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10 Things Leaders Must Learn to Do

You can get away with a lot and still make it in this world, but there are some corners you simply can't cut.
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Business leaders don't exist in a vacuum. Success is always relative to the competition. You may have a great product, service, concept, strategy, team, whatever, but if it doesn't rise above your competitors in a way that's meaningful to your customers, you will ultimately lose.

That's rule number one in business: There are no absolutes; everything is relative to the competition.

You can get away with a lot and still make it in this world, but if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, executive, or business leader, there are certain things you simply must learn to do.

The first is to stay on top of the competition. Here are nine more. Try to cut corners if you like, but I'm telling you, it won't work.

Learn from experience. Experience is the best teacher, hands down. Not just your own experience, but insights others share from theirs, as well. Former Intel chief Andy Grove was a mentor to Steve Jobs. Jobs, in turn, advised Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Experience is like an enormous cascading waterfall, an endless source of wisdom and knowledge.

Prioritize and delegate. According to VC Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, a CEO should focus on doing just three things and delegate the rest: "Set and communicate the overall vision and strategy of the company; recruit, hire and retain the best talent; and make sure there's always enough cash in the bank." Your three things will differ, but still, the fewer things you focus on, the better your chances of getting them done.

Act on smart decisions. This may sound simple, but strangely, it's where even successful leaders are most likely to fall down. They get lazy, take shortcuts, listen to yes-men, fall for BS, overreact to a single data-point, or fail to act at all. It's the single most preventable cause of leadership failure.

Engage key stakeholders. A CEO's key stakeholders are customers, employees, and investors. Yours are probably different. No matter. You must engage them on a regular basis. Tell them what they need to know and give it to them straight. Ask leading questions and really listen to what they say. Motivate them. Yes, I know it isn't easy to do all that, but that's what it takes to be the boss.

Promote the winners and fire the losers. Every organization has employees you can't afford to lose and those you can't afford to keep. Learn to identify them. Promote and motivate the former and get rid of the latter. It's called weeding and feeding. The result is a beautiful organization.

Pay attention to the numbers. If your customers love your products and services, your employees are effective and engaged, and you're doing a good job running the business, it will show up in the numbers. Income statements and balance sheets provide key metrics on the health of your business, especially year-to-year comparisons.

Troubleshoot tough problems. Business life is full of really tough problems and difficult tradeoffs. There are product issues, technical issues, organizational issues, customer issues, the list goes on and on. You don't have to be Socrates, but it helps if you're a critical thinker who gets deductive reasoning.

Never give up; never surrender. Courage in the face of adversity, perseverance, stick-with-it-ness, these are qualities that every great leader I've ever known had. They never quit. Granted, there are times when they probably should have and didn't, but on balance, they still came out ahead.

Negotiate effectively. I've heard loads of people say they hate to negotiate, but I've never heard a CEO say it. It's one of the most fundamental aspects of business. Think of it as a challenging game of strategy. Personally, I find it to be surprisingly invigorating and fulfilling.

On the flip side, here are 10 Things Leaders Should Never Do.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jul 25, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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