Leadership – Leading is Learning

Better Business Series 2.   Leadership – Leading is Learning

by: Todd Mitchem

Leadership:  It’s a word we throw around a great deal in any business environment.  But exactly what is quality leadership and how can you be a better leader for your business?  In this Better Business series, I am working to help you, the entrepreneur and small business leader, work toward building the best brand, company, strategy and team possible so you will ultimately achieve success.  The linchpin in the success of your business will always be your leadership quality and that of your fellow leaders.  When the company begins to evolve and grow, the leadership skills that got you to a certain point will not be adequate to take you to new heights.  You and your fellow leaders will need to evolve by discovering new skills, hiring a coach or hiring a company to come in and teach you what you don’t know.  What I have discovered after years of working with large companies and working to build start-up brands is that, regardless of the size of the company, leadership skill is an ongoing process of attainment.

Background – Mentorship matters

Before I go too far into this lesson let me be clear I was not born a leader, I was taught.  My talent for motivating people was there, but I needed an intense study, almost a mentoring type of study, to become the leader I am today.  This took years of challenge and struggle, but ultimately I honed my skills. 

There are two powerful forces in my leadership development that I still call on when faced with a challenge.  First is my father.  Doug Mitchem, when he ran a multi-state division of American Water Works Company, was widely recognized as one of the company’s most valuable leaders.  Starting out as a “meter reader” at a young age, and eventually working his way through a 38-year career to become a coveted “Senior Leader” was a journey to be certain.  He taught me many aspects of leadership, including how to inspire employees and how to be bold in your positions. There is not a day that goes by where I am not leveraging these lessons.  His often conservative nature also taught me to sometimes make the “unpopular” decisions that fellow founders, other leaders and even employees did not always like.  But as my father has always said, “When you are at the top and making decisions, not every decision will be popular.  Put on your big boy pants and get over it.”

The second person to take me on a leadership journey is Phil Geldart, CEO of Eagle’s Flight.  Working directly for Phil at the world’s top leadership development and organizational/culture change company proved to be like the most intense doctorate degree you can imagine.  Phil came from a background as a senior leader at Nestle for 17 years.  He wrote the book on leadership, literally.  With numerous books on the subject, Phil is one of the most powerful authorities on the topic.  He and his company have improved the leadership teams of the world’s top brands for over 25 years.

I cannot over-emphasize how important your leadership development is and how important a coach, mentor or anyone you admire as a leader can be to that growth. Your willingness to grow is pivotal to your long-term success.  Having a coach or mentor can be, if you allow it, the most rewarding experience of your business life.  As your company grows, it becomes more and more important for you to have a neutral party with whom to share your fears, lack of skill and need for improvement.  As Phil once taught me, “If you tell the whole company your stress, fears and concerns, you run the risk of damaging your ability to lead.  You need a mentor to guide you in a safe environment.”

These two men, and many more influencers in my life, have taught me a multitude of skills.  From how to be accountable, to tenacity, to motivation; there are lessons aplenty.  For this blog entry, however, I wanted you to have the top three lessons I garnered from these men.  They will change your business in profound ways.

Three leadership lessons you need to learn NOW!

•      Humility makes you better – One of the first things you need to learn as the leader of a growing company is that humility is critical to your long-term sustainability.  Defined as “a modest or low view of one's own importance; humbleness,” having humility does not mean your confidence level needs to suffer.  It just means that when you walk in the room thinking as the “founder,” you potentially limit yourself to having the only say or the ultimate say.  When you do this, you are actually ruining your company’s chance for long-term success and creating massive blind spots where disaster can occur.  There is a HUGE difference between arrogance and confidence.  I am certainly one of the most confident people in the room….any room….but I am also the first to grow, learn and admit being wrong when the situation merits it.  I do not or have never felt that I am more important than the others making my companies actually work.  As the leader I will often, very strategically, step back to let the others in my company lead the conversation, come up with ideas and get caught up in the excitement.  I am always thinking and calculating the next company move so my apparent humor, energy, and cultivation of input by all involved is how I help them feel like they are a part of the overall success of our team. Because they are.  Your humility is what will cause your team to walk through fire for you, execute on your vision and ensure the overall company expansion.

How to apply the humility mindset: Humility is a tricky thing to change because to admit you need to change, means you have a huge problem.  I always suggest you change it by asking people closest to you about your demeanor.  After a meeting, ask your team how they thought you performed.  Ask them if they felt you were listening.  Ask if they felt you sought input rather than “bossing” them.  Seek anonymous company surveys where people evaluate you to understand in a safe way if you are leading properly.

•      Teachability is the key to growth – If humility is your left arm as a leader, then teachability is your right.  This principle, that I learned from Phil, is powerful in any leader’s growth because he or she must learn to expand.  By stating that you are teachable you are saying, “I don’t know all the answers, but I am willing to learn.” A curiosity arises when you engage a teachable mentality and that curiosity will open the room, the team and your peers to the fact that you are listening.  I had a moment that perfectly illustrates this point.  Back when I first entered the cannabis industry, I had to learn about the consumer.  Granted I was a consumer myself, but that did not mean I understood all there was to know about the millions of consumers all over the US.  I had to be teachable and learn about them.  I learned quickly that the consumer base for cannabis is diverse, I mean really diverse.  Men and women consume.  All ages, from 21 – 91, consume,  and for aging Americans cannabis could very well be a replacement for the many prescription meds they currently take. I also learned that my assumptions about the cannabis industry were false.  I had to learn a new way of working and thinking and spent a great deal of time humbly studying the new culture so I could accurately predict its future growth.  Had I not spent the time upfront learning, I would have failed in all my endeavors.

How to apply the teachable mindset: Teachability is a mindset and the only way to apply it is to seek answers rather than force agendas.  Seek to understand rather than win an argument.  Start applying this mentality by asking far more questions than you dictate answers.  When holding meetings, pose the challenge your company is facing and then ask for answers from around the room PRIOR to making up your mind.

•      You’re NOT a founder.  You’re a leader – One consistent fault of the founder/leader is they believe they are god when it comes to decisions.  After all, this is your “baby” and if you are also the leader, you will often confuse the leader mentality with the founder mentality.  Being a founder means literally nothing as the company grows except to serve to describe who started the company and how equity is divided.  If you started a company from scratch and then decided to make yourself a leader, you are in conflict until you realize that the two roles are different.  Let’s say you create a company andthen you decide to hire a CEO.  So you search far and wide for the right person to run your baby. Now ask yourself a VERY tough question, would you hire you?!? Take a look at your skills, your strengths, and your ability to inspire.  Are you the right person for the job?  If not, why not?  The “why not?” is the set of skills you need to learn--and probably learn quickly.  This introspective approach will help you as you take on the leadership role.  Remember, too, that knowing you don't have the right skill set and hiring someone who does is often the best thing you can do for your company.  Not all founders make the best leaders. 

I have spent the better part of the last 16 years as a leader.  I have trained, studied, succeeded, failed and started over.  I have taught leaders around the world on the subject and in the last three years I have led the birth and growth of five companies.  If I take on the role of CEO, I am interviewing myself.  Am I qualified?  Sure, but I also ask myself, “What do I need to learn?” Each business sector is different. Each sector requires new sets of skills and abilities. I go back to learning each time I start a new adventure. 

So while you may have a great idea, or know how to direct people to do what you tell them, these are limited abilities.  In the end, a true leader is not living with the mindset of the founder (even if she is), because a founder feels entitled and justified in telling everyone how to raise her baby.

How to apply the leader mindset:  Apply the leader mindset by asking yourself the same questions I do when I kick off a new project.

-       Am I the most qualified to lead this team?

-       What skills do I need to learn to lead this team? (Ask others for input)

-       What feedback mechanisms have I built to help everyone feel safe enough to give me feedback?

Leading your own company is a challenge that requires much thought, and growth.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a mentor, coach or email me with questions.

I hope this learning will help start you on a new path as a leader in your own company.


Todd Mitchem