Raising the level of your leadership

The Southwire Company "Gets It"

Southwire12ForLifeHigh school students with good grades and good attendance need not apply for a job at Southwire’s Carrollton, GA, plant. Southwire is focused on helping those who are on the edge of dropping out and failing in life. They call it 12 for Life—finishing high school is the first step toward a better life.

From Forbes (August 18, The Dream Factory by Christopher Helman): “Since the launch of 12 for Life the district’s dropout rate has plunged from 35% to 22%. A total of 851 kids have graduated from the program…40% of whom have gone on to college.”

You can get the full story at http://goo.gl/xAp87p, but the short version is:

  • At-risk kids are given a job at the Southwire factory.
  • They work four-hour shifts.
  • They are paid $8/hour.
  • The school district provides the teachers.
  • If they miss classes, they are not allowed to work.

One of the keys to enduring greatness in any business is a purpose greater than profit. Southwire gets it. Now don’t be confused; they are a for-profit company with more than 7000 employees, 20 factories and $5B in sales. They manufacture wire, so they aren’t as glamorous as TOMS shoes and aren’t given shelf-space in Whole Foods. But along with profit, they are proactive in impacting their community for good (proactive meaning investing more than $3M to set up the 12 for Life program).

Southwire, founded in 1937, is owned by the Richards family of Carroll County, Georgia. What do you think they are most proud of? #1, we’ve made a lot of money; or #2, we’ve helped a lot of kids.

In your business and personal life, do you have a purpose greater than making money for yourself? If you don’t, follow Southwire’s example—get one!

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© Copyright 2014 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.

The $143 Billion Man

When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, he was worth 20% of all the cash and demand deposits in all the banks in the US—about 143 billion in today’s dollars (per Wikipedia.com). Today’s richest Americans must have trouble making ends meet when compared to Vanderbilt (Bill Gates is worth only $59B and Warren Buffet a paltry $44B per Forbes).

As documented by T. J. Stiles in The First Tycoon, Vanderbilt made his money in transportation: first steamboats, then railroads. He was successful because even as a teenager, “His life was regulated by self-imposed rules and with a fixedness of purpose as invariable as the sun in its circuit.” In other words, he had a high degree of self-discipline and a clear goal for his life.

One of his “self-imposed rules” was “to spend less every week than he earned.” It was a great rule in the 1800’s…the 1900’s…and still today. Dave Ramsey would have been very proud of him.

His “fixedness of purpose” was driven by a “…unending hunger for wealth….” He accomplished his goal and died as the richest man in the cemetery, sparking a court battle among his heirs over how to distribute the bounty.

Vanderbilt should have paid attention to an earlier richest man, Solomon, who experienced the same thing:

I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun,
for I must leave it to the man who will come after me.
And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?
Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored…This too is vanity.”
Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 NASB95

A thousand or so years after Solomon, Jesus said this about purpose fixed on riches:

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
Matthew 16:26 NASB95

All of us would do well to follow Vanderbilt’s example of living with self-discipline and a fixed purpose. But in your personal life and in your role as a leader, set your purpose on something greater than self. Do you really want to die believing, like Solomon, that “all is vanity”? I hope not. Whatever your age, whatever your status, it’s not too late to fix your purpose on something valuable and enduring—something worth really living for.

By the way, if you enjoy biographies, The First Tycoon is an interesting and worthwhile read.

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

© Copyright 2012 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Sandcastles And Jell-O

A trip to the beach last year included the obligatory task of making a sandcastle, except it wasn’t a sandcastle we built, it was…well…let your imagination run wild (but not too wild). Sandcastles aren’t a children’s activity anymore; the adults have taken over. There is even a U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition in San Diego with $21,000 of prize money. There are hundreds of competitions, usually fund raisers, in places without sand (Omaha) and places with lots of sand (Qatar). With so much at stake, a new occupation has washed up on the beach: Sandcastle Consultants. Whether it is a competition, fund raiser, or company picnic, people are willing to pay big bucks to get help building “world-class” sandcastles. It takes more than a blue plastic bucket and yellow shovel these days, you need a consultant.

Another childhood favorite, Jell-O, has also been taken over by adults. The Jell-O Mold Competition in Brooklyn, N.Y., featured gelatin sculptures like Jell-Obama, Jelly Fishin’ and Jelly Dogs (the grand prize winner, complete with bun, hotdog, mustard, relish and ketchup, all sculpted with Jell-O). Look it up on Google Images—you’ll be amazed. I couldn’t find any Jell-O consultants, but no doubt they are coming.

Sandcastles and Jell-O sculptures have a lot in common. They can’t withstand much stress. Even with the help of consultants, sandcastles are eroded slowly by small waves or wiped out by one big one. Put a little heat on gelatin and it falls apart and becomes unrecognizable.

One of a leader’s main jobs is to make sure his organization is built on something that won’t erode when the waves come, or fall apart when the heat is on. Organizations need a firm foundation, a clear purpose for existing:

“People get through tough times because they have a strong sense of…purpose.”
Kouzes & Posner in The Leadership Challenge

 “This is who we are; this is what we stand for; this is what we’re all about.”
Jim Collins in Built To Last
(Chapter 3 of Built To Last is a great read about organizations with enduring purpose.)

Purposes that won’t survive waves and heat are:

◊ Profit: a shallow, meaningless purpose; organizations that exist primarily to make money never make enough

◊ Power: look at the mess in Washington; it’s all about power

◊ Self: a leader who makes it all about self ends up lonely, depressed and bewildered

◊ Size: Texas is bigger than Tennessee, but Alaska is bigger than Texas; so what?

Without a clear understanding of who you are and why you are taking up space in the first place, even a consultant can’t save you when the waves are high and the temperature hot.

By the way, it’s not just your organization that needs a clear purpose, you do too.

© Copyright 2011 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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The Leader's Soul On Fire (#2)

In his now classic book, Good To Great, Jim Collins identifies what he calls “Level 5” leaders as having the “personal humility” and “fierce resolve” needed to transform their companies from good to great. “Fierce resolve” is another way of describing “passion.” Passion is essential if you want people to follow you on a difficult journey of change. [Read last week’s post: The Leader’s Soul On Fire (#1).]

So when a leader has passion that will attract followers, what does it look like?

First, followers will see passion for the mission—the purpose—of the organization. I’m not talking about passion for profit or for being the biggest. Passion for the mission endures through the ups and downs of the economy. Purpose is more important than profit or the Sunday headcount.

“We try never to forget that medicine is for people. It is not for profits. The profits follow….”
George W. Merck (from The Leadership Moment by Michael Useem)

Do you have passion for the mission of your organization? Or are you just trying to make a buck?

Second, as a leader you must have passion for change. Kouzes & Posner in The Leadership Challenge emphasize that “…the work of leaders is change.So, if nothing is changing, you aren’t leading. If you by nature don’t like change, you can’t lead because leading is all about change. You can supervise; you can manage; you can contribute; but you can’t lead.

Third, a leader must have passion for people. You don’t lead machines; you don’t lead software; you don’t lead buildings; you lead people. Leading is always about people. I have a friend who once said to me, ”I would love my job if it weren’t for people.” My response was, “You need to get a different job.” (By the way, passion for people doesn’t mean that you are a soft leader who shies away from difficult people problems.) If you don’t really care much about the people you are trying to lead, they’ll know and will only follow you kicking and screaming.

A fourth passion leaders must have is passion for personal excellence. No organization ever rises above the level of its leadership. The leader is the lid—always! So if you want an excellent organization, you have to be an excellent leader. Whatever level you lead at now, you can raise it, and you need to.

Finally, for faith-based leaders, you must have a passion for honoring God in your work whether in business or ministry.

“And whatever you do…in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus….”
Colossians 3:17 (NIV)

Wouldn’t “do it all” include your job?

Are you trying to lead but it seems like a never-ending trek up a steep hill? Ask yourself if you really have passion for leading. Do you have fire in your soul for the mission? For change? For people? For personal excellence? For honoring God? If not, get out your match and light the fire of leadership passion in your soul. Do it today!

[In The Leader’s Soul On Fire (#3), I will discuss faux passions—passions that really aren’t.]

TOMS Shoes

I ordered my first pair of TOMS Shoes today. I don’t really need another pair of shoes, but….

Though TOMS Shoes is a business, its underlying purpose is not to sell shoes, but to give away shoes. TOMS Shoes wants to make profit and they do make profit, but that is not what gives meaning and direction to their business. In fact, their Number One strategic goal is to give away shoes to children in need—One for One (one pair given for every one pair sold). Through April 2010 they have given away more 600,000 pairs. WOW!

Blake Mycoskie (the founder of TOMS) must have read chapter 3 of Built To Last at some point which says that a visionary company has a “…sense of purpose beyond just making money….”

This is a great example of the importance of Purpose in any organization. Purpose comes before anything—before vision, before strategy, before goal setting, before profit—especially before profit. In great and enduring businesses, profit is a “by-product,” not the main product. Jim Collins states it this way in Built To Last: “Profitability is a necessary condition for existence and a means to more important ends, but it is not the end in itself….”

Not just businesses, but churches can also lose sight of Purpose. It is easy for churches to become all about the pastor, or the denomination, or prominence, or facilities, or being the biggest. None of these purposes will sustain greatness.

If your organization is floundering, it may be because you and your team do not have clarity about why the organization even exists. This would be a great time to stop and re-evaluate everything, starting with “Why are we here in the first place?”

Purpose is the foundation upon which everything is built.
Does your organization have a firm foundation?

(Check out TOMS Shoes at www.TOMS.com)

"All In?"

I walked about four miles yesterday morning.

It was about 30 degrees. There were some light snow flurries and a brisk breeze. It was cold—but not too cold for a fast one hour walk. I had on gloves, my ears were covered, and my feet were covered with warm socks and shoes. Plus, I knew a hot cup of coffee and a fire awaited my return.

But I wasn’t “all in”—because if it had been a little colder, or sleeting instead of snowing, and if the wind had been roaring instead of just “breezing,” I would have stayed in the house. There is a limit to what I’ll endure to get a little exercise.

On the night of December 25, 1776, George Washington’s army of 2500 men was “all in.” On a bitter cold night, drenched by sleet and freezing rain, facing a howling relentless north wind, they trudged for nine miles on ankle-deep muddy roads in an desperate attempt to surprise the Hessians (Germans working for the British) in Trenton, Delaware, to gain their first victory in a revolution that was about to collapse. Their clothes were worn and threadbare and many were barefoot. Conditions were so severe that although only two were killed in the battle, several hundred died in the days thereafter due to the exposure and frostbite they suffered that night.

Why were these men willing to sacrifice and suffer so much? My gosh! They had no shoes and their feet were frozen, yet they kept going! They were hungry, sick, discouraged and alone (two other commanders and their troops were “no shows” that night). But these 2500 men were “all in”—their password for the night was “victory or death.” And whichever they faced, they were ready.

From a leadership perspective, there are three lessons from that night:

  • Clear purpose: they had a purpose—a cause—they were willing to die for—their freedom.
  • Compelling vision: they could see what it would mean to be “America” instead of the “colonies.”
  • Great leadership: Washington was the “first to lead and the last to withdraw” (quote from To Try Men’s Souls by Gingrich and Forstchen).

Questions for you:

  • Is there any purpose or vision for which you are “all in”? If not, find one!
  • Are your followers “all in”? If not, what are you going to do differently in leading them?

[By the way, they surprised the Hessians, gained their first victory, and saved the revolution. Get the whole story in To Try Men’s Souls.]

  • On Leading Well…

    "The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present."

    Kouzes & Posner


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