The Hero

The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and Gene Autry were the cast of TV heroes in the 1950s. Today, there are so many hero characters in video games, movies, TV, and pro sports that I couldn’t begin to list the most popular. Being a hero might seem cool, but it’s a tragic place for a leader to live.

Thomas, the CEO and owner of a very cool privately owned company, was talking about his management team when his CEO peer group asked, “Are you the smartest person on the team?”

Thomas yearned for balance in his life. He wanted to coach softball and spend more time with his family. He seemed to feel imprisoned and now he wanted freedom.

When Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom is another word for having nothing left to lose,” she came from a place of drug and alcohol addiction, but she also offered insight into the risk of forming our identity around performance. Trying to find relief through more work, alcohol, or other addictions creates a prison that misleads us into believing that escape is the only way out. As the smartest person on his management team, Thomas had created a dangerous persona for himself.

If you ask a private equity company what the purchase price would be for a company where the CEO is the brains and others are the operators, they would say X. If you ask them what that same company is worth if the CEO is just another member of the team and the other team members are smarter, they might say 2X.

Institutionalizing the creation of value always creates wealth and liberation.

Ten years ago, a company president asked me to help him develop his management group into “a high performing team”. In year two of our work, profits were increasing but he couldn’t explain why? I invited a research team from the UW Foster School of business to help us understand this change.

After collecting data for one year they reported, “The practices and values deployed through the work with the management team have resulted in organic collaboration, breaking out throughout the company, and this is producing the increased profits and growth.”

Institutionalizing value creation is always available, but never possible when the CEO plays the role of being the smartest person in the room.

Being the company hero is an onerous burden. Thomas’ longing for liberation comes from a place of wisdom, but his increasing desire to escape is the wrong move. Now he’s asking his peers for help and having more fun on the journey with them than when he was alone.

Who is helping you listen, learn, and grow? Are you having fun? I’d love to know your thoughts.



As David and I progressed in our development session, his energy in our conversation caught my attention. I usually associate this type of energy with confusion, but I’ve known this company president for years, so I thought back to the cycles I had observed throughout our relationship.

I mentioned to him that in the past, mid-year typically finds his company at a place where goals and performance are in tension. A place when the high hopes of January give way to the reality of June. Even though David wasn’t aware of his feelings, he couldn’t deny his energy, so we continued our conversation.

I recently learned that the typical worker checks their device screens 74 times each day, for texts, emails, and internet browsing. Given my own experience, I’m not surprised, but the real motivation for these actions did surprise me.

It seems that the brain associates checking with working and the more a person checks, the more they feel like they are working hard. A sense of working hard seems to help people cope with feelings of anxiety and create a false sense of self-esteem.

Senior leaders often demonstrate these same motivations in another way. David’s intensive planning process loads a series of growth goals, initiatives, and changes into a fixed talent pool of leaders. Yet at mid-year, the facts say the talent pool doesn’t have the capacity to win. Becoming busier, for the sole purpose of coping with reality, fills this aching hole. David acted very busy.

While this might sound like a simple problem to solve, it’s not. Scheduling stretch goals, organizational changes and other initiatives can make a leader feel purposeful and busy. Yet, once that sense of, “I can’t win” settles in, busyness depletes a person’s energy that developing talent demands.

I’ve asked other leaders what they would do when facing this dilemma and they all say something like, “Either increase the talent pool or decrease growth plans.” Yet, when it comes to following through almost none do and for a good reason.

Yesterday, I was having a developmental conversation with a senior leadership team who state that on average they spend 40% of their time solving problems, 13% recruiting, 8% on developing direct reports, and 35% on other tasks.

As our conversation drilled down we realized that in all cases what they called “developing direct reports” was in reality, solving problems. Why was this intriguing?

This group had identified three behavior changes in their direct reports that would improve their capacity to win, yet none was eager to implement them. As we pursued this, it was clear they didn’t believe they could succeed so their energy remained too low to engage. As we looked deeper, the root cause hit us all like a ton of bricks. They had never learned the skills to coach others on changing behavior so they busy themselves with solving problems.

If the leaders who are responsible for developing talent lack performance coaching skills, your stretch goals will always be in jeopardy. Firing, hiring, and bringing in outsiders should never be a primary method for expanding talent. Every time you bring in a new person, they bring their culture with them – like creating drag on an airplane that wants to fly.

Each of you has one or two stretch goals that seem out of reach because you or others on your team don’t have either the right skills or experience. Good news is that it doesn’t need to stay this way.

Would you like to help your people grow? Start by creating a baseline for each person through a 360 review. They’re inexpensive and easy to implement. Let me know your thoughts.


Scaling and Sustaining

If you haven’t thought deeply about scaling your company, you’re not alone. Out of more than 5.6 million companies in America with one or more employees on the payroll, only 1.7% scale to more than 100 employees, and .3% to 500 plus. Far fewer manage to sustain their size for long. Many cycle up and down the growth curve until the company finally dies.

This can make a small company feel fragile and for good reason. This census bureau statistic tells us that learning how to scale and sustain is probably on the top of each owner’s mind. But, how do you learn to do this?

We can start by facing the facts. Statistics show that some owners know how to scale, but most don’t. So what do some owners know that others don’t?

Cohesiveness is the first step in scaling.

According to Wikipedia, cohesion is when a group has a tendency to be in unity while working toward a goal or to satisfy the emotional needs of its members. A senior team can best achieve cohesion when they share a broadly understood future that meets the emotional needs of each member. When cohesion is absent, coercion is present. An ancient Proverb said this well, “Without a vision the people perish.”

A business unit leader recently shared his 360 review with his company peers. He scored a very low 65 on vision and strategy, which caught everyone’s interest. These are the evaluation question on his review:

  • Can clearly explain the reason your company is in business
  • Has the ability to anticipate the future needs of the company
  • Has the ability to set a clear course of direction
  • Can effectively translate vision into a realistic, achievable strategy
  • Has demonstrated a willingness to take reasonable risks

Our follow-up conversation revealed that the owners and senior team did not hold a common picture of the future. Without this, it would be nearly impossible for a business unit leader to improve his score substantially. Until the owners and senior team achieve cohesiveness, this business unit remains at risk. They also risk losing top performers who won’t hang around if they don’t know where you are going.

What would your score be for vision and strategy? Any score below 90 means you’re missing a great opportunity. Would you like to know? I’d love to know your thoughts.


Faith or Fear

Every choice we make contains either faith or fear and the outcome of every decision produces more. The power of choice, with all its creative, material, and spiritual implications, is the essence of the human experience.

When we choose the leadership role, we burden ourselves with the responsibility for managing the choices we make, especially in the eyes of our followers. This makes us think about the limited number of choices that fall within the domain of a business owner vs. a manager or executive. What are these limitations? How are these limits respected or violated?

I know an owner who recently violated the domain of the company president and chief operating officer by terminating a leader who reported to them, against their will. She chose to sponsor fear and erode trust. Without owning this mistake, she will find it hard to build trust and engagement again.

Followers don’t expect perfection but they do expect you to reveal the reason for your choices – if you don’t, you will lose their trust and engagement. Not sharing is a sure sign you have violated a boundary, an ethic, or a core value.

Choosing not to share is coming from a place of fear. When any leader violates the domain of another leader, without sound reason, fear floods the place that trust once filled.

With each choice, a leader is either building or depleting trust. A president or chief operating officer who works for an honorable owner won’t be allowed to make many poor choices. But the owner occupies a precarious place. Who will hold an owner accountable for making poor choices and how will they regain trust?

At a recent monthly session with a management team, the majority owner announced he had reversed course on a prior decision because he realized his ego had overwhelmed the facts. His poor choice created fear while the recovery created faith and this owner accrued net trust.

Out of 5.6 million companies with one or more employees on the payroll, only 10% make it to more than 20 employees, 1.7% to more than 100 employees, and .3% to five hundred plus employees. Fewer manage to sustain their size for long.

The owner’s choices drive the company and reflect the owner’s character over time. By managing your choices, being accountable to your leadership team, and your peer group you can break the patterns that have held you back. Life is too short to keep repeating the limiting behaviors and patterns that prevent you from scaling your company. Would you like some help?


Leadership Mind

After working for a larger business, Dave launched his company and 12 years later became the largest privately owned company of his type in his market – an American success story by any measure.

Sustaining this success and scaling beyond was clearly testing Dave. On the inside, Dave seemed increasingly fragmented. Launching initiatives that didn’t seem aligned was costing him. His mind was over functioning but he didn’t realize it. If you think Dave’s case is unusual take a step back and listen to what I have to say.

Out of the 5.6 million companies with one or more employees on the payroll, only 10% make it to more than 20 employees, 1.7% to 100 or more employees, and .3% to 500 plus employees. The numbers of companies that expand, contract, stagnate, or die is shocking. Most companies fail to scale. Despite the owner’s best effort, they hit a wall and never move through.

It’s been said that the brain processes around 60,000 thoughts each day regardless of who you are or what you do. If that is true, why do some leaders seem quietly present, thoughtful, aware, and helpful, while others seem overly creative, intense, distracted, impatient, and difficult to follow?

Evagrius, the fourth century author, urges his reader to, “Be like an astute business man: make stillness your criterion for testing the value of everything; and choose always what contributes to it.” This principle led Evagrius to advise us to be calculating in every relational encounter, “testing the value of interactions with other people based on their effect on our pursuit of stillness.”

A cascade of reactions, judgments, and second-guessing clouded Dave’s access to stillness and clarity. So how can he access stillness and clarity in the midst of this struggle? By returning to wholeness and leaving fragmentation.

First, Dave needs to tell himself the truth about himself with the help of trusted peers. Unless Dave can look into the clutter, he will not return to wholeness.

Second, Dave needs to get present with people. Dave engages with the stream of drama that lives in his head. To be present with people he needs to be open and inquiring, allowing thoughts and judgments to pass through without attachment.

Last and most important, Dave needs to quit protecting and pleasing people. This includes employees, children, his wife, and himself. When Dave judges himself as being responsible for another person’s unhappiness, he begins to over function. He will lead best when he can live from a place of stillness.

Dave will experience a growing sense of inner spaciousness when he makes these changes. Becoming more receptive and less reactive will allow Dave to shift from a place of fear to living from faith.

This spaciousness is inherently still, poised and watchful. Scaling a company and a family is full of rich struggles and you either respond or react. In all of these struggles, stillness is your friend and to be still you need help being firmly grounded in reality.

The reason we fail to scale is simple and deep. It’s us. Would you like some help?


Ailment and Antidote

Only 10% of all companies grow to more than 20 employees, 1.7% to more than 100 employees, and .3% to 500 plus employees. Even less manage to sustain that size. The census bureau says there are 5,684,224 companies in the US with one or more employees on the payroll, so do the math.

If the statistics above are accurate, 99% of the leaders reading this blog realize that as their company expands, contracts, or dies the impact to their net worth, succession plan, retirement, lifestyle, and the college education of their children or grandchildren, and possibly their health is anything but predictable. While at the macro level, a company’s life cycle in America is very predictable. On the personal level, it can feel like raw unnerving chaos. The men and women who build small businesses are a unique American treasure.

As I work with these amazing people, I notice different versions of one question operating in their minds, “How do I personally grow my leadership capacity fast enough to lead my people and customers through these cycles successfully?” Leader effectiveness is the one thing that determines success or failure at the ownership, CEO, executive, and manager levels of a company. Are you ahead or behind in this unnerving race?

Profitability is a lagging indicator while leader effectiveness is right now. Improving and sustaining leader effectiveness will always improve future profitability but high or low levels of current profitability are never a reliable measure of leader effectiveness today.

I have found one effective antidote for this ailment. I help leaders understand how effective they are and where they can specifically take simple steps to improve by deploying a web based 360-review tool.

Leaders make themselves vulnerable through this anonymous process and while this is certainly unnerving, it creates the facts to help them know where they stand. This experience sets in motion a virtuous cycle of self-improvement that ultimately cascades throughout the company with astounding results.

The condition of a company mostly reflects the condition of the owners.

The owners are the foundation that the executives and managers stand upon. Knowing where you stand today puts solid ground under your feet while not knowing is like standing on shaky ground.

What’s your Leadership Baseline? The mean average is 73 – are you better than this? As the census bureau statistics shout, average is a dangerous place to stay – but how would you even know?

Its not what we choose that matters, it’s the reason behind the choice that people follow. When a leader makes a choice to assess how well they lead, their reason becomes apparent to everyone. Conversely, when they choose to stay in the dark, they open the door to confusion.

Would you like to know your leadership baseline? I’d love to know your thoughts.  Jim


Your Move

Several years ago, a friend suggested I take Gallup’s Strength Finder test. I discovered my strengths; according to the author, but it didn’t help me in any material way. I’ve also noted after taking most others tests that these generally have a natural bias toward how the taker thinks he or she needs to become to gain acceptance within their group.

Culture has strong norms and tries to conform us to its desires. Unless we are clear about who we are, what gift we bring to our work, and authentically claim the ground we are meant to stand on, chances are that some degree of uncertainty will mitigate our leadership contribution. Today I use a very different process to help leaders get clear on who they are.

In my line of work, being clear on who I am and where I stand is essential. I hope you might say that I am different and to some I may seem polarizing. Leaders are different; leading often means departing from the normal path and can be polarizing.

My Australian friends call this the “tall poppy syndrome.” It describes a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized by their peers because their talents or achievements distinguish them from others.

In athletic events, “breaking out of the pack” is a term used for the person who dares to take the lead. Taking the lead with your gifts is risky and the pack usually doesn’t support this initial move.

Being who you are may mean that you need to change where you are or that you need to risk breaking out of the pack. I’ve made these moves and neither is easy, but life is too short not to try.

I know a gifted CEO facing this awkward position now. He built a company and successfully repaid his investors but now he needs to reclaim the shares he sold to them because they are unwilling to pay him the salary he deserves. They have become greedy. Will he break out of the pack and get this done?

Over the years, I’ve helped a gifted young executive develop to the point that he now runs a complex business. This allows the owners to be relatively inactive, but they haven’t offered him shares. Will he break out of the pack to get this done or move to another ball game?

I recently completed a 360 review for a gifted young woman who leads several managers and her evaluation was exceptional. Will her boss see her as a gem and help her become all that is possible or will insecurity place an unnecessary lid on her development?

Each person has a gift to offer the world but most never fully develop it, so his or her life never serves its intended purpose, and we all lose when this happens. Would you like to stand on firmer ground? I’d love to know your thoughts.