Nine Lessons I wish I had been taught before

By Christos Tsolkas

I have been asked a couple of times to share with junior audiences some of the knowledge and personal views I have gathered on business and management during the last 20 or so years. Here is a summary of the nine lessons I wish I had learned earlier, and which I want to share with you.

#1 Marketing is an art. Despite all analytics, big data, decision supports systems, segmentation techniques, etc. (which, of course, are necessary, indeed), at the end of the day, marketing (here I mean packaged goods consumer marketing where brand image is of critical importance) is rooted in intuition, tacit knowledge and inspiration. In essence, it is an art.

#2 Leave the ‘hot calls’ for tomorrow. Dealing immediately with an issue carrying high emotional content and weight and which requires action is a mistake. The phrase ‘sleep with the XYZ idea first’ exactly covers the need to pass the problem from all parts of the brain, the left and right, the forth and back, the conscious and – ideally – the unconscious first, and only then react. Some people use the filtering question ‘Does it really matter’ to grant themselves some ‘breathing’ space, to understand the true importance and urgency of the issue before making the call. I have fallen into the trap of soon-regretted fast reactions many times.

#3 Adapt-adapt-adapt. Nature shows the way. Whoever or whatever does not follow the rule of continuous adjustment in any business ecosystem is simply ‘gone’. Cutting across disciplines and functions, career stages, tasks, geographies and cultural differences, adaptability and agility are truly essential for business and personal survival.

#4 The brain’s ‘muscles’ grow irreversibly. Unlike the body’s muscles that can fall dormant after stopping regular training and experience a natural shrinking, the human brain, after having undergone ‘mental training’ – challenges, new ideas, visions and dreams, innovative conceptions beyond boundaries, ‘expansion’ – never returns to its previous shape. It never weakens. Growing employees’ capabilities always pays off.

#5 Keep a notebook. Some of the top executives I met in the past or observed during important business meetings rarely, if ever, took notes. Maybe they were hoping to hint at a superior memory or intelligence. This might also was arrogance, indifference, over-delegation or simply laziness. A notebook (either analogue or digital) helps not only to capture the specifics of a meeting, but also helps to recall and retrieve later, even after years have passed. It has happened to me many times, digging into my notes and hiring (for instance) a person of interest I met years before.

#6 People first. For many of my risk-taking years, doing the proper thing without considering the political repercussions left me frequently feeling like I would only be in a job or an industry temporarily. Nevertheless, I always put people first. Collaborators, colleagues and the team were all shown to be my highest priority. Ironically, the dividend was always paid back to the company because, all together, collectively, we were creating the conditions to take the corporation higher and higher. Love is contagious and certainly fits somewhere in the balance sheet.

#7 Competitive advantage. Brands, financial strength, patents, secret formulas, inherited expertise. All of these could be pockets of competitive advantage, but all of them, more and more, can do the job for less and less time, as competition grows increasingly hard and ruthless. Everything can be copied, and rather fast, these days. I therefore tend to believe that the ultimate source of competitive advantage is the content of our brains, our future plans, our knowledge not yet expressed. It is the only element that cannot be replicated.

#8 Get on board – fix it on board. Life is not necessarily sequential, development is not incremental and business conduct is rarely linear and predictable. Evolution is, most of the time, turbulent with exponential outcomes. Therefore, learning how to work in ambiguity and how to operate in chaos and at the same time get results is imperative. Today’s leaders need to be able to jump on board and fix issues while travelling.

#9 Be on fire. The relationship between efforts and results over time represents a normal distribution. The more you push, the more results you get. It is quite common in organisations, however, for the peak performance to occur much earlier than expected, as well as a traumatic decline and collapse. A proven remedy is to exercise immense pressure early and fast. While the performance curve is developing nice and high, you can decide suddenly to stop. No pressure, just silence. People who have worked in such conditions tend to be surprised, ’Why?’, ’Is it my fault?’, ’What happened?’ they will ask. They approach the leader and ask for more. That’s the tipping point. It is the moment when a new performance curve starts building up. So, move on, push more, and consecutive new curves will lead you to stellar results. I call this being ‘on fire’.

Christos Tsolkas (May 2014)

Image: Jon Bennett/Chesterfield School Boys/Flickr

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