Brandt On Leadership -- Thinking Inside The Box

May 18, 2006
A word of advice for those who would give it: Don't.

I was tired. I was bored. And, ok, yeah, I was a little down after a series of lousy sales calls that left me feeling like one of the sad sacks in "Glengarry Glen Ross." ("We're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired.")

It was then, I confess, that I did it: I opened a business magazine for inspiration. I should have known better, but there it was, an article titled "Lessons from Entrepreneurs."

Well, I said to myself, after the day I've just had, I could certainly use a lesson or two.

Here's what I learned (I am not making these up):

You must have a dream. Dreaming is the beginning: It turns out, incredibly enough, that to be successful, you have to start with a good idea. And here all these years I had been using bad ideas. Amazing! Apparently, if everyone in our firm were to just hold hands and sing Kumbaya and really, really, really believe in the power of our dreams, all of our problems -- sales, logistics, service -- would evaporate like so much mist. I was so astounded by this insight -- who knew business was so easy? -- that I rushed to tell my CFO about this new concept. Her response was not as accepting as mine: "Dreams are s--," she said. "Cash flow is everything."

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See Brandt On Leadership: John Brandt's new blog about bad bosses, fictional employees, corporate misbehavior and the importance of never being 5 minutes late to work when you can get away with an entire hour.

Work with people who have the same vision. And grow with them: Discouraged but not defeated, I kept on reading and found -- Eureka! -- that hiring people whom I liked and trusted would not only create a great workplace, but great results, too. Criminy! And to think I wasted all those years searching high and low for shiftless, sneaky, back-stabbing employees and business partners. Even worse, the article told me that if I wanted to succeed in the long run, I might have to change myself-including being open to new things, like technology or management innovations. This fits with other business advice I've read that says I'll have to think outside of a box and leave my comfort zone, whatever that is. (Note: We have lots of boxes here, and I rarely get into any of them to think. But I do believe that if I had a comfort zone -- which I don't -- I'd be reluctant to give it up, precisely because it was comfortable).

Frankly, it all seems like a lot of hard work to me. And does this mean I'll have to give up the sideburns and white belt, too?

Do your best at what you do best: It was here that I realized that this truly was ground-breaking stuff. If only I had known! If I just try my hardest... at things I'm really good at... then I'll succeed! It was then that a terrifying thought occurred to me: What if there isn't anything that I do best, or at least better, than anyone else? Does doing my best at something I'm really not very good at lead to success?

Or will I just end up giving out business advice?

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Also see Brandt On Leadership: John R. Brandt's new blog about bad bosses, fictional employees, corporate misbehavior and the importance of never being 5 minutes late to work when you can get away with an entire hour.

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