Business Leadership: Are your personal characteristics killing your company?

Date: February 14, 2022
Author: Kristin Zhivago
Strength and weakness text on asphalt ground, feet and shoes on

The truth is, we are all a combination of positive and negative characteristics. No company leader is perfect. Which means that we have to be careful that our negative characteristics aren’t killing our companies without us realizing it. 

All of my experience helping company leaders has convinced me that the number one source of company death is the business leader’s most dominant weakness. 

The company leader’s strengths and weaknesses determine the company’s strengths and weaknesses. 

If you’re good at selling but not so great at accounting, you will always be dealing with financial issues. The most obvious remedy is to hire someone who is good at the financial side. But you will also be handicapped because your lack of financial acumen will make it difficult for you to effectively recruit, work with, and manage that financial person. 

A company leader I know is suffering from this very thing at the moment, having learned too late that his two top people in financial positions were simply not doing their jobs, including managing cash flow and profitability. After they left, the truth started to reveal itself. He brought in outside financial consultants to figure out what went wrong, but he’s in serious financial trouble now. 

Alternatively, if you’re good at accounting or engineering, but not so good at the more social skills, you will always be dealing with people issues. Again, the obvious remedy is to hire someone to help you with those sides of the business, but they better be very good at what they do and very honest with you, or you will end up always having “relationship” problems with employees, customers, and partners. 

How do you keep the company from suffering because of your weaknesses? First you need to uncover the problem, then be honest with yourself about it, then work on fixing it. 

As my husband was prone to say: Find it, face it, fix it. 

It’s actually easier to find it and fix it than it is to face it. 

If you have always known you are not great at the more numerical or technical issues, you will tend to avoid them. That’s too bad, because business problems never get better over time; they only get worse. 

The key is to practice self-directed tough love. It’s ok that it’s a weakness, but it doesn’t have to stay a weakness. As a company leader, you can’t afford to let the weakness fester and grow. 

Finding the problems 

The best thing to do, every minute of every day, is to deliberately seek out the truth. 

I’m searching my own soul as I write this, having asked one of our team members to conduct “Reality Check” client research for our own company. 

This customer research is something that I’ve been doing for clients for years, before beginning any work. We interview five to seven customers of each given type, asking open-ending questions in very conversational interviews. We then present a word-for-word, anonymized “Conversation” report, and then a Summary/Recommendations report, which crystallizes what we learned from the Conversation Report, and recommends the appropriate next steps based on all our findings. 

How the company leaders react to the information in the Reality Check reports tells me very quickly whether they are going to take the information to heart and make the necessary changes, or whether they suffer from something Michael Blake calls “intentional blindness.” 

I was talking to Michael about this recently in our pre-podcast-appearance conversation. He mentioned that in his business—he is a “transaction advisor,” who “helps clients obtain great outcomes from complex transaction opportunities”—clients who struggle are those who wouldn’t even want to interview their customers, much less trust what they say.

That’s too bad, because that’s where the truth and the revenue is. Knowing and acting on the customer’s truth always leads to success.

In our case, knowing the dangers of ignoring what our clients said in the Conversation report, we’re celebrating the positives and enthusiastically embracing the negatives. In the week after we went through the report, we are actively engaged in cures for the negatives. 

I’m happy to report they were simple process things that were easy to satisfy, such as more formally introducing new clients to the entire team as part of the onboarding process, rather than simply bringing each person in when it’s time for them to do their part. 

The interviewing process I’ve worked out doing thousands of interviews has made several aspects of this Reality Check process very clear:

1. Customers will never tell you what they’re thinking when they’re buying from you, but they will be more than happy to talk about their experiences after they have made a purchase. They have a vested interest in your success. Even in these very-busy times, they will make time to have a meaningful conversation with a good interviewer, if you approach them correctly.

2. In-depth interviews with five to seven customers of each given type will reveal bankable, consistent information. People who have never spoken to each other will say almost exactly the same things on certain subjects. So, as you read and analyze the findings, you will see themes emerge, which you can and should act on. 

3. Company leaders are surprised at how much they learn from the report. One of our clients is a CEO who just purchased another company and wanted to understand customer perceptions relating to that acquisition. “I read it cover to cover this morning,” he said, after reading the Conversation Report. “It’s interesting in so many ways. It’s strange to hear about myself, and our team; what people think we will do, versus what we actually plan to do.” Another CEO told us, “I spent most of the day going over this and dissecting it. I’m excited to hear your thoughts and feedback. I think this report is worth its weight in gold.” Uncovering the truth solves so many problems. It gives you the confidence to go forward, knowing that the steps you’re taking will be appreciated by your current customers and potential customers. 

4. Some company leaders think they know more than their customers do, and wouldn’t even be interested in this approach. These are, in my experience, the leaders most likely to fail. 

5. There will be issues that you were thinking might be a problem, but were on your “maybe we’ll get around to working on this one of these days” list. Learning that these “maybe” issues were definitely a big deal to your customers will point your efforts in the right direction. 

The most important lesson that company leaders learn from this exercise is what truly matters to their customers. I think of this as the customer’s Mindset when he or she sets out to buy. Their Mindset consists of their desires, concerns, and questions. If you don’t address their Mindset the second they come into your site, they won’t stay long and may never come back. 

By the way, you can also conduct similar interviews of your employees, using the same method. Hire someone who can interview objectively and kindly, is “outside” your normal inner circle so your employees feel they can speak freely, and anonymize the content. 

That’s how you uncover your weaknesses. Go to the people who are most affected by them, and ask them open-ended questions in a way that allows them to tell you how they really feel.

Facing it

Facing a weakness in you or your company is a decision, a vow that you make to yourself. Your self-talk should be something along these lines: “Whatever we learn, I will respect it, and work on it.” 

That’s it. 

And then you keep that promise. You don’t look for blame; you don’t make excuses; you simply see it as the truth and set to work. Your customers and your employees will respect you massively for this approach. 

Fixing it

In the examples I gave above, I suggested hiring someone to help when you realize that your own personal weakness in a given area is a problem. At the same time, however, you need to become a voracious student of that specialty. 

Ask questions constantly, something that every good leader does. One of our clients, who is a very smart man, does not hesitate to ask for clarification when he’s not clear on an issue. “I’m not following,” he will say, in order to get a better explanation. He doesn’t rest until he knows that he truly understands. 

Don’t make the fatal mistake of pretending you understand when you don’t. That’s a sure company-killer. 

Until the explanation makes sense, and has become part of your own knowledge, it’s not a tool you can use. 

Just because you are not naturally talented in that area doesn’t mean you can’t learn more about it, every day, and in doing so, you will be one of those rare company leaders who rises above personal weaknesses and leads the company to sure success. 

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