Tough + Love = Great Leadership

Posted on January 25, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Teachings of the Far East explain the concept of yin/yang. In order to achieve balance, and ultimately success, we need to have oppositional forces present and equal. This is obvious in our relationships, as oftentimes opposites attract – personalities, talent areas, skill sets, hobbies, etc. This differentiation between partners is what keeps things interesting and dynamic. Functionally, the same thing happens as you build a team – it doesn’t make sense to have people who all can do the same thing; instead, gather those who work differently from one another to maximize the group’s success. While the yin/yang dynamic is perhaps most obvious with multiple people, the concept works well for our own internal balancing act, too.

As a leader, it’s never been more important to focus on the combination of “tough” and “love” when dealing with your team members. If there’s too much of one or too much of another, the leader becomes an ineffective manager. Think about it – if you’re all tough, you’ve been deemed a jerk boss. The byproduct of this is that you end up with poorly performing employees who are over-stressed and constantly live in fear of whatever you’ll do next. On the other hand, if you’re all love, you have no accountability, which means no results – good campfire songs don’t pay the bills… revenue does.

However, when you combine these two oppositional traits and lead with tough + love, you’re on a path toward success. If people know you have their best interest in mind, they won’t question your motives when you make a suggestion or provide direct feedback. Similarly, if your team members feel like you believe in them, they won’t begrudge the accountability measures you put in place. Those targets (and tracking mechanisms) simply become a way for them to write down all the goals they’ve met, rather than feeling as if they fell short. When it’s clear that you truly want to help them improve, they’ll be willing to stretch themselves and take on a demanding workload, in the name of their own personal growth.

So how can you achieve this yin/yang as a leader?

Set high standards, but with good reason. Make sure your employees know that expectations are high and that their output will be judged at a gold standard. However, also give yourself a sanity check. Don’t assign more work simply for the sake of having done so. Make sure you understand, and have fully explained, the logic behind a task, so that all team members involved have a buy-in to its importance. If they don’t, it will never be completed to the level you’d desire.

Get to know each team member directly.  Make sure that you sit down with every single employee one-on-one regularly for a meeting with just that person as the agenda item. What are his personal career goals in the short term? What does she hope to learn? Where does he need to grow? How much more would she like to take on? How’s life at home? By taking a true interest into each person’s standing (both personally and within the company), your employees will feel more inclined to work toward the goals they laid out, rather than a project you outlined in a team huddle.

Live up to your word. When things don’t happen the way they should have, enact that accountability you had introduced. Likewise, when you’ve promised something for a goal achieved, stand by that. When your team can trust you when you say anything (for better or for worse), they’ll be more willing to stake their career goals on your promises.

Effective leadership involves the artful combination of these seemingly conflicting approaches. It’s not easy to master this delicate balance, but if it’s done right, it can be the driving force of your own progress.

Avoiding Almost

Posted on January 18, 2015 by Josh Linkner

He almost closed the deal.  She almost got that big promotion.  They almost won the championship.  Almost.

Near misses can be especially frustrating, since you did almost enough work to make it happen.  When a pro football team carries the ball 90 yards down the field, that progress was the sum of great strategy, precision, agility, and powerful execution.  But when they fumble on the two yard-line and fail to put points on the board, all that effort fell short of driving any results.  We live in a binary world, where almost is the often the same as nothing at all.

To make it to almost, you must have done a lot of things right.  When you almost won that $10 million contract, you had to have a great presentation, solid pricing, a quality product, and a professional team.  If you were incompetent, you’d never even get close to almost.  Getting to almost probably required focus, creativity, hard work, endless hours, sacrifice, and investment.

Almost is quite a wrenched state, since it required nearly as much effort as winning yet yielded zero results.  If you were going to miss the brass ring altogether, you could have made it home for dinner or had time to exercise.  With nearly all the work without a lick of payback, almost sucks.

So how do we avoid almost?  The best of the best build their plans to over-deliver against the goal to accommodate for the inevitable.  If hitting an annual sales target requires six sales people, the best leaders make sure to hire eight.  If one quits unexpectedly, the leader with contingency still makes the grade while the one who barely planned to win suffers though a bewildered state of almost.

If you’re fighting for something big, what are the steps you can take to ensure victory?  What moves will put you over the top and separate you from the competitive pack?  In these challenging times, photo-finish victories are won or lost in the margins.  The little extras, the over-delivers, the bursts of extraordinary.  If your game plan is built to deliver 30% past your target, your much more likely to avoid the almost and reach your goal.  The extra effort between winning and being an also-ran is minute compared to the exertion it took to barely miss.

When you’re pursuing life’s biggest goals, an extra dose of effort is often the difference maker.  If you have the energy to make it to almost, you can muster the resolve to break through it.  The next time someone tells you to pause since you’ve already done enough to win, put your shoulder into an extra burst of work and simply tell them… “almost.”

The Brilliance of Brevity

Posted on January 11, 2015 by Josh Linkner

In a smoky bar while drinking heavily, Hemingway made a bet with fellow authors that he could tell a story in only six words.  Once everyone at the table agreed to participate, Hemingway wrote his story on the back of a napkin, passed it around the group, and gleefully collected his winnings. The story read, “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”

Historians include this brief, vivid story as one of Hemingway’s best works. The brilliance was his ability to communicate with stunning efficiency. Nearly 100 years later, the six-word story tradition continues, with dozens of websites showcasing these tiny and compelling pieces.  A quick Google search yielded gems such as “I awoke to the sirens again”, “No, I’m single, said my wife”,  “Wet, cold, tired – and smiling. Success”, and “Blonde parents. Dark daughter. Genetics undiscussed.”

With only 140 characters allowed, Twitter has made a profound impact in global communications, from helping to topple dictatorships and defend human rights, to launching new movies and trash-talking athletic rivalries. If tweets had no size limit, the potency would be greatly diminished and the Twitter sensation would likely never taken off.

Today, we have no shortage of blank paper, no limit to the number of slides in a PowerPoint presentation. It’s easy for us to blather on, caring little about brevity. Yet with information overload, messages are getting lost and communication quality is spiraling downward. Sales pitches, investor memos, print ads, offer letters, emails, newscasts, and nearly every other form of communication have become bloated and ineffective with each unneeded superfluous word.  And then we wonder why it’s become so hard to get our messages across; our voices heard.

In the sea of brand messages and big data, fewer words can yield a bigger impact. Refine your communications to the most compelling and efficient format, and your results will dramatically improve. Saying more with less isn’t always easy, but the extra effort will skyrocket your return-per-word. Simply put, brevity wins.

In the words of Mark Twain, “I wanted to write you a short letter. I didn’t have time, so I wrote you a long one.”

The Times, They Are a Changin’

Posted on January 4, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Diplomacy with Cuba.  More mobile devices than people on the planet.  Cyber-attacks, not bombs, are the biggest threat to national security.  Retailers such as Amazon delivering merchandise via drones.  TV networks advertising when they actually have a scripted show.

Who woulda’ thunk it?

Back in early January of 1964, legendary songwriter Bob Dylan prophesied, “The times they are a changing.”  He was certainly correct back then, on the verge of major changes such as the civil rights movement, the space race, Vietnam, the summer of love, and the cold war.  Of course, the times were also a chagin’ in the 70’s.  And 80’s.  And 90’s.  And 2000’s.

Today, the world is changing at a rate like none other in history.  Advances in technology, geo-political turmoil, shifts in consumer behavior, currency instabilities.  You name it, it’s a changin’.

The real question becomes: how fast are you changing?

Fluctuations create opportunity for those that seize them, while delivering turbulent misery for those that cling to the past.  History shows us again and again that standing still is riskiest move of all.  Today more than ever, living in a constant state of reinvention is mission-critical to your success in your company, career, and community.  Bob Dylan nailed it with these poetic lyrics:

Come gather ‘round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a changin’

As you begin the New Year, commit to being an agent of change rather than a purveyor of the past.  Every morning when you wake up, the world has changed overnight.  How you adapt to those shifts will define your success in 2015 and beyond.  Change is inevitable; the sooner you embrace it, the more benefit you’ll derive.

The upcoming year can be your blank canvas of creative expression.  A blank sheet of music, onto which you can create your masterpiece.  Fluidity and adaptability will become your primary building blocks as you leverage the rapidly changing world to enable your best year yet.

Dylan’s words are as relevant today as they were 51 years ago.  Yes, the times they are a changin’.  Are you?

Your Real Job Goes Far Beyond Your Role

Posted on December 21, 2014 by Josh Linkner

It’s not my job.

Four of the most poisonous words when strung together. As a customer, how many times have you heard this stinging phrase when seeking help? Think how utterly frustrated you become when the person at the pharmacy, cable company, doctor’s office, or government office absolves themselves of any responsibility to serve by hiding behind their job description. Your blood boils as the full force of their apathy hits you in the face like a billowing wind on a frigid day.

On the other hand, remember how delighted you felt the last time someone went above and beyond for you. When your waiter suggested a better table, offering you a more stunning view. Or the time your flight attendant noticed you looked chilly and rushed you over a warm blanket. You were likely overwhelmed with gratitude, and your opinion of the company that these caring people represent just gained some serious loyalty.

Unfortunately, leaders too often pigeonhole team members into thinking about their jobs with a myopic lens. Sure, we all have tasks on our to-do lists. But there’s also a greater mission at hand — to help fulfill the purpose of the organization. Hospitals heal the sick, not just process intake forms. Cruise lines provide memorable experiences for guests, not just open and close the buffet on time. If every team member merely completes tasks, long-term success becomes elusive. However, driving the importance of the bigger picture enables the team members to use their creativity and judgment to make a far bigger impact.

Back when I was building my company, ePrize, a junior software developer acted on a hunch. She was working on a big project and all her own tasks were on track. But, she could feel in her bones that something was off. Without a fancy leadership title, she rallied the 12-person project team to have daily stand-up meetings where they reviewed code, compared notes and ensured overall progress. The project, which would have been doomed without her valiant efforts, launched on-time, without a hitch. Success came because she realized that her actual job was to create a win for her client and our company, not to hide behind her task list.

As you lead — in your company, community or profession — make sure those around you know what the real job is. If you’re not in a leadership role yet, the more often you make things your job by taking ownership of a larger mission, the faster you will advance.


Paying It Forward

Posted on December 14, 2014 by Josh Linkner

Motorists recently enjoyed a friendly turn of fate in Lowell, Michigan. As drivers were pulled over by the police for small infractions (such as having tinted windows that were too dark), officers began a pleasant chat instead of grumpily issuing a citation.

In conversation, the officers also asked what the drivers and their kids wanted for Christmas.

The unsuspecting drivers had no idea that the officers were on a live radio, which was being broadcast to a team of shoppers ready to sprint through stores and rush over surprise purchases. Stunned drivers were overjoyed as officers handed over holiday gifts instead of speeding tickets.

Gifts included TVs, an Xbox, Legos, and other exciting items that brought tears of joy to some of the recipients.

Rather than having a negative experience with the police, this act of kindness created a positive interaction and paved the way for strong police-citizen relations in the Lowell community. A TV station that filmed the joyful surprises paid for the gifts, so not a cent of taxpayer money was consumed. The result: a creative, pay-it-forward approach to leaving a positive impact.

Police Paying It Forward

Paying it forward is not a new concept. My wife recently bought a coffee for the woman behind her in line at Starbucks, simply to create a smile and improve someone’s day. Small acts of kindness and generosity, often issued at random, can brighten even the cloudiest days.

This concept can be extended far beyond a small gift, and in turn, the results become amplified. Paying it forward by mentoring an up-and-comer in your field, for example, not only creates a new friend but also elevates your profession. Contributing your time to help disadvantaged kids learn to read, picking up slack for a colleague, or going the distance for a customer are all examples of injecting positive energy into the world.

It turns out, there is a big return-on-investment, especially when you’re not seeking one. In my experience, the more you give, the more you get. The payoff may come back to you in unexpected ways when you least expect it. Worst case, the feelings of helping others is itself a powerful reward.

Think what would happen in our organizations and community, if each of us paid it forward once a week. Little acts of unrequested generosity would begin to build on each other, creating a large and meaningful impact.

Let’s use the holiday season as a time to drive progress by helping others. Ironically, you’ll likely enjoy strong, direct benefits as a result. The next time you feel annoyed, try issuing kindness instead of a reprimand. You’ll feel much better, and you’ll be making the good folks in the town of Lowell proud.

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186 Hours Wasted

Posted on December 7, 2014 by Josh Linkner

Although we boarded early, my flight out of Detroit was delayed by 63 minutes.

The weather was clear, there were no mechanical issues, and the crew was ready to roll. The cause of our tardy takeoff? A bureaucratic procedural glitch that required sign-off from airline headquarters. This completely avoidable issue impacted 177 travelers aboard our MD90 aircraft, causing a total of about 186 wasted hours.

Everyone seemed to accept the setback in good spirit. At least it appeared that way — air marshals didn’t forcibly remove any passengers. We all took the loss in stride, which wasn’t surprising to me considering we’re so accustomed to wasting small amounts of time.

But what could have been accomplished with those 186 lost hours of human potential?

Spent on a treadmill, the time would have burnt off more 37 pounds of fat. Spent in college, the number of lost minutes exceed the classroom time of a typical full-time college semester — 186 hours spent learning an instrument, volunteering, making cold calls, or reading to your kids would all be a big boost of positive momentum. Yet no one seemed to mind.

The reason for our collective apathy — we each lost only a single hour, which happens often. Now if you were wrongfully locked up in the county jail for a week, you’d be outraged. But when time is stolen in small increments, we hardly notice. We let these small moments of opportunity slip away without waging even a hint of a fight.

Fortunately, we can use the same logic to drive incredible gains in our lives. In the same way we hardly notice small amounts of lost time, taking back tiny opportunities for productivity isn’t a huge mountain to scale. If you managed to reclaim just 33 minutes a day, for example, you’d score an extra 200 hours of progress each year. While it’s impossible for many of us to find huge blocks of time to write a novel, get in great shape, or learn a new craft, a focus on saving just a few minutes each day can add up to enormous gains.

We all face the same 24-hour clock, yet some accomplish dramatically more than others. You could smoke a cigarette for seven minutes (140 minutes for a pack a day) or spend that time learning a new skill. You could burn 25 minutes each way in rush hour traffic, or adjust your schedule to avoid it. Redirect the small, seemingly meaningless blocks of time into productive uses, and you’ll be amazed what you can achieve. Take control of the clock and seize these “micro-opportunities.” Before long, you’ll be racing toward your goals.

And unlike my delayed flight, you’ll reach your destination with an early arrival.

Stop Chasing Unicorns — Get Passionate About What You Already Do

Posted on November 30, 2014 by Josh Linkner

The easily given advice has become cliché: follow your passion and everything will turn out dandy.

Problem is, we can’t all be movie stars, professional athletes, or ballerinas. There’s a difference between an achievable dream and a fantasy. For example, I probably will never get drafted for the NBA at 5-foot-5 and 44 years old. Does that mean I should resign myself to a life of drudgery and soulless clock-punching and minimal impact?

Certainly the world needs Broadway performers and astronauts, but it also needs financial planners, drywall installers and farmers. You need not pursue a career based on your childhood dreams in order to find meaning and purpose in your work, and to achieve at the highest levels.

Take Mike McCloskey. Originally trained as a vet, he transitioned into a career in the dairy business. While not a trapeze artist or supermodel, McCloskey racks up wins until the cows come home. Quite literally. He is the cofounder and CEO of Select Milk Producers, the fourth-largest milk cooperative in the U.S. He’s the chairman of Southwest Cheese, which converts 10 million pounds of milk per day into 250 million pounds of cheese annually. He’s also the chairman of Fair Oaks Farms in northwest Indiana, an agritourism destination that makes milk, cheese and ice cream from the 15,000 cows on the property.

McCloskey’s passion may have been singing in a barbershop quartet. But instead of chasing an unrealistic passion, he decided to get passionate about his work.

So what did McCloskey get passionate about? Manure! That’s right. The thousands of cows in his business produce a whole lot of the smelly stuff, which is a big expense, giant mess and distracting hassle for workers.

He directed his best thinking to this problem, even though it wasn’t as sexy as becoming an Olympic gold medalist. McCloskey had an idea to turn this waste product into a profit center. To flip it from a problem to an asset.

The innovation came to life as Poo Power. The manure is processed and turned into energy, which fuels vehicles and creates electricity to power all of their barns and plants. They power 42 milk trucks and save 70 million diesel miles annually. Huge cost savings. Huge positive impact to the environment. Huge innovation.

You don’t have to become a celebrity chef or an urban poet to pursue meaning and impact. Getting passionate about what you do — even if it is the least glamorous aspect of all — can become a source of inspiration, positive change and meaningful results.

Find the opportunity right in front of you, and instead of a distasteful stench, you’ll end up smelling like roses.


Use Feedback To Spark, Not Destroy

Posted on November 23, 2014 by Josh Linkner

I was 11 years old and getting the scolding of my life. My dad let me have it because he busted me selling illegal fireworks at school, which obviously was problematic from a parent’s perspective.

My entrepreneurial efforts got me in a world of trouble. The resulting punishment included being forced to call the parents of all my customers (fellow classmates), introduce myself, and let them know I sold their kid illegal fireworks. Needless to say, this did not help my popularity.

Remembering back, I was lectured for what seemed like hours on how horrible my behavior was. How I broke the law, endangered students, embarrassed the family and other travesties. My profitable business was shut down, and at the time I felt like I’d never want to take a crazy risk again.

Now with my own kids, however, I may take a different approach if the circumstances were to repeat. While I wouldn’t condone an illegal or dangerous enterprise, I would be more encouraging of the positives that transpired.

I’d recognize that a market opportunity was identified, suppliers were secured, margins were calculated with strong unit economics ($1 per pack of firecrackers with only a 25 cents cost of goods sold), customers wooed, and distribution channels built. A business was launched, entrepreneurial initiative was taken, and profits were produced.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t get discouraged by my embarrassment or subsequent grounding. I ended up launching several businesses and embracing entrepreneurship as my career. But think about all the people that were discouraged from following their dreams — from a parent, teacher, or some other authority figure — that internalized the criticism and never tried again.

We are quick to scold those around us for behavior that deviates from the norm. While we certainly need to maintain law and order, we shouldn’t view divergent behavior as all good or all bad. We have highly developed detection systems to spot the negative, but by seeking the good in things we can drive more positive change in the world.

For every Broadway performer, entrepreneur, or pro athlete, there are probably 100 others who could have enjoyed the same success had they not been discouraged along the way.

Supporting those around us with positive feedback and encouraging them to pursue their biggest dreams may yield a few failures, but more importantly, it will help produce far more successes. This same principle applies to our own internal dialog, when we give ourselves a pat-on-the-back instead of cutting criticism.

Don’t scold, celebrate. Don’t demoralize, empower. Become the source of encouragement — to others and yourself — and you’ll end up helping your business, community and family.

Serve as the spark. Just try to stay clear of bottle rockets and Roman candles.

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Increase Trust, Reduce Cost

Posted on November 15, 2014 by Josh Linkner


That’s the annual cost to house, feed and guard a single prison inmate in New York City, according to a recent report published in the New York Times. This whopping price tag equates to a daily cost of $459.54.

In the sharpest of contrasts to the cement-block walls of a cold jail cell, the Ritz Carlton Hotel is the paragon of luxury. World-class service, beautiful design, 600 thread-count sheets. And yet, the average cost for a night at the Ritz — $323, according to its public filings — is 30% less than the cost of a night in city jail.

Before planes struck our buildings on a clear September day, airport security costs were fairly low because officials trusted that passengers would generally behave. As an immediate response to unspeakable terror, the Transportation Security Authority (TSA) was formed to protect travelers and now has an annual budget of $7.39 billion.

In addition to the gigantic monetary burden, anyone who’s been to an airport recently can attest to how this lack of trust slows things down. Snaking security lines, invasive pat-downs, and requirements to practically undress to your skivvies burns time and money while violating our privacy. All because trust has been eroded.

What about in your own business, organization, community, or family? Companies enact rigid polices with layers of bureaucratic enforcement due to a fundamental lack of trust in team members and customers. The Broward County, Fla., jail system eats up 25% of every county tax dollar and represents the single largest expense to its taxpayers. Just imagine how those funds could be better used to elevate that community.

In Steven M.R. Covey’s masterful work, “The Speed of Trust,” he puts it simply: When organizational trust is low, costs go up and speed decreases. On the other hand, if you can build trust with those around you, costs decrease while speed increases.

As a leader (in business, community and family), you build trust in two ways: First, by being trustworthy yourself. Not only by being honest, but also keeping commitments and delivering on expectations. Secondly, trust is earned by trusting. As you extend trust to others, they return the favor and organizational trust begins to climb.

I’m always shocked how managers hire people based on their intelligence and sound judgment, yet rarely allow them to use either. With a foundation of trust, we can get on with the real work of innovating, creating and delivering. Every minute or dollar we spend policing could be redeployed into gaining competitive advantage if we can build teams that foster mutual trust.

The next time I feel like spending $459.54 for an overnight stay, I’m choosing the luxury hotel that can craft an upscale experience with its expenses rather than spending heavily to protect against bad behavior.

Build a trust-based organization, and you’ll be able to afford to better serve customers and drive sustainable growth. With growth and profits on the rise, you’ll certainly enjoy a good night’s sleep.