Date: 4/25/2016 1:00 PM UTC

“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” – Michael Altshuler

When I was growing up, I’d hear adults talking about how fast time goes by and think they were crazy. As a kid it seems like it’s going to be forever before you get to do all these things that adults do that seem so exciting. It feels like you’ll never get there.

Fast forward to today. I think about something that’s happened in the past that doesn’t seem that long ago and it turns out it’s been ten years (or more!). Life goes quickly. We do not have an unlimited amount of time to do the things we want to do. On top of that, life in the 21st century seems to come at us so quickly that it can feel like life is completely out of control.

The reality is we do have the ability to pilot our lives. Someone once said that some people make things happen, some people have things happen to them, and some people wonder what happened. Contrary to how we sometimes feel, we all have the ability to make things happen in our own lives. We can be the pilots. We can make things happen.

As a leader, even if you believe that, it can still be overwhelming. There are so many things that could be changed or done that you don’t know where to begin. To keep with the pilot analogy, have you ever seen a cockpit? There are literally hundreds of dials and monitors and controls. Where do you start? So maybe you pick something that’s flashing or making noise, and work on that. But what if that thing really doesn’t matter?

So here’s how I’d start. Before you run off and begin a project, think about WHERE you really want your business (or life) to be. How would you like to describe your business to a complete stranger 5 years from now? Would you like your business to be bigger than it is? More profitable? Selling certain products? Doing business with certain customers? Doing business in certain geographic areas?

WHERE do you want to be personally? Do you want to be in the same role in 5 years? Living in the same place? Do you want to take on something new? Do you even want to be part of the same organization?

The point is that with time flying we don’t have time to waste on things that don’t matter. And we’ll never figure out what matters if we don’t paint a clear picture in our heads of WHERE we’re going. Only then will we be happy with ourselves as pilots.

You have a choice every day whether to be the pilot of your own life. You can choose to let the plane go where someone else tells it to go. Or you can take the controls and fly wherever you want. It’s up to you.


Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 4/18/2016 1:00 PM UTC

“Don’t tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” – George S. Patton

I attended a conference for family businesses recently, and one of the recurring themes was business-related family conflict. The conversations went in many directions, but one underlying theme was the conflict between Mom & Dad (the bosses) and the kids (employees). Primarily, the fact that Mom & Dad are/were control freaks who never let anybody think for themselves (my words, not theirs).

Whether you’re a family business or not, this concept is still relevant. There are a lot of leaders who think their job is to know everything, tell everyone how to do anything, make sure things are being done exactly that way, etc. But that’s not really their job. Here’s their job:

Communicate the vision. We’ve talked about this before in this space, but above all else clearly define what your organization is and what it’s going to be. Why do we exist? And what does that mean for each member of the business?

Be supportive. I don’t mean you have to have weekly group hugs. Just be positive. Remind people that you’re glad they’re part of the organization and that you have confidence in them, and that you trust them to be able to work through whatever the business is facing. Side note: if you don’t actually think those things, then why is that person working for you?

Remove the rocks. I can’t remember who I first heard use that phrase, but it’s perfect. What barriers can you remove for your people? There are going to be things that stand in the way of them fulfilling the role you see for them. Get rid of them.

Remember that the most important outcome for good leaders is creating an organization that no longer needs you. That doesn’t happen with dictatorships (or micro-managers). People will not develop and grow if you don’t let them.

Think about your leadership style. Are people thinking for themselves? Are people using their creativity and talent to solve problems? Or are they just standing around waiting for you to tell them what to do? Leaders help create organizations that are about growth and the future and achievement. Dictators help create organizations that are just about them.

Which would you rather have?

benito mussolini

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 4/11/2016 1:00 PM UTC

“You cannot do a kindness too soon, because you never know how soon it will be too late.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the fundamental flaws of human nature is our tendency to put things off. We view the change or the unknown as scary, so it’s easier to stay in our comfortable routines than to reach out for something different. We justify it by saying we’ll do it ‘someday’, but too often ‘someday’ never comes (now I’m stealing song lyrics).

So stop putting stuff off. Start with one of these three things that everybody has in their lives & do it today:

Something you enjoy. Ah yes, you say, the bucket list. Sure, but not just that. How about something simple? Read a book you’ve been wanting to. Go fishing. Go bowling. Plant a garden. It doesn’t have to be some major thing, although if you can do one of those things, great. Just do something that gives you joy because that’s an important part of life.

Something you don’t enjoy that needs to be done. In this case, I’m not really talking about cleaning the kitchen, or re-roofing your house, although you should probably do those too. I’m thinking about our businesses. Is there a process that just isn’t working and needs to change? Is there a customer that takes up too much of your staff’s time & energy? Is there a member of your team that’s not pulling their weight? We know we need to take action but our fear of how painful it will be holds us back. Think about how much better things will be after you deal with it – and then deal with it.

Something for someone else. This one relates directly to the above quote from Mr. Emerson. Our purpose in life is to provide value to others. Everything we do that’s really meaningful provides some kind of value to another person. So think about what you could do that would make somebody’s day. Fix a customer problem. Help one of your staff members develop a new skill. Call your mother. Take one of your kids out for lunch – just the two of you. In fact, make it a point that at some point in every day, you intentionally do something to boost another person.

We all manage to convince ourselves that we have lots of time, that we can always get X done at a later date, that over the course of 80 or 90 or 100 years we’ll get everything done. But those things don’t just do themselves, and (downer alert) you don’t know you have that many years left. Do something today that you wouldn’t have otherwise done. You only have so many chances – don’t waste one.

value to others

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 4/4/2016 1:00 PM UTC

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” – Ernest Hemingway

I meet a lot of leaders who want to ‘do strategic planning’. They want to look out into the future, envision what they want to be as a business, then start working on getting there. It’s an admirable idea. The problem is that oftentimes they do this planning and can’t look out into the future, or envision what they want to be as a business, and they make no progress in getting there.

There are lots of reasons why that happens. But sometimes a very simple reason is the answer – the stuff that’s happening now gets in the way of what we want to happen in the future. We keep trying to make change with an eye on five years from now, but something that’s going to happen five minutes from now blocks the road.

The answer isn’t to try and ignore stuff that’s near. The answer is that sometimes, as long-term and strategic as you’d like to be, you have burning issues that need to be addressed first. You are physically and mentally incapable of looking beyond them – they’re causing too much pain today.

I’m not talking about things like ‘my computer is acting funny today’ or ‘we’re out of coffee in the break room’ kinds of issues. If that’s what’s in the way you’re doing a pretty poor job as a leader.

I’m talking about current events or circumstances that are taking so much of your energy that you don’t have any left for the big picture. Maybe you’re in the middle of a huge cash crunch, or maybe you’re having some kind of serious personnel issues, or maybe your life is out of balance.

Whatever it is, you’ve got to fix it before you can move on to bigger things. So accept that today may not be the day for thinking about 2025. It may be that for the next six months you need to focus on getting your today in order. Not only will you clear space to focus on the future, but you’ll gain some valuable insights into how your business and its people function.

You’re not a failure as a leader if your organization has some urgent cleaning up to do. But you’re failing as a leader if you ignore it and try to clean up tomorrow’s messes instead. Put out those fires first – if your house burns down you won’t have a tomorrow to worry about.

burning building

Posted by Matt Heemstra | 1 Comment

Date: 3/28/2016 1:00 PM UTC

“Our own dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.” – Sydney J. Harris 

We might hate to admit it, but Mr. Harris was correct. We want things to get better, while at the same time nothing changes. That’s never going to happen. There is no ‘Same but Better’ in the world. ‘Better’ in and of itself implies change has happened. Nothing ever got better without changing. It’s a physical impossibility.

Yet that’s what we say we want. “We’re hoping next year will be better”, “We expect next year to be better”, “Maybe next year will be better” – but what does ‘better’ actually mean? We don’t take time to figure it out so we end up with groundhog years that just repeat over and over and over.

So break the cycle. Start by thinking about what you mean by ‘better’. What about your business or your life would you actually like to see improve? Is it sales? A certain process? The quality of your people? The quality of your product? Is it a skill you have or want to acquire? Is it something to do with your family life? Those might seem like elementary questions – and they are – but far too few leaders really drill down to the details about what they’d like to be better in the future.

Now ask yourself this: How much better do I want this to be? For example, if you say you want better sales, and sales increase by $.01, is that good enough? It’s technically better, right? I’m guessing that’s not what you had in mind. So what did you have in mind? Maybe you want sales to increase 20%, or for profits to increase by 20%, or to develop 3 new products, or to read 2 self-improvements books, or whatever. How much better do you need to be happy?

Some leaders actually get to this point (congratulations, I’m sure you’re one of them). The problem is that the hard part is up next: actually doing something to attain your ‘better’. It’s actual work. It takes time. You can’t just meditate on it and wait for it to magically appear.

For most people that’s where it ends. There seem to be a hundred things that have to happen to get better, so we just get overwhelmed. We can’t fathom the day where we can accomplish it all.

And we don’t have to. We don’t have to do the hundred things in one day (you can’t even if you try). But you can start on the first thing. And when that’s done, you can start on the second thing. It might take weeks, or months, or even years – but whatever your ‘better’ is, it’s doable. As long as you get started.

So what’s stopping you? Why aren’t you starting today? Stop reliving the same years over and over again. Start getting better.

change vs same

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 3/21/2016 1:00 PM UTC

“Nobody ever wrote down a plan to broke…lazy, or stupid. Those things are what happen when you don’t have a plan.” – Larry Winget

I had a very engaging conversation with someone a few weeks ago about strategy development and planning. The core question was, given the rate at which our world is currently changing, and given that rate of change doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, is there really any value in planning for the future, since everything will change before we get there anyway? Good question.

My answer, of course, was yes, it is valuable. I could make all kinds of arguments about why, but the simplest one is this:   When I compare businesses we’ve been around that think about and plan for and try and shape their future, versus businesses we’ve been around that don’t do those things, the results are obvious. Those businesses that are future oriented out-perform the others by a mile.

The issue isn’t really whether planning for the future is valuable. The issue is that effective planning looks completely different than it did five years, ten years, twenty years ago. Businesses and leaders who don’t view planning as valuable generally think of planning as an event. You get together for 3 days off site, put together some kind of a narrative-driven plan, then get together in a year and do it again.

If that’s planning, then they’re probably right – there isn’t much value to be found. Fortunately, that’s not planning. Keep these two things in mind when you’re focusing on the future:

However you get started, you can’t wait a year to see how it’s going. When we work with businesses we insist on re-visiting ‘the plan’ at no more than 90-day intervals. Competitors change, markets change, people leave, new people are hired, government regulations change, etc. If you don’t check in at least quarterly you plan becomes irrelevant. Get everybody back together and look at WHERE you’re trying to be and HOW you’re trying to get there. Does it still seem like the right answer?

Your business (and you personally) have to be agile. It isn’t enough to sit down regularly and review changes in your environment. You have to be willing to adjust to what’s going on, to try new approaches, to take advantages of opportunities that didn’t exist before, to address risks that weren’t relevant in the past. Just noticing things are changing isn’t enough; you have to have the agility to change accordingly.

Just because the future seems murkier today than ever before doesn’t mean you don’t have to prepare for it. It just means that preparing for it is a continuous process that requires your constant attention as a leader, not a one-time event that you can cross off the list and then get back to the day-to-day work. The world is changing, and you and your business have to be ready to change with it.

man in suit with briefcase walking in sand

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 3/14/2016 1:00 PM UTC

“Our greatest fear should not be of failure…but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” – Francis Chan

These days it seems like the acceptable and laudable answer to “How are you doing?” is “Busy!”, as though that’s an accomplishment. Our society has apparently decided that being busy is an achievement in and of itself.

Are you really busy doing something that matters? My experience with our clients (and unfortunately, myself) is that a huge percentage of the time the answer would be “No”. We spend our time doing things other people tell us to do. We spend our time doing things we think we’re supposed to do (I’m the CEO, therefore I should be doing X). I think maybe the biggest culprit is spending time doing things just because we’ve always done them.

One of the problems with being so busy is that we’re too busy to stop and think about what we should actually be doing. The reality is that you cannot call yourself a success, or even a good leader, if you don’t have any time in your day to think. More specifically, to think about where you should be spending your time.

The answer is of course different for everyone – we all have different lives and talents and opportunities. But here are two places to start:

What are you really passionate about?  What is it you’re doing when time seems to fly by? What is it you do that you can work at for hours, and when you’re done you have more energy than when you started?

What makes you feel good about yourself?  What is it you do that when you’re finished, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something? What makes you feel like you’ve done something that made the world a better place?

Maybe you think those questions are just idealistic, but you’re wrong. We’re each wired to do certain things, and when we’re doing those things we’re excited and energized and feel good about ourselves. If you’re really passionate about something, then guess what – that’s probably what you’re supposed to spend more of your time on.

If you’re spending all your time being busy, take a minute and stop. Think about what things in life really fire you up and make life seem like a lot of fun. Are you doing enough of those things? Nobody ever lies on their deathbed and thinks, “Boy, I’m sure glad I did all that stuff that was boring and meaningless.” Find your passion & you’ll find the world you’re supposed to be living in. Good luck.

Uncertainty in business

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 3/7/2016 2:00 PM UTC

“There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience and that is not learning from experience.” – Archibald MacLeish

It’s an unfortunate part of the human condition that we make mistakes on a regular basis. We can hardly go an hour, much less a day, without messing something up. It might be a task, or a decision, or some kind of interaction with another person. Somewhere, somehow, we’re going to get it wrong.

Another unfortunate part of the human condition is our talent for making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s bad enough to get it wrong the first time, but how many times in our work and our lives do we find ourselves making the same mistake many times? The scary part is that often we don’t even realize it. We can pick out a few mistakes, but how many are we making (and repeating) without being aware? What does this do to our lives & the people around us?

Of course I don’t have some kind of magic wand for fixing the problem. If I did, you’d be paying lots of money to read this. I only know that I’ve seen people and organizations who seem to be better at learning from and not repeating mistakes than others. There are probably lots of things they do differently, but there are a few that stand out.

Stop to think. Some mistakes are obvious because they result in some kind of negative outcome. So when something negative happens, stop and think about why it happened. What could you have done differently that might have changed the outcome? Some of the best sessions I’ve ever been involved in happened when 3 or 4 people sat down together, talked about what went wrong, and implemented changes to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Ask for help. We are blind to an awful lot of our own behaviors. Have somebody nearby who’s willing to be honest with you, who’s not afraid to come to you and point out the negative impact you had (or are having). It’s not always easy to find somebody who’ll do that when you’re the leader. But those people are invaluable. Find one.

Ask someone unusual. A client of ours was losing customers and couldn’t figure out why. So they decided to ask. They sat down with as many customers as they could and asked them for help. What do we do well? What don’t we do well? What do you value most about what we do? And not just an email survey, but in person. Our client was uncomfortable, and so were many of their customers, but guess what – they learned enough about themselves to fill a library. And they cemented a lot of those customer relationships in a way they never could have otherwise.

Mistakes will happen. We’ll make bad choices, perform poorly, and behave badly as long as we keep getting out of bed in the morning. But we don’t have to make the same mistakes, and we can use the ones we make to help us get better. It’s the best we can do – and if we do it right, it can be great.

change billboard

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 2/29/2016 2:00 PM UTC

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” – Lao Tzu

It’s not groundbreaking to suggest that leaders need to always be thinking about the future. Everybody knows that already. That’s why organizations have planning sessions, retreats, etc. We’re all trying to discern what our business needs to be to succeed down the road, whether it’s 3 years, 5 years, or 10 years from now.

When we’re thinking about the future, though, too often we spend all our time thinking about ourselves. We talk about products we think are exciting, staffing concerns we have, and supply issues we fear. And certainly those are all things we’ll have to work out.

But what if we start in a different place? Instead of thinking about the road you’re on, start by thinking about the journey your customer is making. If we don’t provide value to our customers, we cease to exist. How can we provide value if we don’t understand our customers’ future?

Think about your target customer (hopefully you know who that is). If that’s too broad, be more specific – start with your company’s best customer. Now ask yourself this question: What challenges and changes will our target customers face in the next 3-5 years? Are they in growth industries? Will innovation be a big part of what they’re doing? What kinds of things will happen in relation to their workforce?

Here’s the next question: What do these challenges and changes mean for us as their vendor or service provider? Are the products and services we provide today still relevant? If not, or even if less so than today, how do we have to adapt our delivery? What parts of our business will require serious innovation on our part?

These aren’t easy questions. One of the problems is that we typically don’t understand our customers and their businesses as well as we should. We think we do, but too often that understanding is very shallow.

Take time to think about your customers. If you can paint a clear picture of their future, show them what you see. Demonstrate to them that you understand what’s coming on their journey and that, oh by the way, you can provide them something of value along the way. Don’t just wait for them to change and then hope they still need you. Don’t just be along for the ride.


Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 2/22/2016 2:00 PM UTC

“You’re going to come across people in your life who will say all the right words at all the right times. But in the end, it’s always their actions you should judge them by.” – Nicholas Sparks

Core values and culture and all those kinds of things are very trendy these days. Walk into any business and there’s a good chance you’ll see some kind of motivational team-building-type saying, or you’ll see something about how much they value people, or some kind of statement like “Here at XYZ Company, we care about…” followed by a list of neat sounding things they care about.

Those things are all great. Somewhere, lots of people are getting rich printing up motivational, inspirational quotes and sayings and signs – good for them. But what does it really do for your business?

I think one thing it definitely can do is raise expectations. You spend a lot of time talking about values & culture and people are going to expect those things to actually exist. Novel idea: they’ll expect you to do what you say.

The problem is that too many businesses are giving a lot of lip service to culture and all of those things, without taking the actions to back it up. You can talk about having a culture of respect, but if you have an employee who regularly disrespects his coworkers without consequence, what does that really say? It says you’re a lot of talk but you don’t really mean it.

Creating a positive culture is not about sayings and team building activities and company picnics. It’s about what you do when somebody violates the values you say you hold dear. It’s about consistently acting like a leader who won’t tolerate certain behaviors. You can’t have special rules for certain employees. We have a client who has consistently not tolerated bad behavior – act out of line and there are consequences – except for their top sales producer. She consistently treats people like garbage and gets nothing but a pat on the back and a big bonus because she’s so valuable.

That doesn’t work. Nobody can be above the rules. You as the leader have got to make sure that everybody is held to the same standard, and held to it consistently. Great culture doesn’t mean all your people act perfectly all the time. It means that when people behavior improperly, it isn’t ignored or swept under the rug. It’s dealt with in such a way that everybody knows that behavior is unacceptable.

How are your people going to judge you? Do your actions match your words? Or are your inspiring words just a lot of hot air?

Posted by Matt Heemstra | 1 Comment

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