25 Lessons in 25 Years
“We’re going to need someone to run the company. Do you think you can do it?”
It ended up being the most life-changing meeting of my career, and it all began when I answered the phone on my desk. On the other end of the line was the prominent investment banker who chaired the board of directors of the company for which I was controller, a position I had accepted only months before.
Earlier that day I had learned that the company’s president and vice president had been unexpectedly fired from their positions. As the chairman summoned me to his posh downtown office, about 30 minutes from mine, I knew that my time working for my then employer would soon come to an end. I abruptly collected the personal items from my office and walked through the facility one last time before settling into my car for the half-hour drive.
As I entered his office, the board chairman invited me to sit down. He asked if I was aware that the president and vice president of the company had been terminated, and I acknowledged that I was. He went on to explain that the board was extremely disappointed in the performance of the business, and I steeled myself for the bad news that was to come.
“We’re going to need someone to run the company,” he shocked me by saying. “Do you think you can do it?”
That was 25 years ago, late summer of 1994, when my time as chief operating officer of that company began. The ensuing quarter century has included plenty of disappointments, failures, frustrations and its share of success as well. During these 25 years I have been blessed to learn countless lessons about how to run, and how not to run, a business. In my own little way of commemorating 25 years in executive leadership I offer the 25 most valuable lessons I’ve learned in 25 years.
Few of these are original, and most have been gathered from things I’ve read or learned from coworkers. Some are reflected the way I try to lead; some define that which is important in business, and some help me keep my personal sanity. Together, they guide much of what I do. Perhaps a few will resonate:
- Leaders get the behaviors they expect and tolerate.
- When faced with a difficult decision, the moral and ethical route is always obvious. Just choose it.
- Much of running a business is solving problems. If you don’t like solving problems then choose another career.
- You don’t have to know everything about something in order to use it.
- Commit to lifelong learning and to providing lifelong learning opportunities to your team.
- Our personalities are pretty much hardwired by the time we are teenagers; don't waste your time trying to change who people are. Instead, put them in roles that fit their personal strengths.
- Energy the team spends fighting each other is energy its members won’t have to move the business forward.
- It is unfair and immoral to keep someone in a role in which they are not capable of performing well.
- Keep a to do list and review it every day.
- There is nothing more important than sending everyone home safe to their families.
- Don’t waste your career running a cash constrained business. It’s hard to get anything done and it’s no fun at all.
- If you show up for the meeting more prepared than anyone else, you always get your way.
- Knowing how to identify and fix bottlenecks and process constraints will take you further than just about anything.
- Give your worst employees and your worst customers to your competitors.
- The customer isn’t always right, but they are always the customer.
- You have to be a disciplined buyer of companies. Decide the value the target has for you and stick with it. The money you make is in the deals you don’t do.
- Every company needs a mission.
- Solve a problem for a customer—even if it’s one you inadvertently created—and they will appreciate you forever.
- If you’re tired every afternoon after lunch you’re not getting enough sleep. Sleep at least seven hours every night.
- There is no such thing as work-life balance. Strive instead for work-life integration.
- Keep everything in perspective, things are seldom as they first seem.
- It’s not what happens to you; it’s what you do about it.
- You will never regret helping other people.
- You can give 100% and still fail.
- Some people will dislike you for no apparent reason. Don’t waste your time trying to figure out why.
Twenty-five lessons in 25 years: Reflecting on them all makes me excited for all I will learn in the next quarter century.
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