Raise Your Standards
The late Steve Jobs was only inspired by “insanely great” things. He set a high bar for seemingly everything, and anything that didn’t meet his standards was summarily rejected. Try applying “insanely great” as a standard on a daily basis and see how far you get. People lower their standards in an effort to move things along and get things off their desks. Don’t do it. Fight that impulse every step of the way. It doesn’t take much more mental energy to raise standards. Don’t let malaise set in. Bust it up. Raising the bar is energizing by itself.
We should all be thrilled with what we’re doing. So channel your inner Steve Jobs. Aim for insanely great. It’s much more energizing!
Sharpen Your Focus
priorities, and too many of them are ill defined. Things tend to get added to the pile over time, and before we know it, we have huge backlogs. We’re spread a mile wide and an inch deep. The problems with pace and tempo are, of course, related to having too much going on at the same time. It feels like swimming in glue, moving like molasses.
Leaders can do two things that bring almost instant benefit. First, think about execution more sequentially than in parallel. Work on fewer things at the same time, and prioritize hard. Even if you’re not sure about ranking priorities, do it anyway. The process alone will be enlightening. Figure out what matters most, what matters less, and what matters not at all. Otherwise your people will disagree about what’s important. The questions you should ask constantly: What are we not going to do? What are the consequences of not doing something? Get in the habit of constantly prioritizing and reprioritizing.
The War Against Your Competitors
It’s no exaggeration to say that business is war. Either you already have a turf, and you have to defend it against all comers, or else you have to invade somebody else’s turf and take it. We are playing defense and offense at the same time. Either way, conflict is inevitable. Only the government can print money; the rest of us have to take it from somebody else.
What is our definition of victory? Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, had a simple answer: ‘Breaking the enemy’s will to fight.’ ” That translates in business terms to persuading some of your competition’s best talent to join your company instead. The more high‐achieving people who desert their current employers to join us, the more we are winning. It’s a double whammy: not only is our enemy losing some of its best talent, but we’ve taken their strength. A talent drain is the best evidence that a company is in serious trouble and is losing its will to fight.
Lead Your People into These Battles
Leaders have to channel the organization’s state of mind. They make sure everybody is dialed in, talking about the same things, and feeling the same sense of discomfort and anticipation. In larger companies with many employees, it’s easy to get out of alignment. Hordes of workers often have no real sense of what their company is up against. It is not their fault; it means senior management has distorted the landscape and left most of their people too far removed from the real action.
Do an unsentimental evaluation of what resources and staff you have versus how much you really need. There is usually more performance and efficiency to be gained from your existing staff, before you take the path of least resistance—unplanned, incremental growth, leading to mediocrity and waste. One of your biggest responsibilities is to stop that incremental attitude in its tracks.
Great Execution Is Rarer than Great Strategy
There are tons of articles and books on the topic of business strategy but relatively few on execution. That strikes me as remarkable because in practice it’s hard to separate strategy from execution. When a business is struggling, how do you know if the problem was caused by a flawed strategy or poor execution? If you don’t know how to execute, every strategy will fail, even the most promising ones. As one of my former bosses observed: “No strategy is better than its execution.”
Still, most people prefer to discuss strategy rather than execution. Perhaps that’s because they see the former as a more high‐minded, intellectually stimulating subject, while they see the latter as boring and pedestrian, simply a matter of getting your hands dirty, working hard, and checking action items off to‐do lists. This is especially true in Silicon Valley, where strategic narratives are much treasured, widely discussed, and frequently rehashed.
But those folks actually have it backward. Strategy can’t really be mastered until you know how to execute well. That’s why execution must be your first priority as a leader. Worrying about your organization’s strategy before your team is good at executing is pointless. Execution is hard, and great execution is scarce—which makes it another great source of competitive advantage.
Getting Strategy Right
The problem with strategy development is that it is often reflexive, based on prior experiences and pattern matching at other companies. Jumping to conclusions without extensive reasoning, exploration, and discussion can have devastating consequences. It’s also vitally important—yet very difficult—to maintain your intellectual honesty. Can you see things as they really are and fully appreciate what is happening? Human nature has a strong tendency to rationalize situations, to convince us that no significant changes are necessary. Reality can rattle us, making us nervous and uncomfortable. To cope with the stress, we talk ourselves into a less damning interpretation. This is why groupthink and confirmation bias are common and incredibly dangerous to the well‐being of the enterprise. It is the role of leadership to maintain a culture of brutal honesty.
Treat every strategy with caution, and take care to avoid becoming intellectually or emotionally wedded to your preferred strategy. You may be horribly wrong and need to bail on it. As Scott McNealy famously said, “fail fast”—the sooner the better. We sometimes use the expression “that dog won’t hunt”—not in reference to a person but to a strategic approach that just isn’t working, no matter what we do. It’s hard to say that if you’re irrationally attached to a strategy.
Aptitude Matters Most
Aptitudes are your God‐given talents, whatever you are innately good at. Employers can give you experience, but they can’t give you aptitude. Experience can help reveal your aptitudes, but hiring managers often don’t try hard enough to understand and discern them.
If you are light on experience for a role you want, redirect the conversation to aptitudes. Why would you be great in this position? Smart managers will usually pick someone with less experience but more aptitude. But bad managers become hung up on checking off the boxes on experience, in a futile attempt to minimize career risk to themselves. They make safe choices, not optimal ones.
The inverse of your strengths are your weaknesses. Are you self‐aware enough to speak thoughtfully about your limitations? Everybody has them, but people are naturally reticent to discuss them. They think any interview question about weaknesses is a trap. But good managers know it’s impressive when people are confident enough to be candid. Self‐awareness is compelling.
Whenever talent is in short supply, as it almost always is in Silicon Valley, betting on aptitude is a great recruiting strategy for employers, albeit a less certain one. You can hire people ahead of their own development curve and inspire them to grow into challenging new roles.
Great Leaders Have Great Outcomes
There are many different paths to superior outcomes in business. You will have to find your own path, one that suits your temperament, disposition, and natural aptitudes. Therefore, don’t try to copy or emulate other leaders—including me. Don’t ask yourself in tough situations, “What would Frank do?” That will only slow down the process of finding your own path.
At the end of the day, great leaders at any level have great outcomes. You can be the most empathetic, charismatic, and popular leader ever, but none of that will matter if your business falls short. And when it does, there will be nowhere for you to hide. No one will care about your legitimate explanations, let alone your excuses. No one will care about the unlucky breaks that were completely beyond your control. Is that fair? Of course not! But it’s the world we live in, the world we have to accept as leaders.
The good news is that if you persevere over long periods of time, if you focus intensely on delivering value for customers, and if you build a disciplined culture for your employees, it will all pay off in the long run. You will drive great outcomes for your organization and reap the rewards. It’s hard to beat any leader who combines great resolve, persistence, mission focus, and clarity about what is and is not important.
It’s hard to beat any leader who truly amps it up.