Stop beating yourself up for what you don’t do well—be a complete leader. Great leaders build processes that leverage their teammates’ strengths.
Today’s guest post is by Xavier Naville, author of The Lettuce Diaries: How a Frenchman Found Gold Growing Vegetables in China (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
The caller ID stated “Mike.” The phone was on the fourth ring. I held it in front of me, watching the screen, mouth dry, sitting at my desk, thinking, “Here it goes again. He’s going to speak Chinese and I won’t understand.”
Creative Food, the vegetable-processing company I had started in China the year before, was on the verge of bankruptcy. Every project I initiated had failed. All the foreign experts I had hired had left. My operations were in such bad shape that my own customers, who included big fast-food chains like KFC and Pizza Hut asked my new recruits why they had come aboard a ship that was sure to sink. On that day, once I finally answered the phone, I had to ask Mike to repeat himself several times.
At a time when I wanted to be a decisive, inspiring leader, I found myself fumbling for words in a language and an operating environment that I struggled to comprehend.
But a few years later, I had grown the company into a powerhouse, employing more than 1,000 people across nine factories and selling produce to 3,500 restaurants every day. Mike had become my right-hand man and a good friend, I could speak competent Chinese, and I felt in sync with my team. I would eventually sell the company to an industry-leading European conglomerate.
How did I achieve this unlikely turnaround?
Vulnerability. I took stock of what I did well (identifying patterns to define competitive strategies) and what I didn’t do so well (creatively solving operational problems). I accepted that I would never know more about China than my Chinese colleagues. I listened more, spoke less, and banished the inner voice that told me I was the boss and should dictate everything. I took stock of what I lacked as a leader and filled those gaps with the strengths and skills of my team.
In short, I became complete as a leader only by accepting that I was incomplete.
Contrary to my initial belief, changing my leadership style didn’t make me look weak. Instead, it created a space where my team shared more of their views, debated more, and challenged me when they needed to. We soon learned that together, we made better decisions. Confidence in our collective choices rose.
The result was a strong sense that each manager had the power to change the way things were done at the company.
Here are the four leadership disciplines I learned during my days at Creative Food. In today’s America, where ethnic, gender and cultural backgrounds among managers are increasingly diverse and where a new generation of employees and managers expects leaders to be ready to listen and learn, they’ve become incredibly valuable for the teams I work with.
Discipline #1 – Adopt a humble mindset
Accept that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re probably not in the right room. Take stock of what you don’t know and surround yourself with the people who are better at it than you are. It’s about “learning it all” rather than “knowing it all”.
Discipline #2 – Design your strategy collectively
Working through the trade-offs involved in deciding which strategy to adopt is a collective process. At Creative Food I took my leadership team offsite once a year before starting the budget process and looked with a fresh eye at our competitive environment. This allowed everyone to express a view and understand why we made certain choices. The objective isn’t to reach consensus. Ultimately, the leader makes a call. But everyone gets a chance to understand the trade-offs, and it guarantees a higher level of commitment to the decision.
Discipline #3– Create accountability across the organization
Leading with vulnerability without holding yourself and the team accountable won’t work. Once our strategy was settled, we asked each team leader to identify their key priorities for the year and to present them to us. Then I asked each leader to do the same with his own team, creating measurable activities in the service of our strategy across the entire organization. When I coach teams today, I even require the use of cloud-based software to track priorities in a transparent way for everyone.
Discipline #4– Design a regular meeting schedule so you can constantly review and adjust
Even with the best strategies, you’re bound to face hurdles along the way. Having regular meetings with different focuses allows your leadership team to address issues before they become thorny problems. In my current work as a business coach, I advise clients to add a 15-minute daily huddle to their morning routine to quickly synchronize and identify potential roadblocks. My teams meet longer once a week and hold monthly meetings to review financials and KPIs in detail. Finally, I recommend clients go over their priorities quarterly, to identify which activities require particular attention in order to achieve annual goals. With this process in place, each quarter becomes a 12-week sprint during which teams review progress and adjust with agility.
It takes courage to lead with vulnerability. Will you look weak? Will you look incompetent?
On the contrary.
Becoming vulnerable sends a powerful—and empowering—message to any entrepreneur’s organization. A former colleague of mine once said, “My kindness is not my weakness. I am kind because I am strong.” Strong but vulnerable leaders tell their rising talents the unvarnished truth about the anxieties, doubts, and loneliness that come with being a leader. They help them understand what it takes to become one themselves. And when everyone starts thinking like a leader, you know that you and the company you started are on the right track.
Xavier Naville, a quadrilingual international business leader, is an innovator in the consumer, food & beverage, and agriculture supply chain industries, with a specific expertise in the China market. He started Creative Food Group, a food processing company that supplied some of the largest restaurant chains in China. Currently, as Partner at Vision Management Consultants, Xavier advises management teams and Boards on business strategy, and collaborates with Fortune 1000 companies to assist with supply chain or distribution, new product launches, and business development opportunities. As a business coach, he also helps small and mid-size business leaders to scale their business faster with measurable growth and results. You can connect with Xavier at vision-consultants.org, xavier-naville.com, or on Twitter and LinkedIn. His new book, The Lettuce Diaries: How a Frenchman Found Gold Growing Vegetables in China, is available on Amazon and through other fine booksellers.
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