Leadership Lessons: The 7 Big Leadership Lessons learnt in 2013

I had a great break over Christmas and the New Year choosing to holiday in Western Australia. Hot weather, sun, swimming, wine tours and time with family and friends. Anyone in a leadership role needs time out to recharge (Link here for “Business Leaders need time out) so as to stop, pause, reflect, to do other things and most importantly to plan and refocus on what is coming up.

Last year I wrote about my 5 big Leadership lessons of 2012 (Link here) It was well read and I had a lot of comments back from others reflecting on what they had learnt.

Just prior to Christmas I asked over 200 CEO’s what they had learnt in 2013 and published the summary (link here) and I’m sure this will interest you.

Here are the 7 big leadership lessons that I personally learnt as a CEO, from working closely with other CEO’s and from leading a Reserve Army Infantry Company;

1. You are not in the role to make friends. When you are making consistent, ongoing business decisions there is a need for tough calls at times. It is impossible to please everyone and it is important that the best decision is made with the best information at the time. It is important to set expectations, have the tough conversations, to be consistent with people and to do what is needed for the business. If you communicate, plan, are transparent, guide, support and develop your people then they will respect you but ultimately you are not there to be their friend. You are there to lead. Respect and friendship follow once trust is established.Image

2. Spend more time in planning. I led a lot of change in 2013. Change in clients businesses, change within ours and change within the Army. There were many times that I had to make myself plan in more detail. There were many times I had to push those I was leading and working with to spend more time in planning. Time in planning is seldom wasted. Plan, plan, plan, delegate, plan. Even when the execution phase begins and the plan changes, the fact you did some planning will help in many ways to change the plan if needed.

3. Leadership is a lonely place. There were many times that I felt the need to talk to peers. Peers at the CEO level can be hard to find. 2013 was a year I learnt the true value of mentors, peers and hanging out with like minded people. In fact 2013 was a year it dawned on me just how big the need is for more formal peer groups. This year I plan to form a CEO leadership group to support both my own growth and the growth of others working in this space. Find smart people who want to see you succeed and ask for their support, help, advice or simply hang out with them.

4. Be completely comfortable in your own skin. I think authenticity is an absolute essential element of leadership. Being open, transparent, frank, including others in planning, decision making and problem solving makes things easier. It is easier to take others on the journey with you and it builds a high performance culture. I observe many leaders who like to keep a gap between their work life and personal life. I feel that if you are genuine and authentic then there is no gap. That does not mean you should not have privacy, rather I mean ‘be truly comfortable in your own skin.” Be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, be comfortable with them and most importantly play to your strengths. Be who you truly are and lead yourself well in the first instance!

5. Be tough on people. Be brave on the people stuff. Be clear in your expectations, lead the way, guide, support and mentor but be consistently tough on your team. Be tough on standards, performance, hitting agreed targets and KPI’s. People need toughness to get the best out of them. Doing their job for them or accepting poor performance not only lets those individuals down but it means the A Players in your team will lose respect for you as a leader and motivation in their work. It is the number one culture killer.

6. The importance of your own leadership framework. As a professional CEO (leader) you must be clear in your framework of planning, meetings, mentoring, communicating & leading through other clever people. It should be possible to drop any professional CEO into any organisation and for that individual to lead it. Take the time to identify and formalise your framework and constantly review, refine and improve it. High performance leaders commit to ongoing training, coaching, mentoring and a life of learning.

7. My heroes are people who get stuff done. I am not into movie stars or celebrities. Rather I respect and enjoy learning from leaders who make stuff happen, people who are brave enough to risk, experience and overcome failure to reach the top of their field. The likes of Mandela, Churchill, Hillary, Buzz Aldrin. I enjoyed reading a book over the break about Air NZ pilot and mountaineer Mike Allsop. I find they are genuine, tell of the fear, effort and lessons learnt and it is possible to learn something from each of them.

So as we line up 2014 as a busy year in business I think it is important for any leader to reflect on what they have learnt and to write them down. Discuss them with your team, peers or family. What did they learn? How can you build on your lessons learnt?

I’m looking forward to the year ahead and the opportunities and challenges that are already on the horizon. How is 2014 looking for you? What are you doing to grow yourself as a leader and in turn those you lead?

The Critic

The Critic

So many people are critical from the sideline. Leadership is about standing for something, living your values, making good decisions. If you don’t ruffle a few feathers on the way through chances are you are not leading from the front. That is no excuse for not being self aware, open to feedback and change nor to changing plans that are obviously not going to deliver the desired outcome.

Never be afraid to make the tough decisions and stand by them. Measure the results and manage outcomes and the expectations of the team you lead.

Make the best decisions with the best information you have at the time and iterate the plan……but make a decision & be confident in your own abilities.

Leaders Must Take Time Out

Leaders Must Take Time Out

Like you I am working some pretty long hours to finish all the things that need to be done prior to Christmas. Christmas is after all the ultimate “deadline” and as a leadership tool the “power of a deadline” is a well know tool for execution. People respond well to it. Come Friday this week I am taking 4 weeks off. It sounds pretty cushy I know but the reality is it actually takes planning, hard work and of course a lot of discipline to actually turn the technology off, disconnect e-mail and truly wind down. I wrote about the importance of leaders taking time out (Link here) some time ago when I was with RESULTS.com.

CEO’s, business owners and leaders are the worst at taking their time off and yet they owe it to those they lead to be at the top of their game. They must make good consistent decisions and lead effectively through all the change and pace of modern business. Any company feeds a lot of families and the responsibility of that alone means they should be led well.

So take some time out, truly disconnect, leave the phone at home, turn the e-mail off and divorce the laptop for a few weeks. It is important for you to have time doing other things, pursuing interests, looking after your family and recharging.

Happy Christmas.

Feedback from 200 CEO’s: What They Learnt in 2013 & What They Face in 2014

I have been working on the Strategic plan for the Results Group. One of our core Values is “Live what we teach” so it is important to Imagehave a framework in place of quarterly & annual reviews. Any business needs to understand what their clients need and face. I recently wrote about the framework for “Making High Performance Leaders Better” (link here) and something I have spent a lot of time facilitating this year which is “Owning the Voice of the Customer” (Link here). Any company who regularly invests in owning the Voice of their customer not only develops products & services that are of high value but they maintain a Strategic advantage over competitors. This means speaking directly with them often and really hearing what it is you do well, what can improve. It takes an approach of seeking excellence by incrementally getting better & better at core business.

The Results Group helps CEO’s (Business Leaders) to “Lead Change with Certainty”. As part of my research I undertook to ask as many CEO’s to help me as I could. I went out to as many networks as I could. I asked questions on Linkedin, on my blogsite, in person, via e-mail and through both my team and other professionals who work with CEO’s. The result was feedback from just over 200 CEO’s. Many in Canterbury, most from within New Zealand and a decent number from Australia, the USA, Canada and beyond. Many are clients but not all. They are leaders I work with in primarily the world of private business but also there is feedback from the Public sector and larger Corporates. They all lead organisations and people and are CEO/Business Owners. Here are the results which took considerable effort to pull together into key themes. There were many answers as you can imagine so I spent time understanding the key themes/patterns that were common. I asked for the top 3 but feel there are 6 key areas that came through so I have included all 6;

The first question I asked was “As a leader what did you learn in 2013?”

– The importance of Leading by Example: In all you do be genuine, set standards you want others to follow. Be fallible and show that you make mistakes and learn from them, be tough with your staff but ensure they understand what you expect and then that they deliver it. The single most important thing to come through was the importance of being consistent as a leader & in how you deal with people & decisions.

– Empower your People to succeed : Invest heavily in developing, mentoring and training them. Ensure they have not only a clear role that defines what success looks like, but the autonomy to to do the job. Delegate to your staff. Keep them on track often and regularly. Celebrate the wins when they happen (big & small this was a key comment).

– Create a clear Vision & Values Structure: This is especially  important for consistent decision making. It was also critical for the times when the way forward was not “obvious”. It gave a framework for making the important decisions. Speak about “Vision” all the time, make sure the team understand it and align with it and make sure the Values are alive in stories and awards.

– Communicate Clearly & Often: This came up in almost every reply. Be clear in your communications as a leader, set expectations, communicate them often, give good timely and direct feedback so people understand where they stand. Many said they had learnt the importance of communicating the same thing many times to ensure people “get it”. This applied in both large organisations and small ones.

– Have Good Mentors: Mentors internal and external to the business. Have good networks of professional people who want to see the business and those in it succeed. They keep you “real” and things on “track”. Most importantly it keeps you honest as a CEO. The need to ask for and take good advice was a central pattern of comments.

– Include Your Team: This related to including people in both building the plan and in how it will be executed. The need to trust people with information was a key learning as was the need to engage people in the plan. Seeking  feedback on progress, opinions, ideas and on how things could improve was also a central theme.

The Second question I asked was “What are the Challenges you will face as a leader in 2014?”

– Building a Strong Culture: This was a very common theme. The need & desire to build a culture that attracts and retains top talent. In Christchurch this is definitely the number one challenge given that it is a tight labour market. Building a culture that is balanced between high performance and fun, a culture of achieving results. A culture that is a major point of difference over competitors were key challenges for 2014.

– Building Brand: This related to having a clear and strong brand in their particular markets & industry. One that stands for something and is well known. Getting clear on what their brand is and should stand for and being consistent in branding and marketing activities were key actions that needed to be addressed in 2014.

– Recruitment: Of key people. This tied into “Culture” but mainly related to the need and desire to have a good process in place. Challenges included the need to recruit top talent, the time and effort taken to actually run a good process that delivers a skilled recruit that fits the culture & who should be involved. Something mentioned by many CEO’s was the challenge of “understanding young people” and how how to lead them. Sound familiar?

– Leading Change: Change was on the radar for all those responding. The challenge of helping their team to change and to lead the change. A lot of technology change is on the agenda for 2014 i.e. implementation of new systems, software and technology. Changing the business structure also featured abundantly. The need to stay competitive, achieve high levels of staff productivity, introduce and develop new products & services. A key concern was how they were going to do this “when light on details” (plan) or where there was uncertainty on the process needed. Some talked about the “courage” needed by all leaders in the Company to implement change.

– Free up Time: A central theme was the need to delegate to staff more in order to free up time to lead and work on the business. Most were seriously time poor and needed to alter priorities in 2014.

– Learning not to Sweat the Small Stuff: There were many comments about learning to be comfortable leading when there can be no “perfection” and being comfortable with that. There was a recommitment to “bringing back the fun” and a desire to “not take it all so seriously”.

Overall this was a very interesting exercise. It not only engaged a lot of CEO’s to reflect on what they have learnt and on the year ahead but it was the first time I have done this on a large scale. I found leaders genuinely keen to help, to offer their thoughts, who wanted to engage in wider conversations and I learnt a lot. I saw themes & patterns common to all leaders (regardless of the size of the team or organisation they were leading) and themes & patterns relating to Canterbury (with the current post earthquake rebuild) and wider across industries.

The answers above largely tie in with what I have observed over a busy and challenging year closely supporting leaders in change. The desire to build strong cultures that attract and retain top talent being one I certainly have as the number one challenge on the radar for 2014.

What are your thoughts or comments? More importantly have you taken time to reflect on what you have learnt in 2013 as a leader and to define what it is you think you will face in 2014? How will you address the challenges? In my mind leading organisations and leading through others is and remains one of life’s biggest and most rewarding challenges you can face.

Harvard: The Class of 1963 on Life & Happiness

Harvard: The Class of 1963 on Life & Happiness

A great read (link here). The more I hang out with successful people the more I understand that doing the basic things extremely well (i.e. better than the average person), finding a role you are extremely passionate about and having a good balance of work (family, friends and your own time) are the key to making it a reality.

Making High Performance Leaders Better

I do a lot of work with high performance leaders. In fact I have just completed a survey which I will share over the coming weeks about their key learnings over the last 12 months and what challenges they expect to face in the next 12 months to bring.

Executive leadership coaching is a growing part of my practise here in Christchurch that is growing by referral and it involves working with high performance, experienced individuals in key leadership roles who want to get better at their craft. This link (read here) explains why leaders need to be aware of their “blind spots” and how some good coaching can take them to a new level of influence over their teams and key people. Leadership at the senior level is about leading through others. In itself this involves coaching, mentoring, developing and getting key managers better at their game…..better a delivering results, better at leading their own parts of the business.


I work with CEO’s in a number of ways. Firstly to help build their strategy and then to help roll it out across the company. Primarily this is about “Business Execution” or executing the strategy. This is a major challenge in amongst the chaos of “Business as Usual.  I now have a number of high performance CEO’s from prominent companies seeking what I term “professional development.” They work virtually or travel from around the country to invest in their own development. This involves working with them in a high trust relationship to get them better at their craft. It involves the following;

a. Being a sounding board. Leadership is a lonely space so having someone with no other motivation except to see them succeed is something that is of high value. Someone outside their organisation, outside their team and outside of the Board of Directors. I have some who simply want to spend time and talk through key decisions and to help them get clear on their thinking and why they think that way.

b. Challenging their Blind Spots. We all have them and this is an area I have worked hard on myself. Better self awareness, better situational awareness of those we lead, key strengths and how to play to them and how to build the skills in your team to cover weaknesses. Empathy for others and tools for getting the best out of people are generally at the top of the list of these important “soft skills”.

c. Building a Framework = Finding Time. Generally CEO’s are very time poor. Finding time for them is key as we challenge how they might structure their week, month & year. A good cadence of team and one on one meetings, time for strategy, review, lessons learnt and strategic thinking all form part of this along with the disciplines required to actually execute such a framework. One of the biggest things I find is that busy leaders do not take time off. They risk burn out, lack balance between work and family life and few give themselves the time to recharge. As a leader of a large organisation you are responsible for feeding a lot of families. You have an obligation to be at the top of your game so you can make the best decisions and deliver the best results. Time out is critical and the discipline to make it a priority is key.

d. Building on Strengths. The best return on investment is to play to and build on your strengths and to build a team around you to do the bits you are not so good at. I find many leaders who beat themselves up for the parts they struggle with and often they focus on these negative areas. Why focus on things you are not naturally good at and tend to loath doing?

e. Execution. Actually supporting leaders to do what they set out to do. Everyone needs accountability and in a space where performance is key everyone needs a push to get out of their comfort zone and to seek excellence. Real situations require practical solutions and one thing I really enjoy is working with leaders to actually do what they need to do.

f. Seeking Excellence. As in high performance sport any % gained is pure gold. It is easy to lift performance from say 65 – 85%. But every % over and above 85% (or however you like to think of it) takes conscious effort, focus, trial and error and execution with a focus on measuring progress. A leader is only as good at their last game so building on performance, banking lessons learnt and pushing outside comfort zones is key.

g. Providing the Right Network. I certainly do not claim to know what it is all about and I challenge anyone who can. Leadership is a journey (not an event) and having the right peer group, mentors, exposure to research, case studies, stories/examples, academic courses and others who are on the same journey is an absolutely critical part of developing talent and talented leaders. I see my role as providing the right things at the right time to build personal networks.

h. Leading in Change & Enabling Culture. The pace of change is fast and continuing to get faster. Technology, competitor moves, globalisation, client expectations, economic conditions have never involved so much change. How do CEO’s lead in times of constant change and how can they enable a culture that top talent wants to be & remain a part of? The culture of an organisation is a strategic advantage that no competitor can steal so enabling a culture of excellence, that is resilient to change, is innovative and close to the customers needs is critical to growing and leading a business.

Working with high performance leaders is one of the things I love about my role. It is satisfying, challenging and I learn a lot about leadership, different sectors and different companies. The common theme is that no one actually teaches you how to lead people & how to get the best out of them. It is not a University course or a seminar or an event. Everyone you meet can & should teach you something and without doubt it is one of life’s ultimate challenges.

Are you working with someone to help you get to the top of your leadership game?