Leadership – General

Published by Scott Neilson on 15 Jan 2013

Be the customer…

I find it useful to periodically see what it is like to be one of our customers…to get a good feel for what our customers experience when dealing with us.  I will say this, it is never what I expect.  There is always some element of the intended service that is not happening.

  • How many of you have called your own company to see how your receptionist handles the phone?
  • How many of you have tried to navigate your own voice response system to get a particular service, or really sat down and rigorously tried to navigate your web page?
  • How often do you sit with your customers and ask them detailed questions about the service they are experiencing with your company?

If you have a small number of customers, like less than 25, you can interview them all.  As the leader this is a great way to start building the relationships that will drive your top line growth.  If you have more than 25 customers you have to be a bit selective, and perhaps do some by survey.  If you are in an industry (like consumables) in which you have hundreds, thousands or millions, then you must use surveys or sample groups.

Now, that is just for your EXTERNAL customers.  Think about it also for INTERNAL customers – your employees.  As a team they are working together.  They are customers of each other in some way or another.  The relationships between your teams members is essential to effective operations, and internal customer service is essential to those relationships.

  • When BD needs some details from operations for a quote they are preparing, what kind of service do they really get from the internal team?  How is the team dynamic?
  • When production requires special materials, what kind of service levels is your procurement team providing?  Are they pushing hard to find the best pricing and ensuring the quality you seek?

In every turnaround I have done my first step has been to do exactly that…to speak with as many customers as I can (external and internal).  Much of what you need to fix in a organization your customers have experienced and will tell you, and they will not be shy.  They will give it to you right between the eyes, which is what you want.  Just make sure you listen and do not react defensively.

Published by Scott Neilson on 12 Dec 2012

Tough stuff…

I learned a long time ago that the higher you go in organizations, the less clear the issues and answers become.  The subtleties of the data…the differences in interpretation…the difficulties of projecting future consequences…the conflicting opinions and perspectives…the trade-offs between stakeholders…become much more complicated.  I remember being surprised that I had not expected that.

As a leader you have to suck up (accept) the fact that most people will never grasp nor appreciate the complexities and ambiguities you are trying to sort through.  Tough stuff, but that’s what you get paid for.

It is unfortunate that so many people are not aware of this subtlety of being a leader.  Many of them never will be.  You can try to manage their expectations, and you should….you must, but bear in mind that until they have been there they will not be able to truly appreciate the complexities you are dealing with.

What is it they say…it’s lonely at the top?  Repeat previous instructions…suck it up!

Published by Scott Neilson on 27 Nov 2012

The Leadership Challenge.

As a follow-up on the post “Right here, right now”…

Too often, we get wrapped up in decision-making and problem solving and miss the leadership challenge in front of us.

Leadership is about evaluating each issue facing your organization and determining the appropriate course of action needed by your stakeholders…REQUIRED OF YOU…at THAT moment.  Sounds simple doesn’t it?  Well maybe not quite so!

  • First, the situation changes from minute to minute.
  • Second, the needs of your stakeholders changes as the situation changes.
  • Third, there are often conflicting needs among your stakeholders.

The actions you take may not be the entire answer.  The leadership challenge may still remain.

You need to recognize that beyond the action required at a given moment, there are needs of your stakeholders which must be satisfied.  If you make a decision and take an action but leave those needs unsatisfied, you have failed in their eyes.


Here is an example…

  • Your financials are not as strong as they need to be.
  • You must act quickly.
  • Revenue growth will not provide a quick remedy to your financial performance.
  • Cutting expenses is the only answer.
  • You decide to cut the training budget.  (Poor training…always gets the axe!)
  • Gap covered…problem solved.  Right?  NO!  Not right!

That was not your only leadership challenge!  The decision was fine.  You satisfied the needs of your shareholders to improve profits.  Good job!  But, another leadership challenge remains.  Your employees need to understand the meaning of the budget cuts.  What does it mean to them, to their jobs, to their security?  Helping them do THAT is your leadership challenge!

They WILL think that budget cuts mean:

  • no further investment in the employees forever and ever…
  • career and development opportunities gone…
  • earning potential waning…
  • staff cuts soon to follow…
  • children will not go to college…
  • spouse will flee the region and take the children…
  • life on the planet, as we know it, will cease to exist…

That sounds like an absurd exaggeration of how people will interpret this action…but PERHAPS not!  Don’t forget what it was like to be at the entry level!

  • You have no insight as to the magnitude of the real problem.
  • You do not understand the context or the long term implications.
  • You have no idea how to predict what might happen next.
  • You receive little information from management.
  • You have no control over the situation.
  • You anticipate the worst.

The leadership challenge, in this case, is clarifying the implications underlying the “simple” decision of reducing the training budget?  The answer may be as simple as a direct communication stating that:

  • Cutting the training budget is a short term fix;
  • We will be continuing training and development but trying more “in-job”  and “job-swap” development programs to reduce out of pocket expenses;
  • As soon as our financials are stabilized we will be reinstating our training budgets.

This is a simple example.  Think about how often you are making decisions and perhaps not considering how your employees may perceive those decisions.  Think about how this may apply in some much more significant situations.

Remember…the actions you take may not be the entire answer.  The leadership challenge may still remain.  Failing to recognize it and act accordingly is a leadership failure!

Published by Scott Neilson on 14 Nov 2012


I was impressed with Mike Tomlin, the Coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, last week when they came to town to play the NY Giants.  Short story for those of you who do not know it…it was right after the hurricane…the Steelers were supposed to come in, stay at a local hotel overnight before the game, and get to the stadium early to prepare for a very tough game.  Instead, Mike Tomlin changed their plans to fly in and out the day of the game and not use the hotel so that people affected by the storm could use it if needed.

Small thing…perhaps.  Big impact…absolutely, if in nothing else than attitude, morale and values!  It showed that he was thinking of the greater good, and what he, and the team, could do to contribute to making the situation better.

It seems to be a rarity when you see people doing something that is not in their own best interest.   Perhaps I am being a bit cynical…perhaps that is just an illusion caused by the media frenzy over sensationalizing bad news and horror stories.  However, I think we do not spend enough time making good examples of those things some leaders are doing well.

A key lesson here is about looking outside our own businesses and recognizing our leadership responsibilities in the communities in which we are located.  In this case Mike Tomlin’s actions might have helped the community in some small way.  It surely set a good example to remind other leaders of how many different forms leadership takes.   I guarantee you it earned him and the entire Steeler’s organization the respect of the team and the fans…on both sides.

Good leadership!

Published by Scott Neilson on 11 Nov 2012

A timely quote

“There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.”  Jimmy Doolittle

I have been so impressed with the level of support New Yorkers are giving each other in this time of crisis.  People are coming out from all over to help with hurricane relief efforts…mostly volunteers.  They work tirelessly and for nothing…nothing except the gratification of feeling that they have contributed to the greater good.  Some are getting a pat on the back, some are getting recognized by the reporters writing stories about the efforts, but most are happy with the “Thank You’s” they are receiving from the people they are helping and knowing that they are doing some good.

Too often we overlook the “volunteers” in our organizations…the people who are willing to do something extra just for the satisfaction of contributing…just for the opportunity to learn.  We tend to look down on them as if they must not be capable of anything better if they are willing to do it for nothing.  I guess we are cursed by that old maxim…if it costs nothing then that is what it is worth. What a loss…for all involved.

There are actually many people who are motivated by more than what is in it for them!  The effort they make is far more than routine…their commitment to achieving the goal is extraordinary…their motivation is simple.



Published by Scott Neilson on 28 Oct 2012

I don’t get it…

“In the absence of clearly defined goals,
we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.”

Author Unknown

I like this quote.  The point is simple; the impact is huge.  Daily acts of trivia mean wasted time and money, both of which will lead to organization failure.  The reason people do this is because “it has always been done this way”, or they do not know what else to do…and they need to look busy for fear of losing their job.

  • Be clear on your goals, and the action plans and timetables to reach those goals.
  • Be clear on everyone’s role in carrying out those actions.
  • Be sure that the tasks people are asked to perform are value added!

It sounds simple, but it doesn’t happen as often as it should…and people press on peforming daily acts of trivia…and businesses spend a lot of money accomplishing little.

You may think you are being clear…it may be clear to you…but is it to them?  Check it!

Published by Scott Neilson on 23 Oct 2012

Accountants Rule!

I am often asked “what is the most common problem you have found in failing businesses?”  The number one issue is always Leadership.  However, a close second is that many leaders do not understand their costs.  They have defined structures to accumulate and report costs within cost centers; they have developed consolidations to summarize costs across businesses; and, of course, they abide by the regulations in developing systems to report those costs for public consumption.  However, that does not mean that they KNOW their costs.

I think that in many cases businesses are not willing to ADMIT their costs.

I was once hired to turnaround a business that had grown nicely but had never turned a profit.  The first week I was there I asked the CFO “How do you we price our services.”  I was told, “We take our variable costs and add 30%…and that should be enough to cover our overheads and profits.”  As my cost accounting teacher is fond of saying, “You would think so, but I would suggest to you…” that six straight years of losses would suggest otherwise.

As a leader you MUST understand the importance of costs and require that the appropriate costing system be developed and managed correctly in your business.  It is fundamental to generating information that you need for decision-making.  It is as important as understanding the market you are in, determining the differentiators that set your business apart from others, or defining the features and benefits of your products or services.  Without that level of understanding of your costs:

  • setting prices and managing profitability becomes a gamble.
  • you cannot understand the key drivers of your business processes or the opportunities for improving those processes and reducing costs.
  • you cannot effectively plan for growth and investment.

Interestingly, I think that in many cases businesses are not willing to ADMIT their costs.  They are aware, either intuitively or consciously, that they are not operating efficiently.  They do not want to include costs from an inefficient operation into their overall cost structure, so they calculate costs based on the way IT SHOULD BE if everything were working well.  That’s like saying I can drive from Princeton to the theatre district in Manhattan in one hour.  Conceptually true, but it rarely happens.  There will almost always be traffic to throw me off plan.

Do you really know what it costs to deliver your products or services?

Published by Scott Neilson on 17 Oct 2012

Right here, right now…

“Being a leader is not about forever, it is about moments…it is about THIS moment and what you do with it!”  Scott Neilson

One problem people encounter in leading is believing that every decision they make is forever.  It isn’t…particularly in business!

A decision is made at a point in time with the information you have available to you at that moment…and we all try to make sure that we have the required information to make the best decisions possible.  However, you should recognize that the moment you make a decision, new information becomes available that may make that decision obsolete.

The decision making process is a moving target.  Trying to envision all possible future scenarios and make one decision that never requires modification rarely, if ever, happens!  If you are waiting for that you may never make a decision.

Get comfortable making the decision that is right for the moment considering your best prognostication for the future.  Make it clear to those around you that this is the course you are on given what you know now.  Know that new information WILL become available and when it does, you will make the required course corrections.

Published by Scott Neilson on 08 Oct 2012

Just do it!

As I am sure you know by now, I am a strong advocate of good process and involvement in leading organizations.  However, this is not to the exclusion of taking charge.  While I firmly believe that good process and involvement generally lead to the best results, there are absolutely times when you, as the leader, must take charge and just do it.

Recently, I was conducting a program in which we were doing a workshop activity.  Being a leadership program, the participants naturally felt that this activity was designed to demonstrate who in the group was a good leader.  There were clear efforts being made by several individuals to demonstrate what they felt were good leadership skills.  One individual was being decisive and telling the rest of the group what should be done.  Most others were sharing their opinions and building a common understanding of the options and interests.

As we were debriefing the activity, many of the participants targeted the individual that had been taking charge and gave him some direct feedback that he was not using good process, was not listening to the input of others, and was pushing his own agenda.  You could see that this feedback made him seriously question his own beliefs about what leadership is, as well as his own abilities in this area.

In this case his approach had been demotivating to the other participants; this particular situation was better suited to good process and involvement.  The feedback he received was correct.  However, I pointed out that while in this situation his approach was not appropriate, there will definitely be times in which groups will want the leader to take charge and command rather than discuss and agree.  They will NOT want good process and involvement.  They will NOT want you to ask them their opinion.  They will just want you to tell them what to do.  As a leader you must be capable of both styles.

I further pointed out that in this exercise he had clearly demonstrated that he has the ability and the internal fortitude to take charge.  That too is a strength.  The key is that you must be able recognize which style is right for each situation.

As an example, I once had a potential customer visit our office to finalize a long-term service agreement.  Their first step in these discussions was to rip into our sales and operations teams about the agreement we were negotiating.  They were adamant that they would never do business with us because we were making no effort to negotiate.  I asked for the meeting to adjourn for an hour and reconvene after lunch.

I sat with our team and reviewed the facts and data about our position.  I then told them that when we returned to the meeting they were to say nothing…I would do all the talking.  When we returned I explained our position, presented the facts about the flexibility we had shown, and expressed regret that we could do no more to meet their needs.  We had negotiated as far as we could while keeping their business viable for us.

This was clearly a situation in which I needed to choose the position we were going to take.  I needed to present that position to our customer.  I needed to be the face of the organization to this customer and take the consequences of our position, no matter what they were.

They asked a few clarifying questions and then awarded us the contract.

Working with our team to get the right information together was good process and involvement.  The key leadership challenge was recognizing that I needed to take charge of this situation, telling the team what we were going to do, and doing it.  In that moment I showed the team that they did not have to take the hit for this…I showed them that I was responsible for the actions of our business…and I showed the customer that I was the leader of our business.

Both styles are right.  Both styles are needed.  As the leader you must be able to recognize which is needed and when, and be able to move fluidly between the differing styles as appropriate for the situation.

Published by Scott Neilson on 10 Sep 2012

Where are you taking us?

As promised, here is a follow-on to last weeks post on establishing clarity, and using this time before the start of the new fiscal year (for some of us) to get clear on our direction and our plans for achieving those goals.


Some people believe that having a compelling vision is THE KEY ATTRIBUTE of a good leader.  Most people believe it is at least ONE ATTRIBUTE OF MANY of a good leader.  Either way, there is clearly a consensus around the notion that leaders must have a vision…a direction…for the business.

The process of setting a direction requires understanding the interests of all those who have a stake in your business, and synthesizing them into a single direction which strikes the best balance between them.

It has been my observation that many leaders put the entire burden on themselves to come up with that vision for their companies, and I think this is one area in which they fail.  They feel that this vision must come from them as the leader.  It is their job as the leader.  If they do not have this vision then they are not competent to be the leader.  They feel that involving other people in developing this vision would make them look weak as a leader…so they do not.  As a result, the plans they develop do not adequately represent the interests of their stakeholders.

They put this pressure on themselves to have an “on-demand” moment of creativity and inspiration that will crystallize multiple abstract concepts and clarify the single magical route to having a successful business.  Sometimes that happens, but most often it does not.  Does that make them bad leaders?   No, I don’t think so.  In this situation though, there is a leadership failure, and that is thinking that they have to create this vision themselves.

Creating a compelling vision is not an indispensible leadership skill, it is the RESULT of an indispensible skill!   It is the result of strong process employed by the leader.  Utilizing strong process is the indispensible leadership skill in this case.

In creating a vision there are a few elements that need to be satisfied:

  • it needs to be a state that does not currently exist;
  • it needs to be a state that CAN exist;
  • it needs to be inspiring or motivating to the people who will be effected by it.

So, what will get you there?  What actions on the part of a leader will result in that outcome?

Think about it.  It needs to be inspiring or motivating to the people who will be effected by it.  The process of creating a compelling vision requires understanding the combined visions of all those who have a stake in your business.  It requires knowing who those people are.  It requires listening to them, understanding what that preferred future looks like to them, and incorporating their interests. It involves incorporating your own interests. And, it requires synthesizing all those interests into a single direction which strikes the best balance between them.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that you should go ask your customers or employees how to run your business.  However, I am suggesting that there are many sources around you who have very clear and well thought out opinions on what is working well, what is not working well, and what the future might hold in terms of growth of your industry and needs of your customers.  There is a world of information out there available for the asking!

Do not forget that YOU are one of those stakeholders.  Do not discount your own interests or beliefs about what that desired future should be.  As the leader you must believe in that vision in order to draw your own highest level of commitment to it, and you MUST be totally committed to it.  Anything less will be evident and will weaken your ability to inspire and motivate others.

The result of this kind of process is a vision that is owned by all of your stakeholders and supported by them.  That involvement makes the vision clear and understandable to them.  That involvement builds ownership and commitment.  That ownership and support generates the energy necessary to make that vision a reality.

Next up…Translating those plans to action!

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