Freedom to Initiate

Leadership begins with initiative. A personal decision that leads to action. Now would it surprise you that our environments either make initiation easier or harder, or, take it another step, may even determine our whole philosophy of leadership.

Watch this video by Polly Labarre, co-author of Mavericks at Work and CNN contributor, then read her report about IKEA in her Mavericks blog post.

Where do you work best?

For me at home or at a coffee shop. This morning between 4 and 8 I produced a committee newsletter and composed the first draft of a strategic plan for a group. I then went and took a twenty minute nap, and now I'm back at my computer, blogging, and getting ready to work on a column, before heading out to a luncheon.

What Polly's report points to is not just that our environment matters, but the systems in which we work matter. Some people need more structure than others, and along with that they need more direction. Others need a more open environment to create.

Underlying these human behaviors, I'm suggesting, is something deeper. That the environment and the systems of organization that we must work within dictate to us the nature of leadership. With cubicles, corner offices and penthouse suites came the clear impression that some people were leaders and others were not. These more open environments provide a work setting that is more dependent upon personal initiative. With that personal initiative comes the opportunity to be more creative. When we create, we create change and impact, and when we create impact, we lead.

In my home, I have a tiny corner of our family's schoolroom, where I can work for hours without thought of any human necessity. There is nothing attractive about it. It is cluttered with books and paper, maps, DVDs, and office supplies. It is just a place where I can sit down and know that I don't have to move until I want to. There have been many mornings when I was up at 3 or 4 working away and looked at my watch and realized that I needed to shower, pack up and travel 30 minutes to a meeting, and I had only 45 minutes to do it.  OOPS, gotta run.

Think about where you work, and where you feel most creative and motivated to work. Realize in that place you are at your best, and your leadership potential is being tapped to a greater degree than just about any other place.

Leadership begins with initiative, and where we feel free to initiate is the place where our greatest value to our company's is found.

The Risk of not taking the risk

Bob Sutton of the Stanford has a perceptive take on Bill Taylor and Polly LaBarre's Mavericks at Work.  He observes ...

I love the book, and I guess my only complaint is that – as much as I believe that mavericks, deviants, rebels, revolutionaries, or whatever you want to call people who go against grain –- are essential to innovation, I think that Taylor and LaBarre should have talked a bit more about the risks and downsides of challenging the status quo.

It turns out that failure is the fate of most mavericks; for every success story that we hear about, there many more deviants or revolutionaries who have been shunned, fired, or ran their organizations into the ground. As James March, Stanford’s renowned organizational theorist, put it: “Most deviants end up on the scrap pile of failed mutations, not as heroes of organizational transformation.” And identifying which few mavericks are likely to win has proven to be difficult for researchers and investors –- after all, most new companies and products fail. Again, I turn to Jim March:

Unfortunately, the difference between visionary genius and delusional madness is much clearer in history books than in experience. … Only a tiny proportion of our heretics will ever be canonized, and we cannot identify the saints ahead of time.

Although being a maverick is risky, I agree with Taylor and LaBarre that they are essential to innovation.

Sutton makes a good point.  If you are going to be a Maverick, you are running a risk of failure and rejection, among other things.  Yet, I'd have to say that risk is a two way street. Sure there is a risk in trying something new. 

Isn't there also a risk that by doing the same thing over and over again that you will miss out on opportunities? Most of the people I know are not risk takers in any way.  Even the most entrepreneurial are extremely careful about risk.  So, while I agree with Bob Sutton, and with the premise behind the Mavericks book, at least within the circle of relations that I have, there are very few genuine Mavericks, very few that are willing to do things that have a clear risk to them.

My advice is that you don't make your primary decisions about whether it is risky or not. Rather, determine what is the potential impact, and then address the risk factor as an implementation question, rather than as a do or don't do question.

None of us is as smart as all of us - Bill Taylor

Check out Motley Fool's interview with Bill Taylor, co-author of Mavericks at Work.  And Bill's essay in the Hartford Courant.

Bill's consistent refrain that none of us is as smart as all of us is an idea worth thinking long and hard on.  It's a great catch phrase.  However, the implications for leaders and business processes is considerable.

For a number of years, I've been conducting facilitated planning conversations with churches that engage the whole church. Don't think individually submitted surveys. That is the wrong idea.

No. What I've been doing is creating a conversation that allows for the wisdom of the crowd to emerge.  It requires the church board to respond to the whole congregation. There is a spiritual truth in this in that a church is a community linked by the Spirit of God.  The opposite view of this was portrayed to me the other day by a fellow who felt that the governing board was charged with decision making and the congregation's role was to follow.

What I've found in these projects has nothing to do with a church being a church, but rather the church being an organization like any other.  When people do not articulate their ideas in conversation, they never know their true value or reality.  As a result, they stop thinking, stop being creative, and stop taking initiative that benefits everyone.

So, this idea that Bill and Polly have to ably written about in Maverick's is a very important idea that needs further discussion to be fully appreciated.

Don't tell me you can't do it!

I hate waste.  In particular, I hate the waste of people's talent.  If they'd just get up and start something, they'd discover all sorts of cool things about life. 

Here's a great story that Dan Pink has on his blog today about a woman who did just that.  Pink tells the tale:

Seven years ago, Diane St. Clair didn't know boo about making butter. But she wanted to learn so she taught herself the trade via the Internet and some books. Soon she cadged a "small-scale pasteurizer and got a license to go into production." And with one Jersey cow, she went into business. She called her operation, based in rural Orwell, Vermont -- wait for it -- Animal Farm. One day, she sent her butter to Thomas Keller, an all-star chef. He proclaimed it the best butter he'd ever tasted -- and ordered it for all his swank restaurants, as did many other fancy joints.

Today, St. Clair's one-woman operation has six cows and continues to produce butter for the best restaurants in the country. Now she's contemplating starting a butter of the month club that will offer subscribers a pound of butter a month for ten months for a subscription price of $750. That's $75 a pound! As they say, margins like that are like buttah.

Initiative.  Diane St. Clair took initiative to learn something, and then built a business from it. Initiative.  That is all it takes to start. Personal Initiative.

This is a story fit for both Mavericks at Work and The Long Tail.  Mavericks because she took an idea and built a business from that idea.  Long Tail because she has created a niche business from one cow and some pasteurizing equipment.

To me this one is just another example of a person who doesn't listen to the naysayers and goes and tries something. 

Listen, I don't know everyone who reads this blog, but I do know that all it takes is an idea, some personal initiative and commitment to see it through.  Sure there is hard work, but life's richness comes from giving your very best to what you love.  Follow Diane St. Clair's lead and go start something.  And then tell everyone your story.

UPDATE: As I watched the supplementary materials in the Miracle DVD, the footage of the meeting of Kurt Russell and the filmmakers with Herb Brooks prior to filming, I kept hearing Brooks say things relevant to this post.  Here are two.

"You have to make sacrifices for the unknown."
The unknown for most of us is what we can achieve if we start something.  This goes to a meme that I've been thinking about lately about how ideas get translated into action.  For example, how did Diane St. Clair move from an interest in butter along all those steps to the creation of the Butter of the Month Club? 

If success is unknown, then how can we calculate the level of sacrifice needed.  Is there a line we draw that says, beyond this I will not go?  I think it has more to do with how willing we are to deviate from our original conception of the plan. How willing are we to change in order to achieve our goals?

When I heard Herb Brooks say this, I immediately thought of Lewis & Clark two hundred years ago.  They had a mission and a goal. The mission to find a commercial water route across the country.  Their goal was to reach the Pacific coast.  When they left St. Louis in 1704, some of their route was known because of trappers and traders who worked the Missouri up to present day North Dakota. But after the winter of 1705, they were off the map. They were in the unknown, and day after day, they kept moving forward.  Everyday was filled with hardship.  Sacrifices?  I'm not sure they would have thought so.  They were in beautiful country on a great adventure.  But they daily faced the unknown with resourceful optimism.

The second thing that Herb Brooks said that I insight was his understanding of the development of greatness in his team.  He spoke about how you can't force greatness on them.  Instead you (1.) believe in them, set (2.) high standards, and (3.) pull the greatness out of them. This goes back to the first sentence of this posting.

Most of never experience the fulfillment of the potential that we have.  As Linda mentioned in her comment below, it sometimes that another person to bring it out.  That is what Herb Brooks did with his hockey team. 

Lurking within every human being is some hidden greatness.  For most of us, we need other people to draw it out of us.  I'd like to know about the circle of friends and family that gave Diane St. Clair the encouragement to pursue her dream

Susan Bird on Mavericks

Susan Bird, conversationalist extraordinaire, has an excellent take on Mavericks at Work. She observes,

the part that holds most importance for me is their discussion of companies that create their own language...spoken by all employees...that describes what they do and how they do it.  If you want to work in a company that values its own vocabulary, you have to learn the language and use it.  It's all part of the kind of internal branding activity that can be key to the cohesiveness of a firm.

Pause for a second and think about that. 

What is the vocabulary of your company?  Is it primarily technical?  We offer these policies, provide these services and blah, blah, blah....

That isn't what Susan is pointing to. 

The vocabulary is that unique perspective that is the stance that inspires the business to begin with.  For example, one of my clients, a heating and airconditioning company, talks instead of being a solutions company.  Air handlers are just one type of solution.  If they didn't have this vocabulary, or it was primarily a technical vocabulary, they'd be talking about the equipment they'd install and the service contracts they sell.  And they'd sound like their competitors.  Instead, they sound like something unique and distinctive, to the point that businesses are asking them to take over the whole management of the mechanical operations of their facilities. This is the logical extension of their perspective captured in the language of solutions. 

So, how does your business talk about what it offers.  Read Mavericks and Susan Bird's blog and get focused on how to talk in new ways about the impact you want to have with clients.

Guy Kawasaki interviews Mavericks at Work Polly LaBarre

Conversations ride on the back of questions.  The better questions asked, the better conversation. Here's proof positive. 

Read Guy Kawasaki's interview - 10 Questions - with Polly LaBarre, co-author with Bill Taylor of Mavericks at Work.  Here's a sample.             

Question: What did you learn by writing the book that surprised you the most?             

Answer: I was struck by how unfailingly generous these mavericks were-and by how creative they were in their generosity. One of the big lessons of the book is that generosity begets prosperity. Mavericks are fierce competitors, and they’re always measuring how they’re doing. But they’re also remarkably generous, and they’re always asking how they’re helping. They don’t believe that for them to win, others have to lose. They do believe that spirit of generosity more often than not yields great rewards in terms of connections, opportunities, and of course, personal fulfillment.             

In short, the leader who figures out a way for everybody to win is the leader who wins. The leader with a zero-sum mentality gets zero.

She's right. Read the interview. Good insights.

Maverick Polly LaBarre in Charlotte

Met Polly LaBarre today on the Charlotte leg of the Mavericks book tour.  The luncheon/speaking event didn't happen, so along with close friend Drew Henderson, the three of us chatted about the ideas in Mavericks at Work.

Here's a take away from our conversation.

The people and companies that Bill Taylor and Polly feature in their book are people who have taken an idea and have turned it into a business. It really isn't like some high concept abstract idea, but rather some simple, disruptive idea that they see clearly having an impact on a particular market.  The idea they see leads to the advocacy stance they describe.

This is a key insight in their book.  The insight that you can have an idea that rises out of your experience that makes a difference in the lives of people, and boom, you have a cutting edge, entrepreneurial business on your hands.

Prior to meeting Polly today, I was with a client who started a new business less that a year ago.  They are in the heating and air-conditioning business.  At least a superficial view would suggest that. What they are in is the "solutions" business.  Is this a cliched branding approach for them?  No.  It is so real to these guys that their customers are asking them to take over more of the mechanical needs of their operations that just HV/AC.  Soon they may be on Bill and Polly's Maverick's list.

Simple ideas that make a difference for the customer. That's how a Maverick gets started, then builds on it to create something really unique.  As we discussed in Charlotte today, in this perspective, your greatest competitor is yourself. You either follow your insights or follow the crowd.

If Bill and Polly come to your city, make sure you go see them.  Check the schedule out at their blog here.

UPDATE: Ellen Weber has started a conversation about what I say here over at her Brain-based Business blog.  Check it out and take part in the conversation.

Mavericks at Work Blog

Bill Taylor and Polly LaBarre, authors of the new book - Mavericks at Work - have a blog.  Check it out.

If you are here because of their link?  Welcome ...

Take a look at the review and the commentaries I wrote on their book.


Rethinking Competition

Reinventing Innovation

Reconnecting with Customers

Redesigning Work

Why spend so much time on one book?  Because the ideas you'll find in there are not just brainstormed pie-in-the-sky.  They are ones that are about the changes in business fundamentals.  And a quick read by someone in isolation from other people will not yield the insight needed.

In other words, read it, restate in your own words what you think you find there and then talk about how to apply them. 

It isn't the power of your ideas.  It is the power of the execution of your ideas that matter.  And here's an excellent resource for fresh ideas that can help any business.

Redesigning Work - Mavericks at Work comment #4

This is the last of four commentaries on the new book Mavericks at Work by William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre.   

Redesigning Work

Actually, this is the first of two commentaries on this section. The second is my next Real Life Leadership column that will be published next week.  That column addresses the question of why someone would work for you.  Here, I want to address another aspect of it that I think is important.

There is tremendous competition for talent.  This competition is not just about being the kind of business that attracts talent. It also is a matter of being an environment, a community that attracts talent. Let me place this in the context of the communities that I live and work in - Asheville, Hendesonville and Western North Carolina.

Everyone I know who lives here believes that we are indeed blessed.  Any day I want, I can take a couple hours and go hiking.  In fact, I'd prefer to where my day hikers than my business shoes.  Many a column has been written sitting in a chair along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It is a beautiful place.  And it has attracted very talented people.  However, here's the problem.

Many of these people are woefully underemployed.  It takes a long time for the economy of a community to adjust to the influx of new people.  Many people come having retired early. Many come willing to work part time so they can enjoy the great natural environment of Western North Carolina.

So, here's the deal.  It isn't enough that you not be an idiot so great people will work for you.  You have to be a community that provides a great climate for talented people to excel in their pursuits.  You can't be an idiot community.

So, if Taylor and LaBarre are correct, and I believe they are, then this section on the redesign of work also applies to cities and towns.  So, let's rephrase their summary questions for communities.

1.  Why should great and talented people move to your community?  What is it that you have to offer them?  Do you know what they are looking for in a place to live, work and play?

2. Do you know a great community when you see one?   Is this a moving target that changes over the years? Can you change?

3. Can you attract great people to your community who are not looking to move?  Do you know where to find these people?

4.  How well do the people in your community communicate a winning, engaging picture of their home place? To whom are they telling their stories?  What technological means are you using to tell your community's story?

5. Is the quality of life in your community as good as the p.r. suggests? How do business opportunities compare with that quality of life?  What do your community members say about quality of life?  How similar is it to visitors and inquirers?

Final Thoughts
Bill Taylor and Polly LaBarre's book can be read simply as a catalog of current business innovation.  However, this is a book that is worth spending time talking about.  Here are some suggestions.

1.  Give a copy for each member of your team. Have them read one section a week.  Have each person present one actionable item based on their reading.  As a team, select the one most likely to make a difference.  Take the winner to lunch.

2.  Give a copy to your clients and ask them to read it and suggest some areas for how you can improve your service to them?

3.  Write a review and send it to your local newspaper.  The value is not in the publishing of your review, but in the integration of the ideas that you gleaned from the book into some coherent thought that is your own.

The purpose of any follow up initiative is to translate these good and inspiring ideas into action, into practices that make a difference.  There is very little effect without implementation, and successful implementation requires execution.

Reconnecting with Customers - Mavericks at Work comment #3

This is the third of four commentaries on the new book Mavericks at Work by William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre.

Reconnecting with Customers

“Three thankless realities define the state of competition in industries from automobiles to airlines, movies to mutual funds: oversupply, overcapacity, and utter sensory overload. Companies are selling too much of everything; they have the wherewithal to make more of what they’re already selling too much of; and they are unleashing too many marketing messages on customers who can’t begin to process all that they’re seeing and hearing.”

What this tells me is that businesses have lost focus. Not just a loss of focus on the customer, but also a loss of focus on what their business is.

Recently, I spoke with a fellow who had just left his corporate sales job to start his own business. One of the reasons he gave was that the business had broaden its marketing scope so wide that it was impossible to continue to service their customers well. It was no longer about servicing their customers, but about selling more and more people more and more products and services. 

Every day I am acquainted with businesses that understand what Taylor and LaBarre describe, and many more that don’t. Why is it that some businesses get it and others don’t? It seems common sense.

I think it goes to a notion that has grown over the past century that business is a scientific enterprise consisting of technical tasks. As a result, my job is to faithfully and efficiently complete those tasks everyday.

The shift that Taylor and LaBarre note, as have many other business writers, is the one to a customer-centric business model. It really is about how relationships form. In this instance, it is between a company and a customer. It is more than an economic exchange, a transaction. Rather it is an experience that envelops the customer in a world that touches their lives.

Taylor and LaBarre offer five principles to consider in reconnecting with customers.

1. There’s always a demand for something distinctive.

How are you distinguishing yourself and your business from your competitors?
How is your business different than it was a decade ago? How do you describe that to people?

2. Not all customers are created equal.

Who is your ideal customer? Who fits your product or service better than anyone else? What can you do to create a stronger bond of experience with them?

3. Brand is culture, culture is brand.

Do you know what your business’s customer experience culture is like? What do your customers experience when they interact with you and your employees?

4. Advertising to customers is not the same as connecting with customers.

How dependent are you on advertising to make each month’s cash flow projections? What does your advertising say about the experience that your customers have with you?

5.When it comes to creating brand value, dollars-and-cents thinking doesn’t always make sense.

How much do you invest in the experience your customers have with you? When they call, do they talk to a real person or an answering machine?

Just as innovation has become an open-source collaborative enterprise, so too, the connection to customers has become a much more open experience of interaction and relationship formation with customers.

Here again it requires leaders to reconsider how they lead. To create a personal experience requires leaders to be a real human being with the customer.

How do you become a real human being?  Sounds silly dosn't it.  Well, it is more than breathing in and breathing out.  It is more than showing up every day.

Here's how?

First of all become absolutely clear that you can't be the answer person for every question.
This means that you firmly grasp in your mind the need for humility.  This doesn't mean you don't have confidence, and you aren't courageous in your performance as a leader.  It means that you don't enter every situation with a preconceived notion that your way has to win, and that you already have the answer that you have to force down everyone's throats.

Second, push as many decisions as far down the organizational chart as possible.
  What's the impact?  Three changes.  One is that many problems will begin to get resolved by the people who understand the problem best, the people responsible.  Two is an environment of team work that elevates people's satisfaction of work.  Three, and this has to be intentional, a higher quality of communication that releases you the leader from the fear and doubt of not knowing what they are doing down there.

Three, change the ideas that you use to understand who you need to be as a leader and a person. This begins with ideas about human nature in the context of business.  Let me suggest three by author and philosopher, Tom Morris - True Success, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, and his latest, If Harry Potter Ran General Electric. Read through these books, and you'll develop a fresh and inspiring persective on what it means to be a leader and a human being.

Lastly, incorporate these changes, using The Circle of Impact, of Ideas and Relationships into the Organizational Structure and operational practices of your business. This is true of all the ideas that you pick up in reading Taylor and LaBarre's book. 

An Idea that does not lead to action is eventually lost. Relationships that lack core values and ideas lose their purpose. Organizational structures without purpose or healthy relationships, decline.  Therefore, whatever idea you recognize as valuable, whether from Mavericks at Work or any of Tom Morris' work, you have to incorporate them into your relationships with other people and into the structure of your organization. 

The principal problem is that virtually no one has every been trained to do this.  So, if you need help just ask.

Read the book.  Put the ideas in action.  Don't wait for a convenient time. Just do it and do it with your people.