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  • Aspire » Leadership

    19 May
    Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr

    Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr

    The ability to focus is a critical element for strong, effective leadership.   Historically, we have thought of being focused as simply reducing distractions…concentration.   Now, recent neuroscience research demonstrates it is more than simply concentrating.    There are actually three distinct ways leaders are required to focus.   Without all three of them you are limiting your ability to lead.

    Daniel Goleman explained these three types of focus in a recent interview for the Harvard Business Review.  Goleman describes how these three elements work together in defining how top executives and business owners get to the heart of effectively executing focus not only personally but across their companies.

    Focus:  Inner, Outer, and Others

    Inner Focus: This is the most common form of focus.   It allows you to block out other distractions, focus on what is at hand, and stay calm under pressure.  It is the basis for intuition, trusting your gut, and good decision making.  As a leader, inner focus allows you to stay focused on the goals you have set for yourself and for your company.   Leaders who master this type of focus have few issues in following their own value system and managing their own schedule.  If the average person was to define the word focus, they would more than likely be referencing this type of focus in their definition.

    Focusing on Others: Sounds easy enough, but if you aren’t intentional about it, you will fail at this type of focus.   Have you ever been in a meeting and lost interest in the discussion only to have it circle back to you and you are disconnected?    I think everyone has at one time or another.   You allowed your focus shift from others back to inner.   To effectively focus on others, it’s all about empathy.   You need to understand how another person thinks, how they feel, and with that be able to sense what you can do for that person.  This is critical because empathy is the basis for all relationship skills: influence, team work, collaborations, inspiration, etc.  As a leader, if you have employees you must be able to focus on others with an emphasis on how you can help them.

    Outer Focus: This is being aware of larger forces that are affecting your business.   Without this type of focus you cannot think strategically.   Without this type of focus as a leader your business is a horse with blinders on.  You aren’t paying attention to your surroundings.   Economic conditions can change but you don’t make adjustments.   Not having Outer Focus is a dangerous way to lead. Practicing Outer Focus is asking questions.   It is systems and process awareness.   It is looking at other products or services in the market place that on the surface may appear disconnected from your business, but on the broader scale have implications and opportunities that can impact it for either better or worse.

    Leadership Focus - Gradient

    Want to get better at each focus?

    Warning: For trailblazing Type- A business owners, some of these suggestions may sound hokie, but give it a go before you discount it!


    How to improve your Inner Focus.   (Practice mindfulness)

    10 minutes/day (min):  Conscientiously monitor what you are thinking about.  Monitor your thoughts and feelings without getting reactive.  Think about what you’re thinking about.   You might be surprised how many places your mind goes in 10 short minutes.   This strengthens the mental muscle for attention and inner focus.


    How to improve your ability to Focus on Others.  (Practice empathy)

    Simply ask for feedback.   You need to know if you understand what the person is saying, what they are feeling, or thinking.   Not comfortable doing this with employees or clients?   Practice with your spouse, your kids, a trusted friend or coach.   Someone who you know will give you honest feedback and not just what you want hear.


    How to improve your Outer Focus (The broader scope)

    Find someone else who has abilities you admire.  It may be an industry peer, a mentor, or a coach.  But seek out someone who will want to help you get better.  Someone who will challenge you to look at the bigger picture of your business and what you are really trying to accomplish with your business.


    As a leader:  How to help your team improve their focus

    By demonstrating or applying any of the above examples you are effectively modeling to your peers, co-workers, and employees.    So much of what we learn happens unconsciously modeling an action we see or hear.    Think about how a child learns, they model what they see and hear.   Don’t overcomplicate it, just do it.


    Check out the entire HBR Interview:  Daniel Goleman’s Three Kinds of Focus.  What do you think? Do you do one better than the others?  Which would you or your company benefit from the most by improving?  As always we love to hear any thoughts or comments.

    Chris Steinlage  Kansas City Business Coach

    14 Apr
    Picture via Office Space - 1999

    Picture via Office Space – 1999

    What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about employees? Hold that thought…

    There’s a lot that goes into successful business growth – you’ve got to have a great product (or service), you have to have good marketing and sales and you have to do a lot of other things right. But perhaps the most important thing for most businesses that want to grow beyond the founder…you have to have great people helping you make things happen.

    That’s a hard statement to argue with – on paper at least.

    But if everyone really believes that’s true, then how do you explain the huge volume of businesses that have dis-engaged employees?

    A recent Gallup Study found that only 13% of employees are actively engaged in their work – 63% are not engaged (just going through the motions) and 24% are actively dis-engaged (trying to disrupt things)!

    What’s driving all of that dis-engagement? There are a lot of factors that go into creating a Great Place to Work – an expert from Deloitte, Josh Bersin, wrote a great article on The Five Elements of A ‘Simply Irresistible Organization’ and his assessment was that you need these 5 things:

    • Meaningful Work – which includes autonomy, just enough challenge and being part of something bigger.
    • Great Management – which I would describe more as leadership…how to help people become better
    • Growth Opportunities – people need to be able to expand into new challenges
    • An Inclusive, Flexible, Fun Environment – you spend the bulk of your time working…it’s good to be able to enjoy it
    • Leadership We Can Trust – a focus from the top on making things better for everyone, not just the ownership

    It’s a great list to start with (and the article is definitely worth a few minutes to read) but I think you can simplify a lot of these ideas into a root cause…a basic belief that drives how people are treated.

    So here’s the question:

    Do you believe your employees are collaborative partners who bring diversity, creativity and ideas well beyond what you bring…or do you believe that your employees cannot be trusted and must be tightly managed at all times if you’re going to get anything out of them?

    That single belief will dictate how you run your business and in today’s world, it will also dictate how successful you can be – assuming that success is driven by those employees.

    The concept of management (and how we traditionally treat employees) was originally developed over 100 years ago by a guy named Frederick Winslow Taylor way back in 1911 when he published The Principles of Scientific Management.  Taylor had a lot of good ideas and he certainly impacted productivity in factories…but a lot of his work was based around the assumptions that employees were lazy and…not very bright and therefore had to be managed tightly if you wanted to get them to actually do the work.

    In the sweat shops of 1911, there may have been a lot more credence to his theories then there are today. Most jobs in the US today require a level of creativity and non-linear thinking (most of the linear, simple jobs have been outsourced or automated). That means you need employees who can make decisions, deal with uncertainty, come up with new ideas and handle people. You’re not going to get much of that kind of help if you treat people like they are lazy and stupid.

    However…if you treat people like they’re your partners…and you have the right people…imagine what could be accomplished.

    It’s not just Touchy Feely Stuff…

    The Great Place to Work institute has been studying this idea for quite a while now and they’ve discovered there is a huge financial incentive to creating a workplace that employees want to be part of – check out their statistics that show Great Places to Work outperform the S&P 500 by about 2 to 1!

    Do you believe your employees are collaborators or that they must be tightly managed…almost like children?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – share them in the comments below.

    Shawn Kinkade  Kansas City Business Coach

    10 Mar
    photo by Elizabeth Albert via Flickr
    photo by Elizabeth Albert via Flickr

    It only takes a couple warm days to get a serious case of Spring fever and if you live in the Midwest you got a good taste of it over the last few days.   The birds are chirping, the air smells different, and even though old man winter probably isn’t completely gone, we know the seasons are changing.

    Spring cleaning is a ritual some people look forward to and some of us (ok…most of us) dread. But either way it is something that needs to be done or you will risk being featured on the next season of Hoarders!  When it comes to your business, this same idea of cleaning is important to keep your business moving forward and the most important ones don’t require a broom!

    Check out these 3 areas you should focus on for your business spring cleaning:


    You never get a second chance to make a first impression.   You have worked for that first meeting for months, the day is finally here….just how much time do you have?  1 minute? 30 seconds? 10 seconds?   Would you believe 1/10th of second?   Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov ran a series of experiments and found in just 1/10th of second a stranger forms an impression based on our facial expressions.  And, furthermore they found longer engagements don’t alter the opinion significantly?   Guess that confirms there is science behind “Love at First Sight”!  If you want a refresher course check out these 22 suggestions with photos.

    Negative Energy

    Get rid of it!  Do your employees, co-workers, customers, clients, and family pick up positive or negative energy from you?    If you asked your employees on a scale of 1 – 10 to anonymously grade you or their work environment with 1 being (-) and 10 (+) what number would they give?    Consider asking them.   Does your business spend more time talking about what is wrong vs. what is right?    If what is wrong is the constant focus, your audience hears “Problems-Problems-Problems”.  When you focus on what is right, your audience hears “Potential-Potential-Potential”.   Just reading the words creates a different emotion; there is a huge difference in the two.   This is not to suggest there isn’t accountability in your business, but the idea is without some positive reinforcement you’re not much fun to be around.  When you appreciate the good, the good appreciate.

    Sharp Tools

    No, not your mower blade, this doesn’t require wrenches.  Where in your business are you a little rusty?  Do you understand your numbers?  Is your sales team really at the top of their game?  When is the last time you checked out a program a little outside of your comfort zone that may give you a slight edge in your industry?   Do you commit to reading business books, but never find the time to read them? Would you like to learn the nuggets of great business books without having to read them?   Right now while this is fresh in your mind, take a few minutes and challenge yourself to commit to at least one thing this Spring to improve your Business Acumen.  Maybe it is a course at a community college?  The options are limitless, but it requires you to be brave enough to take action.  Write them down now, if you click off this post without acting, chances are you never will act on it.   So don’t delay.   Go do it!   We know you can!

    As always if you have any thoughts or suggestions we love to hear them.   Start Cleaning!

    Chris Steinlage Kansas City Business Coach

    17 Feb


    Have you ever had one of those afternoons where you have back to back meetings with a barely a minute to catch your breath in-between?

    Have you ever had a full day like that?

    How about a full week?

    In my experience most business owners are very familiar with over packed days – it might not always be formal meetings, but they are over scheduled and every free second is being used to put out fires or react to whatever might be going on. It’s exciting, it’s exhausting…it may even feel productive (it’s actually not) but it’s definitely the reality for an awful lot of business owners.

    The problem with all of that fire-fighting and reacting (beyond the obvious challenge of maintaining that kind of pace) is that there’s no white space…no room to breathe.  And without that room to breathe it’s impossible to open yourself up for higher levels of thinking. Actually that’s a literal sentence – studies of the brain show that as long as you’re stressed you will have difficulty accessing your frontal lobe which is where all of your big picture thinking occurs.

    As a leader, you can’t afford to be in reactive mode – it’s your primary job to be out in front and looking ahead. As the leader you need to be finding creative solutions to the real challenges facing your business…not just the symptoms.

    You need to be the creative leader – if you’re not doing that, who is?  (Besides your competition…).

    The good news is that it is possible to become more creative – it’s not always easy and some of these ideas may seem counter-intuitive when it comes to ‘work’ but here are 5 ideas that you should consider:

    1. Give yourself some white space

    Literally clear out your calendar and block out some time, ideally every week.  Maybe it’s every Tuesday afternoon from 3 to 5 that you leave open…or better yet, schedule as a meeting with yourself. Don’t use that time to catch up on email or make phone calls, use it to think about the big picture, where you’re going, what’s going with your business.  More time would be better – in an ideal world, you should probably have a day or two every week that’s freed up for big picture thinking.


    2. Start saying no

    As a business owner you’re wired to say yes to everything – it’s the nature of an entrepreneur to accept challenges. It’s a great trait, except when it’s used indiscriminately and you end up saying yes to things that strategically aren’t moving you forward. Look at your schedule for the last month or two. There are likely a handful of things that you’re spending time on that really aren’t helping you in the long run. It’s not easy to start saying no, but you will be amazed at how powerful it can be.  Challenge yourself to cut out at least 3 things that you previously were saying ‘yes’ to.


    3. Go offsite

    Often it can be really hard to free yourself up when you’re in your office. Familiar surroundings make it easier to fall into habits (checking email, chatting, etc.) and it’s likely that you have people around you in that setting who are used to interrupting you or engaging you as needed. Find a place that you can retreat to on a regular basis that will give you the peace and quiet you need to think. Could be your home office, a coffee shop, a park, the library, maybe even the gym or taking a walk…lots of options, just find something that works for you.


    4. Take a vacation

    Your initial thought is probably: “I don’t have time for a vacation…” but I would suggest that you don’t have the time NOT to take a vacation. Numerous studies (and personal experience) have shown that getting away, going somewhere for at least a few days can work wonders in terms of helping you get out of a stressful, reactive mode.  It’s a different kind of white space for your life and it will open you up for new ideas and give you some room to be inspired. When’s the last time you took a few days off and left town?  How about more than a week? Start planning something now.


    5. Get a sounding board

    At Aspire, one of the biggest benefits we hear from our clients is that we are a great sounding board for new ideas. Sometimes you’ve got the glimmer of an idea and you really need someone else to talk it over with to figure out what that idea really is and what it could be. Find someone who will ask you great questions, challenge you, come back with a smart variation that you wouldn’t have thought about – that’s what a great sounding board can do for you and you should be using one on a regular basis.

    Building a great business requires you to be a creative leader…and being a creative leader means you have to find the time and the space (white space) and the breathing room to let that happen. It won’t happen any other way.

    What are some other ways you could become a more creative leader? We’d love to hear your thoughts – share them in the comments below.

    Shawn Kinkade  Kansas City Business Coach

    Picture by Dawn Ellner via Flickr

    21 Oct
    Photo by *Sax via Flickr

    Photo by *Sax via Flickr

    We talk to business owners every day and one of the things we hear most often is that they have a “people problem” and it’s hurting their business…but there are always at least 2 sides to every story.  

    Although every business is unique, I would challenge that few business really have “people problems”, despite being one of the most overstated reasons for lack of performance in a business.  When we methodically peel back the onion far enough the root is usually connected to leadership and ultimately the top rung on the leadership ladder is the owner or ownership team.  That’s not to say that you don’t or can’t have the wrong people in the wrong seats, but those kinds of problems are usually a symptom of leadership challenges.

    Leadership is critical to business success and although it often feels intangible, it can be measured. Excluding uncontrollable events such as acts of nature or unforeseen economic turmoil the bottom line results of your business are the direct numerical indicator of your ability to lead.   When you lead effectively you set the stage for the rest of the business, your employees, and your customers. And when all of those things come together, because of your leadership, the numbers will reflect your success.

    The good news is being an effective leader of a company is not as hard as it is often made out to be.    That is not to say it is easy or happens without purposeful intention; but there a few simple steps you can take to help you get well on your way to raising your leadership bar.

    Without question, most of us have some leadership abilities.  If you are reading this and you own or manage a business it is safe to say you have already proven your ability to lead at some level. Great businesses and great business outcomes will come from strong leadership and the bottom line is that all of us can always get better.

    How do you know how well you’re doing (other than the results)? Try this short 3 question quiz as a quick test of your current leadership performance.

    #1:   3 for 3 – Same Page Test

    Ask your top 3 employees to list their top 3 priorities.  The owner(s) do the same.   If they all match, congratulations, you passed Test #1.    If they don’t your employees are telling you they don’t know what you are expecting them to do.   One of the biggest reasons employees pass off responsibility is they don’t understand what you really want them to do.  Get everyone on the same page.

    #2: Training the Trainers Test

    If something happened to any of your key employees is there someone besides yourself who could step in and seamlessly fill that role? If you have anyone who is irreplaceable (including yourself) you still have work to do.

    Depending on the size of your company having depth in different positions can be challenging, but the message is you must constantly be training.  Cross-training is invaluable when unplanned interruptions happen in business.  A simple way to start laying the ground work for this is to have each employee create a step-by-step manual defining what they do in their position.  It creates great opportunities for discussion to improve processes, create a scalable model for growth, and insulate your business from unexpected events or key employees leaving.

    #3: Authority and Empowerment Test

    After your next manager/staff meeting, where plans for the day, week, or project are discussed, start a timer and see how long your business can function without you having to provide additional input or make a decision.  The rule is you can’t initiate any communication.  If you can make it at least 24 hours, then you clearly have delegated some level of decision making duties to your employees/staff. The advanced version of this test is to be able to go a week or two without input and still have everything function smoothly.

    Depending on your business size this same process can be replicated with department managers and their employees.   This is a great exercise to help reevaluate spending limits for purchased items, authority to grant warranty or sales discounts, granting employee’s time off, and any number of questions routinely channeled through upper management for approval.  The inability to “let go” is one of the biggest obstacles that prevents a business from being able to grow.   You can’t do everything and you shouldn’t if you want to grow sustainably.

    So how did you perform?  Did you earn a passing grade?   As a business owner or manager your ability to lead ultimately determines the success of your business. And yes, leadership is more complicated than a 3 question test.   But hopefully this exposed a couple areas where there are opportunities to improve your business and improve your employee’s view of you as their leader which ultimately is what attracts the best employees to companies.  As always, please feel free to share your thought in the space below.

    Chris Steinlage Kansas City Business Coach