Toothpaste, Leadership, and the Art of No

The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.  ~Tony Blair

One of my personal pet peeves is the time it takes to stand in the toothpaste aisle and simply stare at the shelves until I finally find the specific brand and option that I want to buy.  Now I understand why it takes so long.  In an article I just discovered from February 2011, I learned that 352 distinct types or sizes of toothpaste were sold at retail, down from 412 in March 2008!  I’m also grateful to read that Procter & Gamble has significantly reduced the number of oral-care products because they've come to realize that fewer is actually better!

We've become a society of options—options for everything—health care products, TV channels to watch, satellite radio stations to listen to, music to download, etc., etc.  The name of one of the most successful companies to not only survive the recession but actually thrive right through it says it all— Amazon!

As individuals we've come to expect an abundance of options and organizations are no different.  There’s an “opportunity” or “need” around every corner.

In the not so distant past, it could have been argued that one of the requirements of leadership was to know what to say "Yes" to.  But when abundance [think toothpaste] far outweighs scarcity, the table has turned.  Now it’s critical that leaders develop the art of saying "No."

How to Attract (and Keep) Olympic-Caliber Employees

By Thomas Walter with Molly Meyer

Tom Walter is a "serial entrepreneur" who has launched nearly 30 companies. He is the CEO of Tasty Catering, named one of Winning Workplaces best small companies in 2010. He is the author of the forthcoming book, It’s My Company Too! This post is republished with permission from Serial Entrepreneur

In a previous post, we compared an entangled employee to an Olympian, versus an engaged employee, or collegiate athlete.
Just to recap, the engaged employee has risen to a level above most other employees. He has skills, commitment and dedication but doesn’t exhibit the same kind of care for the organization as if it were his own organization, or the coach perhaps, like the collegiate athlete. The entangled employee, or Olympian, however, lives for the organization… and he likes it.  His goals and dreams are synonymous with the organization’s, and he is constantly thinking about them and acting accordingly.  The entangled employee believes so much in the success of the organization that when the organization achieves something great, he feels fulfilled and happy.
Having a workforce full of entangled employees is like having a team of nonstop problem solvers, go-getters, self-starters and over-achievers. Employing Olympians means having a highly productive, highly motivated workforce that invests themselves whole-heartedly into each task at hand.
Employees don’t just become Olympians by accident.  They don’t wake up one morning and say, “Hey, I think I’m going to be an Olympian for my organization today.” They have a special combination of drive and determination mixed with a set of values and beliefs that perfectly match the organization’s values and beliefs.  And, they are cultivated in the right organizational culture and nurtured under the right leadership.
Populating your workforce with Olympians is neither easy nor instantaneous. The full journey is something that can’t be mapped out in a single blog post, but we will give you several ideas about the process so you can start planning your transition into the big leagues.
How to Hire an Olympian
As with hiring any employee, hiring an Olympian begins with the basics. Here are some tips to look for during the hiring process that might tip you off that this employee has Olympic potential:
  • Look for team activities on the applicant’s resume. Working successfully in a team is a crucial ingredient to any successful workplace.  Athletes and team competitors know how to motivate others, have leadership qualities and know how (and expect) to sacrifice for the good of the team. All of these qualities are priceless (and crucial) when it comes to Olympic potential.
  • Ask about volunteer roles. Volunteering shows passion, and it reveals that the applicant has the capability of feeling passionately about something.  Volunteers make the ultimate commitment—doing something completely for free, a characteristic of born Olympians.
  • Ask key questions related to culture  Learn what runs deeper than skills and knowledge with these questions: Describe the culture in which you are most productive and happy; Describe the leadership style that will bring forth your best work and effort; Do you prefer working alone or as part of a team; and, What would your former employees say about you? Potential Olympians will have good, honest answers to these questions, because they know how they work best and are always striving to improve themselves.
  • Note any questions asked of you. Applicants that ask questions of you—not just those that could have been answered by perusing your company website, but questions that dig deeper—prove they already have an interest in something more than a paycheck. Look especially for questions about the company’s vision and core values and how those core values are enacted throughout the organization. This shows they care about what your company is, what it can become, and how it will become that way, all indicators of potential entanglement.

How to Keep an Olympian

How One Small Business CEO Went from Bully to Best-in-Class

Johnson, on campus at Benedictine University where she is
a student in the doctoral program in Values-Driven Leadership. 

CEO Indigo Johnson is a strategic, forward-thinking, dynamic leader. What you might not expect (but what Johnson would be quick to tell you) is that until recently she was also a bit of a bully.

Johnson runs a human resources company, Careers in Transition. And even though she advised other companies on how to manage their personnel, she struggled to maintain her own – her best talents kept walking out the door, or were shown it.

A veteran, Johnson says she learned early on that the Marine Corps tears you down in order to build you up. “You become a transformed person,” she says. “You can take the beach to take the world. And when I started my company I took the same approach. But most people don't take a job with a company to be torn down. I'd pull people to try and get them to grow. Then they'd die.”

“There was a time that I’d just fire you,” Johnson says. “I gave you no chance to change. If you’d put it on your resume that you could do something, and then it turns out you can’t do it well, I’d just let you go.”

A year and a half ago, Johnson joined a cohort of executives in a doctoral program in values-driven leadership and as part of the first months of classwork had to take a hard look at her leadership style. She realized she was hiring the right people, but not giving them the space to make mistakes and grow. She wasn’t using their strengths; she was harping on their weaknesses.

“I had to take a look at what the literature is saying about true leadership,” says Johnson. “Then I had to look at the gap in my leadership style. I came back from the course and had to sit down with my leadership team and say I'm sorry. I haven't given you the chance to grow. I'm committed to creating a culture that's inclusive. And I'm going to be accountable for it.”

Inspired, Johnson made some strategic changes and began to adapt a more nurturing style of leadership. Now she helps her staff find their strengths, gives people time to grow into their jobs. When she finds someone who is a strong culture fit but lacks a needed skillset, Johnson trains them for it or brings in an outside contractor. “We spend the time up front to figure out what people need,” she says. The results speak for themselves: Careers in Transition has a three-year growth rate of 1500%, landing them on Inc.’s Top 500 list for the first time this year.

“The water here is swift and deep,” Johnson says, referring to her quickly growing company. “Now we’re trying to be transparent about that so you can make an intelligent decision if this is the right place for you.”
These days, in addition to the recent honor from Inc. magazine, Johnson can see the difference her focus on employee development has brought to the company – her staff is growing and loyal. It’s no surprise that one of Careers in Transition’s corporate values is the concept that We can always do better. Johnson says there’s room to grow, for her and her employees.
Learn more about Johnson’s PhD program. Designed for senior business leaders, the program combines the fields of corporate sustainability and responsibility with strategic leadership and organization change. Find more information at, then attend an online open house on November 8th.

How One CEO Helps Humanity Kick the Plastic Bag Habit

Keller, as Bag Monster. The costume is created
from 500 plastic bags, the approximate
number used per American each year. 

Andy Keller was an unemployed business school graduate when he spent a day landscaping his back yard. As a result, he needed to make a trip to the local landfill. What he saw changed the course of his life – the landfill was overflowing with plastic bags. With a little research, Keller learned the U.S. uses enough plastic shopping bags annually to circle the globe 776 times, if tied together.[1]

He bought a second-hand sewing machine and went to work, creating a reusable shopping bag that stores compactly in its own pocket. The bag gained popularity, and Keller’s small business, ChicoBag, is now the industry leader in compact reusable bags.

With his unemployment problem solved, Keller set out to tackle a bigger challenge: ridding the planet of one-use plastic bags. He’s made a few enemies along the way, which Keller explained at a recent panel as part of the Inc. 500/5000 conference. Here’s his story:

The Bag Monster

“We want to help humanity kick the single-use bag habit,” says Keller. “And we decided early on to be aggressive about it.” To get the message out, Keller invented the Bag Monster – a costume created from 500 plastic bags, the number each American uses annually. The Bag Monster is a walking, talking reminder of the waste single-use bags create. Keller wears the Bag Monster costume himself, at conferences like the Inc. 500/5000, and also at community events. It never fails to start a conversation. It also attracts attention.

Eventually, plastic bag manufacturers started to take notice: ChicoBag and its competitors were cutting into the manufacturers’ profit share. They decided to sue.

A Case Study in Doing What Needs to be Done

One of my favorite novels is Richard Russo's Straight Man, the tale of an aging college professor who finds he can no longer tolerate the world in which he works.

In one scene, the protagonist is desperate to avoid attending a staff meeting. (Ever felt that way?) He locks himself in his office with the lights out, determined to hide until the meeting is over. Unfortunately, he feels a desperate need to visit the restroom and he soils himself. Seeking an escape, and also thinking he might be able to eavesdrop on the meeting, he decides to exit his office through the ceiling panels. Things don't go quite as he expected. 

There are three insights we can gain from this:

1) You should read this book. 

2) When faced with an unpleasant task (like attending the protagonist's staff meeting) it's usually better to face the task directly. Avoidance and subterfuge usually have unintended, and unpleasant consequences. 

3) Lessons in leadership can come from unexpected places. We've discussed this before, in our post on leadership lessons from Game of Thrones, and one CEO's favorite childhood book. 

Do you have a leadership lesson from a surprising source? Share your stories here in the comments section or tweet us at @ValuesDriven. Your lesson may be used in an upcoming blog post. 
Amber Johnson is the Center for Values-Driven Leadership's corporate relations and social media advisor. She is a non-profit and small business communications professional. In addition to blogging about business for the CVDL, Amber writes about marriage and other topics on her personal blog

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