle with cancer. In January, he shared that his time on earth would be limited.
Last week, we paid tribute to Kevin – at his funeral.
It impacted many of our Marco team members that had the pleasure to work with Kevin over his 27 years with our company. Most of us live each day like we have years ahead of us – at almost any age. Yet, tomorrow is not promised to any of us.
Consider this: How would you live differently knowing that? What passions or interests would you explore? How would you act at work? At home, in your neighborhood, in your community?
We can talk a lot about work-life balance in the business world, but productively living that out each week takes intention.
Kevin was a clear example of that here at Marco. He put his wife of 33 years,, Laura, kids and grandkids first. He was active in his community as a board member for nonprofit organizations and as a girls’ basketball and softball coach. Kevin also enjoyed his hunting and fishing trips with his family and extended family and was an enthusiastic spectator at all of his daughters’ events.
He did it all while having a successful career and was known for his performance, integrity, calm demeanor, constant smile and humor.
Most people have to work, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy it – even look forward to doing it. Kevin showed us that.
Can you say yes to all of these questions?
Do you like your work?
Do you like the company that you work for?
Do you spend time with the people you love?
Do you spend time doing what you enjoy?
Does your daily life reflect your priorities?
Life events like this remind us to know our priorities and live in a way that reflects them each day. Don’t wish time away or wait for retirement to start enjoying life and the things you love to do.
Kevin accomplished a lot in his short 54 years, and his life will continue to impact the lives of the people that knew him. I feel good knowing that Marco made it possible for Kevin to live a balanced life and actively participate in the activities that mattered to him, including a meaningful career.
I’m proud of the many awards Marco wins for its commitment to culture and work-life balance. Seeing Marco’s Chief Operating Officer, Jonathan Warrey, be a pallbearer for Kevin was a good example of the many friendships people have developed in our workplace.
Kevin’s life reminds us to live intentionally every day, not let time pass you by, and to leave a positive impact that outlasts you – like he did. I would like to share with you a few clips of a video from some of Kevin’s many friends at Marco. We created it as a way to say thank you, but he never got to see it.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “The grass is always greener on the other side” and sometimes it is natural to feel like that at work. People leave their jobs for a variety of reasons – a better opportunity, a different environment, location or pace, or a desire for a new challenge or industry.
I’d like to believe that if we attract good talent and keep them engaged, they will stay with Marco for their entire career. But that’s not a likely scenario anymore.
Workers in my generation started with a company and often retired there 30 or 40 years later. That’s rare today. It’s common for professionals to have 12 to 15 jobs in their lifetime, according to the recent labor statistics. Even the most committed employees can be enticed by a new opportunity.
Something that I am seeing more of is what is called the “boomerang effect.” It’s where people leave the organization and then return – within a few months or even years. We have seen a recent increase in this at Marco. Sometimes it’s because as we grow, we create new opportunities for people. Many times, it’s because they realized the grass is not greener – and we intentionally kept the door open.
When good employees decide to leave and I know that they’ve made up their minds, I am deliberate in telling them that they are welcome back. I encourage them not to be “too proud” to call us – even call me – if they want to return to our company. Imagine how Apple would have turned out if the company did not rehire Steve Jobs?
Boomerang Employees Here are some key reasons why we hire back good people that have left the organization:
They bring back a better perspective. They have a greater appreciation for what we do that they previously didn’t see. They realize the good culture we have and become some of our best ambassadors. Their perspective and energy can be felt in the workplace. They’re more committed.
We know they fit. Team fit is important to us at Marco. We hire for team fit and have used a variety of tools to assess this. When someone is returning to Marco, we can be more certain it’s going to be a good fit.
It saves us money. That’s even if we offer them a higher compensation. The training and orientation to onboard a person who returns to the organization is far less. They know us. We know them. We can quickly pick up where we left off.
My advice for employees: Don’t be too proud to go back to an organization – or role – you enjoyed more. You don’t have to wait years. Make the call within 2-3 months or even a couple of days if it is not feeling like a good fit.
My advice for employers: When a good employee is leaving you, intentionally let that person know you’re leaving the door open. Make them feel comfortable that if something doesn’t work out, you are genuinely interested in having them back. Sometimes even the best employees will leave. And when they return, they can be even better for your organization.
So if retention of a good employee is not an option, sincerely let them know that you would welcome them back. Conversely, if you are departing, always leave on good terms. It’s a better practice for a lot of reasons.
During a recent meeting of an executive group that I am a part of, I listened as various leaders shared books they read or plan to read to help in strategic planning for their businesses. They also referenced self-development books to help with their personal growth. Then, it came to me.
I shared with the group that I’m not much of a business book reader. And I’m not the best at writing down my personal goals. It made me wonder if I should.
We all have different learning styles. For some, reading self-help or leadership books accelerates their personal development.
I do like a good book, but I prefer reading for pleasure and learn best by doing and observing.
I chose to write about this topic because some people feel like they have to read the books and can get so wrapped up in changing that they fail to be themselves. Or they can spend so much time chasing after something new and trying to determine the best path that they fail to execute on what they already know.
I’ve worked to make continuous improvement a natural part of what I do – throughout the year. Here’s a look at some examples:
I actively participate in industry events, nonprofit boards and executive groups that interest me. This is a good way to experience first-hand what good and not so good can look like. It makes me realize how similar the challenges are regardless of industry and how we can all benefit from others’ best practices.
We support using outside consultants with strengths in the areas we need. Instead of worrying about improving our own weaknesses, we outsource it. They’re subject matter experts and have “read the books.”
I actively observe the behavior of others. You can learn a lot about what to do and not do by paying attention to the people around you. There are best practices being used all the time. Keep your eyes open – you’ll know it when you see it.
I actively seek input from people that I respect on items that I need a broader perspective on. We are all surrounded by people with experience and expertise that we don’t have. I lean on them.
I learn when I present by preparing and doing my homework. I’m often asked to present to groups within and outside of our industry. There are times when I know my subject very well and others when I don’t. Presenting is a great way to learn because you need to understand your subject matter and have confidence in your material and delivery.
We all have our preferred ways of enhancing our personal development. If self-help books serve you well, keep reading them. But if they don’t, try something different. Own who you are – and who you are not. Books don’t change you. You change you.
After I turned 60 this year, I was often asked, “When are you going to retire?” I ask myself the same question and my response still is: Why quit now? I love what I do and I still look forward to Mondays. I’m not a workaholic, and maybe that is the key. I feel like I am contributing well today, although it does look different at this phase in my career.
It made me wonder why some people are so ready and why others cannot imagine quitting, even if they could. Here are a few attributes of those who want to stay in the game (and are welcomed players):
Achiever who is achieving We continue to achieve high marks at Marco and that keeps me motivated. To me, it’s fun to lead a high-performing growth company, build careers and positively impact so many people. If you’re good at what you do and like doing it, why quit? Tom Brady is a good example of this in the sports world.
Surrounded by good leaders I get to sit alongside some of the best leaders that I know – every day. Surrounding yourself with competent people is the best way that I know to stay sharp and keep you on your toes. Together, we hold each other accountable to deliver strong results.
Embraces complexity Yes, not just change. The company I joined in 1984 is very different today. It’s not limited to the products and services that Marco sold back then, but the complexity of the systems and processes to support what we sell today. This is not specific to just the technology industry. There was a time when we went to a grocery store and there was one – or two – apple choices. Now there are multiple – too many to list. Those in the transportation industry are imagining the near future with driverless vehicles. We are operating in a more complex world.
Practices good health I have seen many leaders retire for health reasons – their own or needing to care for a loved one. I pray for my health and the health of my family every day. I don’t take it for granted, and I make an effort to exercise (almost) every day, eat pretty good and maintain work-life balance. Be mindful of your health – it’s important to take good care of yourself.
Sees contributions This is important. We all want to be key contributors, but we can easily be fooled to think we are contributing when we’re not. We can make the mistake of overestimating the value that we bring. Just because someone has done something for a long time doesn’t mean they are still good at it. We need to validate with our trusted advisors that we are keeping our saws sharp and holding ourselves accountable. Some leaders do stay “too long.”
Careers go faster than you think. I know some day I will miss waking up on Monday morning looking forward to a productive work week with a team that continues to set new records. I like what I do and I’m not wishing any time away. I hope the same is true for you.
Sometimes I think we overcomplicate leadership. We create expectations for ourselves and others that can overwhelm even the best of us. Some people seek higher degrees or certifications, others participate in workshops and conferences focused on management and leadership development. Why do we do this? It’s all in the pursuit of wanting to be a better leader.
At Marco’s Leadership Conference last week, I shared my perspective with over 100 of our managers. The art of leading is a pretty simple equation: People + Money = Leadership (P+M=L).
We need to be effective at managing both people and money. Most of us are stronger at one or the other, and that’s OK. Both of these skills can be learned, improved upon or augmented by others.
People: This relates to everything from staffing to training to promoting to managing conflict and client relations. Simply put, it means playing well with others.
Money: This can feel like an alphabet soup of terms from revenue to EBITDA to budgets to compensation and benefits. You don’t have to have a finance degree, but you do need to know how to count.
IMPROVING YOUR SKILLS
Know where you are strong and weak on these two key components and take steps to improve your skills. Here are a few ways for each:
In Money This component is actually easier to learn than the people part. Not everyone is naturally good at the numbers – or will love them. I’ve never had anyone tell me they know the numbers too well. Everyone can sharpen their skills to be effective in leadership. Here’s how:
Ask for one-on-one coaching from someone that knows the numbers—inside or outside of your organization. Most people will be happy to do this.
Present the numbers at your staff meetings and you’ll naturally get more comfortable.
Join a nonprofit board of directors, where fiduciary responsibilities are a natural part of the process.
Take a finance class at a local technical college or university.
Help develop and participate in a financial acumen class in your organization to help others learn the numbers, too.
I wasn’t a numbers guy, but I had to become one. Early on, I learned from Gary Marsden, my predecessor and co-founder of Marco, and I have done the same for others. There are plenty of people who know the numbers. Seek them out so you can understand them better.
For People Effective leaders have a knack for understanding people. That’s not a skill that comes naturally to everyone and is much harder to learn. It will take more time and intention:
Know yourself so you can understand others better (self-awareness).
Expand your circle of influence to leverage a broader network.
Listen actively – hear what’s not being said.
Be responsive – provide timely follow-up.
Give credit – don’t take it.
Address conflict rather than avoid it.
Conduct meetings that people want to be a part of.
Execute – do what you say you’re going to do.
Hold others accountable – be accountable yourself.
If you’re a leader, you’ve already done a lot of things right to get where you are. Stay focused on the people and the money. Remember, you need to be good at both. Don’t overcomplicate it. If you play well with others and know how to count, you’ll have the foundation to be a strong leader.
We spend a lot of time in meetings. When they go well, we feel energized and can make significant headway for our organization. But they also can feel like they are sucking the life right out of us and lead to wasted time and ineffective outcomes.
As a leader, it’s important that people want to attend meetings and see value in them. They should be a communication tool and a place where work gets done. I recently was talking about this concept with licensed etiquette instructor and consultant Kim Purscell of Etiquette Matters. I initially met her at our Technology Trade Show in September. She shared that one of the biggest reasons why meetings get a bad rap is because they’re derailed by windbags.
Windbags are those people who dominate the air time, get off topic, split hairs over details that don’t involve those in the room or initiate unnecessary conflict.
Good leaders know how to rein in windbags. I have watched effective meeting facilitators do it artfully—in a way that respects everyone in the room.
As a meeting facilitator, your job goes beyond setting the agenda and arranging the details. You also need to intervene and get the meeting back on track quickly. Kim shared a few phrases that I think are useful:
We seem to have slipped off topic and need to return to our agenda.
We may not be able to solve those issues here. Let’s have a side meeting with just those involved.
We need to keep things moving to respect the time of everyone here.
They made me think about what else effective facilitators do to rein in windbags. Here are some keys to success that I’ve found:
Establish your purpose. I like to begin a meeting with a clear explanation of the purpose and key outcomes. A good way to do that is to start out by saying “This will be a successful meeting today if…” If the dialogue streams too far away, the facilitator can remind the group of the goals and redirect the focus of the conversation.
Keep presentations concise. When presenting, it can be tempting to barrage people with data and details. It’s more effective to keep the presentation focused and concise. As a facilitator, it is your job to ensure the presentations have the appropriate scope. When there’s too much content, you can lose interest and lessen the impact.
Pose a question to the group. This can help redirect the conversation and engage the members in a topic that is important to the meeting’s outcomes. Questions are good for bringing things back on track.
Step in and summarize. When I feel like the conversation is dragging on, I will thank the person for input, summarize the person’s comments in 1-2 sentences and identify the go-forward action steps. This is a good practice, whether you’re the facilitator or not. Leaders clearly demonstrate the ability to bring a meeting to a close.
Meetings can be a valuable way to spend time or they can be a waste of time. By keeping a meeting controlled, we show respect for everyone involved. Effective leaders have effective meetings. Do your part in 2019 to make sure you keep them purposeful and productive.