Date: 2/8/2016 2:00 PM UTC

“You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety.” – Abraham Maslow

A recent survey of international business leaders concluded that the #1 focus for those leaders was ‘profitable growth’. Lots of people hear ‘growth’ and they immediately think of new products or new markets or really successful salespeople. But there are other possibilities.

Think about personal growth. This means you. Mention ‘personal growth’ to some people and they picture sitting around a campfire chanting, or some kind of deep meditation. We’re not talking about that. We’re simply talking about what you can do better in 2016. Maybe it’s one of these three things:

New skills. Think about the requirements of your position. What do you need to do better this year? Do you need to be a better coach? Do you need to be better at change management? Think about the future as well. What haven’t you had to do yet that will be a critical skill in a few years? Get started on it now.

New focus. What are the critical opportunities & challenges facing your business? A lot of people spent a lot of time during the world financial crisis focused on controlling costs. What is it today? Is it profitability? Is it increased sales? Is it innovation? Have you been internally focused & now it’s time to look outside? Or vice versa?

New or improved relationships. Think about the critical relationships that are part of your role in the business. Maybe it’s customers, maybe it’s staff, maybe vendors, whatever. What can you do to improve those relationships? There’s never been a relationship yet that couldn’t improve. What about new relationships? What relationships could you develop in the coming year that would have a critical impact on your business?

The HOW of all of this depends on what you’re trying to do. Maybe you need to attend classes, do some online training, read, find a group of peers, find a coach, sit down with somebody and talk about something, do some visioning – the list is endless. The point is DO IT.

Don’t think that the same you from 2015 will do better in 2016 without change. The world changes, and you have to change to stay effective. Don’t just hope you make the right change. Tackle it intentionally – and start today.

guy lifting weights

Posted by Matt Heemstra | 2 Comments

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

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” – Lao Tzu

We as leaders spend a lot of time thinking & worrying about things that are external to ourselves. Customers, competitors, the people who work with and for us, the government, etc. And rightly so. All of those things require us to think and plan and execute strategies of varying types.

But how much time do we spend thinking about ourselves? I don’t mean in a selfish ‘how can I get my share?’ kind of way. I mean, in a ‘how does my performance as a leader in this organization need to improve’ kind of way. How often do you consider questions like, “What do I really struggle with?” or “What am I really good at?”

Often part of the problem is who we’ve chosen to surround ourselves with. Too many leaders don’t have somebody close enough to give us difficult truths. No matter how much of an ‘open door’ policy we have, the reality is that as leaders it can be hard to find truly honest feedback.

So who in your organization is willing to be brutally honest with you? If you have an answer, make sure they’re a regular part of your thought process. Ask for their input. If you don’t have an answer, you need to think about the kind of people you’re attracting to your business.

Another issue is that even if we are able to identify weaknesses, we often don’t do anything about it. We’ve talked about the difficulties of organizational change in this space many times; personal change isn’t any easier. You need a lot of things to make those changes in your behavior as a leader, not the last of which is a plan and some accountability.

So what’s your plan to improve on those areas that need it? Is it written down? Who’s holding you accountable? Maybe somebody internally – but maybe it’s somebody externally. Peers are great for accountability, so where can you find someone (or multiple someones) who can help?

Maybe you have a weakness that doesn’t need to be fixed – maybe it just needs to be taken off your plate. If you’re not good with HR, stop trying to do HR and find somebody else to do it. If you’re not good with IT, stop trying to do IT and find somebody else to do it. Some weaknesses aren’t for fixing, they’re for delegating.

Whatever your situation, it’s not acceptable leader behavior to be looking to continuously improve everything in the business except you. Take a look in the mirror. How can you be better? If you’re not trying to improve yourself, why should your people work to improve your business? Start with the most critical asset you have – YOU.

Businessman with concept toolkit

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 1/25/2016 2:00 PM UTC

“In the new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish.” – Klaus Schwab

The phrase “Bigger is Better” has been taken as gospel by most of the world for years. Bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger boats, bigger whatever you want to have. In the business world the same thing has been considered true. Bigger means more resources, more talent, more opportunities, more everything. That’s one reason so many companies want to grow – they think if they can just be bigger they’ll be able to function so much more effectively.

But that phrase no longer has the meaning it once did. When the world moved more slowly, big businesses had time to gear up for change and bring all their resources to bear. Today’s world is changing so quickly that by the time you slowly and methodically gear up for change, the change you’re making is itself obsolete. In today’s world, the ability to change directions quickly and effectively has become a critical success factor in nearly every industry.

So what does that mean? Dozens of things. But here’s one for starters. If you’re trying to create a faster organization, think about how you identify and evaluate opportunities. Traditionally, new opportunities for an organization were identified from the top down. Management would have some kind of annual retreat where they discussed opportunities that might exist (maybe the same ones they’d discussed for years). Perhaps, every so often, they’d decide to try and take advantage of one of them.

That method is no longer relevant. You can’t just have a few people get together once a year and think you’re going to be fast. Not only do they need to get together more often, but you have to encourage and cultivate new ideas from all levels of the organization. How often do you consciously sit down and think about new opportunities for your business? How often do you intentionally seek out the ideas of people throughout the organization? And how long to you contemplate them before you either act or move on to the next thing?

The same thing could be said for how you deal with threats to your business. Your business can die faster now than ever before. How do you identify and deal with threats? What are you doing so that you can recognize and combat things that can damage you?

The point of all of this is that how you take in, process, and use information has to change. How you make decisions has to change. How you operate in your marketplace has to change. Or you could end up big, slow – and out of business.

leader running up stairs

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 1/18/2016 2:00 PM UTC

“This is the first time in history that you can be great at what you’re doing today and be out of business tomorrow.” – Ken Blanchard

Quotes like Blanchard’s above can be found everywhere these days. Everyone talks about the pace of change and how quickly we have to change and how if we don’t change we’ll be history. And, for the most part, it’s true.

Unfortunately, a lot of business leaders I know don’t really know what that means. At worst they’re overwhelmed by the idea and do nothing (this seems especially true of business owners who are nearing the end of their careers, which these days is a huge number). At best they think it simply means they have to be constantly coming up with innovative products or new features on the products they already produce.

I think it means more than that. Product innovation and features are great, but the world is changing beyond just those things. Next time you’re thinking about change, think about these things:

How will customers want to buy from you? We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what we’re going to sell customers. We don’t spend nearly enough time trying to figure how we’re going to sell to them. Technology will probably be part of it. At the very least people won’t buy from you the way they have for the last 20 years. What might change?

What kind of people will you need to have in your organization? In a lot of businesses a big emphasis has always been put on technical skills. The ability to make the product, etc. In the future technology (computers, AI, etc) will be able to do most of the technical work. So what kind of people will you need? What skill sets will they need to have? What behaviors and characteristics will make them a valuable part of your team?

What behaviors/strengths will need to be part of who you are as a leader? Your business is going to change. Good, bad, or ugly, it will change. Does it make sense that if your business changes that the way you lead that business can stay the same? Of course not. In a rapidly changing environment you won’t be able to just put leadership on autopilot. How much time to you spend on strategic issues? How do you evaluate your business’s performance? What are you doing to develop as a leader?

It’s 2016. Nobody’s going to attempt to make the argument that the world’s not changing quickly and we don’t have to change too. But as you think about change, think about what that really means for your organization. Think about what you need to do differently. Think about tomorrow – today.


Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 1/11/2016 2:00 PM UTC

“Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out.” – John Wooden

Despite all the things we say about positive attitudes and self-talk and the like, the reality is that as long as you’re a resident of this planet, things are going to happen that don’t mesh with your master plan. It could be failures or mistakes on your part, or it could be something done by a completely unrelated party. Regardless, how you deal with things not going your way will play a huge role in determining whether, in the end, things go your way.

Here are 3 things to keep in mind the next time the universe seems out to get you:

  1. Be patient. Sometimes as leaders our first instinct when something goes awry is to immediately respond with some kind of big pronouncement about how great we are as an organization, or to throw out some emergency-type-sounding actions we’re going to take to immediately address the situation. Yes, if the building is on fire you need to immediately get out, but most of the time that’s not the case. Most of the time you don’t need to fire off a hasty response; take as much time as you have or need to come up with something better. 
  2. Find the opportunity. People usually roll their eyes when we refer to “problems” as “learning opportunities”, but the reality is that’s exactly what they are. When something doesn’t go right, ask yourself why? What can that teach us about ourselves as an organization or as individuals? What can that teach us about outsiders (customers, competition, etc.)? And what specifically will we do differently the next time we’re in a similar situation? 
  3. When you respond, have a plan. It seems obvious, and after reading #1 and #2 it probably is, but it’s worth explicitly stating: don’t just say or do some short-term, clichéd disaster recovery type of thing. Think about what really happened and how it impacts your organization’s long-term vision. What needs to happen to get back on track? What do we need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again, or at least is very unlikely? Make it clear and make it as specific as possible. Don’t just say, “We need to do better” – nobody knows what that really means.
Every situation is different, and there’s never a one-size-fits-all road map for dealing with every negative thing that could ever happen in your organization. But taking your time, finding something positive to build on, and clearly identifying how you’ll move forward is close. Good luck.

Uncertainty in business

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 12/21/2015 2:00 PM UTC

"Think of what you have rather than of what you lack.  Of the things you have, select the best and then reflect how eagerly you would have sought them if you did not have them." - Marcus Aurelius

This holiday season, take time to think about the things you have that really matter in your life.  Enjoy them.  If they're people, make sure you tell them how much they matter.  If they're things or places or experiences, think about why they're so special to you.  Remember how much we've all been given and have a great holiday season.

See you in 2016!


Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 12/14/2015 2:00 PM UTC

“By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

Every year about this time we enter “list season”. Every news outlet or web site has a “Top 5 or 10 Best or Worst Everything You Can Imagines from 2015”, and maybe a “Top 5 or 10 Anything You Can Think Of for 2016” to go with it. So in keeping with that time of year, we’ll join the club.

Our list is future related. As busy as we are, as much as spend our time just trying to get today’s work done, as leaders we have to be always looking ahead. Of course, that’s a problem. None of us can perfectly see the future. There are potentially dozens (maybe more!) of things we could choose to strategically focus on in the coming year. But here are 5 things I think are important to consider as we enter 2016:

  1. Continued Volatility. Turn on the news, or read an article or blog post, or just look at your business – things are changing constantly. And it’s hard to imagine that changing in the near future. To some people, that means throwing up your hands or burying your head in the sand. To me it means thinking about what kind of leader you need to be in that environment. You could describe that kind of leader lots of ways but I’d choose “adaptable” and “continuous learner”. We have to be ready and willing to change, and we have to be constantly stretching ourselves. Do those two things describe you?
  2. Generational Shifts. People have written books about this already, so I’ll spare you another one. Here’s the brief summary: the people who will dominate the workplace over the next year and beyond (i.e., younger people) have completely different expectations of and desires for their careers. Lots of people are complaining about that, but that’s pointless. Somehow leaders have to be able to provide their people what they need and want in a way that works for the business as well. What are you doing to meet those needs?
  3. Rise of Technology. It still blows my mind when I think of the new technologies we’ve seen in the past 10 years and the ones we appear to be on the cusp of seeing. It also blows my mind when I see leaders act as though there’s a chance technology won’t revolutionize their business or industry. It’s already revolutionizing every business and industry. Some have already changed more than others, but it’s coming for everyone. Some jobs may cease to exist. Some businesses may simply cease to exist. Some industries may cease to exist. Think about your industry – how might what you do fundamentally change because of technology?
  4. Changing Organizational Structures. We’re already seeing this. How companies are designed is changing. Traditionally businesses would hire the employees they need. Now more than ever they’re using temporary help, or independent contractors, or even sharing employees with others in their industry. How might your industry change? How might your business change? What might you share/outsource?
  5. Everything’s a Commodity. OK, maybe not everything, but an awful lot of things. With so much information (and misinformation) available to consumers, it’s harder than ever before to separate yourself from the competition. For so many buyers it all comes down to price – and none of us likes fighting that battle. So how will you differentiate yourself? What about you is different? And how will you get that difference in front of your customers so they can make an informed decision?
A year from now we’ll probably be able to come up with a list of things that happened in 2016 that were totally unexpected. In the meantime, these 5 are a good start. Good luck!


Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 12/7/2015 2:00 PM UTC

“Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.” – George S. Patton

One of the more frustrating (and common) things I hear from business owners thinking about their future is “I’m not sure”. It’s usually said in the context of “We better not do anything differently than we’re doing it now because I’m not sure” how it will turn out, if the market will change the way we think it will, if our customers will change, etc. So because “I’m not sure”, we just won’t make any changes to how we do things.

I want to shake those people and say, “Of course you’re not sure! Nobody’s sure!” People might be supremely confident in their ability to predict the future, but nobody’s ever really sure, mostly because there are more than 7 billion other people on Earth that you can’t control who are going to have some input.

So stop worrying about being sure. You never will be. Start thinking about taking calculated risks. The first step to taking calculated risks is doing some calculating. Here are some things to put into the equation:

What do you think your industry will look like? Think about 5-10 years from now. Will business in your industry be more specialized than they are today? Or will they be a place for one-stop shopping? What impact will technology have on your industry? It’s possible the way you produce or deliver your product will be completely obsolete in 10 years. What might that look like?

What barriers will you face? If your business struggles over the next 5-10 years, what is most likely to be the cause? If you fail to reach your goals, why would that be? Think about competitors. Think about people. Who might cause you to fail?

What will your customers look like? Too many businesses keep trying to sell things to people who don’t exist anymore. Your customers will change. It’s a certainty – you can’t stop it. So what will those customers value in 5-10 years? How will those customers want to buy your product? Why should they want to?

Leading an organization isn’t about risk avoidance. It’s about taking risk. Whether you mean to or not, you’re taking risk. Every day you open for business, you’re taking a risk. You can either choose to take calculated risks or you can let uncalculated risks choose you. I know which option sounds better to me.

risk vs reward

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 11/30/2015 2:00 PM UTC

“In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” – Bertrand Russell

Sometimes as leaders in our organizations we spend so much time executing and implementing that we don’t spend enough time asking whether we’re executing & implementing the right things. Questioning fundamental beliefs is a critical part of being a leader. Here are some questions you should be asking yourself and your organization.

What do our customers really value? Too many times we think we know the answer. Too many times we decide in advance what we think the answer is because it’s something we already know how to provide, or could provide without having to make a lot of change, or could provide without spending much money, or it’s something we would value. But is it really what they value? Whether it’s business or life, our job is to provide value to others. We should be constantly questioning whether we’re really doing that.

What do our people really value? What is it our people really want in an employer? What are they really looking for in a job or career? Too often as leaders we project what we want onto them. Stop and think about what they really want. Related bonus question: Should you give them what they want? You could argue that as an employer you need to, but I’d argue that’s only true to a point. At some point if someone wants things you aren’t comfortable giving, perhaps they shouldn’t be with you.

What do you really value? Most organizations take for granted that their key people or their management team are really engaged, really happy with what they’re doing, really excited to be part of the organizations, etc. Is that really true? Do you feel good about what you’re getting from your role? Do you feel good about what you’re able to give in your role? The rest of the business isn’t going to be engaged if you aren’t. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself if that’s still true.

How often are you challenging your organization’s beliefs about these things? There are a lot of people out there doing what they’ve always done because nobody ever stops to ask if it’s the right thing. Don’t be that leader. Ask the questions.

question mark

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 11/23/2015 2:00 PM UTC

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker

As someone who gets paid to help organizations develop & implement strategy (among other things), I get lots of questions about the best way to go about developing strategic initiatives, how to make sure they get done, etc. Usually people expect to hear terms like “SWOT analysis” or “management retreat” or something like that.

The reality is that while there are any number of great ways to create & drive strategy, there is one guaranteed way to kill it. If the culture of the organization is such that nothing can ever change or improve, then no amount of strategic planning sessions will matter. Lots of leaders don’t like to hear that, partly because too many of them are trained in everything but matters of culture. They want to have some kind of formula or matrix that can fix a culture or make the organization’s culture what they want it to be, but it doesn’t work that way.

The culture of your organization is going to be driven by management behavior, and it’s going to be driven by your core values. Not the core values typed up on letterhead and posted in the break room, but the ones you actually live by. Most organizations don’t really know what their core values are. They have some generic terms they throw out (“respect”, “professionalism”, etc), but they really don’t know what that means.

Ask yourself this: What is important to you about your business? Maybe it’s something like “integrity”. Great. Now ask yourself this: What has to happen for you to know there is “integrity” in your organization? I’d suggest you sit down with your management team and brainstorm what “integrity” means to each of them. Maybe it’s “being honest”, maybe it’s “what I say = what I do”, maybe it’s a hundred other things. Whatever the case, make sure you as a group agree on the definition.

That doesn’t sound too difficult, right? Hopefully it’s not, although too few businesses actually spend time doing it. Here’s the hard part: go live it. If you see anyone not living out your agreed upon definition of “integrity”, you have to call them on it. If you don’t, you’re telling everyone it’s really not that important. That’s especially true for members of the management team. You’ll never get better behavior from your employees than they see in management. So there can be no excuses – just accountability.

The point of the example is this: if you don’t intentionally create a culture built on accountability, a culture that sticks to your core values, a culture that knows what’s important, then you’ll probably get a culture where none of those things exists. At that point, it won’t matter what brilliant strategy you come up with. You’re done before you get started.

corporate culture

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

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