“Burn the Boats” – The Toughest Leadership Command

We all like Plan “B” options that afford us escapes when things don’t work out. In 1519, Captain Hernán Cortés landed in Veracruz to begin his great conquest. Upon arriving, he gave the order to his men to burn the ships. How’s that for bold leadership?

What Cortés did was force himself and his men to either succeed or die. Retreat was not an option. To truly achieve the level of success we each desire, there are times when we need to “burn the boats.”

leadership, business, entrepreneur

The obvious question becomes “what are my ships”? For starters your ship may be anything that you are afraid to let go of.

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The Millennial Mindset Is Nothing New

As some of you know, I run a contrarian view of the widespread concern for millennials in the workplace. Time and time again I find workshops and speakers touting their newfound wisdom about how “to cope with millennials in the workplace”.

Executives everywhere are pondering this epidemic conundrum, or so the pundits tell us. I, on the other hand, am the father of 5 such citizens. These are 30–something, young adults who are moving through their lives, working jobs, making budgets, having kids, and basically living life, one new experience at a time, just like we all have done.

millennial, business, workplace, entrepreneur

Are they really different? I say not so much.

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Leaders: Making the Best of Change Management

4 Steps to Remember

Though first recognized as a management discipline in the 60’s, change management (CM) is a discipline that rose in prominence in the 90s.

I share a bitter-sweet experience with formal change management protocols. Being a pragmatic and common sense kind of guy, my best work has involved making complex things simple for everyone around me to understand.

Courtesy 123rf.comI have seen “change management professionals” who bring a very complex set of tools and vocabulary to the workplace. Often the project is doomed to fail before it ever starts because the sheer weight of the new terms being used burden the effort beyond most employee’s capacity to comprehend.

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Are You Leading on Purpose?

Managers, leaders, and business owners come to work everyday with a wide variety of mindsets. Sometimes the focus is on the next big problem or maybe it is about the next big deal. Priorities vary day-to-day.

Regardless of the topic du jour, there should always be a tie to your purpose. Losing sight of one’s purpose has tremendous, and sometimes lasting effect. I ask again, are you leading on purpose?

EXEC-retentionOf course there’s a little play on words here. We all can lead intentionally if we choose. We can mean to do something, say something, or purpose to be something. These are all noble causes.

I am talking about the ultimate purpose that you sense for your life. Have you been able to connect with the fire within that excites you, drives you, and gets all your faculties engaged to tackle the day? Do you see a long term fulfillment in what you are doing at work, at home, and in your community?

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Managers! The Problem Is NOT the Problem

People in management and leadership deal with problems all day long. Plans and projects get started, procedures are written and taught, but things go awry.

Challenges present themselves in so many forms. People problems, supply problems, customer problems, and so on and so on.

37226366 - problem solution flow chart with basic questions, business concept

A lot of physical and emotional energy gets spent solving problems. For managers, problem solving is a big part of your job description. It can be argued that management is nothing but problem solving. Yet there is one thing that I find curious about most problems.

Usually, the problem is not the problem. The problem is the way we are thinking about the problem.

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The Business Ladder

Hacks for Climbing Your Way to the Top

From time to time, people ask me about career potential. This infographic was compiled from U.S. government data. It’s a fairly comprehensive story, worth sharing.


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Leadership Bullet: Don’t Water the Weeds

If you are trying to grow a garden, weeds are bad, right? When you are in leadership and someone talks about “the Weeds”, you either think about your bad employees or you think about details that feel like they are choking you (as in ‘lost in the weeds’).

Both ideas may be true and we will talk about those, but there are other weeds that creep in to your life, impacting your productivity and effectiveness as a leader.

Here are some of the other weeds:

  • Relationships that need repair or elimination.
  • Outside interests where you never say NO.
  • Your own distractions like email and social media.
  • Thought patterns that have developed over time.
  • Habits that steal health, wealth, and well being.

56352795 - wheelbarrow full with garden weeds and tools in a garden

The first step in successful weed management is to stop watering the weeds!

Weed factors have a way of constantly grabbing your attention. Squeaky wheels get grease right? Yes, they do! The weeds always have a way of interrupting progress and needing attention.

Constantly allowing the noise to be disruptive is a kind of watering; positive reinforcement. Every time you allow a person or thing to cause you to behave differently than you intend, you are watering a weed.


Relationships can be very large weeds. They spring up and grow, soon to be discovered as useless. At first the relationship might be nice and warm. There may be a hopeful sense that this thing can be positive. Soon the relationship turns into demands for time, resources, or worse, convictions.

Your personal values may get challenged by the person on the other side of the relationship. Your judgment about right and  wrong can be tested. Your own sense of commitment to the relationship draws you further into the net, yet time after time, you begin to feel used and or displeased with the fruit of the relationship.

Maintaining the contact and allowing the opportunity for the other person to use you and your good nature is futile. You have to break it off.

Outside Interests

Many people have a sense of responsibility to serve their communities outside of work and family. On one hand, that is what makes our country so great.

From time to time though, the constant acceptance of roles and responsibilities elsewhere becomes weeds in our life too. People who constantly say yes, get tagged as such and are routinely asked for more and more; more time, more money, more service.

Soon the calendar is so full there is no time for the personal priorities you need to maintain. Conflicts arise. Stress increases. All because some new weeds have grown.

Your Own Distractions

How much time do you spend sifting through emails, texts, and other social media posts and pings? It is so easy to stay distracted by all that noise. STOP!

Set aside some time in each day to get your electronic fix. Then go on with other, more productive activities that are on your schedule.

Don’t let the lure of being connected keep you from being truly connected with the people around you who have higher value and deserve more of your focus.

Stay in the moment. If you are at lunch or dinner with someone, put away the phone. Connect with that person. Give them your undivided attention. Begin working on meaningful relationships.

Improve Your Thought Patterns

An old mentor once introduced me to the concept of “stinking thinking”. We all suffer from ‘voices’ that programmed us to believe we did not have what it takes to endure a situation, be successful, or try something new.

Maybe it was that third grade teacher who embarrassed you in front of the class, or the parent who never encouraged you to do anything, but belittled your initiatives.

Allowing any of those voices to dominate your frame of reference today is stinking thinking. Rise above those negative energies and go ahead and do what you believe you can.

Let me also mention your comfort zone here. What you hold onto as a comfort zone can actually be part of stinking thinking. Comfort zones can be big weed patches. Refrain from continually falling back into the comfort zone. Stretch your reach a bit. Find a new zone.

Bad Habits

The habits we develop can be weeds too. Whether the habit involves eating, spending, lifestyle, or other tangible experiences, your habits may be your biggest weeds. Stop watering them.

If you need to, get professional help breaking a cycle. Habits have a way of robbing us of our best potential. You can lose time in the day feeding a habit. You can certainly lose money with bad habits.

Most importantly you can damage good relationships with bad habits.

Oh and the First Two Types of Weeds

Employees –  I mentioned bad employees can be considered weeds at work. Watering those weeds includes actions like tolerating less than acceptable behavior.

You hire on skill and fire on behavior.

That’s an old saying in HR circles, but very true. Questionable behavior at work should not be tolerated. Coaching and counseling is required. If the employee cannot or will not respond to the effort, then action must be taken to eliminate the weed.

I love the way Jim Collins (Good to Great) describes employee selection, training, and retention.

[Paraphrasing…]Get the right people on the bus and put them in the right seat on the bus. When you realize someone is not a fit, get them off the bus.

Details –  Yes, the details we suffer at work can bog us down. As managers, we have to establish an appropriate attention to detail that changes as we promote up into the organization.

When you were on the front line as a single contributor at work, details were your life. All the details about your assigned duties were your first responsibility.

When you get selected to be manager, you have to step away from some of those details. You have to rely on the team who works for your to handle the details. Yet you must establish reporting and accountability within your team so that details are not lost or forgotten.


Just like in agriculture, weeds come in all shapes and sizes. Eradication of weeds requires careful treatment. Certainly one of the best alternatives is to stop watering! Even with lack of water, some weeds survive for much too long. That’s when other, specifically designed effort is required to get rid of the weed.


Use some of the ideas above to evaluate what weeds exist in your garden right now. Decide today what you can do to get rid of those pesky nuisances so that yours is a garden of lush, rich, and vibrant color and beauty, flourishing for others to enjoy.

Throwback Thursday

Begin With the End in Mind

Today we celebrate a Throwback Thursday. Here’s an article that first appeared last November.

Begin with the end in mind. This is one of the wisest teachings I have heard in a long time. Anyone who has been appointed as a new manager should be thinking about this vital aspect of the new role they are playing at work.

Step #2 in Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits” is ‘begin with the end in mind’. I was thinking about this the other day and it occurred to me that many things do not end well.

There are the obvious examples like divorces, car crashes, job loss, health issues, and financial change (downward). Then there are the things like our favorite TV shows that came to an end. Shows like Lost, Friends, Fraser, and Boston Legal all had pretty good endings. But some very successful and well admired shows had really bad endings; think fade to black on The Sopranos. How often have you seen a movie or read a book and said “gee, I didn’t like the way it ended”?

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Change by Choice or by Chance

As I look back on my career, the major milestones are combinations of things done by choice and some by chance.

I would like to claim I had made all of my decisions by choice, not chance. That simply would not be true. Regardless of the reason for making a move, in all cases, change was the common requirement.

Whether I made a job change or location move by choice, change was there. The occasional chance happenings still required some form of change on my part.

3c concept - choice, chance and change

3c concept – choice, chance and change

You can try to plan your career (and I encourage everyone to do so), but some things happen by chance that alter the course of the best laid plans. Circumstances can change in an instant when companies get acquired or spun off. Market crashes and economics alter what would have been the plan. Layoffs happen and lives are changed. Or you get unexpectedly recognized for an accomplishment and you are whisked off to another assignment.

Big change can occur almost instantly. The question is what are you going to do with such a change?

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Managing Performance: Inspect What You Expect

Here’s a little story to start today’s discussion.

A man was the first to arrive at work one morning.

The phone rang and he answered. When the caller asked for some specific information, the man explained that it was before normal business hours but that he would help if he could.

“What’s your job there?” the caller asked.

The man replied, “I’m the company president.”

There was a pause. Then the caller said, “I’ll call back later. I need to talk to someone who knows something about what’s going on.”

Could anyone say this about your department or business? What do you do to stay in touch with what is going on?


Once upon a time, the CEO of a very highly regarded and supposedly profitable international energy trading company was found to not really know what was going on in the C-suite right next to him. The absence of information dumbfounded much of the business world at the time. (Can you say ‘Enron’?)

Yet the discussion that followed proved that yes, there was a tremendous amount if information that was neither ever shared with nor understood by the head guy.

Personally, I found that troubling. Can the CEO of a large company know everything going on in the trenches? Of course not. But should they know enough about the direction the ship is sailing? Absolutely!

The lower down the corporate ladder you live, the more detail about your team you should understand.

I was once the department head of a group that had about 250+ employees. One day while walking the floor checking on things (management by walking around), a relatively new employee stopped me to ask a question. He posed a fairly detailed question about the analysis of a transaction he was working on. I walked him through the process and the calculation.

He seemed amazed. I asked him why the look on his face? He said I didn’t expect the “big dog” to know how to do this. I replied “How do you think I got to be the Big Dog?”

Sadly, the perception throughout much of today’s workforce is that the boss doesn’t know squat about the work being performed. Perhaps that is an evolutionary thing. But I digress.

While I cannot deny having experienced my own share of upper management who had no clue about what was going on below them, the boss who did “get it” was always a Rock Star.

Growing with the Organization

Your reputation as a leader can hinge on whether or not you maintain awareness for details running below your position in the company.

As you rise to new challenges, get promoted, and advance through your career, keep the appropriate attention to detail. When your span of control starts to exceed your capacity to manage all the little things, that is when proper delegation of authority is required.

You can delegate all you want. The key though is giving that delegation to people who have demonstrated the ability to handle the responsibility. This is where your own ability to nurture and coach your own team comes into play.

Start Small.

Identify one person on the team whom you you believe you can trust with the authority; authority given by you. As was once said “trust but verify”. At first you need to check on the things that are being delegated.Soon, assuming all goes well, you can reduce the times you verify. Maintain your own sense of reporting and accountability.

As you delegate more, create a reporting mechanism to be sure the things you want to see accomplished are happening the way you expect.

Another old saying is “you must inspect what you expect.” Don’t be afraid to check on the things you assigned to others.

A System to Help

One very functional system is the “Big 5”. This was designed by Roger Ferguson, GPHR. In Big 5, employees prepare regular recurring monthly status reports of the top five things they were assigned. The reports roll up to managers. Big 5 has even been used at several Fortune 500 companies to replace annual employee assessment tools.

I highlight that Big 5 is not a long, drawn out status report. It is accomplished with short bullet points, taking perhaps no more than a one half page email to communicate.

Supervisors and managers can use the monthly reporting cycle to review tactical performance and accomplishments with each employee. There is no waiting for the big annual review process. Feedback is swift. Remediation of less than expected performance can be handled promptly. The manager and the employee can calibrate their expectations and results.

With Big 5 there is very little deviation from the course you agreed to follow. Targets are set monthly and adjusted as work load and circumstances dictate. It is a tremendously effective way to gauge output and manage efficiently.

Lastly, when it comes to annual salary administration for merit awards, you take a look at the prior 12 reports for each employee. You’ll have 120 data points from which to make your decisions about the merit increases. It provides all the documentation you would ever need to defend a salary action. This system has been tested and proved compliant with salary disputes.

If you want to know more about Big 5, click the button below.

Tell Me More About BIG 5

Here’s a video interview I recently conducted with Roger.

BIO: Roger Ferguson is the Founder and Lead Consultant at iSi Human Resources Consulting, LLC, based in Houston, Texas.  His passion is improving corporate performance management systems and his book, “Finally! Performance Assessment That Works,” introduces Big Five Performance Management, a common sense alternative to the traditional approach.  The book is now available on Amazon and Kindle.