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The Ego-less Executive

4107732661_b2e4e7964e_mI work very hard every day to run the company as an “ego-less” executive. By this I mean that I strive to listen to our team, listen to our numbers, and listen to our customers without retaliating if what I hear doesn’t jive with my own perspective. This is in direct conflict with my actual ego, which is by most definitions larger than it should be.

Am I successful? Sometimes.

Do I listen to our team? Again, sometimes. I have put into place several “systems” to ensure that my team can hold me captive and let me know what they think. One example of this is what I call the Executive 1-on-1. In this meeting, I set aside 30 minutes per team member every month where we do a 1-on-1 offsite, usually over coffee. I ask a set of questions that they know I’ll ask every time. This allows them to be prepared and not feel ambushed. In return for their honesty, they get a get-out-of-jail-free card to compliment or complain about anybody or any process in our company. Most months, I hear a few complaints about me. I also hear good things. It’s an interesting experience.

What’s been the result of listening to my team? I’ve hired people. I’ve fired problems. I’ve brought in people to help me reshape the team and change our processes.

The struggle here of course is that team members often only see what is in front of them and not always the Big Picture, so it’s not uncommon for them to complain about things from opposite sides of the coin, meaning there is no Right Solution. But I work to hear them and their frustrations, or their excitement, and let them know I value what they have to say.

Do I listen to our numbers? Not as often as I should! It’s very hard for them to lead you in the wrong direction if you get the right set of numbers in front of you. But far too often I’ll ignore numbers and replace them with hope. “I hope this customer turns around” or “I hope we land that next deal”. Hope is not how businesses survive, and definitely not how they thrive, but it’s a habit I keep working to put to bed. Fortunately, I have a CFO that rarely lets me go very far down the wrong road when it comes to the numbers. The system here is that the CFO meets with me once a month and I’m forced to defend my decisions. You can only make excuses so many times for things within your responsibility (e.g., a team member is under-producing consistently, a customer refuses to pay their bills in a timely fashion) before you simply can’t defend yourself anymore.

Finally, do I listen to our customers? Again, sometimes. The trick here is that the customer doesn’t always have a firm grasp on their needs or, if things aren’t going right, the issues they want to discuss. To help flesh this out, I developed a system where once a month my account manager calls each customer for 5-10 minutes and holds a Customer Insight Meeting. It’s a fast call and, again, has the same set of questions–all based around how the customer “feels” about the types of service they are getting from us.

If we score poorly, I’ll generally reach out to discuss the issue. Often, one of our techs has mis-communicated with an end-user. But just as frequently, there is a larger issue happening, e.g., an invoice is confusing.

I say all these things not to imply I am ego-less. Far from it. But what has been a huge help to me is that I’ve tried to replace “ego” with “systems”. To ensure my ego doesn’t override the team, I set aside time for a safe discussion with every one of them. The same goes for listening to the numbers and to the customer. It’s not a perfect solution by any measure, but it’s been a net positive for me and Puryear IT so far (12 years old and counting!).

If you are a business owner or consultant, both groups that tend to have big egos, I’d love to hear how you’ve developed systems to replace your ego with something much safer. My efforts are a work-in-progress, and I’d love to hear how you’ve done it.

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