When was the last time you radically rethought and changed something within your business? To be clear, I’m not referring to incremental improvement, the addition of a new capability, or any other change that wouldn’t fit the definition of “radical.”
As painful or potentially challenging as this may seem, every organization must periodically apply radical rethinking to itself so that it can continue to grow and scale. A straightforward example is the requirement for wholesale changes to administrative systems like accounting and human resources over time. Growing from 10 employees to 100 employees, for example, and then again to 500 or 1,000+ staff cannot occur without radical changes to administrative systems.
Although this makes intuitive sense, as many of us learn the hard way in life, logic often takes a back seat to more powerful forces within us. This is where the trouble starts with respect to radically rethinking anything inside your organization.
We humans are creatures of habit and although that’s mostly a good thing—habits help us automate repetitive tasks without occupying our brain’s processing power—there are some serious downsides.
The most insidious is complacency—a seductive sense of comfort with the status quo—which is an absolute growth killer.
"As many of us learn the hard way in life, logic often takes a back seat to more powerful forces within us."
Because habits are automated responses to environmental cues, it’s easy to forget about them over time. And when something is removed from our focus and attention, it’s particularly challenging to change, because we forget it even exists. Consider: When was the last time you deliberately tried a different way to take your morning coffee?
There are two types of habits: habits of doing, like brushing your teeth, driving the route to your favorite restaurant, and asking certain questions of a job candidate in an interview; and habits of thinking, which, well, we don’t often think about! Habits of thinking include your beliefs and assumptions which, in turn, have a profound impact on your decisions, your words, and your actions.
Over two decades of coaching, I’ve observed a clear pattern of harmful impact from leadership habits and unintended complacency in three areas—People, Priorities, and Rhythms. Leaders who cling to the status quo in these areas damage morale, reduce performance, diminish profitability, and dampen overall business growth.
So, fellow habit owners, the odds are that one or more of these areas is ripe for a radical rethink in your business.
“What got you here won’t get you there.” – Marshall Goldsmith
WHO is the most powerful question you can regularly ask as a leader. Not WHAT, and not HOW. Because each of those lives or dies based upon WHO you have on your team.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a professional “…implies professed attainments in special knowledge, as distinguished from mere skill; a practical dealing with affairs, as distinguished from mere study or investigation; and an application of such knowledge to uses for others as a vocation, as distinguished from its pursuit for one’s own purposes.”
Here’s the key question: Have you surrounded yourself with professionals on your leadership team? And by professionals, according to the definition above, I mean people who have already accomplished what you are seeking to accomplish!
I’ve told clients for years that the way to become an $xx million dollar business (feel free to fill in any amount appropriate to your aspirations) is to begin acting like one today. And the way to begin acting like one today is to hire professionals—people who have already built and operated at the level to which you aspire.
None of this, of course, is meant to diminish the accomplishments and capabilities of your current leadership team, however this brings us back to Marshall Goldsmith’s insightful quote at the beginning of this section. Are the people on your team—the people who helped you get where you are—the professionals you require to get you where you are going?
Based on my experience, in all likelihood, one or more probably aren’t, which is your opportunity for radical change.
There is no end to the justifications you might want to offer as to why everyone on your leadership team is 100 percent right for their role. In my nearly 20 years coaching small and mid-market CEOs, I’ve heard them all! However, you must consider the following reality: Your emotional attachment to longstanding members of your team interferes with your ability to objectively evaluate their performance and fit.
If you have a people problem—and the odds are you do—it’s best to be honest with yourself and upgrade your team. Without radically rethinking whether you have the right professionals in place, your firm won’t scale as smoothy or as rapidly as you desire.
“When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” – Mark Green
The primary role of a leader is to point to what matters most. To do that, you must create clarity and focus on a small number of very important things.
The word “priority” first appeared in the English language in the 1400s. It was singular; there was no plural for the word. The definition was “the very first – or prior – thing,” and it remained a singular term for about 500 years.
Then, in the early 1900s, the language evolved, and the plural term “priorities” was born. For leaders everywhere, this should have been hailed as a most troubling development! With implied permission to have many priorities, the leader’s job of pointing to what matters most became considerably more complicated. After all, when everything is important, nothing is important—and our “priorities” are treated like items on a to-do list rather than most important things.
Enter Italian civil engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher Vilfredo Pareto who, in the early 1900’s insightfully offered a mental model to bring us back to the standard of a “most important” thing.
Pareto’s insight gave birth to what is now known as the 80/20 Rule—the idea that a small number of things are typically the cause of a disproportionately large percentage of outcomes. In other words, for example, approximately 20% of your customers likely generate 80% of your profit, 20% of your employees cause 80% of your headaches, 20% of your leadership team contributes 80% of the strategic insight, and so on.
I’ve adapted Pareto’s thinking into client priority planning processes using a domino analogy. You've probably seen a video of thousands of dominos lined up, one-by-one, in a complicated pattern—and then the lead domino is knocked over, which causes all the other dominos to fall over in succession (here’s the world record video for reference).
It’s the lead domino I’m most interested to explore. There’s a good reason why the lead domino is tipped over first, and not another domino further down the line: It has the potential to impact the most other dominos along the way. In other words, the lead domino has maximum power compared to all of the other dominos.
To bring this back to priority planning, think for a moment about the “lead dominos” in your business this year. They should be the one, two, or three things that have the greatest potential to impact the most other things you want to achieve. These are your true priorities!
Here are the four rules I use with my clients as we define their “lead domino” priorities:
As you pare down your priorities to the essential few, ensure they’re focused and clear. To check, watch for symptoms of poorly defined priorities: team members struggling with “time management” problems, mired in lots of activity while achieving very little, or putting out fires as a primary function of management.
Without clarity on a small number of most important things, you’re not pointing to what matters most and your team lacks critical guidance regarding how you expect them to make decisions and allocate their time. This is exactly why you might need to radically rethink how you create and communicate your firm’s priorities.
“In the beginning, there was noise. Noise begat rhythm, and rhythm begat everything else.” – Mickey Hart
There’s something magical and familiar about any beat. From our hearts, to our lives, to our relationships, and to our organizations, there’s a beat; a rhythm that marks time, events, and accomplishments.
It’s a beautiful thing to see an organization’s rhythm in synch with its rate of growth. There’s energy, coordination, and a knowing or predictability to everyone’s day, week, month, and quarter.
On the other hand, in both the largest and the smallest of firms, a lack of rhythm can be costly and frustrating to leaders, employees, clients, partners, and suppliers alike. Implementing communication rhythms fixes these issues, improves accountability, builds esprit de corps, and—when deployed properly—strengthens culture along the way.
Repetition is another critical rhythm to embrace as a leader. If you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not really pointing to what matters most. If you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not giving your team a chance to learn and internalize what you’re saying. If you’re not repeating yourself, you cannot be an effective communicator!
Communication rhythms including repetition, daily huddles and weekly meetings are the simplest, most powerful leadership processes your team can implement.
To help you catch the beat, here are the daily and weekly communication rhythms I coach my clients to use:
The Daily Huddle: The daily huddle is a stand-up meeting that lasts fifteen minutes or less. The focus is on synchronization—“what’s up” in the organization and any “stucks” (obstacles or challenges) members of the team are encountering. The huddle is not a time for discussion, debate, or problem solving—that happens offline or at your weekly meeting.
To keep your huddles on track, pick and rotate a “quarterback” each week who is accountable for ensuring a timely, focused, effective daily rhythm.
The Weekly Meeting: The weekly meeting, run by the CEO (or team leader), provides the forum to go deeper. Most of your time here should focus on monthly / quarterly metrics, priorities, and identifying, discussing, debating, and solving issues and opportunities. Weekly meetings are between sixty and ninety minutes, maximum.
Start your communication rhythms with the leadership team first. Resist the temptation to cascade them throughout the organization until the senior team has mastered them and is deriving clear value from the process.
How clear, coordinated, and effective are your firm’s communication rhythms? If your answer is anything other than “crystal clear, fully synchronized, and extremely effective” then it’s probably time to radically rethink the beat of your business.
“The most radical and far-reaching solutions often need rethinking of processes and deep questioning of the status quo—and these are hard.” – Bill Price
We are creatures of inertia; of habits including actions and thoughts. Inertia is the enemy of change—yet change, including radical change—is required to successfully lead and scale a growing business.
Andy Grove and Gordon Moore, the duo who famously scaled Intel Corporation through the 1980’s found an effective way to overcome their inertia as leaders and implement radical change.
Although memory chips were Intel’s primary, highly profitable, business in the early 1980’s, inexpensive chips from Japan began flooding the market and driving prices down. Grove recalled a conversation where he asked Moore: “If somebody took us over today, what would they do?” Moore’s answer: “They would get us out of the memory chip business and into the processor business.”
In that moment, the two leaders made the decision to “fire” themselves as President and CEO, walk out of the building, and then walk back in as the “new” President and CEO to lead Intel into the processor business. The rest, as they say, is history.
Although you may not need to “fire” yourself as a leader, you do need to challenge the status quo and radically rethink things to successfully scale. Start today with one of the three “lead domino” areas with the most potential for positive impact: People, Priorities, and Rhythms.