by Richard Yocum

How fit is your business? How frequently do you perform a proper tune-up of your operational units and your leadership? Do you have in place the key predictive indicators required to effectively measure whether your organization is actualizing your vision? Is your vision truly durable? And as head executive, how fit are you to lead your company?

Shareholders, employees, and customers expect business leaders to build, staff, revitalize, and operate their companies as finely-engineered and exquisitely-performing racing vehicles. Fittingly, the automobile manufacturer Porsche, known for its excellence and its legacy, best exemplifies this analogy. Porsche is well-led, its racing team is fit, and its individual drivers are conditioned. In short, the automaker, the vehicles, and the drivers are all in alignment with Herr Porsche’s vision, a vision that has endured over considerable time and against formidable competition. What Porche’s legacy demonstrates is that as every company progresses, its top leader is expected to survive corporate success, and this result occurs most easily when leaders tend to their fitness.

Most executives operate with passionate devotion to the numbers, trailing and predictive indicators, short-term results, and insightful long-term strategy. They give of themselves with sacrificial dedication to success, often with derailing consequences because they have not tended to their own needs, their lifestyles, their renewal. The enlightened leader has learned, perhaps by surviving critical personal incidents, that successful executives are more effective in tending to the needs of the enterprise when they are dedicated to maintenance of their leadership fitness. One is dependent on the other, and an executive’s resources need to be applied to both.


Business Fitness

A business is either progressing measurably, or it is regressing. If you don’t know the level of your business fitness, or if you are not content with modest progress or growth, then it is time to re-visit your priorities and examine them thoroughly. One clear measure is that when partners, owners, or other leaders report that business is flat, they are describing a company that is prematurely aging, a company that lacks fitness.

The most effective way to tune-up and recalibrate your business fitness is to conduct an annual assessment and diagnosis. An annual checkup links to most business cycles and refreshes the strategic plan.

But, this step alone will not create change or address problems. You must take action to restore and maintain business fitness. You may be a leader who cites financial constraints, improper staffing and sheer fear as barriers to tackling your mission critical and your strategic and tactical problems. These legitimate concerns can immobilize most business people, resulting in a failure to pursue lucrative opportunities. However, entrepreneurs who are rigorous about fitness will introduce or get help to establish processes that can convert a seemingly impossible condition to one that responds to innovative solutions.

In your last honest business checkup, did you properly identify your most significant strategic and tactical problems? Were the results prioritized by level of impact? What prevented you and your organization from resolving the prioritized issues on a scheduled, measured basis? Interestingly, when business leaders were asked to identify their most pressing strategic issues over the last four years, the answers were predictable. Eighty percent of surveyed CEO’s from small to mid-sized businesses reports that this year’s most critical strategic issue was last year’s as well. A staggering 60-70% confirms that the same issue was identified two years ago, and 40-60% has faced the same issue for three or more years.

When you correctly identify your highest impact issue and embark on a course to address it, you are likely to encounter resistance from various stakeholders. To minimize this resistance, you need to engage your stakeholders in a process of enrollment to achieve the required buy-in. From the outset, involve your stakeholders in prioritizing the issues, implementing a disciplined approach to problem-solving, measuring your progress, celebrating your victories, and sharing the rewards.

Leadership Fitness

A characteristic of leadership rarely discussed by either academicians or one-minute management gurus is Endurance, with a capital E. Endurance is the quality that separates business leaders who are highly successful in the long run from those who sweat through cash flow crises year after year. The latter realize too late that they are operating “lifestyle businesses,” which means proceeding without a clear vision or realizing only portions of that vision, content to accept small growth while margins erode to minimally acceptable levels.

The good news is that endurance is a non-genetic dimension of leadership that successful leaders have developed over the years by mastering the three critical domains of Leadership Fitness. Leaders who accelerate their development of endurance realize their visions more quickly and sustain them. Let’s examine these three domains.

1. Visionary Endurance. Every dynamic business operates with a healthy sense of entrepreneurship. As an entrepreneur, your mandate is to develop, articulate, and sustain an enduring vision for the company. Over time, the expression of your vision will change, but the essence - the spirit - of your vision will endure. Crafting vision is more challenging to master for some than for others. For some, it takes practice and permission to be excused from daily routines in order to spend time in the “rare air,” imagining the future and considering the possibilities with unbounded delight. Visionary leaders spend, on average, 30 to 60 minutes a day in the “rare air.” This activity, emphatically, is different from problem solving. Some make it a daily activity, some weekly, others periodically retreat to the “rare air.” How often do you permit yourself to experience the “rare air?”

2. Personal Leadership Endurance. Business leaders are expected to “show up” physically, emotionally and intellectually. Do not delude yourself! All eyes are on you, constantly. You set the tone for your business every single day. Your business reacts to your moods, your considerations, your appearance, and your actions. Every variance triggers an organizational ripple.

Durable leaders recognize this dynamic which is why they commit to periodic personal tune-ups. Most maintain a regular physical fitness regime. If you feel that you lack self-discipline and/or motivation to stick with a fitness program, you might consider retaining a personal fitness trainer to help create focus and rigor. Research shows a direct correlation between your level of physical conditioning and the resulting level of energy available to apply to business and relationships. Durable leaders also monitor nutrition and avoid, or at least moderate, consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages that cause sluggishness and mood swings.

Leading a business generates a unique level of stress which can be better managed with annual physicals and opted downtime. Leadership durability is advanced by regenerating energy on a regular basis, by taking time off for weekend retreats or perhaps by observing a day of silence in the mountains or by the sea. Durable leaders recognize the value of periodically taking off several weeks at a time when, untethered from business, they can embark on a challenging or relaxing first-time adventure. Notice, this is considerably different from a three-day conference in Las Vegas. It can be humbling, yet enlightening, to return from one of these adventures to discover how well your business survived your absence. When fit, a durable leader is far more effective at fulfilling leadership responsibilities, more available in relationships, and more capable of dealing with shareholders, employees, and customers.

3. Interpersonal Endurance. Business leaders need to develop the competence that enables them to sustain enduring relationships with partners, employees and customers. Individuals whose skills in interpersonal fitness are underdeveloped often view dialogue as an uncomfortable, even unnatural, act. They may feel inept, perhaps delegating interpersonal contact to assistants, spouses, or to the HR department in order to avoid engaging in direct communications. Sadly, there is an epidemic of direct communication avoidance in today's business environment occurring at a time when the climate demands potent interpersonal relationships. Durable leaders generate respect and loyalty in their relationships, characterized by straight and explicit dialogue. They reveal their concerns and their considerations, and they elicit those from others. They constantly facilitate commitment and agreement, thus inspiring employees to deliver results. Interpersonal fitness can be challenging for some to acquire, yet it can be learned and developed.

Not all leaders are born with endurance. Facing and surviving uncommon challenges strengthens leaders and their organizations. They attain levels of fitness that equip them to survive future challenges. Leaders at the helm of fit businesses attend to all facets of their endurance by developing and refining visionary fitness, physical fitness, and interpersonal fitness.

Whether your business performs like a finely-engineered machine revving in neutral, a sluggish engine ascending a never-ending hill, or yes, an engine running on all cylinders, scheduling annual tune-ups is an essential business practice for leaders who want to maximize their opportunities for growth.

Richard Yocum is the owner and managing director of Argosy International, LLC, a consulting firm headquartered in Ellicott City, MD. Mr. Yocum is a nationally recognized executive coach, facilitator and specialist in organizational development. He is also an accomplished Himalayan trekker, and has developed a six-month Leadership Fitness Program that combines business fitness tools with advanced leadership development, and a breath-taking trek through Bhutan’s famous Himalayan Mountains. He can be reached by telephone at 410-461-2998 or by e-mail to richard@ArgosyLeaders.com.

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