Raising the level of your leadership

Are You Feeding The Hippos?

Ernesto Sirolli—dubbed The Entrepreneurship Coach by strategy+business—tells this story about one of his early failures:

[We] decided to teach Zambians how to grow food in the beautiful fertile valley where they had always lived as pastoralists, shepherding animals but planting nothing. The team imported seeds from Italy—tomatoes and zucchini—but the locals didn’t seem interested. The team tried to pay them money, but there was little in the valley available to buy. Finally, the NGO started importing whiskey and beer in order to coax the men into the fields. “We kept thinking, what is wrong with these people?”

It soon became apparent. The tomatoes appeared on the vines, huge bursting fruits that put the most bountiful Italian crops to shame. The team members were joyful, but the next morning they awoke to find every single one of the plants gone. Hippos had swarmed up from the river and begun gorging. The Italians ran to tell the Zambians what had happened. “Of course,” said the people. “That’s why we don’t plant in the valley.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” asked the Italians.

“Because you never asked,” came the response.1

I have made the same mistake many times. One of my notable failures was when I decided I could run a shipyard without knowing anything about building ships. FAIL.

The primary advice Sirolli gives business leaders is “Shut up and listen.”

That reminds me of one of my favorite, but too often ignored proverbs: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent….” (Proverbs 17:28 NIV)

Effective communication has a pattern:
Listen first;
Then ask questions;
Talk little.

I need to learn to take my own advice.

Dick, repeat after me:
Listen first;
Then ask questions;
Talk little.

Dick, repeat after me:
Listen first;
Then ask….

Dick, repeat after me:

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

1 strategy+business, The Entrepreneurship Coach by Sally Helgesen, 1 August 2014

The Big Reveal Was A Big Flop

If anyone understands how to do a Big Reveal, it’s Apple. Steve Jobs started it and current CEO Tim Cook has kept it going. I’m not sure who is involved in planning the Apple rollouts, but they know what they are doing. Each one creates a lot of advance anticipation; most don’t disappoint.

Big Reveals have not always been so successful. Before the days of brand experts, event professionals, and everything-sends-a-message consultants, rollouts were planned by a secretary in the marketing department, or the CEO’s golf buddy. That is what Ford must have done when they rolled out the Edsel in August 1957.

After months of buildup and anticipation, Ford invited 250 auto industry reporters (and their wives) to the Edsel Big Reveal in Detroit. So what happened?

  • The guests were put up in the Sheraton Cadillac Yes, really, a hotel named for their competitor.
  • The star model in a fashion show for the wives turned out to be a female impersonator. Now that may not be too shocking today, but in 1957….
  • The dance band at the big evening gala, a Glenn Miller look-alike band, had GM in large bold letters on the music stands. Yes, really, GM. Can you imagine Apple having an event with the Samsung logo prominently on display?

Now I am not saying that the Edsel was a failure because of these faux pas, but the reporters and wives must have been laughing all the way home. If Facebook and Twitter had existed then, the whole nation would have been laughing by midnight. (Okay, you can stop laughing now.)

What is the leadership lesson in this? The everything-sends-a-message principle is correct. Details matter and it is easy. It is true that the difference between good and great is attention to details. Get help and have more than one set of eyes looking at every detail. Make sure that one of the “one set of eyes” is someone who was not involved in the planning and has a critical eye—someone who loves to point out goof-ups.

If the best hotel in town was the Cadillac, what was the message?

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Dear Aaron…

You are starting your first job this week—bagging groceries at your Kroger. That is how I got started 60 years ago—bagging groceries at the Big Apple in Rome, Georgia.

Here is “some stuff you need to know”:

  • This is a lot more than just your first job; it is the beginning of a life-long journey of contributing to society (now) and providing for your family (someday). Start your journey well!
  • Be on time—every time! (On time means 5 minutes early.)
  • Arrive ready to WORK. You are not there to take up space or look good or talk about football.
  • Become the best grocery bagger in the store. The path to a better job is being the best in the job you have.
  • Volunteer to do the jobs no one else wants to do. Your manager will notice and appreciate.
  • Don’t join the complainer clique—avoid them or ignore them. Complaining becomes a habit; there a lot of good habits—develop them.
  • Especially don’t complain about pay. You have agreed to work for a certain amount—fulfill your obligation.
  • NEVER complain or say anything negative about your store/job/managers to customers.
  • You will be working for people. That means they won’t be perfect. You will NEVER work for a perfect manager/leader, so get used to it.
  • Take pride in your store. As you walk around, pick up trash on the floor, put away buggies—whatever helps create a great experience for customers.
  • As far as the customers are concerned, your job is the MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE STORE. The last experience customers have is with the grocery bagger. Send them out the door with a smile on their face. Smile, say “hello” and “thanks for shopping here.”
  • Be grateful you have a job.

Aaron, just be at Kroger who you are at home, school, and church—kind, responsible, a volunteer, and team player—and you’ll do great. Who knows; you may be the CEO of Kroger someday. I love you and am proud of you!


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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Take It On Early—Before It Escalates

Google “conflict resolution” and more than 50,000,000 possibilities come up. There are mountains of books, blogs, seminars, and so on, about sources of conflict and how to resolve them. The thinking is that every leader needs a level of competency in conflict resolution because if more than one person is involved—conflict is inevitable. True? The answer is “yes, but….”

“Yes” is true when the conflict arises because of personalities, competition, or values. Leaders have to step in early and sometimes hard to resolve conflict before it escalates and causes damage to the organization.

The “but….” is true when conflict arises because of a disagreement about facts, perceptions, solutions, and so on. The leader’s job at that point is to resolve disagreement before it escalates to discord, which can lead to division, which can result in damage to the organization.

It is a lot easier to do disagreement control than damage control.

Here are a few questions that will help:

  • What are we actually disagreeing about?
  • What is the actual problem?
  • What are the true facts about the problem?
  • What are our different perceptions about the facts?
  • What do we need to do to come to agreement about the facts?
  • What are some solution options based on agreement about the facts?
  • What is the best solution?
  • What communication would have helped to resolve/prevent this?

Understanding the “what and why” of a disagreement will often keep it from escalating to discord in which careless, personal words often make resolution much harder.

I’m no Albert Einstein, but he once put it this way:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I knew the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Disagreement is easier to resolve then discord.

Discord is easier to resolve than division.

Division is easier to resolve than damage.

Okay leader, the sooner you take it on, the easier it will be!

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Gibbs Isn’t Real

Most of us don’t get Leroy Jethro Gibbs as our leader—we get a mortal. In a recent episode of NCIS, Gibbs added the role of Horse Whisperer to his resume. (The horse had lost its will to live when its mounted-police rider was gunned down. Yes, Gibbs saved the horse.) Not only is he a Horse Whisperer, he was Marine sniper (like Chuck Norris, he can kill two stones with one bird), builds boats by hand without power tools, knows sign language and Russian, and drinks strong-strong-strong coffee and bourbon out of a mason jar (which may or may not be clean). Maybe that is why he never gets sick.

However, His greatest skill is knowing how to lead a diverse team of people to “get stuff done”—hard stuff like saving the world:

  • He is decisive
  • Always there when you need him
  • Leads from the front when it’s dangerous
  • Is charismatic without being narcissistic
  • Doesn’t play office politics
  • Is both intuitive and factual
  • Extends and expects loyalty
  • Is intelligent without being condescending
  • Works harder than anyone on the team
  • Never throws his team under the bus
  • Gives care and comfort by presence, not words
  • Expects his team to “do your job” and won’t do it for you
  • Leads people as both team members—and as individuals—because they are both

Of course, he has a few faults (as do we all), but somehow they get lost in the list above. If you want to be coddled and crowed over, Gibbs is not for you. But if you want to be part of a high performance team, Gibbs would be a good choice for leader.

And, if you want to be a high performance leader, take a look at the list. Maybe there is something there for you to work on. You’ll probably—like me—still be a mortal leader, but don’t despair, remember, Gibbs isn’t real.

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.


My baseball/fast-pitch softball career was slow developing. The Peter, Paul and Mary song describes my early years perfectly:

Saturday summers, when I was a kid
We’d run to the schoolyard and here’s what we did
We’d pick out the captains and we’d choose up the teams
It was always a measure of my self esteem
Cuz the fastest, the strongest, played shortstop and first
The last ones they picked were the worst
I never needed to ask, it was sealed,
I just took up my place in right field.

Right field, it’s easy, you know.
You can be awkward and you can be slow
That’s why I’m here in right field
Just watching the dandelions grow

Off in the distance, the game’s dragging on,
There’s strikes on the batter, some runners are on.
I don’t know the inning, I’ve forgotten the score.
The whole team is yelling and I don’t know what for.
Then suddenly everyone’s looking at me
My mind has been wandering; what could it be?
They point at the sky and I look up above
And a baseball falls into my glove!

Here in right field, it’s important you know.
You gotta know how to catch, you gotta know how to throw,
That’s why I’m here in right field,  just watching the dandelions grow!

Baseball is a nine-position game and right field is one of those positions. No team would ever play a game with eight players, leaving right field empty.

Your organization has right fielders and their job is a lot more important than “just watching the dandelions grow.” The right fielder sweeps the floors at night, stocks the shelves, delivers the mail, changes the diapers (church nursery), mows the grass, brings in the buggies from the parking lot, etc., etc., etc. Try to operate without them and the dandelions will take over.

If you are the leader, LOVE YOUR RIGHT FIELDERS—you need them—their work is honorable and important. If you thank them, encourage them, and develop them, they’ll keep the weeds from taking over and may—like me—eventually move to center field and hit in the #3 position.

Another reason to love your right fielders? They are in good company out there. That’s where Michael Jordan played during his baseball adventure.

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company


I remember when I thought 73 was really old. Now that I’m there—as of last week—it’s just old.

At 23: I was starting my career as an engineer and getting married to my first and still-wife, Dottie.

At 33: I was building a career in marketing (I wasn’t that good of an engineer) and parenting two young daughters.

At 43: I had transitioned to finance and my daughters were teenagers.

At 53: I was serving as the president/CEO of our company, was overcommitted, and came home to an “our life is berserk” comment from Dottie. I had to learn how to say “no.”

At 63: I was serving my church fulltime and was now the “Papa” of three grandsons.

At 73: I am a “semi-retired” speaker, author, and coach, and getting ready to gratefully celebrate 50 years with Dottie.

There are a lot of gaps in the above summary—mostly a lot of HARD LESSONS. I have learned that:

  • Everything to the left of the “and” is not as important as the things to the right.
  • God’s favor is more important than experience, education, effort, etc. I have lived and worked with it and without it. “With it” is much easier.
  • My family—loving them and making them feel loved—is more important than any position, title, or honor that the world offers.
  • Relationships—not accomplishments—are what really matter.
  • Receiving and extending forgiveness—to/from others and self—is the only way to be relationally, spiritually, and emotionally healthy,
  • My biggest lesson: The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps. (Proverbs 16:9) There isn’t much about my life that is a result of great planning on my part.

I realize now that what I leave is more important than what I have. I am not talking about a legacy of accomplishments, but a life of purpose. So however much longer God gives me, it is “well done” from Him and my family that is of utmost importance to me:

I have as my ambition…to be pleasing to Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:9

(I’ll get back to leadership in my next post.)

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

The Dreaded Performance Review


“Are you dreading your review?”

“Yes. At my old company all I ever heard was: “You are a 3 on a 5 point scale; you are meeting expectations and will get a 1.5% raise. I walked out not knowing why I was a 3, nor what I could do to get a higher score. Very frustrating.”

“Well…you may get a pleasant surprise today.”

“I hope so.”


“How did it go?”

“It was great. I wasn’t rated—I was reviewed, mostly by asking me questions. In effect, I reviewed myself by answering the questions. And it was easy because we talk about performance all the time. There were no surprises and no “gotcha’s” and I know what is expected of me in the future.”

“What about your raise?”

“He said that raises will be decided after everyone is reviewed and will be based on contribution to success, not on some scale decided by a consultant.”

Employees hate to be rated, but they don’t mind being evaluated as long as truth about performance—not satisfying a predetermined scale—is the intent.

Two keys to successful reviews:
#1 Review performance all year long; there should be no surprises.
#2 Review by asking questions that prompt the employee to evaluate their own performance.

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Vision Is The Easy Part

Every Good Idea 2In 16 Stones, I concluded a review of the 1960’s moon-landing program with the following statement: “It wasn’t a Saturn rocket that launched Apollo 11, it was a vision.” President John Kennedy had cast the vision for “landing a man on the moon” on May 25, 1961. It was fulfilled eight years and fifty-six days later (July 20, 1969) when the Apollo 11 Lunar Module landed on the moon, announced by Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic statement, “The Eagle has landed.” Though President Kennedy deserves immense credit for casting the vision, the real story is what happened during the eight years and fifty-six days.

The cost of Neil Armstrong’s “…one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.” was $24B and three lives—the entire crew of Apollo 1 was killed in a cabin fire during a 1967 pre-launch test. More than 400,000 people from 20,000 companies and universities were involved in the project. There were thousands of tests, changes and retests in the systems and flight vehicles. There were the six Mercury and twelve Gemini/Titan launches, plus six unmanned Apollo launches and four manned non-lunar Apollo launches, all before Apollo 11. It is truly said that every good idea is a lot of hard work for someone.

There are a lot more visions unfulfilled than fulfilled. Why? Poor execution. In their best selling 2002 book, Execution, Larry Bossidy & Ram Charan made it painfully clear:

“…unless you translate big thoughts into concrete steps for action, they’re pointless.”

They go on to say:

“Many people regard execution as detail work that’s beneath the dignity of a…leader.
That’s wrong. To the contrary, it’s the leader’s most important job.”

The leader’s most important job? Yes, and Warren Bennis agrees:

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

I love these quotes because as a non-visionary, I admit I’m more than a bit biased toward action. Without action, the “next big thing” soon becomes the “last abandoned thing.” So don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because you may be great at casting vision, you are a great leader. Great leaders may or may not be good at casting vision. However, they will always be great at getting things done. Leaders are remembered for great accomplishment, not great dreams.

If your organization is floundering and you’ve cast vision until your vocal cords are worn out, it’s time to for you to focus on execution—“…the leader’s most important job.”

By the way, Execution should be on your required reading list if you are leader, think you are a leader, or want to be a leader.

If this post was interesting and useful to you, please forward it to a friend. Thanks.

[You can order 16 Stones at hard-lessons.com.]

© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Wind In Your Sails

SeaHawkThe 1940 film, The Sea Hawk, starred Errol Flynn as an English pirate (Capt. Thorpe—the good guy) who was a “thorn in the side” (understatement) of the we’ll-conquer-the-world Spanish (the bad guys).

Early in the movie, a calm, no-wind day has a Spanish galleon laboring slowly along using captured English sailors pulling at the oars. Capt. Thorpe arrives with his ship the Sea Hawk, but miraculously, the Sea Hawk has wind. He could steer, maneuver, attack, and come-along-side while the Spanish ship is helpless with no wind. By the way, his cannoneers were deadly accurate; the Spanish cannoneers couldn’t hit the broad side of a ship. Guess who won the encounter?

Does it feel like your organization is laboring at the oars instead of sailing in the wind? You can catch the wind if you…
• Have a captain who knows how to navigate the ship. That’s you if you are the leader.
• Have great “first mate.” As organizations grow, the leader needs help.
• Have a well maintained, sea worthy vessel. Your products, vision, strategy, etc., all need to fit the sea state you are sailing in (stormy or calm).
• Have a well-trained, motivated crew who know their stuff and are ready to engage the challenge.
• Have a clear and compelling purpose (save England and the queen, and free the slaves) that inspires everyone.
• Have a bias for action (play offense).
• Have courage and perseverance; don’t run or waiver at the first sign of trouble.

You can learn a lot about life and leadership by watching 1940 movies including how to lead with the wind in your sails. (By the way, guess who got the beautiful girl: Capt. Thorpe or the Spanish captain?)

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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