At the end of this month, I will be retiring after 43 years of adventures in the work force. I spent much of that time as a client-side direct marketer, but also worked in department store retailing, consulting, and most recently at NaviStone, marketing and selling intent-based direct mail audiences.
On to the Next Act
I have always enjoyed the world of direct marketing. Its powerful combination of left side of the brain analytics and right-side creativity has always intrigued me. However, my passion in business has always been in leadership, so I will devote my final words as COO of NaviStone to that topic. I have been leading teams of people since 1980, and through lots of practice, reading, and trial and error, I have had some success in that role. To sum up what I’ve learned over the years, here are some thoughts about leadership for those of you who aspire to that role:
For you to be a leader, other people must want to follow you. Almost everyone has a boss (manager, supervisor, board of directors), but every boss is not a leader. In fact, I have found very few that are. We listen to our boss because he/she controls the work we do, the reviews we get, and the level of compensation we receive. There is a hierarchical imperative for us to listen to the boss. We follow leaders for a different reason – we choose to do so because that person has inspired us, helped us, taught us and demonstrated concern about our success and growth. And we follow leaders because they have a vision of success that appeals to us. It is quite possible to be both a boss and a jerk, but leaders cannot be jerks – no one would follow them.
The fundamental elements of leadership are focus and accountability. Successful leaders have a knack for focusing on the things that are important, that will truly help the organization thrive. Leaders understand that focus requires making hard choices about what to work on and where to deploy resources. If you have nine points of focus in your organization, you really don’t have any. Good leaders also believe in accountability, for themselves and their team members. Holding people accountable does not mean blaming them when something goes wrong (although I see bosses do that all the time). Accountability is about providing clear direction about what is important to the organization, helping team members develop objectives that support that direction, and then working with them to make certain that they have the best possible chance to achieve those objectives.
Leaders are excellent listeners (and learners). If you want to be a good leader, do not, under any circumstances, try to be “the smartest person in the room.” You know, that person who knows more than everyone else and dominates the conversation (often the boss). Good leaders share their knowledge and expertise in teaching/training or one-on-one coaching environments; not in meetings where the goal is to solve problems or resolve issues. Successful leaders should spend 80% of their meeting time listening to the opinions of others. The leader’s job in a problem-solving environment is to truly hear the thoughts and opinions of others. It is quite likely that the leader will have to make a decision or choose an option from a set of several possibilities. It is much more likely that other team members will accept and execute that option if they feel their opinion has been clearly heard and evaluated, even if it wasn’t the chosen path. Good leaders will also circle back with the folks in the meeting who offered different opinions and explain why they chose the path they did.
Leaders share a clear view of what success looks like. Successful leaders have a clear vision of what success looks like, and they share that view with the team. This definition of success will help determine the level of enthusiasm of their team. I enjoy making money as much as the next guy, but a “sharable” vision is rarely about dollars and cents. “We will earn $3.25 per share in the next quarter, an increase of 15% over prior year,” may play very well in the board room, but not so much with team members who have little or no ownership in the business. On the other hand, “we will improve customer satisfaction by 20% this year,” is a vision of success that team members can get behind. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? And team members are smart enough to understand that hitting that particular success measure will mean better raises and bonuses for them (of course you have to actually pay them when the goal is reached).
Leaders develop other leaders. Tony Dungy talks about this concept in his books and presentations, and it has always been my favorite part of the leadership role. It is a very simple formula – the more real leaders you develop in your organization, the more likely that organization will be successful. Yet another reason not to be that “smartest person in the room.” Good leaders will hire people who are both highly talented and a good cultural fit (more on that in a minute). If you surround yourself with really smart people who are comfortable within your culture, your job will get a lot easier. Why? Because those people will assume leadership roles in their functional areas, be good listeners, put a premium on focus and accountability, and strive to make their team members successful. That generally translates into success for all.
Leaders understand that culture trumps strategy almost every time. Company cultures vary, but if you work long enough, you understand the difference between a nurturing, collaborative culture and a dysfunctional one. Strong leaders understand the difference, and the importance of developing a culture that encourages teamwork, respect and growth opportunities. Combine that with the focus and accountability mentioned above, and you create an environment where folks work together to achieve success. Don’t get me wrong – it is never easy. But strong leaders who develop a strong culture, along with their teams, are much more likely to experience success.
I am a firm believer that anyone can lead. There is no such thing as a leadership gene (don’t confuse charisma with leadership). All of these leadership skills are learned and developed over time. I’ve had the honor of working alongside some wonderful leaders in the direct marketing industry for over thirty years, and especially over the course of the last couple of years here at NaviStone. This leadership team embodies the focus, accountability and passion for innovating that true leaders possess. It’s time for me to move on, and I feel good knowing the team is in good hands.
If you are interested in talking about leadership, please feel free to contact me through LinkedIn. If you want to sell me Medicare supplemental insurance or financial planning for retirement, not so much…