It’s always enlightening to read and hear the answers, because, after all, these folks have the benefit of hindsight to piece together all the relevant and important steps that led them to the top of the heap.
I’ve been fortunate enough in my 30 year career to have been asked that question too, and after a good bit of reflection, I can break it down to 10 essential steps to leadership excellence:
- Declare Your Intention to Lead (and why)- Before you can even start the journey, you have to WANT to do it. I drifted around for several years as an executive before I finally sat down and wrote “I want to be a leader”, and more importantly, also wrote down the “why“. That was the real beginning of the journey, declaring that intention. It’s a very powerful exercise well worth doing.
- Write Down Your “Rules of The Road” – This is another “put it on paper” exercise; 7-10 personal rules to guide your leadership and your life going forward. I wrote my list back in 1992, and my favorite rule remains the first one – “Don’t worry about that which you cannot control”.
- Heed The 5 Things You Need To Know (Before You Jump Into The Pool) – These 5 things are the key to getting off to a good start as a leader: 1) Full-Spectrum Management, 2) Teaching Instead of Telling, 3) Trusting the Facts, 4) Knowing the Secrets of Work, and 5) The Seven Most Important Words. Download my free e-book to find out more about these lessons, and always remember those seven words: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out“.
- Survey The Landscape (and open your ears) – Your first 3-6 months on the job should be more listening than talking. Period. There is no other way to really get a feel for your challenge and how to take it on than to talk to as many people as you can within the organization you lead. It’s also a show of respect that pays enormous dividends later in the process.
- Define Your Battles – This isn’t what you think; these aren’t battles with people. These are the feelings, attitudes, and concepts that you are going to have to fight successfully to be a winning leader. Things like “we vs. they”, “trust vs. fear”, or “will to succeed vs. hope to survive”. Once you’ve done your survey, write these down too, and discuss them with your team - when I did this it made a really big difference.
- Align All The Values - There needs to be a cause that everyone needs to rally around, but it must be based on common values. Take the time to do this alignment. In my case, at our cable TV company we established 7 common values that served us well: honest, thorough, reliable, supportive, respectful, grateful, and involved.
- Establish the “Immutables” – You’re now ready to lay down a few operational “immutables” – your leadership lines in the sand. In my case, there were 4: Quality, Service, Leadership, and Accountability. We were not going to compromise on ANY of these 4 things – as an example, one of our favorite lines that came out of this was “We will not sacrifice quality at the altar of expediency”. That sent the message loud and clear – and we had the leadership and accountability to back it up.
- Set the Mantra – Great leaders need a mantra – that is, some key phrase or sentence that is transferred to the lips and hearts of all they lead (notice I didn’t call this a “mission statement”). In our company, we used this: Serve our Customers and Support Each Other. We relentlessly pushed it (in fact, I required all employees to know it), and I believe it was a critical factor in the exponential improvements we subsequently made.
- Relentlessly Push 3 Key Metrics – We have to measure what we manage, and while all great businesses measure a lot of important things, there should always be a few that are tracked and known to ALL teammates. We used 3 – total customer counts, our operational fault rate, and our Net Promoter Score. Note how these 3 things could be tied to the values, the immutables, AND the mantra. But there’s one more step that REALLY ties this all together….
- Connect It All to Employee Happiness (and Yours) – As I reached this last step, it got to the point where when I spoke to groups of employees, all I’d need to do is draw a smiley face. THAT’s what this was all about. We focus on all of those other steps (the mantra, the metrics, the values, etc), and we’ll succeed. And guess what? That will also make us happy and fulfilled. But here’s the really cool part – remember my “why?” back in step one? It was – “make a difference for my teammates, my company, and myself”. Getting to this step was the fulfillment of that “why?”
This was the path that worked for me – and I’m sure, with your own unique personal stamp put on it, it can also work for you.