5 Universal Pieces of Advice to Move Your Needle
When I work with CEOs and business owners, we take time together to dig deep into their opportunities and challenges. We put a lot of thought into figuring out what’s important and how to move the needle. This process takes time, trust, and perspective—a combination that’s absent when I’m approached at a conference or coffee bar and asked by well-meaning people for some quick advice about how to improve their businesses.
“Quick advice” is a tall and inexact order. There is no “one size fits all” formula, but I’ve worked with enough organizations and leaders to uncover a few helpful pieces of advice that apply to almost everyone.
Here they are…
1. Get crystal clear on:
- What business you’re actually in.
- What you actually want.
An electrician I once worked with had taken over his father’s business, and he had grown it to a respectable level. Despite running a crew of 15 capable field professionals, he continued to insist on personally doing fieldwork. He found himself chasing jobs all over the region and running himself ragged in the process.
Soon after we began working together, it became clear that the business excelled at a specific (and highly profitable) type of commercial work, but the owner had not focused on this area. Additionally, he had yet to fully articulate his future vision for the company and was instead chasing his late father’s dream.
Together, we were able to identify that, while his business required electricians, he was not actually in the electrical service business. Moreover, we determined that to achieve his life and business goals, this owner needed to make some immediate changes. He was ultimately successful in correcting his course. Thinking about his story, I’m reminded of the words spoken by Morgan Freeman’s character in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
2. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. Hyper-focus on your strengths and mitigate or delegate your weaknesses.
I once worked with an entrepreneur who believed that he could do anything within the operation better than anyone else. He grew his business to a respectable level, and then his belief became a self-fulfilling prophecy as the company’s growth plateaued.
We all have strengths and weaknesses. Some of us, like the entrepreneur in my story, believe our strengths enable us to conquer all. Others think that they can raise their weaknesses to the level of strengths. (This is why I turn down most requests for career coaching and counseling—too many people start with the belief that through hard work, their weaknesses can be turned into strengths.)
One of my favorite quotes from the great strategist Sun Tzu is:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Knowing yourself means knowing your strengths and weaknesses and structuring your actions to maximize one and blunt the other.
3. Announce your intention(s) to the world and keep announcing them until the correct people show up to help you.
“Announcing your intentions” is not new age advice, and I’m not asking you to break out your chakra crystals and hum a chant. Instead, I’m advising you to communicate clearly and repetitively what you’re doing and where you’re going. Only then, will you begin to observe whether the people you’ve surrounded yourself with are the “correct” people.
The correct people will take many forms. They may be people that are already in your life, or they could be brand new discoveries. They might be employees, partners, friends, spouses, mentors, advisory boards, or colleagues. I don’t know who these people are to you, and I don’t know what your needs are. What I’ve seen time and time again, though, is that when you repeatedly broadcast your intentions, you will gradually assemble around you the supporting cast that you need to realize your vision. (By the way, announcing your intentions also means asking for help when needed.)
4. Uncover your biggest obstacle. Then figure out a way to go over, under, around or through it.
When I begin working with someone, nine times out of ten, there’s a sizable elephant somewhere in the room. That elephant is often a person, but sometimes it is a financial, legal, technical or competitive issue. Regardless of the form your elephant takes, it will persistently take up space and wreak havoc daily for as long as you choose to ignore it.
Successful leaders acknowledge the elephant (even if they don’t initially see it). They gain perspective from third parties about how to overcome the obstacle. And then, they act.
The biggest hurdle that I’ve observed about taking action is when people only consider two choices as viable solutions. I’ve written about this binary decision trap in my eBook “Leadership in Real Life.” I encourage you to download it and check out the section, “How Do You Do the Hard Thing?”
5. Your business is unique, but probably not in the way that you believe. Discover and focus on your Unique Selling Proposition— that’s your differentiator.
When I meet CEOs or business owners for the very first time, there’s at least a 50 percent chance that they’ll tell me a version of the following:
“Our business is very unique, hard to understand and unlike any that you’ve probably dealt with.”
Statements like this come from an understandable place of emotional pride, and the sentiment is slightly more prevalent with owners/founders than with hired CEOs.
Just as there are only seven basic story plots, there are also a limited number of business models and issues. However, that’s secondary to the real problem, which is that most of us fail to focus on what makes our businesses genuinely unique.
Here’s an example from the real world:
One organization that I work with believed that they’re uniqueness stemmed from the complex regulatory oversight that governs the industry. After working with them, however, they gradually realized that their uniqueness came from the way their operations were structured, which enabled them to scale effectively. Thus, while others within their industry have taken this path, too few have walked it well and embraced it as a Unique Selling Proposition. This is what differentiates my client’s business and what now is at the heart of the story his organization tells.
I hope that the next time we run into each other in the real world, you’ll share a story with me about how my advice has helped you to move the needle.