30 Mar Northwoods Software co-owner distills 30 years of business experience
Early in his management career, Bob Weisenberg read a lot of books on management and leadership. One day, when he was about one-third of the way through yet another book, he realized he had read it before.
Now retired after a 30-year career in the software industry, Weisenberg says the way to excel at leadership is by getting good at applying a very limited number of skills, not by reading more books about it.
“After all, the measure of success is results, and not activities,” Weisenberg said. “Business success is almost always a result of good leadership, and how you foster to that within the company.”
Good leadership is like tennis, says Weisenberg, who competes around the country in various tennis tournaments. In a recent presentation to members of eInnovate in Milwaukee, the co-owner of Northwoods Software distilled the essentials of leadership down to four key points or strokes: communication; problem solving; people leadership; and the inner game.
“As a leader, you need to understand a person’s natural communication style, and even cater to it to a certain extent when working with him. Part of great leadership is being able to work well with people of all personality styles,” Weisenberg said.
But then you need to guide a person beyond his or her natural style if you want to take action and accomplish great things together, he said. The way to do this is by learning to listen, empathize, clarify, problem-solve and take action. Repeatedly using this approach helps get to the heart of the matter, and allows people to open up and truly work together, as it gets them involved in solving a problem.
Anyone can be a creative problem solver if they just understand a few basic principles and practice them routinely in everyday business life, Weisenberg maintains. The first is, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the immediate details of a difficult situation that we tend to lose sight of the real problem. The second is that stifling mechanisms get in the way of our natural creativity.
The best creative problem solving approach often comes from the subconscious mind, he said, and creating problem solving takes place in a zigzag line, not a straight one, requiring great persistence. Weisenberg recommends brainstorming by writing down bullet-point notes and not worrying about the problem you are trying to solve. Just let your mind go without trying to judge the content or structure.
You can also approach it from a more structured standpoint, making an outline of all the high-level issues and categories you can think of, filling in bullet points underneath the headings in an effort to come up with a better understanding of the problem and free up your creative thinking.
It is often effective to alternate back and forth between this top-down structured thinking and bottom-up brainstorm thinking, as the process seems to open up the brain and allow for new ideas to come to the fore.
Get used to asking unexpected people to help you solve problems, he adds, as they will be flattered that you asked. Also, your creativity can get a boost by simply making a list of people who are affected. This seems to personalize the impact of issues and lead to clarification of what is really important.
Remember the importance of focus in everything you do, says Weisenberg, who uses the analogy of a piece of paper under a magnifying glass in the hot desert sun. One can try moving the paper around getting it to light. But, when you finally get it lined up at the right angle, the paper will burst into flames within seconds. Creative problem solving is like that, he says.
Great leadership requires a deep understanding of people. Weisenberg says there are five critical things a person needs from a leader:
• Mission—why are we here and where are we going?
• Goals—what specifically do I need to accomplish?
• Feedback—how am I doing?
• Rewards—what’s in it for me?
• Support—where do I go for help when I get stuck?
When dealing with people, whether you are trying to develop them to their highest potential or trying to solve a performance problem, go through each of these elements in your head and try to get a handle a on what they need from you and what is missing.
“I have rarely encountered a people problem where there was not a gaping hole in one or more of these five elements,” Weisenberg said. “The solution almost always involves explicitly and aggressively filling the appropriate gap. Even if there are few problems to solve, these five elements are still essential for any person to achieve his/her full potential.”
People need different things from a leader at different stages of any project, depending on how much they already know about the work involved and what their attitude is. People with low knowledge need a directive style of leadership – they need to be told what to do and how to do it. As a person gets more competent, they require less direction and more of a coaching style of leadership that provides advice and motivation. After a while, a person requires almost no direction, and just support.
The inner game
Weisenberg says leaders can be recognized by the following characteristics, which closely mirror Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
• Customer satisfaction, quality and measurable results are their primary motivations.
• They have a keen awareness of the need for communication and teamwork.
• A sense of responsibility and involvement replaces the “victim” mentality.
• They take initiative in solving problems in a way that transcends the organization chart and “who’s right and wrong.”
• Their people orientation equals their technical orientation.
• They have a deep concern for truth beyond appearances and the “grapevine.”
• Persistence and creative problem solving become deeply ingrained habits that overcome day-to-day frustration.
• They engage in continual self-renewal.
This list is valuable to develop your own attitude and emotions, he says, but it’s also a list of the qualities you need to develop in all of the people that your work with.
“In the end, business is like sports leadership,” Weisenberg said. “It can come from the players on the field, or it can come from the coach. But, in business as in sports, the inner game is just as important as the outer game.”