Your Executive Newsletter with Sun Wu.
Life Lessons for Business Leaders
Friday, September 6th, 2019
Everywhere I go I’m always asked about the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a strategy practitioner and part-time researcher, and what advice I have for leaders running organizations in today’s volatile, hyper-competitive and complex markets.

Disappointingly, I do not have a particular piece of advice or leadership phrase that I believe could make us better leaders, but I have collected a few thoughts that I consider to be my personal checklist of wisdom and behaviors that I ought to stick to as a business leader and now a part-time speaker.

Some of these are about personal behaviors and others are business-related, but that odd mix is what we all are in the end. Here’s my list:

  • There are, still, only two ways to compete in any market, differentiation and low prices. We wished there were more, but there aren’t. That’s it.
  • Don’t be complacent. It is okay to disagree as long as you believe in something, but that belief should only come from spending time on problems.
  • Know your business inside out and better than anyone else. That’s the most important masters degree you need to get.
  • Don’t go to business school. It’s a waste of money and time. Instead, learn about the business by studying your company and industry. That’s a better use of your time and effort. Yes, many good CEOs have some formal business education, but the greatest CEOs of all time, the ones that you and I truly admire, don’t.
  • In making strategic decisions, trust your gut 20 percent and the data 80 percent.
  • You don’t need to be a rock star executive, just a disciplined, reality-based money maker. The best performing CEOs didn’t even talk to the press often.
  • Continually question what the industry has historically been doing. At some point, long-believed "facts" will no longer be the truth.
  • When making decisions, think slow, but act fast.
  • Be patient when it comes to long term goals, but impatient with short term ones.
  • If there’s no reason to wait, act, but if there’s no reason to act, wait.
  • 80 percent good is good enough. Beyond that is called perfectionism, a common disease that great executives rarely get.
  • When it comes to costs, be cautious, but never be cheap.
  • Key positions must be in hands of A-players. Giving them to B-players will be more expensive over the long run. It may even cost your job.
  • Make people more intelligent by asking questions that challenge their beliefs.
  • There are only three areas where CEOs must spend time: running the business, capital allocation and investor relations.
  • Be skeptical and challenge everything that comes your way. If you do that, I bet you’ll be right at least half the time.
  • If you are not willing to disagree with people, you’re not ready to be CEO. No successful CEO was a yes person.
  • As a general rule, when talking to people above your pay grade be strategic, when talking to people below your pay grade, be tactical.
  • Always deal with the important problems first. That alone should get you closer to meeting your goals.
  • When in doubt about what business direction to take, move towards better customer satisfaction.
  • CEOs must have significant ownership stakes in the businesses they run. They must be owners to think like owners.
  • Here’s the golden sequence of your priorities as a CEO: Customer satisfaction must be first, employee satisfaction must be second, then shareholder value must be third (thanks Jack Welch for this one).
We executives are not royalty; if we were, we wouldn’t be running a company or even reading this article. We are hard workers, who get our hands dirty and work our way through, blowing through obstacles like dynamite clearing a beaver’s dam.

My final piece of advice to you is that you must love what you do, but read that line again – because I didn’t say that you must do what you love.

It’s all part of a game where if you don’t make a few mistakes here and there you’re probably not going fast enough.

Now go put a dent in the universe.


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