I have worked with many senior executives over the years. As they’ve shared with me their goals, hopes, and frustrations, I’ve also heard them comment that they wished their teams had more of a “business” perspective. What do these leaders want employees to know about running a business? Below I share a few themes I’ve heard, and then offer some suggestions for navigating your career based on these themes. Please note that while my comments are primarily coming from the perspective of for-profit businesses, I think they largely apply to non-profit organizations as well.
1. It’s all about the numbers. As much as we talk about corporate social responsibility and other factors that drive a business, it pretty much boils down to the financial numbers. Being able to have enough cash to make a payroll, pay creditors, or invest in new opportunities is critical. Clear business measures and the use and analysis of data are important. The language of business is money, and it can be measured many ways: revenues, profits, productivity, quality, waste, inefficiencies, time to market for new products, etc.
Career Suggestions: Learn what drives your company’s “bottom line”. Be inquisitive; learn how to read profit & loss statements and annual reports. Learn what is going on in your industry. Figure out how to measure your own productivity or results in terms of numbers. Continually ask yourself if there is a better way to do your job, and what value your job adds. Make sure your personal value to the business is increasing faster than your costs.
2. Yes, the people matter too. The numbers don’t happen by themselves—it takes talented people to run the business and deliver the business products and services. I had the opportunity to attend a speech recently by the CEO of one of the largest real estate companies in the world, and he made an excellent point: In business, we’re not “family” but we are a “team”. There is a clear distinction. Families will often tolerate a family member who is not pulling his/her weight. However, teams don’t have to (and shouldn’t) put up with an ineffective team member. High performing team members should be recognized, rewarded and constantly re-recruited to the team. Poorly performing team members should be helped where possible or allowed to flourish elsewhere.
Career Suggestions: As a team member you have to be sure you’re contributing your full share. You should be rewarded for your contribution (not always in $), but don’t expect to be tolerated for long if you’re not performing. Dig in to the hard work; be willing to tackle tough assignments. Be the type of contributor you’d love to work with. Don’t complain about someone else getting more recognition than you. Build your track record. If you’re not being recognized (however you define that), then at least you’ve built a great resume for doing something else.
3. Tough decisions are necessary. A business cannot be all things to all people. Not every decision made by the organization’s leadership will feel good to you personally. Mergers, acquisitions, outsourcing, downsizing (or “rightsizing” if you prefer), relocations and other changes will happen and may affect you, regardless of your performance. The business has to be continually evaluated holistically, and tradeoffs will be required.
Career Suggestions: Keep your internal and external networks alive and active—sometimes you can find out before decisions are formally announced on how they may affect you. Seek visibility in your work (make sure people know who you are), and try to ensure that you have expertise in and are working on things that matter most to the business.
4. Every business decision involves some element of risk. All the analysis in the world is great and important, but in the end someone still has to make the decision to hire this person or that one, develop this product or that one, enter this market or that one, or pursue this strategy or that one. Senior executives are paid to make (and accept responsibility for) these decisions. Not every decision will work out as planned. You have to have the confidence that the whole farm is not being bet on a single decision. Some of the risks taken may affect you personally and could actually open up new doors.
Career Suggestions: Individual tolerance for risk varies. Some people love taking risks and others are more risk adverse. Ask yourself – what level of risk can you tolerate? Do you see your business taking pertinent risks? Are some jobs in the organization more risky than others? What is the potential pay-off for your career of taking a risky assignment? What is the pay-off for not taking a risky assignment? Spend some time answering these questions and look for opportunities that fit with your answers.
5. Business leaders often have to act more confident than they may actually feel. This sounds scary, but let’s be honest that a big part of leadership is exhibiting confidence in setting a direction and convincing investors, employees, and customers that you know what you’re doing even if you have internal doubts. Being a chief executive or senior VP (or whatever the title) can be a very lonely place. There is a huge weight of responsibility that comes with running a business and employees (and their loved ones) depend on your knowledge, foresight, leadership and decisions for their livelihoods.
Career Suggestions: Learn how to increase your confidence and your ability to project it. Doing lots of homework—data collection, analysis, weighing of options and risks, listening to others’ sound advice, leveraging one’s past experience and seeking feedback on how you come across to others (including non-verbally) can build your confidence and image. At the same time, watch out for overconfidence or arrogance.
6. Customer loyalty doesn’t just happen. I know this sounds a bit cliché. But, customers cannot be taken for granted. Loyalty has to be earned day in and day out and can be negatively (or positively) affected in a heartbeat. Look at what’s happening at General Motors. The recalls just keep coming. While there are many causes and the roots of the problems are complex, what will be the end result? My guess is that customer confidence and loyalty will be shredded for years to come.
Career Suggestions: Consider the following questions: What is the “line of sight” between your work and the end customer? Why do your customers choose your product or service over someone else’s? What are the threats to the customer base? Do you know what your company is doing to compete effectively not only for today but for the future? How can you develop stronger customer insights and relationships?
The more you learn to think and act like a senior business leader, the greater the chances are that you will be seen as a highly valued contributor and have doors open to many career options—maybe even running your own business.