I vividly remember when Jay Novak, founding editor of Twin Cities Business, asked me to write a monthly column entitled Corner Office. I agreed, but thought that it would last for a couple years. As hard as it is to believe, I have now been a TCB columnist for more than 15 years, which means I’ve penned nearly 200 articles. But, as Tennessee Williams said, “There is a time for departure even when there’s no certain place to go,” so this is my last one.
Each month, I have enjoyed the comments and feedback from readers, who are mostly business leaders dedicated to serving and leading others in our community. It has truly been a rewarding and humbling journey. The topics on which I have focused are executive-level leadership, character and reputation, corporate culture and ethics, board governance; vision, strategy and innovation; and teamwork. I frequently quoted an old Chinese proverb: “A fish rots from the head down,” meaning that leadership at the top of an organization sets the tone for either success or failure. And that’s why these topics have been so important to me. Here is my final summary:
Reputation/character: There is no greater asset than your organization’s reputation. It must be rigorously cultivated, protected and defended. Reputation is more priceless than your best products, top employees, patents and proprietary technology, or financial resources, because reputation affects all other resources. Reputation is gained in inches over time, but can be lost in miles very quickly. However, while character and reputation are both important, if I had to choose between them, I would choose character, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is what others think you are.
Corporate culture: I’ve also written often about the importance of a healthy corporate culture and how culture eats strategy, yet the time and effort spent by leaders on developing strategy is often disproportionate to the attention given to understanding and developing the right corporate culture. It’s too easy to forget that the people implementing strategy are operating in an environment that either fosters strategy execution or resists it. Denying the power of culture and gambling with strategy is irresponsible (denial is not just a river in Egypt!). And when denial is combined with avoidance, you get a term that I coined, which is “denoidance.” Unfortunately, denoidance breaks the backbone of many organizations.
Ethics: In 2002, I wrote a column titled “Ethics: How Great Thou Aren’t” which said that greed had become the new American idol. Unfortunately, 14 years later, things are worse. Personal gain and focusing on short-term financial results at the expense of doing the right thing has caused too many leaders to cheat and/or commit fraud or other selfish acts. However, I always remain hopeful that this will change with shareholders and boards of directors refocusing their companies on longer-term strategies and sustainability instead of short-term results. Also, I hope leaders will learn from empirical evidence showing that the most ethical companies are also the highest-performing companies.
Governance: This topic is one that I am particularly passionate about and one that will be a primary focus of mine going forward. Helping engaged, well-trained and experienced directors of character—who are seriously committed to acting as fiduciaries for shareholders and other stakeholders in the organizations they serve—remains an important mission for me. This is the foundation of our nation’s free enterprise system and its economic success or decline. As I wrote in 2005, there is a growing chasm between supply and demand for quality board members, so I will continue to encourage others to take up the mantle of board directorship with enthusiasm and thoughtful commitment.
Vision and strategy: Strategic decisions to sell, merge, invest, grow, downsize, refocus, or form a partnership or alliance can be anguishing. They challenge even the most experienced leaders. Especially in difficult moments, too many organizations make poor strategic decisions. For example, 75 percent of major acquisitions destroy rather than create value, and 70 percent of diversification efforts away from the core business and into new markets fail. That’s proof enough for me. My best advice for making strategic decisions is to thoroughly understand who your customers are and what they need or want; know who your competitors are and what they are doing; and know what your competitive advantage is that will allow you to disrupt and gain an unfair share of your target market(s). Great leaders have a vision of a future state of their company, see the route for getting there and effectively command the necessary resources to execute their strategies. This seems simplistic, but I’m often surprised at how difficult this is for many leaders.
Innovation: One of my favorite points has been that innovation is not found in a rare technological discovery made by a few geniuses in an R&D lab. Rather, innovation is a mindset created by leaders that spreads throughout an organization like an infectious disease. It’s the leader’s job to create a culture of innovation that encourages employees to think innovatively and to provide the training, resources and reward systems to make that happen.
Teamwork: Writing about office politics in the form of a parable about an underwater world of guppies, sharks and dolphins was one of my most fun columns. However, teamwork is a serious subject, as results don’t happen without it. Too often strategies and action plans get derailed by people who either aren’t willing to work together toward a common goal or by dysfunctional organizations with misaligned structures.
So that about sums it up. I still have a lot more to say about these topics, and I plan to continue writing and speaking about them in a variety of other forums and publications, including here in Twin Cities Business occasionally. Winston Churchill wrote, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” I have truly enjoyed giving my thoughts on these pages for so many years and thank TCB for allowing me to do so.
Goodbye, au revoir, adios, auf wiedersehen!
Mark W. Sheffert (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies Inc., a Minneapolis-based board and management advisory firm.