Mar 152012

I was cleaning out my spam folder the other day and one subject line caught my eye as I deep-sixed it to oblivion where it belonged. “Be Your Own Boss!” I believe they were offering the latest work at home scheme, guaranteed to give me the peace of mind I must be looking for while relieving me of my bank account.

Those who know me understand I have been interested in having my own business for years. I call myself a closet entrepreneur, eager for the excitement but scared of the unknown and deeply addicted to my current paycheck. While I would love to run my own show, there are certain realities I have to deal with, such as my current salary is high enough that any attempt at starting a business would require a catastrophic pay cut.

For some reason, though, when I read this piece of spam, something triggered in my mind. I am my own boss. I control my job, my career, my finances,  so many aspects of my life already. Sure, I have a manager at work who fills in quite a few details in regards to what I do for the company where I work, but ask most business owners and they will tell you their clients often stipulate such things.

On the way to work that day, I started thinking about how I would act if I were the CEO of my own company. How would I act as I worked at my client’s site? How would I attack the pile of work on my desk? Would I think differently about the decisions I have to make? I am somewhat ashamed to say that there were many things that came to mind I would do differently. The rest of that day I tried to act like a CEO. I walked confidently down the hall, greeting everyone. I approached decisions from a company standpoint instead of just my little area of focus. I worked to use every minute as effectively as possible, planning every move as if it were costing ten times my actual salary. I have to admit it was perhaps the most productive day I have had in a very long time. It was fun, too.

Since that day, I watch CxO leaders and small business owners more carefully. What do they do that I don’t? How do they act? What do they concern themselves with? Who do they talk to and what do they discuss? How do they get between meetings? How do they schedule their days? How do they manage the endless piles of work on their desks? My observations have been very telling on where I can improve as CEO of my own company.

Here is a partial list of some of the behaviors I need to improve:

  1. Delegation. These people are always handing off tasks to others. They aren’t ducking the responsibility, but they are looking for the right person to do the work at the least expense possible. Their time is at a premium. They shouldn’t be spending time making meeting reservations, document proofing and such. They know who does it better than they and assigns the work to them.
  2. Organization. Their days are filled with meetings, appointments, calls and other requirements. Yet they still have to get all their other work done. They know what has to be done and how to fit into the little cracks. This is where an administrative assistant can be very helpful. Of course, I don’t have one assigned to me, but there are tricks I have learned from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, that help. A weekly review can be as good as an administrative assistant for the rest of us. Identifying all the tasks to be done, prioritizing and having them on a list, ready to execute when the time allows provides a huge advantage when a meeting ends early. Pick one and go.
  3. Make a decision. I tend to dither over decisions. I always want more data, to seek consensus and advice of others. And then I want more data. Guess what? Make a decision and move on. Unless a life is at stake, the decision can be adjusted later when more data becomes available.
  4. Smile while walking. People are always watching a leader for a clue as to how things are going. When the CEO walks down the hall, eyes on the floor, brows furrowed and mouth set in a frown, no one guesses he is trying to figure out what to get his wife for her birthday. Instead, they run and polish their resume, assuming the worst. When our business owner walks around with a smile on her face, head up and eyes sparkling, likewise no one suspects she is going over the sales shortfall for the month and how to proceed without having to do a layoff. They see confidence and push harder themselves. Learn to hide emotions. Perhaps this is why poker is such a popular game.

I have tried to treat my work as if I were the boss lately. It has changed the complexion of how I look at the work. It is a little more exciting, a little more daunting and a little more rewarding. I can see there are many behaviors I have yet to learn. Some days I revert to the victim employee, just waiting for someone to tell me what to do. I work at pulling myself out of that mindset when I recognize it and head back to my lists for a next action. I’m the boss. I better start acting like one.

Mar 132012

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer  

Every now and then, I come across a book that is so engaging, I simply cannot put it down. Into Thin Air is one of those books that pulled me in and I found myself listening to it every free second of every day until it, too soon, came to an end. I even brushed my teeth extra long, trying to fit in a few extra moments before I had to move on with the rest of my day.

Introduced to this book in Great By Choice by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen during their discussion on leading above the Death Line, I decided I had to read it. I had heard about the tragic Everest expeditions of 1996 in which eight people died when a storm caught them exposed near the summit. I wanted to learn more of the incident that inspired that chapter of Great By Choice.

Jon Krakauer, a journalist and mountain climber, was asked by Outside magazine to accompany an expedition and report on the commercialization of Mount Everest. Once reserved for the mountaineering elite, access to the world’s highest peak has recently been made available to anyone in reasonable condition and enough money to hire a guide. However, Krakauer, and the dozens of others who attempted to climb Everest in May, 1996, came face to face with the reality of how dangerous the mountain remains.

The book spend considerable time examining the guides, especially Rob Hall, the New Zealander who had pioneered the concept of helping get people to the top. Were the guides at fault for the disaster? Were there signs that could have prevented the disaster? Krakauer lays out the facts as he remembered them, realizing he, like the others, were in a fog of oxygen deprivation. He pieced the story together from interviews with many of the other climbers.

Being a professional writer, Krakauer’s narrative is engaging and descriptive. This is what pulled me in to the book and helped me get closer to understanding why anyone endures the physical torture and risks their life to climb the world’s highest peaks.

What of the controversy surrounding the cause of the disaster? Krakauer did not gloss over the actions or inactions of several who resulted in the disaster. He holds himself responsible for mistakes made that caused pain and loss of life for his teammates and their families. He explains in detail many of the questions that will never be answered, including why Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, experienced guides, ignored their own abort time by over three hours that would have saw everyone safely back to camp before the storm broke. Krakauer’s account created enough pain and anger among the survivors and families he felt it necessary to add an epilogue attempting reconciliation.

As I listened to this book, I couldn’t help draw comparisons to the decision making processes followed in business leadership. Disasters are rarely a result of a single poor choice, but instead are the compounding of many, tiny missteps. Such was the conclusion to which Krakauer came. The guides had rules predetermined to keep everyone safe while under the effect of hypoxia brought on by the low oxygen levels at high altitude. However, the bending of several placed everyone in unnecessary risk. Individually, none of the small infractions would have made a difference. Adding them all up, however, spelled disaster when the storm hit. How many times do I allow myself a small bending of the rules I have placed to keep me out of danger? Can I afford to let myself place myself and others in danger? The lessons of Into Thin Air will stay with me for a long time.

Feb 272012

Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen 

Since bursting on the business book scene with Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins has been a fixture at the top of the business best seller list. His research-based approach to explaining success has struck a chord in the management corridors. I first became aware of Collins after being assigned to read Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by my boss. We were attempting to turn a corner with our small company and he hoped this would give us the insight we needed to be successful.

I remember watching a presentation by Collins explain the methodology of sorting through the data to find the companies to study. He explained they first looked for a question that really interested him. I can understand the theory. Without a really good question to sustain him and his team of researchers, they wouldn’t have the interest to spend several years seeking the answer. And he found a really good puzzle this time. I think this is perhaps his best work.

The latest research undertaking was centered around the question: Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty , even chaos, and others do not? He and his team began by looking for enterprises who outperformed their industry averages by at least 10 times. Dubbed the “10Xers”, they looked into what caused them to be successful when other, very similar organizations in the same environment, did not. From there, they dug into the lessons they can learn and found similar stories to describe the behavior.

He begins be relating the story of the race to the South Pole by Amundsen and Scott. If you are unfamiliar with this story, the analogy alone is worth the read. Amundsen trained for the mission to the South Pole by living with eskimos, experimenting in eating sources of meat available in the Antarctic, learning to travel in snow with dog sleds and other similar preparations. Scott, on the other hand, decided to use ponies without checking see how they would hold up in the harsh conditions (they don’t), investing in new, untested technology – motor sledges (the engines cracked within days) and packing lightly on the supplies (1 ton / 17 men compared to Amundsen’s 3 tons / 5 men). Amundsen reach the pole first and returned safely with his men before winter set back in. Scott’s team, reduced to pulling their sleds by hand, reached the pole over a month later. The entire team died, starving to death two miles from their supply cache.

Powerful stories like this are employed throughout the book, each graphically emphasizing the traits of the 10Xer companies. Those traits include:

  • The 20 Mile March
  • Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs
  • Leading above the Death Line
  • SMaC (Specific, Methodical, and Consistent), and
  • Return on Luck

Each lesson is something that a company leadership has control over. They can replicate the results of these hyper-successful companies, if they choose. That is the key point: Companies can choose to be great. Yes, there is some luck involved, but Collins proves it isn’t a matter of getting a lucky break, but what one DOES with any luck, good or bad.

I can’t possibly do this book justice in the few words of this review. I recommend reading this book more highly than any other book to date. The lessons he teaches are profound and simple. Every step is in reach. I believe this book to be one of the most useful of all the business books I have read. It is applicable to many cases beyond business as well. He discusses other applications to nonbusiness organizations as well. This book should be on a list to be reviewed annually by every leader of an organization. It should be discussed in staff meetings and the concepts implemented everywhere. If you only buy one book on changing an organization, make it this one.

Editor’s note: Come back tomorrow for an additional discussion on Great By Choice. There is much more to be learned from this book than a lesson in business. Much more. While I read Great By Choice in December, I immediately loaned the book to my brother so he could read it for his business. He just now returned it after putting it to some good use in planning his business’ next steps.  

Great By Choice Personal Improvement Series

Great By Choice: Personal Success In Reach
Great By Choice: The 20 Mile March
Great By Choice: Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs
Great By Choice: Leading Above the Death Line
Great By Choice: SMaC
Great By Choice: Return On Luck