Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

What Is Visioning?

visioning vision board action planWhen I work with large corporations and CEOs, I often challenge them to think about the trajectory of their company. Where do they want their organization to be in the future? Based on how things are going, where is it headed now? These are vital questions.

Here is an overview of a powerful business idea I use to help organizations create a detailed and compelling vision of the future they want to achieve for their company.

Check out the video or read through the content below.

 

What Is Visioning?

I want to share a tool with you that I sometimes use when I’m working with CEOs and helping them create a foundation for their strategic plan, and it’s called “Visioning.”

I will challenge leaders to create what I would call a “painted picture” – a vivid, compelling, highly detailed picture of where the company will be in the coming years. Let’s just use 2025 for this one.

And there are two ways I ask them to approach it:

Approach #1

One way could be to write a story as if you’re a reporter from Inc., Fortune, Forbes, something like that, and you were there to write a story about your company in 2025, about all the things that it accomplished. Maybe you just made the Inc. 500, or Inc. 100, or Fortune 400, or whatever it might be, but they’re really impressed with your company and they want to come and write an article about all the cool things your company is doing.

And I want it in detail, just like it would be in the magazine.

And I challenge them: Read a couple of business magazines with overviews of companies, and that’s what I want you to write.

Approach #2

The other way, which happens to be my favorite way, is I ask them to write a story about what it would be like to be an employee in this company in 2025:

  • What would it be like?
  • What would the culture be like?
  • Who would I be working with?
  • Would it be a casual atmosphere where people brought their dog to work?
  • Would it be a more formal culture?
  • What kind of locations would we have?
  • How much total revenue?
  • Would there be an employee profit-sharing plan?

But I want them to sit down and really give some serious thought to where do you see your company 5 to 10 years from today, and I want it to be as if I was there.

What’s the Point?

Now, what does this do?

This creates a really broad story about what the owner, the CEO, the president, whoever it might be running the company, of what they really see the future look like for their organization.

Step 2, then, is to give that out to your senior management team and get some feedback. And oftentimes, there will be some difficult conversations.

And then once you get alignment on the senior management team that, yes, this is where we want the business to go, this is what we see in the future, then you can back up and do your vision statement.

But What Is a Vision Statement?

A vision statement should be short, concise, to the point, focused, typically with some numbers in it, total revenues, position in the market, locations, number of employees, whatever numbers are important to you.

From that vision statement comes your strategy, because your strategy is built to get you to the vision you have of the future of the company.

You start it out with where we want to be in 2025, and you back up, year by year, all that way down to the current year, and say, ”All right, if this is where we want to be in seven years, where do we have to be next year, and the year after that, and the year after that?”

Then it’s pretty simple to create some major strategic objectives, 3 or 4, but no more than 5, for where we want to be this year, and then break that down into organizational action steps – tactics that go all the way down to the front line, and then it cascades all the way back up to the vision.

But for me, creating a Visioning exercise is a really good way to get people dedicated to where they want to take the company in the future.

Apply “Visioning” in Other Places

And by the way, this works exactly the same for your life.

Sit down, and some people actually create a picture. They cut stuff out from magazines or take photos and say, ”This is what I want my life to look like in 2025. Here are some images that motivate me and get me excited.”

And then back up to today and say, ”What would I have to do today – what decisions would I have to make in my life today so that 7 years from now, I’m actually living that vivid vision of the future I want to create?”

 

I hope you found this helpful.

 

The Courage to Speak Up

happy employees happy customersRecently, I took a few moments to talk about something I see far too often in the companies and groups I work with all over the world. It’s something that exists in every organization to some degree – in every industry – and it’s something I’m passionate about helping leaders identify and work on with their teams.

Check out the text below or, if you prefer, watch the video on my YouTube channel.

 

This is one of those videos you’re gonna wanna gather everyone around the computer or send it out to everyone in your organization, because I’m gonna discuss an issue that drives me crazy that I see over and over again in organizations when I’m coaching people or working with different groups or teams. It’s the unhappy employee who doesn’t bother to tell management they’re upset.

They sit at their desk, they brood, they build up more and more anger and frustration and resentment. Oh, and they’ll go tell other people in the organization, or they’ll go home and tell their family, but they won’t go to their manager, leader, boss, whatever it might be and say, “Hey, I’m not happy about this,” or “I think this isn’t going well.” Many of you that are watching this now that you think yourself, “Well I got some things I really don’t like about how they do things around here, but I’m not gonna go tell my boss, because I’ll get” – and I love this term one person told me – “I’ll get vaporized.” And you’re gone.

If you live in an environment where bringing criticism, let’s say negative feedback, pointing out something that doesn’t seem to be going right to you, if you work in an environment where doing that would cost you your job, you probably need to work someplace else because you work for a poor leader and things will likely not ever get better.

State or Trait?

There’s another thing to check: Maybe it’s your attitude. What I always say when I teach this sort of stuff in companies is, is it a state or trait?

A state, “I’m just having a bad day, I’m just upset about this one project, I’m just … Things aren’t going well in other parts of my life and I feel like taking it out on the company.” It’s just a temporary state of being dissatisfied, frustrated, whatever it might be… stress.

If it’s a trait – that you see this happening over and over again in your life and you’re constantly frustrated and upset, then you might wanna look at the mirror and say, “Maybe it isn’t the people around me, maybe it’s me.”

This is also, – now I’m gonna shift to the leader – this is also something to look at when someone brings you a critical feedback or they’re frustrated or upset or angry or stressed. Is it a state or a trait? Are they just having a bad day or is this an employee who just has a bad attitude?

Leaders: Listen Up

Let me now speak to the leaders. The only people that can tell you how to improve your company are your customers and your employees. I am flabbergasted at how often leaders and companies don’t wanna hear from either group. “Let’s send out a customer survey? Oh no, they’d tell us all the things they want us to change and expect us to change them.” or “I don’t wanna get the negative feedback.”

I see this a ton internally, where I’ll go to a leader, a CEO and say, “When did they do an audit of your internal organization?” They’ll say, “No, no way, I don’t wanna hear what they’re complaining about, I’d have to do something.”

Now the reverse is I work with a lot of organizations and great leaders who want to get that feedback. Often times it frustrates them that they don’t get enough of that feedback, because they know everything’s not perfect. They think to themselves, “Wow, if people would just bring the information, I could fix it.”

It’s kind of like if you’re really sick but you don’t wanna tell the doctor about it, I’m not thinking you’re gonna feel a lot better soon. But this is the really important point for leaders, managers, leaders, bosses, CEOs, and presidents: You have to make it safe for people to bring you bad news. You can’t kill the messenger.

If someone goes way out on a limb to share some not-so-great information with you, don’t saw the limb off, run out there and give them a hug. Say, “Thank you. I didn’t like hearing this, I’m upset to hear this is going on in the company,” or “I’m distraught to know that you feel this way.” But you can’t have retribution, finger pointing, getting back at them, telling them they’re wrong. You’ve gotta make it safe – you’ve got to make it really safe for people to bring you even bad news because you can’t fix it unless you know about it.

Ignoring the Problem Solves Nothing

If it’s down there festering and people are afraid to talk to you about it, it will likely hurt or kill your organization. We’ve got two things here: If you’re an employee, you have to have enough courage to go and talk to the people above you about issues or problems or concerns or criticisms you have if they’re bad enough to really impact your productivity. If you’re a little upset, a little frustrated, let it go, this too shall pass. But if it’s really something that’s got you worked up, you owe it to yourself and to the company to let people know. Now the other side of that, I‘m saying again, Leaders, is you have to make it safe. You have to thank them, thank them, thank them for bringing you the bad news, the criticism, the negative feedback and encourage other people to do it, too. Hold them up as someone that brought you information you didn’t want to hear, but information that, now you know it, you can work on it, improve it, fix it and make the company better for everybody.

Here’s a big, big idea: Happy employees lead to happy customers, which leads to more profit. Unhappy employees lead to unhappy customers, a bad workforce, and talent leaving, which isn’t typically the way you run a successful business.

I really hope you take this to heart, pass it around your organization, send it to other folks because this is an issue I see over and over again. I see how bad it hurts the individual and the company not to be able to discuss things that aren’t easily discussed, that might be a little bit uncomfortable, but if fixed or attended to, it could have a huge positive impact on everyone involved.

I hope you found this helpful.

 

The Role Of A Leader

It was 36 years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a pretty good football player in high school, not a star, but at least one the key starters. I played nose guard on defense and when we were in the red zone close to the goal line I would sometimes go in as a running back to punch the ball across the line. I was a big guy even back in high school, a good athlete, but not the best… then everything changed.

In my senior year the head coach came to me and said that he was going to make me the captain of the defensive squad. I was excited, honored, and proud… I was going to be one of the team captains! Then he explained something about my role as a captain. He said, “John, if you’re going to be one of the captains you have to lead by example. You’re going to need to work harder than everyone else, play the best you’ve ever played and help the rest of the team to be excellent. That means coming to practice early, studying the playbook, supporting the coaches, working hard in the weight room and always coming in in the top three on sprints and long runs.” As I said earlier, I was a pretty big guy in high school, I think the word would be fat, and I had never, ever come in anywhere close to the top three on any running drill. Coach must have seen the fear in my eyes and said, “You can do this Bear (my nickname in high school), I have confidence that you can stand up and be a real leader for this team. Can I count on you?” I immediately answered, “Yes Sir.”

The next day, after the coach announced that I was one of the team captains, I started coming in in the top three in every drill. I ran faster than I ever had, I pushed myself harder than I ever had, every time I got tired I just kept saying to myself, “I’m the captain, I have to set the pace, I have to lead by example.” The metamorphosis was amazing, I literally changed my performance, dramatically, overnight. That’s when I realized it… I could have done it all along. Apparently, I had always possessed the ability to run fast and for long distances, but when I was just one of the guys on the team it was easy to come in last, there was always a few of us “heavy guys” bringing up the rear. But the minute I accepted a role as a leader I knew that everybody on the team was watching, all the coaches would be watching, everyone in the school would be watching me, and I could not let them down.

It is the same thing in my business career when I’m running a company I understand that I live under a microscope. My team sees everything I do, they see what I don’t do, they hear what I say, and they hear what I do not say. It is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year – everything you do has an impact on how you are perceived as a leader. I love this, because it pushes me to perform better than I might on my own, just like on the football team I have to run faster, work harder, do more homework and deliver the highest level of excellence I can, because if I didn’t I couldn’t ask anyone else on my team to do it either.

Over the years, based on this experience, I have developed my own definition of leadership.

“Leadership is being a living example of what you hope your followers will one day become.”

I hope you found this helpful and will share it with your network. Thanks – John

 

Do You Have A Culture Of Purpose

Stop Selling & Start Leading

In this video, I will tell you about a great new sales book that I found very helpful, and I am going to ask you for some feedback and advice.

I hope you take a moment to share your ideas with me…

How To Manage Up For Change

It is always challenging when you’re trying to convince someone in upper management to change the way they do things. Senior leaders, especially owners of private businesses, are often emotionally tied to the organization and feel that a request to look at things differently is a personal attack on their leadership abilities. I’ve had to deal with this challenge multiple times in my career and from my experience, there is a continuum of “aggressiveness” that one needs to move through to convince upper management to change their ways.

Here is the continuum from least aggressive to most aggressive:

Level I: if you have a good relationship with the senior leader then simply go visit with them and share your ideas. Make sure that you are extremely well-prepared, understand the full ramifications of what you are proposing and come with solutions, not problems.

Level II: if you personally do not have a great relationship with the senior leader, gather a small group of employees that the leader respects, talk to them about your proposal for change, gain their buy-in, and then go as a small team to speak with the senior leader. Again, be extremely well-prepared and come with solutions, not problems.

Level III: find a sponsor on the senior management team who believes in your ideas and is willing to take them to the CEO or owner. Let them use their credibility, experience, and relationship to support your ideas and encourage the top leader to embrace your proposed changes.

*** At this point you move from trying to convince a single leader, to attempting to change the thinking of the entire senior leadership team. This gives your idea more leverage against the leader who does not agree with your proposed changes.

Level IV: this is the one I use most often; overwhelm them with data. Do surveys, focus groups, research – whatever you can to build a solid case for your proposed changes. In the change process we call this creating an “irresistible case for change,” a scenario so irrefutable that it is nearly impossible to ignore the facts of the situation. Unfortunately, many people will choose to ignore them nonetheless.

Level V: find some excellent articles or blogs, on a topic your senior leadership team strongly supports, and then send those articles to everyone in the organization (if it is a small company), or to selected leaders. The first few articles should be about a topic that the leaders will enjoy reading about because they believe in it. After sending several articles that that support their ideology, start to drop in articles on the change you want to make the organization. This is a way to begin the conversation in an innocuous way, by introducing your ideas slowly, mixed in with articles and blogs on ideas they are in favor of. The goal here is to change the conversation across the organization, or at least within the senior leadership team, in hopes that they will see that they need to make changes within the business.

Level VI: gather together a group of key employees, gain their 100% commitment to the change, and then go as a group and demand change from the senior leadership team. This is different from my suggestion at level II because now you are being dramatically more aggressive and basically threatening the senior leaders that if they do not change, there is a possibility they will lose good employees.

Level VII: tender your letter of resignation. Explain fully why you are leaving, that you think the change you are championing is necessary but that the senior leadership team, or senior leader, refuses to make the necessary changes, therefore you are going to go to a new company that is more in alignment with your ideas about business success.

I have given this list to hundreds of people and typically they never have to reach level VII. At some stage along the way the senior leaders or leader eventually come around and either embrace the change or give a solid and thoughtful answer as to why the organization has chosen not to go in the direction you are proposing.

I hope you found this helpful – John

How To Lead Four Generations At Work

A great new book from Kelly and Robby Riggs.

Buy it from Amazon HERE

Four Fabulous Business Books

I shot this video around Thanksgiving, before I had left for London and Kraków, and forgot to post it! However, better late than never. Here are four book recommendations that would be excellent holiday gifts. Bear in mind that the book by Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick on great teams will not be available until February, but you can preorder it now (and you should). I really loved all four of these books and I hope you will too.

And if you have not read it, this is a pretty good business book too;-)

Four Great Questions About Leadership

A few weeks ago, a student named Joey Brodsky, who is studying business at the University of Florida and is taking a class from a close friend of mine, Dr. Alex Sevilla, sent me some questions about some of the things he was learning about management and leadership.  I thought the questions were excellent and that you might find my answers of some value.  Here is the conversation between myself and Joey.

 

Mr. Spence,

Currently I am taking a senior leadership course taught by Dr. Alex Sevilla here at the Heavener School of Business. We are working on both theoretical and application based leadership strategies, learning how to combine them with our skills to become better managers.

Some questions I have for you below are about how you implement specific leadership theories in your work (or don’t), experiences you have had being an influential leader from such a young age, and certain challenges you have faced overseeing and motivating individuals. My goal is to relate some of the topics I’ve learned in my course to real world experiences. I’ll keep them brief as I know your time is valuable, but any information you feel would be influential I would love to learn from!

Questions:

  1. One of the first topics we discussed in class was the differences between trait leadership and process leadership ideologies. Trait leadership having to do with personality traits that influence one’s skill of leadership and process leadership being more interaction based. Do you find leadership to be a more inherent quality to individuals, or would you say it has more to do with the way someone interacts with their ‘followers’?

If I’m reading this correctly, it seems that you are asking the age-old question, “Are leaders born or made?”  I believe that if someone has good values – they are honest, they act with integrity, they show respect, they have empathy and concern for others – I can send them to a class to learn most of the process skills they need to be a good leader. However, if someone lies, cheats, steals, manipulates and doesn’t care about others – there is no way they will ever become a truly effective leader.  

Also, there are many people that talk about extroverts versus introverts as leaders.  I have seen many leaders that are highly motivational and inspiring, that can get up in front of a group and move them to action – I’ve also seen many leaders that are quiet, humble and introspective. But they have a burning passion for what they are doing and that passion creates highly loyal followers.  

In my opinion, a leader must be superb at two skill sets: they must be absolutely excellent at what they do, their actual job description, and they have to have strong leadership skills.  

Lastly, remember that leadership is not only the purview of the people at the top of the organization, every person in an organization leads at some level.

  1. Another interesting concept we have learned is the difference between an assigned leader (a leader because of a formal position) and an emergent leader (a leader because of the way others respond to them). Being such a young CEO at 26 when working with the Rockefeller Foundation I would expect you were very influential among your peers and showcased your leadership earlier on. Can you tell me a little about how you leveraged your leadership skills as an emergent leader into a more formal leadership role so early in your career? What are some of the characteristics you displayed that you think helped you to stand out?

Almost immediately after joining the foundation I became the “right-hand man” to the CEO (not Mister Rockefeller, a professional manager who was running the company on his behalf).   I spent a lot of time watching him, learning what to do, and learning what NOT to do.  At this point in my career I was reading every single business book I could get my hands on and listening to 4-5 business books a week.   In a meeting with our Board of Directors, one of the key directors asked a question that the CEO could not answer – and then the director (a multibillionaire) turned to me and asked me if I knew the answer – which I did.   Then, the board started asking me for my opinion more often, and when the current CEO began to stumble, they put me in as an interim CEO – which eventually led to me becoming the permanent CEO.  

Very frankly, I was in no way ready to lead an organization at that age, I was woefully unprepared.  I realized that I could not be successful if my team was not successful.  For my part, I studied, read, worked and did everything I could to learn as much as I could about leadership and business success.  I tried to model the behavior of lifelong learning and always striving to do your best.  I also went to my team and asked for help and focused a great deal on empowerment.  In the early days, I was very immature as a leader, but as I faced more situations I slowly learned how to run the business and be a better leader to my team.

  1. One quote from Professor Sevilla that really resonated with me was “It’s not about you [the leader] . . . it’s about them [the followers].” He said if there were to be only one thing we take away from this class, let it be this statement. In your professional experience, how important has it been to focus more directly on the group and achieving common goals, rather than just using subordinates to achieve more personal objectives?

Dr. Sevilla is 1,000% right.  This is a concept known as servant leadership, where the leader understands that they are actually there to serve their employees.  As to your question about common goals or personal objectives – it’s not an Either/Or – it is a Both/And.  Everyone in the organization must be focused on the vision, strategy, and a set of common goals they are all aligned to as the do their work.  It is the job of the leader to ensure that they execute the strategy with discipline and continuously deliver superb business results.  ALSO, the leader needs to help each person grow as an individual and show them how their work directly ties into the success of the overall organization.  

  1. Over the last few decades you have become one of and got to work with many of the greatest business leaders in the world. I don’t expect there to be a catchall answer on how to become a powerful and respected leader in the business world, but what are some of the strongest traits or strategies you see these leaders (and yourself) using to motivate others? Are there some particular things you think are more important for a young leader, like myself, to help showcase my skills to companies?

Rather than give you just my opinion, here is a list of traits that have emerged from the thousands of leadership classes I’ve taught and the great leaders I have had the honor to spend time with.

Honesty – tell the truth all the time – period.  Another word here would be integrity.

Excellent communicator – asks great questions and is an intense listener.

The courage to be vulnerable, to admit that you don’t have all the answers. Another word here would be authentic.

Competence – you must be exceedingly good at what you do.  My favorite phrase in this area is, “be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Great team player – treats their employees as partners and peers.  Shows them respect and gives them trust.

Compassionate – shows a genuine concern for their people and their personal and professional growth.

Visionary – has a vivid, compelling vision and strategy for growth that is well communicated across the entire organization.

Passionate – another word would be inspiring.

Innovative – a lifelong learner who is a good creative and strategic thinker.

 

Joey, I hope you found these answers helpful, let me know if you need any more information.

I wish you every possible happiness and success – John