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Leaders Letter 198 – Who Do You Serve & What’s The Prioritisation?

Dear leaders, who do you serve? 

And in what order do you serve them?

I remember an all-hands I attended and the EVP stood up and read from a very simple slide:

“We serve the shareholders first, then customers second and then the staff” 

It stuck with me, I was in a follow-up meeting and the same priorities were repeated, followed by:  

“We have to remember who we are serving”.

Whenever I brought this up with leadership colleagues they failed to remember this, not just because we were clearly saying we serve two other layers of the business before the staff but because it was quite subtle, despite the slide being clear for all to consume. 

This prioritisation isn’t uncommon but isn’t spoken enough in businesses.

Survive — Thrive 

Survive: As a business when you are trying to survive you do everything you can with conversion rate optimisation (CRO), take rate (if you have a checkout) and inside of the CFO’s spreadsheet including its complex formulas to drive the most value for the shareholders (or for the owners).  

Thrive: When you are thriving you do the same, however, you do have the luxury to add more value through your product or pricing to make it more equal, and the customers tend to get a slightly better value exchange.

CVO aka Customer value optimisation was a trendy phrase towards the end of last year and at the beginning of this, it’s essentially how you get the most amount of value from your customer, increasing subscription prices, creating surge (demand-based) pricing or reducing down the basic packages to drive upgrades. 

Some brands will use shrinkflation (making items smaller) to drive up efficiency. 

Rightly or wrongly – all of this is business first and as a business performance is paramount.

Netflix Competing Priorities

Netflix has been doing this for the last few years and it’s worked wonders for their share price but not necessarily for their customers. 

Netflix is even trying to remove the basic entry-level package and recommending downgrading the user experience (yes making it a worse experience) to fulfil their advertiser numbers – adding ads for £3 less per month. This tactic has proven price elasticity studies lower quality tariffs improve subscriptions numbers.

Advertising is a way these platforms make more money, paying a high subscription to move away from ads was the way streaming enabled customers to move away from the burden of ads and cheap/low-quality content. 

Netflix is now TV (adding live content like sports into your schedule) without it calling itself TV now. 

Is this smart? Or is this market dominance pushing for more that may lead to less for consumers? 

Managing Expectations & Packaging Prioritises + Problems

Having led Product teams, a startup within a company, big company changing pricing projects and helping subscription businesses to switch their business models, the common theme is putting the business first and constantly trading what you can do for your customers, your external customers through product improvements and your internal customers (staff) by helping them manage workloads and managing their expectations on the tradeoffs. 

It’s now Q2 and most businesses start to find out where they are and what they need to do to improve the business or push harder on what’s working. 

Enter Answer Engine Vs Search Engine 

I am a user of perplexity answer engine, it’s not replaced Google completely for me but it has replaced the need to refine my searches for the right answer. 

In a recent podcast (embedded below – start at 13:45 “The Importance of Aligning Shareholder and User Interests” if prefer the audio-only experience) their CEO Aravind Srinivas calls out why Google isn’t incentivised to always offer the best answers and why their business model isn’t geared towards their customers. 

This Google example is a great example of how businesses set out on a mission and then when successful, they diversify. 

Once this shifts you then serve different stakeholders in different orders. 

Google was released in August 1996 and then went public in 2004. = Shareholders had to come first. 

>> I have an upcoming post breaking down the evolution of search engines and what we will see in the near future with “engines” and why Google’s business model is under intense threat. Teaser below 

This week’s focus action is to: Consider the prioritisation of your business and associated priorities. If you are a smaller business how can you look to serve your customers first and improve your service to a point that they will continue to use you and keep recommending your product or services. 

Thanks and have a great week, 

Danny Denhard 

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Leaders Letter Newsletter

Leaders Letter 197 – Ask Me Anything Part 2

Dear leaders, this week I am going to answer a few follow-up questions I received this week. Thank you for your thoughtful questions and those who fed back – thank you!

The leadership questions I cover this week to help you include helping with: 

  • You or your colleagues to re-think where they think they are in their careers 
  • Quick wins for leaders wanting to improve their leadership skills 
  • Address challenges within companies 
  • How to build your executive edge (not just your ‘exec presence’)
  • How to reboot your career 
  • You to learn from hard lessons in my career 

Sharing Is Caring: Copy and paste this URL https://focus.business/blog/197 to help a colleague or team member who will benefit from this advice

» If you missed my AMA Part 1 read today 


What are 5 of the hardest lessons you have had to learn from in your career? 

  1. Leaving a workplace can be like a breakup with a long-term partner, everyone has that one former workplace, you can grieve, you will receive some unconstructive feedback, someone will always have something to say about you after you leave, you will receive some nasty comments and you will lose some “friends” in the process. If you feel this could be a case get some help through therapy, this will become more and more common in years to come. 
  2. Words and actions are often so disconnected you have to learn to dissect the words from the actions and drive the change yourself. 
  3. Colleagues will decide between professional friendships and their salary, salary almost always comes first and don’t be surprised. 
  4. A bad manager will put your career backwards if you are under them for six months – they’ll put you back a year. I have had two or three terrible managers and thankfully I learnt to get out in under six months. I thankfully had great people around me to guide me into a move for my mental health. 
  5. A company on the up is great to work in generally, a company on the way down (especially being hidden) can be an impossible company to operate in and personal development is limited

Bonus: However much you look out for your team members, department heads or senior colleagues you won’t be seen as doing enough for everyone


Are there any quick wins for leaders to get better at leadership? 

  • Learn how to present well, from creating a deck (or editing a deck) to presenting with confidence away from reading it word for word, slide by slide  
  • Learn storytelling basics and principles – capture attention and imagination, the more you compellingly tell the story and garner engagement the sooner you will improve as a leader  
  • Hard decisions have to be made – put yourself in a place where you can make hard decisions and know whether this is a quick or long process 

What are the biggest challenges companies are currently facing today, and how do you recommend the company addresses these?

  • Profitability and efficiency targets – hard for most employees to impact directly and have very little visibility. Show staff members how they can move the needle and be more open around performance and ownership. Move away from the spreadsheet view, it’s terrible for storytelling and connecting people to performance  
  • Culture – companies are dealing with social networks dividing people, political unrest and political opinions are being shared more loudly and many feel they have to have a side or pick a side. Aligning any of this and attempting to drive a positive work environment while building a culture around performance is particularly challenging. Unfortunately, I don’t have all of the answers on this one, what I do recommend is creating guidelines around topics for discussion within the work environment. Coinbase and 37Signals (Basecamp) were called out by recommending this at the time (and didn’t execute it well) but there are some valid points in helping to reduce external factors impacting the workspace 
  • Keeping staff happy – while losing colleagues and having to pick up their work. This is common until the headcount is replaced in the old normal but in today’s business landscape, this just isn’t going to happen. This needs leadership to step up, help readjust priorities and remove roadblockers 
  • Hard economy – for many it is tough and it’s hitting them harder than expected, while some big companies are cutting back on perks and some smaller firms are asking staff to return to the office, travel, food and drink prices increased. There is no fix here but there are ways companies can support their staff, help with travel or proactively help with reducing high prices. 

What are the best methods of career progression when you feel your career has stalled? 

  • Go and interview, get the experience back under your belt and understand your worth 
  • Build your own personal development plan – take control, write out the areas you have to improve, you want to improve and the areas you have always wanted to go into and set milestones. One follow-up recommendation: partner up with someone who will keep you accountable – this way you aren’t attempting to do too much and not celebrate the progress 
  • Get more experience – if that means helping other companies, helping a startup, or creating a side hustle you need broader experiences to help restart how you think and how you view your current situation 
  • Start learning again – most people in their career stop learning and stagnate, whether you are a specialist or a generalist you should be able to learn quickly. Reading a recommended book, listening to podcasts, downloading workbooks, signing up for a cohort course, and watching lectures on YouTube are all low-cost ways to learn and ways your company will pay for your development 
  • Write a professional SWOT and highlight where you need to improve and where you have the opportunity to drive your career or gain help driving it forward 
  • Get a mentor – someone who you look up to or people who will share their experiences and help put you first not just tell you how they did things 
  • Get a coach – this is biased advice however a great coach will help improve your skills, help to boost your own confidence and shape your near and long-term future. The best coach won’t just push you, they’ll help to reshape your ‘now, next and future’.  

I have read you need an edge as a leader, what do you recommend?

  • Be known for something important (not just your title) 
  • Be relatable and approachable (this goes a long way with the layers below you)
    Or be unavailable (time-constricted people’s time seems more valuable – don’t be the exec who celebrates with a busy badge of honour) 
  • Operate well under stress – if not you will struggle to drive positive change and the higher you go the more stressful it can become 
  • Be additive not defensive – add more than you create slowdown or stoppers 
  • Have a catchphrase or a look that sticks in people’s minds – this should reflect you authentically but it can also be crafted 

This week’s focus action is to create a list of actions to help you and your leadership development and the steps you will take moving forward and then help your team members create their own plan.

Have a great week and remember to sign up to the newsletter below

Danny Denhard

  • Leaders Letter 199 – Scoring To Win

    Leaders Letter 199 – Scoring To Win

    Dear leaders, have you ever sat in a meeting and stagnated, whether that’s with your team, in middle management or at the senior executive level? The one way most likely way to move forward for most is parking it and revisiting it. That’s long, frustrating and slows down decision-making.  Others like to grind it out and…


  • Leaders Letter 198 – Who Do You Serve & What’s The Prioritisation?

    Leaders Letter 198 – Who Do You Serve & What’s The Prioritisation?

    Dear leaders, who do you serve?  And in what order do you serve them? I remember an all-hands I attended and the EVP stood up and read from a very simple slide: “We serve the shareholders first, then customers second and then the staff”  It stuck with me, I was in a follow-up meeting and…


  • Leaders Letter 197 – Ask Me Anything Part 2

    Leaders Letter 197 – Ask Me Anything Part 2

    Dear leaders, this week I am going to answer a few follow-up questions I received this week. Thank you for your thoughtful questions and those who fed back – thank you! The leadership questions I cover this week to help you include helping with:  Sharing Is Caring: Copy and paste this URL https://focus.business/blog/197 to help a colleague…


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Leaders Letter Newsletter

Leaders Letter 196 – Ask Me Anything 2024 Answers

Dear leaders, thank you for your challenging questions this week. 

As you will see there are many great questions, covering Company Culture, Strategy, Google Gemini, Apple AI and my “controversial opinions”. 

Let’s dive straight in: 

Q. What do you think of Google’s release of Gemini and the backlash received? 

  • Google decided to release early, they felt rushed to compete and if I’m honest it appears they released a product that missed the mark. And in other ways, it overstepped the mark. 
  • Google created amazing advertising products (particularly AdWords) and is smart to understand when to play solo or when to be multi-player to own market share through collaboration (Android). This launch will worry advertisers and their business partners. 
  • The Gemini launch would suggest they are concerned about their competitors and misunderstanding what their customers want from an answers engine, not a search engine. Google is trying to balance being able to do both without upsetting their (primary audience) advertisers and their users. 
  • Google is the utility offering, it is the default site and most trusted site for many, and this won’t change for a long time – even with more botched Gemini launches.
  • Google will come back bigger and better but until they understand their part to play here, I believe Google will struggle to tame their shift in internal culture and answer user queries in the most effective ways. 
  • Always remember Google has a unique powerful ecosystem to leverage and distribute their product, Chrome, Android, and Google Search & importantly not being discussed inside Google Suite (Docs, Sheets, Slides etc) to test, iterate and apply market dominance, whereas others are forcing new behaviour. 

Q. How can brands learn from recent mass layoffs? 

There are a load of lessons that brands and company leads have to take away, here are my top 5 

  1. People have to come first, companies need their people they do not need a dream saying a more efficient company – people do not connect or resonate with this, even with huge bonus packages 
  2. Remove the (HR and business) jargon and quickly 
  3. Be first, be human – Don’t send an email, cut access and then force your employees to try and contact you about their employment 
  4. Many allow HR to do the letting go and tell their department leads not to contact their team members, this is an awful practice, managers reach out, make the time and explain the decisions to individuals – otherwise, you will end up on TikTok and news outlets explaining your bad decisions. Yes HR is there to protect the business however if you want to be a leader, lead from the front in the good and the bad 
  5. Layoffs should never be a surprise, if they are or will be in your business, share the business performance and what it will mean. 

Q. Meta has been on a tear, where do you think is their Achilles heel?  

  • Most likely would suggest it is Meta’s metaverse push. I believe it is their advertising and topping out on their cross-platform users. Unless they go into China (highly unlikely) Meta will struggle to grow further. 
  • Simply put, Meta is an advertising machine (like Google) that often hits them hard when their products struggle to convert users or the costs spiral. Meta will be around for years to come and is an important cultural tool in WhatsApp and Instagram, can WhatsApp make ads work in their chat app and can they squeeze more value from the Instagram app that is at best 20% creator (uploading content) and 80% viewers (who aren’t engaging in content as much and won’t create). 
  • WhatsApp being more popular in the US and Canada will delight Meta executives but it will also create trade-offs around advertising and paid subscription options (away from broadcasts) they have struggled to execute and ads are far from natural in chat apps. If anyone can make it work it’s Meta.  
  • Say what you want to but Facebook (their original product) is still an important part of their engine for Meta especially with older demographics and international audiences – this will decay over time but the Facebook app will continue to drive huge revenues and advertising opportunities, will another election be a problem for Facebook… 
  • I suspect Threads will launch an advertising product and won’t get the numbers to impress advertisers 
  • Unless Instagram releases a new killer product feature and increases organic reach from the everyday user a little more usage will slow and Instagram will be forced to show more ads and have more ad slots in the feed and within stories and even potentially DM like ads that LinkedIn have.

Q. Who will win Facebook or Apple in the VR space? 

  • VR is just a part of mixed reality and although Facebook owns a large percentage of the VR space it is not a space I ever see hitting the mainstream. 
  • For Zuck to come out and critique the Apple Vision Pro it is clear he is worried about an alpha product and the Apple hardware machine. 
  • The Vision Pro isn’t perfect but if you hear how people work in them, facetime in them and use them regularly for non-gaming tasks between the two I would say Apple has the advantage in the mixed reality (aka spatial computing) space. 

Q. What are a few unpopular or controversial opinions about today’s business world?

  1. Most large tech companies brought on company bloat themselves and never empowered middle managers and could keep running larger layoffs and feel the impact for 12-18 months – in 18 months time many brands will look back and say how did we really get here 
  2. Specialist managers are going to be invaluable for small and mid-sized companies. Especially those who want to be managers and develop teams and not just play politically. Large companies will have to embrace middle managers back into their hierarchy again.  
  3. The chat interface is not going to force mass adoption quickly enough for most AI companies 
  4. HR is going to become AI first – human-driven decisions second. HR had so many decision trees and the ability to add in performance data at an individual level that AI can make decent calls 
  5. Apple can win the current market in AI with two updates to iPhones – even though this is what investors demand, Apple will play the longer game and make time be on their side 
  6. Quarterly goal setting is never given enough time to be created, rolled out and evaluated 
  7. Re-forecasting in large businesses kills morale and wastes weeks of individuals’ time – it is a necessary evil in business, too many people are taken out every two weeks kills the delivery of work 
  8. There is not enough coaching within businesses and too many won’t push their companies to improve them professionally, most are happy to waste their L&D budget at conferences, waste on on-demand courses and cohort-based courses they will never complete  
  9. There are actually 4 layers to company culture, not just one. 
    1. Micro – 2. Sub – 3. Leadership 4. Company-wide. Micro culture(s) are between individuals and teams. 
    Sub-culture is between departments and cross-functional. 
    Leadership culture is how they set behaviours top-down and interact and engage with the company, leaders break culture as much as they make it. 
    Company-wide culture is a blend of other cultural formations. Most companies struggle with company culture because they ignore the day-to-day micro-cultures and sub-cultures and have not enabled buy-in from the leadership team and leadership teams are often too disconnected from what is happening causing disconnect throughout the business. 
  10. Instant messengers (Slack and Teams) encourage over-communication not deliberate or effective conversation and regularly contribute to misunderstanding between colleagues. Many companies never do anything to guide their teams on the usage of instant messengers and how to be effective. Win by telling your teams how to communicate, where and when. 
  11. Bad hiring creates 18 months of pain and slow decision-making around firing causes 6-12 months of pain – couple this together and the ripple effect is huge. 

Q. Is company culture dead in hybrid businesses? 

No, but it is hard and in most cases transactional, however, that is not always a bad thing if you are prepared to engage with team members more frequently and not just reward performance-first goals. 

The role of a manager in hybrid is likely the hardest it has ever been, many weren’t trained for hybrid, and even being four years into hybrid for most professionals it is still a work in progress and an operating style there was no manual for. 

Simple guidelines, agreed principles and training will help but not create a company culture without deliberate management and as I have recommended before a culture community manager is the person who helps to shape culture (micro, sub and leadership cultures) and interacts between the staff and the leadership teams. 

Many people will perform better in the office (they need a stage and an audience) and other people will struggle to perform when they do not have in-person buy-in and influence. This is some of why the mass return to the office is happening and in office policing (not management) is working for many who never wanted to change or adapt to this way of working. 


Q. My company needs help to connect departments to the company strategy – how could we go about improving their buy-in? 

Strategy means so many different things to different professionals. 

If you have multiple strategies you will lose. If you do not help your teams build their plans into your company-wide strategy you are going to struggle. This is why beliefs, bets, pillars and strategy are my go-to operating model for companies. 

You have to decide if you are top-down leadership first or a D Team (decision team that helps to shape important decisions and strategy) at a strategic level. 

Often the goals are set at the leadership level and then too many people are asked to be involved, causing no build towards your strategy. If there are more than 12 people in strategy you will experience death by opinion and leads defending their department. 

If you feel like the departmental plans are not built together with departments and their teams there will be disconnection and often this is where the middle management is lost and cannot help push the company forward in hard times or underperforming times.

So you will need to: 

  1. help the teams know how to ladder their tactics into the departmental plan,
  2. cross-functionally the departments will need to assign resources and then agree on priorities 
  3. Show and tell their department plans to the leadership team and the business while connecting to the core goals they have signed up for 

If you struggle with connecting teams and departments to leadership team set goals, then strategy is going to be extremely hard work. 


Q. What are the 3 ways to improve work for companies forcing a return to the office? 

  1. Explain why and how you are improving the office for everyone. If you cannot you are not ready for a full return to the office  
  2. Re-onboard the company into the office – so many don’t and won’t, you can win by bringing people on the office journey and asking for regular feedback away from why can’t we work hybrid. 
  3. Explicitly say how the office is going to be the connecting force within your company. Stop worrying about everyone else and have a dedicated plan for your office(s), how to collaborate and how to get into deep work mode without distractions. 

Q. What is the best advice you could give someone going from a department lead onto the C-Suite for the first time? 

Congrats on your promotion. Here are just a few to get you started –  

  1. Learn the business – learn the ins and outs and understand how decisions are truly made (if it is CEO first or always on the CEO or by committee will help you make smart decisions or fit into the leadership culture) – many don’t see this until on the c-suite or around the boardroom table 
  2. Know that the ELT and board meetings are battlegrounds and you will take many punches and knocks every meeting – you will have to grow thick skin and quick 
  3. Know when you are going to have to speak up and when you are going to allow others to speak 
  4. Find out quickly where the rest of the C-Suite lacks an edge and apply yours to that void  
  5. Your department lead experience is going to be invaluable, the difference between the most effective executives is those who use their expertise area, act like a translator and connect teams cross-functionally 
  6. Learn what your role is to play in the C-Suite and how you can be a subject matter expert and for instance, speak on behalf of the customer which many struggle to. 
  7. Understand where you need to create boundaries and own your own time, if you don’t everyone else will take it and remove all boundaries 

Read part 2 of 2024 AMA

I hope this AMA helped you, there are a couple of questions that came in over the weekend which I will turn into another leaders letter. 

This week’s focus action is to book an hour slot for yourself this week, take a step back and plan for Q2 and your development. 

Thanks for reading and have a great week, 

Danny Denhard

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Leaders Letter 195 – The 5 Best Podcasts To Improve Your Leadership

Dear leaders, many of you ask for follow-up recommendations for books, documentaries and podcasts.

This week I am going to offer you 5 podcasts (in YouTube format for you visual learners) that will help you to improve your leadership, including leaders from NetflixStripeAmazon and Activision Blizzard, with 5 reasons to listen. 

In many businesses and leadership teams I recommend you create a podcast club to improve and share knowledge. Podcast clubs go away, listen, take notes and then come together in 30-minute power sessions, compare notes, discuss what you can roll out internally and then share to the rest of the business to inspire action.

Tim Ferriss Interviews Ex-Stripe COO Claire Hughes Johnson 

How to Take Radical Ownership of Your Life and Career

Why Listen?

  • Claire and Tim go deep into Claire’s working principles from her brilliant book Scaling People: Tactics for Management and Company Building (UK Book LinkUS Book Link)
  • Why personality insights are either great guides or seen as horoscopes
  • Why many Managers & Department leads actually waste time on underperformers rather than high performers – and how you can move your department forward with leadership
  • How to set clear goals and keep on top of progress while not overburdening your team
  • Understand board responsibilities and your long-term commitment as a board member

This podcast is great for COOs, People leaders and low EQ CEOs.

Elizabeth Stone Netflix CTO is interviewed with Lenny on Lenny’s Podcast

Why Listen? 

  • Understand why leaders’ journeys are so varied and not as straightforward as you think (from data analyst and trader to CTO of Netflix is not)
  • Why data so closely linked to Netflix’s success and why Netflix is in the pole position as the industry leader in streaming
  • Why being present is more than just being in a meeting and engaging in meetings and working sessions – just being there is not enough
  • How breaking the rules on sharing important information and updates is critical 
  • Open slots in your calendar are vital in building the right internal management culture – think of why ‘skip meetings’ and cross-functional relationships are so important (tip: do more cross-functionally than other leaders, it really pays back)  

This podcast is great for data driven leaders and CEOs looking to refresh their C-Suite with different approach to leadership.

Vinted CEO Thomas Plantenga & Investor Alex Taussig On 20VC

Why listen? 

  • To understand marketplaces and marketplace dynamics properly. I can tell you from working across numerous marketplaces so many do not understand how two and three-sided marketplaces work and how to assign resources accordingly
  • Why cheap isn’t always a bad business – but challenging
  • Why going again and again was critical for Vinted (and will be for you too)
  • Why pricing changes were critical to survive and then thrive 
  • Why localisation of product is critical and why many fail with localisation of their product

This podcast is great for GMs, CEOs looking to make a real impact and rethink their relationship with their board and investors.

LuLu Cheng Meservey On How I Write Podcast

Why Listen? 

  • Learn how to write important updates and consider how to write for the right audiences 
  • Why writing is much clearer than speaking (and why writing will be critical for leadership for years to come)
  • How the right updates (externally) make the real difference, rather than just BAU and noisy product feature releases 
  • How the next crisis might not be as bad as you think with the right prep and right PR work system 
  • Understand the tech you are promoting and be prepared to answer the difficult questions – you are front and centre

This podcast is great for comms leads, CEOs with less PR and press support and Marketing leads wanting to improve Product releases.

Jeff Bezos On Lex Fridman Podcast

Why Listen?

  • Jeff Bezos masterclass on metrics and why so many are looking backwards not forwards
  • How space is being rethought and why Blue Origin is about hope and having a big personal project for a good cause
  • Understanding principles and setting business principles so your leadership team and their departments can move the business forward
  • Why companies who ignore papercuts (small problems) lose – concentrating on the big problems with teams and ignoring papercuts is bad business and bad leadership
  • How enforcing day 1 thinking helps businesses to focus on the customer and not

This podcast is great for founders, CEOs, CMOs and operators who are looking to step up and recalibrate their company for long-term success.

This week’s action is to select the podcast that jumps out to you most and then listen and share insights and your notes with your fellow leadership team. 

Thanks and have a great week improving as a leader. 

Danny Denhard

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Leaders Letter 193 – Is It Time To Reshuffle Your Executive Team?

Dear leaders, how are you and your managers and management team doing? 

It is business week 8 (where has 2024 gone already) and typically you get a pretty good baseline of how things are going, how the business is shaping up and how your team have performed. 

One question that is often asked around now is: 

How do I know when it is time to review your leadership team? 

And connected follow-up question: 

» Is it time to review my management team around you (those who report to you)?

The big question you have to ask yourself is:
How are you performing and how are the relationships and dynamics helping the team and the company progress?  

You might be in one of three situations: 

  1. Leaders like their colleagues but don’t love their output. 
  2. Leaders dislike their colleagues and the team around them but they perform.
  3. Leaders wouldn’t mind if they left and it wouldn’t impact performance. 

If you land with option 1 or option 3 you are ultimately in a place to consider performance plans or a reshuffle. 

Letting go of people you dislike but perform within their role is what makes or breaks leaders and tests your executive chops. 

The Cost & Effects Of Hiring & Firing

Hiring and firing is a core part of being a leader and many struggle with hiring replacements, understanding the demands of their org and then replacing almost like for like or go to an extreme opposite and miss the subcultural impact. 

The Caretaker AKA The Number 2: Others thrive in the firing but the replacements are often not lined up and can take a long time to replace, you are then expecting someone internally to step up and often this will see performance stay as is or improve. 

You are then left in a place with a number 2 who will ultimately have two decisions to make: 

1/Is this number two role enough 

2/ Will this new boss feel threatened and can I learn anything from them to progress my career further? 

Often the ‘Number 2’ will move on and you will be left with a hole and a six to twelve-month window where you will have instability and turbulence.  

Middle management is a tricky place to operate and often when you are in the mid to senior end of your career a new boss coming in to replace your old C-Suite boss is a big swift and has months’ worth of impact on you and the team around you. 

Executive Changes = 24 Months Of Hard Change 

If you notice what happens in many companies, a new CEO comes in, assesses their colleagues and their board and the supporting management team and then makes changes, some make sweeping changes and bring in their people, while others refresh core areas and often make the management team smaller. 

This approach is often about the CEO being successful first not always directly correlated to the business being successful. 

10 Leadership Levels Questions To Consider

There is no one size fits all but here are 10 important themes to consider and bake into your plan (sidenote – always check with legal and HR to ensure you have taken the right legal steps to protect you, the company and the individuals you might be letting go). 

  1. Any Move Is A 2-Year Bet: Don’t make big and rash decisions if you haven’t planned out the next 2 years 
  2. Identify The Right Interim Lead: The next question to ask and answer is: Is there is someone within the team who can and will step up or will there be another exec who is tasked to step up and run dual areas
  3. Thrive Vs Chaos: Some departments thrive in change, while others don’t. Chaos and confusion are never tolerated – find out which the departments are and how you remove any confusion with a timeline of next steps and actions 
  4. Back Up Plans: If you are an exec and department lead understand how you are reshaping a team/discipline lead will impact the business for the next 12 months and have backup plans for additional support, hiring consultants, agencies or reshaping to adding more headcount under the original level will help to get back into the driving seat. You will naturally need to step up and have relationship managers with external vendors to own the alteration  
  5. Sub Culture & Cultural Impact: Culture can be made and broken by hiring and firing mistakes, hiring is more important than firing, if you hire badly you have six months to understand their capabilities and influence and then be confident they are right for the next 12 months 
  6. Popularity: Popular employees being let go sends ripples through businesses, from gossip to direct questions about them and their performance. Understand the impact of these decisions and how you will address this 
  7. Comms Plan & Plan Execution: Communication is key, what you say to the key member of staff you are hiring and firing is critical it stays between you.
    1. Welcoming new senior staff or a shift in operating models requires a well-thought-through comms plan. Time and energy are critical here 
    2. You will need to have a company-wide notice to explain the reasons and what the future looks like clearly. Over-communication and over-sharing lead to questions and a reduction in confidence 
  8. Difference Between Small Biz & Large Orgs: If you are looking to make many changes inside a small business it will reshape quickly, if you are in a mid-sized business it takes longer to understand the impact, in large and enterprise businesses it can be 9-12 months for the effects to come out in the wash 
  9. Talk Of The Town? Big exec firing will lead to external questions and will be the talk of recruitment/headhunter firms, C-Suite groups and industry press. Knowing how to frame the layoff and reshuffle externally is as critical as internal comms. Know internal comms will be shared and screenshotted to be shared across social media and chat apps 
  10. Day 0 Influence: If you want to restart a department’s performance you will have to think about the executive in charge and their relationships and influence over their department. If they have influence and sway you will need to understand how to replicate this, if they don’t think and plan about how you will restart from day 0 of letting them go. 

This week’s focus action is to review if you should reshuffle your exec team, review the list of exec hiring and firing notes and make an action plan on who, what, when, why and how to move forward with reshuffling your executive team. 

Best of luck this week and if you are in doubt ask yourself, if this person were to leave on their own terms what would the plan be, versus letting them go as the leader? 

Thanks and have a great week,

Danny Denhard

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Leaders Letter Newsletter

Leaders Letter 190 – The Who, What, When, Why, How Of Leading Business To Success

Dear leaders, you may have noticed this week the newsletter is slightly delayed. 

Apologises, I want to be transparent, I have been working on a couple of larger consultancy projects combined with my coaching commitments and I wanted to take a few extra days to land with the usual high-quality newsletter that’s going to add value rather than just a good newsletter that I’m not happy enough with. 

Let’s dive into The Who, What, When, Why, How Of Leading Business To Success.

The Different Ways Of Working Towards Success 

Startup Approach:

  • If you have worked in a startup you would have noticed everything is often thrown together, the idea of strategy and tactics and often blended and sort of everyone’s job. 
  • On the flip side, some startups have more leadership team that says who does what and when and sometimes include “the how” you are going to do it. 
  • Startups win by hitting aggressive targets and getting a lot of buy-in from the teams not always being autonomous and democratic. 

Scaleup Approach:

  • If you have worked in a scaleup, successful businesses know how to split out who does what – when, the why is explained and the how is often left to department leads and they present to the business.
  • Scaleups win by maturing from their previous state, they mature and grow by adding in more processes and taking away the goal(s) is the only thing to hit. Scaleups fail by acting like startups with only startup employees. Sad but true.  

“The Mature Approach”:

  • In mid to large-sized businesses the exec team will say to the business what you need to do to hit a set of big goals and then the discipline leads to controlling the who, the what, the why and the how, the why is often left to the business to explain otherwise the business results will go aray. 
  • Larger companies win by what I call controlled collaboration and being hard on the goals and output but the who and how many are often most flexible. 
  • Middle managers will be critical in some mid to large-sized businesses, and completely redundant (as we have seen in layoffs from Amazon, Meta, Google and many other tech companies) in others. 

No Secret Formula? 

I have worked across the full spectrum of businesses, from small ten-person businesses to larger 5k to 15k-person businesses and there is no perfect one-size-fits-all for the who, the what, the when, the why and the how. There are ways to push the business in the right direction by understanding if it is leadership-owned or leadership-guided. 

Change Is Hard But Necessary

There are, however, businesses that just stick to how they have always done it and top-down (directions from the exec team) that went from being successful to slowly but surely status quo-based businesses that decline and then the point the fingers phase, blaming those underneath them for struggling to make bigger changes or being able to make broader changes to their tech and then hiring more sales doesn’t work and Marketing can’t squeeze another 10% out of a bad Product. 

You lose in business by staying the same and squeezing more and more out of a bad product and badly positioned products. 

This is where trust evaporates within leadership teams and rips through your business when everyone is fully aware of this situation and cannot make any meaningful change because of poor leadership decisions.  

Below is a way to consider the who, what, when, why and “the how of your company”, regardless of how you build your company goals (OKRs or an alternative) 

Leadership Flex 

Leadership is mostly won by: Adding in the right level of guard rails and adding in flex to take ownership if and where required. Flex does include layoffs (Google is spending $700m on severance this quarter alone), removing department leads and finding a blend of the two or (not in recent times) mass hiring to accelerate with market shifts and new opportunities.  

Question for today: “Is our company leadership team giving enough direction or is it providing too much?” What stage are we at and how do we empower or power up our employees to feel part of the driving force behind the business? 

This week’s focus action is to: review The Who, What, When, Why, How Of your leadership teams and proactively drive change throughout your leadership, management and up and comers to keep being successful and drive long-term growth within your business. 

Have a great week and I’ll land in your inbox next week,

Thanks,

Danny Denhard

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Leaders Letter Newsletter

Leaders Letter 187 – The 2024 Corporate Buzzword Bingo Card

Dear leaders, what are the buzzwords you hate being said every day in meetings, used around the office, on Slack or Teams and stuffed into your emails? 

I bet I have them for you in the 2024 update to my annual buzzword bingo card. 

It’s a playful and the most popular post every year. Over the last two years, both 2022 and 2023 have been the most searched on social for and shared posts on the Focus Blog

The 2024 Corporate Buzzword Bingo Card

What Is In and What Is Out

  • Authentic – most likely the phrase you will have heard from Marketing, then across LinkedIn and now has become a mainstay across the board and senior leadership and becoming commonplace across the business 
  • Convictions – A word many use to justify decisions and insert into speeches and all company emails. Expect convictions to be used thousands of times by the CEO/founder and across the business (likely in connection to the vision and mission being refreshed and to try and inspire when the first performance dip of 2024)
  • Return to the office – mandate — mandate was the most hated work last year and it won’t go away this year. Expect ‘mandate’ to be used in other situations and 
  • Economic Headwinds – despite everyone going to experience headwinds, I expect the phase to be replaced and removed from most boardrooms 
  • RTO – RTO went out as the mandates came in and as discussed in last week’s newsletter the battle for hybrid and mandate is heating up 
  • Microeconomics – micro is out, macro stays, expect microeconomics is to be said less and referenced less and bigger themes replace it 

An important note between the humour, and buzzwords often alienates those who don’t understand them or aren’t taken through the significance of these buzzwords, as a leader you should help your team members understand the importance and consider providing them a chance to use where they are applicable. 

This week’s focus action is to share across your leadership team and have a bit of fun with these and maybe have a laugh at who uses the most, even circle back to them when you are under the bonnet. 

Have a great week and I’ll see you next week. 

Thanks,

Danny Denhard

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Leaders Letter Newsletter

Leaders Letter 186 – The Business Battles To Watch Out For & Tackle Head On

Dear leaders, Happy New Year. Thank you for your ongoing support and for reading Leaders Letters into 2024. 

It’s the first week of January, so you are likely looking ahead, some of you will be full of optimism, and others will be underprepared and dreading another round of annual planning and re-forecasting. 

I am keen to help you get a leg up for the year ahead and help you look out for eight big shifts on the horizon that will end up impacting you at some point in the next 12 months. 

The 8 Battles To Get Ahead With Are:

  • Taming Temu
  • The Next UI – Search Vs Chat Vs New
  • Google vs ChatGPT (vs Microsoft)
  • Death Of Cookies
  • App Stores
  • Return To Office – Return To Hybrid
  • Boardroom Battles
  • Merger, Acquisitions & Closures

There is a PDF available to download here and share with your business and fellow leaders.

Taming Temu 

Temu is the Chinese app that is top of the app stores and has super low prices for thousands of SKUs taking weeks to be delivered. 

  1. App Store Dominance: Dominating the app stores in Q4 and starting to dominate search engine results since April (2023) – this has sent shockwaves through competitors 
  2. Never-ending Choice – some say this is good and most experts will inform you that choice is a bad thing and humans hate it – in Temu’s case it driving sales and leveraging what other Chinese apps and games are built on, increasing time spent means more affinity with the app and their products    
  3. App Power: Forcing downloads of their app – Temu has worked out the best experience is on the app and the more information it can consume and tweak their targeting to you
  4. Non-Obvious Strategic Moves: Going against the well-known rule – Low-quality product’s long wait times are not putting off shoppers looking for a bargain and users are said to be spending 22+ minutes per day on their app 
  5. The Power Of Paid Demand: Temu have 265k paid keywords (in the UK alone – this is a tactic very few retailers use) and that is increasing – they are taking the paid acquisition page out of TikTok’s playbook and overspending to drive the brand awareness and mass adoption. 

The Next UI – Search Vs Chat Vs New 

  1. Interface Issues: If you have used a good AI tool you will know the problem is the interface and understanding how to use prompts properly – prompts are hard to learn and iterate on until you get exactly what you want, this is the ongoing challenge for OpenAI and Anthropic Claude and Google’s BARD and will continue this year. One of the stand-out opportunities for these companies is to change the interface we interact with and make it easier to be guided towards the right answer. 
  2. The New & The Next UI: The next UI (user interface) is going to evolve over the next 12 months, chat is a tricky UI (yes, we use it all the time but many of us dislike it and most chat interfaces are only as good as the response) as we have had years of a search engine of questions or queries and then a list of links (and in recent times multiple rich media results) and then we make our minds up. We have entered the “answer engine” stage with chatGPT and competitors of asking questions or entering prompts and we are supplied the answer and with a creative output, the better the prompt the better the end result.
    1. Chat and chatbots have been so bad for so long many will just let it go until we have a different interface despite everyone using the same style of chat and answer 
  3. The Biggest Google Issue For Years: This is the battle to win the next big evolution is on and we are going to either default to what we know Google or make the shift to an app. Expect the standard user to slowly move away from the traditional Google question and links (importantly with ads) to a Q& definitive A approach  
  4. Voice & AI: Voice search and voice navigation (talk to the device or app and it will take you to where you want to go exactly and ask if you would want to download, ‘want-to-buy’ or ‘want-to-start’ a training session etc) are going to continue to improve as it will be natural to have conversations with AI’s and what many will find is that AI is less judging than a human colleague – this could see a shift towards voice and conversation with AI rather than just refining search queries 
  5. Slow Adoption = Opportunity: We are going to land in a place where I guestimate 10% of users will adopt the new interface and others will flirt between the two – expect this to skew results, to influence costs (especially increasing budgets around paid media spends) and confuse many in-house teams. 

Google vs ChatGPT (vs Microsoft) 

  1. Site, App, SuperApp or OS – this is going to be the four-tier battle that will come to the forefront. Many experts are predicting webpages are going to be less important and we need to shift towards a more fluid experience. Something to question: Will an app be enough (will customers want to download the app and use it exclusively?) to answer all of the questions and expectations we will adopt from using new interfaces? Even an app with the capabilities of running a local and personalised LLM be good enough versus what new technology will unlock? I predict OpenAI and its competitors will have to go for a super-app approach to control UX and influence the big change that is due. I suspect it is likely for OpenAI and competitors to create an OS (away from an open Android OS) that runs on a set of their own devices. This is already in the rumour mill and I suspect this will appeal to innovators and early adopters upon launch and many years after that for the early majority to even consider it.  
  2. Google AI Friend Or Foe: Google has to go all in on AI and already has across many of its products (across the Google Workspace into docs, sheets and Gmail etc) – Google will have to lock down Android and its core experience on search to keep its dominance. Will Google allow its company to lose any market share across its other business areas to cement its core (search) or will it have to please advertisers in another way to drive search demand and keep driving up their auctions 
  3. Super-App? A question to consider: Is this the fight for the Western super-app (like WeChat in China) – the app that becomes where you start everything? We are likely to see strategic pushes by these new companies looking to own the majority of your actions and these AI assistants will likely be the natural step 
  4. OpenAI Dramas:  Despite the CEO firing drama of Q4 at OpenAI, Sam Altman has hundreds of disciples who are fully brought into his approach to driving AI and winning the AI market. Keep an eye on the acceleration in and around OpenAI and their ability to keep users. The struggle with OpenAI is keeping DAU (daily active users) and ensuring they make their interfaces more user-friendly and keep being the integration partner of choice 
  5. Enter Apple AI: Do not discount Apple’s ability to win in the AI arms race, they have invested huge amounts of money in acquisitions and investments into AI, they have the demand and desirable products and can integrate into their OS – Siri was a terrible product but can be easily replaced and updated in one OS update. This is also where Amazon has the ability to go further and offer more AI features away from AWS and shopping. Core businesses will be disrupted by huge innovation in AI 

If you have struggled to get into AI and chatbot, the Microsoft copilot app (iOS // Android) is a great way to transition into using AI and answer engines. I also recommend using perplexity, it is a modern answer engine that works similarly to Google without the clutter. 

Death Of Cookies 

  1. Cookie Crumbling: Cookies are a vital cog in the internet machine, this year they are due to be sunsetted by the largest tech firms. Cookies help:
    1. track the success of marketing and sales campaigns, 
    2. target your core customers (on and off-site)
    3. keep customers logged into your site and keep your site transactions and interactions secure. 
    4. With these being removed and replaced we are going to see a huge shift in understanding how users flow in and around your products.     
  2. Google’s Big Bet: Google has tried to step away from cookies for years and has struggled to create a replacement that is fit for its dominant advertising machine. If Google struggle to replace effectively it will send shockwaves through its auction ad product and all of the millions of merchants who use and rely on its services 
  3. Truly Private Browsing? Apple has already rolled out private browsing protection from cookies, we will see the battle between large tech firms and advertising companies on their approach and attempt to implement their version onto their customers. 
  4. Mindful Transactions: Cookies have been critical for years around tracking customer purchases and repeat purchases, many companies are having to think about removing their reliance on third-party cookies and data solutions while creating a zero and first-party solution. This will mean less companies should know about your transactions and create more secure personal data based on your email or unique identifier 
  5. New Tech: When there are big shifts there are brand new tech providers that are born and improve the experience of merchants and customers. Are you in a place where you can be a tech provider or join with new tech to get a leg up over competitors? 

App Stores 

  1. Unbundling: App Stores are about to be unbundled and the belief is there will be an opportunity for other app stores, this is going to be increasingly hard to happen, why? The canonical stores (Apple Appstore and Google’s  Android store) will win, they have the trust, they are the default and new doesn’t mean better. There is a – but, it will be interesting to see how the gaming industry changes its approach and how it can leverage its audience away from app stores taking a commission cut 
  2. Spread Too Thin? Companies and agencies will have to decide how thinly to spread their app, more distribution isn’t always better and will misdirect many resources. Most app recommendations still come from word-of-mouth recommendations – this is still going to be critical for winning app downloads 
  3. Competition = Investment: Apple and Google will have to invest in better app stores, better features, better discovery (organic and paid), better commission cuts and tailored recommendations where others will struggle to keep up or rethink what the app should be versus what it is
  4. Resource Battles: Epic and other well-known companies have pushed for this change but will they have the resources to fight against these big incumbents and push other alternatives while still building great products – this is a second and third-order effect that seems to be lost in the years of fighting 
  5. Optionality Can Be Worse: Companies and their apps don’t win by more options, many companies may struggle to understand this and despite the tax in both app stores, fragmentation will lead to pricing varying and different deals leading to harder-to-track successes and making it harder for financial tracking and forecasting

Return To Office – Return To Hybrid 

  1. Poor Quality Mandates: 2023 saw a huge shift in return to the office mandates, with many driving employees back in 4 days a week, some back to 5 and it is causing real issues for many employees. We will see the mandates changing and some businesses embracing hybrid to compete with their rivals and offering some teams mostly remote 
  2. Reonboarding Wins: Most companies never re-onboarded their employees into the office when it was RTO,  this was a big mistake and many are paying the price for it. An important step will be for companies to come together for the best outcomes for performance and their culture is to re-onboard their teams and decide what their office is for and what good and bad behaviours are. Mandating returns and reprimanding employees for missing their third day in the office isn’t going to improve work and performance it’s going to disengage and become a sticking point throughout teams and their departments. Expect more demands and explanations from teams if you have not clearly defined what the office is for and why attendance is so important. 
  3. Productivity Paranoia”: What employees want is a safe place to work and many offices have become surveillance-based environments where their bosses are policing them and this is not the environment for anyone to thrive. Expect real kickback on poor quality offices and bad people managers who demand in-office attendance when it is impacting delivery. Management teams and HR departments will continue to score low ENPS and trust levels if how we communicate and guide employees back to the office and around hybrid
    Something to keep in mind, RTO will continue across more large companies and while hybrid is still in its infancy, if you would like an advantage on the competition: improve the office setting (think about how you would reshape the office) and not default to the old ways of working  
  4. Remote To Hybird: The Remote Only Approach will be rethought by many companies that went fully remote and have not seen the bump in performance. We have heard several firms who went fully remote open offices again and this is a trend to expect to continue. Remote configuration is hard if you have not dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on it.  
  5. Bad Policies & Meeting Free: Friend of Focus and Leaders Letter Bruce Daisley offered a free and very insightful report for work in 2024 – meeting free days is something many companies are trialling and without full training of what is a meeting, what success looks like and the actions need to be taken many businesses are just pushing more back to backs and low-quality peer to peer time. Unfortunately company culture either rewards or controls poor work time. Expect AI to either help or hinder with this being AI assistant, taking fully automated notes but not being able to cut through the noise and the same loud colleagues being rewarded by AI analytics within meetings 

If you are struggling with remote work and have not downloaded the free Gitlab handbookAutomattic’s field guide or Basecamp’s remote resources are critical reading. 

Boardroom Battles 

  1. CMO Woes: In Q4 alone we saw a large number of CMOs relieved of their duties, this is a trend that has picked up momentum and many CMO roles are being consumed or rolled into other leadership roles. Expect CMOs from across the spectrum to move around frequently. 
  2. Fractional C-Suite Members: There has been a movement towards fractional members of the leadership team, which often means an executive spread across a few clients and working on nominated days. This trend is typical across smaller companies, scaleups and startups, what this means is many companies are going to battle keeping leaders who will want to move towards a more flexible model or request to drop down to fewer days a week. I have personally seen and experienced Fractional leadership working, there have to be strict guide-rails and deep trust between discipline and between leaders otherwise it can become fractional vs full-time leadership. 
  3. Musical Chairs: We will likely see CEOs and founders moved around this year, many founders will be removed from their companies as they struggle with the evolving landscape and CEOs will start to move on from companies that are perceived as sinking ships, many will struggle to understand the vast shift in industries and not have the leadership skills to bring their company and their people along on their journey 
  4. AI Demands Vs CPO: We will see similarities in C-suite roles that are not seen to add to the performance and drive the business forward. In some companies, I can see CPOs being relieved of their duties as products will be all chasing after AI features and many will come up a dud and be copied 
  5. Leaner C-Suite Vs Expanded C-Suite: Speaking to several CEOs at the end of 2023, there was a feeling that with the changing landscape and large-scale layoffs, the C-suite is expected to become leaner and less bloat. CEOs have always known there are tiers (typically unspoken) across leadership teams (potentially could look like tier 1 CEO – COO – CFO, tier 2 with CTO – CIO – CPO and tier 3 CMO – CHRO) and will be looking to roll up responsibilities from lower tiers into higher tiers. 
    For others, they will be looking to expand out their C-Suites and add more under the C-Suite title. The C-suite’s performance and leadership will be under the highest scrutiny and expect leadership teams to change regularly over the next 18 months. 

Merger, Acquisitions & Closures 

  1. Nose Dive: The price of some companies will dramatically drop this year and result in many potential acquisitions or in some cases when the valuation is too low they may need to. We saw a number of end-of-year acquisitions and many companies rescued by deals, we should expect the same throughout this year 
  2. VC Winter: Continued VC winter and dampening of investments will mean many companies will have to look for untraditional survival tactics and look for investments from many different sources – this will have a big ripple on startups and even large companies needing to work through mergers, acquisitions or attempts to drive closures of their competitors  
  3. Big Deals: There are many rumours of large companies looking to acquire or be acquired. Disney has been rumoured to be up for sale or looking to make large acquisitions. We will likely see underperforming companies looking to sell or acquire adjacent competitors to avoid regulators reviewing the acquisitions. 
  4. Mergers: Something that is not discussed as often as acquisitions is mergers, mergers will be a lifeline for many companies this year and will see a number of agencies and platforms look to merge and reduce headcount to save the business.    
  5. Well-Placed PE: PE is going hard into well-negotiated acquisitions and creating many lean companies. PE might be the only option for many companies and will be unaware of the new demands PE creates.   

Have a great week and I’ll land back in your inbox on Monday morning. 

Thanks,

Danny Denhard 

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Leaders Letter 184 – The Important Themes Through My Coaching Sessions In 2023

Dear leaders, throughout 2023 I have coached, CEOs, founders, COOs, CGOs, CMOs and VP & Director level of Product, Growth and Marketing. 

It has been a highly rewarding year, especially with my passion for coaching and through my consulting (I have especially enjoyed the dedicated workshops and problem-solving-based hackathons this year). 

Professional Reflection & Retro 

In my annual review I ran earlier this week (I run a review every year, why? retrospectives are critical parts of improving as a professional), I reviewed the common themes from my coaching notes and wanted to share the themes that came up throughout coaching sessions and matching calls (the process to see if the “coachee” and I are a good match) to help you move forward with the end of 2023 and use the themes to help guide you in 2024. 

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Confidence 

In themselves and in the team’s ability to deliver what’s required for success. This came up across all roles I coach and many CEOs and COOs are struggling with the confidence, in (1) making core decisions to drive the business forward and (2) ensuring the long-term success is actually taken care of – knowing they might not running the company. 
Confidence is something that is broken down are often performance and numbers-based, however, most are not recording and then celebrating smaller wins and micromoments to enable you and the team around you to understand wins and reflect to remind the team(s) of great moments and wins to promote confidence and delivery. Without knowing what helped success and what blocked it – how can you address confidence issues? 

Recommendation: Start to keep track of the wins and losses throughout the year, have a quick retro on each item and call out (1) what went well and the triggers of this, (2) what could have been improved and how potentially this can be removed in the next phase and (3) what went wrong and if you needed to go again or you could have stopped earlier for the same result.  
This is very similar to an after-action review and something I commonly recommend.  

Boundaries 

When I searched my coaching notes, boundaries came up in almost every session review, boundaries are often hard to set when you are not confident, you are not hitting targets or a new department lead or in a promoted role. 
Boundaries are crucial for owning your time, controlling how and when people can contact you and ensuring you can deliver work. Boundaries aren’t just for you, they are for your department, team leaders and for the business to know how you operate. As I tell many, think of boundaries like the guardrails at ten-pin bowling, not perfect but help to train and guide. 

Recommendation: Create a working schedule, that starts around X, finishes around Y and blocks out time for your own work and regular breaks. Many suggest they do not take a lunch break daily. Have a list of ways to contact you in emergencies out of hours (if business critical does it have to be a phone call, a SMS or on the emergency group chat) and use messaging scheduling as a way to control how and when you are contactable and how you communicate to your business, departments and teams to set boundaries for you and them. 

“Owning My Time” 

Every person I spoke to this year and coached brought up how they struggle to own their time and find the time for deep work. Without deep work you are not completing your role and critically thinking deeply (or thinking through first to third-order effects) If you do not own your own time, you are giving away the most precious items to us. Owning your time doesn’t mean you stop every meeting request or set too strict boundaries, it means using time blocking, setting non-negotiable requirements for meeting requests and being ruthless with requests. A title requesting a time slot or ‘got a quick five minutes’ shouldn’t mean you have to say yes. The best executives own their time and create barriers to getting any time on their calendar.  

Recommendation: Time block sections of your day where you are unavailable, and create statuses where your colleagues know you are in deep work (for example agree on instant messenger statuses green = contactable, orange = in a meeting, red = do not disturb / deep work etc) and creates requirements for others to complete for you to join their meeting requests. My focus recommendations for meeting requirements include – every meeting must have 
(1) a clear agenda 
(2) why was this not an email 
(3) what does success look like 
(4) what question(s) do we need to answer 
(5) owner of the meeting and a few others. 

Meeting Overload 

Many department leads and c-suite are blocked out with meetings, many suggesting they are booked in back-to-backs and then just about have time for lunch and to grab water or a coffee. I know every executive says this but often this approach can be confused with wearing the busy badge of honour, many knowing if in back-to-backs they are seen as working. One issue that many are unaware of is MRS (meeting recovery syndrome) and the knock-on effects bad meetings have and the mood you will carry into the next interaction and next meeting. Meetings are significant parts of most businesses, they have however caused a disconnect between getting work done and making decisions away from a Zoom room, a team call or being in a meeting room. 

Recommendations

  • Be clear in meeting requirements, what type of meeting is it (a brainstorming, a decision-making session that is needed versus an email chain, a workshop or a 1-2-1), what decisions have to be made, who has the sign-off for important decisions, what are the expected outcome from requested “meeting”.
  • Default meetings from 30 to 25 minutes, 60 to 45 minutes and any recurring meeting have a cadence of updates that everyone follows to ensure these aren’t just status updates, leaning more towards collaborative working sessions. 
  • Lastly, consider how a walk-and-talk or a standing meeting (if possible with all parties) can speed up the meeting. 
    Here are 25 meeting recommendations to improve your meetings and reduce overload

Struggle With Management & Leadership 

  • Team management is hard and from all the feedback, it is getting harder. This is something many need support with and something I am recommending more and more if creating a management style and approach that is unique for you versus just following what others are doing. 
  • Leadership is interrupted in many different ways. Being a department or division lead isn’t enough to be seen as a leader and knowing what type of leader you want to be and what the needs of your business are – is the only way you become a better and effective leader and executive. 
  • The demands of being both manager and leader take a toll even on the best and well-known CEOs with the best teams around them. There are times when the two blur together and times when inexperienced or time-poor struggle with management particularly of team members and many aren’t ever taught to be a manager of managers and taking on the extra responsibility of being a Head of Team/Department. Others struggle to know when to bring HR into conversations and when to bounce off issues with senior colleagues. 

Recommendations

  • Create your own management profile and work through what you need to work on and what you need to proactively learn and lean into more 
  • Create your own leadership profile and work through learning how to be the leader you need to be and want to be. Focus on communication and ‘holding a room’ if you are looking to become a CEO or have aspirations of becoming a founder. 
  • Understand when you can speak to colleagues with potential team issues and when to go directly to HR with everything logged. The best executives have a unique feel for what the issue is and who is best placed to help problem solve people issues or performance issues. 

Goal Setting 

Many leads stated how they despise goal setting, particularly how hard it was to set and track OKRs. Digging deeper most struggle as they are fully aware the goal is almost impossible to hit and they understand the constraints the team are under or how much additional work or headcount is required. Once breaking down the goals into more manageable and achievable steps most coaching collaborations end up in a different model, whether that’s using SMART goals methodology or moving across to think big act small by when framework understanding how to set goals and break these down into manageable tactical attacks.  

Recommendations

  • Review how you are setting goals and the framework you are using. 
  • OKRs are confusing without real training and are often rolled out and takes 12-18 months for them to make sense to a business, many opting to remove them. 
  • Most companies set goals from the top and often use spreadsheets with formulas to understand what the business needs, create strategy ~10 weeks before the end of the year and then ask the departments to build their departmental plans into the company-wide strategy to ensure they are realistic and review tactics regularly and then review plans quarterly. You can then revisit strategy up to twice a year by being informed by the business metrics and the leading indicators rather than looking to change everything all the time. 

Ongoing Costs Of Bad Decisions 

Everyone makes decisions, often in the most positive way possible, a common theme in bad decisions is selfish-based decisions, and political-based decisions (Me before the We decision) but never keeping track of decisions and whether they were bad decisions or decisions that were right at the time but need addressing with a market shift or reacting to a new market condition. What is key is to understand the cost (whether in £/$ or in headcount losses or motivation and performance). Also, have retros on whether decisions were slow or fast and if this impacted the business – most businesses come to understand slow decision-making is detrimental to performance and can have real long-term impacts.  

Recommendations

  • Create a decision document that shows what the major decisions were, why they were made, and how and who made these. You can then share across the business and receive feedback and questions. 
  • Taking this one step further is reviewing within your QBRs and reviewing if the decisions were “good” or “bad” and any impact they might have had. 

Bonus — Strategy 

Strategy is baking a better cake’ – this is a statement I say to almost every coaching client. Strategy is something we have forgotten its actual role within the business, strategy is often misunderstood, misinterpreted or misdiagnosed. 

Strategy takes time and dedicated resources away from just a room with execs and the CFO’s spreadsheet in mid-December or in an away session. 
Through Q&A I uncovered most professionals do not make the time to think and build the long-term strategy, they do not think about who has to be invited to contribute and how to gain the right level of investment needed.  

Recommendation: Have a clear idea of what strategy is and what it is not, arrange a kick-off meeting inviting department and discipline heads and work through 2-week window where they will be blocked out to work through strategy, the department plans to roll up into the strategy and where their teams co-create the tactical elements to use and roll out. Throughout the year block of time to review department plans as a leadership team and block out 2 sessions to review strategy but ensure you are incorporating QBRs and recent updates to guide you and not to guide biases. 

» Are You Or Your Business Struggling With Strategy? Here is my free strategy cheatsheet

This week’s focus action is to run your annual review, understand where you did well, where not so well and where the seven themes will help you for next year. 

Thanks for reading again this week, have a great break and for those celebrating enjoy Christmas and have a great week ahead. 

Danny Denhard

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7 Recommended Following On Reading: 

  1. Do You Need A Refresh, A Reset, A Reboot Or A Restart?
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  3. The 5 Recommended Roles For 2024 Success 
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  5. Your Leadership Superpower – Your Leadership Kryptonite
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Categories
Leaders Letter Newsletter

Leaders Letter 183 – The Future Of Work With Megan Witherspoon

Dear Leaders, recently I asked the previous 5 questions contributors who I should interview for the next round and this week’s guest Megan was recommended twice. 

So I knew I needed to invite Megan to the newsletter. Meet Megan (Witherspoon), Megan is the Vice President of Communications at Altria. Megan handles internal and external comms and is an industry leader, helping one of the largest brands in her space create clear and concise communications. Megan also leads ESG and offers a great way of improving the success of ESG. 

Megan has worked fully remotely for over a year and has a number of great recommendations for anyone in leadership to follow if seriously considering a fully remote role. 

The 5 Questions

Q. You handle internal and external comms, what are the most important 5 elements of comms you teach most regularly to leaders you work with?

  1. Be “in the know”– You have to know what’s going on in order to know what’s most important to communicate. This means deeply understanding the industry and business, staying up-to-date with what’s happening around the company, keeping a pulse on how employees are feeling and what they need, understanding evolving external perspectives and expectations, etc. Our communicators are some of the most “tuned in” people in the company.
  2. Drive strategic clarity – People are pulled in many directions all the time, balancing competing priorities and resource demands. Communications are critical for driving strategic clarity and focusing people on the most important things they need to know/feel/do. If you’re not clear what the business priorities are and why, you’re lost from the start.
  3. Less really is more – Gone are the days of “spray and pray” – sharing the same communication multiple times across multiple platforms in hopes that one breaks through. People don’t have the time or patience for it, the noise is deafening, and we will quickly be tuned out. It’s far better to know our audience and be targeted and deliberate – delivering the right message to the right person in the right time/place. And keep it short and simple. Word economy wins.
  4. Credibility takes years to establish and minutes to tarnish – Our words must always align with our actions. Our “inside voice” needs to match our “outside voice.” Our executives are the faces and voices for the company, so we must influence, shape, and protect them. And we should never try to re-write history – it’s already in the record, and no one will be fooled.
  5. Corporate speak kills – Jargon, acronyms, and business buzzwords are rampant. Different functions seem to speak their own languages (have you ever heard an engineer try to talk to a marketer?). Good communicators are translators – making sense out of the nonsense so that everyone can understand the message. But in order to be good translators, they need to understand the work and be good business partners and consultants.

Q. You grew up as a competitive swimmer, how has this shown up in your professional career?

Competitive swimming taught me so many lessons that are valuable in business. It taught me self-discipline and grit. It taught me time-management, teamwork, and how to be a good role model. It showed me that big dreams can come true with enough passion and persistence. It taught me how to lose gracefully, and that winning is a team effort. It showed me what a “coach” really means. And it gave me my first experience with burnout, which taught me to really listen to my mind and body and take better care of myself.

Q. You recently celebrated a year in a small mountain town in Colorado where you are one of the only fully remote team members, what are the 3 most essential areas to get right when allowing fully remote in the modern hybrid workforce?

  1. Be intentional about connecting. I believe relationship-building and networking can be just as effective (and in some ways more effective) in a remote environment as in-person. But it requires intentionality. We can no longer rely on happenstance encounters in the hallway or at the coffee bar, or surface-level chit-chat in the cafeteria (and really, how effective was that, anyway?). We need to dedicate time and create space to connect in a purposeful and meaningful way with people outside of our immediate work group.
  2. Flexibility requires flexibility. Today I have far more flexibility and control over my time than I ever had before. My quality of life is vastly improved. But flexibility requires flexibility. Because I live in a different time zone than most of my colleagues, I sometimes take 6 am meetings. Because I’m fully remote, I travel more for important meetings and events. I sometimes need to give up a little of my flexibility to meet the flexibility needs of others. It’s a give-and-take.
  3. Be present. It can be easy in the virtual world to recede into the background – to multitask during meetings, turn off the camera, avoid the team chit-chat on Teams/Slack, or neglect personal connections. But we can (and must) continue to be fully present even when not physically present. Turn on the camera. Speak up. Be engaged in the conversation. Make yourself available. Show up.

Q. ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) has come under the wrath of criticism in recent months, you lead ESG strategy, what can companies do more to ensure ESG is manageable and can keep their company accountable for positive change?

ESG is not a “bad word,” but it has been badly misused and abused. The best way to avoid internal and external criticism around ESG is to stay focused, clearly articulate the business benefits, and avoid exaggerations. Narrow in on the specific aspects of ESG that are most critical to address based on your particular company or industry (by conducting a materiality assessment, for example), with the long-term sustainability of the business in mind. We can’t do everything at once, or we risk doing none of them very well. We also can’t do one thing extremely well while neglecting other important areas. Know the issues that matter most, go deep on those, and clearly articulate the business value of the work.

Q. You are a leader who frequently discusses the future of work, what themes do you think we will be discussing in a year’s time when reshaping businesses to succeed?

I have a feeling a year from now we’ll still be talking about the impacts of remote work, the success or failure of return-to-office mandates and the pros/cons of various structured hybrid models. Hopefully, by then, we’ll be basing those conversations more on real-world data versus speculation and bias. Conversations about a 4-day work week will likely continue to grow, and we’ll be talking a lot about how AI is reshaping businesses, including when and how people work.

» Please go and connect with Megan on LinkedIn

This week’s focus item is to be in the know as Megan recommends, understand how you can find out critical information and be a driver of transparency. Consider how you could roll out my decision document template within your business. 

Have a great week and thanks for reading again this week. 

Thanks,

Danny Denhard