I had a last minute meeting appear in my diary late last Wednesday titled “Team Announcement.”
Something told me that in a few hours everything was going to change. I was right.
It’s been two years now working in what I would describe as a dream team.
We’re all crazy intrapreneurs in my team and we think outside the box. We challenge each other to go even further. We disrupt the traditional business models because that’s all we know how to do.
To some we are crazy: to all of us, we want to do something meaningful.
Who is my departing mentor and boss?
In one word, “Gandhi.”
He’s a Buddhist guy with a Yoda philosophy on life. Each day he says something out there and it takes me days to figure out what he means. There is no straight answer because everything has a meaning when it comes from him. The meaning often takes a while to figure out though.
Each day, in our team at work, it’s like preparing for the ancient Japanese Battle of Sekigahara. Every day we have strategy sessions to work out how to take down our enemy. When we get dealt a major blow we know it’s only one of the many battles we face. Overall, we’re optimists led by the chief of the army – my boss and mentor.
His departing gift to me
The challenging thing for my former boss is that he loves to give gifts, yet he knows I don’t like material things. Then, one morning on the train, shortly after the announcement, I get a message on LinkedIn from him. The message read:
“…this is my gift to you.”
My foes will become nothing.
My friends will become nothing.
I, too, will become nothing.
Likewise, all will become nothing.
Just like a dream experience,
Whatever things I enjoy
Will become a memory.
Whatever has passed will not be seen again.
With those eight lines of wisdom, my life and career were set to change. He was giving me a message. He knew me better than most and he knew how much this was the best gift he could give. I then saw him at work later and he said:
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
He knew deep down that I was upset he was leaving. He knew that I wanted the dream of our team to continue with him at the reigns of the army. What he figured out I needed was the reassurance that the next chapter of my career would soon begin.
He wanted me to know that the next great leader would appear when I (the student) was ready. Just as he had come into my life when I was ready, so too would the next boss and mentor.
While having a chapter in your life and career come to a close is hard, it’s exciting at the same time. I’ve learned that uncertainty about what’s next is the beginning of the next massive opportunity. Nothing stays the same forever although I sometimes wish secretly that it would.
All you can do in these moments of your career is be grateful. The last two years have been the happiest time of my time in any business.
Here are the lessons my boss and mentor taught me:
1. Inspired people change the world
My boss never tried to tell me how to do anything. He always led every conversation with inspiration to do something great. He didn’t want us to be mediocre and be like everyone else. The fact we were a bunch of misfits and didn’t fit in was what he wanted us to embrace. He wanted us to be proud of our unique identity.
Inspirational leaders don’t focus on the how; they focus on the why. Because our team knew why we existed and what our mission was, we always found a way. When our critics laughed at us, we chose to push on. In front of our critics, we always showed respect and smiled. That smile came from a sense that the good guys would win. That good would prevail evil.
Our team was inspired to change the face of our industry. We went after the big stupid goals that everyone said to run a mile from. We put our careers on the line every day. We took calculated risks that others thought were haphazard.
“Nothing, my boss taught us, should ever be done without a why. Everything should have a purpose”
2. Relationships always trump the price paid
Many of the clients we dealt with as a team came about through relationship not price. Each of our clients have become like friends. Doing business with my boss and the team feels like going to a family BBQ. My boss taught us that doing business should be based on trust, your value proposition and the feeling of partnership. Partnerships are based on win-win scenarios.
Both sides in every business interaction should feel like they have won. That’s how you know you’re on to something. That’s the way business should be.
3. Solve real problems
My boss has a fancy job title and with that comes lots of people who want to pitch a product or service. After some meetings, where we saw something cool, my boss would look very pissed off. I’d ask him what was wrong. He says:
“Tim, what problem are they solving? If you’re not solving a problem then you shouldn’t be asking us to buy from you!”
I thought about that often and realized he was spot on. There’s a lot of clever marketing and companies that have raised money from thin air. These companies only make it when they solve a real problem.
Whatever you do in your career, do your best to try and solve a problem. The bigger the problem, the more money you’ll get for solving it.
4. Critical thinking is a rare trait
The one thing that frustrated my boss: lack of critical thinking. Day-to-day in business, we deal with many different characters. Each character forms part of solving a problem (cause that’s what business is after all).
The ability to solve problems effectively, my boss believes, is to use critical thinking. This means that you commit to the following:
– Thinking clearly before deciding on the appropriate action
– Identifying any rational biases beforehand
– Thinking about the connections between different ideas that could form a potential solution
– Being rational about your approach
It’s surprising how rare the superpower is of critical thinking. My boss taught me that it’s something to constantly aim for and to use in business wherever possible.
“Churning out the same old solutions to the same old problems will not move humankind forward. We can all change that”
5. Political capital
Throughout the last two years, it felt like we were facing into a different crisis weekly – such is life. The temptation, my boss taught me, is to try and solve every single one. The challenge with that way of thinking is best summed up through a phrase he drilled into my head like a jackhammer: “Political Capital.”
A lot of business encompasses what you would see day-to-day in politics. Each senior leader is a politician, and every politician only has a certain amount of political capital that they can spend on these weekly crises. My boss taught all of us to spend our political capital wisely.
This political capital over the last two years has been the currency we have used to buy our way into a vision for the future that some may say looked “laughable.” Massive change and seeing things before they happen often involves a lot of critics. The key I’ve learned is to turn these critics into supporters, rather than enemies. As I said before, business is very much like a strategic battle.
6. Customer focus
So many organizations have this concept of customer centricity at the forefront of what they do. It’s not always a reality though. My boss made sure that I understood the importance of making sure the customer was top of mind with every action I took.
I shouldn’t be trying to build anything without having the customer’s input every step of the way. It’s easy to say, but very hard advice to follow. I learned from my boss to do this, or face problems down the road when it’s too late to change.
7. Storytelling futurists matter
Many of our competitors over the last few years were able to win in markets where we were unable to. My boss taught me that the reason our competitors could achieve this goal was because they told better stories than us and spoke about the future.
These competitors spoke about the future and tried to play a part in it. They released products that were way ahead of their time even if they didn’t get the immediate revenue uplift.
Telling stories about the future and releasing products ahead of time gives you a reputation for being a market leader in innovation.
All of us are biased to spend our money with companies who appear to be creating the future we have always dreamt of, even if in reality they are not executing the way it’s perceived they are.
Steve Jobs saw the future of consumer electronics; all of us have the ability to see the future of our industry and play a part in that story.
Stories hold immense power to those who know how to tell them.
Stories make us take action.
Stories inspire us.
8. Your boss can be your best friend
The last two years of my life have been a rollercoaster. Multiple romantic disasters. Huge career wins like going viral all over the Internet. I’ve seen colleagues have major illnesses and even seen crowds of people die right in front of the office I work in.
Through each event, my boss has been there. Like Yoda, he’s always had some words of wisdom that don’t give me the answer but help me find it deep within myself. He’s never given up on me. He’s always inspired me. He’s believed in me and the simple idea that I – just like you – can change the world.
He’s made me see that this life is so short and so is my career.
He’s shown me that everything becomes nothing at some point.
So if everything becomes nothing, then all we have is right now.
I don’t know what the next chapter of my career looks like. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a boss, teacher, or friend like this great man ever again. All each of us has is right now. Enjoy it because change is certain.
So is the way you think about change and the awesome opportunities that come with it. It’s time for me to take a break and have a holiday.
I hope you learned a thing or two about leadership from my boss. I know I certainly did.
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