This is the fourth and final article from the reflective series on Brian Venis’s career as a business entrepreneur and his experiences and insights from that journey. Please feel free to contact him to discuss the issues and challenges arising from your business.

There certainly have been many articles and books written on motivational leadership and the best attributes of good leaders. The purpose of this article is to share my perspectives on the topic as seen through my eyes and in my 30-year journey running a successful company. Hopefully my experiences will resonate and help you determine your own leadership journey.

My leadership style was learned on the job. I was thrust into the family business at 26 years old just prior to my mother’s death. She was the leader of the company and had made most of the strategic decisions.  Mind you, there were only two other employees as well as my father in the business, so decision-making was fairly straightforward. I was asked to come in to assume her role, which I accepted after realizing I really didn’t aspire to continuing as a CPA in professional practice. A few months after that decision, my mother passed, and the direction and future of the company then rested on my shoulders. It was a real sink-or-swim moment that I embraced with both anticipation and excitement.

Within 3 years, the company had quadrupled in size. I began hiring people, buying equipment, and building the company’s infrastructure. Two years after that, we doubled again. I hadn’t really thought much about leadership per se. I was doing what came naturally and being pushed and pulled in the direction the company was taking me in. Eventually I came to the realization that the company was running me — I was not running the company.

I began to read and learn as much as I could from books and articles. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anyone to mentor me. I was too afraid to show weakness and never asked – another lesson learned along the path of leadership. There were, however, a few books that really resonated with me. The two that were most influential were The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt and The Profit Zone by Adrian Slywotzky & David Morrison, both of which I still highly recommend for any business owner. In fact, I asked my key people to read these books as guides to how we approached Sales and Production.  As our company continued to grow rapidly, my thoughts on leadership began to galvanize.  Let me try to relay the series of lessons that I learned.

Lesson #1 – The Juggler

Running your company is a very intense process that consumes your time and thoughts – especially in a growth phase.  Noticing my distraction, my 10-year-old son once asked me what I did at work.  I had read something earlier that I thought would provide him a whimsical explanation.  It was a story about a juggler.  I really can’t remember who wrote it, but it became one of the most influential lessons on leadership that I ever learned. If someone knows the author, please let me know because I owe him/her the greatest debt of thanks.

I explained to my son that my job was like being a Juggler juggling three balls – a rubber ball, a wooden ball, and a glass ball.  If you drop the rubber ball, it bounces back. You can, with concentration, pick it up while still juggling the other two and quickly resume your juggling.  If the wooden ball drops, it doesn’t bounce.  It requires a great deal more effort to keep the other two balls in the air while leaning down to pick up the wood ball to get it back in the air with the other two.  It’s doable, but difficult.  However, if the glass ball drops, it will shatter when it hits the floor.  As I told my son, my job was to never allow the glass ball to fall.  I think it’s a story any business owner can relate to and for me, it’s the primary goal of leadership. Lesson #1 – figure out what is essential to your business and never allow anything to disrupt that core activity.

Lesson #2 – Sober Second Thought 

I have always been struck by this phrase describing the role of the Canadian Senate. I also believe it’s a great attribute for any leader. As leaders, we are constantly inundated with problems, ideas, research, reports, etc., all of which we need to absorb and act upon. Most leaders I know are doers and want to move things forward quickly. But in my experience, not taking the time to first listen to your people or giving your opinion prior to hearing what others have to say will either create a bunch of “yes-men” or frustrate your employees from voicing any opinions at all. It takes patience and discipline to really listen and not to jump in and solve the problem at hand before all the relevant information is considered. For me that’s lesson #2 – take your time to hear other ideas and consider them openly and thoroughly prior to acting.

Lesson #3 – Create the Culture

Organizations inevitably take on the personality of their leader, knowingly or unknowingly. It’s hard not to interject our biases into our relationships within the company, but when we favour one employee or customer over another, we unknowingly build politics into the structure of the company. It may not be our intent, but it is, nonetheless, an inevitable consequence of our actions. How we feel about our customers, our shop floor employees (if a manufacturer), or any other personal bias that infiltrates our mind and therefore influences our people, will inevitably seep into the culture of our organization.

I remember a situation when our director of Accounts Receivable was frustrated and voiced her negative opinion of our customers to any who would listen. We were in a meeting with our Sales team discussing delinquent accounts. As soon as I started to hear the negativity – even though it was partially true – I stopped the conversation and emphasized that Sales, Customer Service, and Credit, all needed to work together to enhance our customer’s experience. It was our job to figure out how, as my mother taught me, to turn lemons into lemonade. This experience also motivated me to create a Mission Statement about being a sales-driven organization. I could easily have joined in with my own frustrations about collections but realized it would have irreparably harmed our culture at that moment. Lesson #3 – create a positive environment that aligns with your personal and corporate goals. 

Lesson #4 – the Thinker

Along with sober second thought, a leader must be able to guide the future direction of their organization.  This sounds rather rudimentary and simple, but it does require an understanding of the different types of thinking from which an action plan can take shape.  A leader must develop the skills to think critically, strategically, and creatively.

  • Critical thinking allows us to judge and make rational decisions about what to do in setting goals – weighing different, objective points of view.
  • Strategic thinking allows us to generate and apply insights and opportunities to overcome barriers or solve problems in order to accomplish those goals.
  • Creative thinking allows us to look at problems and opportunities with a fresh perspective in order to conceive and produce innovative ideas and solutions.

A good leader needs to be able to practice all three ways of thinking so they can move the organization along its path to success. These skills are not intrinsic to everyone. For example, it is often difficult for an entrepreneur to be self-reflective, but it’s also a sign of strength to take the time and invite others to question and probe your underlying assumptions and beliefs. That leads to my lesson #4 – seek out advisors to round out those skills you are weaker on and to bring alternative thought processes into decision-making.

Lesson #5 – Humanity (empathy, humility, compassion)

I believe it is incumbent on every leader to create a safe and happy workplace. Our employees spend a great deal of their time at work and invest their skills and talents to make a business successful. A workplace that’s fun and enjoyable is important to establishing the culture that nourishes success. These terms are somewhat vague and can mean different things to different people. In my own experience, it meant ensuring that people felt engaged in working towards a common goal. I strove for a workplace free from politics where people felt that their ideas and concerns were being heard and being acted upon.  Although we could not always agree with every idea, as long as those ideas were genuinely being heard, and their ideas were being discussed and contemplated, there was rarely animosity towards an outcome different than what they wanted.

A quick, off-hand dismissal of a person’s contribution will be very frustrating and demoralizing to that individual and will undermine any true engagement in the future. I found that many of the best ideas for fixing problems came from the shop floor. Sometimes they were good ideas but might have lacked the broader perspective that I or their direct supervisor would have held. However, once an explanation was provided expanding on the full context of the situation, those ideas could be recast and adjusted as appropriate. This approach keeps people engaged and still willing to participate in finding better solutions.

As a leader, being empathic and respectful of each employee’s contributions, having the humility to say someone had a better idea or that I was wrong, and having compassion for that person’s situation, contributed to a safe and happy workplace, and did more to strengthen and build our team than anything else I did. Lesson #5 – create a safe and happy workplace where everyone feels empowered.

Lesson #6 – Inspiration (inspiration, motivation)

I believe that inspiration and motivation are linked but represent different concepts.  Inspiration provides your workforce with a sense of belief in your vision for the future.  When a worker is inspired, they are motivated to perform well because they also share a belief in the company’s future and demand it of themselves. This can occur when they believe in the company’s vision, feel seen and heard, and truly feel that their contributions are part of something important.

Motivation alone cannot bring that sense of community, and this is clear than when we see someone who is not motivated. In my experience, when a worker is uninspired and unmotivated, they are usually working in fear and feeling unseen and unheard.  The fear could stem from being unprepared or inexperienced. They may feel that they are “walking on eggshells” – where everything they do is unfairly questioned. Consequently, they look for allies to help them chart their course within the organization. These circumstances can cause rifts to appear between people and when individuals are then alienated from decision-making, internal politics can seep into the company and destroy inspiration and cohesion.

In my experience, a good leader needs to be very aware of the words they use to ensure that their actions inspire rather than divide employees and take away their motivation. A good leader needs to be constantly on the lookout for politics because it is likely the biggest consequence of an uncertain workplace. This is all very easy to write about, but difficult to execute.  However, Lesson #6 – be vigilant to always stay on message, be open to alternative ideas and you can create a cohesive team, inspired to succeed.   

When I first assumed the leadership of my business, business schools did not teach, nor even discuss leadership as a skill to develop. My leadership skills were learned on the job after being thrust into the leadership role.  I was either too young, or too naïve, to ask for help or seek out a mentor to guide my leadership skills development. I wish I had. My hope is that my path to find my leadership style will help you discover your voice and your style.  In every facet of your business, you can find someone to take on that role and responsibility but becoming a good leader is the one role an entrepreneur must assume alone. Hopefully my journey and insights can help you with yours.

At the Osborne Group, we have created services to support entrepreneurs and company leaders with the many difficult challenges of growing your business. Our Advisory Board Services focus on coaching, leadership and helping to identify management blind spots. View more about our Advisory Board Services or contact Brian Venis to discover how we can help your organization.