Date: 5/23/2016 1:00 PM UTC

“If you surround yourself with the smartest people you can find, people will think you’re a lot smarter than you are. Only insecure people think this works the other way.” – Noah Callahan-Bever

I don’t think it’s an outrageous statement to say that your business will go as far as your people will take it. Their talents, abilities, passions, etc., are what’s going to drive your success. Your job as the leader is to help channel those things in a positive direction and remove barriers from their path.

I would take that statement a step further. I think your business will go as far as your best people will take it. It isn’t that everyone else isn’t important or doesn’t matter. It’s that your best people are going to have passion and vision and ability that’s going to allow them to do things the others can’t or won’t do – the things that make the difference between being mediocre and being terrific.

So if that’s the case, why do so many businesses treat all their people the same? I’ve been involved in conversations about salaries and heard people say, “Well, Suzie is certainly one of the best people we have, but we can’t pay her much more than we pay Jim because they have the same job title and/or Jim’s been here longer.” So we don’t pay Suzie differently, we don’t give her different work, we don’t give her different opportunities.

The result is usually that either Suzie sinks down to Jim’s level, or more likely Suzie gets bored or disgusted and leaves. Then congratulations, you’ve treated everyone the same and now everyone is the same – mediocre.

So treat your stars like stars. Make a point to let them know how valuable they are. Make a point to understand what motivates them. Make a point to understand what their vision is for their own future. Make a point to clearly communicate to them how that vision fits in your organization.

If you treat your employees like they’re all the same, eventually everyone will sink to the lowest common denominator, either by poor performance or attrition. Don’t hold them back. Give them the opportunity and the desire to do the maximum they’re capable of – and enjoy the ride.

best people

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 5/16/2016 1:00 PM UTC

“The indispensable first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: decide what you want.” – Ben Stein

I’ve been reminded on several occasions this week of a common struggle among business owners & leaders (at least it’s common to the ones I’ve been around). Most individuals leading organizations want their people to be happy, which is certainly a noble and worthwhile idea. Of course we want our employees to be happy and engaged and productive and all those kinds of things.

The struggle comes from too many leaders going too far. Employees grumble about something and immediately management feels like that have to make some kind of concession to keep the peace. This happens over and over again. Eventually the leaders have gone so far that they are no longer happy with the business. They’ve sacrificed values or profitability or culture or growth or some other thing that’s valuable to them, and the result is they aren’t happy. And guess what – their employees keep on grumbling!

As a leader, you have to create the organization that fits your vision. While keeping employees happy & engaged is important, in the end some people just aren’t a fit. If your employees aren’t happy about something, successfully solving the problem doesn’t necessarily mean they stay. Sometimes people need to go, and as a leader you not only have to be OK with that, but you might have to encourage it.

Take time to clearly lay out that vision. Make sure you understand what’s really critical to you and what you are absolutely not willing to compromise. Once you know it, make sure you communicate it throughout the organization so there is no question what you and the organization are about.

I’m not suggesting that if the vending machine in the break room has Pepsi and your employees want Coke that you fire them all. What I’m saying is you cannot create an organization that exists solely to make employees happy at the expense of everything else.

It’s your business to lead. You can and should be flexible, and adaptable, and concerned about employee happiness. But in the end, your job is to create an organization that is what you want it to be.  Not everyone will want to be part of it, and that’s OK. Wish them good luck, tell them good bye, and get back to work.


Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 5/9/2016 1:00 PM UTC

“The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person who is doing it.” – Chinese Proverb

There are literally thousands of books and articles and videos and everything else out there on the importance of leadership and how to lead your organization successfully. Lots of those talk about similar things: you have to be a lifelong learner, you have to be adaptable, you have to have a clear vision, you have to communicate, etc.

All those things are good. You do need them. But what about some things you need to get rid of? It’s good to try and add positives and energy boosters to our world. But how often do we step back and look at the barriers, the things that are holding us back? How often do we try and identify the thing or handful of things that are stopping us from being as successful as we like?

Some of you are thinking, we do that all the time. We work on barriers to efficiency in production, we work on improving our struggling cash flow, we work on time management, and so on. And maybe you do. But that’s not where this is going.

I’m talking about people. How often do you step back and look at your organization and evaluate who is holding us back? And I’m not really even talking about people with insufficient job-related skills. I’m talking about those people who drain your energy.

We have a limited amount of energy and we all have to use it wisely. We cannot afford to have people taking it from us. Yet we allow that to go on in our organizations over and over, for years at a time. You know the people I’m talking about. The people who if they came in and quit you’d be secretly relieved. The people who’ve never seen an idea they couldn’t poke holes in. The people you have to drag along on every initiative. Dealing with them just sucks the energy out of us.

We make lots of excuses for not dealing with it. But it’s all just excuses. The reality is you’d gain so much from their leaving that whatever positives you lost by their leaving would barely be noticed. Think about somebody like that in your organization. How much time do you spend dealing with or thinking about or stressing about them? What could you do with that time if it wasn’t spent on them?

Don’t limit your improvement efforts to just adding good stuff. You have to think about and get rid of the bad, too. And that ‘bad’ isn’t just inanimate objects or messed up processes. Sometimes it’s individuals who are blocking the road. Don’t let them interrupt your success.


success or failure

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 5/2/2016 1:00 PM UTC

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou

Last week in this space we talked about taking control of your future. We said that to get started, first think about WHERE you want your business (or your life) to be, then act on the things that really matter.

Someone asked, “What if we’re not sure exactly what to do?” The answer is simple: No one is ever sure exactly what to do. No one ever has a perfect view of what’s going to happen in the future. It’s not possible.

That doesn’t mean you stop trying to change. If uncertainty about the future or about our businesses or about our competitors or anything else meant we should crawl into a hole and wait until everything’s more clear, nothing would ever get done.

Our job as leaders isn’t to be perfect, or to predict the future with 100% accuracy. Our job is to do whatever we can reasonably do to understand our environment and how it’s changing, and then go out and act accordingly. Sometimes we will be wrong. Sometimes we will make mistakes. But we learn from them and move on.

One of our clients developed a new product that they thought fit exactly where the market was going. It seemed like a great product, they’d done research, talked to customers, etc., all that stuff you’re supposed to do. They introduced the product and nobody bought it.

Failure? Not in my opinion. They learned a lot about their production systems while bringing a new product to market. They developed relationships in their marketplace while doing research on that product. They also learned things about how they market new products. Did it cost them some money? Yes. But it wasn’t a failure. They took those things they learned and applied them to the next new product they developed – and experienced huge success.

Life is about educated guesses and taking risks. There is no completely perfect information and there is no risk-free action. You get the best information you can and eliminate as much risk as possible, then you go for it. Remember, there is risk in doing nothing as well. In our current world, that risk may be even greater.

So figure out the best way forward you can, and then go forward. Sometime soon you’ll learn something that changes your viewpoint. When that happens, adjust. It’s not some kind of magical process. It’s just your job as a leader.

risk vs reward

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

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

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