A Model for Leaders – Odysseus Archetype Part III

In our last post we looked at how Odysseus, our archetypal leader, made use of a broad range of experiences and mistakes to learn and grow. In this final post we’ll discuss more of the characteristics that leaders of today could employ to their organization’s benefit.

Our protagonist understands the importance of assessing critical situations himself. In chapter four, Helen, of Troy fame, told how Odysseus disguised himself and entered Troy to see the city’s defenses for himself. He stayed in the character of a beggar when approached by Helen and finally escaped from the city with the info desired. Time and again we see him leading from the front and making his own assessment of situations. Leaders today should consider doing the same with major customers, vendors, marketplaces.

In book twenty Odysseus almost explodes verbally and physically. He knows unleashing them in a torrent of invective and action would not serve his purpose. He does a good job tamping down his emotions at that critical juncture. Executives, too, need to control their emotions to improve effectiveness.

Odysseus analyzes each situation before taking appropriate action. He uses emotional intelligence to determine what others want and how to best connect with them. He is always looking to learn about new people and changing situations. Odysseus makes those difficult decisions and takes action. He stays in character when appropriate and he always perseveres.

Sometimes, as leaders, we have to make those most difficult decisions. Occasionally we are called upon to take actions we know will affect people’s lives. We’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Scylla and Charybdis. There is some comfort to know others have struggled with these dilemmas for thousands of years. We’re not in this alone and can learn from the past, finding models to adapt to the current day.

So finally after twenty years, ten at the siege of Troy and ten being blown off course, Odysseus makes his way home to his wife and family. If you read the story you’ll find he still needs to overcome some challenging obstacles there, and he does. During his arduous journey Odysseus employs the skills and traits all good leaders should develop.

Having worked closely with business owners and top managers for the past twenty years I’ve noticed the best leaders share a number of Odysseus’ characteristics. Among them is emotional intelligence, courageous action, ability to make difficult decisions. They also tend to lead from the front, have perseverance, are lifelong learners and accepting we’re all human.

The Odysseus archetype is a solid model for today’s leaders to embrace. Becoming familiar with the towering characters in our classic literature broadens a leader’s perspective. It is an effective way to “visit cities of men and learn their minds”. Perspective is the other important element classic literature provides, in some case thousands of years of perspective.

The greatest thinkers and minds of all times have also engaged and commented on those characters. The emotional distance they provide enhances leader’s learning opportunities. Continue to lead as a lifelong learner.

A Model for Leaders – The Odysseus Archetype Part II

In Part I of this series we discussed how Homer’s Odysseus, exemplified a leader with high emotional intelligence who was able to think situations though, and make difficult decisions when necessary. We also considered the executive education value of perspective and emotional distance that this classic story provides.

One of the reasons the Odyssey is a classic is that Homer constructed the story on a number of levels. Many of us, when reading it for the first time, read it for the journey and the adventures. The Olympian gods add a surreal, almost Syfy, element for modern readers. Homer, perhaps the first Bard, is a master story teller. As such he advises us about all mankind, including ourselves.

In the first few lines (Fagles translation) we’re told a great deal about Odysseus. He is a “man of twists and turns driven time and again off course,”. As a man of twists and turns, this applies in both a physical and mental sense.

Which one of us has not been “driven time and again off course” as we pursue our goals? Our protagonist shows us over and again the value of perseverance. Odysseus is a poster child for perseverance. He continues to overcome obstacles placed in his way, and there are many of them. It’s a quality that all good leaders must have and employ.

Within the next few lines we’re told, “many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,” Homer seems to be telling us that a broad knowledge base is essential. Being open to wide set of people and different experiences is an excellent education. Understanding, empathizing with people is critical to success. Being able to employ empathy and diverse experiences to come up with new solutions are crucial in leadership. We learn there are multiple ways of organizing, viewing situations and accomplishing goals.

When the Bard tells us that Odysseus, “Learned their minds,” this indicates both an intellectual and practical curiosity. How do they do things? What can we pick up that will help us? How can this help us improve our probabilities of attaining our goals. Good leaders tend to be life long learners, like Odysseus. Our world is constantly changing so executives need to stay abreast of those changes.

Odysseus’ overarching mistake in the Odyssey occurred when he let his hubris run amok. He and his surviving crew had just escaped from the bloody, man eating Cyclops. As they sailed away Odysseus wanted to be sure the Cyclops knew who had tricked and blinded him and hollered out his name. The Cyclops, however, was the son of Poseidon the ocean god. So he called out to his father to destroy Odysseus and Poseidon sent storm after storm to wreck his ship and destroy Odysseus for years.

Odysseus learned from his mistake and kept his hubris in check for the remainder of the story. It was a lesson learned at quite a high cost. A mentor of mine used to say we must all pay the tuition and the cost of a good education is often high. Many of us seem to learn best by our mistakes.

Homer gives us a solid understanding of the character of Odysseus, showing us both his admirable and less than admirable traits. We too are a decided mix of both. The point is, our protagonist is human like us, not superhuman. He has strengths and faults as we all do. We can learn from both, as we catch glimpses of ourselves on our way to becoming better executives.

In our next and final post in this series we will look at the other characteristics that recommend Odysseus as a model for leaders today.

A Model for Leaders – The Odysseus Archetype Part I

Emotional intelligence has been hailed by many as an important component of a business leader’s skill set these past couple of decades. One of the first, if not the first, character in Western Literature to display and employ emotional intelligence consistently is Odysseus, hero of Homer’s classic Odyssey.

Time and again, he carefully considers how to best approach and communicate with the different people he meets on his journey. This is not unlike many successful leaders today.

Homer has carefully constructed the character of Odysseus as an archetype of the model man. He is courageous and physically capable, much like Achilles, the main character in the Iliad. However, unlike Achilles, Odysseus brings emotional intelligence to every opportunity and issue. He understands the importance of individualized communication. He knows everyone has their own needs and desires and approaches them accordingly.

Most leaders also find they have to navigate difficult circumstances from time to time, ones where there was just no good answer. Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey, faced that very situation when coming to Scylla and Charybdis.

He was about to sail through a narrow strait. On one side was a whirlpool, Charybdis, which might sink his entire craft. On the other side lurked a six-headed, blood thirsty monster ready to pounce.

After considering the options, Odysseus made the decision to sail on the side of Scylla, knowing it would mean losing six of his crew, and possibly himself, to a horrible death. He made that hard decision so he wouldn’t take the chance of losing the entire ship.

Odysseus then made another tough choice. He resolved not to tell his crew of the hazards. He knew that knowledge would only make them anxious and unable to perform.

Scylla might not have been the path you would choose. The story allows us to see how one leader dealt with a very difficult decision. Seeing it from afar we can consider how we might have done something different and when our rock and a hard place situation arises.

So why consider this ancient Greek as a model for leaders today? In the paragraphs above we see analogies of situations in which we have found ourselves. Moreover, human nature doesn’t appear to have changed nearly as much as our technology. We remain, at our core, the same as people who lived millennia ago. One can readily discern this when studying the characters Homer and other classical authors construct.

There is value for leaders in the perspective of distance especially when (or because) it is devoid of our emotional involvement. Perspective is hard to come by when we’re in the thick of things. We are better able to judge and learn from the decisions our archetypes made. We see how they approached circumstances, what they thought, the actions taken and the results attained. Then we’re free to modify them to our present needs as we think best.

In the next post we’ll continue to discuss the Odysseus Archetype and show how it is a solid model for leaders of today to consider and use.

Double Your Bottom Line!

Doubling your bottom line is no easy task. You know that, or you wouldn’t be reading this. We get that.

What we see in the marketplace is that most all organizations work on being smart. They work hard in technology, operations, marketing, finance, etc. Using skills learned while getting an MBA.

Many of us gravitated to areas where we could calculate improvements. Figure something out. We work hard to be smart. Being smart may well drive your current bottom line.

There is another tool CEOs can help their organizations employ, beyond smart. That is becoming healthy. What does that mean? What do healthy organizations look like?

They’re places where morale and productivity are high and politics are low. People enjoy coming to work 9 out of 10 days.  Employees are passionate about the organization’s purpose and share a core set of values. It’s where priorities and expectations are crystal clear, for everyone.

Since these are the items can’t be calculated, we tend to shy away from them. There’s the rub. One way to approaching doubling your bottom line is to ensure your management team is a healthy, high functioning one. We all want to think that’s the case, but we must be brutally honest which is best for the organization.

So where do you start?  We believe the CEO is responsible to make sure that the right people are around the management table. We define “right” as meaning they share the core values, they have the right experience and skills. They are okay with being wrong, and only want what is best for the organization.

An effective management team provides the most leverage to achieve organizational goals.

Top managers set the pace of the organization. You know that. They beat the drum within the organization. We must work actively to develop the management team. No doubt they are good people; they have the right background the necessary skills. But few have been trained, really trained to work well together.

We often take teams though Pat Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. This is an effective way to get folks working better together. It provides concepts, tools and language to use to improve team functioning.

Back to the CEOs, it’s her job to manage the management team. One of the CEO’s main responsible is to bring good decision-making unit to the table. One CEO we know sees himself as just one other vote around the table. Letting the team identify and passionately debate the big issues.

This CEO does hold a veto, which is seldom used. The process itself, however, is part of team development.  Drawing people out to get a more robust perspective and engages more minds. Better decisions result.

So in closing, promote, develop and ensure the health and effectiveness of your entire team. Double your bottom line by being both smart AND HEALTHY.

For more information and a gratis discussion please contact us at www.vitalgrowthllc.com. Thank you.

The CEO’s First Responsibility

by Dr. Donald N. Sweet:  First and foremost, a CEO must actively develop her/his management team. The strength of a team is that collectively it provides perspective that one or two people just can’t have alone. Important issues require multiple viewpoints to improve our probability of success. So developing the team to make and execute better decisions is critical to the health of the business.

Practically speaking, the CEO begins developing the team which is already in place. Sure someone may be in the wrong seat and that should be fixed. In smaller organizations that often requires some time to accomplish. Nonetheless, progress can be made with most anyone who currently sits in a management role.

We believe that the management team, not the CEO, should manage the business. We have seen teams become more effective when the CEO is just one more member of the team making decisions. Yes, they should have a veto vote on any issue. That said, we suggest veto votes be used sparingly. Good teams make better decisions.

Don’t confuse this process with consensus. This is not about everyone agreeing on an answer or direction. This is about everyone passionately debating important issues to arrive at a better solution. Once the direction is set, the entire team must support it. That is part of the CEO’s team management job, too.

When working with CEOs we often use Pat Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team book and process. Helping folks put aside their egos promotes healthy organizational results. In essence we want management team members to say something like, “I don’t need to defend my turf/silo any longer; I’m in this for the best of the team.”

We also want them to say things like, “Yes, I have functional responsibilities, but they’re not my first concern. Running the business as part of the team is my first concern; my second is how I bring my functional resources to bear to improve that effort.”

We believe developing management teams is the greatest leap forward any business can make. We believe the CEO’s main job is developing his or her management team. It all really does start at the top.

The next post will provide some guidelines for team selection and improved effectiveness. Making sure you have the right people in the right seats is critical to organizational success. Finally, clarity regarding priorities, expectations and responsibilities greatly improves team effectiveness.

Does Your Brand Promise Resonate with Your Core Customers?

by Dr. Donald N. Sweet

There are two major concepts in the title, brand promise and core customer.  Kind of like a chicken and egg situation.  Which do you think is more important?

Businesses usually begin by providing a solution to a customer.  Something they are good at, understand and interest them.  No doubt that’s where yours began.

By intentionally crafting a brand promise, the business communicates several important concepts.  First it signals to employees what is important to core customers.  This becomes even more meaningful as the business expands and adds additional people.  Internally a brand promise aligns the team around both the customer and product or service.

The business must then rigorously organize to deliver the brand promise to the core customer.  From location to people to systems, lots of work and consideration goes into delivering the brand promise to the core customer.  The brand promise should inform all aspects of the business.  A good visual is an iceberg.  The tip of the iceberg, the part we see, is the brand promise.  The majority however is below the surface, where all the work takes place.

For instance, Rackspace Inc., an IT hosting company based in a suburb of San Antonio, Texas, has “Fanatical Support” as it’s brand promise.  They go to great lengths to support their customers.  Check out what they say, and mean, about their Fanatical Support here.

Externally, brand promises communicates to the marketplace what it can expect from your company.  This is an opportunity to tell the market how you are unique from the competition.  A solid brand promise becomes the basis for everything your business does to attract customers and drive revenue.

All businesses have implicit brand promises, at some level.  Many are intuitive like the corner grocery or hardware store.  Your local attorney and CPA often have these assumed promises.  In fact we find most businesses have only expected brand promises.  A lost opportunity.

Crafting a well-defined brand promise can set your business apart.  If done properly it can also become the cornerstone for your marketing effort.  But who is this brand promise focused upon?  The core customer, made up of a select few in the marketplace.

A core customer is one who most values your offering.  They have a need that you are uniquely able to provide and they are willing to pay for.  Your brand promise resonates with them.  When we work with clients helping define core customers we spend time on both demographic data (age, income, type of need, etc.) and psychographic tendencies (early adopter, research buyer, green oriented, value buyer, etc.) of the core customer that they want to appeal to.

The better defined the core customer is the better we are able to craft a brand promise that appeals to them.  By defining our core customer well, we won’t waste scarce resources chasing after customers who don’t bring optimal value to the organization.

Your brand promise and core customer definition will set you apart from the competition while attracting the type of customer that you want.  It is the intersection of what your business does well and what the right customer needs.   It’s effective execution means sucess for your business.

Generate Cash by Cleaning up Business Processes

By Dr. Donald N. Sweet

Your major business processes generate and consume large amounts of cash. Much like closets, basements and attics, business processes accumulate excess stuff. We usually find that any process that has been around for several years has some waste in it. Those processes that have been around for a decade usually have geometrically more non-value added activities.

With the goal of reducing process waste, we suggest using the Pareto 80/20 principle to define the most important processes in your organization. We’re looking for that handful of mission critical processes. The ones that add most value for the customer and consume the most internal resources.

The first step is to pick the biggest process opportunity. Next, organize a team that will review each and every step of the process. Here we find that a combination of process owners, process support staff and one or two team members who don’t know specifics about the process, works best. We find the last group are the folks that ask the “why do we do it that way” questions that those more familiar with the process ignore (Hint: It’s not uncommon to hear, “because we’ve always done it that way,” or “we tried that seven years ago and it didn’t work,” as answers).

Using LEAN methods (see www.lean.org), we suggest drawing up a current state map that includes each and every single step in the process. Nothing gets left out, however small or seemingly insignificant.

For example, order entry is a key process for most. Orders may come in via the phone, fax, internet, etc. How is each one received? What are its next steps? List the steps that follow, and so forth until the order is eventually fulfilled.

Each and every step, stop, rest, movement, change, etc. is mapped out, often with different color Post-It-Notes. This is known as the current state map. Here we’re looking to capture some 95% of all the possible activity (sorry Pareto). It’s important that it be recorded exactly as the process is currently being done. We find that it is not uncommon for two people working the same process to have slightly different steps. Both should be mapped out.

When complete, the result is known as the “current state map” and it often ends up looking like a spaghetti bowl.
We then go back and review each step asking if it is value added from the customer’s perspective. Typically customers don’t care about batching, or inventories or reviews or approvals, etc. They just want what they ordered, on time. To that end each step gets designated as being either 1) value added or 2) non-value added, always from the customer’s perspective.

Once we have completed this process we go back through it again looking for ways to eliminate as many of the non-value added activities as possible. This is where the “outside the process” people often shine. We record those changes and at the end of this process we have a “future state map“.

Our next step is to take the current state map and look at what needs to be done to migrate to the future state as we see it now. Some changes can usually be made immediately. Other will take longer. Still others might require investments in additional resources, i.e. computers, people, etc. Those investments will have to be weighed against the benefit they provide before determining whether they make business sense or not.

Once the major processes have been cleaned out, you can start on the next tier.  At some point revisiting the major processes again and again will often provide more return on investment. The ultimate goal is to develop LEAN thinking within the organization and perpetuate continual improvement.

Just like closets, basements and attics, processes gather clutter over time and need to be cleaned out.

The 80/20 Rule for Running a Successful Business

by Dr. Donald N. Sweet

The 80–20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle, or the law of the vital few, states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Said another way, 80% of your profit typically comes from 20% of your customers.  Often 80% of quality problems come from 20% of the reasons for those problems.   And so on.

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher. He introduced the concept of efficiency and helped develop the field of microeconomics.

The multi-talented Pareto observed that by focusing on the Vital Few, we can make the most difference. To that end, we need to set up systems that constantly look for those Vital Few. Be they customers, products, or problems, tending to the Vital Few, while discounting or ignoring the “trivial many,” can dramatically improve our businesses.

We find that for many people, a problem is a problem, an opportunity is an opportunity, and they should all be addressed.  We disagree.  The issue is that we only have scarce resources to apply to any problem or opportunity.  There is only so much that can be done effectively.  We much choose the vital few that get attention.

I worked with a quality system once that required us to categorize failures by root cause.  After gathering information it became quite clear which root cause was responsible for the most failures.  It is there that we first spent time and effort to make improvements.  We then moved on to the next highest number and so forth.  By the way, we used what was called a Pareto chart when looking at the failures.  This method allowed us to make large improvements in output quickly while improving customer satisfaction.  There were lots of “one off” failures that probably never got resolved because the cost/benefit was just not there.

The same concept and process works for priorities.  Many of us have a “to do list” of 30 some items.  Fewer of us prioritize them by the value they have to the organization.  Fewer of us yet work on only the top three until they are complete.  Imagine what we could really accomplish if we put the majority of our work day (even half our workday) on the three most important items.

We work with our clients to help them identify and debate what the most important things on which they should be expending resources.  They we help them (follow up with them) to ensure they are actually spending the time to get those items accomplished.  Sometimes we haven’t identified the right items and priorities need to change.  That okay.  More often its the discipline the needed to stay the course and not be distracted by some shining new object.

The process of hammering out the top priorities using Pareto’s 80/20 rule pays big dividends within a year.  We suggest every organization keeps this process at the core of its decision making.

Get More Accomplished

by Dr. Donald N. Sweet

There are three simple steps to help you get more accomplished.  Notice I said simple, not easy.  While they are simple, the discipline to stick with them is usually far from easy.

First, define your longer term targets.  These are usually best set out a reasonable amount of time in the future.  Somewhere from one to five years is often a good place to start.  As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”

The next step is to set moderately difficult intermediate goals.  The trick here is to make them ones that will stretch you, but still be reasonable for you to accomplish.  I know a young lady in her twenties, a millennial, who set a goal of doing one unaided pull-up.  That’s right, one.  When asked why she only set one as her goal, she replied that since she had never done a pull-up unaided before, she thought that was a good place to start.

What this person intuitively realized is that setting moderately difficult, but attainable goals, improves the probability of success.  Many of us have been known to set lofty goals, ones that we have little chance of attaining.  Along a similar vein, someone in the same situation as this young lady who set twenty pull-ups as a goal, and only achieved two, would feel a failure.  They would then be less likely to try to stretch themselves the next time.

This millennial, on the other hand, is more likely to stretch herself again after attaining her more modest stretch goal.  Keeping the initial targets manageable actually improves probabilities of success because they seem more within our grasp.  As Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

The third of our simple steps is perhaps the most difficult, discipline.  That is where we keep at something until we have sufficiently mastered it.  Once again that is where the tactic of this individual above comes into play.  Keeping the goal challenging, yet achievable, makes the discipline required to accomplish it more realistic.  In turn, that success fuels the next moderately difficult challenge and its accomplishment.

Following these three steps helps one build the virtuous cycle that perpetuates both achievement and success.  The blending of 1) longer term goals, 2) moderately difficult targets, and 3) discipline to continue to work toward the target, will help anyone accomplish their goals with more regularity.  And of these three, I believe the middle one is of most importance.  Thank you, Diana, for showing me this so clearly.

Strategy Starts with a Healthy Team

by Dr. Donald N. Sweet

We find many business people try to overcomplicate strategy.   We don’t believe it needs to be complicated.  There a just a few basic questions that must be answered.  That said, what we find is what most businesses overlook is the most important element of strategy – a Healthy Team.

Change is a given and it’s accelerating.  Companies that don’t have management teams that can change with market forces and demands will underperform, then disappear.  That’s scary, as change is difficult for most of us.
Many teams put so much of their focus on being smart that they forget to work on being healthy.   Smart teams are good at marketing, finance, technology, production, etc.  All of which are important.  The trouble is most other businesses also focus on them so they become table stakes.

Healthy teams are ones that have minimal politics, clarity around the important items, high morale, high productivity and low turnover.  They work together well, making the best use of all of their resources.  Healthy teams have the advantage of being able to focus on the important issues in a business.  They don’t have to expend energy on the political intrigue present in so many of their competitors.

Our business schools train people to be smart.  Focus is on right brain activities that are easier to calculate.   As Pat Lencioni points out in his book The Advantage, the human side of the equation is much messier.    But that is where organizational health resides.

There are a handful of important questions an organization must answer to move toward healthy.  Of course to be effective they must also have the willingness to deal with messy human issues.  Healthy organizations will be more competitive in the long run than merely smart ones.

If you would like a free, no obligation healthy review, please contact us at Vital Growth.  We are passionate about helping organizations and their employees achieve healthy and sustainable growth.