5 Pitfalls of Blindly Following Advice

Platitudes about “the way to do things,” surround us daily — from personal interactions with peers, to articles we read in business journals and magazines, to discussions we hear between newscasters on TV. Many of these concepts come replete with pithy maxims that guide our opinions about leadership and management and which, upon further reflection, lead us astray.

“Uncle Charlie was very influential to me when I began my career more than 20 years ago and I wanted to be just like him,” Chris Larkins, Partner at CEO Coaching International, shared during a global conference call sponsored by the YPO Leadership Development Network. “But as we worked more closely together, I noticed he kept getting stuck in the same traps and I began to see that his conventional wisdom wasn’t really conventional or wise at all.”

Through his own personal experiences in the leadership trenches Larkins, a seasoned executive renowned for boosting performances at established and distressed companies across different industries, suggests 5 myth-busting strategies to avoid the pitfalls that lead to sub-optimal leadership performance  :

1. The CEO is a cheerleader.  Reality:  The right people on the bus are self-motivated; they don’t need a cheerleader.

“I can still recall hearing Uncle Charlie say this, with his palms up, cheering. As leaders we want to be motivational and inspiring, but the reality is that the right people on the bus are self-motivated; they shouldn’t need a cheerleader,” explains Larkins.

Discover your “self-motivated people,” by rating your employees from a scale of 0-10 on two questions: “Are their heads in the game?” and “Are their hearts in the game?”  For heads, rate them based on whether they are (A) doing all the activities that you want them to do and (B) getting all the results that you expect of them.

For hearts, rate them on whether they (A) share your core values and (B) if they fit your culture. The employees who score highest on both are self-motivated. Lead them by articulating a clear vision, giving them the resources to succeed, and not burdening them with people who are not self-motivated.

A related pitfall to avoid is the now-popular servant leadership thinking. Larkins explains, “There are leadership positions that are ‘first among peers.’  Your YPO chapter chair is ‘first among peers,’ but a CEO is not ‘first among peers,’”  says Larkins. Be humble — yes.  Be giving — yes.  However, a CEO’s job is to lead, not to be a servant. A CEO leads by fulfilling five key roles: Put the right people in the right seats, articulate a clear vision, ensure proper cash management, strike and own key relationships, and commit the organization to continuous improvement and learning. These functions require and active leader, not a servant leader.


2. You will beat the competition by being first to market with new ideas. Reality:  Think inside the box first. Flawless execution is the most difficult thing for your competition to replicate.

The toughest thing for your competitors to replicate is not your newest idea, but flawless execution. Companies differentiate themselves by the way they do business and how they perform: everything hinges on giving customers what matters most to them, even if that seems less exciting than focusing on being unique or using the newest technology.

This is not a prescription not to innovate; it’s a prescription for innovating in things that allow you to respond better than anyone else to your customer’s basic needs. If new products or services are part of the innovation, make sure that these products are conceived not as being simply creative, but as allowing your customers to fulfill a basic need in a better way.


3. Boldness counts. Reality: Being right counts. Avoid snap decisions in a quest to be bold; fire bullets first, then cannonballs.

In author Jim Collins book, Great by Choice, he urges business leaders to fire bullets (low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments) first, then cannonballs (concentrating resources into a big bet). People once resisted Uncle Charlie’s new idea that hadn’t been tested, to which he said, “I’m waiting for you guys to take my hand, close your eyes and jump off the cliff with me!” In other words, he wanted to fire cannonballs first.

Before launching a new product or service, Larkins recommends categorizing your idea according to customer class, product class and application type — therefore determining the risk. Collect data from your customers; talk to them, give them samples, ask for their opinion. If you want to grow your businesses, start with areas of lower risk — then test your idea, perfect it, and “pour gasoline” on anything that works.


4. Outsource your problems. Reality: Outsource to save costs not solve problems.

There’s nothing wrong with outsourcing, but you should in-source first. In other words, if something is a key part of your core business, outsource it only to save cost and only if you have a reliable process to do it yourself. If you don’t know how to do something well, how will you know if the partner you’ve chosen to outsource with is doing a good job? You might have just outsourced your problem several time zones away. Of course, if it’s not your core business, you should hire experts freely, such as recruiters, help desks, accountants and other back office functions.

If you do decide to outsource, Larkins suggests to follow certain best practices.

  • Have a reliable process: know what works, what doesn’t, what a good output is, what a bad one is and how to tell whether someone is helping or hurting you, the same way you would if they were inside your office.
  • Put a senior executive on your team in charge of the outsourced team, so there is no finger pointing. Your senior executive owns their performance as if they were part of your team.
  • Track their activities just like you would an employee. And as obvious as this may sound, visit them — this is a key relationship and you need to know whether they’re following best practices.


5. It’s who you know. Reality: It’s not who you know, it’s who you meet.

“What I learned quickly and have continued to learn over the past 20 years, is that it’s not who you know, but who you meet,” explains Larkins. “One of the key responsibilities of a CEO is striking and owning relationships to help you grow your company, solve problems and bring in new customers and employees.”

He believes that far too many YPO members don’t experience YPO outside their forum or chapter; there’s a whole region beyond yours and YPO global beyond that. Register for a regional event, a global event, a network event or even a YPO meeting-in-meeting at the next giant industry trade show you attend. “I have done all these things and have met people who continue to be incredible business and personal resources — and in many cases great friends — to this day.”

One last tip Larkins shares with his fellow YPO members is to meet another member on their next business trip. “Open the directory of the chapter where you’re visiting and find someone in your industry, a related one, or in an industry whose expertise would be valuable and drop them a line. You will almost always be greeted with a, ‘Heck yeah, let’s get together’!”

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