This is an excerpt from Oleg Konovalov’s new book “Leaderology” (WildBlue Press, 2019).
If you are reading this letter, then you are about to celebrate your thirtieth birthday. My congratulations!
Your life is already full of good and bad experiences, inspiring moments, and plenty of encouragement. I am proud seeing how you progressed despite tough obstacles and needing to start over again after many mistakes and failures. However, I don’t think you need my praise. What you need, or rather want to know is what mistakes to avoid and what will remain important for many years ahead.
A few years back I found myself in a tough professional crisis after some heavy losses. I was exhausted, losing self-confidence, and had no clear idea where to go. My previous achievements actually held me back, restricting critical thinking and keeping me in a cycle, making the same mental mistakes again and again.
One day I sat with a cup of coffee and asked myself a simple question – What is greater, my goals and dreams or my problems? My goals, without a doubt! The answer was so obvious and powerful that it hit me like a lightning strike. This was a moment of catharsis and the first step to redefining myself. It cleared my dependency from the past and opened new dimensions of life with a much broader vision.
I realized that if I was aiming to reach goals beyond my immediate needs, beyond my comfort zone I needed to explore and adopt new ways of thinking and acting. Remember when you learned how to drive a car and how hesitant you were driving with this silly triangular sign “L” for Learner on the tail of your car?
You already know management is more complicated and demanding than driving a car. The wise and successful leader doesn’t hesitate to carry his or her Learner sign, even if he is confident in his capabilities and experience. Being promoted to the next level or running a bigger company changes nothing. It is similar to learning how to drive a larger vehicle. The reason is simple – growing responsibility, complexity, and scale also equals a higher price for every mistake.
Think of a business losing its ability to function effectively and dying slowly as a Code Blue. Code Blue is a phrase used in American hospitals meaning an emergency case with a risk of losing a human life. The same happens with a company that is dying slowly at the hands of its leaders.
Ten typical mistakes that separate extraordinary leaders from the ordinary.
There are a number of mistakes we inherit from the past that hold us back, leading to a Code Blue condition for a business. Unfortunately, we tend to drag old mistakes with us like a suitcase with no handle full of dirty laundry. We convince ourselves for too long of its value, even long after we have tired of dragging it around.
I will mention just ten typical mistakes that separate extraordinary leaders from the ordinary.
- Ordinary leaders tend to treat different companies as being similar in nature. However, different organizations have different goals and patterns of resource utilization and so, have different qualities, optimal structures, and assumed properties. All businesses must be treated differently according to their nature and archetype. Treating every business as similar is the simplest way to neglect what makes a given business unique and give up any advantages in its market.
- I have met many owners and directors in my life and found that a majority of them have a lack of vision, and even the concept of vision. Leaders without vision are blind in terms of value creation. They don’t want to hear any feedback from employees or customers because where they want to be is unclear even to them. Feedback is valuable for those who know where they are going and every suggestion that keeps them on a track is invaluable.
- An old-fashioned tendency of leaders for patterned, rigid thinking based on old strategies doesn’t help to win in modern business battles. This makes one’s mind full of dogmas and biases restricting innovation, flexibility, and ultimately disconnects people. Mental rigidity restricts new ideas and innovativeness and limits overall business knowledge even for industry professionals.
- Looking at organizations as nothing more than a collection of individual components results in a blurry picture far different than viewing it as one complete entity. No one can gain control over several disconnected parts each of which behave in their own unpredictable manner. A person feels every limb and part of his body, if not, then something is clearly wrong. In an organization, good leaders must feel every cell of the corporate body in order to care for and build it up. Managing a company as separated functions is like producing knock-off brand clothing. A material seems almost identical to the original; similar buttons, same label, it all looks the same. However, the fit is horrible, and the overall quality is far from desired, decreasing the price which customers are willing to pay for.
- Leaders are often far too good at creating unnecessary complications and obstacles for their employees and customers. A steady stream of different management fads and fashions makes things even more difficult. It is often called smart, complex thinking. Companies are often managed just for the sake of management while forgetting about employee and customer satisfaction, profit for shareholders, and positive impact on all stakeholders, resulting in a big gap between the desired performance and what is actually happening. A meaningless complication is the enemy of effectiveness and causes chaos and misunderstanding.
- Good leaders attract good employees and help people grow. They connect employees and customers, using positive human emotions and senses. Weak leaders are more likely to destroy people’s effort and motivation, making their employees’ work and life difficult. They blame everything except themselves, from bad weather, wrong time, or unfavorable positions of the stars. Weak leaders rely on threats to win over people. The sad fact is too many such leaders exist.
- Teams, not crowds, win battles. I found that two out of ten leaders of medium-size companies can define and name their teams clearly, not by functions or departments, but their purposes and goals. Many leaders have little knowledge of their own people and their qualities. Too much effort is needed to get good performance from employees if they are disconnected and do not complement each other. It is no wonder why the best people are leaving. They simple can’t find a place where their competencies are utilized.
- Hesitation to learn and adapt to new realities kills chances for spotting opportunities, innovativeness, and as result, limit success. We have memories of such giants as Kodak and Borders. Both used to be on the Fortune 500 list but passed away because they were stuck in the old paradigm of thinking. As Marshall Goldsmith, one of the most influential business thinkers stated: “What got you here won’t get you there.” A dogmatic way of thinking and acting won’t get anyone far in business.
- People prefer dealing with those who share their values and views and understand them. They want to be part of a living process. Unfortunately, many people are caught in negative corporate cultures where invaluable human interaction is artificially replaced by formalities and rules, engagement is penalized by unpaid hard work, loyalty is not valued, and respect is something from another planet. High performance remains only a dream for such companies.
- Fear on the part of leaders to go somewhere unknown is holding many companies back. No one can explore new terrain without accepting risk. Business is a synonym for a risk. The famous nineteenth-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (Vincent Van Gogh, 1937) said, “The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm is terrible, but they never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” There is no success without risk.
You face new rules with every new project. If you notice some of these or even one of these faults, then rush to eradicate them as they will restrict your growth sooner or later.
What will remain important?
Life is changing and people are constantly trying to predict those changes. However, what will remain constant and invariable for years ahead is more important. Whatever is changing is simply variables that must be considered, but you can’t build a solid business around them. Think of the van Gogh quote – the weather and sea are always changing; however, there are four core things that remain the same – a ship, a crew, a captain, and customers waiting for fish.
The same happens in business. The core things remain constant – company, culture, and leadership. These three core elements exist to satisfy customer demand, the fourth and main critical element of the micro eco-system created by any business. A business is strong relative to its weakest element, whether that be leadership, culture, or understanding of the customer.
These four elements form an eco-system that will either successfully fit into a market environment or die if changes are not made.
I have seen many seemingly successful leaders fail because they failed to understand the nature of their organizations. Rushing to catch up with all the new fads, they forget that an organization is an organic body and treating it as a mechanical unit works against the human nature of the employees and the customers they work to serve.
People can’t create anything more clever and complicated than themselves. We are copying ourselves in terms of creating businesses expecting them to grow in a complex environment and achieve harmony within it. This is similar to what we are most familiar with, the human body.
It may sound a little weird to consider a business as an organism, but this allows a leader to grow a company by treating it as a whole and focusing on specific problems at the same time. Such an approach allows more balanced decision-making and scrutinizing assumptions behind innovation, customer service, and growth. A natural and intuitive understanding of an organization allows the creation of seamless and efficient processes which leads to higher performance. Think of a company as the best instrument for satisfying customer needs. You can’t do something exceptional if this instrument is sick or broken.
Corporate culture is the inner energy of an organization formed from the work of employees and their qualities combined achieve a company’s goals. It makes an organization as alive and unique as a human personality. Culture reflects the inner world of the organization and defines how people are cared for, treated, and praised. It gives a human face to the company. The company is efficient and appealing to its employees in terms of active engagement only to the extent it is a natural and comfortable environment.
Culture is multidimensional – it governs the interaction of company members striving to reach the organization’s goals; it’s the soul of the organizational body. As the dynamic and spiritual core of the organization, it catalyzes personal and organizational development, leading to better performance.
Culture is responsible for the development of people. No company can move further than its employees’ competencies. Strategic development is bound by the development of individuals. Mistakes in how people are treated are costlier than any technological or process mistake. A company with a negative culture is falling into an abyss of underperformance without realizing it. It may feel like everything is fine, but the results say different. The underlying cause of underperformance is a cultural bankruptcy. Before anyone recognizes the situation and issues the Code Blue, it is often too late.
These days, corporate culture is essential to competition. This is true for large and small organizations alike. Those with a stronger culture are those who will continue to succeed and grow.
Leadership should not rest on past success. Leadership should also not hold onto the past longer than necessary, repeating old mistakes and restricting innovation. Leadership is about having an impact today, and every day, for the sake of creating a bright and attractive future. Leadership is the multidimensional and multi-purposeful function where leaders must have a vision and appropriate capacities to build a future for and with people.
The Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, said once – “A leader is merely a dealer in hope.” (Martyn Lyons, 1994, p. 56) Hope means trusting in something that will happen in the future. People want to see something concrete when a bright future is promised to them – a leader with professionalism and the ability to do a job, expressing care for and understanding of people, and a clear vision of how to get to the future. An effective organization established and managed by a competent leader is an instrument for building this bright future. Culture is envisioned and maintained by the leader and reflects the care and consistent growth of people whose aims and desires are treated as a priority. Culture requires leadership based on vision, inspiration, and exceptional strategic competencies in managing a company, its people, and building customer relationships.
Customer demand is predictable in that it will continue to change all the time. As customers become more educated and sophisticated their demands will change accordingly.
Relationships between companies and clients can become close, almost a civil partnership. The organization makes an implicit oath to devote all its effort and attention to its customers. Companies match their values with the values of customers aiming to build strong long-lasting relationships. Business involves getting into the era of V2V (values-to-values) relationships.
If a company’s focus is shifted away from people, then in time it will be considered by customers (and employees as well) as an unforgivable infidelity. Then everything is lost – all effort, time, hopes, and income.
Please forgive me for such a long letter. I know that you are exceptionally busy. I’ll wrap it up with a few more sentences hoping to add more sense to your complicated business journey.
Success is not just given to anyone but earned by those who are brave enough to think boldly and learn every day, aiming to raise their skills from science to art. Modern management must be artful with a leader who is streetwise, book-wise, and nature-wise.
If you want to continue your leadership career, then assume that your main responsibility is care of people and nurturing their qualities and competencies. Devoting all your effort and time into honing your competencies in corporate culture, leadership style, and understanding of customers to an art form is the best investment in your future. It will pay you back in constant personal and professional growth, and simply having more fun doing business.
Take care and be brave,
This is an excerpt from the book “Leaderology” (WildBlue Press, 2019).