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5 Ways Leaders Can Run Off the Road

Some of them never see it coming. In a visit to 1871, oil industry veteran Anna Catalano told aspiring entrepreneurs how to prevent the kinds of CEO disasters that are making way too much news.


We were honored last week for 1871 to host Anna Catalano to speak to our members about successful leadership, especially participants in our WiSTEM program for female entrepreneurs. It's actually quite a relief to hear from someone with years of experience who has built a substantial, multi-decade career in a major industry at a global corporation (BP/Amoco) instead of a wet-behind-the-ears "expert" who's had about 15 minutes of startup success and no clue about how he or she got there, or what to do next. Luck and plentiful VC lucre are no substitute for a lifetime of learning.

There's a great deal to be gleaned from people who have actually done what you're hoping to do rather than from newbies who are inventing their "careers" as they roll along, hoping at the same time to get their businesses built and scaled before they run out of time, cheap money or good ideas. Not every mentor is a good deal or a good use of your time, (See How to Deal with Marginal Mentors) but Anna's analysis was invaluable. More importantly, she made it her business to talk about some of the areas that rarely get addressed in polite panels and other discussions.

She covered a number of important topics, including unwritten rules, lifelong networking, making your way in your own way, and not hiding your light under a bushel basket. But I was especially interested in the last section of her talk, which focused on what she feels are the factors that consistently-- and often abruptly-- derail great leaders who looked to the outside world to be cruising along. I just want to summarize her five key bullet points on the leadership issue and add a couple of comments of my own.

Her discussion on the ways any leader can easily lose his or her direction are especially relevant for the young and inexperienced leaders who are sitting in the scary and somewhat shaky catbird seats on top of fast-moving and rapidly expanding startups. (See There's No Excuse for Being a High Tech Jerk.)

We're officially at the end of the "fake it 'til you make it" era and its expiration is long overdue. (See Three Ways to Put More Sting in Your Social Media.) Go big or go home is also getting to be a pretty tired tale because it turns out that real, sustainable businesses not only have customers, they've got revenues and profits as well. And everyone is getting over the media's fleeting fascination with the latest Boys Wonder. These "little" leaders who are drinking their own Kool-Aid and who think you can fool all of the people at least some of the time (while you're trying to figure things out) are on their way to a rude awakening and an abrupt collision. There are rarely skid marks when a startup crashes because in too many cases no one who mattered was looking, listening or cared about that big ole 18-wheeler coming down the same lane from the other direction. Or they weren't paying attention to the many little cracks starting to appear in the sides of their seemingly rapidly sailing ship.

Anna focused on 5 specific shortcomings that are most likely to cause problems. These were my main take-aways.

  • Leaders who stop listening.

Listening is a critical leadership skill and the highest form of courtesy as well. Leaders who don't listen end up as losers and their companies become laggards. (See Shut Up and Listen, Will Ya?) And it's not just listening to the people around you-- it's listening to your customers as well because no one will ever give it to you straighter than the story you'll hear right from the customers' mouths.

  •  Leaders who don't stay grounded.

You'd think that even in these crazy times of radical change most people would have learned to stick with what has worked for them--at least until it doesn't work any longer-- and also to hang on to the advisors, the tools and the techniques that got them to where they are. They haven't. It's still too easy to lose touch with your roots, to get too big for your britches, and to think that you've become endowed with some superhuman powers. We're all human, but if we're smart humans, we're also constantly learning from everyone around us because you never know who's going to bring you your future.

  • Leaders who let problems get worse.

Nothing except wine gets better all by itself. Problems that start out small rarely disappear-- they grow, they fester and they get worse if you try to ignore or minimize them. We see this every day as businesses that should clearly know better do a lousy job of controlling problems while they're small and instead let them get totally out of control. You can blame social media and cellphones for amplifying these things, but it's not a new issue. The best companies have always known that it takes just short of forever to build a great brand and only a few highly-visible boo boos to jeopardize the crown jewels. Great leaders look at problems not as nuisances, but as opportunities to get better. (See So You've Got Problems. That's Probably Great News.)

  • Leaders who don't see change coming.

The list of losers who didn't see critical changes coming to their industries-- from Blackberry and Blockbuster to Borders-- just keeps growing as the rate of change and the emergence of new technologies keeps accelerating. Today the question is no longer how fast you are, but how fast your business is getting faster in delivering whatever your product or service may be. No one can afford to stand still and the best companies spend a lot of time and energy looking over the horizon. This is precisely why so many of them are engaged now with startups at 1871.

But, as I told Anna afterwards, some of the companies that did see the changes coming were actually the worst offenders because they were afraid to face the facts. Kodak invented digital imagery, but didn't want to bring it to market and kill its profitable film business. The Swiss created, then shunned, digital watches and let the Japanese flood the market and put 50,000 Swiss watchmakers out of work in two years (1979-1981). Instead of reacting, these companies turned a blind eye or tried to ignore or bury the risks.

  • Leaders who don't manage their impact on others.

I always say that no leader should expect his or her people to listen to their words and ignore their actions. Leaders are everyday role models (like it or not) and - in their daily interactions with team members-- can cast light or shadows, but they can't escape the impact and the impressions they make on everyone around them. They often act without even knowing or appreciating just how substantial those might be. And, in the broader context, where we're all so intimately and continually connected, the statements and the brand "promises" that your business makes bounce all around the globe and, here again, even the best of us can only control a small portion of the stories being told. But the fact that it's harder these days than ever and that it's a 24/7 job doesn't excuse anyone of the responsibility for, and the consequences of, what they say and do.

Bottom line: there's no magic bullet or mystery to this stuff. It's not so much a case of being instructed as it is one of needing to be regularly reminded that (a) nothing good happens by itself and (b) you are the person primarily responsible for making the right things happen. Come to play every day, pay attention to the details, don't take anything for granted, and keep raising the bar. However high you've risen, it's still always about attitude and not altitude.

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