3 Ways Leaders Sabotage Companies

Today’s Lesson: Know what you want. Know how you will get there. Treat your best people best.


There are 3 ways I see leaders sabotage the success of their company:

1. Leaders want results, but do not know what “results” are (and do not have a legitimate path or plan to achieve them). Every company I know of has a goal, that trickles down as a never-ending demand, to “increase profits”. There is nothing wrong with making more profit except “make more profits” is a wish, not a goal. Cutting expenses, for example, would seem to help increase profit for a company but if the line-items being shaved are at the expense of employee morale, saving those pennies can actually undermine the goal of  profitability.

I once worked for a company that required a request form be completed when employees wanted office supplies, including standard disposable pens. Employees, of course, began bringing their own pens and other supplies to avoid the rigamarole. The policy worked. The company did save a few bucks, but also many employees eventually left for better companies that valued team members more than they valued disposable pens. No one cited the request form as a reason for leaving but former employees still bring the story up when they get together.

Results drive profitability; pens do not.

Leaders can fail at understanding which results are being driven or even how to identify a result. A result, I say, is the outcome (positive or negative) of actions taken to reach an objective. Knowing the results a company or team is striving to bring to life helps your team know if they are winning the game. So the first rule to defining a result is, there must be an end in sight or a way to know the game is over.

A desired result must be attainable, realistic, and tied to a goal. Imagine if marathon runners were told to run faster and faster (the desired result being to reach the finish line) but were never told where the finish line is or what path to take. They would lose steam quickly, not knowing when to tap their energy reserves to push forward. Some would run the wrong direction. Some would stop too often while others would never know if they should ever take a break. Many would quit after a short time. Team members need to know how to win, and what winning looks like.

A result must also be actionable. Running a marathon is obviously actionable. You strap your shoes on and run. But what about selling more widgets? The obvious action is not always present. A good leader reduces the workload and narrows the vision of the goal until the next action is so clear it seems stupid to do anything else. Telling your marathoners to “run that way really fast until I tell you to stop” is not clear. Pointing out the fastest, most direct route to the finish line, noting where a team should be at what point in the race, and encouraging them to move forward when they are tired (keeping updates on where the goal is, how far they have come, and how close they are) creates an actionable map to success.

The criteria for a result, then, is: it must have an end; it must be attainable, realistic, and tied to a goal, and you must be able to take clear action to achieve it.

What kind of map does your organization provide when asking for (or demanding) results?


2. Leaders have goals that are not actually goals. I have yet to come across a high-performing team that has met its primary objective. As my ROWE friends will tell you, many leaders and business owners operate under an archaic notion that the appropriate reward for work done well… is more work.

If you do not have a resting spot or reward zone for your high performers when they achieve results (which presumes the results are defined, reachable, and actionable), then your team is in jeopardy. Your true goal as a leader at that point has become simply to burn out your best people–to drain every ounce of effort from your top team members until they finally give up (and become middle or bottom performers), move up (being promoted so they can start the cycle over) or move on (to another career altogether). If that is where you are headed, then that is a goal worth re-thinking.

Many leaders I meet believe that “More” is itself a goal. “Our goal this year,” they say, “is to do even More sales than last year”. I challenge this by asking, “When is ‘more’… ‘enough’?”. Rather than create a goal for your team of “increase profit and reduce expenses”, define the terms. Set a profit goal of 30 million dollars and provide regular updates on which team members are helping most and how close you are to the goal as a team. Even better, add a clear incentive: “If we reach 30 million dollars in revenue by September 1st, the top 10% of our employees as judged by (X metric–widget sales, maybe, or customer return rate, etc.) will receive a one-time bonus check of $4,080 (or a two dollar-per-hour raise paid out in October if the goal is hit by September 1st). Does your team know what the stakes are and what the payoff for winning is? Perhaps most importantly, are the stakes and payoff commensurate to the effort you are asking of your team?


3. Leaders force top performers to work in the same cookie-cutter rule set as bottom performers, but continue to expect top performance. One of the biggest fallacies in work culture is that everything has to be fair. All workers have to follow the same rules, the same way, or you will be making exceptions all the time. The problem with this should be blatantly obvious, yet nearly every company institutes this erroneous idea to a fault. If every employee were the same and every work rule and practice were always the same, then results would always be the same… but they never are. Some weeks or months are more profitable than others; some employees are better at some tasks than others.

Leaders often refuse to acknowledge the reason “fair” does not work is because some employees are better than others. Go ahead and pick your cup off the floor–I said it and it is true. Some employees are better than others. If you prefer more politically correct phrasing, you can trade that for, “some employees provide greater value to the organization”.

I remember my first day working for a consulting firm that hired me for my innovative ideas on how to achieve the company’s vision and bring their mission statement and values to life. I watched the leaders of the company give a 3-hour power-point presentation to a large group. Afterwards they asked what I thought. I said, “I would get rid of the Power-point presentation or reduce the number of slides to 10 or less and remove most of the bullet points in favor of eye-catching pictures.” I was told the power-point has to stay as it is and I needed to learn their way instead of create my own. Although I gained invaluable experience, I did not last long with that employer because I was not a good fit for their cookie-cutter role. Within only a few months, they realized they did not know what to do with me. In the end, I lost a great team and they lost one of their greatest advocates and a committed employee… that might have become a great employee.

Effective leaders, I think, are effective because they know the distinction between a goal, a result, and a wish (a result, as stated previously, must exist in time and space–that is, a result is the measurable end of a cause/effect relationship in reality). A goal, on the other hand, is the desired end sum of results. It is what the results amount to. Great leaders understand that “More, Better, Different” are not goals (if your goal starts with any variation of those terms–“We need to make more widgets this year… we need better materials… we need a different approach…”, then you can stop there because you do not have a goal).

Goals set the end-point of results just as the finish line sets the end point of a marathon. The reward for meeting results and achieving goals should not be a never-ending raising of the bar. Top performers want a moment to enjoy their victory and look proudly over their kingdom–they need rest and a comfortable spot from which to observe their achievements once in a while.

Finally, great leaders throw out the cookie-cutter. Just because a company has done something the same way for 40 years is no justification to keep doing things the same way (“old” does not mean “effective”). Allowing your team the freedom to experiment and fail, and rewarding top-performers by treating them differently, with ever more freedom to do things their way, is a sure path to victory. Even if it seems crazy and no other person or team is doing it like your top performer… if he or she is producing the agreed-upon results and moving you toward your goal, don’t knock it; find a way to leverage it and improve it. Not forcing others to follow suit creates a little chaos, but it is exactly the right recipe for growth and innovation.

But don’t take my word for any of this. Ask your top performers what they think. Then listen, and step to the side of these 3 pitfalls.

Define results. Remember, the sum of defined results should lead to a goal. Reward your top performers with more freedom instead of more assignments.



The Difference Between Hearing and Listening


“You will hear the bird no matter what but you will only catch the melody if you listen.”

Do you have a friend or team member that seems to never know when to stop speaking? You like him but he rambles, repeats, goes off on tangents, shares too many details, or does not pick up on social cues that normally alert others when we are talking too much.

There is one sure way I know of to stop someone who will not stop talking:


Over-talkers speak so much, I think, because they never feel listened to, so they keep talking to make their point (because what else can they do?). The irony is they are right. Many of us hear but rarely listen. Hearing is a passive action–you can not stop yourself from hearing the world around you, including people speaking to you. You can not will yourself not to hear the clerk at the cash register or the car with the bad muffler across the street or the bird outside your window.

Listening, however, is active. It requires intention. You will hear the bird no matter what but you will only catch the melody if you listen.

Listening is like meditation. To do it properly, you must stop the chatter in your mind and focus only on the present and the sound (or person in front of you). Most people do not listen to what is being said…they listen for their turn to speak.

I know sometimes I find myself so focused on spitting out my witty response to something that I miss the 10 sentences after the one I wanted to comment on. As passive listeners, we tend to wait for a break so we can say what is important to us instead of listening to what is important to the person we are speaking with.

Here is the best tip I can offer to encourage active listening:

Listen without interrupting and listen with the intention of listening–the way you pause to listen to your favorite song, taking in every sound, appreciating it, and letting it fill your mind. It is okay if you are not able to share every clever remark that enters your mind; it is more important you listen to your friend or team-mate in the moment.

The reason some people talk too much is simple: they want to feel listened to. They believe (whether consciously or sub-consciously) no one listens to them. If they realize you are listening intently to every word they say, then I assure you they will suddenly not have as much to say, and you will be able to move on to the next conversation quickly.

Today’s lesson… do not only hear what people say. Listen intently and intentionally and wait patiently without worrying what you will say when they pause. Let them finish. You will be surprised at how much more you will learn and how much time listening saves over hearing.



Today’s Lesson: When Is It Okay To Talk Trash About Your Competition? [141018]

I sometimes hear of my competitors saying something negative about my stores, company, or team. They will tell a customer, “You can’t trust those guys. They will rip you off! They lied to you about that price.” Some of my competitors will say whatever it takes to steal a sale from my team; they think it is a competition because we call each other “competitors”. The only problem is, I am not competing against them.

New people on my team (and sometimes veteran team members) are counseled that we never say anything bad about our competitors, internal (meaning other teams in our own company) or external (meaning stores from other companies offering similar products).

In fact, I will even help my competitors if they call for advice or tips, or if I can not meet my customers’ needs. I will send my customer to another store if they have a product or service better suited to my customer. That may sound crazy, but it has always raised my team to a top performing level.

Why are we so kind to the “competition”? We aren’t, actually.

It is probably my arrogance that drives me to hold a better standard with my team. You see, I want my “competitors” to know that not only did I beat them, but I played by the rules, gave them every chance along the way, and sometimes even helped them! I want them to know they were defeated so badly by such a high-caliber of team that they never even think about trying to take me on again.

I do not mind sharing my knowledge with others because knowledge in and of itself is useless without proper application. It is not about who knows what to do; it is about who does it better, and my aim is to outclass anyone in my arena (admittedly, I do not always reach that goal but it will never stop me from trying).

If a customer tells one of my employees, “I’m so glad I found your store; those guys up the road are a bunch of crooks!”, my employees are taught to have no opinion on the matter. It is not up to us what the customer thinks of the store up the road and it does not matter anyway. We respond with empathy and a willingness to help, “Wow, it sounds like you had a bad experience there. Let’s see what we can do for you.”

When customers go to a different store and their employees have nothing but negative things to say about our employees, I take it as a good sign. For one, they must feel desperate to resort to smear-campaign tactics. Also, what kind of impression does it leave on the customer if every time they visit that store they hear something negative about someone else? Yet, when they come to my stores, they only hear positive things. What kind of experience will the customer want to keep coming back for?

I assert it is almost never okay to say something negative about your competition. If your goal is to win, then win like a hero, not like a cheat. The team with the most integrity will always be the one built to stand… and last.

As always, this advice applies to all areas of life, not just business and leadership. Integrity and never speaking ill of others is never out of style and will always help you win friends and influence people.



Are Your Messages High Priority?

Many company leaders set the default on their email to mark every message they send as “High Priority” (a red-flagged message when received). They inherently believe their position has made them so important that any thought shared must be the most important thought ever shared.

The problem is this: when everything is High Priority, then nothing is high priority. If all messages are marked “high-priority”, then their status becomes average priority or no priority by definition.  When the owner of a company takes the time to send an email, the priority is already inferred by his title. Setting the default to make all his messages “high priority” leaves him no way to convey a message that actually needs a critically urgent response.

Marking a message as “High Priority” is like shouting, “Fire!”. If someone yells “Fire!” all the time, and there is almost never a fire, then no one will hurry for the exits when the building is really burning down.

Turn your High Priority default setting off. Accept that every word that tumbles out of your mouth (or onto your screen) is just not that important.

Instead, use “high priority” sparingly and you will find it is very effective when needed.



Does Your Team Glow?

After a sales training presentation, one of my peers said to me, “Man, I love working with your managers. The energy they bring is just amazing. It’s like, they just glow… I wish I saw that same thing on my team right now.”

I said, with a wink, “Well, that glow is just arrogance. We can be a little vain…”.

He smiled, but answered seriously. “No. It’s competence. Your team glows with competence.”

I remembered something my friend and mentor, Phillip Ford told me when I was a new manager, and I shared it with my peer. “One of the secrets to being a successful leader is to find and hire people who are smarter than you think you are.”

He looked at me quizzically.

I continued, “If you are the smartest person on your team, that is a problem because then the entire team can only rise to your level of competence. If you hire good people who are brighter than you, then you will learn and grow together. Your talents feed off each other and it is not just you contributing to the team. Everyone is chipping in, helping each other avoid pitfalls, challenging stale ideas, and creating new ways to succeed. You are benefiting from their brains and they are benefiting from your leadership and experience. Life becomes much easier then. The little stuff goes on auto-pilot because they can handle small details in their sleep. This frees everyone to focus on really interesting stuff instead.”

His eyes lit up. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but I think just then, the young peer started glowing.



What Is The Real Value of Spending?

If you have had to ask for money from your boss for you or your team to host an event, attend a seminar, be in a parade, or otherwise spend company money, then you are probably familiar with the term “Return On Investment” (ROI). Before you spend company money, the company wants to know (as it should) how your spending is going to eventually add to the bottom line instead of take away from profits.

The problem is, sometimes there is no direct link to return-on-investment. The obvious cause does not always lead to the obvious effect.

I have had marketing requests turned away because someone could not see the value in a particular event or idea. Sometimes the value is not in the event itself. Sometimes, what is ultimately driving the ROI is the benefit of having a team learn to work together by attending the event or implementing the idea they are excited about.

For example, your team might want to spend money going to a holiday parade and handing out flyers or setting up a booth to showcase your products. You have seen things like this before; you know holiday parades do not translate into short-term revenue growth, they never seem to work, etc., so you choose not to support the event and deny the request rather than waste time and budget on (another) unsuccessful marketing event.

What revenue are you focused on, though?

What is the value of having a team work together, developing a leader you put in charge of the event, or spending time with your team working somewhere away from the workplace? Does your accounting department measure ROI on that? How much money does a better-functioning, higher-performing team with greater morale generate?

Note to company leaders: be sure you know where the money actually comes from as well as you think you know where it goes.

Capital is one way to measure ROI, and though measuring money directly gained might be the most popular way, it might not always be the best way.


As usual, this applies well beyond the office. When you spend money on anything, you should know what you actually are receiving in return for your investment. Is that new television going to provide a better, more comfortable life… or rob you of health and time that can be spent enjoying family and friends on a fantastic vacation? 20 years from now, you probably will not even remember what television you spent $2500 on two decades ago, but the memories from that crazy vacation will bring stories of adventure and laughter for the rest of your life. Which is truly the better return on investment?

No one likes to spend money and have nothing to show for it. The trick is to be sure you are looking in the right place to find the value.




Patience And Vision – 2

Is there a time when having Vision and Patience is not appropriate or useful? Sure.

If your house is burning down (figuratively or literally), it is not the best time to map out and reassess a strategic goal and reflect on the nuances of your path and potential obstacles between your destination and you. You want to either grab a fire extinguisher or get out of there!

In other words, do not chase so single-mindedly your overall vision that you dismiss what is in front of you right now. Focus on both, and practice becoming better at weighing the benefits of each.

My family thinks I am too quick to fall in love, for example. When I meet someone compatible with my needs, I am not afraid to commit and try to enjoy every moment together, even if I think the predictable future is not likely to be success. Though I might know where I want my future to ultimately lead, there is always a chance I may not reach the goal I desire. I would be a fool, then, to pass an opportunity for joy only because there is the potential for sorrow.

I must choose intelligently, of course. I must have the Vision and Patience to continue working toward my overall goals, but I also must live in reality and acknowledge that I can lose everything at any moment. The trick is to be content in every moment I can.

To follow suit with my examples from Part One of this post, in martial arts if I am fighting someone else, I must have the vision of my goal and patience to make the right decision at the right time, but I must also be clever enough to spot an open opportunity if my opponent drops his guard for a moment or loses his balance.

In business, I need the patience and vision to master my career and follow my goals, but I also must be cautious not to foolishly turn down a promotion or opportunity that presents itself now, as long as it is still aligned with my overall vision.

Live for the future but live in the present. Exercise Patience, follow your Vision, but don’t lose sight of the fleetingness of life. Everything changes, all the time. Allow yourself to be content in every moment.

Sometimes you just have to wait… but sometimes you only have to wait a moment.



Vision And Patience – 1

I have never won anything in life by simply racing to the finish (not even a race). Whether business success, relationship needs, or material wants, any victory of significance for me has come from having patience and vision.

I am certain the goals I reach in life happen because I am able to see, where others do not, the long road to the future I wish to make reality. I can not express the value of waiting for the right time to make the right decision. In the interim, though it can be extraordinarily difficult, sometimes all there is to do is wait. Patience, then, is an action. Patience is the act of finding inner peace when your mind is racing, of answering to your calmness and self-control, which in turn allows you to think clearly and move swiftly when the very decision itself runs out of patience.

Patience without vision, though, is boredom, is death. If it is time to wait, then be sure you know clearly what you are waiting for. Vision is an action, too. Vision is the act of looking into possible futures and choosing the one you will make reality, and then seeing the road to travel from where you are to where you want to be. Further, you must keep looking and checking the state of the road, over and over–obstacles can change–indeed, will change, causing you to re-assess both the goal and the direction to reach it. The trick is never losing sight of the goal or the future you are choosing.

This applies in relationships, of course. What is sweeter than the wait for the first kiss with a new love? But without patience, you might jump the gun and find yourself rejected. Without vision, the first kiss may never happen and you may find yourself watching the woman of your dreams meet someone else because she simply was not sure if you wanted her.

Another example is in martial arts. When you are fighting, you must start with the vision of your victory over your opponent and then see the path to reach it. You must be patient when he strikes to avoid traps, feigns, or mistakes in your own balance and emotion that he might turn into his victory (naturally, his success depends on his patience and vision, too).

This applies in business as well. To reach number one in any field, you must know what the metrics are to surpass them (Vision) and you must build yourself or your team by learning and applying and gaining experience (Patience) to overtake one-by-one the opponents or obstacles in your way.

Sometimes the hardest part is waiting, but knowing what you are waiting for and why can make it infinitely easier to bear. I suppose the secret here is to know when the waiting is no longer worth the reward, but to understand that you must know your own values and how well those values are aligned with your vision.

It should go without saying, but Vision and Patience are only values if  they stay true to your other moral and ethical values. Taking that kiss the wrong way could be rape. Getting ahead in business by being unscrupulous could be stealing or cheating. Not having patience and vision in a competitive fight could lead to serious injury or worse, death.


Anything worth winning is worth waiting for, to what extent it is worth waiting is up to you, but the best things (or goals, or people), I can tell you, are often the ones that require the most patience and surest vision.  Sometimes you just have to wait.



Get Out Of My Way!


Sometimes the best way to help your team is to simply get out of their way. As a team leader, my job (my actual job, not the job description) as I see it, is to be there to remove obstacles when my people believe they are stuck or being prevented from doing what I have asked them to accomplish.

These obstacles can be political–such as being blocked from having needed resources by another team’s department head; philosophical–such as not knowing how to handle an employee morale situation, or sometimes even physical–such as getting my hands dirty and helping to take out the trash or clean the back room).

This year, I realized the senior team members I lead are pretty well-developed. I am lucky enough to have a well-oiled machine of leadership. I have veteran performers that know my style, understand my methods, and are able to take any ball I throw to them and run with it. I don’t have to be there, standing behind them, shadowing them in case they slip or fall. It was oddly difficult, though, to come to that conclusion. I only recently realized I have trained them well and I am now sometimes the obstacle that needs removing.

When you have a capable and confident team (or team member), take away the training wheels.

Trusting the people I trained to achieve the results I commission from them actually frees me up to focus on (or create) other important tasks or new goals to drive the whole team forward.

When you have done your job as leader, recognize your accomplishment and welcome your most accomplished team members as peers that can help move the next mountain instead of as novices still learning to climb hills.

Sometimes the best thing you can do to help your team win is to just get out of their way and let them.



The Heroic Leader

I think of Leadership in terms of heroes and villains.

Villains are free to do whatever they want and pretty much get away with it, until a hero steps in. Villains can slack off, cheat, be dishonest, act recklessly, and never consider consequences for their actions.

Heroes must win while playing by the rules, doing the right thing the right way, and considering actions before taking them.

The burden of leadership is that leaders must be heroes–role models for others to look up to. We do not get to take the easy way out; we must live and act according to our own values (which is the very reason people are willing to follow us). We must understand the people we are leading may not have the same fortitude or character they expect a leader to always exhibit.

It can be frustrating when you feel the weight of leadership bearing down on you while others seem to get away with everything… but nobody promised being a leader would be easy or that every day would be rewarding.

The key is to remember who you are and why you choose to step up and stand for something more than the workday or the status quo.  We have the choice to be average at any time, just as heroes always have the choice to put away the cape and mask. The number one performer in a company can always choose to be the number 15 performer–skating just under the radar, doing enough to stay out of trouble but never taking on the burden of moving forward.

For better or worse, that is just not who we are as leaders. It is not within us to stand back and hide our greatness in times of crisis, despair, or a competition of values. It is not within us to allow people on our team to hide their greatness either. We take on the burden of being coaches, mentors, counselors, teachers, friends, and drill sergeants as needed.

The funny thing is, heroes never give up on villains; they always hope to bring them back to the light, to help them back to the path of being heroic or standing for something (more). Villains, on the other hand, may or may not be conflicted, may or may not be willing to change, may or may not be willing to be something more than they are.

The difference between heroes and villains, between leaders and stragglers, is that villains never remember what they stand for or why they should want to be something greater… and heroes never forget.