No Surprises

“In business, there is no such thing as a good surprise.”

–     Steve Heston

Is it gratuitous to quote yourself in your own blog?  Dang.  Sorry ’bout that.

I hope it wasn’t a surprise, though.  Because there really are no good surprises.

“But, Boss,” the sales person says, “the deal came in 20% more and ten days sooner than we forecast.”  As often as not, that says more about the ability to forecast than it does the sales acumen.  “I made 331% of my quota!”  Sorry, the quota was either poorly set, or we don’t know our business as well as we should.*

And it’s not just deal-centric.  “No raises this year,” on the day raises were expected to be announced is a failure of leadership, not of budgeting.  A bad performance review?  It should have been signaled a dozen or more times in the weeks leading up to the review period.  (Better yet, ditch the formal / annual / forced review period in favor of constant, consistent feedback.  Waiting six months or a year to do reviews is an outdated practice, one that is a clear indication of structure over strategy, and that’s backwards.)  Personnel decisions in particular should never be surprises.

In general, surprises mean we’ve failed to set expectations, and they usually mean our environment isn’t designed for success to be the most likely outcome.  (See the REELAX Model here.)  Can surprises always be avoided?  Of course not.  But difference makers bend over backwards to communicate, communicate and communicate — to build solid expectations and deliver on them, predictably and consistenly.

Leaders lead.  And good leadership means dang few surprises.


* Editor’s Note:  There are “blue birds,” I get it, deals that just happen.  For example, a whole bunch of media sales people benefitted from the windfall of hundreds of millions of dollars of political advertising thrown into the mid-term elections.  The leaders that really get the business, though, at least talked about the possibility of that happening before the money came rolling in.  I’m beating a long-deceased equine here, but the point is this:  Avoid surprises like the plague.  You’ll never regret it.


“The wisdom of life consists of eliminating the non-essentials.”

–     Lin Yutang (1895 – 1976), Chinese writer, philosopher and inventor

“Less often, more better.”  That’s a good mantra for a finely-tuned, focused, growth company.  (I especially like it because, as long-time subscribers know, “more better” is a technical term here at The Heston Group…)  Or, as Dieter Rams, the German-born designer and consumer products expert says it, “Weniger aber besser,” or less is better.

So, where am I going with this?  Getting to the essentials.  Honing in on the important at the expense of the urgent.  Winning, being successful in the most significant terms…

Greg McKeown’s book, “Essentialism; The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” is a staple for leaders who want to be successful without ultimately permitting their success to be their undoing.  More on that undoing part in a bit…

Non-essentialists are pulled in a hundred directions.  Their energy is scattered about in an attempt to be something to everyone or, worse, all things to all people.  McKeown points out that non-essentialist live unsatisfying lives, and often feel out of control and exhausted.

Essentialists, on the other hand, choose to live a life that matters, focusing on only the few things that really matter.  As the book accurately and compellingly captures, essentialists experience more joy.

As for the concept of success ultimately being our undoing — essentialism is the best defense against the paradox of success, which McKeown captures as:

Phase I:  Clarity of purpose enables us to succeed

Phase II:  Success makes us a “go-to” person

Phase III:  Increased demands on time = diffused efforts / focus

Phase IV:  Distracted; the effect of our “success” undermines the very clarity that creates it

Today, we’ll each likely have several dozen opportunities to focus on the urgent at the expense of the important.  We’ll be tempted by someone or something to diffuse our efforts, water down our clarity and experience less joy.  The essentialists among us will resist the temptation.  We will choose to engage less often, but more better.

If a word picture would help, Seth Godin nails it (yet again) in his blog post this morning, albeit from a slightly different angle.  If we’re “saving a bunch of string that is too short to be saved,” we’re not focused on essentials.

Editor’s Note:  Greg McKeown’s blog is as solid as you’ll find, as well.

Thanksgiving — It’s A Verb

“Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled our light.”

–    Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), Alsatian (then Germany, now France) philosopher, among other credentials

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies within yourself.”

–     Tecumseh (1768-1813), Native American / Shawnee Chief, possibly the first example of “working across the aisle” in politics

This week, we mark my favorite holiday. Not the most important holiday, mind you. At our house, that’s still Easter, with Christmas close behind.

No, I said my favorite holiday.

It’s the one we haven’t screwed up. Yet. Major retailers have long been making a great effort to wreck it…but as far as holidays go, Thanksgiving is still hard to beat.

It’s simple.  Straightforward.  We gather with people we genuinely love, need, care about and are thankful for, and we give thanks.

Plain and simple, in the right context, thanksgiving is a verb.

And, if we do it right, and are living to the fullest, it’s a very active verb.

Whether your flame is flickering today, or whether you’re restoring someone else’s, consider approaching the day from a thankful perspective. Some of us – some of you – face trying times, and not just in this season. Tecumseh’s point holds though, something, and likely many things, are better for us than they are for someone we know – so instead of waiting for Thursday, let’s see if we can establish the discipline of being thankful today, and every day.

Let’s agree to take the November out of Thanksgiving, even as we celebrate Thanksgiving in November.


Editor’s Note:  The Diff takes a break until Monday, giving way to family, food, friendship and, hopefully, a resounding Iowa Hawkeye victory on Friday over Nebraska. Make it a great weekend!

Pressure vs Stress

“Pressure is healthy.  It can lead to improvement.  Stress is unhealthy.  It can lead to mistakes.”

–     John Wooden (1910 – 2010), legendary basketball coach at UCLA, from his book “The Essential Wooden” (co-authored with Steve Jamison)

The “Wizard of Westwood” goes on to say, “I wanted our team members to feel pressure so that their opponents would feel stress.”

And, there, with a tidy little ribbon around it, we have a solid commentary on competition.  When we’re so well prepared that the people we’re competing with make mistakes because they’re worried about competing with us, we’ll win.  A bunch.  Like Coach Wooden did.

Coach Wooden talks about “precise and concise instruction and demonstration,” as keys to practice, and practice, as we all know, is the key to success on our chosen playing field or marketplace.

One of the coolest takeaways from Coach Wooden’s approach is that it was almost entirely internally focused.  He didn’t coach one way against USC and another way against Notre Dame, he coached the game the way he believed it should be played.  And he won.  A bunch.  Seven national championships in a row and ten in one twelve-year stretch.  At one point UCLA won 88 games in a row.  By relentlessly executing on what his teams set out to do.

What did they set out to do?

Get better every day.

And, it’s not that Coach was against change, either.  He began his coaching career in 1949 and retired in 1975 after more than 820 games, having coached the winning team in 80% of those games.  His approach evolved regularly, and he adapted to changes in rules, talent, size and speed of players.  The reason the change didn’t stand out more was that he did it every day, a little at a time, by creating and relishing in the pressure that leads to improvement, at the expense of the stress that leads to mistakes.  He never compromised on discipline, though, or his “team first” approach to outcomes.

Coach Wooden won.  A bunch.  And, he did it by intentionally creating the kind of pressure that made his team get better.  Every day.


Shrinking Market or Shrinking Mind? Why Talent Selection Is So Important

“All of these people had character.  None of them thought they were special, born with the right to win.  They were people who worked hard, who learned to keep their focus under pressure, and who stretched beyond their ordinary abilities when they had to.”

–     Dr. Carol S. Dweck in her book “Mindset; The New Psychology of Success” at the end of a section on champions who won without playing their best

Last week’s series on The Heston Group leadership model began with “R,” recruiting and retaining the best talent we can possibly afford…

I believe that’s key.  But there is one thing that trumps talent.

Mindset.  And it should over-rule pure talent when we’re selecting / de-selecting our team members.

Mindset is what puts us in a position to win even when we don’t have our best stuff.  That’s why I’ll take a talented person with a growth mindset over an amazingly talented person with a fixed mindset every time.  As for the REELAX model, that’s why the Environment and Expectations are so important — talent is a great place to start, but it’s just a start.  In other words, selecting for culture is at least as important as drafting the star player, lest we risk throwing off the balance of the team.

Market application matters, so if you’ll forgive me a slightly-longer-than-usual post today, let’s look at the mindset / talent selection matter from the market’s perspective.

Everywhere we look we find “shrinking markets,” right?  With the exception of IT / IT Services, one need not look far to see contraction, if we believe the media and / or our simplistic view of those markets.

Retail is shrinking, right?  Banking is shrinking, right?  Telcom, commercial real estate, legal services — all downsizing and pulling back, right?

That’s the fixed mindset view.

Let’s just look at the first two examples.  Retail isn’t shrinking.  Amazon just reinvented the way we purchase consumer goods.  Banking?  Even with one fewer bank (and credit union) this morning than there was Friday, the number of people consuming banking-like services is not going down. Fintechs and disruptors like Apple, Sofi, Starbucks, Square and Venmo are simply affecting the way the services get consumed, and the business models of those that provide those services.  Bankers and provider beware, by the way, it’s coming to commercial lending, too.

The question we have to answer today is simple:  Is the market shrinking or is it just our mindset?  And when we choose who we’re going to add to or keep on our teams — we need to get this in crystal-clear perspective.

Dad always said, “If you keep doin’ what you’re doin’ you’re gonna get more of what you’ve got.”  These days, what “we’ve got” may be obsolete, or, at the very least, subject to attack from competitors or just from the status quo.  If we’re going to win in these times, we’d better be willing to grow our mindsets.  (Buy and read the book.  You’ll be glad you did…)

Times of great challenge and great change call for ideas – because ideas are the currency of difference makers.  And ideas sprout best from a growth mindset.

Instead of “Woe is me,” let’s strive for, “WHOA!  It’s me!”



A Week to REELAX — Part V

“All organizations start with WHY.  Only the great ones keep their WHY clear, year after year.”

–     Simon Sinek (b. 1973), British author of “Start With Why” and four other books

Yes, the “X” stands for “Why?”

“Heston,” you might be saying, “you need to work on your alphabet.”

OK, OK.  The “X” stands for “X-ray everything you do or don’t do until you understand why you’re doing it or not doing it.”

The typical business or team expends 90% or more of its energy on the what and the how.  This is what we do and this is how we do it.  Instead, if we were to focus on the why, the what becomes almost impossible to lose sight of and the how matters less, as long as we’re keeping to our culture and our expectations.

Russell Ackoff, an icon in the beer industry and a leadership guru said it this way:  “All of our social problems arise out of doing the wrong things righter.  The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become.  It is much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter.  If you do the right thing wrong and correct it, you get better.”

And therein lies the whole reason to REELAX, and the whole purpose of The Heston Group.

Getting better.

When we know why we’re doing something (or why we’re not doing something) it all lines up.  Especially if we’ve put the other pieces of the puzzle in place, as well.  When we know “Why?” and we start at the top, we get better, ever day.  So, know why.

And then, REELAX!  

Recruit / Retain the best talent we can possibly afford, create an Environment where success is the most likely outcome and set Expectations that are so clear they cannot be misunderstood.  Lead.  Great talent expects to be led, not managed.  Rely on Accountability that runs all directions through all levels of the unit and finally, X-ray everything until we understand “Why.”

This approach to our teams and our business will make a difference.  We will get better every day.  And while “perfect” is a pipe-dream, “better every day” is as good as it gets!

A Week to REELAX — Part IV

“The best kind of accountability on a team is peer-to-peer.  Peer pressure is more efficient and effective than going to the leader, anonymously complaining and having them stop what they are doing to intervene.”

–     Patrick Lencioni (b. 1965), author of the best series of business books you could ever buy…pick one, then read ’em all!

The “A” is for accountability.

When we get it right, accountability runs all day, every day, in all directions in our team and our businesses.  Every member of the team ought to be able to hold every other member of the team accountable, regardless of rank, role or tenure.  If the person on the factory floor knows that the CEO expects and is ready to walk his or her talk out there on that floor, not only has the rubber hit the road, but we’re cruising at highway speed!

If sales doesn’t see what they need from finance or product, the accountability should be just as intense as it is to the sales pro chasing a number.  Not only should every functional team be accountable to every other functional team, every team member ought to be accountable to do a) what they say they’ll do and b) what they’re needed to do.

It’s why getting the second “E” (expectations) right is so important.  If everyone knows what’s expected, everyone is marching to the same, and more importantly, the correct drum.

Up and down.  Over and across.  Accountability that is relentless, in the context of the model, gets us closer to our targets faster.

REELAX — Recruit / Retain the best talent we can possibly afford, create an Environment where success is the most likely outcome, set Expectations that are so clear they cannot be misunderstood and set in place Accountability that runs every direction, all day every day.

That leaves only the “X” factor — tomorrow.

A Week to REELAX – Part III

“We must not only give what we have; we must also give who we are.”

–     Desire-Joseph Mercier (1851 – 1926),  Belgian Cardinal and noted Thomist scholar

The “L” is for lead.

Recruit / Retain the best talent you can possibly afford, create an Environment where success is the most likely outcome and set Expectations that are so clear they can not be misunderstood.  Then, lead.  Don’t manage.  Great people don’t want or need to be managed.  Great people expect to be led.

In fact, management is a greatly over-rated skill set in the modern, knowledge-based economy.

Leadership is not only under-rated, it’s too often AWOL.

If we’re spending time reviewing every receipt on the expense report, second-guessing our teams or weighing in on every decision — we’re not leaders.  We’re the problem.  Leaders hire people they can trust and they trust the people they hire.  Leaders know that it’s ok to measure yourself on how often you decide, and they also know they should take the “under” on that bet.  In other words, the higher up the ladder we get in our careers, the less frequently we should be deciding.  Leaders recruit, develop and retain talented teams and then they pay them to decide.

“But, Steve!” you might be asking, “what if they screw up?”

They will.    Part of it is environment and expectations.  Even strong talent needs to know the ground rules, or at least the landscape that determines when they can and should decide, and they have to be able to function in the gray space around the edges of those limits.  And make no mistake, they will, from time-to-time, screw up.  Just as we do.  And when they do, leaders use mistakes as teachable moments.  In fact, great leaders celebrate mistakes and use them as fertile grounds for learning.

Leaders function in this realm:   “That was an awesome decision, great job, Pat!  Tell us how you made it, please!”  Or, “Wow, Greg, that sure didn’t turn out like we expected, did it?  Let’s look at where the train jumped the tracks so that we don’t find ourselves in this position again, ok?  Let’s walk through it together…”  Leaders ask, “What would we do differently if we could, and what would we never do differently, even if we could.”  In asking and leading with questions like these, leaders set context, contributing to the “E’s” in the formula and leveraging the heck out of the “R.”

Which tees up the “A” for tomorrow…

REELAX — Recruit / Retain the best talent you can possibly afford, create an Environment where success is the most likely outcome, set Expectations that are so clear they can not be misunderstood, and then Lead.

Any guesses on the “A?”



A Week to REELAX – Part II

“People would rather believe than know.”

–     E. O. Wilson (b. 1929), American biologist

“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is.  Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.”

–     Stephen R. Covey

Yesterday, we set the stage with the “R;” recruit and retain the best talent you can possibly afford.

Next, we’re called to create an environment where success is the most likely outcome and to put in place expectations that are so clear they can not be misinterpreted.

Environment.  Expectations.

In the case of environment, it’s usually about removing obstacles.  Our systems, processes and biases are obstacle-builders, if we’re not careful.  When we honor processes over outcomes, and when we dictate what we will do by what we’ve always done, we risk sucking all the life out of our growth plans.  Good intentions or not, I’ve seen “the way we’ve always done it” kill growth in dozens of companies.  What’s even scarier?  It adversely affects good talent — people don’t want to be in a place where the primary obstacles are self-imposed.  The team has to believe that they’re supposed to win, not just know they might.

As for expectations, think “simple,” and “consistent.”  Complexity is our enemy, and we’ve all heard it over and over again, “Well, our business is very complex!”

Um, no.  It’s not.  And if it is, revisit “environment” above.  Difference makers, winners and leaders find the simplistic and build upon it, creating an environment where success is the most likely outcome.  That promotes belief.

So, then, what about expectations?  When our expectations are greater than the team’s current reality, the team will rise to those expectations, and become as they can and should be.  They.  Will.  Rise.  (If the “R” and the first “E” are in place, that is!)

When we put the right talent in an environment where winning is the most likely outcome, and provide expectations that are crystal-clear, we can literally feel the positive energy and forward motion.  It becomes the best possible kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  We succeed, because it would be difficult not to.

And that tees up the “L” for tomorrow’s post.

Summary — REELAX:  Recruit and Retain the best talent you can possibly afford, create an Environment where success is the most likely outcome, and provide Expectations that simply can’t be misunderstood...

I hope you’ll weigh in.  Comment below and let’s turn this in to a dialogue.

Until tomorrow, make a difference out there today!


A Week to REELAX – Part I

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit.  Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

–     Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860), German philosopher

This week, we’ll focus on The Heston Group’s framework for leading a business.  There can be a ton of stress in owning or running a business, and our philosophy and practices are aimed at helping private company’s leaders “reelax.”

It starts with talent.

The “R” means our first obligation is to recruit (and retain) the best talent we can possibly afford.  Because it all starts with talent.  There are some corollaries here, as with each other letter in the acronym.

Corollary #1:  It is better to be short-staffed than poorly-staffed.  Too often we fill a position instead of selecting the right talent.  If you have no open requisitions, but find the perfect addition to the roster, hire them anyway.  If you have six open positions, but no candidates that make the team better, don’t hire any of them.  Your top performers will notice, and appreciate the conscious, intentional commitment to improving the team.

Corollary #2:  De-selection is almost as important as selection.  It doesn’t matter how long someone has been in place, unless they’re making the team better.  That means that a key part of retaining talent is developing talent.  Constantly finding ways to challenge and grow key members of the team is crucial to long-term success.  And, when someone reaches their maximum potential, either because they’re unwilling or unable to keep growing, we have to choose; we either let them know that there won’t be any more upward movement, or we help them find a home somewhere else.  Moving people to great new careers can be a huge selling point in recruiting, because not everyone can grow up to be the boss, and when we get the “R” just right, that means we’ll become a employer of choice for high potentials, who will know that we’ll help them have the best possible future — here, or wherever they can make a difference.

Corollary #2-B:  De-selection is even more important when someone has stopped growing or is otherwise holding back the organization.  It should never be fun firing people, but again, your top performers will notice and appreciate it when you remove people who are holding the company back.  Regardless of rank, tenure, title or role.  And, they’ll notice when you don’t, at your own peril.

Back to the quote:  Relentlessly focusing on talent means you’ll keep raising the bar.  Getting talent so right that it evolves into genius means that you’ll set the bar for your market.  I bet we’d sign up for either of those two outcomes, right?

REELAX:  The “R” means recruit and retain the best talent we can possibly afford.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the two “E’s…”