Twenty-five years ago, the doors of Bustin & Co. opened and my career as a leadership speaker, business coach, author, and Vistage Master Chair took off.
With a quarter of a century’s worth of experience under my belt, I’ve compiled 25 of the best pieces of leadership advice I’ve received, the most significant lessons I’ve learned (including many learned the hard way) and essential guidelines for today’s business leaders.
I’d love to hear from you. Which pieces of leadership advice on my list stand out to you? What are the best lessons that you’ve learned?
1. Find your sweet spot
When my firm opened its doors July 1, 1984, I figured it would become the crowning achievement of a successful career. However, I was both correct and mistaken. Five years into my ownership role, I was struggling and sought out my father’s advice. He told me that the key was in finding my sweet spot.
Our sweet spot is where our personal values (what we’re willing to do) intersect with our experience (what we can do) and our interests (what we want to do).
I’ve been in my sweet spot for nearly 17 years now, and I can’t emphasize the importance of this piece of leadership advice enough!
2. Know what you stand for. Our values describe our noblest traits that propel us toward our significant achievements. When our values have the potential to cost us something-money relationships, reputation-our character is tested. If we’re not really sure what we stand for, we flunk the test every time. Are you walking your talk?
3. No one succeeds alone. In my monthly Vistage meetings, the people around the table appreciate the fact that iron sharpens iron. You’re the average of the 10 people you spend the most time with. Who’s helping you to improve?
4. A good idea can come from anywhere or anyone at any time. Thomas Jefferson, aged 33, was the third choice to write the draft of the Declaration of Independence. Are you inviting your best people regardless of age, tenure, or position to help you plan the future?
5. Make time for R&R. Leading requires enormous energy. Reserve time on your calendar to replenish your physical and mental energy. When did you last fully unplug from your office?
6. Know where you’re going. Cast a vision that’s big enough to include everyone and bold enough to excite everyone. What’s your inspiring vision for your organization? You can include financial targets, but your vision must give your colleagues something to cheer for.
7. Why us? A good strategy is based on a competitive advantage that delivers real value. Your strategy describes how you win. What one word do you want to own in the minds of your employees, customers, and partners?
8. Talent is the best predictor of future performance. The people on your team-in life, in business, in sports-are important because none of us ever accomplishes anything meaningful alone. Are people trying to join your organization or leave it?
9. Take care of your customers. In the relentless pursuit of new business, it’s easy to assume your current customers will continue to buy from you. In difficult economic environments, your competitors are hungry and will gladly serve the customer you under-serve. What are your customers’ unmet needs?
10. Drive sales. Nothing happens until someone sells something. Everyone must be involved in helping drive sales-including repeat sales. Have you looked on Vertify.com to see how it can change your sales strategy?
11. Not deciding is a decision to do nothing. Everything is a choice. Exceptional leaders make more good decisions than others when the stakes are the highest. What difficult decision are you avoiding? What are you waiting for?
12. Manage growth. Be sure your organization is structured to achieve and sustain the profitable growth you say you want. What is it-specifically-that appeals to you about growth? What should your rate of growth be?
13. Cash is king. Understand the difference between cash, profit and revenue. You can be extremely profitable on paper and still find yourself strapped for cash. Do our employees know how we make money? Do they understand what it takes to run a profitable business?
14. Have a great banker and line of credit. Understand how much debt your company can handle. Leverage is a two-edged sword, so be mindful of how you use it. Do you know how your banker keeps score? What information is most important to your banker?
15. Protect what’s yours. Retain a lawyer to safeguard trade secrets, protect proprietary processes, structure employment forms and review transaction agreements. Where are you at risk of having your intellectual property stolen or misappropriated?
16. Your mindset determines your trajectory. When things are going well, it’s easy being a leader because it’s mostly about managing people, projects, deadlines and budgets. But when things go south, it’s all about leading people. Do people follow you because they’re obligated or because they’re inspired? How can you be sure?
17. Install systems. A company with primitive systems and procedures is a time bomb waiting to explode as it grows. Systems drive efficiencies because they take the guesswork out of getting things done, improve accuracy and speed implementation. What wheels are you continually reinventing? Where can you change processes that aren’t delivering the results you expect?
18. Track performance. Tracking drives accountability so be sure your organization has reliable, established systems to measure the most important things. People want to see progress so make tracking visible and emphasize that tracking is a tool to help them make better decisions and not a stick to use against them. If your management team was on a desert island, what daily or weekly key performance indicators (KPIs) would you consider vital in order to run your business?
19. Without trust your business is a shell. High performing teams are built on a foundation of trust. It’s easier to ask the tough, necessary question if you’re confident the people on your team have each other’s best interests and the best interests of the organization at heart. The four cornerstones of trust are shared values, clarity of purpose, skills mastery and proven performance. Where in your organization are these cornerstones the shakiest? What can you takeaway from this piece of leadership advice?
20. Have fun. Humor in the workplace is vital. You can be the catalyst for laughter, provided you’re mindful of your timing, tone and intent. How can you employ humor to lighten up situations, stimulate creative thinking and inspire problem-solving?
21. Clarity creates confidence. Bringing out the best in people requires setting clear expectations. Setting clear expectations at every level in the organization is one of the simplest and most effective steps leaders can and should take to drive performance. Conversely, confusion causes chaos. Ambiguous expectations mean that work is being duplicated, ignored, or performed poorly.
If you had to leave your organization for a year and the only communication allowed was a single paragraph, what would you write? Take a moment to reflect on this leadership advice.
22. Be vulnerable. Strong leaders admit their weaknesses, fears and failures. You must model the behavior you expect to see in others. They will follow you, but you must go first. In what settings and with what people are you willing to be vulnerable? What’s one thought you’re willing to disclose this week to lift a burden you’re carrying?
23. Bad news doesn’t improve with age. When a problem arises, address it immediately. Failure to speak frankly with the person about his or her performance means nothing will change. Have I been clear in my expectations-of myself as well as of others-or are my emotions coloring my view of performance?
24. Never give up. When faced with adversity, recognize there is always a way forward. Think through options, select the best one, and act to achieve a new goal. Focus on short-term, winnable objectives. Stay with it. How do you know when to rely on your drive, stamina, and persistence to press forward, and when to accept defeat, adapt, and focus on a new goal?
25. Make today count. This is perhaps the most important piece of leadership advice. Every day is a chance to make history. What did you give to your career beyond your time? What did you receive in return? What will be your legacy?
For more leadership advice and professional development, take a look at my various workshops and speaking engagements. To continue developing yours skills as a leader, pick up a copy of my book, “How Leaders Decide: A Timeless Guide To Making Tough Choices.”
To dive even deeper into the topic of accountability, I invite you to purchase a copy of my bestselling book, “Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture.”
Business schools teach case studies. Hollywood blockbusters are inspired by true events.
Exceptional leaders are students of history. Decision-making comes with the territory.