Top 10 Tips to Succeed in Business Leadership

As I approach my 4th decade in a business leadership role, I reflected on key items I have learned from mentors, the school of hard knocks, and watching high performing leaders in action.  I have compiled this into a list and titled it “Top 10 Tips to Succeed in Business Leadership.”  I hope this is valuable to others coming up the management ladder.

  1. Finance, finance, finance – When I talk to young leaders the biggest piece of advice I can give them is to learn more about finance. As you progress in management, regardless of what business function you are in, a larger and larger percentage of your time with your peers and your superiors is spent discussing financial matters. It is imperative that you have a strong grasp of financial metrics, financial language (can you say basis points?), and being able to understand all the financial factors that drive your department and the overall business operations.  If you are unable to converse using the language of finance, I can almost guarantee you will hit a glass ceiling when it comes to your career.  Maybe more importantly, ask yourself who holds the purse strings at a company?  Yep, the CFO.  Who do you think is more effective at getting budget allocations, capital approved, etc.?  The person who speaks the CFO’s language of finance, or someone who does not?

  2. It is all about your people – I naively thought when I started my career that management was all about strategy and execution oversight. How wrong I was.  Management certainly is about both those items, but the vast percentage of your time will be spent managing people.  You will spend more time on the aspects of managing your people for one reason…they are the ones getting the work done, not you.  Once you move into management, you have to pivot your thinking from being an individual who delivers the work to one who leads a team who delivers the work.  This means that you have to focus the majority of your time on managing your people to ensure they are the most effective team they can be, so that your team can deliver the results.  So get prepared to listen, coach, evaluate, reprimand, encourage, advise, console, and otherwise spend the majority of your time with your teams building a culture that is focused on improving the individual within a winning team framework.  Honing your soft skills to improve your people management skills is the best investment you can make in your own career.  If you can’t effectively manage people, I guarantee your career will stall, or even crash.

  3. You need to be a good public speaker – Many people think that they will not have to speak publicly unless they either choose to do so, or they choose to go into a career that requires regular public speaking. How wrong they are.  If you manage a team, no matter how small, you will be “on stage” publicly speaking to them almost every week, if not daily.  You may not think this is public speaking, but trust me, it is.  Every time you talk to your team in a meeting, your team will be evaluating how you speak, both your verbal and non-verbal cues.  They also will be evaluating your ability to speak effectively and whether what you are saying motivates them.  Lastly, they will be evaluating whether they understand what you are telling them and whether they can use the information you spoke about to help prioritize, execute and otherwise achieve the team’s goals.  Do you really think you can be a terrible public speaker and still be good at speaking in small groups?  Even worse, as you move up in the organization, what do you think you will be doing?  Yep, speaking to larger and larger teams of people, on a regular basis.  You’ll be speaking regularly to the larger team about goals, performance, strategy, what lies ahead, and alignment with the broader company goals.  The good news is public speaking is a learnable skill, and it just takes practice and feedback to improve over time.  So, if you haven’t already, start working on your speaking/presentation skills.

  4. Team building really is required – I will admit this is one of my weakest areas. I do not normally think about team building activities and the value that can bring to team alignment and culture.  However, I am smart enough to notice that leaders who do this well end up building stronger teams that ultimately achieve their goals, as opposed to those teams led by leaders who forget to focus on this aspect of management.  We all intuitively know that over-performing teams are aligned culturally, pull for each other instead of for the individual, and are teams who like coming to work each day with their co-workers. Championship winning professional sports teams are well-documented for having this kind of camaraderie and esprit de corps.  Despite knowing this, many of us discount team building as soft-skills or, worse, wastes of time.  What I’ve learned is, since I’m not good at this aspect of management, I find someone on my team who is good at team building, and I empower them to ‘make it happen’ and I take a supporting role.  Ignore this at your peril.  Remember, a peer who does this well will likely be promoted faster than you, so hopefully that is additional motivation.

  5. You have to quickly remove those who don’t fit and perform for the team – One negative person can totally destroy the culture and performance of a team. It is important to coach and try and improve under-performers, but if you have individuals who don’t fit the culture, aren’t pulling their weight, don’t take accountability for their own actions, blame others, or otherwise don’t perform and fit in with the rest of the team…you must get rid of them, quickly.  They will become a poison to the team, destroying the overall performance.  Worse, do you really think that the other team members don’t notice that you, the manager, is not taking action to fix the obvious problem member of the team?  Believe me, your team members all know exactly who on the team doesn’t fit in and is not performing, and they resent you, the manager, for not doing something about it…because they know it is your job to fix.  So, take a hard look at your team and do the right level of documentation required to either coach for improvement, or coach for dismissal, those that are not pulling their weight on the team.  Your entire team will thank you for doing so…or they will resent you for not having enough courage to do so.

  6. Cultivate those rock stars – we all know who they are…those people on the team who constantly go above-and-beyond, over-achieve, deliver the results, take on stretch assignments and still deliver their day-to-day work. Those people are your rock stars.  Notice I did not say those people who ‘save the day’, or ‘come to the rescue.’  Real rock stars never allow you to get in trouble in the first place, so there is no need to save the day.  Watch out for those who always perform the rescue, because often they are the ones who caused the problem that required a rescue.  As for the rock stars, you have to build really strong development plans for these folks, and be prepared for them to move out from your team into other roles, maybe even eventually becoming your boss.  Why is this important?  The biggest reason is that senior management looks at middle management and asks ‘does this person develop talent?’  If you’ve hidden your talent in the team, or not developed talent that has blossomed beyond your team, guess what, you are not a talent developer.  You will likely be overlooked for senior positions where talent development is a requirement of the job.  I have watched numerous smart people hit the glass ceiling over their inability to develop talent than any other missing management skill.

  7. Be a decision maker – Being a leader means making decisions. You can’t be a leader and not make decisions.  Leading means focusing on the future, which is unknown, and constantly making changes to the operation to take advantage of what the future holds to maximize the performance of the team.  Being afraid to make decisions because of the unknown automatically ensures that you will never be successful in leadership.  Worse, everyone will know you are a leader who can’t make decisions, and believe me, no one will want to work for you.  Working for someone who can’t make decisions is one of the worst experiences you can have in your career, because with no decisions, comes no change.  And with no change, comes an inability to react to changes that impact your teams.  A ship with a captain who could not make decisions is guaranteed to crash, and it is no different in company management.  So, gather as much data as you can, but realize you will never have perfect visibility to the future, so make a decision.  Then, if you receive data later that shows you made the wrong decision, own up to it, change your mind, and share with your team what has occurred to cause you to change your mind.  Your team will respect a leader who both makes decisions, and one who is willing to change their decision in the face of new data…as opposed to those managers with fragile egos who will not admit that they were incorrect.  While making decisions, be careful not to make emotional decisions.  Emotional decisions are some of the worst decisions I have ever made, and usually they result in me having to change my decision later.  If you are angry, upset, depressed, or any of the other negative emotions, don’t make the decision.  Get the facts/data, and wait until you are mentally in a better state before analyzing the situation and making a decision.  This requires amazing self-awareness, but saves an even greater amount of grief.

  8. Mentors do help – I wish someone would have told me earlier to look for those leaders who really inspire and motivate people, and then mimic their actions. It really is just that simple.  We all learn from watching others, whether it be our parents when we were just learning to talk, or in the business world when we are watching our boss or other leaders in the organization.  It does not need to be a formal mentor, because you can learn enormous amounts of great, and bad, management skills just by watching, learning, evaluating, and keeping and discarding those things you see work and not work.  If you do have the opportunity for a great mentor program, just make sure you do your homework before you pick your mentor.  Talk to people that work for your target mentor and learn what she/he has done for them.  Then use that information to pick a mentor that has a proven track record of being able to help people like yourself with the management areas you are trying to improve.

  9. Look left and right, not just up – Many colleagues I have met over the years missed out on opportunities to advance because they were unwilling to move laterally within the organization, not realizing that often lateral moves prepare them to eventually move up in the organization. Remember the phrase “what got you here won’t get you there.” This means that rarely are the skills required for your next job acquired in your current job.  Often senior management looks for a combination of leadership execution, potential and a proven track record of being able to succeed in multiple roles.  If you have only worked in one department in a series of increasing roles of responsibility, that will not be sufficient for you to be considered for more senior positions that require a broader set of experiences.  Someday your CEO may ask you to take a role that seems like a lateral move with no growth.  Your correct answer to the question of whether you will take the position is “yes.”  Nine times out of ten your boss is asking you to take this position to round out your experience, or put you in a position where you can gain new experience that you really need for a future position.  CEO’s and Presidents don’t ask people to take jobs unless (a) they think you can do it, and (b) they are preparing you for something in the future.  So, don’t make the mistake of turning down a lateral move just because you can’t see what the future holds in that role.

  10. Delegate and build your successor – There is an interesting paradox that I notice flummoxes many aspiring leaders. To be considered for management early in your career you have to be one of the most knowledgeable people on your team in your department.  However, as you move up in the management hierarchy there is a distinct change in how you are perceived to be ready for further promotions.  Specifically, if you continue to be the most knowledgeable person in your role as manager, this will send clear signals to senior management that you are (a) unable to delegate effectively, and (b) you are not ready for promotion because you are too valuable in your current role because you have not yet built your successor.  I have often heard a phrase like, “Oh, we can’t promote <name>, he’s too valuable in his current role.”  That is a signal that you have made yourself indispensable in your current role, primarily by not delegating and building your successor, so you will not be considered for promotion and you will fall off the management track.  I try and tell managers that another reason to effectively delegate and build your successor is that doing so will actually free up your own personal time so that you can take on stretch assignments or additional duties and responsibilities.  Senior management likes those leaders that can take on stretch assignments while still effectively managing their teams.  This shows agility, the ability to juggle multiple balls, and, of course, it shows that you have built a strong team that can operate without you having to be involved in the details.  Senior management is always on the lookout for leaders who can build leaders.  Strangely, very few managers focus on this key aspect of management for fear that someone they manage will become knowledgeable enough to perform their job.  That is actually a good thing.  See point 6 above for additional reasons.  Ironically, if you do not focus on this, you will create your own glass ceiling.

I hope you enjoyed my article and I’d love to hear from you on whether any of this resonates.


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