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Twenty lessons from 20 years of Strategies
September 16, 2013 | By Neil Ducoff | No Comments
It was twenty years ago on September 13, 1993 that I started Strategies. It’s amazing how memories and flashbacks come rushing back at these milestones. And that’s exactly how I view Strategies’ 20th anniversary… as a milestone. It’s time to look back at the accomplishments, enlightenments, wins, losses, and of course, the lessons I have learned as the founder and CEO of my own company.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for understanding how business works and what it truly means to be a leader. In many ways, I started Strategies to create the perfect job that would allow me to achieve my full potential by feeding the passions that drive me. It’s been one hell of a ride and just so we’re all clear, my ride is far from over. Yes, I am proud of what I have accomplished at Strategies, but I have yet to achieve my full potential. There are a few more books to write, a ton of classes to teach, and many more leaders to coach.
Like you, I’m the leader of a company and it would be impossible to reach 20 years in business without learning some lessons. So, reflecting back, here are 20 lessons I have learned at this point in the journey:
- Vision is nothing without passion: Starting a company is an extraordinary experience, but making it through the start-up years and beyond requires incredible passion and belief in yourself.
- Tenacious and courageous: This is one of my ten tenets to be a No-Compromise Leader. Yes, there were tough times when I wanted to throw in the towel. There were times when I thought I had nothing left to give my company. In those times, I found strength in myself that I didn’t know I had and discovered opportunities I didn’t know existed. Giving up was never an option for me.
- I screw up too: I couldn’t have written articles and books on leadership if I didn’t experience the fine art of screwing up myself. Yes, we all make what we think are great decisions that turn out to be pretty dumb. I’ve learned to own them and learn from them. I also know that as a leader, decisions must be made and, no matter how well researched, not all decisions are the right ones.
- Never compromise what you believe in: I have been teaching and coaching Team-Based Pay long before Strategies. It is an extraordinary compensation system based on overall performance. I have been told not to talk about TBP at certain venues. I have had doors close on me because people fear something different than traditional commission structures. Strategies would never have survived if TBP didn’t work, inspire team performance, control payroll costs, and offer growth opportunities far beyond commission. To all the naysayers — knowledge overcomes fear. TBP works, and I’ve never compromised my belief in that.
- Falling off a stage isn’t so bad: It was 1997. I was doing a one-day class in Harrisburg, PA, for my friend Howard Hafetz at Raylon Corporation. Early in the afternoon, my foot slipped off a step and I crashed on the floor in front of 150 people. I broke a bone in my foot, but I finished the class regardless (albeit, sitting in chair with an icepack on my foot). The show must go on.
- I can write really good books: I wrote and published Fast Forward in 2000. No-Compromise Leadership was published in 2009 and it won the 2010 IPPY Award for business/leadership. I am so proud that book. Wake Up! was published in 2012. Fast Forward Second Edition was published in 2013. Seth Godin says, “A book is really an author’s manifesto of what he/she believes in.” I write with passion. It takes a lot of writing to discover your written voice. I hope you like mine.
- Surround yourself with believers: Every leader needs an inner circle of believers to lean on. I have been blessed to have an inner circle at Strategies to push me to be my best, lift me up when I’m down…and tell me the truth when I need to hear it.
- The importance of balance: I guess I’m one of those road warriors that knows my way around airports as well as the back roads of my home town. For me, the glamour of travel wore off many years ago, and has worn especially thin in recent years. I have learned that time on the road needs to be balanced with time in the office and at home. It’s also why I love riding my bike and pushing myself to do distance riding.
- Never disconnect for too long: As a leader, you need to pay attention to what’s going on in your company. Without the proper systems, accountabilities, and information flow, it’s easy for a company to wander off course. It’s so easy to get caught up in new projects or work to the point where you unintentionally disconnect. Have you ever said, “How was that happening right under my nose?” If yes, you were too disconnected.
- Focus and capitalize on strengths: The more I do what I do best, the stronger my company and the happier I am. There are essential jobs in my company that are outside of my skill set and interest. I have a company president, Bruce Hourigan, who pays attention to the details so I don’t have to. Eric Ducoff handles internal operations and marketing so I don’t have to. Joanne Davies handles finances and customer service so I don’t have to. I couldn’t travel as much as I do without a corporate staff capable of running the company. It’s the key to doing the work you love.
- You don’t have to do it all: I have an amazing team of Certified Strategies Coaches (CSCs). Together, we share the load of delivering our training courses and coaching. There is no greater joy than sitting in the back of a classroom watching a member of my team deliver the Strategies’ systems and methodologies.
- Rocking the boat: When I get too comfortable and dial back my sense of urgency, my company gets complacent. Leaders must keep their boat rocking and moving forward. Sense of urgency to achieve goals, launch new projects, and improve operating systems keeps a company vibrant. It starts with the leader.
- Being accessible: It always cracks me up when I hear, “Wow, you answered the phone,” or, “I didn’t expect Neil to call me back.” If my phone rings, I answer it. If I need to make a customer service call, I do it. The same goes for employees. If they need me, I’m here for them. The only reason I ever close my office door is when I’m on a coaching call. Being accessible has everything to do with culture building.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously: I am proud of what I’ve accomplished in my career. I’m humbled to be regarded as a leadership expert, speaker, and award-winning author. I’m comfortable and respectful of being that “Neil.” But I never take myself too seriously. I like being me, making people laugh, and having fun. I’m the first to laugh at myself. Leaders don’t have to play that role 24/7/365.
- It’s OK to obsess: As a leader, there are certain things I choose to obsess over. I obsess over my company’s brand image. I obsess over the quality of service and experience we deliver. I obsess over my writing. I obsess over delivering my message in a keynote. Obsessing over certain things is my way of raising the bar for my company and myself. I’m really OK with my obsessing. I wish more leaders obsessed over what’s really important.
- Numbers tell the truth: At Strategies, we review our financials each and every week. They tell the truth about how the company is doing, where we’re strong, and where we’re weak. Knowing the truth forces better and tougher decisions. That’s why Strategies training and coaching has a strong emphasis on numbers.
- Don’t run out of cash: As an entrepreneur, I know what happens when my company runs out of cash. I get to sacrifice my paycheck to ensure that my employees get theirs. I get to borrow money on my home to fund the company. I don’t need any additional motivation than this to manage cash flow.
- Protect the culture: In my No-Compromise Leadership book, I wrote, “The ultimate responsibility of the no-compromise leader is to protect the integrity of the company’s culture.” Allowing any form of contamination to infect your company is a compromise.
- I can overcome depression: Depression got the best of me in 2007. Can’t explain it. Don’t understand it. To this day, the experience of depression seems surreal to me. I took three months off, starting working out and doing distance riding. I returned to Strategies with renewed determination and the self-confidence to lead my company through anything the business gods can throw at it. No compromise.
- Do what you love…for as long as you can: That’s my plan.
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