Why Leaders Must Think Differently

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Lottery artwork courtesy of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC

The greatest scarcity today isn’t capital – it’s leadership.  Our eminent challenge is to develop our current teams and hire the sharpest people we can find who will make a difference in how our businesses operate. There is not a business today that can afford to operate as they have in the past.  What we learn from successful businesses that have broken the mold is that their leadership thinks differently:

  • Consider Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. He has a fundamentally different approach to his multinational online auction enterprise than the finest of Sotheby’s famed auctioneers and executives.  Omidyar employed a very different approach, purpose, and vision with ecommerce.  Yet the customer is still bidding on an auction item – albeit in a substantially different environment. “We connect millions of buyers and sellers around the world, empowering people and creating economic opportunity for all.” 
  • Jenn Hyman, founder of Rent the Runway, has 15 team members focused on fashion and 500 focused on technology.  Self-admittedly, she would have never made it as a traditional executive at Macy’s.  But rethinking her luxury clothing rental business as a transformational business model, positioned to challenge old systems and rewrite the rules, she has grown her company into a $100 million enterprise, revolutionizing retail in the process.  “We exist because we believe a beautiful product shouldn’t only be experienced by owning it.
  • Zumba started because a Columbian dance instructor, Beta Perez, brought the wrong play list to his dance class. He improvised on the spot and started a revolution in dance and exercise that is currently taught in 180 different countries.  “This is pretty much the most awesome workout ever. Millions of people dance to great music, with great people, and burn a ton of calories.”

So leaders can’t do more of the same from the past.  They have to take what is bugging customers, what clients want delivered differently, and think differently.

So how do leaders think differently?  First, it’s not to take power, but to empower.Share the credit, give away some decision rights, and default to “how can we”, not “we can’t” for a new idea.  Develop a culture not of low-value activity but of trust, mission, and purpose.  Smart, capable, and empowered people will generally do much more than expected. When leaders empower their people, they don’t have to create buy-in, flatter, or threaten.  They are open to feedback even when it hurts.  They get out of the way fast when others on the team can lead better or have better ideas.

Rob Frohwein, CEO of Kabbage, has a small cubicle where a life-size cut out of Elon Musk, that he dressed in a hoodie, is standing right next to his desk.  So anyone coming in to interview will know this is not your run of the mill operation.  Rob allows all his employees to choose their own title – because titles don’t really matter today.  “If they want the title of CEO, they can have it,” laughs Rob.  His mission is to build teams that focus on big data, create a fun, lively, and collaborative workplace, and hire the smartest people he can. After just 8 years, Kabbage has grown into a leader in his industry with quick, easy to access, online funding technology that provides over $3.5 billion in loans.

Second, inspire.  Build a purpose greater than day-to-day activity. Know what matters to your employees and support that with time, talent, and treasure.  Ask your people where they are making a difference and then support that.  Stay engaged in their interests – family, philanthropy, sports, music, education, animals, travel, and food – and provide time off, financial support, tickets, sponsorship or simply show interest in what lights them up.

Third, leaders don’t wait for ideal conditions to make things happen.  How many businesses were started in the depression?  How many after the .com bubble burst?  How many after the 2008 financial meltdown?  Guy Raz, who interviews the most successful and innovative entrepreneurs today, finds that most started their businesses after 2008.  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”  Charles Dickens wrote this in 1859.  And we could today as well.

Thinking differently as leaders means we don’t wait for others to act.  We do so ourselves and then intelligently and actively collaborate with others.  Longing or complaining for better leadership puts our own lives on hold.  We must start with ourselves. Everyone can lead in big and small ways with initiative, grit, persistence, and a collaborative spirit.