Since I was a kid, I always loved building things. From cutting wood projects on my jigsaw as a young child, to programming an Apple II as a 12-year-old, I loved the process of bringing ideas to life. I clearly remember taking a career-guidance test in high school. Not surprisingly, my interest in science and building things pointed me towards a career in engineering. I grew even more excited when I saw that engineers had some of the highest starting salaries out of college. Perfect, do what I love and make good money!
The sobering news later in the report was that, while engineers had a great starting salary, after 20 years in the career, there was very little growth in compensation. Who had some of the highest salaries in the report? The oft-maligned “executives.” Great, all I needed to do was figure out how to be an engineer and an executive.
So began my journey to better understand and learn about leadership. Throughout my college studies, I would read every book I could find on leadership. Whether it was biographies of great leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, or stories about successful businesses, I devoured these books with increasing passion.
This was before the dawn of smart phones and PDAs. It was the era of the ring-bound Franklin planners. After reading each book, I would write down a couple of key learnings in my planner. I wish it was a straight path of learning and later development as a leader. The reality was that, while it formed a strong foundation, it took the hard lessons of failures and mistakes as a leader to crystallize my thinking on leadership. A lot of my initial ideas turned out to be wrong. Many great leaders I had as mentors influenced my thinking more than any book.
Then, several years ago, I found my old Franklin planner in storage and all of its scribbled notes on leadership. In the later years of my career leading operations, and more recently helping founders, I have spent a lot of time doing training on leadership. While there has been a dramatic expansion of instruction on entrepreneurship at universities, too many founders still fumble their way through leading teams. So, from my dusty old notes, many years of mistakes, and observation of great leaders, I have assembled an ever-incomplete list of some of my key takeaways.
Here they are. Great leaders:
1. Live and bleed the mission
2. “Force amplify” their teams through clarity of thought and communication
3. Are brutally honest with themselves, their business and their team
4. Are biased toward action and results
5. Fly high and dive deep
6. Lead from the front and back
7. Have the courage to do the right thing
8. Challenge themselves and others with high standards
9. Are intensely curious and humble — always learning
10. Are dealers in hope
These core leadership traits work best when practiced together. And yes, many of them may seem obvious. But some have subtleties in execution and deserve more explanation. Over a series of posts in the months ahead, I hope to do just that — starting with those where I see the biggest holes today.
Challenge yourself and others with high standards
This one seems obvious. Almost every book on leadership and company mission statement includes this core idea. “We hire average employees” is said by no one. It is easy to say, “I have high standards.” Yet doing it right can be very hard, while at the same time, incredibly powerful. It is easy to be a jerk and push people and teams to arbitrary levels of performance. Great leaders know how to use this as a tool to drive breakthroughs.
Back before the solar boom — and subsequent bust — I joined a startup focused on delivering the world’s highest efficiency solar cells. The chairman of the company was T.J. Rodgers. He was hardcore: Years earlier, he was on the cover of Forbes as the “Toughest Boss in America.”
I was excited to join the first operational review with him just after starting at the company. The engineering team presented the performance of the most recent cells coming off the initial production line. For context, conventional solar cells at the time achieved about 16 percent efficiency. These cells were averaging about 18 percent. Two points might not sound like a lot, but it was a breakthrough for the industry.
Customers were dying to get their hands on these cells. The sales team was primed and wanted to start selling. We had the best production-scale cell on the market. We would be fools to not start selling, right?
T.J. turned to me, the new guy who was responsible for manufacturing. T.J. directed, “Greg, I want you to go to the cell tester and watch every cell that comes off the line. If the tester reads anything below 20 percent efficiency, I want you to take a f$#!$ hammer and crush the cell.” I nervously laughed, thinking that he was joking. Who would crush the best solar cells on the planet?
His red face made it clear he was not joking and punctuated it with, “If any cells leave your factory below 20 percent, you’re fired.” Message received.
This obviously seems to fly in the face of the conventional valley wisdom to just ship an MVP and fix it down the road. Yet, T.J. understood very clearly that efficiency was our single most important value proposition. He also knew that if we accepted this level of performance and scaled production, it would be far harder down the road to keep improving. By forcing us to crush the cells, he created a very powerful internal crisis. The engineering team had no choice but to figure out how to get the last two points of efficiency.
And he was right. Shortly thereafter, we had a breakthrough and found a path to produce cells with an efficiency over 20 percent!
This targeted forcing of a higher standard on a key lever ultimately saved the company. As we scaled over the years and solar prices started to drop rapidly from competition, this improved level of performance turned out to be the thing that allowed us to compete and win. If we were stuck back at 18 percent, the company would have died.
Poor leaders pontificate about having high standards. Great leaders use it as a tool to drive breakthroughs. They understand the key value drivers for their business and use it to deliver breakthrough performance.
Next month, I’ll talk about two other challenges that new leaders face: getting stuck operating at the wrong altitude, and feeling like they must always lead from the front. Both show a lack of nimbleness that creates operational blind spots for leaders that could, ultimately, sabotage their business.
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