Early in my career I had the privilege of hearing an certain tech executive give his “Top 10” lessons learned and ever since, I’ve wanted to create my own list. So finally I have put it to paper here for RentSauce readers, flavored with a few memorable quotes. These tips are geared towards business and careers, but generally apply to life and relationships as well. It has been a fun challenge to try to summarize my lessons learned into 10 key points and I suggest you go through the exercise at some point to see what drives your daily actions and management style. I’m sure I’ll be revising my list over time, but here and now I hope you’ll find it entertaining and quite possibly even useful:
1. It’s All About People
At the end of the day, it’s people that are deciding to buy from you, hire you, renew their lease, promote you, submit an online review, reprimand you, become your friend, etc. Success in business is a culmination of people, experiences, processes, and systems, but I argue the people / human component is the most important factor. Great people create great experiences and processes, which are supported by systems created by great people. You have to be sincere and care about the people you work with in order to succeed.
If you don’t genuinely like your customers, chances are they won’t buy.
– Thomas Watson, former CEO IBM
As we strive to manage stakeholders, it is important to establish and maintain personal relationships whenever possible. I have found it useful to try and proactively visit each of my key stakeholders (customers, leaders, employees, etc.) on a weekly basis (in person preferred). In addition, look for opportunities to give sincere compliments to anyone you interact with and help them look good in front of their peers and supervisors. In order to drive significant organizational change, you must establish trusted relationships and truly understand the people / processes in your environment.
2. Define Success
I’m continually surprised how often our teams are marching forward and working hard without clearly defined objectives. Essentially, they are running fast, but don’t know where to find the finish line. They’re throwing darts, but don’t know where the target is or how to hit a bulls-eye. Whenever I takeover a struggling project or team, the first thing I do is define or re-define success and communicate it over and over and over.
You may ask yourself, what if my customer or manager doesn’t define success for me? How do I achieve it? Unfortunately, this is all too common, but it offers a great opportunity for you to make a difference. You can take the initiative to develop personal objectives and work to align them with feedback from customers and management in order to achieve recognized results. If we don’t know what success means, then we’ll never achieve it.
3. Prove Your Salary’s Return on Investment (ROI)
Everyday I try to ask myself: “Have I provided a positive return on my salary to my employer today?” Working to make a positive impact and achieve tangible results on a daily basis will greatly impact your success with customers and employers. They should have the assurance that you’re championing their interests.
4. Communication, Communication, Communication!
Effective communication is probably the most important success factor on this list. Successful leaders and managers spend upwards of 90% of their time communicating in some fashion. Here are a few tips to becoming a successful communicator at work:
a) When you receive a request that will take you longer than 2 – 4 hours to address, reply to the sender / stakeholders acknowledging you received the request and give an ETA on the delivery or next steps.
b) Provide regular updates on all open tasks / requests. Even with short projects, send little updates to inform everyone where it stands. If someone has to ask you “where are we on X?,” then you’ve already failed in your communication.
c) When you can’t commit to a delivery date due to unknowns, give a “date for a date” so everyone knows the next step.
d) If you’re going to be offline for more than a half day, give stakeholders your backup contact.
e) Whenever possible, prepare an agenda (even if it’s just a few informal bullets) for meetings so you know what “success looks like” for the meeting.
f) Provide follow-up on any meetings by documenting the decisions made, action items, and next steps.
It is very easy for team communication to become chaotic. For example, on a team of only 10 people there are 45 different lines of communication (Communication Formula = N(N-1) / 2). Implementing solid communication plans is essential for success.
5. Establish Repeatable Processes
One thing we as humans dislike is change. Why do you go to the same dry cleaner? Car wash? Restaurants? Sit in the same chairs in meetings? Daily routines? Buy the same stuff? We like predictability. I have found success in establishing operating rhythms with my customers, employees, and superiors. For example, I always send progress reports on Fridays. No one asks me “where are we on X?,” because they know the report will be published on Friday. Be accountable and proactive in how you operate.
Note: This doesn’t mean you can become monotonous in your performance at the expense of innovation, you are just targeting repeatability in delivery and reducing the probability of negative surprises.Make it your goal to never surprise your customers and managers with negative results. Regular and repeatable processes with checkpoints will minimize negative results and will demonstrate your ability to be accountable and proactive in how you operate.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not a single act, but a habit.
6. Set the Pace
What time do you need to be to work if the boss comes in at 9:00am? 8:58am, of course! You know you have done it, or at least thought about it ;) As a leader, it’s important to set the pace of the team. That doesn’t always mean you need to come in earlier or stay later every day, but it does mean your performance will be noticed and often emulated by those you lead or serve. Treat others well and those around you will take note and adjust accordingly.
Our mission statement about treating people with respect and dignity is not just words but a creed we live by every day. You can’t expect your employees to exceed the expectations of your customers if you don’t exceed the employees’ expectations of management.
– Howard Schultz, CEO Starbucks Coffee
7. It’s a Small World After All
I am regularly reminded how “small” the business world has become. You never know which of your customers, employees, managers, etc. will be your future manager, reference, or customer. We must strive to be genuinely benevolent humans in our interactions with others. I have seen many people treat others poorly and achieve “perceived” success, but have never seen it sustain itself. (Remember I said it’s all about people?) Be an uplifting leader, believe in people, take time to invest in others, be grateful, be happy, and remember you don’t know what your customers and employees may be going through before you decide how to interact with them.
Service, in short, is not what you do, but who you are. It is a way of living that you need to bring to everything you do, if you are to bring it to your customer interactions.
– Betsy Sanders, Nordstrom’s First Female Store Manager
8. Quality = The Ability to Meet Requirements
As experts in our respective professions, we often jump to conclusions—we think we know what’s best for our customers, and that’s exactly what we give them. In reality, it may not be what they want at all. To be successful, we must work hard to understand their needs by regularly interacting with them, listening, and iterating on feedback and improvements. If we produce what we think is an outstanding product or service, but our customers don’t agree, it really doesn’t matter how “cool” it is in our minds.
The more you engage with customers, the clearer things become and the easier it is to determine what you should be doing.
– John Russell, President of Harley Davidson
9. Higher Education vs. School of Hard Knocks
Have you ever been part of the debate over the value of education? We have all known a highly educated person that has struggled to add value in the workplace and also know someone who has achieved great success without any formal education.
Every organization struggles with process, people, and technical issues. The value of an employee comes from their ability to overlay best practices with the existing difficulties facing the organization and drive change without significantly disrupting productivity or introducing undue administrative overhead. I encourage and expect my employees to be lifelong learners. If we aren’t seeking out a better way to do things, how can we obtain any perspective outside of our existing reality to improve? However, if all we know is best practices and are unable to apply them to the reality of our environment, that is also ineffective.
To sum it up, education without application, as well as application (hard knocks) without new perspective brought by education, are both ineffective. To succeed, we must always be seeking new knowledge and perspective and then effectively applying those skills to improve our current reality.
10. Be a Part of the Solution, Not Part of the Problem
If you haven’t already read “The Dog Poop Initiative” by Kirk Weisler, you should check it out. The essence of the story is that we all see and can easily point out issues at work and in our lives (“pointers”). We become experts on how to avoid messes, but rarely stand out as “scoopers” who simply solve the messes and move on to more important issues. When we see problems, we will be much more successful if we take initiative to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem by “pointing.”
If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.
– Eldridge Cleaver