I’ve run several companies over the course of my career, and if there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that you start to succeed the moment you stop thinking in terms of “what I want” for “my company.”
“What I want…” is a toxic thought for any business leader. Leadership is all about bringing people together and getting them to work with each other for the common cause. Your leadership needs to treat everyone, always, like a strong-willed and independent A-player. As soon as you say “I want…” to anyone, you undermine those goals completely.
By saying “I,” you transmit to everyone that the company is all yours, and that they are just there to serve you. And by saying “want,” you let everyone know that their real job is just to do what you say.
A-players have a strongly negative reaction to both things you just communicated to them. She doesn’t want to work for “your” company. She wants to work for a reason. She wants Core Values and a Core Purpose. She wants to accomplish something for herself, for the market, for the whole world. Sure, you own the company; she gets that. But she’s not working for you. There’s a lot more going on—and as soon as you say “I want,” all those other great things seem to disappear, and her job suddenly seems like servitude.
No self-respecting A-player will ever just “do what you say.” Even if you tell them to do exactly what they would have done anyway, simply by telling them to do it, you ensure that they won’t—or if they do, that they’ll do it with a scowl on their face, and resentment in their hearts. The results you’ll get will be just as ugly.
Worse, “I want” sweeps all of their intelligence and all of their creativity and all of their ideas off the table. Strategic execution is all about harnessing those qualities and profiting from them. Strategic execution rewards people who “get it” and who make good decisions and do top-quality work that advances your company. The person costs the same either way; strategic execution gets you far more for your money than “I want” ever will.
When you say “I want you to…” the A-players all start looking for new jobs (at your competitors.) The only people you’ll have left are the sycophants and weak-minded types who you’d rather weed out.
Or Maximize Both
I know from experience that simply thinking to yourself, “OK, I get it: never say ‘I want’,” isn’t enough. You have to actually think differently.
I discovered this early on (thank God) when I had a young employee who I really liked at my computer hardware mail-order company. He was a bit of a loose cannon, which, of course, is usually the case with potential A-players. He thought he understood the business much better than he actually did, which is also typical of potential A-players. But his real gift was his ability to map his understanding to his actions. That’s a skill you can really work with.
He once made a costly mistake based upon an error in his understanding—and, truth be told, an error in my management. He worked in the shipping department, and so, of course, one of his metrics was to control shipping costs. For one particularly lucrative order, he discovered that by puzzling two motherboards together face to face, so all of their sensitive parts were sandwiched between the hard sheets of resin, he could fit six of them into a smaller box.
In one way, that shows initiative, which I appreciated. It also shows poor management on my part, because I had motivated him to save on shipping costs but had neglected to motivate him to avoid breakage.
Four of them had to be replaced. And in the process of discussing this minor disaster with him, there came one point that I remember like it was yesterday. I remember saying to him, “we have to be careful to take care of our customers…” and when I said “our customers,” he looked at me and nodded with true sincerity.
“Our customers.” “Our company.” “Our strategy.” He was completely on board with the notion of taking care of our customers and making sure we profited from every shipment. If I had just laid into him and told him how “I wanted” him to package motherboards from then on, I would have lost him. Instead, he became a valuable asset who helped me grow the company.
Strategic execution is all about “what we want,” and “what we can do for our customers.” Strategic leadership is all about how “we can build our company and accomplish our strategic objectives.”
I’ve been thinking that way ever since, and it’s served me well.