Most companies have what they call mission, purpose and vision statements, but I have found that very few have a true customer service vision statement (CSV).

The true underlying value of the what and how your front line delivers to each and every customer provides a meaningful purpose for your employees.

The CSV is the what. A CSV should match the following criteria:

  • Easy for all employees to relate to and understand
  • Simple, concise and memorable
  • Actionable and empowering
  • Measurable, observable and trainable

In my own experiences through working with and helping many great companies create a CSV, I have found that the pre-existing vision is great, but many times too “big” for the frontline employees to understand the role they play for each and every customer interaction. So it gets moved to a purpose statement and we re-craft a CSV that fits the stated criteria. Here are two examples of my own companies’ CSV evolution.

CompanyOld CSVNew CSV
John Robert's SpaTo enhance the quality of lives around usTo be the best part of our customer's day
The DiJulius GroupChanging the world by creating a customer service revolutionTo be the best investment our clients have made

I felt extremely passionate about our existing service vision statements; however, they did not tell our employees what their role was in their interaction with the customer. The new CSV was significantly more measurable, trainable and actionable. Over time our initial CSV became our respective companies’ purpose if we hit our CSV consistently.

Supporting pillars

The supporting pillars are the how everyone from your front-line employees to the CEO performs on a daily basis in each customer interaction, and therefore executes the CSV. There are traditionally three pillars that support the CSV.

  • Refers to the quality/expertise of the service or product your organization is selling.
  • Refers to the customer interaction.
  • Creates the autonomy for your employees to exceed the norm.

"People want to be part of something larger than them. They want to be part of something they are really proud of, that they’ll fight for, sacrifice for, and that they trust." - Howard Schultz

Published in National

Let’s talk about creating an environment where you achieve results. If you aren’t achieving results, your leadership won’t matter to your business. But it isn’t just about the “business of business” — it is also about people. I’ve been places where relationships didn’t matter. It isn’t pretty or successful in the long term. I vowed relationships would be the nucleus of any company that I had the opportunity to lead.

At Cbeyond, we spend a lot of time on culture and the “how” around “what” we accomplish. It is table stakes for having a successful career here. Don’t mistake my compassion as weakness. It isn’t soft — it drives return on investment. Period. It puts the focus on what is important (i.e., results) and gets us there by developing trust in each other, which drives collaborative growth and shared achievement.

Develop a legacy of trust and partnership. We call it “relationship capital” at Cbeyond.

Build the right team with the right character. Your job is to build the team and then emotionally invest in its members. Like any coach, you own the job of finding the talent and coalescing the players. And once they are on your team — invest. It is a slippery slope to think that the perfect employee is out there and you just haven’t hired them yet. Embrace the 90 percent capability you see in their talent and use sincere “frankness” and coaching to get closer to 100 percent. There’s an exception: Hire for competence; fire for fit. If they aren’t a cultural fit, get them off your team — and quickly.

Encourage vulnerability and avoid a culture of blame. We want teams that are comfortable and confident in their competencies, but we also want them to be self-aware. If we create environments where we assume good of each other, candidly declare the breakdowns and then arrive at a solution together, we create a culture where our employees feel trust, acceptance and support. If you as a leader provide positive regard for your people, they will be able to offer it to each other and to your customers. We call that “making a simple promise to each other.”

The world is a place of abundance and someone doesn’t have to lose for you to win. Benchmark against others — compete against yourself. Think this way and it will change how you lead and fundamentally how your teams interact with each other.

Focus on achievement — not status.

Stamp out bureaucracy. At Cbeyond, we all sit in cubes, we don’t print titles on business cards, and we don’t publish organizational charts. It isn’t just about bureaucracy; it is about having the ability to play as a team. Put the right talent on the proper challenges without regard to rank. When we are not trapped in “status” discussion, we are positioned to make the right decision for both our employees and our business.

Create shared values. Establish metrics, measure your business, create alignment and then celebrate success. For the past 11 years, we have rallied our troops around an essential imperative, our “Year of …” theme where we align our strategic initiatives, departmental objectives and individual MBOs (management by objective). And to make it stick, we share the same bonus objectives — everyone’s incentive compensation is paid on the same metrics. We rise and fall together and together we make decisions, drive priorities and ask the question, “If it doesn’t support our ‘Year of’ theme, should we be doing it?” You must have shared values to create shared success.

Speak in partnership language. Simply put — it is we, not “me” or “I.”

I have one final thought on all of this: Eliminate the rearview mirror. Learn from your experiences and move forward.

Jim Geiger is the founder, chairman, president and CEO of Cbeyond, a company that provides IT and communications services to small businesses throughout the United States and also provided the world’s first 100 percent VoIP local phone network. Learn more at

Published in Atlanta

Thousands of would-be retirees, their retirement accounts depleted, remain in the ranks of the employed. At the same time, another graduating class enters the job market every year. These two factors are creating a clash of the generations, and managing a multigenerational work force continues to get more and more challenging for business leaders and managers.

Most companies and managers are doing their very best to remain strong and deliver on expectations through the recession. But this becomes extremely difficult when, for the first time in history, the work force comprises four distinct generations: traditionalists, boomers, Generation Xers, and millennials.

Each group has strong assets that managers can tap into in order to make their businesses more effective and successful. For example, traditionalists and boomers tend to bring drive, determination, and vast amounts of knowledge and experience to any company that they work for. Boomers, however, tend to be less team-oriented than millennials. Boomers are also used to acquiring information and more inclined to keeping it to themselves because they feel like knowledge is power. But the problem is if they can’t effectively communicate with and train younger generations, their employers will lose profitable knowledge. Millennials, after all, must be effectively trained. Because Xers tend to be fundamentally independent, they are often free thinkers and can be a valuable source of fresh ideas to revamp your organization. You should always ask for their input. And the millennials usually thrive in team environments and typically are not shy about putting in their two cents about anything you may ask them about or want an opinion on. They are also a fountain of fresh ideas. Additionally, they tend to be highly productive and excellent multitaskers.

Right now, millennials are a hot commodity on the job market, mainly because they are cheap hires. After all, older Xers and boomers are looking for higher wages and the corner office, and sometimes executives mistakenly think it makes sense to lay them off and replace them with cheaper labor.

Yet this strategy creates a problem. It might seem like replacing older employees with lower-paid millennials makes financial sense, but it really doesn’t if you stop and think about the true implications of doing something like this. If there are no boomers and Xers around to train the millennials, the company will suffer. Untrained millennials may take hours to complete tasks that a trained boomer could complete in five minutes, so this would actually increase a company’s cost of doing business.

It’s important to make sure you’re maintaining a good generational mix and facilitating communication and knowledge transfer across generations. It can only help your bottom line.

Consider these three tips for managing today’s multigenerational work force:

1. When you are trying to get a point across, always keep your audience in mind. If you can understand generational differences, then you can tailor your communication to speak powerfully to your targeted demographic.

2. Abandon “one-size-fits-all” thinking. Different generations are motivated by different things. Accordingly, you should use a range of recruiting and incentive strategies to make sure your company appeals to all four generations instead of just one or two.

3. To make sure incoming employees are properly trained, allow them to choose their own training methods, as they each have different preferences. Whereas a boomer may learn best by attending a live class, a millennial may prefer to take a webinar instead. Allow your employees to choose the training methods that work best for them, and in doing so, they’ll respond better to the training and be more effective in the organization.

Sherri Elliott-Yeary is CEO of Optîmance Workforce Strategies, founder of Gen InsYght and author of “Ties to Tattoos: Turning Generational Differences into a Competitive Advantage.” Contact her at

Published in Dallas
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:01

Stop problems before they start

We’ve all read or heard the perennial favorite old English nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty who fell from that darned wall, was irreversibly damaged and could not be put back together again. In business, we spend a lot of effort fixing what has been broken, rather than preventing the breakage in the first place. Think of your own organization and recall how much effort went into trying to fix that last big problem that could have been critical to your business and, ultimately, sales and earnings. No doubt that once the issue reared its ugly head, you went into fire drill mode, barking out orders to get to the bottom of the problem and fix it immediately, as measured in hours and days, not weeks and months.

Stop and think about the cost, the interruption factor and diversion of effort this “pick up the pieces” exercise inflicted on the organization. Key people had to drop everything and scramble, not to make a penny but to stop the loss. Of course, every business periodically hits a slick spot and has to maneuver quickly to regain control; it comes with the territory.

Wouldn’t it have been easier, however, to prevent the crisis before it became one? Just ask BP about its oil spill last year and what it cost in hard dollars (or pounds), not to mention the almost irreparable harm to its reputation and perhaps long-term future. This is a dramatic case of failing to take the necessary steps to avoid the oil damage itself, as well as the near cataclysmic peripheral stumbles made in handling communications. The amateurish PR efforts are what really pushed BP’s Humpty Dumpty, aka the Gulf of Mexico Deep Water Horizon spill, off that proverbial wall. What actions can your company take to ensure you don’t encounter your own Humpty Dumpty?

Sure most companies have risk management programs, which involve assessing potential dangers, working to prevent them and determining the costs if the unimaginable does occur. Unfortunately, too many companies apply the risk management thought process only to issues that are most associated with accidents. The Humpty Dumpy theory has to be extended to all areas of a business, from customer service to employee productivity and everything in between.

It starts with paying attention and sweating the small stuff and taking action when the first whiff of a problem occurs. It’s almost a gut feeling that surfaces when good executives encounter something that just doesn’t seem right. Call it a sixth sense, but it can happen at any time and in some of the most unusual places.

As an example, you’re reviewing an internal report on an important new project, and as you study the material, something just doesn’t seem right. The numbers add up, but nonetheless you know that all the dots aren’t connecting as they should — you’re just not sure what’s wrong. You pause and put the report down for a few minutes, and then it hits you. Kaboom, a subtle yet critical step was omitted from the plan. Now that you’ve found the missing piece, you make a few calls and a potential problem that could have easily morphed into a big issue is squelched.

These same gut feelings apply to “reading” people, not necessarily by what they say or do but many times by what they don’t say or do. Here’s another scenario, your biggest vendor normally touches base with you like clockwork, sometimes if only to say hello. One day you realize you’ve not heard from this supplier recently. You wonder what’s up with this? However, you’re busy and the thought quickly passes. Big mistake. You should have picked up the phone, found out what the story was, and if there was an issue brewing, fixed it then and there.

It all gets down to trusting your instincts and recognizing when your Humpty Dumpty might be leaning too close to the wall’s edge. That’s the same wall from which anything can topple and shatter beyond repair. Preventing that from occurring requires paying attention, looking for telltale signs of change and then being perceptive enough to know that there is something that needs scrutiny — even if you can’t pinpoint exactly why or what.

The risk in your own little kingdom is that when your Humpty Dumpty falls you may not have enough of the King’s horses and men to put the pieces back together again.

Published in Akron/Canton
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:01

Executive role play

Many leaders will change their roles and/or companies in the years to come — and statistics indicate that over half of those leaders will fail in their new assignments. But leadership transition failures can be avoided if success is engineered from the outset. Below are 10 top strategies to ensure a leader’s success in his or her new role.

1. Develop (fit-for-purpose) 120-day transition plan.

Failure to plan is to plan for failure. In the first several months, your time is stretched. Take the time to think through what you need to learn, whom you must get to know and what needs to be done with high/medium/low priority. Document your plan and follow it.

2. Accelerate your understanding of the business and organization .

As part of your transition plan, decide what you need to learn and from whom and schedule meetings with them ahead of others. Put an emphasis on reading, listening and learning, and absorb as much as possible.

3. Connect meaningfully with key stakeholders.

Meet with key people during your earliest days. Ask their observations on key issues. Be a superb listener. Take notes. Answer their questions. Give them the chance to know you better. Through your words and actions, show you care.

4. Ensure clarity of direction; create momentum for business performance.

People want to hear your expectations for the business and where you want to take it. Make certain everyone knows what success looks like and what results and behaviors are most important to succeed. Keep people’s heads in the game by helping them focus on the business first.

5. Follow through on your commitments.

Leaders want to be seen as making decisions and taking action. Resist making commitments early on. If a leader fails to follow through, the seeds of skepticism and distrust are planted. For commitments you do make, write them down and enlist support in tracking and fulfilling them.

6. Actively listen and communicate often.

Leadership effectiveness is rooted in communicating well and often. Don’t leave this to chance — always be clear through well-thought-out communications, both formal and informal.

7. Model the teamwork you seek from others.

Take advantage of your newness to role-model collaboration, trust, openness and support for one another. Enhance the working relationships among existing team members and departments.

8. Ensure you have a winning team

You’ll need to change the people — or replace the people. Transitions provide an opportunity to assess and grow existing talent, to realign the talent you have or to bring in new people. Prioritize cultivating a winning leadership team — they are a reflection of you.

9. Manage your work-life balance

During leadership transitions, your work and personal life will be out-of-whack. Plan for this. Communicate openly about this “transition season” with your family and closest friends, and when you are with them, make that time count — focus only on them.

10. Ensure you have a trusted and caring source of feedback and support

There is no substitute for having a trusted professional with whom you can talk offline, seek counsel, test ideas and get feedback at all times, on any issue. Many leaders rely on an executive coach, trusted adviser or mentor to assist as they navigate new waters in their new role. This is not a time for heroism and going it alone.

Managing through leadership transitions from one job to another, or one company to another, requires careful leadership behaviors and behavioral management. This benefits you, your employees and shareholders. Use the top 10 strategies to ensure your success.

Leslie W. Braksick, Ph.D., is the co-founder of CLG Inc. ( and author of “Preparing CEOs for Success: What I Wish I Knew” (2010) and “Unlock Behavior, Unleash Profits” (2000, 2006). Braksick coaches and consults with top executives and their boards on issues of leadership effectiveness, succession and strategy execution. She can be reached at

Published in Pittsburgh
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:01

Syncing your company

[caption id="attachment_29242" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Ravi Kathuria, President, Cohegic Corp."]


No organization can achieve the next level of business growth and development without clarity and coherence. While they seem to be simple concepts, underestimating the innate power of clarity and coherence is a critical mistake many leaders make.

The innumerable business variables, competing agendas, and differing expectations among executives and employees about what is important in the business create the bedrock for suboptimal performance. Not sure if your company has room for improvement? Answer these questions and judge for yourself:

  • Do the executives and employees of your company truly understand the passion and purpose behind the company?
  • Do your company’s business model, core management philosophies and strategies leave room for ambiguity or are they crystal-clear?
  • Do the teams clearly define the work processes to ensure flawless coordination and update them regularly to reflect the ever-changing strategies?
  • Are internal politics and egos undermining success? Has the company proactively cultivated the desired culture?
  • Is execution in sync with the strategy? Is the company using internally or externally focused performance metrics?
  • Is the company continuously transforming its strategy, capabilities and execution while staying true to its DNA?

To be an effective leader, you must connect coherently all the strategic aspects of your business so the other executives and employees can follow and contribute to the thought process and reliably execute the strategy. You can become a coherent company by following the Cohegic Method, which has five essential facets: Spirit, which is static and at the center; direction, engine and execution, which are dynamic and constantly changing; and the fifth facet, cohesion, keeping all the facets aligned.


Spirit articulates why the organization exists and details its business model. Many companies fail to crystallize their spirit, which leads to a corporate identity crisis. Spirit is the foundation, the DNA of the organization. It is the unchangeable, nonnegotiable aspect of your company.


Direction specifies where your organization is heading, why and with what speed. Many organizations don’t link their strategies with goals and visions. As a result, various teams head in different directions.


Engine is the infrastructure needed to execute the strategy. Without clearly defined work processes, achieving high efficiency and quality will remain a pipe dream. When companies design roles and responsibilities based on internal political considerations and not strategic imperatives, they undermine their ability to perform and poison the organizational culture.


Execution is about discipline and a sense of urgency. Managers at all levels in your company must follow-through by inspecting and monitoring key activities and indicators to drive the right performance. Execution is about delivering the right results.


Cohesion is the most overlooked facet in companies. You must ensure the spirit, direction, engine, and execution stay in-sync, and the stakeholders (investors, board, customers, management, employees, suppliers, community) remain on the same page as your company transforms continuously. Your company can never stand still.

Every issue you face, and every decision you make falls within one of these five facets. As a leader, you must understand them, understand how they work as a system, and help your organization answer the difficult questions associated with each facet. Answering them will be an eye-opening experience and the new appreciation will form the springboard to go to the next level by becoming a coherent company.

Ravi Kathuria is the author of the highly acclaimed book, “The Coherent Company: The Struggle for the Next Level — A Business Parable,” and founder and president of Cohegic Corp., a management consulting, executive and sales coaching firm.

Published in Houston
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:01

It's not about rules; It's about principles


Business success, like success in any pursuit, is about the consummate understanding and mastery of key principles — not about following rules.

Principle 1: Principles rule

A rule states, “You must do it this way.” A principle says, “This works — and usually works well — and has done so through all remembered time.” The difference is crucial.

The anxious and inexperienced try to follow rules. The rebellious, unschooled and ignorant break rules, usually unwittingly so. Still, all of these types of practitioners try to succeed focusing upon only subsets of situations without realizing how all of the forces at work interact in both conflicting and supporting ways.

Principle 2: Commanding knowledge

You must possess a commanding knowledge of your field, the setting and the situations. Problems are always opportunities in disguise, but you must thoroughly understand the problems before you can provide unique or preferred solutions. But, “commanding knowledge” does not mean an extended awareness into every nook and cranny and every crevice of an existent situation. Rather, it means thorough knowledge of everything germane and relevant.

Principle 3: Constraints conspire to inspire

The greatest achievers in business or life usually find conflicts, difficulties, obstacles and obstructions useful. The more resistant the opposing forces, the stronger the muscle becomes that strains against them.

Among the best and brightest, constraints don’t inhibit creativity and resourcefulness — they encourage, stimulate and inspire them. Too often, antagonistic and hurtful forces conspire with their own inadequacies and limitations to undermine the efforts of achievement-oriented persons.

Success demands that these “resistances” be somehow overcome or, better still, be used to achieve goals.

Principle 4: Understanding people

Since all of this involves a great number of human beings, the genius lies heavily in developing a realistic view and understanding of human nature. The first such understanding is the realization that human nature is versatile, protean to the ultimate. The next understanding is that we humans are mixtures of extremes and not a blended average. We are each as good as the best that we have done and as bad as the worst.

So, a successful business leader, like anyone who is able to positively and constructively interact with others, has neither a utopian nor a pessimistic view of human beings.

Rather, they know that people are a mixture of good and bad, generosity and greed, selfishness and magnanimity, ignorance and enlightenment, stupidity and cleverness, and kindness and ruthlessness.

Principle 5: Trust is the coin of the realm

Businesses must attract customers, staff and capital. In these attractions, trust is the coin of the realm. So, trust must never be depreciated or violated in any way. In the various halls and rooms of the offices of my company, Cincom, throughout the world, we feature a poster that succinctly advises that, “Trust Builds Relationships; Execution Builds Results.” 

Trust and respect are twin imperatives of all success and of all positive, constructive relationships.

Principle 6: Productivity counts

Results determine whether a business succeeds or fails. Results are driven by productivity in any business. Productivity is a principle cast in iron. Production must be greater than costs. Pragmatism and excellence of execution are both essential. But, so too is everything else upon which trust and respect are created.

Business creators and entrepreneurial leaders have changed the world for the better in many ways, large and small. And as we move forward in these troubled economic times, we will face adversity, triumphs and tragedies. But remember, when struggling or in doubt, go back to the beginning and remember that principles rule.

Thomas M. Nies is the founder and CEO of Cincom Systems Inc. Since its founding in 1968, Cincom has matured into one of the largest international, independent software companies in the world. Cincom’s client base spans communications, financial services, education, government, manufacturing, retail, health care and insurance. Learn more about Nies at

Published in Cincinnati
Saturday, 30 April 2011 21:01

Have you earned the right to lead?

There are people in every organization you know whose titles indicate they are leaders. Often, and unfortunately, their employees beg to differ. Oh, they don’t say it directly, not to the boss’s face, anyway. They say it with their ho-hum performance, their games of avoidance, their dearth of enthusiasm. Leaders — real leaders who have mastered their craft — don’t preside over such lackluster followers. If reading this makes you squirm with recognition, you may have a problem lurking.

You’re really just masquerading. You haven’t yet earned the right to lead.

When times are good, not-so-great leaders can get by. They’re cushioned by a surplus of cash, and their missteps are covered up by the thrill of top-line growth, which hides a multitude of sins. But when the cloak of prosperity falls away, their mediocrity is ruthlessly exposed.

Real leadership equity is only earned, not bestowed. Just because you have been granted authority doesn’t mean you’re getting the full, collaborative engagement of your employees. You may have their bodies and time forty or fifty hours a week, but until you earn the privilege, from their point of view, you’ll never have their hearts and minds.

I’ve spent my career studying the practitioners of great leadership via my work as a venture capitalist, board member, high-level consultant, and professor of leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. In Unusually Excellent, my new book, I share what I’ve learned and bring those lessons to life with real-world stories.

Unusually Excellent is a back-to-basics reference book that offers both seasoned and aspiring leaders a framework for understanding and a guide for applying the battle-tested fundamentals of leadership at every stage of their careers.

These aren’t radically new ideas. Human nature hasn’t changed that much over the millennia, so neither have the core laws of leadership. It’s just that in the heat of the day-to-day battle, leaders inevitably lose their grip on the basic principles of leadership. In other cases, they never learned these fundamentals or mastered them earlier in their career. And finally, sad to say, some people just aren’t cut out to lead and need to understand why.

“Normal” leadership is a complex system of behaviors that can tolerate a lot of little mistakes. Extraordinary leadership cannot.

Think about it this way: Anyone can snap a photo that looks okay or cook a meal that satiates hunger. However, when an award-winning photographer takes the picture, or a five-star chef prepares dinner, anyone can tell a master has been at work. The same is true of leadership. The small deficiencies in how the novice leads, as opposed to the unusually excellent professional, create a radical difference in the outcome.

So how can you tell whether you really are a great leader in the minds of your employees — or whether, to paraphrase the old television commercial, you’re just playing one on TV? Unfortunately, the depth and breadth of the mistakes you make often tell the true tale.

Below, excerpted from Unusually Excellent, are 10 of the most common, deeply destructive mistakes organizational leaders make:

MISTAKE #1: “Role playing” authenticity rather than living it. Authenticity is about owning your failures and shortcomings. It’s about allowing others to really know you, vulnerabilities, warts, and all. It’s about having the guts to seek feedback from others in a sincere and genuine fashion. And it’s about being able to maintain your authentic self in a situation of meaningful consequence — where your decisions affect others, sometimes on a grand scale and sometimes in very personal or dramatic ways.

Knowing who you really are and holding true to yourself in the most difficult moments is the “ground zero” of leadership credibility. It’s the only way to create the trusted connections you need to lead with real influence. Unfortunately, leaders stumble for a variety of reasons: They get scared and veer away at the last moment, or they sacrifice the truth on the altar of protecting other people’s feelings, or they simply seek to avoid the pain of conflict.

When we make the decision to compromise our authenticity, we end up delivering a message that may feel “easier” but that isn’t truly what we want or need to say. Deception conspires with fear and seduces us down a dark road of believing we can “fake it,” just this one time and it will all be okay.

But the downstream impact of making such a choice in a moment of stress or carelessness can be devastating. For one thing, it compromises the integrity of that all-important communications channel between leader and follower by changing expectations about the behavior of both. Worse, it sets a precedent for this type of authentic behavior that over time can trap a leader into an expectation or pattern of always behaving that way —and over the course of years this is a soul-destroying situation.

MISTAKE #2: Underestimating the impact of small acts of dishonesty. In my book, I recount an incident that took place at a famous, fast-growing technology company. A young, inexperienced, but talented associate had what he thought was a plan for a powerful new marketing initiative. So he asked the CMO to broker a meeting with the CEO to make a presentation on the subject. The CMO agreed, and the meeting took place.

During the presentation the CEO was polite, if noncommittal. He gave the presenter a sort of passively accepting feedback —“Nice point,” “Interesting,” and so on — and wrapped up the meeting quickly, thanking the presenter for his initiative. But the CMO could sense a duplicity in the CEO’s behavior and attitude as the parties all headed back to their respective offices. Then, ten minutes after the meeting, the CEO called the CMO into his office and said, in essence, “That presentation was absolutely terrible. That guy’s an idiot. I want you to fire him, today.”

The story of the firing spread (as it always does) throughout the company, morale slipped, and the CMO never completely trusted his boss again. The CEO’s reputation for trustworthiness had been wounded forever. The wreckage from one seemingly small act of dishonesty was strewn all over the company and could never be completely cleaned up.

MISTAKE #3: Being two-faced (and assuming others won’t notice). In another scenario, a CEO had one executive on his team whom he really trusted and in whom he could confide. One day, a couple of other members of that company’s executive team made a presentation at a board meeting that didn’t go so well. Later, as they were walking down a hallway, the CEO turned to his trusted executive and said, “We need to get rid of those guys. They were a disaster at the board meeting — they embarrassed me.”

But then nothing happened. Life at the company went on as before, and the targeted executives remained in their jobs. In the months that passed, the trusted executive found himself in meetings attended by both the CEO and the targeted executives. And it was as if the whole incident had never happened. The CEO joked with the men, complimented them on their work, and treated them as long-term team members.

As the trusted executive watched this, he asked himself: Did the boss mean what he said? Does he ever mean what he says? Did he change his mind — and when did that happen? Or is he too gutless to follow through with his plans? And if he’s willing to stab those guys in the back and then pretend to be their trusting partner, how do I know he hasn’t been doing the same thing with me? Just how duplicitous is this guy?

Such are the dangers of shooting from the hip without realizing that a communication such as the one just described does not qualify as a “casual” comment — once said, it must be resolved, and if it is not, there is a lingering odor that in one way or another, will remain smelly until fixed.

MISTAKE #4: Squelching the flow of bad news. Do you (or others under you) shoot the messenger when she brings you bad news? If so, you can be certain that the messenger’s priority is not bringing you the information you need: It’s protecting her own hide. That’s why in most organizations good news zooms to the top, while bad news — data that reveals goals missed, problems lurking, or feedback that challenges or defeats our strategy — flows uphill like molasses in January.

Unusually excellent leaders understand this reality. To combat it they work hard to build a primary and insatiable demand for the unvarnished facts, the raw data, the actual measurements, the honest feedback, the real information.

We must install a confidence and a trust that leaders in the organization value the facts, the truth, and the speed of delivery, not the judgments or interpretations of “good” or “bad,” and that messengers are valued, not shot. If we can do this then the entire behavior pattern of performance information flow will change for the better…Very few efforts will yield the payback associated with improving the speed and accuracy of the information you need most to make difficult or complex decisions.

MISTAKE #5: Punishing “good failures.” Great organizations encourage risk-taking. Why? Because innovation requires it. There can be no reward without risk. But if your employees take a risk and fail, and you come down on them like a hammer, guess what? They’ll never risk anything again. Unusually excellent leaders deliberately create high-risk, low-cost environments — a.k.a. cultures of trust — where people don’t live in fear of the consequences of failure.

A digital camera is the perfect analogy to the kind of culture you want to create.

There is no expense associated with a flawed digital photograph — financial or otherwise. You just hit the “delete” button, and it disappears. No wasted film, slides, or prints. And we are aware of this relationship between mistakes and consequences when we pick up the camera — so we click away, taking many more photos digitally than we would have in a world of costly film. Because we know failure is free, we take chances, and in that effort we often get that one amazing picture that we wouldn’t have if we were paying for all the mistakes.

MISTAKE #6: Letting employee enthusiasm fizzle. A big part of a leader’s job is to be compelling. That means you must recruit “A players” through a big vision of the future and a personal commitment to a mission. But it’s not enough to recruit once and then move on. Never assume “once enrolled, always enrolled.” Even the best followers need to be reminded again and again how fun, rewarding, and meaningful their work is.

In other words, when people seem to be losing their spark, they need to become “born again” employees. (Time to put on your evangelist cloak!)

Enthusiasm is a renewable resource. Part of being compelling is reminding yourself that people want and need to be reenrolled all the time. This message doesn’t have to be over the top to be compelling. It may just entail reminding your team, once per quarter, why you come to the office every day, and letting them reflect on the reason they do the same.

MISTAKE #7: Refusing to deal with your “weakest links.” Chronic underperformers spoil things for everyone else. They create resentment among employees who are giving it their all, and they drag down productivity. Leaders must have a plan for getting these problem children off the playground — and they must act on that plan without procrastination.

The worst scenario of all is to have a plan for dealing with underperformers, to identify who those individuals are, and then not pull the trigger on the announced consequences, for reasons of sentimentality, weakness, or favoritism — or worst of all, an attempt to preserve leadership popularity.

Nothing can be more damaging to the morale and esprit de corps of a team than that kind of leadership. It destroys your authenticity, your trustworthiness, and your ability to compel others to act. It is the end of you as a leader. Indeed, it is better to have no weakest-link plan at all than one with obvious liabilities.

MISTAKE #8: Allowing people to “fail elegantly.” There are two basic operating modes for organizations under high-stakes execution pressure. One is the mentality of winning, which we know about; the other, less obvious to the untrained eye, the disease of failing elegantly, is a very sophisticated and veiled set of coping behaviors by individuals, the purpose of which is to avoid the oncoming train of embarrassment when the cover comes off the lousy results that we’d prefer no one ever sees.

Essentially, when people stop believing they can win, some then devote their energy to how best to lose. This fancy losing often manifests as excuse-making, blaming, tolerating cut corners, and manipulating and editorializing data. Unusually excellent leaders know how to recognize these symptoms and intervene with urgency and strength of conviction to get everyone on the high road — a.k.a., the winner’s mindset.

Passive acceptance of failure, and the rationalization that always goes with it, is a cancer that can begin anywhere in the organization, then metastasize to every office, including your own. You can prevent it by setting clear and precise standards of behavior for everyone on the team, as well as clear consequences for the violation of those standards. And you can control it through continuous and open communication with every member of your team (some who will spot the problem before you do) and, where necessary, redundant processes and systems.

Most of all, you can cure the acceptance of failure by setting yourself as an example of zero tolerance (along with a welcome for honest admissions of error), of precision and care in all of your work, a clear-eyed focus on unvarnished results, and most of all, an unyielding and unwavering commitment to your success.

MISTAKE #9: Delaying decisions until it’s too late. Not making a decision is almost always worse than making a bad decision. As long as they aren’t utterly ill-advised and catastrophic, bad decisions at least keep the organization moving in pace with changing events — and thus can often be rectified by a course correction.

Not making a decision at all, although it may seem the safe choice — because, intellectually, it positions you to make the right move when the reality of the situation is more revealed — actually strips your organization of its momentum, stalling it at the starting line, and makes it highly unlikely that you can ever get up to speed in time to be a serious player.

Unusually excellent leaders don’t just make decisions; they pursue them. Because the speed of the organization is often its destiny — and because that speed directly correlates with the speed with which its decisions are made or not made — these leaders are haunted by the fear that somewhere in the organization a critical decision is being left orphaned and unmade.

MISTAKE #10: Underestimating the weight your words — and your moods — carry.Consider the story of John Adler, who, prior to his CEO tenure at Adaptec, was a senior vice president at Amdahl, one of the pioneering computer companies of Silicon Valley. One morning as he was walking down the long hallway to his office, he encountered some maintenance guys who were doing repairs. He greeted them cheerfully and then, just to make conversation, mentioned how difficult it must be to work in such a dark hallway.

The next morning when Adler came to work, he was surprised to find five maintenance men all carefully replacing every light bulb in the hallway. When he questioned the flurry of activity, the men said, “We’re replacing the light bulbs, boss. You said it was too dark in here.” This story illustrates why leaders need to think carefully about every word they say — because others certainly will.

Every conversation with, and every communication from, a leader carries added weight because of the authority of the position behind it. Have a bad day and snap at one of your subordinates, and that person may go back to a cramped cubicle and start updating his résumé, or go out and get drunk, or miss a night’s sleep. Your momentary bad day could be his nightmare — and something he will remember forever. Your mood matters; don’t make it your employees’ problem.

So if you recognize any of these mistakes in yourself, are you forever doomed as a leader? Of course not. We’re all human, and we can all learn from our errors and redeem ourselves. And yet, there is no shame in realizing that leadership is not for everyone — or in declining to lead if it’s not for you. (In your heart you probably already know.)

Leadership is a choice. It is a deep, burning desire to engage with people and rally a community to achieve greatness. Leadership can be difficult, thankless, frustrating, maddening work at times. It is only the passion of leading on the field — the thrill of looking other human beings in the eyes and seeing their energy, willingness, trust, and commitment — that makes it all worthwhile, in a very quiet, private way.

John Hamm is one of the top leadership experts in Silicon Valley. He was named one of the country’s Top 100 venture capitalists in 2009 by AlwaysOn and has led investments in many successful high-growth companies as a partner at several Bay Area VC firms. Hamm has also been a CEO, a board member at over thirty companies, and a CEO adviser and executive coach to senior leaders at companies such as Documentum, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, TaylorMade-adidas Golf and McAfee. John teaches leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University.

Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, February 2011, ISBN: 978-0-47092843-1, $24.95, is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

Published in Northern California

Interesting factoid: Did you know only 30 percent of family businesses make it to the second generation; 12 percent to a third; 3 percent to a fourth and, some say, in the decimal places for a fifth.

It is no small wonder why so many family businesses do not make it to the next generation. The reason is they lack a well-thought-out and well-orchestrated succession plan.

Procrastination is perhaps the most common ailment for business owners with these difficult decisions in front of them. The stakes, in their opinion, are often high. The consequences of a wrong decision are often devastating. And, if that weren’t frightening enough, the entire process requires owners to envision a world without them

What wisdom can I convey to others on successful transitions? My son Kyle, a graduate of the University of Colorado and who worked out of college for one of my competitors, joined Fernley & Fernley two years ago. In the “lessons learned” category, here are my top 10 tips to success (with some coming easily and some more painfully), to include:

1. To decide whether the family, in fact, wants to continue ownership. This conversation is often difficult and typically avoided. The owner’s deep attachment to the firm makes it difficult for him or her to think about alternatives and giving up control. Tip: Have that conversation with the family early and often.

2. Get your management team on board with your plans. It would be suicidal to bring in a next generation without complete buy-in from your top leadership team. Consult team leaders on the front end, get their ideas and allow these discussions to be both open and candid. Tip: Give your management team permission to challenge your process and timing.

3. each out to your trusted advisers to get their perspective. Identify a series of individuals outside of the company with whom you have great respect and admiration. Being true outsiders, their insights could be profound. Tip: Choose these advisers wisely, set expectations on the front end and limit the group to three or four to avoid information overload.

4. Have a candid one-on-one with the successor. Set expectations early on with the potential successor, as well. Use the discussion as an opportunity to instill your philosophy and yet balance it with an acknowledgement that your style of management is not perfect and he or she will need to bring his or her own style to the table. Tip: Again, do it early and often.

5. Prepare the company for the successor’s employment. Clearly articulate your plans and timeline for the successor’s employment. Tip: Start one year out with periodic updates to your management team.

6. Prepare the successor for his or her first year of employment. Aside from the one-on-one referenced above, the successor needs to be prepared for the environment in which he or she will be entering. A favorite mantra of mine to my son was: “The only privilege you have as being a successor in our family business is the opportunity to work twice as hard as everyone else.” Tip: Be honest and share your successes and failures. It will enhance the learning curve and build longstanding trust.

7. Identify on the front-end a mentor for the successor. Choose that individual wisely. Tip: Owner — keep your distance. It is not your job to be a mentor.

8. Create a professional development plan for the successor. It is vital for the successor to get to know as many aspects of the company as quickly as possible. To do so and to do so effectively, he or she needs a written professional development plan to allow him/her to know what is expected. Tip: Be realistic in these expectations. If not, you will be setting them up to fail.

9. Periodic check in by the owner. From time to time, do lunch or have a drink with the successor just to get a feel on how things are going. Tip: Keep these casual and conversational.

10.  Celebrate successes. The burden and pressures on any successor are immense. Take time to celebrate his or her successes. Tip: Do so in public and private.

Looking back on the last two years, our succession plan has exceeded my wildest expectations. If done, and done correctly, it will prove to be one of the most gratifying and rewarding initiatives you will conduct in your business life, barring none. You have successfully completed a well-thought-out and well-executed plan and created a “new beginning” for your successor and your company. No better legacy can be left.

G.A. Taylor Fernley is president and CEO of Fernley & Fernley, an association management company founded in 1886. For more information, visit

Published in Philadelphia

It happens eventually to those in a position of authority or rank. Above all the day-to-day managing, strategy and tactics, leaders must bring something additional to work: presence. This presence — the ability to consistently exude confidence, calm and posture — is oftentimes what separates a successful organization from unsuccessful ones. And it is what causes your staff to look toward you, the leader, for more than just work-related discipline and direction. They also look to you for leadership during today’s volatile and confusing financial times.

Aside from the potential liabilities present in advising an employee on financial matters, your credibility with your entire staff is on the line. In any organization, word travels fast. Your response to a seemingly harmless financial question or two can dent your leadership armor permanently, unless you deliver it properly.

First, understand your staff is more nervous than you. The days of pensions and corporate ladder climbing have been replaced by 401(k)s and the need for an ever-updated resume. Technology has not only ruled many jobs obsolete, but it has also created smartphones that notify the entire world of corporate layoffs in an instant. Your employees live in an environment that is constantly changing. To them, the world of finance is not only foreign, but it creates even more uncertainty and stress.

Second, recognize where you can make the greatest impact. If your employee is asking a personal financial question, it isn’t because they have more money than Bill Gates. Rather, the severity of their financial circumstances has passed the point of silence, compelling them to finally speak up. This is not the time for a hot stock or mutual fund you think will pop. Preach prudence. Use your position to aid staff in being honest with themselves and helping them assess their situation and associated risks. Your calm, realistic attitude will do more than any quick tip or heightened knowledge.

Third, know your limits. It may be inappropriate for you to give significant financial advice to an employee, and you may not be good at it. You may be a professional, but are you a professional investment adviser or financial planner? The most effective way to yield your position of authority is by openly admitting weakness. Telling your employees, “I don't know,” may be the ultimate display of leadership. There is a big difference between guidance and advice. Don't be the expert, refer them to one.

As a leader in your company, your words weigh heavy. By being honest and providing calm, assertive direction, you will improve your staff's financial circumstances and strengthen your role as the leader of the organization.

Jonathan Citrin is founder and CEO of CitrinGroup (, an investment advisory firm located in Birmingham, Mich. He is an adjunct professor of finance in the School of Business Administration at Wayne State University.

Published in Detroit