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You know, the more I think about it, the principles we apply when trying to get out of a traffic jam are fundamentally the same principles successful leaders use in steering their enterprises forward. Those who do not apply them often find themselves, and their companies, trapped and ineffective in meeting their goals and expectations.

Here’s an explanation by means of a story.

I recently took a trip, like many of us do, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. At one point during the trip, we encountered a significant traffic jam. Being down in the traffic jam, it was hard (even with the assistance of a friendly-voiced navigation system I call Nav Lady) to make clear decisions that would help us find a freer route. Either we were moving along and having to make decisions about exits and lane changes quickly, or we were sitting still.

Here we were, wedged bumper-to-bumper into the wrong lane, zooming along, with the Nav Lady chirping at us that we could go faster if we were to take the exit 3 lanes away and 50 feet in front of us. Exit left? That wasn’t going to happen in this kind of traffic.

Suddenly, we were stopped completely, brake lights as far as we could see. After a few moments of sitting still, Nav Lady solemnly intoned, “there is a 13-minute slowdown up ahead due to a wreck. You are on the fastest route.” Of course, then she promptly lost her GPS signal, making her think we were on a different road entirely, and proposed all kinds of traffic acrobatics to get back to the route we were already on.

Like most people at this point, I wasn’t sure I could really trust Nav Lady.

I kept thinking to myself – if we could only see the bigger picture, see beyond what was right in front of us, we could make better decisions. And, even better, if we not only could see what was happening now but had some sense of how the current situation would develop and change as we all rolled forward, we could really make better decisions.

These two elements: big-picture perspective, and predictive modeling, are the two most significant qualities of leaders after emotional intelligence. Yes, emotional intelligence is the most significant management skill. But in terms of financial performance, innovative agility, and long-term sustainability, these two leadership elements can take a well-managed enterprise and turn it into a powerful tool for achieving significant goals.

Why is that?

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TV Sitcoms are full of people making bad decisions to humorous effect. Often, people in sitcoms either just react and do something completely ridiculous, or they make tortuous decisions based on rigid thinking and false assumptions that end up creating irony, comedy, conflict, or all three. Whether it’s Sheldon Cooper driving without a license at Penny’s insistence, or Homer Simpson framing Marge for a DUI, bad decision-making processes end up with unexpected results. Thankfully, in sitcoms, these decisions are usually wrapped up in 21 minutes (plus ads). Nevertheless, in real life, poor process leads to poor decisions that often don’t have such an easy resolution.

I believe that clear process leads to better decisions. Unclear and inconsistent process leads to unclear and inconsistent decisions that can harm the health of an overall enterprise, making it less nimble to respond to changes in the marketplace and its overall environment.

Let me illustrate how we applied good process from a recent client experience.

I recently worked with a member-based organization (I’ll call it MBO here) to rewrite their bylaws. Our task was to simplify their governance, remove redundancies and inconsistencies, and streamline the overall organization. A previous committee had charged the current working group with deciding what needed to be in the bylaws, and what needed to be shifted to other documents – and what needed to just be disposed of. So we dug in.

A change in governance of any organization is highly political, and this organization was no different. There were many challenges to be overcome for a successful conclusion that did not cause harm to MBO itself. Here are a four of the most significant challenges:

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shutterstock 1049412674Frank came to me and told me that he had "downsized" his bookkeeper. She hadn’t balanced the checkbook more than once a year in who knows how long. And there were a lot of checkbooks. You see, Frank ran a nonprofit and his board had, long ago, been worried about the stability of banks, so they’d invested about $100,000 in pretty much every bank in town to stay under the FDIC limit at the time. The monthly financial reports for their 7-figure nonprofit were about 50 pages thick, and despite that no one could really tell how much they really had, or where they were headed. Spreadsheets upon spreadsheets were used to analyze and distribute financial information, but none of it was clear – and some of it was inaccurate.

Full of financial frustration, Frank came to me with three main questions:

  1. Can you help us see what we have, and where we are going?
  2. Can you simplify our system?
  3. Can you lower our overall cost of financial operations?

And we did.

Frank’s problem, though perhaps extreme, isn’t rare. Financial frustration happens in business, government, nonprofit, and even in corporate settings. The fact is that most of the underlying challenges that cause financial frustration also cause other business measurement problems. It turns out that numbers are numbers, whether dollar signs are on them or not.

Why We Want Our Numbers to be Right

Leaders with “number problems” typically have one or more of six motivations for wanting them to be right:

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shutterstock 175659365We’ve probably all seen the adventure movie scene where the main protagonists suddenly find themselves surrounded by hostile armed forces, encircled, and not sure how they are going to find their way out.

At that point, typically, everyone has their weapon out, and everyone is at high alert.

There are some very carefully worded conversations between the surround-ers and the surrounded. A negotiation happens, with the surrounded party trying its best to find its way free (or at least not dead), and the surround-ers not necessarily buying it.

What happens next, of course, depends on the plot of the movie. Sometimes they are captured, sometimes they are rescued, sometimes they join forces, sometimes they are robbed of valuables, and so on.

But there are two things that no one does in these situations:

  1. They don’t just start swinging wildly, or shooting at random, hoping to hit something.
  2. They don’t just freeze up, not doing anything, hoping that they’ll somehow get away without too much loss or damage.

We often face the feeling of being surrounded – with our forces and resources overwhelmed – as a part of leadership. Multiple critical business decisions have to be made at the same time, and we end up feeling stuck. Taking a crack at one thing prevents us from being able to deal with another, it seems. And oftentimes, the things we are dealing with all interconnect in a way that prevents us from really seeing a way forward.

And yet, despite being the protagonists in the story, when we find ourselves overwhelmed by a large, surrounding force of critical decisions, we often take two very different actions than our adventure movie compatriots.

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Fire ExtinguisherIf it’s one thing I hear from business owners and leaders all the time, it’s that they’re busy. While “busy” is, for some of us, a badge of honor, for most of us it’s just reality. And despite being in leadership, being our own boss, or at least having quite a bit of latitude, we start to feel like our business holds us hostage. We can’t get away because of how busy we are.

In fact, despite the fact that we often want to get away, we find ourselves more in the role of crisis manager than anything else. We often find ourselves running around putting out fires.

“Dave dropped the ball.”

“This customer says the new product failed when they installed it. What do we want to do?”

“We keep missing deadlines and customers are going elsewhere.”

“We have a revolving door at the administrative assistant position in accounting.”

“The pipe froze and our tenant’s space is flooded.”

“The contractor didn’t show up.”

“We missed our sales numbers three months in a row. What should we try next?”

And there are other things we would rather be doing.

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