Forge A Business Ecosystem

The days of the self-sufficient and self-sustaining business are long gone. Business owners must recognize the need to join forces with other businesses in order to flourish.

Here is simple assumption for you to get your head around: Businesses will always seek to establish new types of partner relationships that clearly define mutual gain for the parties involved. Fairly straight-forward, right?

Of course it is! And, it’s because of this hypothesis that businesses of all sorts and sizes are forging new commercial arrangements with one another. As a result, immense networks of interdependent parties have emerged. In turn, each one of these forms unique ecosystems from which all of the member businesses benefit.

With the continual advancement of technology making inter-business bonding easier, you can be sure that the evolution of these New Economy Ecosystems will continue. That said, as a business owner you’ll need to see how and where you can fit. Here’s why:

Rationale for Ecosystem-Building

The game has changed. The days of the self-sufficient and self-sustaining businesses are long gone. The global marketplace requires businesses to establish highly integrated and cooperative relationships with one another. It rewards speed and flexibility.

Consequently, new inter-company relationships continue to be established in order to help firms respond to changes in their respective markets.

Businesses cannot afford to be an exception. Ecosystems seek to forge new types of relationships with their members that provide economies of scale and greater reach than can be achieved by any single entity on its own. Indeed, joining and contributing to larger ecosystems is essential to survival – especially for smaller businesses.

However, there are several implications that must be considered, including:

1. New strategies will need to be created that can leverage the opportunities that ecosystem participation offers.

2. Similarly, innovation will be a key driver for flourishing within one’s ecosystem. Thus, new ways of thinking and doing will need to be considered and implemented as opportunities to introduce new products and services emerge faster than ever before.

3. As a result, speed counts! Therefore, steps will need to be continually taken within every business to become more agile in order to keep up with the demands of ecosystem partners and their customers.

4. Businesses will have to work with a larger industry community, including competitors, in order to establish new kinds of business arrangements that work within the ecosystem. Exposure of one’s competitive strategies and protection of associated trade secrets will continue to be huge considerations when seeking advantages from ecosystem membership.

5. Existing contracts and agreements may need to be embellished and new rules created, in order to better support the re-definition of attendant business relationships.

6. Lower-level business managers must be on the “look-out” and be prepared to explore new ways of defining their firm’s relationships with the providers that they work with – continuing to be keenly aware of new opportunities to leverage existing partner relationships in novel ways to drive advantage.

7. Front-line staff will need to be trained in contract administration in order to better manage the business relationships that they are responsible for maintaining on behalf of their companies

There is no doubt that, as the new economy continues to evolve, it is imperative for business leaders, regardless of size, to actively seek-out opportunities to participate in broadening their reach and capabilities through participation in business ecosystems. They must recognize the need to join forces in a larger community of players to remain vital and prosperous in the years ahead.

To close, this article only touches the tip of the iceberg regarding business ecosystems. So, please feel free to continue to drive the discussion by offering your ideas and comments below or reach-out directly to me. It’s an important topic that deserves more attention.

C-Suite Tip Number 1 – Focus on Middle Management Leadership

Engage your middle management to secure your strategic success.

We all know about the pyramid structure. It’s a generic way to think about an enterprise and how most are organizationally design. Divided into three layers, the top layer of the pyramid is comprised of the senior-most leaders. These are the people responsible for setting strategic direction and guiding the enterprise towards its future. While certainly concerned with quarterly performance, the leaders at the top of the pyramid must also have a forward-thinking, “Where will we be in 5 years?” kind of mindset.

The middle layer of the pyramid is comprised of the middle management of the organization. These people must be able to interpret the strategic direction set forth by the senior leaders and translate it into actions that the units that report into them can understand and act upon. While these managers certainly care about strategy, their primary focus is this year. Can we do what we need to day this year to reach our goals and objectives?

The lower layer of the pyramid is comprised of supervisors and rank and file. This layer is responsible for execution. Their time frame is much different from the managers and senior leaders. Their point of reference is today. Can we do the work that must be done today, on-time and on-budget? And, they inherently understand, that they will suffer the consequences of poor performance, if they don’t.

So, when it comes time to roll-out your next key strategy, where do you begin? In the middle, of course!

The middle management team makes or breaks strategic execution! As mentioned, they’re the ones that must interpret the strategies and translate them into something that is actionable by the rank and file. If they fail to do this well, the organization falters, resources are squandered and, unfortunately, many times heads roll.

Here are 3 essential tips to get them on-board (and, by doing so, improve your chances for success in the launching your firm’s next strategic initiative):

  • Tell and Teach: Think about it, you’re asking your mid-tier managers to act as teachers. And, to teach well, they must first understand. So, commit to establishing the understanding that they’ll need to help the rest of your organization grasp and commit to your vision and strategic plan. Do all that you can to help them comprehend all of the content and nuances of those strategic elements so that they can do a bang up job of translating them for your people.
  • Jump-Start The Messaging: Don’t leave it up to your middle management to determine how they will go about the work of interpretation and translation for their teams. Instead, take the time to think about all of the implications and likely actions that you would want them and their people to tackle in helping the organization execute its strategies. Craft a template for them to use to deliver the message.
  • Orchestrate The Cascading: Once you equip your managers with the requisite know knowledge and messaging content they can begin to cascade the message throughout the rest of the organization. However, they may not do this in an disciplined and rigorous way. So, be sure to orchestrate cascading of the information by establishing a roll-out schedule that details when the managers will will do the work of strategic messaging.

After all, you want to make certain that all of your organization understands the company vision, strategies and, most importantly, their roles in the subsequent execution and achievement of your goals and objectives. If you can do this, you will have done your job.

To close, senior leaders need to focus on the middle of their organizations in order to achieve their strategic intentions. If you can engage the middle management, they will do the rest. If you don’t, your strategic execution will fall flat. It’s really as simple as that!

Note: If you like this article, which was published by on October 31, 2016, please subscribe to my Inc. column.

Next Practices: How to Get to What Happens Next

Every organization flaunts their Best Practices. But, outstanding Companies define Next Practices – those things that set them apart in the short-term and define the standard of excellence for the long-term.

All of my strategy, culture and organizational design work over the years comes down to one thing – enabling my clients to differentiate themselves from their competitors so to dominate the markets that they serve. Consequently, the topic of industry best practices always comes up. Most leaders want to be sure that their organizations are remaining competitive within their industry. While the desire appears sound in principle, it’s flawed by design.

The fact is the adoption of industry best practices will only let you run with the pack. But, defining and adopting Next Practices will enable the breakthrough thinking needed to disrupt and redefine your markets. My firm has developed a framework for doing this. Let’s take a look at the 5 principles that makes up the framework needed to define your Next Practices.

1. Drop the de-facto culture and develop a Culture By Design: Don’t copy; create. Culture is a strategic imperative that must be created and transformed by design not by default. Be deliberate in creating a work environment that enables and empowers your team to achieve and exceed your firm’s vision.

2. Embrace your difference and focus more on offense than defense: Think opportunity management, not risk management. Think strategic investment, not cost containment. Know what you do better than the rest and use those leverage points to redefine the game.

3. Invigorate velocity by working past implementation concepts and focus on delivery strategies: Implementation is process, delivery is advantage. Establish a business mindset that believes in agility, velocity, and high impact delivery – impeccable product and service delivery has the power to differentiate your firm from all the rest.

4. Don’t just play the game, keep scoring: Move from long implementations to quick wins. Put points on the board and then look to score again. Velocity and momentum matter. Beat your competition on the future by setting the pace of play and exceeding your customer’s expectations.

5. Drive direction-setting and change through omnipresent leadership: Strategic success depends on critical mass commitment not forced compliance. Setting expectations is gamesmanship – aligning them is leadership. Be sure that your leaders understand your direction and are aligned with it. When leaders are aligned, they can be counted on to make the “right” decisions most of the time.

To close, this framework is only the beginning of doing the work that is needed to differentiate your firm from your competitors so you can dominate the markets that you serve. However, understanding and embracing this framework is essential to driving deep the changes that make a difference into your organization. Businesses that strive to do this are the ones that set the standard of excellence for everyone else. I hope that you consider leveraging this model when working to redefine how you do what you do.

NOTE: This piece was originally published by INC. on August 15, 2016.

Work Performance and the Perils of Comparison

Let me take you back in time.  You’re in 8th grade.  You’ve signed up for your first guitar lesson and the teacher plays Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”   She offers it up as an example of a great song that you can learn to play.  You’re motivated to learn, right?  Wrong!  She no sooner finishes her sentence about “you can learn how to play,” when you hear Jimmy Page rips into his classic solo and you decide then and there that it’s time to take up sports – “because there ain’t no way you’re going to be able to do what Jimmy’s doing in that song!”  You leave the lesson discouraged.

I share this because there is new evidence uncovered by researchers Avi Feller and Todd Rogers that suggests “that exposure to exemplary peer performances can undermine motivation and success by causing people to perceive that they cannot attain their peers’ high levels of performance.”  This finding has some huge implications for businesses – especially as it pertains to individual and team performance in the workplace.

But, managers, don’t despair!  You and you’re team are not doomed to a work life of less than stellar achievement.  There are some things that you can do to avoid falling into this trap.  Here are 5 suggestions:

1.      Show that you’re into it!  Passion and enthusiasm are contagious.  If you demonstrate that you’re into the work at hand, your team can’t help but follow.

2.      Set goals that can be attained.  Don’t set the Led Zeppelin as the goal.  Rather, choose goals that can be achieved.  The team will hang in there and work to get better, if they can gain a sense of accomplishment as they work.

3.      Stop comparing your team to others.  As the research suggests, there are other ways to motivate.  Challenge the team to work towards improving their performance every day, every week and every month – Jimmy Page wasn’t born a virtuoso.  He grew his talent over time through practice and dedication.

4.      Provide air cover.  If you have someone else to answer to, as most managers do, you may not be able to control how you and your team are measured from above.  So, it’s essential that you have your teams back as they progress.  By providing some air cover you’ll give your team the chance to mature and evolve into meeting and exceeding all expectations.

5.      Make it about the journey and not about the destination.  It’s OK to have some fun at work.  Make performance achievement about the “this is how we get better” and, not about the consequences of not meeting goals.

To close, comparison can be a perilous path to take when working to motivate.  Like the guitar teacher, you can intimidate those that you’re trying to inspire.  Instead of falling into the comparison trap, try some of these tips and you just might lead your team to outstanding performance.

NOTE: This piece, Work Performance and the Perils of Comparison,  was originally published in Inc. on July 18, 2016.

Executive Engagement 101

Change management is tough work and it’s nearly impossible to be successful without executive commitment and participation. Here’s 4 steps that you can take to garner executive engagement in the process.

I’ve written about staff engagement from the top-down in many of my past columns–written from the perspective of executives engaging their people in transformation work. But, this is the first time that I’ve tackled the subject from the bottom-up. How do staff members engage their executive sponsors in the process of change management?

As a management consultant responsible for driving organizational change in many of the top companies on the planet, I’ve often found myself needing to figure out the best way to garner executive commitment to change. Here are 4 tips worth considering:

1. Ask Them for It: Executive interviewing is a great first step to take to gain executive commitment to change. It is here that you can gain each executive’s perspective on what needs to be accomplished and what “done” looks like.

2. Give Them Something to Live By: Once the interviewing is completed, it’s wise to synthesize the results. It’s likely that several themes will merge from your interview notes. Use that data to develop “strategic principles” that the organization can use to guide its behavior and approach to direction-setting.

You can think of strategic principles as a statements of senior management’s preferences for how the business will be run. Each principle is crafted as a statement, followed by a rationale (that describe why this principle is important to embrace and institute) of a couple of paragraphs and a bulleted list of implications. The implications suggest what must be done (i.e., the price the organization must be willing to pay in order to realize the implementation of the principle) in order to institute the principle described.

Typically, a set of a dozen, or so, principles can be developed through the interview process. Once delivered, the executive team can use them to keep one another involved and aligned during the rest of the change effort.

3. Use Structure to Keep Them in the Game: In parallel with the interviewing process, it’s wise to establish some mechanisms that can be used to ensure continued executive involvement. For instance, create an executive steering committee (ESC) comprised of your senior sponsors. Schedule monthly review sessions with the ESC. Use that time together to solicit input and feedback for your effort as it evolves over time. Establish ground rules that require their attendance. This can go a long way to keep them interested and engaged.

4. Make It Somebody’s Job: As the change effort matures and the executives grow accustomed to meeting and discussing its progress, you can consider suggesting the creation of a new role for the group, that of transformation coordinator, who can act as a liaison between the ESC and the transformation team. This individual can use the strategic principles to keep the ESC members aligned through the duration of the change effort, while setting the ESC meeting agendas, facilitating the meetings, supplying meeting minutes and overseeing any follow-up activities that may be identified in the ESC meetings. While this role can be challenging for a subordinate to “keep the executives honest,” the “right” person can serve as a critically effective linchpin between the senior team and the those charged with doing the work of transformation for the organization.

To close, these 4 tips are not intended to be a panacea that guarantees success. But, they can serve as an insurance policy, of sorts, that minimizes the risk of failure in your next change effort. I hope that you find them valuable and use them. I know that I will continue to use them in my transformation work.

Note: This piece originally appeared in on May 31, 2016.

Autism in the Workplace: We Must Leverage What People Have

NOTE: I wrote Autism in the Workplace in recognition of World Autism Awareness Day, which was on April 2nd.  This piece was originally published by Inc. on March 7, 2016 under the title “Why We Must Leverage What People Do Have (and Not Penalize Them for What They Don’t)” :

Once upon a time, people with disabilities had no place in business. Now, thanks to innovative programs being introduced at several large companies, those times may be coming to an end. Business leaders are beginning to recognize that people diagnosed with autism, for example, can bring some great things to the table.

Companies, including SAP, Microsoft and HP have all begun programs intended to integrate autistic people into their respective workforces. Besides being highly functional, what has been found is that many on the autism spectrum offer real skills that these companies need in order to continue to grow and to prosper, including a temperament that supports long periods of concentration and a strong ability to recognize patterns and discover irregularities in those patterns–desired attributes needed for programming computer code and debugging software.

Driven by a desire to leverage what people have, and not penalize them for what they lack, these software giants have made a commitment through their programs to provide the support mechanisms and infrastructure needed to enable these employees to perform at their best. Here are some of the elements that have been put into place through these corporate programs:

  • Pre-assignment prep centers that allow these workers to practice working with others in a business setting prior to being assigned to a permanent work unit within the business;
  • Onboarding programs that train new staff on the workings of the office setting. Topics from the use of security ID badges to lunch and meeting areas are all part of the program.
  • Quiet office work settings and sound-softening headphones for those people with sound sensitivities;
  • Offsite work settings that enable employees who may be intimidated by a typical office social setting to test and debug software from their own homes;
  • Buddy systems that pair these employees with internal staff “buddies” who have some familiarity with the disability (perhaps, through family member with autism, etc.). These buddies can act as mentors and be the linchpin for a new employee’s assimilation into the company.
  • An awareness sessions for existing staff, with messaging and training organized around high-, medium- and low-contact interactions, which helps new employees be better integrated and accepted by their co-workers, when they arrive at the job site.

To close, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3.5 million Americans are estimated to have an autism spectrum disorder. With about 1 in 68 children affected, it is one of the fastest-growing developmental disabilities in the U.S. Clearly, more programs, like the ones cited above, are needed to leverage the skills and brain power that these people can offer.

On Leadership: 10 Principles That Make Leading Easier

Here are 10 ideas that today’s busy leaders can embrace to enhance their ability to set direction and manage change.

How did you come up with 10 Principles That Make Leading Easier?  I have dedicated my career to working with senior leadership teams and helping them to devise the strategies, organizational designs and operating models needed to better set direction and manage change. From all of this work, regardless of industry, staff size or revenue, these 10 leadership principles have proven to be the common denominators that can separate winning organizations from the “also ran’s” with whom they compete:

  1. The best leaders lead and let others manage: There’s a difference between leadership and management. Leaders look forward and imagine the possibilities that the future may bring in order to set direction. Managers monitor and adjust today’s work, regularly looking backward to ensure that current goals and objectives are being met. The best leaders lead and let their management teams manage the work at hand.
  2. The best leaders inspire: Once the direction is set, the best leaders socialize their visions for tomorrow and work to inspire their colleagues to work with them to achieve it. This is done by both words and action–inspiring confidence and commitment among the people of whom they are entrusted to lead.
  3. The best leaders promote “In it together” as way of life: They understand that us versus them” can be a powerful motivator. The best leaders leverage this by promoting the concept that they and their staff members are “all in it together” in defeating the competition and delighting our customers.
  4. The best leaders never work alone: Instead, camaraderie and trust is purposely forged by working with others on their management team to drive change and deliver outcomes. Stated another way, they’re not above getting their hands dirty to get the job done.
  5. The best leaders build and leverage leaders from within: Regardless of reporting lines,the best leaders are constantly in search of other leaders from within their organizations to develop and cultivate. They want to establish network of that they can collaborate with and engage in active direction-setting.
  6. The best leaders tackle the “tough” stuff: They’re not afraid to address the least pleasant aspects of setting direction and managing change. They inherently understand that there is a possibility that not everyone is prepared to make the journey to wherever they are leading, and consequently, they are willing to address the implications that come with that reality–whatever they may be.
  7. The best leaders take educated risks: Risk-taking is an often overlooked part of leading. But, with it comes immense responsibility. Take the wrong risks and it could mean lost jobs and livelihoods. So, “educated” risk-taking (ones based on experiences and training) becomes an art form among the best leaders among us.
  8. The best leaders enable success: They knock-down roadblocks and empower people to do whatever it takes to deliver results–paving the way for success and accomplishment among the people of whom they lead.
  9. The best leaders shift their cultures from ones of Entitlement to ones of Mutual Accountability: The “buck stops here” for among the best leaders. They are accountable and expect the same among their people. Gone are the days where seniority and title are rewarded. Rather, a commitment to upholding commitments is what the best leaders seek in their team members.
  10. The best leaders reward success, not effort: Working diligently without achievement is worth little when compared to any level of effort that yields demonstrative results. Thus, the best leaders pursue and reward results–paying little attention to effort or aspiration.

To close, it is my hope that you use this checklist, referring to it often over time, as you go about your personal leadership journey. It can serve to ensure you that you’re doing all that you can to be the kind of leader that inspires the best effort in your people, while driving the desired results that consistently keeps your organization in the winner’s circle.

This piece was originally published in on August 3, 2015.

Hurry! 10 New Inc. Magazine Playbook Video Shorts About Visionary Leadership

Here are 10 New Inc. Magazine Playbook Video Shorts Based on My Column about Visionary Leadership:

How to Avoid Mediocrity and Build a Winning Business
3 Easy Ways to Boost Productivity at Work
3 Secrets Your IT Department Is Hiding From You
3 Things You Need to Know to Manage a Team of Superstars
3 Steps You Can Take Today to Be a Visionary Leader
3 Simple Ways to Make the Most of Your Best Workers
3 Ways to Save Your Business From the ‘Fog of War’
3 Ways to Inspire Your Employees to Greatness
3 Ways Leaders Can Set the Right Tone
3 Ways to Create a Transparent Work Setting

Be sure to reach out to me, if I can help your business with any of these concepts!

Leadership or Management? 10 Important Distinctions That Can Help You Out

There’s a difference between leadership and management. Understanding these 10 key differences can improve your abilities to lead and to manage.

Last week’s article The Leadership Checklist: 10 Principles That Make Leading Easier, generated some interesting thoughts as shared through various social media outlets. Many readers tended to hone in on the point made in the piece about the difference between leadership and management.

As you may recall, I had noted:

“There’s a difference between leadership and management. Leaders look forward and imagine the possibilities that the future may bring in order to set direction. Managers monitor and adjust today’s work, regularly looking backward to ensure that current goals and objectives are being met. The best leaders lead and let their management teams manage the work at hand.”

Because of the interest, I thought I would explore the point a bit more in this article.

Clearly, there is a symbiotic relationship between those responsible for leading a business and those responsible for managing the work within it. While managers can certainly lead and leaders can certainly manage, the skills required to be good at either one are separate and distinct.

What follows are ten of the most important distinctions to note. Regardless of which role you currently play, understanding these key differences between leading and managing may help you become better at your job:

1. Leadership inspires change, management manages transformation.

A leader must set direction and inspire people to follow them. The process of following often requires great change. This is where strong management comes in. It’s the manager’s job to oversee the work needed to implement the necessary changes and realize the organizational transformation set forth by the leadership.

2. Leadership requires vision, management requires tenacity.

A leader needs to envision what the business is to become. A great manager must have the willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve the goals set forth by the leader.

3. Leadership requires imagination, management requires specifics.

A great leader can cultivate their imagination to inform their vision. It helps them to “see” what can be. Managers must understand that vision and drive their teams to do the specific work necessary to accomplish what has been expressed.

4. Leadership requires abstract thinking, management requires concrete data.

By definition, abstract thinking enables a person to make connections among, and see patterns within, seemingly unrelated information. The ability to think abstractly comes in very handy when reimaging what an organization can become. Conversely, a manager must be able to work with, and analyze, concrete data in order to ensure optimal results.

5. Leadership requires ability to articulate, management requires ability to interpret.

A good leader can describe their vision in vivid detail so to engage and inspire their organization to pursue it. A good manager must interpret that stated vision and recast it in terms that their teams can understand and embrace it.

6. Leadership requires an aptitude to sell, management requires an aptitude to teach.

A leader must sell their vision to their organization and its stakeholders. They must convince all concerned parties that what is envisioned is achievable and provides greater value than what is created by the business today. In keeping, a manager must be able to teach their teams what must be learned and adapted to attain the stated vision.

7. Leadership requires understanding of the external environment, management requires understanding of how work gets done inside the organization.

A leader must understand the business environment in which the enterprise operates so to better anticipate opportunities and evade misfortune, while a manager is relied on to figure out how to get things done using the resources available to the business.

8. Leadership requires risk-taking, management requires self-discipline.

A leader will take educated risks when setting a strategic direction for a business. Managers must have the self-discipline to stick to the plan for realizing that strategic direction so to ensure that the strategy comes together as planned.

9. Leadership requires confidence in the face of uncertainty, management requires blind commitment to completing the task at hand.

A leader’s life is filled with uncertainty. They’re setting a course for their company in unchartered waters. Once the course is set, managers are duty-bound to follow the stated direction and commit to delivering the results expected.

10. Leadership is accountable to the entire organization, management is accountable to the team.

Finally, leaders must consider the impact of their decisions on the whole organization. A misstep can bring an entire business to its knees. It’s a huge responsibility. Accordingly, managers are responsible for their teams. They must ensure that their teams are prepared to deliver and that each member is equipped to do what is required for success.

Indeed, there are important differences between leading and managing. The best leaders lead and let others manage; the best managers understand their leader’s vision and work with their teams to achieve it. Your business needs people with both kinds of skills and aptitudes to secure enduring success. Take the time to understand these differences so to build an organization that leverages each to the fullest.

This article was originally published by on August 10, 2015.