Leadership Blog

Why the secrets to successful business leadership aren’t what you think


Like a lot of CEOs, I’m often asked about my secrets to successful business leadership. And the truth is, sometimes it’s a little tricky to figure out how to respond.


Don’t get me wrong: you don’t spend years running a multi-million-dollar national cleaning company—with a staff of just 15—without learning a thing or two about leadership.


But in my experience, the secrets to successful business leadership aren’t always what you’d expect. That’s because business leadership happens to be a whole lot more like life than you’d expect.


In other words, managing a company has plenty in common with managing your relationships with family and friends. Sometimes it’s messy. What works with one person doesn’t work with another. There’s no straight path to your goals. The goals themselves shift without warning.


And just like in your personal life, the things that make business leadership just about insufferable one day are the same things that make it amazingly wonderful the next.


So when I’m looking to enrich my professional life, I tend to take a few of the same steps I’d use with friends and family. Here are a few examples that I think would work for any business leader:


  1. Create a culture of communication: Whether it’s your own family or a company of any size, something funny happens when you don’t clearly communicate who should do what: no one does anything at all. Everyone on your staff needs to work together to make sure there’s a good communication stream, so the entire team is always coordinated regarding tasks that need to be completed. That, coupled with a solutions-oriented attitude—which you as a leader can model through your own behavior—means it’s less about waiting for exactly the right person for the job than about getting the job done. That leads to positive results for your team and for your business.


  1. Take yourself on a creative journey: If you’re busy running a business, taking care of kids, or both, you probably don’t find a lot of time to be creative. That leads to cluttered, ineffective thinking—not to mention the feeling that you’re running on a hamster wheel every day. Whenever I start to feel that way, I force myself to find time to do something creative. It could be an organized activity, like taking a painting class, or you could do something with less of a time commitment, like watching a few TED talks when you can fit them in. I even had a friend who decided to learn how to make leather shoes as a creative outlet. If you’re interested in it, it opens your mind to new ways of thinking, and it’s unrelated to what you do day-to-day, it’s probably just what you need.


  1. Erase your mental tape recorder: We all have what I like to think of as a mental tape recorder—and it plays the negative comments we heard at some point in our lives, over and over again. And it’s pretty hard to erase. Case in point: when I was little, another kid made fun of me because I couldn’t get across the monkey bars, and sometimes his taunts still creep into my thoughts nearly four decades later. But as hard as it is to stop the tape recorder and erase the tape, that’s what it takes to move forward. Maybe your recording has been with you for so long that you’ve internalized it and forgotten it’s even there. Recognizing that fact—that these negative comments don’t define you—is the first step to erasing the tape permanently.


  1. Be a follower in order to be a leader: When I started working at Jelmar in my 20s, I started from the bottom. The very As in, I didn’t have a desk or a job description. But as tough as it was working my way up the ranks like any other employee, it was also invaluable because I learned firsthand how the system worked. That’s the thing about business leadership: you don’t actually know how to make the rules unless, at one time, you had to follow the rules. Just as you wouldn’t want to raise children until you’ve grown up enough to make sound parenting choices, how could you possibly know how to lead a company if you don’t fully understand its inner workings? Because of where I had started, when I became CEO I was able to make bold changes to Jelmar’s branding and product lines, confident I would succeed because I knew exactly what needed to change—and what needed to stay the same.


  1. Don’t underestimate the value of humility: A lot of us aren’t particularly comfortable admitting when we aren’t perfect. It might have to do with wanting people’s respect, or maybe it’s that mental tape recorder I talked about earlier putting pressure on you to be perfect. Whatever the reason, here’s the truth: your employees, just like your family and friends, value transparency, authenticity, and a good, old-fashioned ability to laugh at your own mistakes. Believe me, if you let your guard down (just a little) and show a bit of humility when it’s called for, you’ll be rewarded in the form of trust and loyalty from your employees.


If you’re looking for advice on meeting quarterly numbers, satisfying stakeholders, or driving sales—well, I sure could tell you about those things. But so could every other CEO. These five tips, which you probably already employ in your personal life with great results, can help you lead with a higher purpose. And for me, that means cultivating empowered employees who feel good about their company, their colleagues, and their products.