When Is It The Leader's Job To Build Creative Confidence?

When Is It The Leader's Job To Build Creative Confidence?

Do you divide your team  into “creatives” and ” practical” people? If so, are you  missing out on the creative ideas of the other half?

If you ask David Kelley, founder of IDEO, and winner of countless innovation awards including Fast Company’s Top 25 Most Innovative companies, he will say yes.

David maintains that human beings are naturally creative and it is fear of judgement that stifles creativity in most of us. He asks, what might happen if we were to overcome that fear of judgement and unleash our creativity? Perhaps the secret lies in what psychologist Albert Bandura calls guided mastery – a process whereby we  identify a fear or phobia and by forcing ourselves to overcome that fear, we release our creative abilities.

How might you as a leader create an environment that enables your employees to build their creative confidence? Perhaps a simple starting place is with more legitimate brainstorming – following the brainstorming rules – no idea is a bad idea!

If you want to take this further, are you willing to expose your team to guided mastery? Sound too touchy-feely for you?

Before jumping to judgement, take a look at this 12 minute TED Video where David tells stories from his legendary design career and his own life, and offers ways to build the confidence to create.

Elisa K. Spain

Does A Business Have To Grow?

Does A Business Have To Grow?

This is a topic often discussed amongst my Vistage members. Some want to grow, others like the idea of maintaining a controllable size. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. What I do know is that businesses are organic, and therefore static is not sustainable. We’ve all seen businesses disappear over time when the owner was not engaged, unaware of changes in the industry, lost a key employee, a new competitor entered the market with a game changing idea, etc.

If you accept that static is not sustainable, what to do?

If you find that you like the entrepreneur culture, with everyone playing a part in the business, be intentional about it. While you may not want fast growth or a large company, a business has no choice but to continue to evolve and grow, even if it is at a steady pace. If you are in this place, here are my questions for you:

  • Do you have a diversified client base?
  • If not, what steps are you taking to diversify and reduce this risk?
  • Where is your business and your product(s) in the business life cycle? If you are in a mature industry, with mature products, what is your “digital camera” and what are you doing about it? see March 11, 2012 blog, Innovation vs Discipline: Kodak vs Fuji 

If, on the other hand, you have the opportunity to scale and want to, be intentional about that as well. The challenge for many entrepreneurs who want to grow is making that transformation from an “entrepreneur culture” to a professionally managed culture. If you are an owner with a growth plan, here are your questions:

  • Do you want to be the CEO of a professionally managed company? Does the thought give you energy and play to your genius?
  • If you would rather leave the management to someone else, is there someone on your team that could be your COO?
  • Are you open to accepting that your business is going to change and some of the people will have to change as well?
  • Are you willing to invest the time and the money to get there?

Whichever path you choose, make it an intentional one.

Elisa K. Spain

Why "Big Picture Only" Leaders Fail

Why "Big Picture Only" Leaders Fail

As discussed in last week’s blog, there is a difference between management and leadership.  Leadership is “doing the right things” and focusing on the big picture certainly falls into this category. That said, when leaders focus solely on vision and strategy and not on execution, put simply, nothing gets done.

Successful leaders know that they must set a vision so there is a destination that their team can rally around.

Once the vision is defined, setting a business strategy to achieve the vision provides  guidance for evaluating opportunities. With a strategy in place, we can ask the questions:

  • Is this opportunity consistent with our strategy?
  • If not,  AND there is a reason to do it anyway, what do we need to adjust in our strategy?

The final step is goals and action plans and a monitoring process to ensure results. It is this key step that is often missed and leads to failure. This is why Vistage members share their vision, strategy and goals and are accountable to each other for all three.

Robert Sutton, best selling author of Good Boss, Bad Boss, says it well:

“While managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing,  I argued this distinction was accurate but dangerous because it distorts how too many bosses–at all levels–view and do their work. It encourages bosses to see generating big and vague ideas as the important part of their jobs–and to treat implementation, or pesky details of any kind, as mere “management work” best done by “the little people.” Even if left unsaid, this distinction reflects how too many bosses think and act. They use it to avoid learning about people they lead, technologies their companies use, customers they serve, and numerous other crucial little things.”

For more from Robert Sutton, click here.

Elisa K. Spain

Leadership Vs. Management – Does It Matter?

Recently, one of my Vistage members asked the group this question: “What is the difference between leadership and management?”

He heard a lot of responses and the one that said it best was this one…

“Leadership is doing the right things, management is doing things right.”  from management guru Warren Bennis

What does it mean to do things right? Here are my top 5:

  • Leadership is setting the direction
  • Leadership is inspiring when there are tailwinds and when there are headwinds
  • Leadership is being intentional about your culture
  • Leadership is  accountability
  • Leadership is  making tough choices

And here are my questions for you:

  • What else would you add to this list?
  • If you and your leadership team did your job well as leaders and managed the agreements you have with your team, how might the role of management evolve?


Elisa K. Spain

What Leadership Lessons Can We Learn As Undercover Bosses?

What Leadership Lessons Can We Learn As Undercover Bosses?

The popular TV series “Undercover Boss” has ignited conversation about the value of walking in our employees’ shoes – or perhaps they in ours.  It’s a rare company where you can accomplish this “undercover” and yet the opportunity is still there to learn from our employees who are on the line.

In family-owned businesses it is common for the children of the owner to do every job in the company before taking on a leadership role. Similarly, this happens naturally in entrepreneurial businesses because everyone has to be able to do every job in the early days.

Then companies grow, employees move from generalists to specialists, we hire leaders because of what they know and can add, the demands are high and we “don’t have time”  for anything more than what we do every day. And yet, Vistage members know the importance of taking a day away to work on their business by attending their Vistage meetings. What if we took this day away to another level?

As a leadership coach, I wonder about the following:

  • What inspiration and strategic insight every CEO and their leadership team might gain from a day, or more, away from the leadership job?
  • What if instead of your job, you did one of the customer facing or customer impact jobs in your company? What leadership lessons might you learn and what results might you achieve?
  • What would happen if you gave your employees a forum to be boss for a day and share what they would do if they were walking in your shoes?

Here is a WSJ article to get you started thinking about the potential results: How to Be a Better Boss? Spend Time on the Front Lines.

Elisa K. Spain

Innovation Vs. Discipline Part 2: Kodak Vs. Fujifilm

Innovation Vs. Discipline Part 2: Kodak Vs. Fujifilm

Lots of press swirling around the impending bankruptcy of Kodak. While Kodak suffers, its long-time rival Fujifilm is doing rather well. Why? Is it innovation or is it discipline? (See March 4, 2011 Blog, post Which is the Winning Strategy? Innovation or Discipline for Part I)

At one time, Kodak was one of the most innovative and disciplined companies in the world, with a rigorous approach to manufacturing. And, discipline is more than discipline in production; discipline also is a disciplined approach to the market – recognizing AND acting on changes in market dynamics.

Kodak and Fuji both saw digital coming. Fuji acted, Kodak was complacent. (Success breeds arrogance?)

Fuji continued their film business while diversifying into other business lines.  They were consistent and disciplined in their approach to new markets. They identified market opportunities, invested in exploring the new markets and when satisfied the opportunity was there, had the vision and leadership to move forward with the investment and organizational changes required to reconstruct their business model.

Kodak on the other hand, dabbled in opportunities while never making the  investment and organizational changes required to adapt to the new world. They became a victim instead.

For me, as a leadership coach, this story of Kodak and Fuji, raises the following questions for CEO’s and leaders of successful businesses:

  • What is the equivalent of the digital camera for us?
  • Are we noticing when we are becoming complacent?
  • Are we in tune with market changes and prepared to act in a disciplined manner?
  • Do we have the cash or sources of capital to make the investment in diversification?
  • Are we willing to make the uncomfortable organizational changes necessary to diversify into new markets?

The Economist details the story of both companies in this article, “The last Kodak moment?”

Elisa K. Spain


Laws Of Success: The Answers May Surprise You

Laws Of Success: The Answers May Surprise You

I just finished reading Jim Collins’ new book, Great by Choice and as he says, the results may surprise you; they did me.

Here’s the good news, if you, as CEO,  have ambition, creativity, vision, insight, a good strategy, are innovative, possess a willingness to take risk; in short, all the typical characteristics we attribute to leaders, you can become a standout success.

However, and it’s a big however, one that certainly caused me as a leadership coach to pause. All the companies Jim Collins and his partner Morten Hansen researched, were led by CEO’s with these characteristics – the ones that thrived AND the ones that did not.

Here’s what he did find that was different about these leaders.  The companies that thrive possess three common characteristics:

  • fanatic discipline
  • empirical creativity
  • productive paranoia

As I reflect on the great leaders I have known in my career as a leadership coach,  my surprise at the results fades. The great leaders I know all share these characteristics.

Jim drives this point home in chapter 2 as he tells the story of Roald Amundsen’s and Robert Falcon Scott’s quest for the South Pole.  When you understand what Amundsen did to prepare and Scott did not do, it becomes crystal clear why Amundsen was successful and Scott was not. Just as it will become clear why each of the high-performers Collins and Hansen study achieved their results.

I encourage you to read the book, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I possess these high-performer characteristics?
  • What am I doing today to focus on them each day?
  • How might I integrate my genius and my talents to maximize my results?


Elisa K. Spain

Take A Pause And Avoid Missing Out-Of-Context Opportunities

Take A Pause And Avoid Missing Out-Of-Context Opportunities

I’m hoping everyone “pauses” long enough to read this piece… Because, on the surface, this story is about “pauses” in our life. Or is it really about the importance of context?

It may be about both. Either way, as leaders, it is worth considering, as we rush through our lives, our product rollouts and our strategies, just how often we miss opportunities and insights because they showed up in unexpected places.

In a Washington, DC, Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, a man with a violin played six classical compositions for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After about three minutes, a middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.

About four minutes later: The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk. At six minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

At 10 minutes: A three-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent – without exception – forced their children to move on quickly.

The musician played continuously for almost 45 minutes. Only six more people stopped and listened for a short while. All told, about 20 individuals gave money, but most continued to walk at their normal pace. The musician collected a total of $32.

After the man finished playing, silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. During his “concert,” he played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell had played to a sold-out theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell’s incognito performance in the Metro Station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

This experiment raised several questions:

  • In a commonplace environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
  • If so, do we stop to appreciate it?
  • Can we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

Click here for the full article, Pearls Before Breakfast.


Elisa K. Spain