leadership incorporated blog

June 10, 2012

What Every CEO Should Learn From Dave’s Excellent Tomatoes

Have you ever had a tomato that was so far beyond anything you’d ever tasted, it changed your life?

A year ago, my husband and I were invited to dinner at a friend’s house. Dave served vegetables from his garden that looked more or less like tomatoes and arugula and zucchini. But they didn’t feel, smell or taste like anything I’d ever experienced. They awakened my body’s awareness of and hunger for quality taste and nutrition. They opened a door that showed me that something was possible that I didn’t even know existed.

We decided to grow our own tomatoes. We bought special soil at Home Depot and selected baby heirloom tomato plants from the nursery. We knew enough to keep them watered and use stakes to keep them off the ground. The day our first rosy tangerine tomato ripened, our mouths watered in anticipation. I held it up to breathe in the aroma, and…nothing. And the flavor: weak, watery, slightly bitter. Blah. All that work for nothing.

What did Dave know that we didn’t? Well, it turns out Dave spends 6 hours every Saturday in master gardening class. He works in his garden several hours a day. He knew A LOT we didn’t. Not just about varieties and soil but also gardening practices, the environment and adapting to changing conditions. He knew that excellence takes a commitment to continuous development.

So it turns out that an excellent tomato is not just about the starter plant and soil, it’s about the gardener. Dave had to grow himself before he could grow those amazing vegetables.

My lack of knowledge, skill, habit, attention, commitment, perspective, and mindset will keep me from ever producing tomatoes at the level that I experienced at Dave’s table. I’m simply not willing to do the work.

However, I am willing to pay for the experience…at a premium…on a regular basis.

Isn’t this what we leaders need to create through our businesses?

By developing ourselves and our people well beyond the norm we become able to create an increasingly excellent experience for our clients. An experience for which they may not be willing to invest the time to become experts themselves, but are willing to invest the money to have excellent results.

If it takes continuous development to produce excellence in something as simple as a tomato, it certainly takes continuous development for something as complex as a business.

Continuous development is the secret sauce of excellent products and services. Leaders of businesses that are committed to excellence and growth need to recognize that the foundation needed at the next level is fundamentally different than the foundation at our current level of production.

Just like Dave, we need to continuously work on developing excellence.

So although excellent tomatoes aren’t enough of a priority for me to make this kind of investment, excellence in my business is. I have worked with three coaches over the past 7 years. I carefully select and regularly attend classes and put the learning into practice immediately to stay at the top of my field. I seek out people whose work I admire as models and counsel for my business. I’m willing to do whatever personal work is necessary to let go of habits and mindsets that could limit my ability to provide my clients with a transformative experience.

How about you? Do you have a vision of excellence that is worth this kind of effort. If so, you need to grow yourself and your people first.

Point A people won’t take you to point B without support and development.

Is it ok to stay at point A? Sure. You can always find someone who will be willing to do the development you’re not willing to do…and charge you a premium.

I encourage you to become that someone who is willing to invest what it takes to become the master gardener in your field. Not investing in development is actually a commitment to the path of future obsolescence and will cost you the success and satisfaction that comes from providing your clientele with a transformative tomato.

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How wisdom from your prior job can kill your company

Meet Joan.

12 years ago, she landed a job as account executive in a regional office of a rapidly growing national ad agency. Joan intuitively understands how to build strong relationships with clients. She was a rising star and was promoted every 2-3 years first to account supervisor, then account director, followed by VP Account Management and just over three years ago she took over leadership of the office.

Joan’s biggest struggle had always been dealing with the creative department.  She never understood why creatives consistently don’t meet deadlines, why they regularly propose ideas that are outside of the budget, and why their concepts are so often off strategy.

Joan hit the ground running in her new role with a plan to improve agency performance on deadlines, budgets and strategy. Within 3 months, the long-time Creative Director left the agency to take a job with a competitor. At first, Joan was elated. Now she could really change things. But since then she has gone through 2 other CDs, and there might as well be a revolving door in the creative and production departments. Those clients she had great relationships with before are now dissatisfied with the creative product and she’s lost two significant accounts. Growth has effectively stalled. Joan realizes that her job is on the line. In hindsight, she is starting to see the value that the creative director brought to the table.

She estimates the hard costs to the agency of the turnover in this critical position at around $2.5 million and climbing. In terms of reputation of the office, impact on morale and missed opportunities the costs are inestimable and clearly significantly larger.

Can you identify the problem here?

Much as Joan originally wanted to lay the blame on difficult creatives, this is a leadership problem. As the head of the organization, maintaining a strong sense of alignment with one department over others was a huge limitation to her ability to succeed. This over-alignment kept her perspective too narrow. It turns out that what’s best for the account team isn’t necessarily what’s best for the business. It cost her an invaluable employee, several clients and the foundational integrity of the organization.

Joan failed to comprehend that she needed to be a leader not for the account team but for the entire agency. 

She brought her pre-existing struggles and preconceived alliances and prejudices to the role, when what is required in a senior leadership position is always a shift to an expanded and more inclusive perspective.

By relying almost exclusively on counsel from her former account team buddies and making decisions that favored her prior department, position and sensibility, she failed to develop trust with the rest of her management team, with other departments and many individuals. And that compromised the trust with the clients.

Trust is essential to business growth and success.

Trust is no luxury. It is critical. Lack of trust in organizations cripples performance, ignites conflict, guarantees inefficient use of resources, forces duplication of effort, ensures communication breakdowns, and pushes the best people and clients out the door. When lack of trust originates at the top of an organization it has a powerful ripple effect that will travel throughout the organization and can be very challenging to undo.

Take an honest look at yourself.

It’s only natural to identify and align with those who share our perspectives and experience. Yet, this is exactly the opposite of what we need to do to lead growth in our businesses.

Where might you be blinded by your prior experience and alignments?

How might you expand your counsel and open your mind?

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