13 Leadership Lessons From 13 Years In Business
Posted by Mitch Mitchell on Jun 24, 2014
Today is my 13th year in business as T. T. Mitchell Consulting; the incorporated part came in 2006. Last year I was a day late and only had 3 leadership lessons that, as I look back on it, weren’t really leadership lessons but more motivational lessons. I was also more under a time gun last year, which I wasn’t the year before when I did 11 business lessons, and I did something the year before that also.
The best thing about each anniversary is that I’ve proven that I could make it this far; something like 85-90% of all business end within the first 5 years. Not that I’m anything special; just stubborn and somewhat lucky.
Still, I’ve been here 13 years, and I’ve learned a lot that I want to share some of on this post. I’ll offer the caveat that some of these I’ve probably talked about in some fashion previously, including in my latest video series that I talked about in the previous post. This isn’t going to be necessarily short; as a matter of fact, grab something to drink and maybe a piece of cake (mmmm, cake…) before you start reading, and enjoy:
1. No one leads well if they don’t want to be the leader
Not everyone who’s in a leadership position wanted to be there. Some people felt like they had to take it. Some wanted more money. Some took the spot because they didn’t want someone else to take it.
Like when you were in school, you do best when you like the subject, or in this case the job. Leadership is a privilege but it should also be something you embrace and want to do well at. If you don’t care, or don’t want to be there… you’ll never be any good at it. You can learn if you care.
2. The art of listening is probably the most important thing to learn
I don’t know about societies in other countries but in our country we don’t listen well. I’m not perfect at it either; I’ll forget a name I just heard within seconds; I can’t even blame that one on age.
But when it comes to working with and helping others, I’m a great listener. I want to make sure I hear everything that’s being said and sometimes what’s not being said, and I want to get it all before I talk, if I can. When people start to ramble and are repeating themselves, if I’m listening properly I know when to stop them and take over.
If you’re a proper listener, you’ll know that sometimes all you have to do is listen and not comment at all. That one’s hard, but sometimes it’s the best thing at the moment. That’s why listening is a skill all leaders need to learn.
3. Delegation is your friend
I’ve shared stories many times of being a young leader and initially trying to take on all the work myself before I remembered I had people who were trained, or needed to be trained, to do that work instead so I could do the work I was hired to do, which was lead.
Delegation can be hard because you want to be fair but you also need to make sure that everyone has enough to do. If not, you might have to change things around, even let some people go, so that you keep people busy and energized, but not overworked as much as possible. Never use delegation as a punishment but do use delegation to not only help you, but to see if you have potential leaders in your midst.
4. Always be as even keeled as possible, but lean towards the happy side
Something that will cause people to be hesitant to come to work everyday is wondering how the leader, manager, or supervisor, is going to be feeling when that person comes into the office. If you’re happy then all is good, but if you’re an angry type of person the mood is going to be bad, which means the work is going to be bad.
It’s hard to be in the same mood everyday because we never know how outside factors are going to affect us. Still, it’s very important to try to show the same type of demeanor everyday when you come into the office, and hopefully you’re able to come in without being angry; being neutral is preferable to that, but being kind of happy is even better. Don’t ruin everyone’s day because you can’t pull it together.
5. Treat everyone fair, even those who don’t work for you
I always speak about fairness instead of equality because you might have to alter how you treat some people based on their skill level. However, I usually talk more about the people who work directly for you instead of everyone else.
Truth be told, I like to think that my general success as a leader when I was an every day director is that I didn’t see anyone in any other department as less than myself or my department, but integral to the success of the entire operation. Housekeeping keeps hospitals from looking bad and helps them pass OSHA regulations. Cafeteria people help patients get proper nutrition. Maintenance keeps the physical plant working properly. This isn’t just in hospitals but in every business.
If you treat people fairly they’ll remember it when you need some help, and trust me at some point you’ll need help beyond the people who work for you. Others are more apt to help you if you’ve been nice to them and treated them as equals.
6. Don’t ever think you’ve above someone else because of your title; always think of everyone as your equal, and make them see it that way also
One of the best lessons I learned early on in consulting is that if I can get people on my side, even if initially they didn’t want to be, that things always worked out better. There were times when I had to pull rank to get people going, and I did it because that’s what I was paid to do. But once I convinced them that what we were doing was in their best interest, and I always worked towards that goal, and they believed it, I not only got things completed quicker but I also gave them credit for helping me achieve success, which made them look good also.
What I’ve found is that many times people are afraid you’re going to come in and make them look bad. I won’t say that’s never happened, but almost always I’ve made people look good because the only agenda I’ve ever had was to get things fixed. When it’s only business and you can convince others of that things go smoothly, everyone feels like they’ve been treated fairly and as equals, and it’s amazing what gets accomplished.
7. Be nice; you never know when someone might be of assistance
Years ago I was in a tough position at a hospital in New York City. The employees had been told not to work with me because they were battling upper management, and upper management wasn’t happy with me because I was trying to pull the hospital into financial compliance, which hurt the money coming in for a few weeks.
Every day I came in I acted the same, even with the frustration. I spoke to people nicely and never showed any concern towards them, even though it make things incredibly difficult.
That is, for a while. At a certain point I got one person who came to my side, then a couple others, and even though I probably never got everyone by the time I’d decided to leave we were accomplishing some things, cleaning up a lot of problems, and my last week there we had the biggest cash week that hospital had seen all year, which actually surprised the VP of Finance, who thought I had no idea what I was doing.
Being nice got people to see that I wasn’t a management lackey and that my concern was only for the work, nothing else, and they helped me in the long run.
8. Offer help but don’t push it on someone unless you have to
I often run into people who think no one except them knows how to do anything. Unfortunately, perception is reality in their eyes, thus they treat people like imbeciles and unknowingly make people unhappy that have to deal with them.
The truth is that most people are competent enough to do their jobs without someone standing over them all day long. They might not have the foresight of knowing more than what they’ve been taught but that doesn’t mean they’re dumb. Sometimes we have to evaluate the skills someone has before deciding that they need help.
If they’re doing fine leave them alone and move on. If not, teach them the right way even if they don’t want the help because, as the leader, it all comes back on you. Always go into every encounter thinking people are smart because if you think they’re not then they won’t be in your eyes and you can’t ever evaluate someone properly coming from that point of view.
9. If you have employees, you should always be looking for leaders and helping them to grow
I was always big on this one when I was a regular director, and I’ve been in the position as a consultant to make recommendations on people I’m working with here and there.
Sometimes you have to find ways to evaluate people by either giving them special projects or teaching them something new and seeing how they handle it. Never be afraid of someone making you look bad because they’re good; if they’re good, unless you’re horrible they’ll make you look good. They’ll certainly make your life easier.
10. Everyone won’t like you or agree with the way you lead so do the best you can for the majority while making sure you’re not alienating the other side
I’ve told the story a few times about having myself evaluated by a select number of employees, without my knowing who said what. Most people gave me 5’s across the board, but every once in a while I’d have someone give me 2’s or 3’s. If I had 20 people surveyed and I got one or two results that way, I looked at the percentages and figured I was doing right overall and went on with life.
Not everyone can be Nadia Comăneci (if you’re too young to remember, she got the first perfect score ever in women’s gymnastics in the 1976 Olympics) and score perfection. But we can all be pretty good and pretty fair.
We also must remember to not be punitive against people who might not see things our way. As long as folks aren’t sabotaging your operation they deserve to feel how they feel; the best you can do is your best.
11. Thinking time is working time; if you don’t do it, you can’t innovate or improve
If you never take time to think you’ll never figure out ways to make improvements. As a consultant, there have been numerous times where I had to sit at the desk, put on some music, and just think about what’s going on, what I should do, how I should do it and then go and do it.
As a leader, you need to try to stay ahead of stagnation and disaster. Even if you can’t think of ways to do that, taking time to think things through will at least keep you on par with what’s going on, and that will put you ahead of the majority.
12. There’s no shame in modifying things for some workers and not for others because everyone learns at a different pace. Just make sure you don’t overdo for those who can’t learn
Remember the thing about treating people fairly, not equally? If you remember school again you’ll remember that some people took longer to learn some concepts or facts than other people did. What you probably never paid attention to was that sometimes the people who took longer to learn retained what they learned longer and better than those who learned quickly, then move on.
Every business that has lots of employees need various types. We need some who are fast, some who are accurate, some who remember all the rules they’ve ever learned, and some who learn the rules and immediately figure out better ways to go things.
At the same time we need to learn who’s falling behind, who’s holding the department back if it’s happening, be ready to see if they can improve but also be ready to move on without them. Everything isn’t for everybody, whether the job is simple or hard. It’s a good thing I never had to be a car mechanic; the horror stories I could tell!
13. It’s not always about you
After I spent a lot of time talking about what people need to work on to be good or great leaders, I finish with this one to bring everything back into perspective.
While you have to remember to think about yourself and your needs and goals, when all is said and done you have to remember that you’re not an island and everyone else isn’t there for you to do whatever you will with.
If you’re a fair and competent leader, you’ll understand that part of your mission is to help others be better whenever possible, help them to grow, allow them to participate if they choose, give them credit where it’s due, and remember that they have lives and families outside of work.
If you help to enhance the lives of others, it will invariably help you in the long run. That shouldn’t be your motivation for looking out for others, but it’s nice to know that there’s a positive symbiosis just waiting for you if you do things with good intentions.
Whew; that’s been a mouthful! I hope this wasn’t too much, and maybe I’ll tone it down for next year; maybe that is. Let’s see if I can make 14; the journey’s always intriguing.